Thursday, February 20, 2020

Amazon in Iowa, The French Dispatch movie, Strange Love by Ann Aguirre, Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris, and To be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

I've been meaning to post reviews all week, I've just either been too sick and tired or unmotivated to do so...I've also been caught up in watching some TV series and Netflix shows and of course the new season of Star Trek Picard on CBS All Access. I'd like to point out that as a show that you have to pay to download, stream and watch on your computer, I think it should be ad free, but no, the greedy people at CBS are squeezing Star Trek fans for every dime they can wring from them, so if you want a no-ads version you have to pay extra each month, which is, frankly, highway robbery. Anyway, here's some tidbits and three book reviews.
I'm a native of Iowa, and I'd always hoped that as my home state is always behind in popular culture that they'd escape the ravages of big, soulless corporations like Walmart and Amazon. Alas, no, the big river of Jeff Bezo's billions has made its way to a warehouse in sleepy little Bondurant, where my younger brother Kevin used to go to smoke weed with his best slacker buddy John. Of course the local republican senator is thrilled to sell his town into slavery, because he will doubtless get a lot of campaign money from Bezos and Co, especially when he provides tax breaks for Amazons billion dollar business. So sad. 
Amazon in Iowa, The Rise of the Amazon Empire
Amazon plans to open its first Iowa fulfillment center in Bondurant later this year. At the new 645,000-square-foot facility, "employees will work alongside Amazon robotics to pick, pack and ship small items to customers such as books, electronics and toys," the company said.
Alicia Boler Davis, Amazon's v-p of global customer fulfillment, noted that the "site will help us continue to serve customers with great delivery options and we appreciate the strong support from local and state leaders."
Calling the announcement "jet-fuel for Iowa's future," State Senator Zach Nunn (R.-Bondurant) commented: "Bondurant's partnership with Amazon's fulfillment center will spark growth for Main Street entrepreneurs, builds on Iowa's high standard of living, and will improve hometown quality of life for families across Iowa."
Next Tuesday, February 18, PBS Frontline will air the two-hour documentary Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos Noting that Bezos "is not only one of the richest men in the world, he has built a business empire that is without precedent in the history of American capitalism," Frontline said the film explores how his "power to shape everything from the future of work to the future of commerce to the future of technology is unrivaled. As politicians and regulators around the world start to consider the global impact of Amazon--and how to rein in Bezos' power--Frontline investigates how he executed a plan to build one of the most influential economic and cultural forces in the world."
 I've always enjoyed the peek into the lives of New Yorkers provided by New Yorker magazine. So I'm looking forward to this movie, which sounds fascinating.
Movies: The French Dispatch
Searchlight Pictures has shared a first look at Wes Anderson's upcoming film The French Dispatch, "about the doings of a fictional weekly magazine that looks an awful lot like--and was, in fact, inspired by--the New Yorker," which featured several photos (some also appearing on IndieWire from the highly anticipated movie.  The editor and writers, as well as the stories it publishes--three of which are dramatized in the film--are also loosely inspired by the real magazine. Not coincidentally, Anderson "has been a New Yorker devotee since he was a teenager, and has even amassed a vast collection of bound volumes of the magazine, going back to the 1940s."
The cast includes Bill Murray as Arthur Howitzer, Jr., the French Dispatch's editor (inspired by Harold Ross), Owen Wilson as Herbsaint Sazerac, "a writer whose low-life beat mirrors Joseph Mitchell's," Elisabeth Moss, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens, Griffin Dunne, Adrien Brody, Lois Smith, Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban.
The movie's New Yorker cartoon-inspired first poster "is like a Where's Wally for the American filmmaker's most reliable contributors," Yahoo noted, adding that other cast members highlighted on the poster include Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Benicio Del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Lyna Khoudri, Stephen Park and Mathieu Amalric. The French Dispatch hits theaters August 28.
Strange Love by Ann Aguirre is a science fiction romance hybrid that appears to have been self published by Aguirre. I've read at least 4 of her other science fiction novels that were published by traditional publishers, so I knew that Aguirre, unlike most self published authors, knows how to write and is an experienced storyteller. Here's the blurb:
He's awkward. He's adorable. He's alien as hell.
Zylar of Kith B'alak is a four-time loser in the annual Choosing. If he fails to find a nest guardian this time, he'll lose his chance to have a mate for all time. Desperation drives him to try a matching service but due to a freak solar flare and a severely malfunctioning ship AI, things go way off course. This 'human being' is not the Tiralan match he was looking for.

She's frazzled. She's fierce. She's from St. Louis.
Beryl Bowman's mother always said she'd never get married. She should have added a rider about the husband being human. Who would have ever thought that working at the Sunshine Angel daycare center would offer such interstellar prestige? She doesn't know what the hell's going on, but a new life awaits on Barath Colony, where she can have any alien bachelor she wants.

They agree to join the Choosing together, but love is about to get seriously strange.
Zylar and Beryl's romance is certainly strange and unusual, but that said, the love scenes are not as weird or laughable as one might assume. Though the discussion of lubrication and fluids tends to go on and on, the actual sexual exchanges between the two protagonists are blush-worthy and intimate and hot, which surprised me as a reader. I also liked that there was a warrior "fight for your right to marry and have children" element to the book, because heroines who can't do anything but be blond and bouncy and petite and dumb as a box of hair make me ill. The focus on females being able to care for a clutch of eggs/infants was a bit of a turn off, as science fiction pointing to traditional roles for women seems to be a waste of a good venue for hopeful feminist futures to me. That said, the females in the book have a great deal of independence and agency, and there is even a satisfying takedown of a rich alien dude-bro who is a complete jerk. Note to those who loathe typos, there were three instances of words in the wrong place and missing words in this book that are jarring. But on the whole, the copy is clean and the plot zippy. I'd give it an A- and recommend it to anyone who enjoys wild romantic relationships in a science fiction setting.
Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris is a sequel to the blockbuster bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which I read with my book group last year. This book takes place after Auschwitz has been liberated by the Russian army, and some women (and men) are convicted (without trial) of being collaborators with the Nazis, because in this case Cilka was surviving by having sex (actually being raped) with German soldiers. Like Tattooist, this book is based on the real lives of concentration camp survivors who wanted to tell Morris what really happened to them during the war. Here's the blurb:
From the author of the multi-million copy bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz comes a new novel based on a riveting true story of love and resilience.

Her beauty saved her — and condemned her.

Cilka is just sixteen years old when she is taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in 1942, where the commandant immediately notices how beautiful she is. Forcibly separated from the other women prisoners, Cilka learns quickly that power, even unwillingly taken, equals survival.

When the war is over and the camp is liberated, freedom is not granted to Cilka: She is charged as a collaborator for sleeping with the enemy and sent to a Siberian prison camp. But did she really have a choice? And where do the lines of morality lie for Cilka, who was send to Auschwitz when she was still a child?
In Siberia, Cilka faces challenges both new and horribly familiar, including the unwanted attention of the guards. But when she meets a kind female doctor, Cilka is taken under her wing and begins to tend to the ill in the camp, struggling to care for them under brutal conditions.
Confronting death and terror daily, Cilka discovers a strength she never knew she had. And when she begins to tentatively form bonds and relationships in this harsh, new reality, Cilka finds that despite everything that has happened to her, there is room in her heart for love.
From child to woman, from woman to healer, Cilka's journey illuminates the resilience of the human spirit—and the will we have to survive.
It has always amazed me to read about women and children who faced extraordinary odds and horrific daily reminders of death to come out of these brutal death camps and grow up, or get healthy and get married and carry on lives full of good things after all the trauma they experienced. I don't think I could keep from going mad in that kind of place, surrounded by grim horror and death. This is good time to remind readers that this is not a lighthearted or easy book to read. It's painful and full of ugliness, sickness, unfairness, brutality, rape, and death. I cried many times reading the book, and I had to stop and put the book down and calm my nausea by remembering that the events in the book all happened 75 years ago, and almost everyone who was in Auschwitz and was liberated in 1945 is dead by now, unless they were a child at the time. So be warned that you might, like me, have to take a break during and after reading it, though it does have a happy ending. It made me feel as if my enduring the pain of Crohns and Sjogrens and Arthritis and Asthma/Allergies is really not as brave as I think it is. Still, I learned about the prisoners in Soviet gulags after the war, and I felt that this character's life had depth and meaning. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to those who think Holocaust stories are overly hyped or romanticized. 
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers is a science fiction novella by the author of the excellent The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which I enjoyed (and several others that I didn't enjoy.) Here's the blurb:
A stand-alone science fiction novella from the award-winning, bestselling, critically-acclaimed author of the Wayfarer series.
At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. They can produce antifreeze in subzero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to journey to neighboring exoplanets long known to harbor life.

