Friday, December 25, 2009

Lit Crit at Christmas

Merry Christmas bibliophiles!

I finished two books yesterday, "The Birth of Venus" by Sarah Dunant and "The French Gardener" by Santa Montefiore.

I picked up a copy of Dunant's "Birth of Venus" and "In the Company of the Courtesan" before Thanksgiving, and was going to just add them to my TBR stack and get to them later, when I happened upon the Queen of the Seattle book scene, Nancy Pearl, interviewing Dunant at University (of Washington) Bookstore, and I was glued to my seat for the next 30 minutes. Dunant is a fascinating British woman who does extensive research and has a unique POV in all her novels, particularly the four book set that she began with "Birth of Venus." Apparently she wanted to have her novels speak not only from a woman's point of view, but also from the inside of convents in Italy and France that were stuffed full of women and girls who were required to be there because they were unmarriagable, poor, widowed or disgraced.
Once I began reading Birth of Venus I realized I'd read it before, and I don't recall if I liked it or not, but this time, I really enjoyed the story, the setting of Medici Florence (in the 15th century)and the protagonist, willful artistic genius Alessandra Cecchi. Alessandra is a child of the Renaissance, and loves to draw and paint, but though she is educated and the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant, she is still proscribed in what is allowed of her, and painting/artistry as a career is only allowed for men and boys. She is expected to marry and produce children and run a household. Unfortunately, Alessandra has two brothers, one a cruel and vituperative gay man, and the other a dolt who loves to fight and kill. When a former monk turned painter is hired by her father to paint the family chapel, Alessandra is fascinated by him,and tries to get him to help her learn to be an artist.
Her brother, noticing that his sister strains at her bonds of staying virginal and in the household at all times, sets her up with his lover, and after the two marry Alessandra realizes that she is being used to keep her brothers lover from being arrested by the religious fanatics and tortured into confession of his 'sin' of being a homosexual. Christoforo, her husband, only has sex with her to procure an heir, and Alessandra soon finds herself in need of something more in her relationship. After rescuing her family's painter from a deep depression, she has sex with him and becomes pregnant, but isn't sure if her child is the painters or her husbands.
Soon after her evil brother is arrested, her husband pays to rescue him, fakes his own death and runs away with her brother (who now has a kind of plague)and Alessandra is forced to move into a convent with her slave Erila and her daughter. The painter finds her, makes love to her many more times and tattoos her body with a large serpent which winds down from her shoulder to her pubic area. She has her servant Erila brew her a concoction to allow her death, and she fakes using a pigs bladder full of offal as a breast cancer tumor to help others believe that this is why she died.
I found the book riveting reading, staying up until 1 am to finish it. Dunant's prose is complex and rich with images that make you feel like you are right there in Florence, watching them burn paintings and gowns and other items believed to be too showy and not pious enough for the current political/social climate. Like most British authors, she can go overboard on the details, but Dunant only strays into the minutia a few times, thankfully.
I would recommend this book to anyone who finds stories of women in art, women in history and women in religious communities interesting. It certainly beats the skirts off of most "chick lit" novels.
This brings us to The French Gardener, which was an impulse buy from the library book cart. The author is also British, but is not of the same calibre as Dunant.
Miranda and David Claybourne are successful Londoners, with two children, Gus and Storm, who purchase a country estate that is in near ruins. Miranda is a freelance writer who yearns to be a novelist (she constantly complains that writing articles is soulless and unworthy of her talent as a writer, because we all know that writing for magazines and newspapers doesn't make you a real writer, only a fictional novel can do that, right?) and doesn't see much of her lawyer/banker husband, because he's got a mistress (her best friend, but she doesn't know that) that he's keeping on the side while both parents ignore their children, who are in turn sullen bullies due to lack of parental guidance or attention.
The first 80 pages of this novel goes into detail of the lives of these awful people, who are all shallow, cruel and stupid. I was ready to throw the book against the wall and call it a day, when the author introduced the character of the French gardener, a man named Jean Paul, who came to work for the Claybournes because of his history with the estate, and his illicit relationship with the previous owner's wife, Ava. We learn, though Miranda's reading of Ava's journal and scrapbook, that Jean Paul had come to their estate at the behest of his father, who wanted him to gain wisdom and maturity, as well as gardening skills, so that one day he might take over his family's vineyard in France. Ava, who is happily married to a man much older than she is, (and who has three children) teaches Jean Paul about the magic of gardening and helping things to grow, and in so doing, Jean Paul falls in love with her and eventually wears down her resistance to a physical relationship. Ava realizes she can never give JP what he really wants, which is a full marriage, because she still loves her husband and children, and when her husband has a stroke, she moves away with her family and leaves JP unsuspecting that she is pregnant with his child (whom she names Peach, which borders on the precious and silly). Miranda learns of all this, eventually weaning herself away from her expensive and glamorous London lifestyle, and after befriending some of the locals, embarks on her novel, telling the story of Ava and JP. She also comes to realize how neglected her children are, once she sees how carefully and lovingly JP takes them in hand, building them a tree house, teaching them to plant and grow a garden and generally giving them the time and attention they seem to crave. Once the children begin to turn around in their attitudes, so does Miranda, and once she realizes her husband is having an affair, she bans him and her vulgar best friend from the estate. David Claybourne is mortified when he realizes he's lost his family for a cheap and sleazy affair that meant nothing to him, and he begs to be given a second chance.
Here is where the novel veers off into extreme fantasy, in my opinion. I find it hard to believe that a wealthy snob like David who thoroughly enjoyed having his cake and eating it too would give a rats rump about his wife and children, when he's been virtually ignoring them for years. Just because he has been exposed as a jerk and a cheating heel of a guy doesn't mean he will change his nature overnight, and suddenly become a loving husband and father. Nor does it mean his wife and children will just accept him as that, when they've all been shown what an asshat the man is over the years. I felt that Miranda and her children were much better off without David, who I really though deserved to wither and die alone somewhere after making such a mess of his life. However, with that kind of shallow person, it seems doubtful that is what he'd do...more likely he'd mess around with dozens of women and enjoy the life of a sleazy divorced businessman. He didn't seem to see women as anything but possessions anyway, something he felt he 'deserved' as part of his success. So the ending when they're all back together as a family and happy seemed far fetched to me. Poor old JP learns that the love of his life, whom he's waited for, died without telling him about his daughter, but he meets her and is enchanted by her in the end, and takes her back to his estate in France. Still, it seemed like JP got the short end of the stick there. There is a nice secondary storyline with a pudgy townswoman named Henrietta who learns to love herself just as she is, and gets the local farmer falling for her in the bargain, which is charming, but all too brief.
I'd give this novel a solid B grade, though I am tempted to add a minus for those first onerous 80 pages.
Fortunately, for Christmas I got a copy of Jennie Shortridge's "When She Flew" which I plan on delving into immediately, along with Dunant's second novel, "In the Company of the Courtesan."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Seattle is the Most Literate City in America, Again!

