Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Vellichor, Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman, The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera, The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney and Mrs Sinclair's Suitcase by Louise Walters

I wouldn't want to live in a world without vellichor. Robert Gray: An Intoxicating Sense of Vellichor

John Koenig, curator of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
words, defines vellichor
this way: "n. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are
somehow infused with the passage of time--filled with thousands of old
books you'll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in
its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the
author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left
just as they were on the day they were captured." (Here's another

I've got four books to review this time, so lets get right to it.

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman is the sequel to the bestselling dystopian fantasy, Scythe, which I read last year and loved. The prose was sublime and the plot of Scythe was so full of twists and turns I found myself gasping out loud at some of the events that took place. Now in Thunderhead, there are twice as many pages of Shusterman's lush prose to enjoy, along with a plot that moves at breakneck speed to reach yet another gasp-worthy conclusion/cliffhanger. Here's the blurb:
Rowan and Citra take opposite stances on the morality of the Scythedom, putting them at odds, in the chilling sequel to the Printz Honor Book Scythe from New York Times bestseller Neal Shusterman, author of the Unwind dystology.
The Thunderhead cannot interfere in the affairs of the Scythedom. All it can do is observe—it does not like what it sees.
A year has passed since Rowan had gone off grid. Since then, he has become an urban legend, a vigilante snuffing out corrupt scythes in a trial by fire. His story is told in whispers across the continent.
As Scythe Anastasia, Citra gleans with compassion and openly challenges the ideals of the “new order.” But when her life is threatened and her methods questioned, it becomes clear that not everyone is open to the change.
Will the Thunderhead intervene?
Or will it simply watch as this perfect world begins to unravel?
Because the author has 500 pages to flesh out his characters, we get a more robust view of Citra and Rowan and their master scythes. We also get journal entries from the computer AI who runs the world, the Thunderhead (formerly the Cloud in our era) who becomes increasingly aware that humans are deceptive and unscrupulous beings, and that it cannot have control over their lives if there are groups that are out of its jurisdiction, such as Scythes and Unsavories. I was totally engrossed in this novel from the first page on, and I can honestly say that there are several surprises for the characters that I didn't see coming. But to write about any of them would be a massive spoiler, which I would rather not do to my fellow readers, so I think I will just give the book a well deserved A, and recommend that anyone who has read Scythe pick up Thunderhead immediately to see what happens next!

The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera was a book recommended to me because I have enjoyed reading the folklore and myths of Asia for a long time (I studied them while looking into Asian history in college). This particular tale is set up in what I can only assume is the far future or distant past of a land that has a feudal society set up that is similar to ancient Japan or China. Shefali and Shizuka are born on the same day, and have twin pine needles stuck to their foreheads. Though each is born into different circumstances (some would say different classes) with Shefali being a child of the steppes, a culture of nomadic horse tribes, vs Shizuka being the niece of the Emperor and heir to the throne of the land, they are bonded in heart and mind nearly from the moment that they meet. Here's the blurb:
Even gods can be slain
The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach—but failed to notice a lurking darkness festering within the people. Now, their border walls begin to crumble, and villages fall to demons swarming out of the forests.
Away on the silver steppes, the remaining tribes of nomadic Qorin retreat and protect their own, having bartered a treaty with the empire, exchanging inheritance through the dynasties. It is up to two young warriors, raised together across borders since their prophesied birth, to save the world from the encroaching demons.
This is the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O Shizuka, and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil. Publisher's Weekly: Rivera’s wonderfully intricate Asian-inspired epic fantasy debut introduces two young women bound by fate: Shizuka, whose uncle is the Emperor Yoshimoto, and Barsalyya Shefali Alshar, whose mother is Kharsa Burqila, the ruler of the Qorin. Omens are present at the birth of both children: a pair of pine needles visible between their eyes. Though they come from very different backgrounds— Shefali is a horsewoman of the Qorin steppes and Shizuka the pampered heir of the Hokkaran Empire—their mothers determine that the omen means the pair will be lifelong friends. This initial association propels the two young women into grand adventures that become the stuff of legend as they discover the extent of their superhuman powers. Rivera’s immense imagination and finely detailed world-building have produced a series introduction of mammoth scope.
Though I found the prose difficult to decipher at first (somewhat like reading Shakespeare, you just have to wrap your head around the language until it starts to make sense), once I delved deeper into the novel, the epistolary style began to grow on me and become more intimate, as if I were reading the diaries of two young lovers. It's inevitable that they defy authority to be together to fight the evil blackness that consumes many of their people, but it never becomes too cliched or comic-book superhero-like. Even though the things they do seem to be impossible, the way that Rivera writes the characters normalizes even the most dazzling displays of magic. Another A, with a recommendation for those who appreciate Asian legends modernized with LBGTQ characters.