A team of these explorers, Ariadne O’Neill and her three crewmates, are hard at work in a planetary system fifteen light-years from Sol, on a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds. But as Ariadne shifts through both form and time, the culture back on Earth has also been transformed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the story of the wonders and dangers of her mission, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.
 Be warned that there is a great deal of technical jargon, lots of technical scientific detail and other boring things that can make a couple of paragraphs feel like 10 pages if you're not a space science nerd. Also know that the four characters in the book are in a polyamorous relationship, meaning that the protagonist, Ariadne, is sleeping with both guys and the other woman on the team in a loose rotation. So if that kind of sexuality bothers you, this isn't the novella for you. All that said, I found the internal and external explorations in this book fascinating. The bodily modifications that they all undertake to be able to go down to the planet's surfaces were interesting and the loss of contact with earth kept the tension in the plot high. I can't say much without spoiling everything, but overall, I liked this short book. I'd give it a B+ and recommend it to space science/astronaut nerds who like books about exploring alien worlds.

Monday, February 10, 2020

American Dirt Controversy, RIP Mary Higgins Clark, Pennie Picks The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Hamilton Becomes a Movie, The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman, Secrets of the Chocolate House by Paula Brackston, and Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

Normally I wouldn't get into this kind of controversy, but this has become THE book scandal of the year. I feel for the author, who never asked for this, and who didn't really think her novel was a defining book of the immigrant experience, (that was her tone-deaf publisher's marketing dept), but I also understand how the Latina author community would be up in arms because their novels, written by actual Latina/Latino immigrants are often passed by, or given no marketing at all. So perhaps something good will come of this, in that it has gotten people talking about publishing racial bias and cultural appropriation. I seriously do NOT approve, however, of the death threats and censorship that some people are calling for. That's just shameful behavior.
American Dirt: Commentary on the Controversy
Commentary on American Dirt continues, particulary since Flatiron Books canceled Jeanine Cummins' bookstore tour.
In a Washington Post story called "Threats against the author of American Dirt' threaten us all," Ron Charles lamented that threats of physical violence had caused the tour to be cancelled. "More than 30 years after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa demanding the assassination of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, here we are terrorizing one of our own novelists."
He called the book "a melodramatic thriller tarted up with flowery ornaments and freighted with earnest political relevance. The book might have fallen unremarked into the great vat of sentimental suspense fiction that New York pumps out every year, except for an unprecedented collision of promotion and denunciation."
A major problem, he wrote, was the publisher's decision to make the book "the defining novel of the immigrant experience--an emotional story powerful enough to galvanize the sympathy of a nation," the kind of effort, however flawed, that has a powerful history: "It's worth recalling an earlier melodramatic thriller tarted up with flowery ornaments and freighted with earnest political relevance by a white woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe. We can debate how egregiously Stowe appropriated the lives of black people and exploited their suffering, but President Abraham Lincoln said that Uncle Tom's Cabin sparked the Civil War. If American Dirt similarly motivates some Americans to fight against this country's immoral immigration actions along the southern border, then more power to Cummins. And once engaged in that struggle, these readers might move on to better books."
He ended: "The best critics of American Dirt are clearly motivated by a desire to defend the integrity of Mexican culture and the humanity of our most vulnerable residents. But in today's toxic atmosphere, those valuable critiques have been drowned out by a cowardly chorus of violence."
In a statement, the National Coalition Against Censorship focused on the how the tour cancellation hindered discussion of a variety of issues that might have
taken place in bookstores. "Threats that are made in an effort to force the cancellation of an author's appearance at a bookstore threaten freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas. Debate is essential in a free society, and bookstores play an integral part in the process by which ideas are disseminated and debated. An author appearance does more than provide customers the chance to meet the person behind the book. It gives them the opportunity to ask questions, express their own opinions, and even to disagree...
"Given that some of the stores had sold as many as 300 tickets for these events, it is likely that thousands of people were denied an opportunity to hear Cummins. This does more than disappoint the book's fans. Readers critical of the book have lost public forums to express their views as well. Some might have wanted to peacefully protest in front of the store.
"The cancellation of the American Dirt tour is a lost opportunity to discuss immigration--one of the most fraught issues in American life today--as well as other important subjects, including who gets to tell what stories, whose voices are prioritized in our cultural spaces and how the lack of diversity in publishing impacts the stories and authors given platforms."
The Guardian noted that booksellers are handling sales of the book in a variety of ways. City Lights, San Francisco, Calif., is not selling the book while Green Apple Books, also in San Francisco, is displaying copies of books by Latinx authors next to American Dirt.
Cellar Door, Riverside, Calif., is donating 20% of the store's profits from American Dirt to RAICES (the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services).
In Slate, Laura Miller spoke off the record with "several editors at Big Five houses [about] what went wrong in the publication of American Dirt, how it might have been avoided, and how the landscape has changed--if at all."
"Some of this is generational," a white assistant editor told Miller in discussing how such a book could have be published. "I would have spoken up 100% about how problematic the book was."
An editorial director of an imprint seconded the generational aspect, saying, "Over 50 it's just white people who went to Harvard, but the pool of people under 35 is much more diverse."
Positioning was a key problem in the American Dirt controversy, Miller wrote: " 'From what I've heard,' said one senior editor, 'it's a really quick, pacey, dramatic read, and there's a whole coterie of people who will say that to their friends, and word of mouth will move across the country like wildfire.' In other words, the novel is a work of commercial fiction, much like Where the Crawdads Sing and other titles that sell in large numbers while generally flying under the radar of cultural critics and political commentators. Where Cummins' publisher went wrong, in this formulation, was to present American Dirt as if it was also, in the senior editor's words, 'a contribution to a vital understanding of this issue,' with the implied claim of representing the issue accurately rather than using it as a backdrop for an entertaining suspense story. 'It's a commercial book that was mispositioned as literary,' another senior publishing executive observed."
Miller pointed to several examples of somewhat similar books positioned differently. A recent one is Don Winslow, "a white author who writes bestselling thrillers about Latin American drug cartels in which the characters are arguably just as much stock figures as those in Cummins' novel, yet his work is not presented as social commentary, with all the heightened attention such pretenses bring with them."
The book, still the bestselling fiction title in the country, will not be hurt by the controversy. Miller wrote: "No one I spoke to expected the controversy over American Dirt to harm the novel's commercial prospects. 'The consumers don't care. They. Don't. Care,' said one editor with exasperation. 'If it does register, they'll just write it off as PC.' While one source said he was sure the incident is 'humiliating' to Cummins, her publisher, and other people associated with the book, you can wipe your tears away with money.'"
In conclusion, Miller quoted a publisher on how the controversy might affect publishers. "I don't see this leading to a decision not to acquire a book that we would have acquired in the past at all. But I do think that in cases where there's a mismatch between the identity of the character and author, the value of those books over books where the author is a member of the community being written about will be more closely scrutinized. There's a fine line between free expression--which can mean publishing books that not everyone on the staff likes--and publishing responsibly, ethically, and with proper due diligence."
In one of the funnier, pointed commentaries on the controversy, McSweeney's published "As a 28-Year-Old Latino, I'm Shocked My New Novel, Memoirs of a Middle-Aged White Lady, Has Been So Poorly Received" by Carlos Greaves.
It reads, in part, "When I set out to write this novel, which takes place in Iowa and centers around 46-year-old Meradyth Spensir and her 8-year-old son Chab, my goal was to shed light on the struggles that white middle-aged women in America face--struggles that I, a 28-year-old Latino man, don't know much about but I would imagine are pretty tough. And as far as I'm concerned, I freaking nailed it....
"Despite... minor cultural inaccuracies, I still think Memoirs of a Middle-Aged White Lady captures the essence of what it means to be a middle-aged white woman in America. I admit that, when the idea first came to me, I was worried that, as a non-woman, a non-white person, and a non-middle-aged person, I wouldn't be able to do this story justice. But the question I kept asking myself was: if not me, then who? Who was going to write about the middle-aged white woman experience in this country? Middle-aged white women? Can middle-aged white women even type? I'm seriously asking this because, again, I didn't actually talk to any when I was working on this novel, so I would genuinely like to know."
 Though I am not a fan of thrillers in general, I did read a couple of her books and enjoyed them. RIP to a prolific author.
Obituary Note: Mary Higgins Clark
"Queen of Suspense" Mary Higgins Clark died on Friday at age 92. In a career that lasted 45 years, she wrote 56 books, all bestsellers. They were mostly suspense novels, some written with her daughter Carol Higgins Clark and others with crime novelist Alafair Burke in the Under Suspicion series. She also published a memoir, Kitchen Privileges, and several children's books. More than 100 million copies of her books are in print in the U.S. alone.
A lifetime dream of hers was to be a published writer, and after being widowed at age 37 with five children, she famously wrote at her kitchen table before dawn before commuting into New York City for her job. Her writing career started in 1975, when she was nearly 50 and published Where Are the Children?. Among her best-known work are A Stranger Is Watching; The Cradle Will Fall; Loves Music, Loves to Dance; Let Me Call You Sweetheart; and Daddy's Gone A Hunting. Her most recent book, Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry, appeared last November. (Exactly a month ago, Shelf Awareness published a Reading With... column with her Our favorite part of that: Q: "How technology has altered the way a mystery is written." A: "If in your story you want to put a body in a dumpster, it's hard to find one that doesn't have a camera pointed at it.")
Clark acknowledged having a formula. Speaking with CNBC, she said once, "In my case, it's always a woman, a young woman. Smart, intelligent, and something happens. She's not on the wrong side of town at 4 in the morning. She's living her life and something crosses it. And by her own intelligence, she works her way out of it."
In an announcement of her death, Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, Clark's publisher for 45 years, called Clark "simply, a remarkable woman who overcame an early life of hardship and challenges, never doubting her ability as a natural-born storyteller (and she was one for the ages), and who persevered through trial and rejection until she at last achieved her Holy Grail of being a published author.
"Those of us who are fortunate to have worked with Mary--and at Simon & Schuster, that is multitudes--know her as a person of tremendous loyalty and dedication: In this day and age it is exceedingly rare for an author, especially one as prized as Mary, to remain with a single publisher for an entire 45-year career.
"She was similiarly devoted to her readers, until very recently going out of her way to meet them while on tour for every one of her books, and drawing tremendous energy and satisfaction from her interactions with them, even though she long ago could have pulled back from that part of being an author. She was, too, a generous member of the literary community, especially toward new authors, and was well known beyond the publishing world for her support of innumerable philanthropic and civic causes."
Reidy quoted Michael Korda, S&S editor-in-chief emeritus, who said, "Mary and I have been dear friends, and worked together since 1975, during which time we never had a cross word between us, which surely sets something of a record for author-editor relationships.
"She was unique. Nobody ever bonded more completely with her readers than Mary did; she understood them as if they were members of her own family. She was always absolutely sure of what they wanted to read--and, perhaps more important, what they didn't want to read--and yet she managed to surprise them with every book. She was the Queen of Suspense, it wasn't just a phrase; she always set out to end each chapter on a note of suspense, so you just had to keep reading. It was at once a gift, but also the result of hard work, because nobody worked harder than Mary did on her books to deliver for her readers. She was also, unfailingly, cheerful under pressure, generous, good humored and warm-hearted, the least 'temperamental' of bestselling authors, and the most fun to be around. I feel privileged to have enjoyed 45 years of her friendship, and saddened that I will no longer be able to pick up the phone and hear her say, 'Michael, I think I've figured out how to make this story work.' She was a joy to work with, and to know."
Clark's legacy includes the Mary Higgins Clark Award, an annual prize given by the Mystery Writers of America to the year's best suspense writing.

