Tuesday, December 05, 2017

How To Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry, Turtles All The Way Down by John Green, Steelflower at Sea by Lilith Saintcrow and The Order of the Eternal Sun by Jessica Leake


I can't believe it is already December, my favorite month of the year! By the end of the year, I will have read about 210 books, created 52+ posts in 2017 and had a cumulative 612 posts reviewing books on Butterfly Books. While that might not seem like a lot for those with big, popular blogs, for me it's a record that I can be proud of. 
Also, this year my birthday, December 12, is also the date of the monthly book group meeting, where we celebrate the holidays and talk books. I'm hoping that everyone attends and that we have a fine time discussing the book, The Santa Claus Man, and eating some cake and other goodies. 
  There are 4 books I'm reviewing today, so without further ado, lets get down to it.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry was a book that appealed to me on many levels. The subject matter, an independent bookstore, is something near and dear to my heart as a bibliophile, and the place, England, is one of those countries I've longed to visit my whole life. The fact that there is romance involved was just icing on the cake. I hoped it would be well written, and that it would take place in a small town full of interesting characters, and I was not disappointed. Here's the blurb:
The enchanting story of a bookshop, its grieving owner, a supportive literary community, and the extraordinary power of books to heal the heart 
Nightingale Books, nestled on the main street in an idyllic little village, is a dream come true for book lovers—a cozy haven and welcoming getaway for the literary-minded locals. But owner Emilia Nightingale is struggling to keep the shop open after her beloved father’s death, and the temptation to sell is getting stronger. The property developers are circling, yet Emilia's loyal customers have become like family, and she can't imagine breaking the promise she made to her father to keep the store alive. 
There's Sarah, owner of the stately Peasebrook Manor, who has used the bookshop as an escape in the past few years, but it now seems there’s a very specific reason for all those frequent visits. Next is roguish Jackson, who, after making a complete mess of his marriage, now looks to Emilia for advice on books for the son he misses so much. And the forever shy Thomasina, who runs a pop-up restaurant for two in her tiny cottage—she has a crush on a man she met in the cookbook section, but can hardly dream of working up the courage to admit her true feelings. 
Enter the world of Nightingale Books for a serving of romance, long-held secrets, and unexpected hopes for the future—and not just within the pages on the shelves. How to Find Love in a Bookshop is the delightful story of Emilia, the unforgettable cast of customers whose lives she has touched, and the books they all cherish.
This book was everything the blurb promised and more. Full of eccentric and fascinating characters, I was actually finding it difficult to focus on the main protagonist, Emilia, because everyone else had such strong storylines/subplots going. The prose was lovely and dreamy, and the plot flew by on roller skates. There was an HEA ending that was inevitable, but didn't feel forced, and I honestly couldn't put this novel down. I read it in one day, and was sorry to see it end. I'd give it an A, and recommend it to those who like uplifting books with romance and casts of interesting characters. If you liked Gilmore Girls, you will probably like this book.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green is the latest YA novel by the author of the blockbuster bestseller "The Fault in Our Stars." I read and loved TFIOS, (and Papertown), and sobbed my way through both the book and the movie. So I was expecting another tender tear-jerker with "Turtles..." and was sorely disappointed when this turned out to be a stressful and awful tale of an extremely mentally ill teenage girl and her relationship with a wealthy teenage boy whose father has gone on the lamb after some of his business dealings turn out to be scams. Aza, the protagonist, also has a BFF who should have ditched her long ago, in my opinion, because Aza is the worst friend ever, so self involved and crazy that she doesn't notice or care that her best friend is suffering her own difficulties with her impoverished family. Here's the blurb: 
It all begins with a fugitive billionaire and the promise of a cash reward.

Turtles All the Way Down is about lifelong friendship, the intimacy of an unexpected reunion, Star Wars fan fiction, and tuatara. But at its heart is Aza Holmes, a young woman navigating daily existence within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
In his long-awaited return, John Green shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity.