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney is February's pick for my Tuesday Night Library book group. It has gotten rave reviews from all the right places, and it has been blurbed by the likes of SNL comedian Amy Poehler and self help guru Elizabeth Gilbert. Hence, I assumed it would be a book full of wit and ribald humor, with unforgettable characters and a slick plot. Unfortunately, like many books with a crap ton of hype and famous blurbers, it was a huge disappointment in the real world, where the rest of us lowly bookworms live and work. Here
is the blurb:
Every family has its problems. But even among the most troubled, the Plumb family stands out as spectacularly dysfunctional. Years of simmering tensions finally reach a breaking point on an unseasonably cold afternoon in New York City as Melody, Beatrice, and Jack Plumb gather to confront their charismatic and reckless older brother, Leo, freshly released from rehab. Months earlier, an inebriated Leo got behind the wheel of a car with a nineteen-year-old waitress as his passenger. The ensuing accident has endangered the Plumbs' joint trust fund, “The Nest,” which they are months away from finally receiving. Meant by their deceased father to be a modest mid-life supplement, the Plumb siblings have watched The Nest’s value soar along with the stock market and have been counting on the money to solve a number of self-inflicted problems. 
Melody, a wife and mother in an upscale suburb, has an unwieldy mortgage and looming college tuition for her twin teenage daughters. Jack, an antiques dealer, has secretly borrowed against the beach cottage he shares with his husband, Walker, to keep his store open. And Bea, a once-promising short-story writer, just can’t seem to finish her overdue novel. Can Leo rescue his siblings and, by extension, the people they love? Or will everyone need to reimagine the futures they’ve envisioned? Brought together as never before, Leo, Melody, Jack, and Beatrice must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledge the choices they have made in their own lives.
This is a story about the power of family, the possibilities of friendship, the ways we depend upon one another and the ways we let one another down. In this tender, entertaining, and deftly written debut, Sweeney brings a remarkable cast of characters to life to illuminate what money does to relationships, what happens to our ambitions over the course of time, and the fraught yet unbreakable ties we share with those we love.
I didn't find this novel to be tender, entertaining, witty or remarkable. The Plumb siblings are all in dire need of therapy, probably due to the fact that their mother is a narcissistic nutball who had no idea how to parent her children. Now she's taken millions out of the Nest to pay off a waitress who lost a foot when she was giving Leo, the eldest sibling, a hand job in his car, because he lied to the waitress (who is Latina, what a surprise, not) and told her he could help her music career. Leo is a complete asshole who uses people, lies, cheats and steals all throughout the novel, and yet he somehow gets a pass from everyone because he's handsome and has a veneer of charm (hiding the heart of a monster who really cares nothing for anyone but himself). He actually has two million dollars secreted away in offshore accounts, so he could pay back the Nest and save his siblings from their bad choices, but he chooses instead to lie to them that he's got a project he's working on that will redeem him, but inevitably doesn't when his horrible behavior and bad deals finally catch up with him. Of course, instead of telling everyone what has happened, he flees the country, leaving behind a pregnant ex-girlfriend and angry siblings who are somehow surprised that he's still an asshole. Brother Jack, who has been called "Leo Lite" is similar enough to his sibling that when his partner finds out that he's lied and taken out loans on a cottage they both own, there is the inevitable break up, but Jack somehow ends up seeing this as "freeing," instead of owning up to his bad behavior. Melody, who is a control freak of a mother and creepily surveils her twin daughters, becomes an even worse mother when one of the twins turns out to be gay. When she asks her gay brother Jack for advice he says "You don't want advice, you just don't want her to be gay." Bea is the most pathetic of the characters, a writer who used Leo's wild life to write a book that was popular, but now can't seem to write anything else that isn't based on her brother, because she's a childish, wimpy, whiny idiot.  She does manage to write something in the end, but she of course has a boyfriend by that time, so she can continue to play the spineless innocent. Blech. The prose was flat and the plot dull, constructed without any surprises. I have to give this novel a C, and I'd only recommend it to those who like novels about reprehensible people living in New York. 

Mrs Sinclair's Suitcase by Louise Walters was recommended to me by a friend who noticed that I like books about people who work in libraries or bookstores. It has a historical mystery involved, which I usually enjoy in a novel, and it has a female protagonist. So I was all set to fall in love with the book when I started reading it, but grew slightly dismayed over the course of the first two chapters by how slowly the plot was moving. Here's the blurb: Roberta, a lonely thirty-four-year-old bibliophile, works at The Old and New Bookshop in England. When she finds a letter inside her centenarian grandmother’s battered old suitcase that hints at a dark secret, her understanding of her family’s history is completely upturned. Running alongside Roberta’s narrative is that of her grandmother, Dorothy, as a forty-year-old childless woman desperate for motherhood during the early years of World War II. After a chance encounter with a Polish war pilot, Dorothy believes she’s finally found happiness, but must instead make an unthinkable decision whose consequences forever change the framework of her family. Kirkus Reviews: Letters and postcards once used as bookmarks flutter out of used books, forgotten signs of liaisons. Roberta treasures books so much that she pines away in her beloved job at Old and New Bookshop, watching Philip, her boss and the man she can't yet admit to herself that she loves, take the beautiful Jenna as his lover. But secrets begin to spill out of the books—secrets that will change her understanding of the past and hopes for the future. One fateful day, Roberta's father, John, brings in an old suitcase labeled "Mrs. D. Sinclair," filled with her grandmother Dorothea Pietrykowski's old books. Between the pages, Roberta discovers a letter dated Feb. 8, 1941, signed by her grandfather Jan Pietrykowski, warning Dorothea that what she is about to do will dishonor her, imperil her very soul, and wrong some unnamed mother and child. If only Roberta could ask her grandmother or her father about the letter, but at 109, Dorothea has entered hospice care, and John's health is failing, as well. Meanwhile, Jenna confesses to a bewildered Roberta that she's pregnant with a child fathered by her ex-boyfriend. Walters' debut novel nimbly weaves together Roberta's and Dorothea's stories—the reader almost expects to pull a shadowy missive from its spine. Roberta's life is a mess; she stifles her feelings for Philip, twisting her desires into a sad affair with a married man. But Dorothea's story is the stuff of films: disowned, disappointed in marriage, crushed by multiple miscarriages—Dorothea rises above it all to manage her own farmhouse, to take into her home two young women, part of the Women's Land Army, and to find new love with Jan, the dashing Polish Squadron Leader. A breathtaking, beautifully crafted tale of loves that survive secrets.The parallel stories of Roberta and Dorothy unravel over the course of eighty years as they both make their own ways through secrets, lies, sacrifices, and love. Utterly absorbing, Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase is a spellbinding tale of two worlds, one shattered by secrets and the other by the truth.  
Fortunately, the plot begins to pick up speed by the third chapter, and soon the engrossing wartime story of Dorothy and her handsome Polish pilot is flying across the pages. I didn't find Roberta's story as compelling as Dorothy's, mainly because there wasn't as much at stake for Roberta as there was for Dorothy during WWII. The prose of this novel is smooth and clear, and the characters are well drawn.It's easy to get caught up in each protagonist's problems, from Roberta's timid yearnings for her boss to Dorothy's miscarriages and stillbirths that leave her longing for a living child to hold in her arms. I'd give this decent book a B, and recommend it to anyone who liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Obama's Favorite Books of 2017, David Bowie's Online Book Club, The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Cormorant Run and The Society by Lilith Saintcrow, and Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