I am posting this because I read and loved this novel, and it steams me that Jojo Moyes plagiarized the book as a whole and turned it into The Giver of Stars, and because she's got more of a "name brand" than Richardson, her book gets tons of good reviews and expensive marketing, while everyone overlooks the fact that Moyes cheated her way to fame and fortune with this book. She should be ashamed!
Pennie Picks: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
Pennie Clark Ianniciello, Costco's book buyer, has chosen The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (Sourcebooks Landmark, $15.99, 9781492671527) as her pick of the month for February. In Costco Connection, which goes to many of the warehouse club's members, she wrote: "If you've never heard of the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project, I can't think of a better way to get a taste than through this month's book buyer's pick, Kim Michele Richardson's The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.
"Cussy Mary Carter is part of a mobile library that delivers books to people in sparsely populated Appalachia. She is also the last of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky. Cussy battles not only prejudice against her skin color, but also the fear of the power of the written word."
I am so excited to see this come to the big screen, since it's impossible to get tickets to see it live on Broadway, and it's also seriously expensive (out of most people's price range). 
Movies: Hamilton
"Movie theaters aren't throwing away their shot to have Hamilton on the big screen," Variety noted in reporting that Disney is bringing a film of Lin-Manuel Miranda's stage hit, with the original Broadway cast, to movie theaters October 15, 2021. Hamilton director Thomas Kail filmed the stage show before the original Broadway cast members began to depart. The musical was inspired by Ron Chernow's 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton.
"Lin-Manuel Miranda created an unforgettable theater experience and a true cultural phenomenon, and it was for good reason that Hamilton was hailed as an astonishing work of art," said Disney CEO and chairman Robert Iger. "All who saw it with the original cast will never forget that singular experience. And we're thrilled to have the opportunity to share this same Broadway experience with millions of people around the world."
The original Broadway cast includes Miranda as Alexander Hamilton; Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr; Christopher Jackson as George Washington; Jonathan Groff as King George III; Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler; and Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton.
Miranda added: "I fell in love with musical storytelling growing up with the legendary Howard Ashman-Alan Menken Disney collaborations--The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin. I'm so proud of what Tommy Kail has been able to capture in this filmed version of Hamilton--a live theatrical experience that feels just as immediate in your local movie theater. We're excited to partner with Disney to bring the original Broadway company of Hamilton to the largest audience possible."
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman is a wonderful historical fiction novel that uses a slice of magic realism to recount the lives (and deaths) of several families at the end of WWII. Here's the blurb: “Oh, what a book this is! Hoffman’s exploration of the world of good and evil, and the constant contest between them, is unflinching; and the humanity she brings to us—it is a glorious experience.” —ELIZABETH STROUT, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge

In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.
What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending. 
I've read several of Hoffman's other novels, and her prose never fails to delight, even at the most horrific and painful times in her novels, the lush and powerful sentences flow along the silken plot like a river of chocolate. But it's Hoffman's ability to create unforgettable characters that really make her stories shine, and this book is no exception. Not only could I not put the book down once I started it, but, like all good art, just reading this story changed me, made me laugh and cry and feel for these people caught in the vile and hideous machine that was the Third Reich of fascist Germany. We must never forget the Holocaust, and how evil people nearly obliterated an entire group of human beings merely because they were Jewish. At any rate, I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone and everyone who can read. It's worth the time and money (or just the time if you get a copy from the library), believe me.
Secrets of the Chocolate House by Paula Brackston is a fantasy fiction novel with a romantic subplot and a whiff of The Time Traveler's Wife about it. While I enjoyed it, I felt that the protagonist Xanthe, was sometimes a bit too stupid to live, and kept getting herself into situations where she was way in over her head, when she should have had the sense to know enough to plan things better, with an escape route. Here's the blurb:
The second novel in a bewitching series "brimming with charm and charisma" that will make "fans of Outlander rejoice!" (Woman's World Magazine)

New York Times bestselling author Paula Brackston’s The Little Shop of Found Things was called “a page-turner that will no doubt leave readers eager for future series installments” (Publishers Weekly). Now, Brackston returns to the Found Things series with its sequel, Secrets of the Chocolate House.