Yes, the prose is unflinching, but it's hardly clear, as we see the world through the eyes of an insane person who can barely keep herself from imploding with anxiety and fear of the germs all around her. Aza continually refers to herself as a "sack of filth" because of the bacteria in her body (it's in all of our bodies, and much of it is good bacteria that is necessary for survival) and she believes that the crazy thoughts she has are not her own, but are, instead, "invasive" thoughts from somewhere outside of herself that are controlling her, so she doesn't think she actually exists as a person, she's just a collection of bacteria and someone else's random and destructive thoughts. Of course, this also leads her to anorexia, as she is disgusted by the process of eating and digesting food, which seems  very dirty and germ-ridden in her mind.  One wonders how she has survived until age 16, with having to masticate and drink enough to grow up. Of course, her therapist has prescribed anti-anxiety meds, which she only takes a couple of times a week, because she feels that they don't work (though how she would know that to be true unless she actually took the meds religiously, I don't know), and it is only later in the book that her mother (her father died, and her mother seems to be fairly mean, when she does finally interact with her daughter) and her therapist finally force Aza to try some new meds and they talk her down from her mental rooftop. Add to this mix a lonely and sad rich boy (with a younger brother spiraling out of control for want of a parent) who falls in love with Aza, and who gives her and her friend money to stop trying to find his father (he was a crappy father anyway, and has his pet lizard in his will as the sole beneficiary), and you've got a bizarre and unsatisfying tale that seems rather pointless. The ending is ridiculous (how did Aza become a normal person who marries and has children when throughout the book she has a major meltdown over a kiss?) and felt rushed at best. I'd give this book a C, and I can't really recommend it to anyone who liked his other books because this one isn't like any of them. I suppose there are some self-loathing teenage girls who might enjoy going down this particular rabbit hole, but I don't think it would be good for them to do so.

Steelflower at Sea by Lilith Saintcrow is the sequel to her previous fantasy novel Steelflower. I've read a number of Saintcrow's series, and I am always amazed at how different each of them manages to be from the others. Though all her heroines are kick-ass women, each is distinctive and the prose used to create them is also different in each series, which is no mean feat. For example, Saintcrow's Steampunk series, Bannon and Clare, has meticulous Victorian-era prose, while her Dante Valentine and Jill Kismet series have tough, gritty prose that fit their urban fantasy genre down to the ground. The Steelflower Chronicles has epic fantasy, flowery, Tolkien-esque prose that somehow manages to keep up with the wildly adventurous plot, which moves swiftly in these short novels. Here's the blurb:
After pitched battle, betrayal, and escape, Kaia Steelflower has enough gold to feed her troupe of outcasts through the winter. She can settle them in a small villa in Antai, that queen of maritime cities, and look forward to welcome boredom.
Unfortunately, there's a pirate-infested sea to cross, her difficult new talents to corral, her traveling companions' problems to solve, a princeling's attentions to manage, and once in Antai, people keep trying to kill her. Or, more precisely, assassinate the barbarian Redfist, and Kaia keeps getting in the way.
Even the Steelflower can't kill every assassin in the city. It's going to take all her sharp wits-and sharper blades-to even try...
While I really enjoyed the first book, Steelflower, I found the sequel to be full of action, but a bit trying in terms of keeping up with what was going on with all the characters. Everything moves so fast, you have to concentrate to make sure you don't miss a single sentence, or you might miss some nuance that will be key to a plot point later on. That said, the motley crew that Kaia has accumulated are able to use whatever talents they have to help her in this book, plus, they all come under fire as it becomes clear that assassins were sent not just to kill Kaia, but also to kill her huge red-headed Viking friend, the barbarian Redfist, who is, of course, heir to the throne back in his native land (but inevitably he's not told her a word of it until they're all nearly killed...what a dope.) Now that Kaia and her soul mate and fellow warrior are on their way to Redfist's hometown for some answers, I can hardly wait for the next installment of the Steelflower Chronicles. I'd give this slender volume an A, and recommend it to anyone who read, and was intrigued by, the first book.

The Order of the Eternal Sun by Jessica Leake was recommended to me by someone who knows I am a fan of Steampunk genre and mysteries with strong female protagonists. Though this is the second book in the Sylvani Series, (and I'd not read the first), I found it to be engrossing and easily understood. Here's the blurb:
Lucy Sinclair’s debut will be a parade of everything opulent Edwardian London society has to offer. Most importantly, it will be nothing like her older sister’s dangerous experience—especially if her overprotective brother-in-law, Lord Thornewood, has his way. As if screening her dance partners isn’t enough, Thornewood insists that his brother, James, train Lucy in self-defense as the event nears. She wouldn’t mind so much if her treacherous mind didn’t continue to replay the kiss they once shared.
But awkward defense lessons are the least of her problems. Her arcana, a magical talent that allows her to mentally enter any scene that she draws, grows stronger by the day. Again and again Lucy is compelled to draw a portal to her mother’s realm of Sylvania—and with each stroke of her pen, she risks attracting the attention of the Order of the Eternal Sun, the sinister brotherhood that steals the power of Sylvani blood for their own dark ends.
When a bold new suitor arrives from India, Lucy can’t help but be intrigued—though her family questions his mysterious past. As Lucy’s own suspicions grow, and the threat of the Order looms larger, Lucy will have to learn to harness her unpredictable power or risk falling under the Order’s shadow forever.
Because I was a huge fan of Downton Abbey, I was delighted that this book took place in the Edwardian era. The delicious wit and the beauty of the gowns and dances that were a part of that era are still very attractive to those of us who, thankfully, have never had to don a corset or spend hours each day changing into an appropriate outfit for every activity. Also, as a fan of fantasy and magical realism, I loved the addition of the Sylvani, who are, in essence, a kind of fae/fairy people who have powers (called arcana) given to them via their DNA, so even if they are half human and half Sylvani, as is our protagonist Lucy, they have the ability to do a variety of things, from healing wounds and having visions of the future to throwing lightening bolts. Still, Lucy is in deep this time, because she has to deal with a handsome young half Indian/half Sylvani man who is part of the Order of the Eternal Sun, a league of men bent on the destruction of all half Sylvani people. The Order's leader, it turns out, is an exiled Sylvani who manages to remain immortal by draining the arcana from all those with the 'talent' that he can kidnap. He found a young, orphaned Alexander on the streets of India and groomed him to be an assassin for the Order. Yet when Alexander meets Lucy, and realizes that he's been lied to his whole life, he becomes a warrior for the lives of all the Sylvani, and vows to help Lucy bring the leader down once and for all. Though there was strong romantic elements to this book, I felt that it was a well written historical fantasy that had a lovely plot and engaging characters. I'd give it an A, and recommend it to those who enjoy historical romances and fantasy romances.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Ursula LeGuin's Blog Book, Island Books Gets Best Bookstore Award, Steelflower by Lilith Saintcrow, Artemis by Andy Weir, Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw and A Casualty of War by Charles Todd