This is from Shelf Awareness and USA Today newspaper:
Seattle has once again topped the list of America's most literate
cities, but this year Washington, D.C., edged traditional literate city
powerhouse Minneapolis as a surprise runner-up. The annual study by Jack
Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University, "focuses on
six indicators: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library
resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment and
Internet resources,"

Seattle tops list of literate cities

By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
Cities where lots of people read also tend to feature a vibrant singles' scene, a study suggests. It finds that Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta boast high rankings both as "literate cities" and as places for single people to live.

The study is by Jack Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn., who for seven years has compiled the literate-cities list. It focuses on six indicators: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment and Internet resources.

Seattle and Minneapolis have typically traded the top two spots, and this year Seattle comes in first. But Washington, D.C., edged Minneapolis out for of the No. 2 spot.

This year, Miller correlated results with rankings based on other surveys by Forbes, Bert Sperling's BestPlaces, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and American City Business Journals.

Among findings, top literate cities also:

•Tend to offer the most active singles' scenes: Boston, Seattle, Washington, and Atlanta

•Are safer: Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle, Portland, Denver and Cincinnati

•Are more walkable: Seattle, Washington, D.C., Portland, Boston and Denver

•Are healthier: Washington, D.C., and Denver

But Miller also found that these cities are not immune to hard times. Only Washington had relatively low unemployment.

For more on the findings, go to

America's most literate cities for 2009:

1) Seattle
2) Washington
3) Minneapolis
4) Pittsburgh
5) Atlanta
6) Portland, Ore.
7) St. Paul
8) Boston
9) Cincinnati
10) Denver

I loved the movie "Rain Man" with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, as I found it to be tender and wise, something that doesn't often happen in movies today.
Sadly, the original "Rain Man" has died, but the movie and the actor who played him had a profound effect on his life. Hurrah for the effect of art to change lives!
This is from MediaBistros FishBowl LA Blog:

The Real Rain Man Has Died
By Pandora Young on Dec 22, 2009 03:38 AM

Kim Peek, the mentally disabled savant who inspired the Oscar-winning film "Rain Man," died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 58.
Peek was a mega-savant with the ability to recall 98 percent of everything he read, saw or heard. Peek's remarkable mental abilities left such an impression on screenwriter Barry Morrow that he was inspired to write the movie "Rain Man." The film, while fiction, significantly raised public awareness of Autism, Savant syndrome, and mental disabilities.
The film was beneficial for the deeply introverted Peek as well, helping him learn new social skills. From the Times Online:
It was not until he met Dustin Hoffman, when the Hollywood star was researching his role in "Rain Man", that he could look into another person's face. He was 37 at the time.

Dustin Hoffman advised Fran Peek not to hide his son away. Mr Peek said of that meeting: "Dustin Hoffman said to me, you have to promise me one thing about this guy, share him with the world. And pretty soon it got so that nobody was a stranger to him, they were people, and so was he".
He took Hoffman's advice, putting his son on stage in front of thousands of people for whom he answered, almost always correctly, the most obscure questions they could test him with.
He thrived on his new found fame. Mr Morrow said of him: "I love the way he's flowered, it belies the myth that people don't change, especially people with developmental disabilities."
Four years before his death, Mr Peek said: "I wasn't supposed to make it past about 14, and yet here I am at 54, a celebrity!"

And finally, the Couth Buzzard Used Bookstore, a haunt of mine for 10 years when we first moved to Seattle and lived in Phinney Ridge and Ballard, closed down last year to much sorrow and protest by locals who had loved the 30 year old store.
Fortunately, a young man named Theo bought the store and its contents and is reopening on Greenwood and 83rd, just down the road from the original location in January, 2010.
This is heartening news for booklovers in the Seattle area, because the best book bargains were always to be found at the Buzzard, along with some great conversation, and now you can get a cuppa joe there as well!

This is from an email I got from the owners:
Greetings Friends of Couth Buzzard Espresso Buono Cafe.
Well, the New Couth Buzzard Books Espresso Buono Cafe had a week exceeding our expectations! A special thanks to all our old and new friends who came by.

And, our Grand Opening Party is Saturday, January 9th all day. Food, Fun Entertainment. Come on by and check out our new digs. Let me know if you can help, or if you want to do a little performing.
Theo, Penny and Gerry

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Afternoons With Emily by Rose MacMurray

First, a brief appeared today in Shelf Awareness about Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle:

Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle, Wash., has found space in the Capitol
Hill neighborhood and will move from Pioneer Square next spring,
according to a letter from owner Peter Aaron on the store's website

The new space has slightly more selling space than the store's current
location, will have a cafe and offers ample parking below street level
and in a nearby parking lot. The building, which dates from 1918, "has
the fir floor--complete with creaks--we're used to treading, and
gorgeous high wood ceiling--including massive wood beams--and
skylights," Aaron wrote. "While no space could exactly duplicate the
charm of the original store, I can promise that the new building will
offer a warm, comfortable and cozy environment that will be true to the
beautiful place Walter Carr founded on Main Street."