After her adventures in the seventeenth century, Xanthe does her best to settle back into the rhythm of life in Marlborough. She tells herself she must forget about Samuel and leave him in the past where he belongs. With the help of her new friends, she does her best to move on, focusing instead on the success of her and Flora’s antique shop.
But there are still things waiting to be found, still injustices needing to be put right, still voices whispering to Xanthe from long ago about secrets wanting to be shared.
While looking for new stock for the shop, Xanthe hears the song of a copper chocolate pot. Soon after, she has an upsetting vision of Samuel in great danger, compelling her to make another journey to the past.
This time she'll meet her most dangerous adversary. This time her ability to travel to the past will be tested. This time she will discover her true destiny. Will that destiny allow her to return home? And will she be able to save Samuel when his own fate seems to be sealed?
Brackston's prose is good, but a bit too ornate at times for my taste (if it were a dress it would have frills and bows). The story at the center of the novel, about the morality of "time spinning" to save certain people in history, is an intriguing one, and the romances of the main character with the man in her current century vs the man who lived 500 years in the past are a bit distraught. I was also not a fan of the cliffhanger ending. But, as I really don't want to go through all the anxiety of the main character again, I won't be reading the next novel in the series to find out what happens to our intrepid heroine. I'd give this book a B- and recommend it to fans of Outlander, or the Time Traveler's Wife.
Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore is a YA retelling of the Red Shoes fairy tale in feudal Germany and with the Romani/travelers as the main protagonists. Here's the blurb:
With Anna-Marie McLemore's signature lush prose, Dark and Deepest Red pairs the forbidding magic of a fairy tale with a modern story of passion and betrayal.
Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves.
Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.
"McLemore is at her finest... She writes open-heartedly about families found and families given, the weight of expectation and the price of duty, and in the end offers up something that's vibrant, wondrously strange, and filled to the brim with love of all kinds." ―Booklist, starred review
"McLemore weaves in powerful themes of identity, family, and first love, but there are also much-needed messages about overcoming hurtful stereotypes and expectations. McLemore's poignant retelling is a must-read for fans of fantasy and fairy tales." ―Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Lavinia is called Lala for most of the book, and Lala is a very bright young woman who tries her best to save her family during a time when threats of burning witches was an everyday fear. Much like the Jewish people, the "Gypsies" as the Romani were then called, were thought to be witches because they had healing knowledge of herbs and were often called upon to be midwives and weavers/dyers in the villages where they settled. I laud the author for having Alifair be a transgender character and for others in the village to be gay/lesbian or bisexual. Rosella's story didn't entrance me as much as Lala's did, but it was still interesting, and helped her learn about herself and her heritage. The prose is pretty, often meandering, but always comes back to the intricate plot, which doesn't lag, thankfully. I'd give this novel a B+ and recommend it to anyone who likes Romani tales and LGBTQ stories with unexpected endings. 

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Happy 15th Birthday Butterfly Books, Little Free Libraries, Vromans Wine Bar Opens, Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber, Before She Ignites by Jodi Meadows and Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

15 years ago on Super Bowl Sunday, my husband sat me down in front of my iMac computer and helped me start this blog, because I was bored with the Super Bowl (Football in general bores me to tears) and he figured writing book reviews would keep me occupied for a couple of hours. Flash forward and here we are with over 700 posts and over a thousand books read and reviewed! I'm excitged to see what the next 15 years will bring, if blogspot stays running that long (and if I'm able to keep up with the blog until I'm 75!) So happy birthday Butterfly Books.
I'm not a fan of Jojo Moyes, especially of this book, (Giver of Stars) which is a plagiarized version of the Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek. Because Moyes has a bigger "name" or brand in the publishing world, she can say that she didn't steal the idea and the prose for this book, and get away with it, which really chaps my hide. But the fact that her publisher is donating Little Free Libraries in communities that need one is a good thing, so I thought I'd post this anyway.
Cool Idea of the Day: Little Free Libraries Inspired by Jojo Moyes
As part of its promotion for Jojo Moyes's novel The Giver of Stars, about the Packhorse Librarians from the WPA period, Pamela Dorman Books/Viking created hand-painted Little Free Libraries as a way to bring books into communities, as the Packhorse Librarians did. Moyes donated one to her village, and it sits outside the Fitchingfield Post Office.
I have a dear friend, Jenny Z, who lives in Pasadena, and has access to Vroman's and their cool new wine bar and books. I am deeply envious of her ability to attend this event, which should be wonderful.
Vroman's Wine Bar Set for February Opening
The 1894, a new beer and wine bar located in Vroman's flagship store in Pasadena, Calif., is on track for a February opening, Pasadena Star-News reported
The bar is named after the year in which Vroman's originally opened, and can seat around 40 people. In addition to craft beer, food and wine, The 1894 will also serve a selection of literary-themed session cocktails, which are cocktails that use things like sake, vermouth or sherry as a base rather than hard alcohol.
Bar manager Bentley Hale, who has some 20 years of experience in the bar and restaurant business and founded a company specializing in wine education events, told PSN that she plans to focus on local beer and wine, and emphasize tastings.
"I really want to focus a lot on wine flights and offering the tasting pours instead of full glasses so people can really taste and be able to explore the wine list and not have to commit to just one glass," explained Hale.
The 1894 will also be used as a space for some bookstore events, including book clubs and literary trivia.
Vroman's announced its wine bar plans last year, and had intended the opening to coincide with the store's 125th anniversary last November.
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber is a "women's fiction" novel that is actually more closely related to the Magical Realism of MJ Rose and Sarah Addison Allen, two authors whose work I adore (and read at every opportunity). Webber's prose is luscious and evocative, while her plot flows along like a babbling brook over smooth river stones. The story is not too light or too dense, but just the right weight to keep readers turning pages into the wee hours to find out what happens to each charming or eccentric character. Here's the blurb:
Heather Webber's Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe is a captivating blend of magical realism, heartwarming romance, and small-town Southern charm.
Nestled in the mountain shadows of Alabama lies the little town of Wicklow. It is here that Anna Kate has returned to bury her beloved Granny Zee, owner of the Blackbird Café.
It was supposed to be a quick trip to close the café and settle her grandmother’s estate, but despite her best intentions to avoid forming ties or even getting to know her father’s side of the family, Anna Kate finds herself inexplicably drawn to the quirky Southern town her mother ran away from so many years ago, and the mysterious blackbird pie everybody can’t stop talking about.
As the truth about her past slowly becomes clear, Anna Kate will need to decide if this lone blackbird will finally be able to take her broken wings and fly.
I've long been a fan of classic Southern fiction by Flannery OConnor and Pat Conroy and Harper Lee, among others. But really good Southern characters have to be authentic and believable, to not descend into charicatures. Fortunately, Webber is an experienced enough author to keep her characters fresh and full bodied and full of Southern manners and grit. I enjoyed this book enough to give it an A, and recommend it to anyone looking for a delightful story about finding your place in this world and learning to forgive your family.
Before She Ignites by Jodi Meadows is a YA fantasy novel with a tenuous romantic subplot and a lot of horrific political themes. Though the bulk of the story takes place with the protagonist (a young princess) in prison, every other chapter is a flashback to what got her there in the first place. This wouldn't be so bad if the transitions from then to now weren't so jarring and jagged. the plot tends to slow to a crawl from one chapter to another as well. Here's the blurb:
“A fully realized fantasy world complete with dragons, treachery, and flawed characters discovering their courage. I couldn’t put it down!” —C. J. Redwine, New York Times bestselling author of The Shadow Queen
From the New York Times bestselling co-author of My Plain Jane comes a smoldering new fantasy trilogy perfect for fans of Victoria Aveyard and Kristin Cashore about a girl condemned for defending dragons and the inner fire that may be her only chance of escape.
Mira has always been a symbol of hope for the Fallen Isles, perfect and beautiful—or at least that’s how she’s forced to appear. But when she uncovers a dangerous secret, Mira is betrayed by those closest to her and sentenced to the deadliest prison in the Fallen Isles.
Except Mira is over being a pawn. Fighting to survive against outer threats and inner demons of mental illness, Mira must find her inner fire and the scorching truth about her own endangered magic—before her very world collapses.  And that’s all before she ignites.
I found Mira to be a whiny and wimpy protagonist who spends an inordinate amount of time being rescued by her cell mates and being meek, weak and scared the rest of the time. She only grows a spine toward the end of the novel, and even then she seems shocked and appalled at her newfound powers, which made me want to slap her alongside her privileged head. Still, she does finally escape, but I wasn't interested in finding out more about her or all the manipulative, horrible adults around her in subsequent books in this series. For that reason, I'd give this book a B, and recommend it to anyone interested in a fantasy Polynesian culture that imprisons those who speak the truth. BTW, the dragons are almost incidental in this book, so if you're looking for some dragon-intensive reading, don't look here.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan is a YA fantasy novel that centers around a misogynistic culture similar to that of feudal Japan or China, where women were considered possessions/property and their only use was as concubines for the king or wives/mothers to breed heirs for husbands or the king. Enter into this a young woman, Lei, who falls in love with another of the "paper"caste girls, Wren (who is a secret ninja assassin by birth and training) and you have a fast-moving tale of intrigue and duplicity. The prose was silken and the plot flashed hot and fierce as fire, but the institutionalized rape culture was really hard to digest. Here's the blurb:
Uncover a riveting story of palace intrigue set in a sumptuous Asian-inspired fantasy world in the breakout YA novel that Publisher's Weekly calls "elegant and adrenaline-soaked."