I have been a fan of Ursula LeGuin's since the 70s, when I read The Left Hand of Darkness and the Lathe of Heaven and my mind was blown by her amazing social science fiction. I met Ursula years later at the Seattle Book Festival down at the Pier (back when they had those...how I miss them!) and she was so witty and brilliant, I was again blown away by her words, though this time they were spoken words. She was an outspoken feminist and was making the point that men won 80 percent of the book awards and got 90 percent of the coverage in newspapers and magazines (including and especially the infamous NY Times Book Review) when women wrote more than 50 percent of the books, but were relegated to the pink ghetto of "women's lit" or "chick lit" as it was known then. So while women writers sold more books than men, they got no respect or recognition for their work. She made it clear that this needed to be rectified, and I think in the next 20-some years, things have changed for the better in terms of awards and recognition for women writers. I would bet that was in part due to women like LeGuin getting the word out about gender inequality.

Review: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters
Best known for her speculative fiction, most notably the Earthsea saga,
Ursula K. Le Guin is prolific in multiple genres, and unapologetic about
it. At 81, she decided to try her hand at blogging, though she loathed
the term ("it sounds like a sodden tree trunk in a bog"). Seven years
later, she's still posting brief, witty, often acerbic essays on her
vagaries of old age, the proliferation of profanity in books, the joys
of receiving fan letters from children and the antics of Pard, her
beetle-obsessed cat. No Time to Spare presents the best of Le Guin's
blog: sharp-eyed, big-hearted, idiosyncratic and highly enjoyable.

Both Le Guin's eye for detail and her dry wit are on full display here.
On the craft of writing, she says, "Words are my matter--my stuff. Words
are my skein of yarn, my lump of wet clay, my block of uncarved wood."
Her small Christmas tree, she writes, held "darkness in it, a forest
darkness, in the green arms held out so calmly, steadily, without
effort." Her essays on literature, politics and aging are interspersed
with "The Annals of Pard," a chronicle of "being chosen" by a small
rescue cat. "We call him the good cat with bad paws," she says, noting
dryly, "There used to be a lot of small delicate things on shelves
around the house. There aren't now."

Ruminating on the idea of The Great American Novel (TGAN), Le Guin grows
positively exasperated: "I've never heard a woman writer say the phrase
'the great American novel' without a sort of snort." She calls out the
skewed, gendered and arbitrary nature of such "declarations of literary
greatness," and ends with a bit of tart wisdom: "Art is not a horse
race. Literature is not the Olympics. To hell with The Great American
Novel."

Le Guin's sharp eye softens when she speaks about children, rejoicing in
the handmade booklets and letters they send her, complete with creative
spelling. She writes, too, about the Oregon Food Bank, calling it "the
cathedral of hunger," and reminds readers of the need for "compassion,
or community, or caritas." And even when faced with a strange
experience, such as encountering a rattler on a Napa Valley ranch, she
draws meaning from it: "A teaching, a blessing, may come in strange
ways, ways we do not expect, or control, or welcome, or understand. We
are left to think it over." Readers will find much to think about in
this wise and eloquent collection. --Katie Noah Gibson