He added: "When I first became involved in the ownership of Elliott Bay
eleven years ago, it was because I believed fervently that this gem,
which had been 'my' bookstore since I first moved here twenty-seven
years ago, was worth saving--that it was a precious asset that must and,
in fact, could flourish in this city--if anywhere on earth. Since that
time I have done my best to be a faithful steward in preserving both the
spirit and the body of this unique place which has been built and
nourished cooperatively by the generations of booksellers who have
worked here over the years and the book-lovers who have supported
us--here in Seattle, across the country and indeed around the world. I'm
inexpressibly grateful for that ongoing support--and most especially for
the outpouring of concern and commitment we've received in recent
months. We're committed to doing everything in our power to continue to
earn your patronage and support."

I must note that now I will have no reason to visit Pioneer Square, as that store was a landmark and the only reason the 25 mile trip was worthwhile, really. Now that area is going to become just another corridor of cheap and scuzzy bars surrounded by the bums and panhandlers that sleep at the mission and then try to get enough together to buy booze and get drunk or buy drugs and get high.
Capitol Hill already HAS bookstores, and it is notorious for being bereft of parking, day or night. Cap Hill also has a well deserved reputation as a gay and lesbian enclave, (and that is fine, really, I have no problem with the GLBT community) and a haven for 'wierd' people and strange restaurants. It's not considered a family-oriented place, so, as a woman with a family, I don't bother to go there often, though when Jim and I first moved here, we did visit Capitol Hill for their Japanese noodle houses. Yet I think that Elliott Bay has shot themselves in the foot, and I don't believe their business will thrive when transplanted to the funky soil of Cap Hill. But I wish them good luck with the move, regardless.

I bought Afternoons With Emily on a whim, mainly because of the lovely Victorian art cover and the back flap blurb that mentioned that the author, Rose MacMurray died unexpectedly after finishing the manuscript of this book, and her family had it published for her posthumously. I am a sucker for a publishing sob story, so I had to buy this book.
Fortunately, the book lives up to its cover and its author with a fine, if somewhat melodramatic story, fascinating characters and rich prose sprinkled with the luscious poetry of Emily Dickenson.
It should be noted that Ms MacMurray was a well-educated woman who studied Emily Dickenson's life and poetry for many years before writing this work of fiction.
That kind of dedicated research informs every page of the novel, making all the characters seem real and well-fleshed-out.
The story's main protagonist is Miranda Chase, a young girl whose mother dies of TB and leaves her with an absent-minded professor father who hasn't a clue how to parent a little girl, and is selfish and arrogant enough not to care. Following the death of her mother, Miranda and her father move to a sugar plantation on Barbados for a year, where Miranda learns a great deal from the natives and finds out that her mothers insistence that she, too, had "consumptive lungs" is a lie, and that she is actually hale and healthy. Miranda's father wins a position in classics at Amherst College, and the two move to Amherst, Massachusetts, where they will live with Miranda's Aunt Helen and next door to the town's founding family, the Dickensons.
Miranda learns that Emily Dickenson, the genius poet of the family, is a recluse and rarely allows anyone to see her, as all her relationships are maintained via letter writing.
However, once Emily hears that a teenaged Miranda has told the local reverend that she prefers Zeus to Jesus, she insists that Miranda come to call upon her, and therein starts a riveting relationship. Miranda initially comes to visit Emily every Monday, but as she grows and her lifes work takes shape, Emily's attitude toward Miranda becomes less that of a friend and mentor/teacher, and more of a Svengali who is cruelly possessive and wishes to shape Miranda's life to be exactly like her own.
For example, when Miranda's cousin Kate dies right after Miranda has lost her fiance to the Civil War, Emily writes her comforting poetry and is sympathetic to a point. Yet once Miranda brings home her cousins daughter to raise as her own, and falls in love with her fiance's trust lawyer, Emily seems consumed by jealousy and rage, and works to undermine Miranda's life and love.
Though we see many bits of Emily Dickensons poetry, readers are allowed to see that Dickenson's immaturity and bizarre mental state often lead her to produce works that were not great, and her pride kept her from allowing any famed publishers of the time to edit her work. Here we see that high intelligence and insanity really are flip sides of the same coin.
I enjoyed this book, though it became something of a treatise on the rights of women in the 19th century, and the serious lack of quality early childhood education, which Miranda tries to rectify by creating a montessori-style kindergarten in New York and Amherst. I would have appreciated more of Emily's daily life and less of Miranda's, because Emily was a real person and Miranda was not.I would have liked to have known, for example, which of Emily's mentors finally persuaded her to publish, and if they were able to edit her work, and what happened to all the poems Emily sent to her relatives and friends--were they published posthumously? Also, the fate of Emily's sister Lavinia and her mother are never brought to light.
Still, the love story of Miranda and Roger was nicely done, and the HEA ending wasn't amiss.
I recommend this book to all who are fans of Emily Dickenson's poetry, those who are interested in how people lived during the Civil War era and those who appreciate a good historically-accurate romance.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe by Jennie Shortridge

Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe is a charming novel, set in Fremont, Washington, the so-called "Center of the Universe" as claimed by the eclectic residents of this funky, offbeat village about 10 miles from downtown Seattle.
Having lived nearby in Phinney Ridge, which is cheek and jowl with Fremont,as I read the book I could see the statues that the residents dress up at the bus stop (It is officially called "Waiting for the InterUrban", and people dress the figures in everything from Husky gear to ballerina outfits for is always a comedic sight) and the famed Fremont Troll, as well as the statue of Lenin that competes with the rocket sticking out of a building as one of the largest oddities in the area. I found myself recalling the evening that Blue C Sushi opened in Fremont, and my family were allowed front row seats for the event, because I had interviewed the owner, a Mercer Island resident, for the Mercer Island Reporter. Somehow the kaiten sushi going by on its little conveyor belt seemed to fit in perfectly with the odd nature of the Fremont neighborhood. I also interviewed the drawbridge operators, and always enjoyed their neon-light Rapunzel in the window of one of the towers, so I was gratified to read that the protagonist of the book found it charming as well.
There is something so satisfying about reading a fictional character's fresh view of a familiar place.
Love and about middle aged Mira Serafino, an "obedient daughter, supermom, loyal wife" and all-around 'good girl' who discovers that her husband of many years has been having feelings for another woman, though, other than a kiss, he's not really acted on them yet.
This sends Mira into a tailspin, in which she flees from her hometown of Pacifica, Oregon to Fremont, Washington, only stopping when her car breaks down in Seattle.
Mira is one of those annoying women who believe they can control everything and everyone around them to be 'perfect' or at least her ideal of perfection. She is also used to having her relatives tell her what to do instead of handling situations herself. Mira's not too good at dealing with crisis situations, or dealing with her own emotions, desires and her own failures. Her daughter can barely stand talking to her, because she feels her mothers lack of dealing with the 'real world' full of imperfection and ugliness. Her husband, though we really hear little from him throughout the book, seems to also feel that there is a wall separating the real Mira, the human being with emotions and desires, from him as well.
Though her nonna (grandmother) and father all counsel her to forgive her husband and return to her family, Mira decides to 'find herself' by staying in Fremont, cutting her hair, wearing more youthful clothing, smoking pot, and having sex with a younger guy that she barely knows. Mira also takes over a coffee shop called "The Center of the Universe" where she works to 'fix' the shop and fires those who are slacking off or irresponsible, such as the owners thieving girlfriend.
For an Italian woman, I found Mira to be somewhat wimpy at the outset of the novel...she didn't seem able to handle anything that she couldn't control into being 'perfect.' I knew that things would blow up on her because it is inevitable--life is messy and perfectionists are always fighting a losing battle.
Yet I enjoyed watching Mira make realizations about herself, her desire to be seen as a sexual being, her letting things go instead of fretting over them with such vigor, and her growing understanding of the truism that the only person you need to worry about making happy is yourself, and everything else will fall into place. I thought she fell into bed with another man all too quickly, especially considering she was still married and still felt she loved her husband, but somehow Mira needed that sexual reawakening to learn about herself and her needs, which had been subjugated to her family's needs for years. Shortridge makes a good point here, by showing how invisible women in their 40s become, how taken for granted they are by their families and friends. By moving away from her obnoxious daughter, for example, Thea now has to make some realizations of her own, and deal with the consequences of her choice of career. Everyone learns, and grows, just by having one stable person throw a monkey wrench into their lives by leaving town.
Shortridge's prose is like Italian wedding soup--rich and delicious, with lots of meatballs to keep it interesting. Her plot starts at a languid pace but develops a nice brisk rhythm by the 50th page, and never lets up after that. Her characters are so well drawn they seem real, and you find yourself wanting to give Mira a hug about every other page.
I thoroughly enjoyed the quirky atmosphere of the book, and the insights into female midlife crisis. Fair warning, you won't get away from this novel without some thoughts being provoked. You'll also be charmed and aggravated and fall in love with the wonderful characters. I know that I did, and I heartily recommend this book to women who enjoy chick lit and book groups looking for something with a few meatballs of wit and wisdom to chew on.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Biggest Problem Non Fiction Writers Face Today

I don't normally post discussions about my 24 year career as a writer/reporter, but I am making an exception because there is a heinous problem for non fiction writers that has reached epidemic proportions during the past two years of economic crisis.

The problem is that there are web sites, email newsletters, and other print and digital venues that are scamming writers by offering them jobs or projects that pay a dollar an hour or less. Some are paying $10 per article, or $15, but those people are asking for research and rewriting for free, even as they want to pay this paltry amount for the high quality content they say they require.

As newspapers and magazines close or strip down their staff to the bone, journalists like myself are finding it nearly impossible to make a living doing what we love and were trained to do. Add to that the rise of these lowball publishers and outright scammers, like, (which pays per click, so most writers make a few dollars per article, at most) and what you are left with is writers having to change careers or work menial jobs just to get by, because they can't bring in enough money to pay bills or mortgage or car payments by working for pennies or a couple of dollars for hours of research and writing. At least most menial jobs pay minimum wage, which is over 8 dollars an hour here in Washington state.

Unfortunately, too many young "newbie" writers or gullible writers are willing to work for next to nothing so they can say they have online 'clips' for publishers to view. Really, though, most publishers who pay decently are not going to be trolling these scam web sites for writing talent, because they already have piles of resumes from qualified writers that they can delve into and know that they are getting quality writing for their money. "Exposure" on these sites doesn't really pay the bills or help the writer at all.

I recently read an article in the email newsletter Writer's Weekly from a woman who was determined to stand up to these "mill" sites that use up writers crazy enough to fall for their scam, and leave them burned out and impoverished. I responded to the author of the article that I am with her in boycotting these sites and demanding decent pay for writers hard work. My letter was published in this weeks Writer's Weekly in the "Letters to the Editor" section, at

Today I got an email from the Women in Digital Journalism site that pointed me to an article by Carol Tice, about the reasons why she refuses to write for chump change, too. I couldn't agree more with her reasoning.

Here's the URL to the article, and an excerpt:

7 Reasons Why I Won't Write A $15 Blog

1. I'd rather quit writing. If that's all I'm going to make, I'd rather go out on the lawn and play Frisbee with my kids. They'll only be young once. If I can't really pay the bills writing, I should pack it in and enjoy life.