In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it's Lei they're after -- the girl with the golden eyes whose rumored beauty has piqued the king's interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king's consort. There, she does the unthinkable: she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world's entire way of life. Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide how far she's willing to go for justice and revenge.
One of my main problems with this story is that the author never calls what happens to these poor teenage girls, taken against their will and forced into sexual slavery, RAPE, which is exactly what the king, who is a narcissistic psychopath, does to each of them. Each excruciating detail of their horrible treatment is outlined in every chapter, which was nauseating and unnecessary, I felt. I also thought Lei didn't become strong and angry fast enough, but I am sure the culture she was raised in didn't allow for young women to become tough and strong in their choice of sexuality. Though I was able to finish the book, I don't think I will be seeking any of the sequels, it's just too difficult to wade through the sexism and hatred of women.I'd give this book a B, and recommend it to anyone interested in YA lesbian stories set in feudal Asia.

Monday, January 27, 2020

ABA Board Member's Resolutions for 2020, RIP Christopher Tolkien, Kittens at Canadian Bookstore, RIP Jim Lehrer, Michele Obama's Becoming Wins Grammy, Touch the Dark by Karen Chance, A Cruel Deception by Charles Todd and A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

There's a lot of  upper respiratory infections and pneumonia going around in my household, so while I've been too sick to do a lot of things that I normally do, I have at least been able to read some of the books in my TBR and watch the premier episode of Star Trek Picard on CBS All Access (and I loved it, of course. I am really looking forward to the third season of Star Trek Discovery, which should be starting soon). So this blog post is late, but I am just glad that I am able to feel good enough to sit in front of the computer and write at all.  Here's the latest tidbits and reviews.
As 2020 began, Bookselling This Week asked ABA board members for their New Year's resolutions Kelly Estep, co-owner of Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, Ky., said: "My resolution this year is to more clearly connect with our community in a way that will ultimately support our business and keep it growing. We are opening a dedicated event space and that will mean an expanded events schedule with some of those possibly being non-book related.
In 2007, around the time of Wi2 in Portland, Ore., I wrote: "Publishing industry headlines are still rife with closing indie bookstores and evolving technology that may threaten the very existence of 'fiber-based' texts. Should we be afraid, like medieval peasants terrified by the prospect of what army or disease might be coming over the hill to annihilate their village next? I don't think that way. It is, as it always has been, the end of some worlds and the beginning of other worlds. The peasants adapt to survive. So do the artists."
Oh, one last item from the NRF conference: Forbes reported that "this year, at the retail show, the country's largest retailers are talking about their plans to use robots artificial intelligence, computer vision, and machine learning as a way to let their human staff do what humans do best, and connect with other humans--their customers."
I read and loved all of Tolkien's fantasy novels when I was still in grade school. I was so glad that his son carried on with publishing his father's posthumous works.  It's so sad that these two great writers have passed on, but their work is a legacy that will last for generations yet to come.
Obituary Note: Christopher Tolkien
Christopher Tolkien, the son of J.R.R. Tolkien, "who guarded his legacy and brought forth monumental posthumous works, like The Silmarillion," died January 15, the New York Times reported. He was 95. After his father died in 1973,
Tolkien "worked to keep alive the world he had created in The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1949).... In all, he edited or oversaw the publication of two dozen editions of his father's works, many of which became international bestsellers."
In addition to being his father's literary executor, Tolkien spent four years organizing and compiling the myths and legends his father was creating to accompany The Lord of the Rings, eventually publishing them in 1977 as The Silmarillion. He is also credited with creating the 1954 map of Middle-earth, a copy of which is now held by the British Library.
Corey Olsen, a Tolkien expert, said, "This opened up a wealth and depth of Tolkien's imaginative world that was breathtaking." In 1996, Christopher Tolkien produced the 12-volume The History of Middle-earth, a compilation of drafts, fragments, rewrites, marginal notes and other writings culled from 70 boxes of unpublished material, which "showed that virtually everything he had published had come from his father's hand."
Thomas Shippey, a British professor who has been writing and lecturing on Tolkien for 50 years, said, "Without Christopher, we would have very little knowledge of how Tolkien created his mythology and his own legendarium."
HarperCollins UK CEO Charlie Redmayne told the Bookseller "Christopher was a devoted curator of his father's work and the timeless and ongoing popularity of the world that J.R.R. Tolkien created is a fitting testimony to the decades he spent bringing Middle-earth to generations of readers. The most charming of men, and a true gentleman, it was an honor and privilege to know and work with him and our thoughts are with his family at this time."
Tolkien Society chair Shaun Gunner observed: "We have lost a titan and he will be sorely missed."
I so want to visit this bookstore full of fluffy little loves! I'd have to take a ton of antihistamines, but it would be worth it!
Canadian Bookstore 'Full of Kittens & You Can Bring One Home'
Canadian bookseller Otis & Clementine's Books & Coffee in Upper Tantallon, Nova Scotia, "is a heavenly stop for bookworms and cat-lovers alike" that "provides the adorable felines with a temporary home until they can be adopted," Narcity reported. Owner Ellen Helmke said they "have several kittens and usually a mama cat as well," provided by the South Paw Conservation Nova Scotia, a local rescue group. She added that "all the kittens are in and out fairly quickly, as they are adopted."
 My parents and I used to watch the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour every week for years. Jim Lehrer was the real deal, a journalist with integrity. RIP.
Obituary Note: Jim Lehrer
Longtime PBS anchorman and author Jim Lehrer, "who for 36 years gave public television viewers a substantive alternative to network evening news programs with in-depth reporting, interviews and analysis of world and national affairs" on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and, later, NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, died January 23, the New York Times reported. He was 85.
Lehrer was the author of more than 20 novels, "which often drew on his reporting experiences," as well as four plays and three memoirs. The novels include White Widow (1996), No Certain Rest (2002), Eureka (2007) and Super (2010). His memoirs are We Were Dreamers (1975), A Bus of My Own (1992) and Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates (2011).
The Times noted that "writing nights and weekends, on trains, planes and sometimes in the office, Mr. Lehrer churned out a novel almost every year for more than two decades: spy thrillers, political satires, murder mysteries and series featuring One-Eyed Mack, a lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, and Charlie Henderson, a C.I.A. agent. Top Down (2013) revolved around the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which Mr. Lehrer had covered as a young reporter in Dallas."
"His apprenticeship came at a time when every reporter, it seemed, had an unfinished novel in his desk--but Lehrer actually finished his," Texas Monthly said in a 1995 profile.
I really want to read this book, but haven't gotten the chance yet. I've seen Mrs Obama in many interviews reading from her book, though, and it sounds wonderful. I am thrilled that our former first lady won a Grammy for the audiobook edition of her book Becoming. Congrats to the greatest FLOTUS of the 21st century.
Grammy Spoken Word Winner: Becoming by Michelle Obama
The winner in the Best Spoken Word Album category at the Grammy Awards last night was Becoming by Michelle Obama (Penguin Random House Audio). This was the former First Lady's second Grammy nomination: her book about the White House garden, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, was a Best Spoken Word album nominee in 2013.
Obama, who narrated the winning audiobook, commented: "I had plenty of doubts about sharing so much of myself in Becoming, but this moment is another reminder that when we own the truth of who we are, we give ourselves the chance to connect with others in real, meaningful ways."
Touch the Dark by Karen Chance, is the first book in an urban fantasy/romance series about Cassie Palmer, a young woman who was raised by some sketchy vampires after her parents were killed. She's got powers that she can't control, of course, and in this book she learns about the genesis of her powers and that she's heir to even stronger powers of divination, though of course she wants nothing to do with them, or the people who covet these powers and want to use her for their own gain. Here's the blurb: Cassandra Palmer can see the future and communicate with spirits—talents that make her attractive to the dead and the undead. The ghosts of the dead aren’t usually dangerous; they just like to talk…a lot.
The undead are another matter.
Like any sensible girl, Cassie tries to avoid vampires. But when the bloodsucking mafioso she escaped three years ago finds Cassie again with vengeance on his mind, she’s forced to turn to the vampire Senate for protection.
The undead senators won’t help her for nothing, and Cassie finds herself working with one of their most powerful members, a dangerously seductive master vampire—and the price he demands may be more than Cassie is willing to pay....
Though this kind of urban fantasy is usually right up my alley, I found this particular novel to be a bit too rote, paint-by-numbers and cliched. Of course the master vampire has the hots for Cassie, and of course he's Dracula's older, hotter brother, so there are the requisite seduction scenes that read like a trite romance novel. There's also Cassie's strange reluctance to engage in hanky-panky, though she's very world weary and cynical, due to her upbringing, the rest of the time. It's a standard sexist interpretation of romance, in that men have to pursue women and talk them into having sex, because good girls don't like or want sex, right?! (WRONG!) There's also a great deal of info-dumping in this book, primarily to set up Cassies world and how it works. That's fine, but it's better to show through action and dialog than it is to just narrate page after page of "This is how this species works, this is what vampires are really like, or the fae, or were-creatures," because that gets boring, fairly quickly, and slows the plot to a crawl. So while I ultimately liked the book, I don't want to expend any more energy reading more of the series. It didn't enchant me enough. I'd give it a B, and recommend it to fans of Merry Gentry who like clothing descriptions and lots of sexual tension in their urban fantasies. 
A Cruel Deception by Charles Todd is the 11th Bess Crawford mystery, and this one takes place at a crossroads, with Bess wondering if she will continue working as a nurse now that the end of World War 1 has come about. Here's the blurb: In the aftermath of World War I, nurse Bess Crawford attempts to save a troubled former soldier from a mysterious killer in this eleventh book in the beloved Bess Crawford mystery series from New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd.
The Armistice of November 1918 ended the fighting, but the Great War will not be over until a Peace Treaty is drawn up and signed by all parties. Representatives from the Allies are gathering in Paris, and already ominous signs of disagreement have appeared.
Sister Bess Crawford, who has been working with the severely wounded in England in the war’s wake, is asked to carry out a personal mission in Paris for a Matron at the London headquarters of The Queen Alexandra’s.
Bess is facing decisions about her own future, even as she searches for the man she is charged with helping.  When she does locate Lawrence Minton, she finds a bitter and disturbed officer who has walked away from his duties at the Peace Conference and is well on his way toward an addiction to opiates. When she confronts him with the dangers of using laudanum, he tells her that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, as long as he can find oblivion. But what has changed him? What is it that haunts him? He can’t confide in Bess—because the truth is so deeply buried in his mind that he can only relive it in nightmares. The officers who had shared a house with him in Paris profess to know nothing—still, Bess is reluctant to trust them even when they offer her their help. But where to begin on her own?
What is driving this man to a despair so profound it can only end with death? The war? Something that happened in Paris? To prevent a tragedy, she must get at the truth as quickly as possible—which means putting herself between Lieutenant Minton and whatever is destroying him. Or is it whoever?
The Todds (A mother/son writing team) always manage to write such hearty and fulfilling stories in their stalwart and beautifully simple prose, that I eagerly await the next installment of this series and always spring for the hardback first edition. Bess Crawford, like Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, is a smart, sensible and caring nurse who has a gift for healing and for tracking down a mystery and examining it for answers. I enjoyed this book's look at 1919, when everyone in Europe was recovering from wars devastations, because that's a part of history we don't hear much about. I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who has read any of the other Bess C Mysteries. 
A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult is the February book for my Tuesday night book group at the local library. I was not aware that this book takes place in an abortion clinic after a shooting by a "pro-life" madman, otherwise I would have kept it off the reading list, because there are both liberals and conservatives in our group, and we try to stay away from political hot button topics so there are no angry feelings and ugly arguments during our discussions.  Our January discussion was cancelled due to a snowstorm that forced a library closure, so I was hoping we could discuss both books, but now that I've read "Spark" I know that no one is going to want to discuss January's book, and things could descend into chaos right from the get-go. Ugh. Still, I can't deny that both sides of the debate were brought up, and the prose was clean and clear, which made the flashback plot all the easier to navigate.Here's the blurb: The warm fall day starts like any other at the Center—a women’s reproductive health services clinic—its staff offering care to anyone who passes through its doors. Then, in late morning, a desperate and distraught gunman bursts in and opens fire, taking all inside hostage.