When I worked at the Mercer Island Reporter (from 1997-2005) I used to walk through the office parking lot to the back door of Island Books and there I'd be in heaven, browsing bookshelves, borrowing the ARCs that Roger Page had stored in the back room, and chatting with the staff about authors and books and everything inbetween. I used to write articles about authors visiting the store, or about Roger Page's chickens (he was ahead of the curve with the urban chicken farming fad), or about the store needing more customers to keep afloat. I would bet that I wrote at least one article about Island Books per month, and Roger was always grateful and happy to help me with article ideas for the lifestyle section of the newspaper. When I left the paper, Roger and Nancy chipped in to get me a huge gift certificate, mainly so, they said, they'd see me again on the Island, and be able to chat with me, as usual. Roger used to let my son, when he was just a toddler, roam around in the children's section and play in the playhouse, as well as Nick sitting with Mercer Islands little ones for storytime (though we didn't live on the Island). Island Books was like home to me, and Roger always gave me the staff discount, even after my gift certificate had run out. Now that Roger and Nancy Page are retired, and they've sold the bookstore to Laurie, I've not had the heart to visit the place again, because I know it has changed, and I will miss all my old friends. Yet I was gratified to hear that this much-beloved iconic bookstore won the Best of Western Washington award just recently. It's well deserved and long over due. Kudos to everyone involved!

Island Books 'Best Bookstore' of Western Washington


Wash., was selected "Best Bookstore
by voters in King 5/Evening Magazine's "Best of Western Washington"
contest.
Island Books owner Laurie Raisys and her staff said the contest is "a
time honored tradition around these parts. It's a chance for local
businesses to be chosen as 'the best' in their category by popular
vote....
"It's true, we campaigned. We asked you to vote for us on our website
and social media pages. And we worked--hard--this year, as we have every
year, to be the best small town bookstore we could possibly be. We
ordered, we shelved, we stacked, we carried out trash and recycle, we
listened, we suggested, we fought with each other, we hugged each other,
we wrote blogs and newsletters, we set up events, we wrapped gifts, we
rearranged store sections, we read our books, we swiped credit cards and
made change, we stayed late for meetings, we researched, we made
displays, we went to conferences, we gave prizes, and day after day we
loved the store and we loved you, our customers and community.

"Oh, and since we aren't ones to pass up a chance for a celebration,
there will be one coming soon. Stay tuned for details. Thank you for
making this a banner year for Island Books. We are humbled and honored,
and we couldn't have done it without you!"

Steelflower by Lilith Saintcrow is yet another fantasy series by this prolific author, whose works I've read and enjoyed. This particular novel continues Saintcrow's tradition of kick-arse female protagonists who don't need a man to make their way in the world. Here's the blurb:
Sellsword. Assassin. Thief.
Kaia Steelflower has done quite well for herself, and she longs to retire as an innkeeper. Unfortunately, one night she picks the wrong pocket, and finds herself saddled with a barbarian, an elven princeling and his two hapless companions, a wharf-rat, and a lutebanging minstrel. And there’s the little matter of an old friend calling in a debt of honor and blood–a debt Kaia can’t refuse.
Now a reluctant Kaia and her companions face a rebellious army, assassins, more assassins, and oh yes, the assassins. They don’t have a chance…
…but Kaia Steelflower, thief and sellsword, has never known when to quit.
This book came off as something of a Japanese Samurai meets Middle Eastern assassin mash up, with a touch of Tolkien in the characters who Kaia ends up caring for and allowing as her cadre by midway through the novel. The starving pickpocket child, the man who is her destined partner, the two other elven partners who want to protect her man, because he's a prince of her nation (yet he wants nothing to do with the throne) and a bard who has made his living off of writing songs about her exploits as "Ironflower." Oh, and there's a huge red-headed "barbarian" who sounds like a Celtic warrior who owes her a life debt, so he's also always by her side with his axe at the ready. These characters make the fact that Kaia is something of a mean, prickly and rude person (in addition to being blind to the fact that she does have magic and she is actually bonded to Darik) easier to take. I kept wanting to slap her and say "Wake up, you idiot!" But when she finally accepts that her cadre won't leave her and that Darik is always going to fight by her side, things actually start moving forward with the plot. As usual, Saintcrow's prose is clean, clear and supports a brisk plot that will keep you reading into the wee hours. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to those who like Wonder Woman and other undaunted female heroines.

Artemis by Andy Weir is the second novel produced by this self confessed science and space geek, whose first book, The Martian, won all kinds of awards, was a bestseller and was made into a fairly decent movie, though it starred one of my least favorite actors, Matt Damon. Usually writers struggle with their sophomore books, especially if their first novel was popular. Not so for the uber geek, whose second novel is as fast-paced and exciting as his first. This time, though, Weir doesn't hesitate to go into full lecture mode on the science of space, habitats on the moon, EVA suits and lunar-earth communications. While I am certain there are other science geeks and engineers and even welders who will love all the lengthy discussions of "how things get done in the vacuum of space," those of us who aren't scientists or interested in the details of how a lunar habitat works (or how it is sabotaged), will end up skimming over paragraph after paragraph of explanation. I think Weir's editor dropped the ball there, and should have tamed Weir's need to go into boring detail. Here's the blurb: Jasmine Bashara never signed up to be a hero. She just wanted to get rich.