2. I won't be part of the problem. I won't contribute to the current downward spiral in pay rates by accepting insulting pay. If I accept this kind of work, it reinforces the idea that high-quality content on specialized topics can be obtained from professional writers at one-tenth or less of what was, until recently, market rates. I refuse to be part of the problem.

3. Low paying work begets more low-paying work. Say I worked for this legal content sweatshop, and managed to convince one of their clients to work for me directly. Even if the connection helped me land other clients and I cut out the middleman, I'm doubtful the wages would be appropriate. Any client I got through my association with this low-payer would likely also want to pay me joke wages. Once customers have the impression you're cheap, it's hard to convince them that you're not.

4. I'd rather get a day job. At those rates, I could make more money as an assistant manager at a fast-food place, and work on that novel in my off hours. So if it comes to it, I'll do something else to pay the bills. My creativity will be fairly compensated, or I'll earn money another way. I type fast – I have made a living as a secretary in the past, and could again.

5. I want to take a stand. I believe we're at a turning point in the world of online content that requires taking a moral stand. Thousands of scam operators have flooded into the marketplace, hoping to get writers to write for peanuts and then either resell the work for much more, or sell ads against them and make much more, or sell their whole Web site to someone else and make a killing – all off our backs. What they're doing is morally wrong. So my basic sense of decency and justice demands that I resist exploitation. Accepting low-pay assignments may pay a few bills in the short term – emphasis on a few – but in the long term it will foster more exploitation. That's why, for the sake of our vocation's future, it's important to refuse.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Agents and Allie Beckstrom

For those who are looking for an agent for their book manuscript, there's an article in the most recent issue of Writers Digest that gives out the names and addresses of agents who are looking for authors.
Here's the link:

This morning I finished the latest Allie Beckstrom novel, Magic in the Shadows by Devon Monk, and found it to be even more of a fast ride through enchanted Portland, Oregon, than the last book.
Monk has created a protagonist who is the female version of Harry Dresden of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Allie Beckstrom is a tall, strong, brave, stubborn and fiesty gal who has strong values and talents and seems to always get herself into trouble because of it, just like Harry Dresden, Chicago wizard extraordinaire. Also like Dresden, Beckstrom is a rebel, leaving her family and going her own way despite the strictures of the local magicians union, called The Authority (In Dresden's world it is called The White Council). Harry Dresden is a very powerful wizard who tends to get beat the hell out of on a regular basis in defense of others, as does Allie Beckstrom, who has the rare ability to hold magic within herself and use it to do everything from 'hound' out who created a given spell to opening a gate between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Harry Dresden had to put up with the ghost of a Roman magician/fallen angel in his head who nearly drove him crazy, and in this third installment of the "Magic in the" series, Allie Beckstrom has to deal with her father's ghost in her head,(Daniel Beckstrom was a powerful magician and ruthless businessman who was estranged from his daughter) and try to keep him from taking over her body and using her to make himself immortal, find his killer and retrieve some magical discs that have been stolen and are being used with death magic for revenge.
Unlike Harry Dresden, Allie has a lover/soul mate named Zayvion Jones, a powerful magician who is a guardian/closer and a high ranking member of the Authority. In this book Zayvion is required to pit himself against Allie to test her for membership in the Authority. Unfortunately, the price of not passing the test is to have your memories and your magic 'closed' and removed forever. Meanwhile, Allie's best friend Nora develops a relationship with Stotts, the policeman in charge of MERC, a magical arm of the law, and Allie gets a stone dog/gargoyle as a companion after she sets it free of magical influence at a restaurant. The gargoyle, named Stone, is as fiercely protective of Allie as Mouse, Dresden's Foo dog is of him.
Throughout Magic in the Shadows, horrible magic-sucking, murderous creatures and the Veiled are on the loose, and Allie has to try and help contain or rid the city of them, as well as deal with the alliance of Hounds that she's been charged with heading up after the death of their original leader in the previous book. This was reminiscent of Harry Dresden teaching his best friends (and guardian angel) wizard daughter as an apprentice because she will be a harm to others if she isn't trained. Allie also has problems with cell phones and computers, like Dresden she tends to fry them, and she prefers living in the working-class part of town, eschewing the finery she could easily afford as her father's heir.
I was glad to read that Allie is going to learn martial arts so she can better defend herself against the bad guys/ghosts/ghouls out there, but I believe this will make her even more like Harry Dresden, who is trained in martial arts and the use of his staff as a bo-staff.
Still, I enjoy Allie Beckstrom's world, her refusal to be molded to what others want her to be, and her beautiful meshing of heart/soul/magic with Zayvion, who provides a perfectly calm counterpart to Allies chaoes. I can't wait for the next installment of this series, due out in the spring of next year.
I recommend this series for those who love Harry Dresden type of fantasy novels, with clear heroes and heroines, and lots of magic and mayhem.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

For Sale: Bibliophile Astrology

I've decided to combine my passion for books with my ability to write fun and entertaining astrology columns for specific audiences.

So I'm launching Bibliophile's Astrology, a column about the signs of the zodiac that specifically targets book lovers, librarians, bookstore owners and bibliophiles.

I'm open to ideas of where to send queries about my column, which magazines, email newsletters or web sites that need a fun, positive book lovers column to spice things up a bit. Please let me know if you have the email address of the editor or big cheese of that magazine or email newsletter, so I can send off a query ASAP. The column will be inexpensive and fun and will captivate readers and those who support them alike.

Thanks to all who want to help!