After rushing to the scene, Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, sets up a perimeter and begins making a plan to communicate with the gunman. As his phone vibrates with incoming text messages he glances at it and, to his horror, finds out that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside the clinic.

But Wren is not alone. She will share the next and tensest few hours of her young life with a cast of unforgettable characters: A nurse who calms her own panic in order to save the life of a wounded woman. A doctor who does his work not in spite of his faith but because of it, and who will find that faith tested as never before. A pro-life protester, disguised as a patient, who now stands in the crosshairs of the same rage she herself has felt. A young woman who has come to terminate her pregnancy. And the disturbed individual himself, vowing to be heard.

Told in a daring and enthralling narrative structure that counts backward through the hours of the standoff, this is a story that traces its way back to what brought each of these very different individuals to the same place on this fateful day.

One of the most fearless writers of our time, Jodi Picoult tackles a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel. How do we balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn they carry? What does it mean to be a good parent? A Spark of Light will inspire debate, conversation . . . and, hopefully, understanding.
While I'm generally not a fan of thrillers, I was impressed by Picoult's handling of such a tough topic in a sensitive manner while going backwards in time through the narrative. That said, I loathed the pro-life "mole" Janine, who was a heinous hypocrit whose ignorance and duplicity were fostered by her religious zealotry. I was also angry that we never find out how Dr Ward fares, or Izzy, and things are left up in the air for several other characters. The least that the author could do after dragging us through the tensest day possible, is to let readers know what happened to the main characters after the smoke cleared. Being a long time supporter of a woman's right to choose, I was glad that many of the myths and lies about abortion were shown to be false in this book, but I wish we'd had a cleaner ending to look forward to. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone interested in the debate on women's reproductive rights.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

RITA Awards Cancelled, The Mad Woman's Ball Movie, A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff, Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather, and TheTea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

There have been a lot of deaths in January 2020, so I started this year hopeful and am already viewing the year with a more jaundiced eye. Neal Peart of the fantastic Canadian rock band Rush died of cancer, and Stan  Kirsch, who played Richie on the TV show "Highlander" (I was a huge fan of that show, and not just because Adrian Paul played a hot Scot with a sword) committed suicide a couple of days ago, at only 51 years old. Add to that the recent snowstorm and this kerfuffle with the Romance Writers of America, and I am already yearning for a vacation.
RITA Awards Cancelled for 2020
After several months of heated controversy and mass resignations by members and board members of the Romance Writers of America, the association has cancelled its RITA awards in 2020. In an announcement, the RWA said that "many in the romance community have lost faith in RWA's ability to administer the 2020 RITA contest fairly, causing numerous judges and entrants to cancel their participation." It expects the 2021 awards to encompass 2019 and 2020 titles.
The RWA added that it is hiring "a consultant who specializes in awards programs and a DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] consultant" and will seek member involvement in remaking the awards. "Recent RWA Boards have worked hard to make changes to the current contest, striving to make it more diverse and inclusive, relieve judging burdens, and bring in outside voices," but those kinds of changes have been "piecemeal," and the hiatus will allow the RWA "the opportunity to take a proper amount of time to build an awards program and process--whether it's a revamped RITA contest or something entirely new--that celebrates and elevates the best in our genre."
The move isn't a surprise after the turbulence of the past half year, which started when author Courtney Milan (the pen name of Heidi Bond), a former RWA board member and an advocate for diversity in the publishing community and in romance books, tweeted that a 1999 historical romance, Somewhere Lies the Moon by Kathryn Lynn Davis (which has a heroine who is half-Chinese, like Milan), was a "f*cking racist mess."
As recounted by the Guardian, Davis and Suzan Tisdale, a romance writer and publisher who has worked with Davis, filed an ethics complaint with the RWA, alleging cyberbullying by Milan and a loss of professional opportunities--a three-book deal--because of the tweet. (Davis later said that there had been no final deal; rather, discussions on a deal had ended.)
Bizarrely, at the time the ethics complaint was filed, Milan, the subject of the complaint, was chair of the RWA's ethics committee. The board, it says, asked her to resign and added members to the committee who had no connection with Milan.
On December 23, the RWA board suspended Milan from the RWA for a year and barred her from any leadership positions for life. In reaction, masses of members resigned and many on the RWA board left. The RWA quickly rescinded the punishment.
In the meantime, a recall petition for RWA president Damon Suede was submitted this week to the association, which has also hired a law firm to "conduct an independent audit of the recent matter involving its code of ethics and to make recommendations on appropriate adjustments moving forward on ethics policy and procedures."

