Saturday, December 03, 2016

Penguin Holiday Hotline, Kingkiller Movie, The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd, A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas and Lamp Black, Wolf Grey by Paula Brackston


This is a great idea that I wish more publishing companies would embrace for the holidays. I love having someone to call to ask for book recommendations for friends and relatives, since books are my go-to gift for Christmas.

Penguin Hotline Returns for the Holidays 
With the holiday shopping season now in full swing, Penguin has brought
Loosely modeled on the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, which provides
turkey-roasting help over the phone during the holiday season, the
Penguin Hotline offers personalized book recommendations over the
Internet. Book buyers fill out a simple online form, describing the
reading preferences and hobbies of the person for whom they're buying a
book and then receive an e-mail with recommendations put together by
Penguin staff members. The Penguin Hotline is publisher-agnostic--books
from all publishing houses will be up for recommendation.

The Penguin Hotline launched two years ago and within days reportedly
received more than 1,500 requests from readers across the globe. Some of
the requests the hotline volunteers have fielded in the past include
books for a father interested in conspiracy theories and aliens; a
cousin interested in shrimp farming; a friend going through a breakup;
and one from a woman wanting to know what book she should buy for the
man who bagged her groceries.

My son Nick and I are both huge fans of Kvothe, the Name of the Wind and Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. We are, like many people, anxiously awaiting the third book in the trilogy. Since that seems to be a bit farther out, we were both thrilled to read that these magnificent fantasy novels are going to be made into a movie and a TV series. I can hardly wait! Thanks, Mr Miranda and Patrick Rothfuss!

Movie + TV: The Kingkiller Chronicle
Lionsgate has announced that Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda "will
be the creative producer behind an ambitious feature film and TV series
adaptation of Pat Rothfuss's fantasy book trilogy the Kingkiller
the Wrap reported. Miranda will serve as a producer and "musical
mastermind," composing original music, as well as writing the songs. He
also has an option to be involved in future stage adaptations of the
books.
Lindsey Beer is writing the film adaptation, based on The Name of the
Wind, the first book in the series. Simultaneously, a planned TV drama
series will "expand on the world outside of the books," according to
Lionsgate.
Erik Feig, co-president, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, said, "Lin is
an incomparable talent and a huge fan of the trilogy and, working
closely with Pat, his creative oversight of the franchise will bring an
incredible level of detail and continuity to all of the projects."Miranda said the books "are among the most read and re-read in our home.
It's a world you want to spend lifetimes in, as his many fans will
attest. Pat also writes about the act of making music more beautifully
than any novelist I've ever read. I can't wait to play a part in bringing this world to life onscreen."

The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd is the 8th Bess Crawford mystery, written by a mother and son writing team who use the pen name of Charles Todd.
In this installment, we are nearing the end of World War 1, and Bess is wounded and recovering in France when she happens upon a decades old mystery. Here's the blurb:
World War I battlefield nurse Bess Crawford goes to dangerous lengths to investigate a wounded soldier’s background—and uncover his true loyalties—in this thrilling and atmospheric entry in the bestselling “vivid period mystery series” (New York Times Book Review).
At the foot of a tree shattered by shelling and gunfire, stretcher-bearers find an exhausted officer, shivering with cold and a loss of blood from several wounds. The soldier is brought to battlefield nurse Bess Crawford’s aid station, where she stabilizes him and treats his injuries before he is sent to a rear hospital. The odd thing is, the officer isn’t British—he’s French. But in a moment of anger and stress, he shouts at Bess in German.
When Bess reports the incident to Matron, her superior offers a ready explanation. The soldier is from Alsace-Lorraine, a province in the west where the tenuous border between France and Germany has continually shifted through history, most recently in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, won by the Germans. But is the wounded man Alsatian? And if he is, on which side of the war do his sympathies really lie?
Of course, Matron could be right, but Bess remains uneasy—and unconvinced. If he was a French soldier, what was he doing so far from his own lines . . . and so close to where the Germans are putting up a fierce, last-ditch fight?
When the French officer disappears in Paris, it’s up to Bess—a soldier’s daughter as well as a nurse—to find out why, even at the risk of her own life.
Though I have read and enjoyed all of the Bess Crawford mysteries, for some reason, I found Bess rather annoying and aggressive in this book. She continues to badger the parents of a man whom she knows is innocent of attempting to kill a nurse/nun, even though they've told her again and again that they want nothing to do with her, and they throw her out of their cafe, twice. And even when she clears the name of the soldier and others, and find the culprit, everyone involved still thinks she's a horrible nosy person whom they didn't ask to stir up trouble. Still, the trademark crisp prose sails along the clear waters of the plot nicely, and the historic atmosphere of France in 1918 feels accurate and fascinating. I'd give the book a B+, and recommend it to anyone who has read any of the other Bess Crawford novels.

I was looking forward to A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas, because I've read several other revamped, re-gendered Sherlock Holmes novels this past year, and a couple of them were quite good. This book is meant to be the first in a series, about Charlotte Holmes, who uses the name Sherlock so that she can pretend she has a brilliant brother and use her logical mind to solve mysteries that women in Victorian society were unable to engage with due to the rampant sexual/societal mores of the day.  Unfortunately, the gender switch here is somewhat clumsy and awkward, and Holmes nearly becomes homeless before being taken in by a wealthy former actress, Mrs Watson. Here's the blurb:  
With her inquisitive mind, Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable with the demureness expected of the fairer sex in upper class society. But even she never thought that she would become a social pariah, an outcast fending for herself on the mean streets of London.