I am sure I am not the only one who misses our 44th president, Barak Obama, and his brilliant family. Our current president is such an idiot that I doubt he's ever graced the inside of a bookstore with his baboon like presence. At any rate, here is former president Obama's reading list for 2017. Enjoy.

POTUS 44's Reading List: Favorite Books of 2017

President Barack Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia shopped at Politics
and Prose in Washington, D.C., on Small Business Saturday, 2014.
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
There's a presidential reading list after all. Although President Trump
has little to say about his reading habits, on New Year's Eve former
President Barack Obama posted his favorite books
from last year, noting: "During my presidency, I started a tradition of
sharing my reading lists and playlists. It was a nice way to reflect on
the works that resonated with me and lift up authors and artists from
around the world. With some extra time on my hands this year to catch
up, I wanted to share the books and music that I enjoyed most. From
songs that got me moving to stories that inspired me, here's my 2017
list--I hope you enjoy it and have a happy and healthy New Year."
Obama's best book picks are:

The Power by Naomi Alderman
Grant by Ron Chernow
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

*Bonus for hoops fans: Coach Wooden and Me by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and
Basketball (and Other Things) by Shea Serrano

I think this is a great way to set up a legacy of your father, by creating an online book club with his favorites. 

David Bowie's Son Launches Online Book Club
David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, has launched an online book club
that features his late father's favorite literary works, Rolling Stone
reported. Its first pick is Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd. Bowie died last
January 10.
"My dad was a beast of a reader," Jones tweeted
 "One of his true loves was Peter Ackroyd's sojourns into the history of Britain & its cities. I've been feeling a building sense of duty to go on the same literary marathon in tribute to dad. Time allowing."

He added: "Alright gang! Anyone who wants to join along, we are reading
Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, as an amuse cerveau before we get into the
heavy stuff." Hawksmoor is one of the titles on Bowie's list of "Top 100
which appeared in 2013 on his website.

And for even more Bowie, check out the Bowie Book Club
http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz35550136 podcast, in which two friends (one of them Shelf Awareness's own Kristianne Huntsberger) read and discuss the books on Bowie's reading list.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson was sold to me as being similar to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and A Man Called Ove, both of which I loved. This particular book, however, wasn't even in the same vein as the other two, because it is apparent right from the get-go that it's biting, cynical satire, similar to the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies and Being There, rather than being about quirky or grumpy old guy with a heart of gold. The prose, which I assume is translated, is lucid and witty, while the plot is like a round robin song, in that it builds speed from one chapter to the next, until it's zooming along at a breakneck pace. Here's the blurb:
A reluctant centenarian much like Forrest Gump (if Gump were an explosives expert with a fondness for vodka) decides it's not too late to start over . . .
After a long and eventful life, Allan Karlsson ends up in a nursing home, believing it to be his last stop. The only problem is that he's still in good health, and in one day, he turns 100. A big celebration is in the works, but Allan really isn't interested (and he'd like a bit more control over his vodka consumption). So he decides to escape. He climbs out the window in his slippers and embarks on a hilarious and entirely unexpected journey, involving, among other surprises, a suitcase stuffed with cash, some unpleasant criminals, a friendly hot-dog stand operator, and an elephant (not to mention a death by elephant).
It would be the adventure of a lifetime for anyone else, but Allan has a larger-than-life backstory: Not only has he witnessed some of the most important events of the twentieth century, but he has actually played a key role in them. Starting out in munitions as a boy, he somehow finds himself involved in many of the key explosions of the twentieth century and travels the world, sharing meals and more with everyone from Stalin, Churchill, and Truman to Mao, Franco, and de Gaulle. Quirky and utterly unique, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared has charmed readers across the world.
There are a number of similarities to Forrest Gump, the movie, in this book, in the sense that Allan is more lucky than smart, but he's also an alcoholic and a jerk, so his character doesn't have Gump's sweet and kind nature. Though the situations he gets himself into are laughable, the edge of cruelty and self-serving, low brow people surrounding Allan, numbed my funny bone and made me want to smack Allan and tell him to shut up instead of laugh at his foibles. Most people consider this "black" or "gallows" humor, but in this instance it just wasn't amusing, it was horrifying. Other than disliking the protagonist and all the other characters, I thought the story was just bizarre enough to keep my attention throughout the novel. I'd give this one a B-, and only recommend it to those who like bitter, cynical humor and the lionizing of stupidity.