This looks like an amazing film that I will have to keep an eye out for.
Movies: The Mad Women's Ball
Melanie Laurent, the French actor (Inglourious Basterds) and filmmaker (Galveston), will write and direct The Mad Women's Ball, a period thriller based on the novel by Victoria Mas, Variety reported. Alain Goldman's Legende Films is producing, with Laurent writing the adaptation.
A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff is an ARC I received from either the publisher or Goodreads (I am not sure which, because I sign up for free copies of books all the time, and it usually takes at least 6 weeks for them to send me one), that is part of a four book series that will be released once a month in sequence from January through April of this year. Though it claims to be an epic fantasy, I found it to be more like an overwritten script for a Netflix series. Many authors wish to follow in George RR Martin's footsteps with a Game of Thrones epic fantasy, but few have the narrative power of Martin's political gore-and-sex-laden books. Kozloff's prose is, by comparison, young and amateurish, with a lot that gets stalled by info-dumps and descriptions that go nowhere but are meant, I think, to be poetic or evocative. Here's the blurb:
Debut author Sarah Kozloff offers a breathtaking and cinematic epic fantasy of a ruler coming of age in A Queen in Hiding first in the quartet of The Nine Realms series.
Four books. Four months. Nine Realms.
Readers will be able to binge this amazing fantasy series with beautiful interlocking art across the spines of all four books.

Orphaned, exiled and hunted, Cerulia, Princess of Weirandale, must master the magic that is her birthright, become a ruthless guerilla fighter, and transform into the queen she is destined to be.

But to do it she must win the favor of the spirits who play in mortal affairs, assemble an unlikely group of rebels, and wrest the throne from a corrupt aristocracy whose rot has spread throughout her kingdom.
The Nine Realms Series
#1 A Queen in Hiding January 2020
#2 The Queen of Raiders February 2020
#3 A Broken Queen March 2020
#4 The Cerulean Queen April 2020
While I think it's obvious that Kozloff is a "debut" (meaning new) author, I still enjoyed the story arc, and I liked the definitive the princess in hiding who has to learn to be a regular working person, (and learn empathy for the common man/woman/child) the evil sociopathic regent who enjoys the power and privilege of being on the throne enough to kill anyone to stay there, and the brilliant dreamy scholar Thane, who has to learn practical uses for his eidetic memory to help his family during wartime. There were a lot of POVs in this first book, probably because the author wanted to introduce each of the main protagonists and antagonists in a personal,intimate fashion, so that we'd know their motivations for what they were doing. That said, so many POVs got to be somewhat headache-inducing, and unnecessary. I'd give this book a B-, and recommend it to those who love epic fantasies that are clearly outlined and don't offer any surprises or gore, for that matter.
Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather is a science fiction novella that starts slow, but builds swiftly into a powerful and intricate meditation on the ethics of space travel and religious missionary work. Here's the blurb:
The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita captain their living ship into the reaches of space in Lina Rather's debut novella, Sisters of the Vast Black.
Years ago, Old Earth sent forth sisters and brothers into the vast dark of the prodigal colonies armed only with crucifixes and iron faith. Now, the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita are on an interstellar mission of mercy aboard Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, a living, breathing ship which seems determined to develop a will of its own.
When the order receives a distress call from a newly-formed colony, the sisters discover that the bodies and souls in their care―and that of the galactic diaspora―are in danger. And not from void beyond, but from the nascent Central Governance and the Church itself.
Though this short work is also debut fiction, I felt that Rather had a much better handle on hearty prose style and a surprisingly intricate plot, considering the short amount of space she was given to complete the story arc. The Reverend Mother, with her Tokyo Rose secret past life, Sister Lucia and Sister Gemma (and Sister Faustina of the perfect name) are all so well drawn as characters that they seem to live and breathe. The patriarchy, in the form of a horrible zealot priest sent to censor the Sisters adds even more spice to the already heady brew of a plot. I'd give this novella an A-, and recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Mary Doria Russell's excellent "The Sparrow" which will be used, I suspect, as a comparison standard to this novella, and any book dealing with missionaries in space, dealing with aliens.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See is the third book of hers that I have read. Each of See's novels deals with a different aspect or era of women's lives in China, often showing the power that sexism and misogyny (under the guise of tradition) have over the lives of every female in China, from ancient times to modern day society.  Here's the blurb:A thrilling new novel from author Lisa See explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple.

Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.
In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city. (editors note: she actually takes her baby to an orphanage and watches to make sure she's taken in safely)

After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.

A powerful story about a family, separated by circumstances, culture, and distance, Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond that connects mothers and daughters.

I found the story very difficult to deal with (and therefore slow going) during the first few chapters. The idea that these mountain people were so sexist and superstitious that they would kill twins right after they were born was sickening. I also didn't like the fact that girl children's births were not celebrated, but boys were. Girls lives were considered worthless, yet the women of the Akha people did most of the work and helped keep the tribe going. The men were mostly idiots. Even the man that Li yan falls in love with (a childhood friend that her mother and wisewoman warns her about, but she doesn't listen) turns out to be a despicable drug addict who only wants to use and abuse her.  Li yan herself often defers to the men in her life, and is altogether too naive and trusting of people who always end up disappointing her. The powerful, cinematic descriptions of the life of the mountain tribes who farm, pick and sell pu'er tea to China and the rest of the world are riveting, and the injustices modern society brings, along with money and technology, to the villages and their people provides an engaging story for the main characters to inhabit. I'd give this book a B, and recommend it to anyone who wonders about the indigenous people, particularly the women, of China and how they fared during the 70s and 80s, after Maos Cultural Revolution and the One Child Act.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Life of Madam C.J.Walker on TV, Quote of the Day, Bookish Winners at the Golden Globes, Enchantee by Gita Trelease, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe, Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren,and The Lady Rogue by Jenn Bennett