When the city is struck by a trio of unexpected deaths and suspicion falls on her sister and her father, Charlotte is desperate to find the true culprits and clear the family name. She’ll have help from friends new and old—a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who has long loved her.
But in the end, it will be up to Charlotte, under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes, to challenge society’s expectations and match wits against an unseen mastermind. Publisher's Weekly: Charlotte Holmes, the independent-minded, upper-class heroine of this promising series launch set in 1886 England from Thomas (My Beautiful Enemy), has no wish to be married off like her older sisters and relegated to second-class status for the rest of her life. Charlotte’s choice to lose her virginity to a married man leads to her banishment from her family’s country house. She settles in London, where she uses her gift for “discernment” to provide helpful guidance to the police under the alias Sherlock Holmes. She writes to the coroner overseeing the inquest for aristocrat Harrington Sackville to suggest that Sackville’s apparent overdose of chloral is connected to the deaths of two of his relatives who expired shortly before he did, each of apparently natural causes. That communiqué brings Scotland Yard into the case and affords Charlotte an opportunity to exercise her skills on a complex mystery. Those looking for a very different Sherlockian lead will be rewarded.

Though I enjoyed the crime-solving aspect of the book, there was little enough of it and way too much blathering on about the restrictions put on women in society, and the horrible parents who continue this system. While I can appreciate that it was hard for women, especially smart women, it seemed to me that Charlotte shot herself in the foot by having sex with a married man, somehow trusting that her father would send her to college to earn her degree as punishment. Considering that she's the soul of logic, that didn't make a lot of sense, especially considering how infantilizing men were with women of that era.I would have thought she'd be smart enough to see that she was never going to get her father's approval to become educated and lead an independent life. That said, I loved the fact that Charlotte likes to eat, especially sweets, and has her caloric intake figured down to the last morsel, by how many chins she will wear if she eats too much plum cake. The prose was workmanlike, and the plot labyrinthine. I'd give it a B+ and recommend it to Holmes fans who like watching genius minds at work.

Lamp Black, Wolf Grey by Paula Brackston was billed as something of a supernatural romance married with literary fiction. I'd read a couple of Brackstons "Witch" novels, and I was certain that this book would be enjoyable and filled with memorable characters. I was wrong. Things were going along fine until page 100, when the protagonist becomes that most dreaded of creations, the character who is TOO STUPID TO LIVE, or TSTL.Laura Matthews is an artist (paintings) who cajoles her husband into moving out of London (and away from her horrendous mother...what a cliche, British parents who totally suck at parenting! Ugh) and into an old manor home in Wales surrounded by beautiful countryside. Her husband Dan will commute back and forth to London, and Laura will get much-needed time to wander and be alone and paint. Of course, it doesn't work out that way, and her nasty judgemental mother drives down to her new residence and immediately begins to harass her, and her husband kvetches constantly, while her best friend also insists on coming to visit and brings her two sons and her Scottish husband with her. Meanwhile, a local man named Rhys comes calling and is immediately smitten with Laura, so much so that he throws her down and tries to rape her after only having met her the day before. Laura manages to throw him off, but then a day later has sex with this guy, again without knowing a thing about him! Who does that? She claims to love her husband, but has been unable to have a child with him, and somehow she feels that this makes her "haggard" and dried up and unattractive, though the opposite is obviously true, if everyone around her is to be believed about how gorgeous she is. She seems to think that Rhys' attentions, which are flattering to her barren self, are the perfect reason to justify adultery. Ridiculous. I nearly threw the book across the room in disgust. What is wrong with women who somehow think that unless they have babies they aren't women? As if a woman's only worth is in her reproductive system! Here's the blurb:
Artist Laura Matthews finds her new home in the Welsh mountains to be a place so charged with tales and legends that she is able to reach through the gossamer-fine veil that separates her own world from that of myth and fable.
She and her husband Dan have given up their city life and moved to Blaencwm, an ancient longhouse high in the hills. Here she hopes that the wild beauty will inspire her to produce her best art and will give her the baby they have longed for. But this high valley is also home to others, such as Rhys the charismatic loner who pursues Laura with fervor. And Anwen, the wise old woman from the neighboring farm who seems to know so much but talks in riddles. And then there is Merlin.
Lamp Black, Wolf Grey tells both Laura's story and Merlin's. For once he too walked these hills, with his faithful grey wolf at his heel. It was here he fell in love with Megan, nurse-maid to the children of the hated local noble, Lord Geraint. Merlin was young, at the start of his renowned career as a magician, but when he refuses to help Lord Geraint it is Megan who may pay the price.
From New York Times bestselling author Paula Brackston, Lamp Black, Wolf Grey is an enchanting tale of love and magic featuring her signature blend of gorgeous writing, an intriguing historical backdrop, and a relatable heroine that readers are sure to fall in love with.
I didn't find this book relatable at all, I found it full of stereotypes and sentimental tropes and very stupid characters. The prose was lush, but not in a natural way. It felt overblown and melodramatic, and the plot "twists" were easy to see coming. I could have told Laura that Rhys was a nutball from the moment he was introduced, and that he was sick and dangerous, but she was too busy falling all over herself and seeing legendary people who were not there, like Merlin and Anwen. This made Laura seem even more idiotic, and I was relieved that the book wasn't longer, though it had an HEA ending. I'd give it a C (and I am being generous) and only recommend it to those who like simplistic characters and easily solved mysteries/plots.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Meditations on Publishing Past and Present, Quote of the Day, Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost, Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington and Seven Black Diamonds by Melissa Marr