Not crazy, eccentric-billionaire rich, like many of the visitors to her hometown of Artemis, humanity’s first and only lunar colony. Just rich enough to move out of her coffin-sized apartment and eat something better than flavored algae. Rich enough to pay off a debt she’s owed for a long time.

So when a chance at a huge score finally comes her way, Jazz can’t say no. Sure, it requires her to graduate from small-time smuggler to full-on criminal mastermind. And it calls for a particular combination of cunning, technical skills, and large explosions—not to mention sheer brazen swagger. But Jazz has never run into a challenge her intellect can’t handle, and she figures she’s got the ‘swagger’ part down.
The trouble is, engineering the perfect crime is just the start of Jazz’s problems. Because her little heist is about to land her in the middle of a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself.
Trapped between competing forces, pursued by a killer and the law alike, even Jazz has to admit she’s in way over her head. She’ll have to hatch a truly spectacular scheme to have a chance at staying alive and saving her city.

Jazz is no hero, but she is a very good criminal.  That’ll have to do. Propelled by its heroine’s wisecracking voice, set in a city that’s at once stunningly imagined and intimately familiar, and brimming over with clever problem-solving and heist-y fun, Artemis is another irresistible brew of science, suspense, and humor from #1 bestselling author Andy Weir.  

While I liked Jazz as a strong female protagonist, she came off as more male than female, and perhaps that is because Weir isn't experienced with writing female characters. Many of her reactions and her persona or attitude didn't seem female, especially Saudi Arabian female, because Middle Eastern women have been oppressed by religious patriarchy for generations. I was especially taken aback by the crude sexual allegations against her, and her acceptance of everyone's bad opinion of her, though there seemed to be no real proof that she was promiscuous. Most men I know revel in such allegations, and joke about their conquests all the time. Also, when a scientist gives her a reusable condom to test, she accepts it and promises to try it out during her next liaison. Most women wouldn't be interested in that, whereas a male protagonist would be. Still, the overall story arc was fantastic and full of humor and twists and turns. The prose, while workmanlike, was only stalled by the scientific details, and then not for long. All in all, this book deserves an A, with the caveat that there are some dull spots here and there. I'd recommend it to anyone who liked the Martian and who isn't offended by crude language and sexual humor.

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw was supposed to be similar in tone to Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death series, which I loved dearly (and was devastated to learn that the author died, so there would be no more of them). While it was nothing at all like Franklin's series, about a female medical examiner in the 14th century, Strange Practice did have a lot going for it, in that the protagonist is a doctor to the supernatural community, which is firmly hidden from the regular world. Dr Greta Helsing treats vampires and vampyres (two different species of blood drinkers), ghouls and mummies, barrow-wights and banshees. She has a co worker who is a witch and a friend who is a lord of the manor who also happens to be a vampire.Her other best friend is a fallen angel/demon with lung problems.  Into this fascinating mix comes a group of possessed monks who will stop at nothing to murder all the supernaturals and those who serve them, like Greta. Here's the blurb from Publisher's Weekly: 
In this comic supernatural mystery debut, Shaw assembles an appealing, amusing collection of London’s modern undead and the humans who care for them. Dr. Greta Helsing continues the family business of discreetly providing antibiotics to ghouls, bone replacements to mummies, and pints of blood recovered from medical facilities to vampires. She joins several supernatural entities and an archivist at the British Museum in stopping a group of homicidal monks with burned skin, glowing blue eyes, and antique weapons who are targeting both the supernatural population and humans they deem wicked. Shaw excels at depictions of long-lived characters who combine old-school aesthetics with an appreciation of modern conveniences; readers will be amused by ancient entities coopting modern technology. Her idea that immortals make friends with families of humans through several generations makes sense. But characters recapitulating old angst feel shallow and inauthentic, exposition is directed at no one in particular, and a devil-ex-machina ending devalues the work of the team. Shaw has plenty of room to both to continue developing the relationships inside the ensemble cast and add more quirky players in the planned sequel. I didn't really feel, as did the PW reviewer, that the ending devalues the work of the team at all. In fact, I felt it added to the mythos of the book quite handily. My only problem with the novel was that Greta often fell prey to being weak and scared and relied on other, male monsters to get her out of trouble. I felt that she should have had, after working with monsters her whole life, a bit more moxy and backbone. Still, the prose was smooth and the plot sailed along nicely. I'd give this book a B+, and recommend it to those who like old-time monster movies and those who like the real Sherlock Holmes stories, because this book has the same sort of old Victorian feel to it.