Cormorant Run by Lilith Saintcrow was surprising and visionary science fiction, something I am not used to reading from a primarily fantasy, paranormal romance and steampunk author like Saintcrow. Her main character was just as kick-butt a heroine as Jill Kismet and Dante Valentine, but Svinga isn't the usual long haired, gorgeous, leather-clad magic-wielding martial artist who populates her other fiction. Svin is grubby, plainly dressed, has wiry, messy hair, eyes that are too far apart and huge "horse" teeth that protrude. She's also stick-thin from being starved in solitary confinement in prison for being a Rifter, going into the Rift and bringing back artifacts to sell. But Svin is smart, and a survivor, and those are what matter most in this post-apocalyptic world of greed and corruption and burgeoning fascism. Here's the blurb: Saintcrow (She-Wolf and Cub) dives into the psychologies of greed and survival in a flawed fantastical postapocalyptic adventure. For reasons still unknown, the Event took place, opening rifts filled with dangerous creatures and deadly phenomena. Governments quickly stepped in to explore, map, and exploit the rifts, despite understanding nothing about them. This gives rise to a small group of specialists called rifters who make their illegal livelihoods going where everyone else fears to tread. Eighty-six years after the Event, Svin is a rifter who was incarcerated with the worst of the worst in Guantánamo Bay. A corrupt government official offers her freedom in exchange for leading a select team of scientists and soldiers to the Cormorant, the holy grail of rifting. Guided by clues left by her now-deceased lover and mentor, Svin must keep these men safe, despite their conflicting loyalties. Saintcrow’s skill at intermingling moments of action, thoughtfulness, and outright horror ensures a thrilling lack of equilibrium. Unfortunately, the book is somewhat ponderous and occasionally dense, and multiple perspectives bring confusion rather than dimension.
Though I can understand the reviewer/blurber's opinion about the book being somewhat dense, (there is a lot going on in every single paragraph. You don't really have time to take a breath and recoup as a reader), I didn't find the prose or the plot ponderous at all, nor was I confused by multiple perspectives. Saintcrow makes it clear who is talking and when and where they are in the plot. The story arc felt similar to Aliens, the movie, with readers knowing, going in, that the military and science guys with their sexist swagger are going to be the first ones who get eaten by aliens. Fortunately, Svin lasts longer than Ripley, and she's able to send one soldier back through the Rift, while staying inside, where she knows she can survive by herself. Though there were a number of horror elements, they weren't too drippy or disgusting, so I'd give this science fiction novel a B+ and recommend it to anyone who likes unusual heroines in their science fiction.

The Society by Lilith Saintcrow is another of her paranormal romance titles (you will recall last month I read Desires, Known, a paranormal romance about a genie in a ring purchased by an innocent accountant who doesn't believe in magic). This one involves an innocent psychiatric nurse who has amazing psychic powers that she doesn't understand and only uses surreptitiously to calm and heal the mental patients in the hospital. Of course, she's petite, blond and has the perfect curvy figure and green eyes that make the "Society" agent Delgado fall madly in love with her at first sight, and, being he's a big strong man, strive to be possessive and protective of her, of course. (GAH! I HATE standard romance tropes of the weak and childish, naive and stupid {but very pretty} female protagonists who just need a big strong man to come into their lives and help them discover their true power, and worth to society/and/or the world. The big strong man also has to be completely and utterly enthralled and in love with them by the second chapter, of course.) Inevitably, the government forces of evil, who are out to kidnap and drug and brainwash all psychics into weapons, catch up with our heroes and heroine, and big strong Delgado gives himself up to allow Rowan, the psychiatric nurse, the time to escape with the last few members of The Society, a rival agency that seeks to train psychics and keep them from government enslavement. Here's the blurb:
Will she be the Society’s salvation . . . or its downfall?
The black-ops government agency called Sigma broke Justin Delgado, trained his psionic talent, and turned him into a killer. Then he escaped and joined the Society, an underground resistance movement of psions determined to use their talents to bring Sigma down. Competent, cold, and cruelly efficient, he’s the best operative the Society has, a legend among the psions who fight a shadow war against an enemy that owns the courts, the press, and the police. Feared even by his own teammates, hunted by the government, and too damaged to feel anything but clinical rage, he is utterly alone—until he meets Rowan.
When Rowan Price stumbles across Delgado’s team in an abandoned house, he is assigned to make contact with her, bring her in, and keep her alive—because Rowan is one of the most powerful psychics the resistance has ever encountered. If the government gets its hands on her, she could very well mean the downfall of the resistance, because nobody, not even Rowan, is quite sure how far her talents extend.
The Society will welcome Rowan, if she can stay alive long enough to join them. Unfortunately, there’s a traitor buried in the ranks. If the Society goes down, Rowan is at risk. God alone knows what Delgado will do to keep her safe, because Rowan is fast becoming the only thing in the world he cares about . . .
Saintcrow's prose is lithe and punchy, a perfect compliment to her gymnastic plot that never slows down for a moment. That said, about halfway through the book I wanted Rowan to take a long walk off a short pier, she was so annoyingly wimpy, stupid and immature. How anyone could reach the age of maturity and not even be able to deal with their own mental processes without falling apart is just beyond me. Of course she's still living with her daddy and taking care of him, because she's a good girl, which only adds to her allure to any men she encounters. Blech. So sappy! Anyway, I would give this short novel a B-, and that is just because of the quality prose.  I'd recommend it to those who like their romances simple.

Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst was recommended to me as being similar to the YA fantasy fiction of Victoria Aveyard (the Red Queen series). This is a thoroughly modern fantasy, though it has a medieval setting, because the female protagonists fall in love with each other, instead of the royal men they're supposed to marry (for political reasons, of course). Here's the blurb:
Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile kingdoms.
But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a land where magic is forbidden.
Now Denna has to learn the ways of her new kingdom while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses before her coronation—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine, sister of her betrothed.
When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two work together, they discover there is more to one another than they thought—and soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.
But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.
Though the prose was clean and muscular, and the plot measured and well woven with detail, I still saw the major plot points coming a mile away. I could tell that the tomboyish Mare, who cares about freedom from her stuffy royal responsibilities and her horses more than anything, would fall madly in love with the beautiful, petite and very feminine Denna, who is, of course, initially afraid of horses and feels duty bound to marry someone she doesn't love, because nearly all the men around them were jerks and of course two such lonely young women will fall for one another, given time. I'll take Lesbian stereotypes for $200, Alex.
Still, there was plenty of action and magic, and I enjoyed the easy story arc, which came to a nice HEA conclusion (or at least Happy for Now). Though it was predictable, I'd give this book a B+ and recommend it to those teenage girls who are seeking to define their own sexual identity, and are looking for role models. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Start of the 2018 Book List, Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman and The Stone Sky by NK Jemisin

Well, it's New Year's Eve, and it turns out that I finished three books (and am 2/3 of the way through a fourth) before the end of the year, so I figured I might as well post a few reviews before the clock runs out on 2017, which was a rough year for me, but not a completely bad year for books.

First, though, here's my starting wish list of books I want to acquire in 2018. Usually by the time I'm ready to make my trip to Powell's City of Books in Portland, OR, I have 50 or more books on the list. This year I plan to try and borrow more books from the library, which should ease the strain on my book buying budget.

1) A Treacherous Curse, Deanna Raybourn
2) Still Me: A Novel, Jojo Moyes
3) Defy the Stars, Claudia Gray
4) Honor Among Thieves, Rachel Caine
5) Heart of Thorns, Bree Burton
6) Blood of a Thousand Stars, Rhoda Belleza
7) War Storm, Victoria Aveyard
8) Daughters of the Night Sky, Aimie K Runyan
9) Taste of Wrath, Matt Wallace
10) Head On, John Scalzi
11) Record of A Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers
12) Hunter, Healer, Lilith Saintcrow
13) A Glorious Freedom:Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives, Lisa Congdon
14) The Grave's a Fine and Private Place, Alan Bradley
15) The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, Theodora Goss
16) Mrs Sinclair's Suitcase, Louise Walters
17) Ordinary Magic Stories Omnibus, Devon Monk
18) The Power, Naomi Alderman
19) Hold Back the Stars, Katie Khan
20) Poison or Protect, Gail Carriger