There are hundreds of thousands of books written and published each year, and now more than ever it can seem overwhelming to those who read and love literature. Still, I've found that eventually, the list of books that I want is narrowed down by removing books that I know that I won't enjoy reading, from self-published works to horror fiction, military and political books to pornography. There are always exceptions to these categories, of course, but they're rare enough that I don't need to worry about them, for the most part. But many bibliophiles are hearkening back to earlier eras when books were rare and it was easier to choose a novel because so few were published. I agree with Tim Parks, I think, in that yes, there are times when I feel that I've wasted time reading a novel that turns out to be poorly written and edited, but I'd rather navigate those waters than worry about finding something to read because there aren't enough books created for me to choose from over a year's time. Here's Robert Gray's column on the subject: 

Was it really better when we had fewer books
Well, Atlas Obscura featured a piece headlined "Protect Your Library the Medieval Way, with
Horrifying Book Curses
During the Middle Ages, "creating a book could take years.... Given the
extreme effort that went into creating books, scribes and book owners
had a real incentive to protect their work. They used the only power
they had: words. At the beginning or the end of books, scribes and book
owners would write dramatic curses threatening thieves with pain and
suffering if they were to steal or damage these treasures." To wit:

If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried
in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be
broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.

How many books are there? Mental Floss took a shot at answering that
devilish question recently, noting that when Gutenberg "invented the
printing press in 1440, he couldn't have foreseen how his humble
creation would eventually lead to a global industry churning out
millions of books each year.... After some basic arithmetic, it seems
that a low threshold for the number of unique books in existence as of
halfway through 2016 is (another drumroll, please) 134,021,533 total.
And that's all she wrote--for now, anyway."

Is overproduction a blessing or a curse or neither? Does it really
matter? In the New York Review of Books last year, Tim Parks wrote: "How
to respond, then, to this now permanent condition of overproduction?
With cheerful skepticism. With gratitude for those rare occasions when
we come across a book that speaks to us personally. With forgiveness for
those critics and publishers who induce us to waste our time with some
literary flavor of the day. Absolutely without indignation, since none
of this is anyone's particular 'fault.' Above all with a sense of wonder
and curiosity at the general and implacable human determination (mine
included) to fill endless space with dubious mental material when life
is short and there are so many other things to be done."

--Robert Gray mailto:rgray@shelf-awareness.com, contributing editor Shelf Awareness
 
In these frightening times after the election of a mad man to the presidency, there are booksellers and librarians who are responding to the climate of fear by offering safe harbor in their stores or libraries, bless them.

Quotation of the Day

"I want you to feel safe here. I don't care how you voted. I only hope
you did. I don't care where you came from. Or what color you are. I've
certainly never cared about who you're sleeping with or which bathroom
you want to use. It boggles my mind that people do. But that's just the
way it is.

What I do care about is this: you.

I love what we share together: a community over the written word.

I believe that reading and being together over the written word is a
great way to reach out to each other. It's what gets me up every day.
Especially on the days when I don't want to get up....

Whatever we decide to talk about, act on, or broadcast going forward,
let's make a promise to each other to do so with grace.   

I am giving thanks for your presence in my life today."

--Kelly Justice
Richmond, Va., in an e-mail newsletter

Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost was recommended to me as someone who reads urban fantasy and supernatural fantasy. This is the first in a series, and it's a romantic supernatural fantasy with a protagonist, Catherine "Cat" Crawfield,who I assume is supposed to joint the ranks of kick-butt heroines of other urban fantasy literature, like Merry Gentry. Unfortunately, Cat comes off as more of a Twilight protagonist, wimpy and whining and in love with her mentor, the undead "Bones," a good looking vampire who is, in reality, a domineering jerk.  Here's the blurb:
Half-vampire Catherine Crawfield is going after the undead with a vengeance, hoping that one of these deadbeats is her father—the one responsible for ruining her mother's life. Then she's captured by Bones, a vampire bounty hunter, and is forced into an unholy partnership.
In exchange for finding her father, Cat agrees to train with the sexy night stalker until her battle reflexes are as sharp as his fangs. She's amazed she doesn't end up as his dinner—are there actually good vampires? Pretty soon Bones will have her convinced that being half-dead doesn't have to be all bad. But before she can enjoy her newfound status as kick-ass demon hunter, Cat and Bones are pursued by a group of killers. Now Cat will have to choose a side . . . and Bones is turning out to be as tempting as any man with a heartbeat.
Like Twilight, the author seems to delight in describing the sensual delights of having a lover with no heartbeat and cold, dead flesh, which puts me in mind of necrophilia and is completely disgusting. Cat is only half vampire, though, so she does have a pulse, though she's none to bright and gets into trouble by being impulsive and just doing whatever she wants, whether or not it is ill advised and likely to get her completely dead. So while Cat and Bones eventually save the day, and each other, there's a lot of eye-rolling moments inbetween, where Cat acts like her brain cells have stopped receiving oxygen. The prose was mediocre and the plot was fairly smooth, with a few bumps here and there, but for the most part, the story was derivative and predictable, and not really worth further investigation into the series. I'd give it a C, and only recommend it to those who don't have access to Patricia Briggs or Laurel Hamilton. 

Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington was a YA book that I picked up at the Dollar Store. It turned out to be a delightful and a fun read, about a 12 year old girl named Sarah who is undergoing many changes in her life, and decides to write to Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, initially as part of a summer project for school, but later because she feels a connection with the character. Here's the blurb:
Love can be a trouble word for some people. Crazy is also a trouble word.
I should know.
You've never met anyone exactly like twelve-year-old Sarah Nelson. While most of her friends obsess over Harry Potter, she spends her time writing letters to Atticus Finch. She collects trouble words in her diary. Her best friend is a plant. And she's never known her mother, who left when Sarah was two.

Since then, Sarah and her dad have moved from one small Texas town to another, and not one has felt like home.
Everything changes when Sarah launches an investigation into her family's Big Secret. She makes unexpected new friends and has her first real crush, and instead of a "typical boring Sarah Nelson summer," this one might just turn out to be extraordinary. Publisher's Weekly:Ten years ago, Sarah Nelson’s mother, Jane, attempted to drown Sarah and her twin brother, Simon, who didn’t survive. Now 12, Sarah has moved from town to town with her sad, alcoholic father, trying to escape media attention while her mother resides in a mental institution. Desperate to know more about her mother, but fearing insanity is genetic, Sarah monitors herself for “signs of crazy,” wondering if writing letters to Atticus Finch, confiding in her plant, and taking refuge on a tree stump in her yard qualify. She is also obsessed with word definitions; many appear in the book, accompanied by her pithy reflections. Over one watershed summer, Sarah tries to learn about being a woman from her 20-year-old neighbor, Charlotte; develops her first crush—on Charlotte’s 19-year-old brother, who shares her love of words; and struggles to figure out how to live as her mother’s daughter. Harrington skillfully portrays watchful, contemplative Sarah’s coming of age.
Harrington manages to portray Sarah as a latter-day Scout, with some of Dahl's Matilda woven in for good measure. I loved that Sarah finds the family she needs in the neighbors and friends she charms into her life, and that she has such a big heart and sharp mind that understands the motivations of those adults around her who can't seem to get it together. Sarah even has the courage to want to confront her insane mother, whom it is made clear wouldn't even recognize her (I assume because she's on a lot of medication due to killing one of her children and attempting to drown the other) when she visits the secure asylum where her mother will live out the rest of her life. Harrington's prose is eloquent and heartfelt, and the plot of the book moves at a measured pace without flagging. I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys well written YA literature with unforgettable characters.

Seven Black Diamonds by Melissa Marr is a YA fantasy book that I picked up at Powells this past summer. I believe it is one of those rare creatures, a stand-alone book that's not part of any larger story arc or series, which is something of a relief, if you've read as many YA series as I have. Marr's prose reads much like Victoria Aveyards or Amy Ewings, in that both of those authors have a way of creating fully-realized characters and the worlds that they inhabit with seeming ease. I kept having deja vu, as I read this book, because it felt familiar, as if I'd read something else by this author, but I couldn't remember what. Here's the blurb:
Lilywhite Abernathy is a criminal—she’s half human, half fae, and since the time before she was born her very blood has been illegal. A war has been raging between humans and faeries and the Queen of Blood and Rage, ruler of the fae courts, wants to avenge the tragic death of her heir due to the actions of reckless humans.
Lily’s father has always shielded her from the truth, but when she’s sent to the prestigious St. Columba’s school, she’s delivered straight into the arms of a fae sleeper cell—the Black Diamonds. The Diamonds are planted in the human world as the sons and daughters of the most influential families, and tasked with destroying it from within. Against her will, Lilywhite’s been chosen to join them … and even the romantic attention of the fae rock singer Creed Morrison isn’t enough to keep Lily from wanting to run back to the familiar world she knows.
Melissa Marr’s newest series explores the precarious space between two worlds—and the people who must thrive there.
I found the conceit that half blood fae are the actors/celebrities and rock stars of our world because of their beauty to be quite interesting. It somehow made sense to me that such mythical creatures would inspire scrutiny and fascination among mere mortals. However, I found the typical "Evil Fairy Queen" to be all the more tiresome in the face of the fresher characterizations of the fae teenagers sent out to destroy humanity on her orders. The whole "off with their heads" if they don't obey me, is an archetype that has been used too many times in YA fiction since the publishing of Alice in Wonderland. Fortunately, Marr's clean and crisp prose makes her plot move at a juggernaut slicing through the waters pace, so readers don't have much time to be bored by cliches. Despite it's flaws, I enjoyed Seven Black Diamonds, mainly for it's tough little protagonist Lilywhite, and her refusal to allow herself to be used by the evil queen. I'd give this book a B+, and recommend it to anyone who liked Victoria Aveyard's or Amy Ewing's series of YA books.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Libraries as Sanctuaries, Skinner Luce by Patricia Ward, Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach, My Sallinger Year by Joanna Rakoff and Faithful by Alice Hoffman


In times of trouble, you can always count on your local library to be a place of inspiration and understanding in a world gone mad.

ALA: 'On Libraries, the Association, Diversity & Inclusion'

"After a contentious campaign season filled with divisive rhetoric, we
are now hearing from our members and in the news media about incidents
of bigotry and harassment within our communities. From children acting
out in schools to adults participating in violent acts, it is clear that
our nation is struggling in the wake of this election.