Yours in astrological book blogging,

Monday, November 09, 2009

Four books in 2 weeks

I just finished four books, plus one I'm not really going to dwell on here.
Fledgling by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller was a delight, with their usual intricate plots and insanely fascinating characters from the Liaden Universe.
This particular story was about a teenager named Theo Waitley who is, as are most teens, trying to get her bearings both physically and mentally, while struggling for independence from her mother and yearning for time with her father. I enjoyed Theo's journey and that of her mother somewhat less so, as Kamele, who is a professor, is something of a cold fish toward her offspring, while Jen Sar, Theos father, seems much more compassionate, kind and understanding. The story will continue in Saltation, which is set to come out next year, and I look forward to reading it once it hits the shelves of my local branch of KCLS.
I also read the second in Devon Monk's "Magic" series, Magic in the Blood, which had an even crankier Allie in it than Magic in the Bone. Fortunately, we do see the return of the delicious Zayvion Jones, hottie magic man who smells of mint, and we see even more of the unsavory side of magic use and repurcussions, as an insane doctor uses Allie's dead father to try and suck the magic power from a host of young girls he's kidnapped for that purpose. Allie does her best to stop him, but in so doing encounters possession by the shade of her evil father, who was a ruthless businessman, and a lousy parent. I look forward to reading the third book in the series, if only to see how Allie gets her dead Da out of her head.
The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes by Jennifer Cruisie and two other authors, was a joy of a book to read, though it was yet another retelling of the Witches of Eastwick with a bit of the TV show "Charmed" thrown in for fun. No one can replicate the fine prose of John Updyke, of course, but the authors of Miss Fortunes managed to update it with a light and frothy touch, lots of hot romance and a satisfying storyline.
Today I finished Call of the Highland Moon by Kendra Leigh Castle, and though I enjoyed the steamy scenes with Carly and Guideon, I found myself wishing that there were more of them, and less of the self doubt, the lying and breaking up and getting back together bits, and more dealing with the paranormal aspect of falling in love with a werewolf stuff. But as paranormal romances go, it was a pretty decent read, though I winced at the use of the traditional "petite blonde who is fiesty yet ultra-feminine and sexy" protagonist, paired with the big hulking Scotsman who is totally enchanted with wee blondie the minute he sees her, and of course she can barely suppress her lust for his throbbing manliness from the moment he uses his husky Scottish accent on her. Insert eye roll here. I wish romance novelists would jettison the stereotypes and cliches. Still, this was a fun novel to read, the plot was swift and sure, and the line between good and evil clearly delineated.
I picked up a rather formulaic novel by Katherine Stone called "The Other Twin" that I read and didn't enjoy, so I will just note here that it was read, and leave it at that.
Now, I am on to Wen Spencer's "Tinker" which should prove to be interesting, as the last book I read by this author had the usual gender stereotypes reversed. I hope this book proves to be equally as inventive.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

An Atrocity of a Best Books List from Publishers Weekly

This blog post was written by Kamy Wicoff of, and I had to post it here, as I was so appalled by Publishers Weekly I could barely see!

Wow, did I feel good yesterday. 5000 women writers here. A depth and breadth of talent that takes my breath away. We write fiction, we write memoir, we write scifi; we are bestsellers, we are award winners, we are just starting out; we are working hard, we are writing well; we are...not as good at it as men are.

Or at least that seems to be the opinion of Publishers' Weekly, which published its "Best Books of 2009" list on November 2nd and could not see its way to including a single book by a woman without destroying its integrity or betraying its unassailable good taste. Apparently books by women just aren't as good. Sorry, girls! Poor PW, they felt really badly about it. According to the novelist and journalist Louisa Ermelino, the editors at PW bent over backwards to be objective as they chose the Best Books of the year. "We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the 'big' books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male."

It "disturbed" you? In what way exactly? Like, did it make you think, "we are insane?" Try to imagine if they had come out with a list of the Best Books of 2009 and it had included ZERO MEN. Try to imagine if Amazon had released its Best Books of 2009 and it had included only TWO men. I know it's hard. But just try.

And in case you think ALL men got the star treatment from PW, you should also know that only ONE of the men on the list isn't a white dude. Naturally he is the dude on the cover. (More on that in a post to come.)

I have never felt clearer about why I started She Writes. It is time to start making our own lists. On that note I am issuing our first She Writes call to action. Tell us what YOU believe are the top ten best books of 2009 thus far. Written by men or women, please -- fiction or nonfiction. Be as objective as you can, with the awareness that lists of the "best" anything are subjective in the end. We are not trying to generate a list of books only by women. I'm guessing there will be some overlap with the lists Amazon and PW put together. I am also guessing we will somehow, some way, find a book or two by a woman that can stand on its own two feet.

Click here to give us your list of the Top Ten Best Books of 2009.

We will announce our She Writes Top Ten list two weeks from today.

In the meantime, I will be featuring posts from our membership on this subject. Please feel free to share your lists and alert me when you do. Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu, co-founders of the much needed new literary organization WILLA (Women in Letters and Literary Arts), will be discussing their reaction to PW's list (and Amazon's) in a conversation we will post on She Writes in the next few days.

A parting thought: my friend and colleague Gloria Feldt, who also happens to be one of the most inspiring and important thought-leaders on women and leadership in the country, likes to cite a pair of statistics that speak volumes: women make 85% of the consumer buying decisions in this country; women are 17% of Congress.

Here's another one for you: 65% of books sold in the U.S. are purchased by women; women wrote 0% of the Best Books of 2009. Really?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Skin Game by Ava Gray

This is Ann Aguirre, writing as Ava Gray's latest book, coming out tomorrow.
Here's the blurb and the gorgeous cover shot:

SKIN GAME by Ava Gray
Berkley Sensation (November 3, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0425231534
ISBN-13: 978-0425231531

A beautiful fugitive—wanted dead or alive.
Kyra is a con woman and a particular kind of thief. She steals with a touch, but she only takes one thing: her target’s strongest skill. Which means she can be a fighter, an athlete, a musician, an artist—anything she wants… for a limited time. Heartbroken, she turns her gift toward avenging her father’s murder; with deadly patience, Kyra works her way into casino owner Gerard Serrano’s inner circle. After pulling off the ultimate con, she flees with his money and his pride.