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman is January's book for my Tuesday Night library book group. I've had a real soft spot for Gaiman since reading his Sandman series of graphic novels back in the early 1990s. When I find a writer whose work I love, I tend to hurry and uncover all of their books, so that I can enjoy their creative wonders anew. So I read Neverwhere, Coraline, American Gods, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Stardust, Good Omens and Fragile Things. I still haven't read A View From the Cheap Seats and a couple of his children's books. But those of his books that I have read, I've loved, not least because Gaiman is a witty and wise author whose British sense of humor is so delightfully dry that it sets off his gorgeous prose beautifully. We are the same age, Gaiman and I, and those born at the end of the Baby Boom tend to have a particular frame of reference that I understand and enjoy as well. So I embarked on this book knowing that Gaiman had probably also been required to read myths and legends in school, and therefore his treatment of these famous Norse myths would be colored by that. Here is the blurb: Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki—son of a giant—blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman—difficult with his beard and huge appetite—to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir—the most sagacious of gods—is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.
I completely agree with the blurb, for a change, in that I'd read these myths many times, from the original and stiff renditions to the more modern takes on the subject, but I still found Gaiman's version fresh and fascinating. I should note, as a Whovian (a fan of the British TV show Doctor Who) that Gaiman wrote one of my all time favorite episodes of Doctor Who, in which the TARDIS comes to life in the body of a woman. It was a brilliant performance that had me laughing and crying and viewing the show in a brand new light. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who thinks Norse Myths are dusty and dull and old fashioned.  Gaiman's version will give you a new appreciation of Thor, Loki and Odin and the whole Ragnarok thing.
The Book of Dust (La Belle Sauvage) by Philip Pullman is the first book in a "prequel" series to his Dark Materials series that was so popular (and for good reason!). Its an origin story for Lyra and gives us a view of her early days in the convent and her association with a protective and precocious child of the local tavern owners, Malcolm. Here's the blurb:
Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy....
Malcolm's parents run an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue. 
He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust—and the spy it was intended for finds him. 
When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, he sees suspicious characters everywhere: the explorer Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; a gyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a daemon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl—just a baby—named Lyra.
Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm. Publisher's Weekly: For more than 15 years, fans of the His Dark Materials trilogy have longed to return to the world Pullman created. Now, finally, begins a new trilogy, the Book of Dust, that again immerses readers in a thrilling alternate landscape of animal daemons, truth-revealing alethiometers, and the mysterious particle known as Dust. Lyra, the beloved heroine of the original books, is just a baby; 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead is the hero this time, and a worthy one. Malcolm helps out at his family's inn in Oxford and at the priory where Lyra—sought by her mother, Mrs. Coulter (younger but no less chilling than in the His Dark Materials books), and her father, Lord Asriel—is being cared for by nuns. Inquisitive and observant, Malcolm gets involved with scholar-spy Dr. Hannah Relf and meets (and adores) baby Lyra. But free thinkers are at war with the oppressive religious regime, and everyone wants control of Lyra, who is "destined to put an end to destiny." Amid the roaring waters of a historic flood, Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, attempt to keep Lyra safe, braving kidnappers, government enforcers, murderers, and classmates who, chillingly, are being trained to turn in those perceived to be disloyal to the regime. Fortunately, he has a fleet canoe, the Belle Sauvage of the title, and help from Alice, a cranky and courageous 16-year-old. The new characters are as lively and memorable as their predecessors; despite a few heavy-handed moments regarding the oppressiveness of religion, this tense, adventure-packed book will satisfy and delight Pullman's fans and leave them eager to see what's yet to come!
I could not put this book down, and once I embarked on the journey with Malcolm, I was in for the next 12 hours. There were only a couple of things that I didn't like about the book, mainly the character Alice, who is whiny, mean and horrible, though she obviously cares for Lyra and is a good nurse to her, still she made me want to slap her silly at least once every chapter. I was also surprised that the adults were so comfortable with treating children like small adults, and having them work so hard and put themselves in danger didn't seem to bother any of them at all. Even the famous Lord Asriel has no problem dropping his daughter off with anyone who can care for her, and eventually he designates Alice and Malcolm as her caregivers, (though they are only 11 and 16 by the end of the novel). They had both, by this time, been through many dangers, been shot at, starved, beaten and tricked, had to run for their lives many times and fight bad guys with next to nothing. The fascist religious people who are prowling around in search of people to kill or torture or use as leverage were a terrifying specter throughout the novel. I felt that this was somewhat over the top for a YA novel, but still, it was well worth it for the classic storyline and the wonderful prose that flew by like a hawk on wing. A definite A, with a recommendation to anyone who has read the Dark Materials series, starting with the Golden Compass.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin is the third and final book in the Broken Earth series, which began with The Fifth Season. Though these SF/F novels slide into horror territory more than once, I was too fascinated by the protagonist, Essun, and her journey to stop reading them. I had high hopes for an HEA ending, but 3/4 of the way through I knew that those hopes were going to be dashed by the end of the book. Here's the blurb from Publisher's Weekly:
The earthshaking conclusion to Jemisin’s powerful postapocalyptic Broken Earth trilogy (after The Obelisk Gate) finds the fate of a damaged world in the hands of a mother, who wants to save it, and her daughter, who wants to destroy it. Essun believes she is the only person left alive who has the power and skill to open the magical Obelisk Gate and wield its power to save her cataclysm-rocked planet, the Stillness, which is being torn apart by an ancient experiment that got out of hand. But she is caught between that duty and her need to find Nassun, her 10-year-old daughter. Nassun’s father killed her brother and took her away because both children shared their mother’s dangerous talent; he hoped to “cure” her, but instead she has become incredibly powerful. Essun’s search grows urgent when she learns that Nassun is being guided by a dangerous mentor with plans of his own. Jemisin draws Essun and Nassun perfectly, capturing a mother’s guilt and pride and a daughter’s determination to survive on her own terms. The Stillness, where ancient science is powered by magic, is unforgettable. Vivid characters, a tautly constructed plot, and outstanding worldbuilding meld into an impressive and timely story of abused, grieving survivors fighting to fix themselves and save the remnants of their shattered home. 
Though she is young, I could not understand Nassun's love of Schaffa, a murderous, horrific guardian who had abused and used her mother before her at the Fulcrum, training Essun to be "useful" to the regime of non-orogenes in power (regular, prejudiced humans who are afraid of what they do not understand). She was willing even for Schaffa to kill her, just so she could have his "love" and attention. Why Nassun would choose such a vile man as a father figure, for whom she is willing to kill and destroy the world, is beyond me. Nassun's father is a completely evil ass, who, when he discovers that there is no "cure" for being an orogene, tries to kill her (and is therefore doomed because his daughter is powerful and turns him to stone), and her mother, while somewhat cruel in training her as a youngster, gets more hatred and vitriol heaped on her head than the father who literally beat her baby brother to death, which makes no sense. I could not understand Essuns total ineffectiveness in trying to communicate with her daughter, to tell her she was sorry and to explain that she did and does love her,and has been trying to find her for the past year. All Essun does is feel guilty and then allow herself to be turned to stone. Such an ignominious death for such a tough survivor who has seen nearly everyone she loves die.
Still, the prose is evocative and engrossing, while the plot is, as PW says, "taut" and fast, while the characters are unforgettable. Another solid A, though I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who is depressed or who finds horror novels too frightening. I would also note that there are triggers for those whose children have died and who are victims of domestic violence. Anyone else, dig in and prepare to be astonished.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Little Women on TV, Send A Book to Congress, Desires, Known by Lilith Saintcrow, Losing It by Emma Rathbone, The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg, and the Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin

This is my 52nd and last post of the year (unless I read really fast before New Year's Eve), so I thought I would review 4 books and have these bits from Shelf Awareness start us off. I am a big fan of Little Women, the book, so I'd expect the television program to be just as exciting. 

TV: Little Women
The first trailer has been released for Little Women
the TV adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel from Masterpiece,
BBC One and Playground (Wolf Hall, Howards End), Deadline reported.
Heidi Thomas (Cranford, Call the Midwife) wrote the adaptation and
Vanessa Caswill (Thirteen) directs.

The project stars Maya Hawke (Jo), Willa Fitzgerald (Meg), Annes Elwy
(Beth) and Kathryn Newton (Amy), with Emily Watson as their mother,
Marmee, Angela Lansbury as Aunt March, Jonah Hauer-King as Laurie
Laurence and Michael Gambon as Mr. Laurence. Little Women premieres on
PBS Masterpiece May 13, 2018.

Great idea, though I doubt it will have much effect on the Tyrant in Chief.

Cool Idea of the Day: Send a Book to Congress
A group of concerned citizens in Seattle recently approached Kim
Hooyboer, manager of Third Place Books
sending a copy
of Timothy Snyders book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books) to every member of Congress. Seattle magazine reported that the "response from Hooyboer and her bosses was enthusiastic. Third Place Books offered
the group, who asked to remain anonymous to emphasize the community
effort, a significant discount on more than half the books needed, plus
space to write personalized letters and stuff envelopes." A friend of
the group who lives in Vermont connected them with Vermont Book Shop
http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz35450321 in Middlebury, which is contributing the other half of the books.