"During times like these, our nation's 120,000 public, academic, school,
and special libraries are invaluable allies inspiring understanding and
community healing. Libraries provide a safe place for individuals of all
ages and backgrounds and for difficult discussions on social issues. Our
nation's libraries serve all community members, including people of
color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and the most vulnerable in
our communities, offering services and educational resources that
transform communities, open minds, and promote inclusion and diversity.

"As an association representing these libraries, librarians, and library
workers, the American Library Association believes that the struggle
against racism, prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination is central
to our mission. As we have throughout our 140-year-long history, we will
continue to support efforts to abolish intolerance and cultural
invisibility, stand up for all the members of the communities we serve,
and promote understanding and inclusion through our work."

--ALA president Julie B. Todaro
in a statement released yesterday

Skinner Luce by Patricia Ward is marketed as a straight science fiction novel, when I found it to be a horror fantasy novel with some science fiction elements. Not being a fan of the horror genre, I was going to toss in the towel on this dystopian, depressing book by page 100, but my son encouraged me to soldier on and finish it. So I wasted most of my day yesterday doing just that. Here's the blurb: Complex characters and taut, poignant writing highlight this hardened literary fantasy thriller set in the frigid winters of present-day Boston.
“Skinner was what servs called each other. It was because they were fake, their skins a disguise . . .”
Every year when the deep cold of winter sets in, unbeknownst to humanity, dangerous visitors arrive from another world. Disguised as humans, the Nafikh move among us in secret, hungry for tastes of this existence. Their fickle, often-violent needs must be accommodated at all times, and the price of keeping them satisfied is paid most heavily by servs.
Created by the Nafikh to attend their every whim, servs are physically indistinguishable from humans but for the Source, the painful, white-hot energy that both animates and enslaves them. Destined to live in pain, unable to escape their bondage, servs dwell in a bleak underworld where life is brutal and short.
Lucy is a serv who arrived as a baby and by chance was adopted by humans. She’s an outcast among outcasts, struggling to find a place where she truly belongs. For years she has been walking a tightrope, balancing between the horrors of her serv existence and the ordinary life she desperately longs to maintain; her human family unaware of her darkest secrets.
But when the body of a serv child turns up and Lucy is implicated in the gruesome death, the worlds she’s tried so hard to keep separate collide. Hounded by the police, turned upon by the servs who once held her dear, she must protect her family and the life she’s made for herself.
I honestly didn't feel that the writing was taut or poignant, and I felt that the plot, though fast-paced after the first 50 pages, wasn't helped by the torpid prose that narrates this horrifyingly ugly world. Poor Lucy is a slave who does horrible things because she is forced to do so. Her needy human mother can't know that she's an alien, so instead, Lucy's "cousin" Sean and her mother think she's into drugs and prostitution, which she sort of is, because she has to take drugs to survive the burning in her chest and the beatings and rape of the Nafikh, the aliens whom they all serve as slaves (disposable slaves, too, I might add.)
So there's page after page of horror, blood, beatings, death, abuse and death/mutilations of children, drugs and alcohol abuse, etc. Ward never lets up on the depressing ugliness of this world. In the end, all Lucy wants is to financially support her adoptive mother and pay her way out of servitude, but she only manages to do one of those things. I would give this book a D, and I can't think of anyone to recommend it to, as it's an awful, bitter book that left me with nothing but nausea, especially since I paid full price for this dog of a novel.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff is a rarity, an autobiography that reads like fiction. That said, I was shocked that in a novel about JD Salinger's agent and publishers, Rakoff didn't even bother to read any of Salinger's books until 2/3 of the way through her recounting of how he affected her life. And only then, on page 192 (!) does Rakoff finally "get" why so many people write to Salinger about Catcher in the Rye, or Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter, or Franny and Zooey. That just left me scratching my head. I mean, she praises his work, which was inevitable, but her reticence in actually picking up and reading his work makes no sense at all, especially considering who she works for, and that she actually talks to the author over the phone on a semi-regular basis. Anyone with that kind of unprecidented access should be ashamed of herself for not reading the great man's work. Here's the blurb:
Poignant, keenly observed, and irresistibly funny: a memoir about literary New York in the late nineties, a pre-digital world on the cusp of vanishing, where a young woman finds herself entangled with one of the last great figures of the century.
At twenty-three, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent for J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in a plush, wood-paneled office, where Dictaphones and typewriters still reign and old-time agents doze at their desks after martini lunches. At night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic instinct, Rakoff is tasked with answering Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from his readers around the world, she finds herself unable to type out the agency’s decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger’s devotees, she abandons the template and begins writing back. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and liberating terms.
Rakoff paints a vibrant portrait of a bright, hungry young woman navigating a heady and longed-for world, trying to square romantic aspirations with burgeoning self-awareness, the idea of a life with life itself. Charming and deeply moving, filled with electrifying glimpses of an American literary icon, My Salinger Year is the coming-of-age story of a talented writer. Above all, it is a testament to the universal power of books to shape our lives and awaken our true selves.
For some reason, too, Rakoff has left her college boyfriend, who sounds like a great person, for an older guy, a total asshat named Don, who is an egotistical novelist with aspirations to greatness that will never be fulfilled, because has no real writing talent. That fact that it was apparent that Don was only using her, and she remains willfully ignorant of this is a real sore spot in this book, another head-scratcher, because Joanne seems like an otherwise smart woman. That said, Rakoff's prose is excellent, and her book is well-paced and engrossing. I'd give it a B+, and recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by the works of JD Salinger.

Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach is a YA fantasy novel that was surprisingly fun and engaging. Parker, a teenager who has been mute for the past 5 years after the death of his father. He spends a lot of time in luxury hotels stealing from rich people and avoiding school and contact with his peers. He encounters Zelda, a grey-haired young woman in the restaurant of a hotel, and even as he's stealing her last bit of cash, he recognizes that there is something different about her. Once she reveals that she has lived for over 200 years, and wants to kill herself by jumping off the Golden Gate bridge, the two develop an unlikely friendship that teaches Parker how to grow up and become his best self. Here's the blurb: From Publisher's Weekly: In response to a college application question (“What was the single most important experience of your life?”), Parker Santé, a mute, Hispanic 17-year-old, writes an incredible story. When he steals a wad of cash from a silver-haired, sharp-witted girl named Zelda, who is planning to throw herself off the Golden Gate Bridge, Parker isn’t sure what to make of her. After agreeing not to jump until her money is spent and Parker promises to apply to college, the two embark on a breakneck tour of parties, shopping, and confrontations with Parker’s mother, an alcoholic consumed by memories of her deceased husband. Parker may not believe that Zelda is, as she claims, 246 years old, but there’s no doubt that she helps him rediscover a longing to participate in the world. Wallach (We All Looked Up) delivers well-rounded, witty characters (“Thinking of your parents being young is like thinking of Winnie-the-Pooh going to the bathroom: just fucking weird”)—all contemplating whether living a full life is better than living a long one. Bittersweet moments intersect with the intricate fairy tales Parker writes, compelling readers to judge what is real and what is make-believe. 
Though I gather that we're supposed to think Parker is some kind of genius for writing his horrific fairy tales, I felt that they were not all that good, and I also thought Parker was kind of an asshat to many people, just because he was a teenage boy, and I suppose it's expected that immature boys treat people with such cruelty and disregard. It's also expected that teenage boys are obsessed by sex, and will inevitably have sex with the female protagonist of any book they're in. No surprises here in that regard, though Zelda is, obviously, much older than Parker, which makes their liaison seem like pedophilia. What we are left with is unanswered questions, as in whether or not Parker's account of his week with Zelda is nothing more than a flight of fancy, or whether it was real, and she's gone now. At any rate, I'd give the book an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys Salinger's Catcher in the Rye or oddball YA romances.

I received a free ARC of Faithful by Alice Hoffman from Goodreads and the publisher in exchange for a review. I've read 8 of Hoffman's other novels, Practical Magic, the Dovekeepers and Blackbird House, The Red Garden, The Museum of Extraordinary Things and three of her YA titles about a young "green" witch. I've enjoyed most of these works,and I believe Hoffman is a gifted storyteller and talented writer. That said, there are times when I wonder why her protagonists suffer so much. In this novel, Shelby carries a huge burden of guilt for her friend being in a coma after both of them were in a car accident (Shelby was driving and had her seatbelt on, while her friend didn't). Its normal for anyone to feel guilty after an accident, of course, but Shelby nearly drowns in guilt, cutting off her hair and taking crappy jobs at pet food stores. She steals animals that she knows are being abused from their owners, and she somehow subsists on Chinese takeout. She has a horrible boyfriend (who is also her drug dealer) and her father is a complete jerk, to both Shelby and her mother, whom he cheats on all the time. Soon, however, friends and family and dogs come to Shelby's rescue, as much as she comes to theirs, and her transformation and reclamation begins. Here's the blurb:
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Marriage of Opposites and The Dovekeepers comes a soul-searching story about a young woman struggling to redefine herself and the power of love, family, and fate.
Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond is an ordinary girl until one night an extraordinary tragedy changes her fate. Her best friend’s future is destroyed in an accident, while Shelby walks away with the burden of guilt.
What happens when a life is turned inside out? When love is something so distant it may as well be a star in the sky? Faithful is the story of a survivor, filled with emotion—from dark suffering to true happiness—a moving portrait of a young woman finding her way in the modern world. A fan of Chinese food, dogs, bookstores, and men she should stay away from, Shelby has to fight her way back to her own future. In New York City she finds a circle of lost and found souls—including an angel who’s been watching over her ever since that fateful icy night.
Here is a character you will fall in love with, so believable and real and endearing, that she captures both the ache of loneliness and the joy of finding yourself at last. For anyone who’s ever been a hurt teenager, for every mother of a daughter who has lost her way, Faithful is a roadmap.
Alice Hoffman’s “trademark alchemy” (USA TODAY) and her ability to write about the “delicate balance between the everyday world and the extraordinary” (WBUR) make this an unforgettable story. With beautifully crafted prose, Alice Hoffman spins hope from heartbreak in this profoundly moving novel.
The blurb above is correct in that Hoffman's prose, is, as usual, beautiful and lyrical and manages to be full of emotional truth without being maudlin. Her plots never flag or slow, and she always finds a way to make even the quirky characters seem real and alive. My only other problem with the novel was that there was a perfect stopping place at the end of chapter 14. It read like "the end" and I was prepared to let the story go when Hoffman tacked on chapter 15 like the odd bit out, or as if her publisher insisted that she do so, when she'd already finished the manuscript to her satisfaction. I realize that there was still a question about Shelby never visiting Helene, whose coma had turned her into a miracle worker, but it still seemed like an afterthought to me, since Shelby had, in the previous chapter, left all of her past behind and made a bright future for herself, her dogs and James. Visiting Helene was like taking a step backwards, and for no reason, as nothing really happens. Still, I was glad that I read this novel, and I'd give it an A and recommend it to anyone who has made a mistake that has overshadowed their life for a time, and dog lovers who understand the meaning of the word "Faithful."