A hit man who never misses the mark.
Reyes has nothing but his work. Pity for Kyra, he’s the best and mercy never sways him once he takes a job. He’s been hired to find out where Kyra hid the cash—and bring her back to face Serrano’s “justice.” Dead will do, if he can’t locate the loot. He’s never failed to complete a contract, but Kyra tempts him with her fierce heat and her outlaw heart. So Reyes has a hell of a choice: forsake his word or kill the woman he might love.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Burgeoning TBR Stacks

Since I've been to three book sales in recent weeks, I've added to my To Be Read (TBR) stacks, until now I have three of them, containing about 60 books total.
On top of that, I have two library books that I've just finished, both of which need to be reviewed here so I can turn them back in at the Maple Valley Library.

Here's the list of what is looming in my stacks, threatening to topple over on me while I sit at my computer and type. The first two listed are the library books I've completed.

1) Fledgling by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
2) Magic in the Blood by Devon Monk
3) Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
4) Patches of Godlight by Jan Karon
5) Don't Count the Candles, Just Keep the Fire Lit by Joan Rivers
6) The Other Twin by Katherine Stone
7) The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
8) Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
9) Natural Blonde by Liz Smith
10) Treasure Forest by Cat Bordhi
11) Personal Pleasures by Rose Macaulay
12) The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
13) In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
14) Enchanted, Inc by Shanna Swendson
15) One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
16) Body Surfing by Anita Shreve
17) A Thousand Days in Tuscany by Marlena De Blasi
18) Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam
19) Daisy Bates in the Desert by Julia Blackburn
20) The Librarians of Alexandria by Alessandra Lavagnino
21) Darcy's Story by Janet Aylmer
22) Little Pink Slips by Sally Koslow
23) One Sunday Morning by Amy Ephron
24) The Lepers Companions by Julia Blackburn
25) The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman
26) Passion by Jude Morgan
27) Pinkerton's Sister by Peter Rushforth
28) Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott
29) Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach
30) The History of Love by Nicole Kraus
31) My Sherlock Holmes by Michael Kurland
32) There's No Place Like Here By Cecelia Ahern
33) No One Noticed the Cat by Anne McCaffrey
34) Afternoons with Emily by Rose MacMurray
35) Olive Kitteridge By Elizabeth Strout
36) Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
37) The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
38) The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice
39) The Artist's Way at Work by Julia Cameron et al
40) The King of Sword and Sky by CL Wilson
41) The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes by Jennifer Crusie et al
42) Cybele's Secret by Juliet Mariller
43) Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe by Jennie Shortridge
44) If You Could See Me Now by Cecelia Ahern
45) Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
46) An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor
47) The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir
48) The Glory Cloak by Patricia O'Brien
49) The Bride Stone by Tom Williams
50) The Tailors Daughter by Janice Graham
51) Faery Moon by PR Frost
52) The Book of Joby by Mark J Ferrari
53) Icefalcon's Quest by Barbara Hambly
54) Winterlands by Barbara Hambly
55) Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
56) Firebird by Janice Graham
57) The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer
58) The Sex Life of Food by Bunny Crumpacker
59) An Irish Country Village by Patrick Taylor
60) Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O'Brien
61) The Cranberry Queen by Kathleen DeMarco

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Doubleblind by Ann Aguirre

J Young wrote on "Sirantha Jax is finally on Ithiss-Tor, feeling way over her head as an ambassador for the Conglomerate. The Conglomerate needs her to bring the bug-like aliens, the Ithtorians to their side because they need an ally against increased attacks by the Morgut (a species of violent, frenzied eaters that see everyone as food). The Ithtorians are the only species the Morgut have ever respected. A "jumper" and former party-girl, Jax doesn't feel in her element as someone responsible for such an important task, and March, who has always been at her side isn't himself to help her."

That's a nice graph-long summation of the third book in Ann Aquirre's Grimspace series, which began with Grimspace, moved on to Wanderlust and has progressed to Doubleblind.

I enjoyed the first two books in this series mainly because of the extraordinarily well drawn characters and the warp-speed plots that Aguirre crafts effortlessly. My only problem with the first two books were the amount of horrific bloodshed and the swearing, which are mercifully trimmed to a few flashbacks in the third novel.

In Doubleblind, we find Sirantha Jax at a disadvantage, as she's on an alien planet surrounded by giant bugs who find humanity crude, ignorant and disgusting. Add to that her "mouth off and hit first, ask questions later" attitude, and you can almost hear bookies around the universe taking bets on how long before Jax gets herself and her crew incarcerated, exiled or killed.

Fortunately, Jax is at her best under pressure and underestimated, and she comes through in her ambassadorial duties with amazing sang froid. Meanwhile, the love of her life, March, is suffering from a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder, and can't seem to reconnect with Jax at all. Due to her "all or nothing" view of love, however, Jax manages to fix her beloved, just in time for him to be arrested by the Ithtorians. Mayhem ensues, and once again, Jax finds the real perpetrator and saves the day. However, we're left on a cliffhanger that had me yelping "Oh no you didn't!"

I won't spoil it for you by telling you what happens at the end of the book, but suffice it to say that I read this page-turner of an SF novel until the wee hours of the morning, hoping that all the loose ends would be tucked up neatly and I could stop worrying about the fate of the universe. But no, instead I was treated to what can only be described as a hasty retreat. Now I have to wait at least a year for the next installment to find out what happened! Frustrating! Yet for Aguirre and her fine cast of space-faring misfits, I am willing to rein in my impatience and wait. But just this once, Ann! Do you hear me! Get cracking on that manuscript, amiga!