"How we can be active resistance hubs: I've been talking about this with
a lot of other bookstores around the country in the last year," said
Hooyboer. "Our role as booksellers is to bring the right books to the
right people at the right time. To be principled, not partisan. That's
why it makes so much sense for this group to come to us and for us to
help in whatever way we can.... I think it's really easy right now to
want to close the doors, turn the lights off, and sit in a corner, but
one of the important things we can be doing right now is educating
ourselves and reading these books and having these conversations with
your community."

Desires, Known by Lilith Saintcrow was something of a surprise to me, as I was expecting a romance novel with some paranormal elements, and what I got was a full fledged Urban paranormal fantasy/action novel with very little romance at all. The protagonist, Emily Spencer, is a stupid coward who spends 95 percent of the book shrieking that what is happening can't be happening, because she refuses to alter her perception to deal with what is actually happening to her, even though it is obvious that it is really happening.  She finds a djinn-bound ring at a thrift store, so she buys it to add sparkle to her Halloween Elvira costume, unaware of its power. She's a real "down to earth" (read: BORING) type of person who is more at home with financial spreadsheets than she is with dating and having fun, it seems. So even when the male stripper at the Halloween party hits on her, she can't deal with it, and basically tells him to buzz off. Meanwhile, at work, her supervisor has been sexually harassing every female in the office who isn't 80 years old, and though she's managed to deal with it in such a way that she can't get fired by the sleazy harasser, neither has she actually done anything about him, like reporting him to HR or to the boss. So when she does finally get the genie's power and asks him to do something about this cretin, the genie puts the guy in the worst possible place without killing him, she finds out and wants him to take it all back and restore this monster to the workplace! Unbelievable! What an idiot! Anyway, here's the blurb: 
Desires, Known by Lilith Saintcrow
A ring. A man. A centuries-old secret.
To accountant Emily Spencer, the junky thrift-store ring is perfect for her Halloween costume. A few too many drinks, a slip of the tongue, and all of a sudden, there’s a guy calling her mistress and demanding to know her desires. If she just ignores the weirdness, it’ll go away, right?
Wrong. Hal is a creature of almost limitless power, eternally bound to serve the owner of the ring. Though modern technology is puzzling, he has no difficulty deciding he likes being out in the world again. Even if he has to train a reluctant but undeniably attractive new mistress.
Unfortunately, the man who lost Hal’s ring so long ago is still around—rich, unscrupulous, and more than a little insane. He’ll try anything—deceit, treachery, torture—to regain control of Hal.
Including murder…
It makes no sense as to why Emily refuses to allow Hal to provide nice things for her, or to help her get rid of the office misogynist/harasser. Even when there are all these creatures and supernatural bad guys gunning for her, she's reluctant to accept his help to survive their attacks! WHY, for heaven's sake, would anyone with a modicum of sense or self preservation say no to that? At any rate, even after she's been through so much, at the end, we are left with Emily and Hal sharing power, but nothing else. Where's the romance? Where's the HEA? Honestly, having read most of Saintcrow's books, I expected better from her. The prose was decent, the plot swift, but the story in general leaves a lot to be desired, so I'd give this book a C, and recommend it only to those who are really into the Arabian Nights/Aladdin stuff.

Losing It by Emma Rathbone was another surprise. I'd been led to believe that this was a funny, poignant and empowering book, about a late-bloomer who is longing for her first sexual encounter.  This is patently false, as the protagonist, Julia Greenfield, is a whiny, whinging weirdo who seems almost autistic or extremely neurotic at the very least in her laser focus on f-ing. Every paragraph, every encounter is examined for its potential for Julia to lose her virginity, which she seems to think is some horrific visible blemish on her life, like a red A attached to her chest, for all to see. This conceit grows tedious after the first 75 pages, and eventually it becomes annoying. Here's the blurb:
Julia Greenfield has a problem: she's twenty-six years old and she's still a virgin. Sex ought to be easy. People have it all the time! But, without meaning to, she made it through college and into adulthood with her virginity intact. Something's got to change. 
To re-route herself from her stalled life, Julia travels to spend the summer with her mysterious aunt Vivienne in North Carolina. It's not long, however, before she unearths a confounding secret—her 58 year old aunt is a virgin too. In the unrelenting heat of the southern summer, Julia becomes fixated on puzzling out what could have lead to Viv's appalling condition, all while trying to avoid the same fate.
For readers of Rainbow Rowell and Maria Semple, and filled with offbeat characters and subtle, wry humor, Losing It is about the primal fear that you just. might. never. meet. anyone. It's about desiring something with the kind of obsessive fervor that almost guarantees you won't get it. It's about the blurry lines between sex and love, and trying to figure out which one you're going for. And it's about the decisions—and non-decisions—we make that can end up shaping a life.
I felt terribly sorry for everyone who encountered Julia, because she's such a dull and distracted ninny, and I felt even sorrier for her Aunt Viv, who had to put up with Julia tearing through all of her belongings and invading her privacy just so she can figure out how NOT to become "an old maid" like Viv. Personally, I thought Viv sounded like she was having a fine life without sex, and that she was just fine with her decision, but doltish Julia can't imagine anyone wanting to remain a virgin in her stunted view of women and women's lives. When Julia finally gets laid, much to everyone's relief, it is treated like no big deal. Julia doesn't transform, as she seems to think she will, she's still a huge pain in the rump. The prose was as dull as the protagonist and the plot was turgid. I'd give this novel a C-, and only recommend it to those who can't find something better to read.