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Prairie Lights Kudos, The Book Shop by Penelope Fitzgerald, Pride's Spell by Matt Wallace, Heaven's Queen by Rachel Bach and Lady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart


My parents were both born and raised in Southeastern Iowa, on farms in small towns near Iowa City. Prairie Lights is a beacon for book lovers in Iowa. It deserves every ounce of praise it garners.

Prairie Lights: Iowa City's 'Best Bookstore' Again
  
The Iowa City Press-Citizen has named Prairie Lights
Its citation reads:

"Beloved by readers and writers in Iowa City and well beyond, Prairie
Lights is the top pick in this category once again. The store is known
for a diverse selection of books for adults and children, and for
hosting regular readings by notable authors. 'Live from Prairie Lights'
is an internationally known readings series, featuring some of the best
up-and-coming and well-established authors and poets from all over the
globe. The Staff Selections are always a great place to start for those
looking for a new book. Check out Paul's Corner
selections from book buyer Paul Ingram."

I have four books to review today, so lets get to it. 

The Book Shop by Penelope Fitzgerald is a very short novel (under 150 pages) that was recommended by a book website as being a great book about bookstores and booksellers. This particular story takes place in a small town in England, and is rife with eccentric Brits and the weird, broken-down houses and shops that they inhabit, complete with ghosts (called "rappers"). I was looking forward to this book because I grew up loving Monty Python's Flying Circus, A Bit of Fry and Laurie and British TV comedy in general. Unfortunately, this novel has none of the whimsy and fun of Britcoms, and is merely depressing and full of frustrated, nasty people. Here's the blurb: 
In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop — the only bookshop — in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town's less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors’ lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence’s warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one. From Library Journal:
Florence Green, a widow, has lived for ten years in a small village in Suffolk, England. With a modest inheritance, she plans to open the first and only bookstore in the area. Florence purchases a damp, haunted property that has stood vacant for many years but encounters unexpected resistance from one of the local gentry, Mrs. Gamart, who has a sudden yen to establish an arts center in the same building. Florence goes ahead with her plan in spite of Mrs. Gamart and meets with some small success. However, Mrs. Gamart surreptitiously places obstacles in Florence's way, going so far as to have a nephew in Parliament write and pass legislation that eventually evicts Florence from her shop and her home. This work by veteran writer Fitzgerald, originally published in Great Britain, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. Both witty and sad, it boasts whimsical characters who are masterfully portrayed. Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education, Providence 

Unfortunately, I didn't find it witty, just sad, and I didn't feel the characters were "masterfully portrayed." All I felt was disgust at the machinations of Mrs Gamart and her minions, and the locals, who are unsupportive, petty and mean, and blame everything that is wrong in their lives on Florence. Her only champion, Mr Brundish, is a recluse who finally comes out of his crumbling ruin of a mansion to tell off Mrs Gamart, and dies in the street immediately after their meeting. So evil old Mrs G wins in the end, and Florence is left crying at the railway station after closing her shop and selling everything to pay her debts. Fitzgerald's prose dithers and blusters along the dull and meandering plot. Though it was only a bit over 100 pages, I couldn't wait for this book to end. I'd give it a C-, and only recommend it to those who don't mind depressing, dull stories without a flicker of hope at the end.

Pride's Spell by Matt Wallace is the third book in the Sin Du Jour series, short, sharp novels of supernatural fantasy. As with the previous two novels, Pride's Spell is action-packed, and full of hilarious moments that readers won't see coming. Here's the blurb:
The team at Sin du Jour—New York’s exclusive caterers-to-the-damned—find themselves up against their toughest challenge yet when they’re lured out west to prepare a feast in the most forbidding place in America: Hollywood, where false gods rule supreme.
Meanwhile, back at home, Ritter is attacked at home by the strangest hit-squad the world has ever seen, and the team must pull out all the stops if they’re to prevent themselves from being offered up as the main course in a feast they normally provide
Starring: The Prince of Lies, Lena Tarr, Darren Vargas. With Byron Luck. Introducing: the Easter Bunny.
Though we're supposed to adore Lena, one half of the duo of Darren and Lena, who are newbies to Sin Du Jour catering, I find that her bullying and bossy ways begin to grate on me halfway through the novel. I also don't like wimpy, whiny and cowardly Darren very much, and I can't understand why he doesn't come out of the closet and date someone, instead of being jealous of Lena for having an affair with Bronsky. I do, however, love Byron and the procurement team, who always kick butt and don't even bother to take names. In this installment, we meet up again with an angel and God the dog (a white Shih Tsu) during an epic dessert-filled showdown that is as funny as it is fantastic. My only other problem with the novel was the ending, because Lena is again reduced to her sexuality as a character. Oh well, at least we can be certain there will be more culinary hijinks for the Sin Du Jour team in the future. I'd give this book a B+, and recommend it to anyone who has read the other books in the series.