A Casualty of War by Charles Todd is the 9th Bess Crawford mystery written by a mother-son duo who go by the pen name Charles Todd. I've read all the previous Bess Crawford mysteries, and enjoyed them. Bess is a nurse on the front lines during World War 1, or the Great War, as it was known. This particular incarnation takes place during the last few months of the war, when there was still much to do for nurses and doctors on the front lines. Though the German army knew they lost, they apparently wanted to do as much damage as possible to the other side before the armistice. Hence Bess is exhausted when we meet her at the beginning of the story. She comes across an officer who swears that his cousin purposely shot him, and then gets shot again when he sees the man from afar. He asks her to investigate, and Bess heads to his family's English mansion, only to discover a deeper mystery is at play. Here's the blurb:
From New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd comes a haunting tale that explores the impact of World War I on all who witnessed it—officers, soldiers, doctors, and battlefield nurses like Bess Crawford.
Though the Great War is nearing its end, the fighting rages on. While waiting for transport back to her post, Bess Crawford meets Captain Alan Travis from the island of Barbados. Later, when he’s brought into her forward aid station disoriented from a head wound, Bess is alarmed that he believes his distant English cousin, Lieutenant James Travis, shot him. Then the Captain is brought back to the aid station with a more severe wound, once more angrily denouncing the Lieutenant as a killer. But when it appears that James Travis couldn’t have shot him, the Captain’s sanity is questioned. Still, Bess wonders how such an experienced officer could be so wrong.
On leave in England, Bess finds the Captain strapped to his bed in a clinic for brain injuries. Horrified by his condition, Bess and Sergeant Major Simon Brandon travel to James Travis’s home in Suffolk, to learn more about the baffling relationship between these two cousins.
Her search will lead this smart, capable, and compassionate young woman into unexpected danger, and bring her face to face with the visible and invisible wounds of war that not even the much-longed for peace can heal.
A real page-turner, I was not able to identify the murderer until the last couple of chapters. Todd's prose is muscular and yet lithe, which suits the swift plot down to the ground. Bess is so sensible and calm that the reader can't help but love her, and know that her compassion is what keeps so many of the wounded men she helps going. I love that her father and Simon are also always willing to get into the thick of things with her, and most importantly, they believe and support her when she needs them most. Her fearless attitude and strong character make these mystery books a joy to read, because you know that Bess won't let you down. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical mysteries with strong female protagonists.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Local Bookshop Support, Thanksgiving Reading, Improv Origins, Gluttony Bay by Matt Wallace, A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne, and The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman



It would be swell to actually have a local bookshop to support, but, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I'd like to report that I am thankful that only 15 or so miles down the road, in Enumclaw, WA, there's a nice little used bookstore called The Sequel that I do try and support as often as possible. My primary care doctor and the hospital where I get my Remicade infusions for Crohn's disease are in Enumclaw, so I have reason to go there every month or so. It's a great little town with a wonderful downtown area that also sports an irresistible stationary store (with a wall of pens!) and an old fashioned movie theater, in addition to some great restaurants. But Rubbo has a good point here about how your buying choices influence your community.

'Reasons to Support Your Local Bookshop'

"Bookshops--and all the shops that come together to make up our
communities, to entice us away from our screens and into communal
spaces--can't exist without our customers. Where you shop is of course
entirely your choice, but it's important to really make that choice a
conscious one.... 
"We know there are reasons why you might choose to buy books from
Amazon. But there are also good reasons to support your local bookshop.
History shows that community bookshops won't always survive the arrival
of Amazon in their home territory. So, please know that your choices
will influence what your local community looks like in the years ahead.
And that it might not, in the long-term, be possible to choose both
global convenience and local experience."

--Mark Rubbo, managing director of Readings, with seven shops in and near Melbourne,
Australia, in a Guardian column
related to the imminent opening of Amazon in Australia.

This doesn't surprise me so much as delight me, that more people read and buy books on Thanksgiving. Autumn is my favorite time of year anyway, but this only makes it more wonderful. 

B&N Survey Finds Thanksgiving Eve 'Busiest Reading Day of the Year'

The day before Thanksgiving is the busiest reading day of the year, with
many holiday travelers turning to reading to help ease the stress of
traveling, an independent survey of holiday reading habits commissioned
by Barnes & Noble has found.

According to the survey, 77% of Americans read at least one book,
newspaper or magazine during Thanksgiving or other holiday travel, while
60% of travelers usually bring, buy or borrow reading material
specifically for travel on Thanksgiving Eve. Some 73% of respondents
said they felt that traveling on the day before Thanksgiving is a "good
time to bring a book they would enjoy and be able to read," and just
over a quarter of Americans feel that "bringing a book along for
Thanksgiving could give them a way to get out of an uncomfortable or
awkward conversation with a relative or other guest."