Welcome to 2020, fellow bibliophiles! Here's to another year of reviews of 200 books. May your TBR be plentiful and your time never wasted with bad storytelling, sagging prose or limp plots. Speaking of sagging, I turn 60 this year, and I plan to make the most of it by getting healthier and by making the best use of my time, reading and otherwise. To that end, here are some tidbits and four reviews.
I truly admire self-made women, especially women of color, who have it thrice as hard as anyone else in the business world. I am also a Tiffany Haddish fan, so that's an added bonus for me.
TV: Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker
Netflix has unveiled the official title, premiere date and a selection of first look images for its four-part limited series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, Deadline reported. Based on the book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by Walker's great-great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles, the series will debut March 20.
Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer stars as Sarah Breedlove, known as Madam C.J. Walker, "the black hair care pioneer and mogul who overcame hostile turn-of-the-century America, epic rivalries, tumultuous marriages and family challenges to become America's first black, female self-made millionaire," Deadline wrote. The cast also includes Blair Underwood, Tiffany Haddish, Carmen Ejogo, Garrett Morris, Kevin Carroll and Bill Bellamy.
Produced by SpringHill Entertainment and Wonder Street in association with Warner Bros. Television, the series is helmed by co-showrunners Elle Johnson & Janine Sherman Barrois, along with writer and co-executive producer Nicole Jefferson Asher. It is directed by Kasi Lemmons and DeMane Davis, and executive produced by Janine Sherman Barrois, Elle Johnson, Maverick Carter, LeBron James, Octavia Spencer, Mark Holder, Christine Holder, Kasi Lemmons and Jamal Henderson.
 I totally agree, that book lovers who encounter other members of their reading tribe in a bookstore create magic that enriches both parties.
Quotation of the Day
'Something Spiritual Happens'
“I like to imagine two people who might judge each other just on the way they look, but one person is holding a book the other one loves. They start talking, and something spiritual happens."That's my goal, to create that encounter."--Alsace Walentine, owner of Tombolo Books, St. Petersburg, Fla., in a Tampa Bay Times article recounting how she came to open the store
 I was thrilled to see that once again, books turned into movies and TV programs won accolades at the Golden Globes!
Bookish Winners at the Golden Globes
Book-to-screen adaptations collected some prestigious hardware at last night's Golden Globe Awards Winning productions that started as books or have book connections included:
Chernobyl, based on many sources, including Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich: Best limited series or TV movie; Stellan Skarsgård (supporting actor in a series, limited series or motion picture made for TV)
The Loudest Voice, based on the book The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News--and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman: Russell Crowe (actor in a limited series or motion picture made for TV)
Fosse/Verdon, based in part on Sam Wasson's book Fosse: Michelle Williams (actress in a limited series or motion picture made for TV)
Judy, adapted from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter: Renée Zellweger (actress in a motion picture--drama)
Joker, based on D.C. Comics characters: Joaquin Phoenix (actor in a motion picture--drama); Hildur Guðnadóttir (original score, motion picture)
Here are the reviews, as promised!
 Enchantee by Gita Trelease is a delicious YA fantasy romance that takes place in 18th century France. The authors evocative prose makes you feel like you're right there in the castles and mansions and alternately freezing garrets of Paris during the revolution. Here's the blurb:
Love. Magic. Revolution...Gita Trelease’s debut fantasy about an orphaned girl who uses dark magic to save her sister and herself from ruin is “a soaring success” (NPR)
Paris is a labyrinth of twisted streets filled with beggars and thieves, revolutionaries and magicians. Camille Durbonne is one of them. She wishes she weren’t...
When smallpox kills her parents, Camille must find a way to provide for her younger sister while managing her volatile brother. Relying on magic, Camille painstakingly transforms scraps of metal into money to buy food and medicine they need. But when the coins won’t hold their shape and her brother disappears with the family’s savings, Camille pursues a richer, more dangerous mark: the glittering court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Using dark magic forbidden by her mother, Camille transforms herself into a baroness and is swept up into life at the Palace of Versailles, where aristocrats both fear and hunger for magic. As she struggles to reconcile her resentment of the rich with the allure of glamour and excess, Camille meets a handsome young inventor, and begins to believe that love and liberty may both be possible.
But magic has its costs, and soon Camille loses control of her secrets. And when revolution erupts, Camille must choose—love or loyalty, democracy or aristocracy, reality or magic—before Paris burns.
Though at times the prose was as overdone and as gaudy with gilt as Versailles must have been in its heyday, I felt that the plot was sturdy enough to keep the story moving at a brisk trot. And while the HEA ending was welcome, it left a few minor questions unanswered, at least for me. Overall, though, a delicious novel that asks some fundamental philosophical questions of how much is really enough to make a full life? I'd give this novel, which shouldn't be in the YA genre but in the adult fantasy aisle, an A-, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in Les Miserable and the revolutionary era of France.
The Daughters Of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe is the third book that contains characters from the Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, the first book in this series about generations of witches living in earlier centuries and today, trying to come to terms with their magical heritage. Here's the blurb: 
A bewitching novel of a New England history professor who must race against time to free her family from a curse, by Katherine Howe, New York Times bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.
Connie Goodwin is an expert on America’s fractured past with witchcraft. A young, tenure-track professor in Boston, she’s earned career success by studying the history of magic in colonial America―especially women’s home recipes and medicines―and by exposing society's threats against women fluent in those skills. But beyond her studies, Connie harbors a secret: She is the direct descendant of a woman tried as a witch in Salem, an ancestor whose abilities were far more magical than the historical record shows.
When a hint from her mother and clues from her research lead Connie to the shocking realization that her partner’s life is in danger, she must race to solve the mystery behind a hundreds’-years-long deadly curse.
Flashing back through American history to the lives of certain supernaturally gifted women, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs affectingly reveals not only the special bond that unites one particular matriarchal line, but also explores the many challenges to women’s survival across the decades―and the risks some women are forced to take to protect what they love most.
I was fascinated by the idea of having a curse that goes through the generations of women so that any man they marry dies within a short time of falling in love with them. A lot of the belief in magic and its consequences was taken for granted, as almost a given in this book, along with the condescending attitude shown toward Connie's mother Grace,who, because she's a "new age hippy" kind of woman (read: Baby Boomer generation), is given to creating charm bracelets and giving out warnings to her daughter of what will happen if she doesn't break off her relationship with Sam, her beloved.When Connie decides instead to break the curse via a recipe from Deliverance Dane's book, initially she finds few allies, but, her mother does help her in the end, and all is well. The clean prose helped the labyrinthine plot move along stolidly toward an HEA ending. Having lived in Cambridge,Mass, (as a grad student) I found the glamorizing of the area in and around Harvard to be amusing. For those who have a lot of money, its fine, but for poor grad students who don't have enough money to ride the T on the regular, it's a nightmarish place to live.  I'd give this book a B, and recommend it to those interested in magic and the Salem Witch trials.
Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren is a contemporary romance that takes place in LA/Hollywood and set locations, and in a tiny town upstate called Guernville. The protagonist is a naive girl named Tate who gives her heart and secrets away to the first boy she meets while on vacation with her grandmother in London. Unsurprisingly, the boy trades those secrets for cash at the first opportunity, breaking her heart, but also beginning her climb to fame as an actress. Years later, on the set of a movie, Tate meets up with that same betraying boy, who is now a man and the scriptwriter for the film. He tells her (SPOILER) that he betrayed her to get money for a cancer treatment for his grandfather, because he had no other choice. She of course forgives him and they spark and dart at one another until they can begin their affair again. I found that to be ridiculously unlikely and stupid, considering that Sam, the betraying jerk, never actually talks about all the other options available for cancer treatment, including Pharmaceutical companies that will help by giving away their product to people who can't afford it. There are also insurance companies that will pay for treatments, and GoFundMe campaigns, plus a host of other ideas. Also, if his grandparent had discovered he'd done such a dishonorable thing in his name, he would have been horrified and very disappointed in his grandson. As it was, gramps died 10 years later, so Sam sold someone he supposedly loves out for 10 years for an old dying man, who should have been informed so that he could make his own choices. The fact that he supposedly didn't suspect a thing was also a red flag, when gramps was obviously a very savvy man with a conscience, unlike his grandson. I never would have forgiven someone who had done something so horrible to me for his own gain. But our heroine is not made of stern stuff. She's still naive, after all these years, and even forgives her douchebag famous father, who uses her and betrays her again for his own needs. Ugh, what an idiot! Here's the blurb: Sam Brandis was Tate Jones’s first: Her first love. Her first everything. Including her first heartbreak.

During a whirlwind two-week vacation abroad, Sam and Tate fell for each other in only the way that first loves do: sharing all of their hopes, dreams, and deepest secrets along the way. Sam was the first, and only, person that Tate—the long-lost daughter of one of the world’s biggest film stars—ever revealed her identity to. So when it became clear her trust was misplaced, her world shattered for good.

Fourteen years later, Tate, now an up-and-coming actress, only thinks about her first love every once in a blue moon. When she steps onto the set of her first big break, he’s the last person she expects to see. Yet here Sam is, the same charming, confident man she knew, but even more alluring than she remembered. Forced to confront the man who betrayed her, Tate must ask herself if it’s possible to do the wrong thing for the right reason… and whether “once in a lifetime” can come around twice.
With Christina Lauren’s signature “beautifully written and remarkably compelling” (Sarah J. Maas, New York Times bestselling author) prose and perfect for fans of Emily Giffin and Jennifer Weiner, Twice in a Blue Moon is an unforgettable and moving novel of young love and second chances.   
I didn't find this novel all that moving or compelling, (or unforgettable) though it was well written and the plot swift and sure. I'd give it a C+, and only recommend it to those who find very naive women and their bad love interests compelling.
The Lady Rogue by Jenn Bennett is a fun YA fantasy for all the fans of Dracula and the history of Vlad Tepes in Romania. The prose here is light and zippy and the plot moves as stealthy as a fox in the dark woods. Here's the blurb: The Last Magician meets A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue in this thrilling tale filled with magic and set in the mysterious Carpathian Mountains where a girl must hunt down Vlad the Impaler’s cursed ring in order to save her father.

Some legends never die…
Traveling with her treasure-hunting father has always been a dream for Theodora. She’s read every book in his library, has an impressive knowledge of the world’s most sought-after relics, and has all the ambition in the world. What she doesn’t have is her father’s permission. That honor goes to her father’s nineteen-year-old protégé—and once-upon-a-time love of Theodora’s life—Huck Gallagher, while Theodora is left to sit alone in her hotel in Istanbul.
Until Huck arrives from an expedition without her father and enlists Theodora’s help in rescuing him. Armed with her father’s travel journal, the reluctant duo learns that her father had been digging up information on a legendary and magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler—more widely known as Dracula—and that it just might be the key to finding him.

Journeying into Romania, Theodora and Huck embark on a captivating adventure through Gothic villages and dark castles in the misty Carpathian Mountains to recover the notorious ring. But they aren’t the only ones who are searching for it. A secretive and dangerous occult society with a powerful link to Vlad the Impaler himself is hunting for it, too. And they will go to any lengths—including murder—to possess it.
I liked Theo's determination, but not her hair-brained rushing into dangerous situations without regard to the risk to life and limb. I also didn't understand why her father was such a douchebag about letting her get involved, when he likely knew she was going to come after him and try to find the cursed ring. Still the atmospheric prose and the interesting history and characters make the trip worthwhile. I'd give this adventurous YA novel a B, and recommend it to those who like the true history of vampires mingled with the fantasy element of cursed objects.