Heaven's Queen by Rachel Bach is the third and final book in the Paradox series of science fiction/adventure novels. After reading and enjoying the first two books, in which our heroine Deviana Morris and her mechanical armor suit the Lady Gray kick butt all over the galaxy, I was ready for the last book to tie things up for Devi and the psychic little girls lead by Maat who have been enslaved by Captain Caldswell and his "Eyes" for hundreds of years. Here's the blurb:
From the moment she took a job on Captain Caldswell's doomed ship, Devi Morris' life has been one disaster after another: government conspiracies, two alien races out for her blood, an incurable virus that's eating her alive.
Now, with the captain missing and everyone — even her own government — determined to hunt her down, things are going from bad to impossible. The sensible plan would be to hide and wait for things to blow over, but Devi's never been one to shy from a fight, and she's getting mighty sick of running.
It's time to put this crisis on her terms and do what she knows is right. But with all human life hanging on her actions, the price of taking a stand might be more than she can pay. Publisher's Weekly: What began for Deviana Morris as a simple high-risk security job has now dropped her into a galactic conflict between godlike forces, a struggle in which whole worlds die and humans are browbeaten into sacrificing the young psychic Maat in the name of the greater good. Devi herself is a pawn in this great game, carrier of a virus lethal to the shadowy “phantoms” invading our universe. Determined to end the war and bring Maat the freedom of death, Devi and her lover, Rupert, will have to defy their bosses and stage a daring jailbreak before the virus kills Devi. Bach brings the trilogy to a satisfactory conclusion, tying up the loose ends and providing cathartic resolutions for the various players. Fans of Fortune’s Pawn and Honor’s Knight will find this installment the last act they hoped for, the gratifying denouement that Bach has clearly been working toward all along.
Though I wasn't surprised to learn that the "phantoms" were not the bad guys everyone thought that they were (they were just trying to go back to their reality/space, but Maat was blocking their exit by will of the Lelgis, who are the real bad guys here), I was surprised that after "killing" her holographic double (he doesn't know its not really Devi) and after hunting her, beating her, strangling her, turning her in and wiping out her memories, Devi still loves Rupert the symbiont. WHY is never fully explained. (He says he's sorry...so what? Gee, I am sorry I've betrayed you and tried to kill you multiple times, and my symbiont, which takes over when I am asleep might try to kill you again if I am not locked up? Really?) Devi is a very sensible, intelligent warrior in every other respect, but she becomes an idiotic, besotted teenager around Rupert, which doesn't track at all with the character. The sexist idea that love turns even warrior women to goo really bothers me in a series with such a strong female protagonist, who normally wouldn't consider being attached to someone so abusive.
Its for that reason that I have to give this book, and this series, a B and not an A. The prose is beautifully clean and bright, and the plot never flags, but the "love conquers all" stuff ruins an otherwise great series.

Lady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart is the second book in the Kopp Sisters series, books that are based on the real life story of the first female police officer deputized before the Great War (WW1). Constance Kopp, in this installment, feels she's let the local sheriff down by allowing a nefarious criminal to escape from the hospital, where he fakes illness to create a diversion. She fights to track him down and bring him to justice, all while working as the "matron" for the women's jail, and bringing in money to take care of her two sisters, Norma and Fleurette, back on their ramshackle farm. 
Publisher's Weekly blurb: In this comic mystery set in 1915 and based on actual events, Constance Kopp, the first female deputy sheriff in Bergen County, N.J., is still packing a pistol and an attitude after her first crime-fighting adventures in Girl Waits with Gun. Stewart’s second volume in her Kopp Sisters Series is a clever, suspenseful, and funny tale of a formidable woman facing crime, politics, social stigma, all while nailing evildoers. Constance has proved to be a capable deputy in a male-dominated profession, but her new career is in jeopardy when a prisoner she is guarding—Baron von Matthesius, a sneaky, dangerous con man facing undisclosed but serious charges—escapes her custody. She is demoted to jail matron, but when the scandal threatens the sheriff and his family, she vows to catch the baron, save the sheriff’s job, and redeem her own reputation. Across Bergen and Passaic Counties and into New York City, Constance investigates the baron’s past, known associates, and recent activities, asking questions nobody else asks and following leads other cops overlook. As she pursues the baron and his accomplices, she also becomes involved in a curious murder and a stolen property case. Her sisters provide comic relief, Norma with her carrier-pigeon hobby and Fleurette with her acting classes and dreams of Broadway. Fans of the first Kopp Sisters novel will find another treat in this follow-up.
Constance reminded me of Sherlock Holmes in this novel, with her dogged determination to bring in the Baron, who was very Moriarty-like. There was plenty of action and lots of surprises along the way, but I was still flumoxed as to why her sisters can't seem to get it together enough to go out into the world and get jobs to help preserve the farm. Norma spends all her time with a ridiculous hobby, working with carrier pigeons to send messages to other pigeon enthusiasts. Fleurette, who is really Constance's illegitimate child, is a teenager with a head full of fantasy who wants to be a star of stage and screen. The fact that Constance indulges them and takes on the mantle of her mother in shielding them from real life and its consequences is sweet, but unrealistic for this most pragmatic of characters. I don't see how she can continue to do so, either, as Fleurette is now in her late teens and will soon be awash in suitors. To keep her so child like doesn't really help any of them, and will likely end in tragedy. Still, the prose is solid and sturdy, and the plot moves along at a measured pace. I think this sequel deserves an A, and a recommendation to anyone who has read and enjoyed the first novel in the series.