More than half of the survey's respondents said that they do not get to
read or enjoy books as often as they'd like, with 71% reporting that
holiday travel time is a good opportunity to catch up on books or
magazines that they haven't found the time to read. When it comes to the
benefits of reading while traveling, most respondents answered that:
it's a good way to pass the time while delayed; it helps ease the stress
of traveling; it helps "transport" the reader somewhere else; travel
time is good for catching up on books; and it gives the reader a chance
to learn something new.

Finally, 73% of respondents said that when they do read while traveling,
it makes their trip more relaxing, and 72% said that it makes their trip
more enjoyable.
I have been contemplating my theater degree, and how it has influenced my life recently, and this book sounds like one that would be utterly fascinating to read. I was not aware that Second City was a direct descendant of the original improv groups. 

Shelf Awareness Review: Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art
Improvisational theater was invented and developed in the 20th century
United States, and continues to be a life spring of new ideas and talent
for the performing arts, TV and film. Sam Wasson (Fosse) spent years
writing Improv Nation from archival research and scores of interviews.
The result is encyclopedic, garrulous and funny.

Improvisational theater requires its players to be receptive and
generous with each other, competitive but also trusting, and to be
fearless in front of an audience. The first games and rules of improv
were made by Viola Spolin, a Jewish Chicagoan working at the famous Hull
House, which served new immigrant populations in Chicago. Working with
children and then with adults at the Chicago WPA Recreation Project
during the Great Depression, she developed "Theater Games" that
encouraged people to open up and play together spontaneously onstage.
Spolin's son, Paul Sills, founded the Compass Theater, whose members
included the brilliant comedy duo Nichols and May. Some of its members
went on to found the famous and influential Chicago improv theater
Second City, which opened in 1959 to such instant success they didn't
have to advertise. New theaters were founded in cities across the
country, and the age of improv had arrived.

Wasson often seems thrilled and dazzled by his famous subjects, and his
enthusiasm permeates this book. He has organized it chronologically,
with reference to the major political and cultural events of each
period. All the intertwined story lines and Wasson's frequent
digressions can sometimes feel a little chaotic, but another great
anecdote is always on the next page. He describes the evolution of
improv through scenes of creative meetings, rehearsals and performances.
Many artists succeeded and innovated in the early little theaters, and
went on to build strong networks and brilliant careers. Some found
improv "a hell of free will." Improvisational theater influenced a long
list of Hollywood movies, including The Graduate, Animal House and
Waiting for Guffman, and inspired TV shows such as Saturday Night Live,
the Daily Show, the Colbert Report and Key and Peele. Rage, depression
and addiction plagued many of the performers profiled here, along with
all the difficulties of starting careers in the arts. But the creative
and social joy of improvisational theater, and the application of its
principles to daily life, are the unifying themes. "Wherever there is
improvisation, anyone can speak her mind, and that mind, folded in with
others', will form a totally original, harmonious entity... the
democratic spirit channeled through art. Improvisation, then, is
inherently egalitarian; it is about how we can be free together." --Sara
Catterall 

Gluttony Bay by Matt Wallace is, alas, the second to last of his Sin Du Jour books. I've read the entire series of short and hilarious books, though there was always more of a dark horror element than I am usually comfortable with. But Wallace is a gifted storyteller, and his prose is muscular and snappy, which suits his greased lightening plots down to the ground. Here's the blurb: Gluttony Bay is the penultimate Sin du Jour affair, Matt Wallace's funny foodie series about the New York firm that caters to the paranormal, which began with Envy of Angels.
Welcome to Gluttony Bay High Security Supernatural Prison. We value your patronage. For your entertainment this evening, we are delighted to welcome the world's most renowned paranormal culinary experts.
And on the menu: You.
Publisher's Weekly: Wallace returns to the unusual, highly imaginative world of the Sin du Jour catering crew in his sixth installment (after 2017’s Greedy Pigs), the darkest yet. After the disastrous fallout from the American and supernatural presidential inaugurations, which Sin du Jour was hired to cater, the gang barely has a chance to breathe. Allensworth, Sin du Jour’s diabolical patron, kidnaps chef Lena Tarr—who’s sick with worry over her best friend, Darren Vargas, who’s missing—and head honcho Bronko Luck and whisks them off to Gluttony Bay, which happens to reside right next door to another infamous bay in Cuba. Lena and Bronko must cook up a feast for the diners, and, to their horror, they discover that someone they love is on the menu. Lena and Bronko’s dilemma is terrifying, and though Wallace’s trademark sharp humor is present, this installment is much heavier on horror elements than past stories, making a strong statement about the human capacity for cruelty. A spectacular, harrowing, and ultimately heartbreaking action sequence in the third act paves the way for the last installment. This novella is a gem to be savored, much like the delicacies that Sin du Jour serves up to its very strange clientèle
Though Lena and Bronko manage to escape with Vargas, I was not at all sure they'd escape with their lives, and it seems the rest of the team is imploding. The ending of the book is left fairly wide open, and several members of the staff are still in jeopardy, while one staff member is dead and another proves to be completely incompetent. Still, I was riveted and, as usual, hungered for more by the end. I am thoroughly hooked on these slight volumes (not a one is over 200 pages) and eagerly await each installment. I'd give this book an A, with a warning for those who are horror averse that it's a bit more grisly than previous volumes, and I'd recommend it to dark fantasy and horror fans.