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg is the 13th book of hers that I've read and enjoyed. My mother has read all of her novels (except this one, which I will send to her soon) and we both agree that her storytelling is superb. Berg's prose style is similar to Fannie Flaggs, whose books brim with good characters and fascinating situations in small town America. Also like Flagg, Berg's plots are beautifully paced and strong, leaving readers without the ability to stop reading lest they miss something. Here's the blurb:
For the past six months, Arthur Moses’s days have looked the same: He tends to his rose garden and to Gordon, his cat, then rides the bus to the cemetery to visit his beloved late wife for lunch. The last thing Arthur would imagine is for one unlikely encounter to utterly transform his life. 
Eighteen-year-old Maddy Harris is an introspective girl who visits the cemetery to escape the other kids at school. One afternoon she joins Arthur—a gesture that begins a surprising friendship between two lonely souls. Moved by Arthur’s kindness and devotion, Maddy gives him the nickname “Truluv.” As Arthur’s neighbor Lucille moves into their orbit, the unlikely trio band together and, through heartache and hardships, help one another rediscover their own potential to start anew.
Wonderfully written and full of profound observations about life, The Story of Arthur Truluv is a beautiful and moving novel of compassion in the face of loss, of the small acts that turn friends into family, and of the possibilities to achieve happiness at any age.
“For several days after [finishing The Story of Arthur Truluv], I felt lifted by it, and I found myself telling friends, also feeling overwhelmed by 2017, about the book. Read this, I said, it will offer some balance to all that has happened, and it is a welcome reminder we’re all neighbors here.”—Chicago Tribune
I fell in love with Arthur, because he was such a wonderful, funny old soul, and though I wanted to kick Maddy in the butt for allowing herself to be used by Anderson, her abusive boyfriend, I found myself warming to her as she becomes pregnant and a caregiver for Arthur and Lucille, two elderly people who need her just as much as she needs them. If you can get through this page-turner without laughing and crying in equal measure, you're a better woman than I am. Brava, Ms Berg,Brava. I'd give this warm and delightful novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who loved A Man Called Ova or Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Cafe. Well worth the price, and, as the Chicago Tribune said, it will offer something of a panacea to the wounds of 2017.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin is the sequel to her Hugo award winning science fiction novel The Fifth Season. It says on the cover that it also won a Hugo this year, which wouldn't surprise me at all. Though the dystopia presented in these novels is extreme, and painful and grotesque, I find the characters fascinating. Essun is so tough and adaptable in the face of death and the murder of her children, I am riveted by her ability to continue living, working, breathing in the face of such loss. Because this is the middle novel of a trilogy, a lot has to happen to explain the problems of the first novel and solve some of the ones presented in the second before setting things up to be completed in the third. Here's the blurb:
The season of endings grows darker, as civilization fades into the long cold night.
Essun -- once Damaya, once Syenite, now avenger -- has found shelter, but not her daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request. But if Essun does what he asks, it would seal the fate of the Stillness forever.
Far away, her daughter Nassun is growing in power - and her choices will break the world. Publisher's Weekly: In this compelling, challenging, and utterly gripping work that combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, Jemisin draws readers deeper into the extraordinary setting and characters she introduced in The Fifth Season. In the world called the Stillness—which the first book hints may actually be our world, thousands of years in the future—orogenes are hated and feared for their ability to control the geological forces that shape the land. Powerful orogene Essun desperately searches for her eight-year-old daughter, Nassun, who was stolen away by her father. He hopes to find someone to “fix” the girl and excise her burgeoning orogene talent. But Essun’s search is interrupted by her old mentor, Alabaster. Alabaster is dying, and he hopes to use Essun’s powers to end the current “season,” a disastrous change in global climate that could destroy all life, by recapturing the planet’s long-lost moon, whose absence is the cause of the ironically named Stillness’s geological instability. While Essun and Alabaster struggle to save the world, an ancient entity with very different goals begins gathering its own crew of young orogenes—and it has Nassun, who in this volume becomes a character as troubled, complex, and fascinating as her mother. The Stillness and those who dwell there are vividly drawn, and the threats they face are both timely and tangible. Once again Jemisin immerses readers in a complex and intricate world of warring powers, tangled morals, and twisting motivations. 
I am not quite sure why Nassun and Essun have to be at opposites,with Nassun hating and blaming her mother for everything that has gone wrong in her life (when it's obvious her prejudiced and insane father is really the cause of her childhood trauma, but for some reason she doesn't want to believe that) when their goal is, in the end, the same...to get the moon back into a stable orbit around the planet and thus end the "seasons" that are killing mankind. But Nassun seems to be in dire need of parental love, so she clutches at the "unconditional love" of a ruthless guardian who once abused her mother and killed many orogene children in his quest for domination and power. Meanwhile, Essun is living inside a giant geode, and dealing with all the political and moral problems that come with any community of people with different backgrounds and levels of power. I was glad that that old bastard Alabaster died, because, despite the author obviously wanting readers to see him in a sympathetic light, I never could stand the man. He was selfish, egotistical and, like everyone else in these books, wants to blame all of his problems on Essun, without taking any responsibility for all the things he's done to put her in an untenable position. Though these novels veer too far into the horror genre for my taste (lots of blood and gore, killing of children, lots of creepy critters who can do horrible things to kill humans), the prose is stunning and the plots move along at an almost military clip. Jemisin's storytelling powers are in full swing here, and with all that is currently happening in our world with climate change and the death of animal species and fouling of air and water, I fear that her science fictional dystopia isn't that far off in our reality. Chilling though it may be, this novel deserves an A, and a recommendation to anyone who read the first book in the series. 

Merry Christmas to all my readers, and a Happy 2018 full of good books and good times!