A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne is the first in a new epic fantasy series, by the author of the witty and wonderful Iron Druid series, which I adored. Hearne is friends with Patrick Rothfuss, whose Kingkiller Chronicles have resonated with fantasy fans around the world, so I wasn't at all surprised when Hearne announced that he was going to start writing an epic similar to Rothfuss, but of course completely different. Hearne starts out with a different style to his novel by having it told through the performances of a Bard who uses magic to appear as different characters, each with a story to tell about how they came upon the bone giants who started the war.  At the front of the book are actual drawings of the main characters with a little bio information beneath, so readers can delve into the book with confidence that they won't lose their place trying to figure out who is who. Here's the blurb:
From the author of The Iron Druid Chronicles, a thrilling novel that kicks off a fantasy series with an entirely new mythology—complete with shape-shifting bards, fire-wielding giants, and children who can speak to astonishing beasts
MOTHER AND WARRIOR Tallynd is a soldier who has already survived her toughest battle: losing her husband. But now she finds herself on the front lines of an invasion of giants, intent on wiping out the entire kingdom, including Tallynd’s two sons—all that she has left. The stakes have never been higher. If Tallynd fails, her boys may never become men.
SCHOLAR AND SPY Dervan is an historian who longs for a simple, quiet life. But he’s drawn into intrigue when he’s hired to record the tales of a mysterious bard who may be a spy or even an assassin for a rival kingdom. As the bard shares his fantastical stories, Dervan makes a shocking discovery: He may have a connection to the tales, one that will bring his own secrets to light.  
REBEL AND HERO Abhi’s family have always been hunters, but Abhi wants to choose a different life for himself. Embarking on a journey of self-discovery, Abhi soon learns that his destiny is far greater than he imagined: a powerful new magic thrust upon him may hold the key to defeating the giants once and for all—if it doesn’t destroy him first.
Set in a magical world of terror and wonder, this novel is a deeply felt epic of courage and war, in which the fates of these characters intertwine—and where ordinary people become heroes, and their lives become legend.
Many of the main characters are of the Brynt race, who are dark skinned, while other races are depicted as Asian and some seem to be Celtic or Pictish. I found this inclusion refreshing, while Publisher's Weekly felt that Hearne portrayed one of the SE Asian races as being refugees and therefore impoverished and not as worthy as the other races, which is bunk, in my opinion. The fact that he made sure that his fantasy was inclusive of many races and genders made it a better story, stronger and more realistic, because our world is full of different kinds of people, too. Inbetween the Bard's stories are some great scenes with fun characters who are heartwarming and human. Though things slow down a bit toward the end, I still enjoyed the storytelling provided herein delightful. Hearne's prose is sterling, and his plots never falter, though at times they do have slow spots. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed the Kingkiller series by Rothfuss.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman is a much-anticipated prequel to her famous tome, Practical Magic, which was made into an award winning movie about 25 years ago. I read and loved Practical Magic, and most of the other books Hoffman has written. She has a style reminiscent of MJ Rose and Susana Kearsley, that is dreamy yet robust and lively. Here's the blurb:
From beloved author Alice Hoffman comes the spellbinding prequel to her bestseller, Practical Magic.
Find your magic.
For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man.
Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk.
From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse.
The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy. Thrilling and exquisite, real and fantastical, The Rules of Magic is a story about the power of love reminding us that the only remedy for being human is to be true to yourself.
That last line is indicative of the theme of this novel, which seems to be that you can't escape who you are at the core, and what you can do with whatever powers you possess. Franny, Jet and Vincent are all imbued with magical talents that they struggle with using appropriately. 
While I loved reading about Aunt Isabelle, and Franny and Jet, Vincent seemed too capricious and cruel to me, and I didn't like his treatment of his sisters or of any of the other women in his life. Still, Vincent's child is the one who creates a line of family that comes down to the Owen girls that we know and love from Practical Magic. Hoffman's prose is, as always, lush and mesmerizing, which moves along on her dancing plots with nary a hitch. I couldn't put this book down, and I would give it a higher grade than an A if there were one. I'd recommend it to anyone who loved Practical Magic or any of Hoffman's other delightful novels. You can't go wrong with any of her books, really.