I highly recommend this novel to those who have read Grimspace and Wanderlust. Be prepared to sacrifice your meals, exercise regimen and sleep to finish Doubleblind, is just that good.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Magic to the Bone and Gwenhwyfar

This past weekend I finished reading "Magic to the Bone" by Devon Monk and "Gwenhwyfar" by Mercedes Lackey, mainly because they're library books and I want to get them back as fast as possible for the next person in the hold line to enjoy.

I read an excerpt of Magic to the Bone in a sampler paperback that my friend Renee Stern picked up at a Science Fiction/Fantasy convention last year. Then, a Facebook friend of mine, Phil from the UK, reviewed it favorably on Goodreads, and that was all it took for me to grab a copy from the KCLS web page, ASAP.
Here's a summation of the story:
Allie Beckwith, the estranged daughter of a ruthless and wealthy businessman, lives in a Portland, Oregon that is rife with magic and mayhem. It seems that Magic has 'come out of the closet' and is now regulated and used by everyone for everything from 'influencing' business deals to remaining young looking when past their prime. The problem is, as Allie puts it, "Using magic meant it used you back. Forget the fairy tale, hocus pocus, wave a wand and bling-o, sparkles and pixie dust crap. Magic, like booze, sex and drugs, gave as good as it got."
When anyone uses magic, the price is exacted from the user unless they can offload the cost to someone else, usually an innocent. And the price can range from painful bruises to memory loss, migraines and worse.
Which leads us to Allie's profession; she's a 'hound' or a person who tracks down illegal offloading of magic by identifying the spell caster's signature and then tracking them down and bringing them to justice.
Unfortunately, Allie finds that a young boy has been offloaded nearly to death by her father, or someone duplicating his magic signature, and, once her father is killed, she has to track down the forger and the killer before she herself is 'hounded' to death by a rival hound.
Having been to Portland more than once, I found that I enjoyed reading about a place where I was somewhat familiar with the environment, however, as this is 'urban fantasy' the author focuses on the seedy, ugly and impoverished parts of Portland, and its gritty inhabitants, leaving the reader to think of Portland as a frightening ruin of an urban landscape, which is far from the truth, from what I have seen of the city.
Allie meets up with a man named Zayvion Jones, who is initially hired by her father to keep an eye on her, but becomes her friend and lover as they work together to solve the mystery. I really enjoyed their relationship, and their sharing of power during intimacy. I sincerely hope that Jones and Allie stay partners and keep their relationship going in further books. I found the plot to be well paced and full of turns that I didn't see coming, plus I thought the prose was gritty and workmanlike enough to suit the earthy characters in their tough urban landscape.
The only real problem I had with the book is the same problem I have with Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden and Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse. Monk, like Butcher and Harris, puts her protagonist through the mill, nearly getting her killed at least twice and leaving her battered and bruised at the end of the book. Sadly, Allie also loses memory after she uses magic, and she loses a great deal of her memory of her relationship with Jones, and by the end of the book tries to reboot their relationship after her recovery. That just seemed more than a bit cruel to me, and I wonder if the aforementioned authors have a masochistic streak in them, to allow such noble and good characters to be beaten and bloodied so often. It's as if all three authors are saying "No good deed goes unpunished" or "Those who fight the good fight do not deserve any reward but to still be alive at the end of the fight." I feel these characters deserve more than that, they deserve a happy relationship, time without the weight of the world on their shoulders and more than one or two friends who believe in them and are willing to stand by them during times of crisis. In short, they deserve a break.
Still, I would recommend this urban fantasy novel to those who read Sookie Stackhouse and Harry Dresden novels, as they will find much the same rebelious and heroic protagonist herein, who is stubborn, brave and foolish enough to risk their own lives to save others much less deserving.

Mercedes Lackey's latest foray into the Arthurian legend is also a book about a strong woman warrior who attempts to triumph over the forces of darkness to aid her realm.
Gwenhwyfar is taken from the Welsh legends that say that there were actually three women of that name who wed Arthur, King of the Britons, and that all three ended up in different places after Arthur died of wounds given him by his bastard son, Mordred, or Medraut, as he's called in this version of the tale.
This book tells the story of Arthur's third wife, Gwen, who is a trained warrior, raised as the daughter of a king who was considered a giant, and a mother who was possibly one of the "Folk" or Fae people of Briton.
Gwen has an evil little sister, also named Gwen, but spelled Gwenhwyfach, to signify her status as a year younger than Gwenhwyfar. Though identical in appearance, little Gwen is the darkness of selfish evil to her older sisters bright and honest character.
Little Gwen falls in with Morgana and Morgause and learns to use spells to her advantage while good Gwen becomes a capable commander and soldier in her fathers army.
The knights of the round table come to respect her, and Gwen finds herself falling in love with Lancelin (Lancelot), a relationship that is only consummated in the final chapters of the book.
Though I enjoyed the re-telling of this timeless story of love and loss and a kingdom where justice and fair-minded values reigned, I found that Gwen's own love story taking a backseat to the machinations of the evil characters off-putting, and I wanted more time for the relationship with Lancelin to flourish before it was burned down like a useless building. I also didn't get much of a bead on Arthur as a man or a king, he seemed to be a background character in this tale, though he's supposed to be at the forefront, as it's his legend that remains strongly in the collective unconscious. I realize that in telling the story of the three Gwens, Lackey was trying to highlight the lives of these fascinating women and how they effected the kingdom and the king, but leaving the king as a two dimensional character that doesn't even speak until the final chapters is not giving the story its full due...we can't see why even one Gwen would fall in love with him, let alone three.
Yet again, I would recommend this book to those who enjoy Arthurian legends, though I'd have to warn them that there is precious little about Arthur or Merlin in this book.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Great Idea

"Why do they always name schools after politicians and movie stars? Why
don't they name a school after a teacher?" the late Frank McCourt often
asked. Now his wish may come true. New York
magazine reported Mayor
Michael Bloomberg "is expected to soon announce the creation of the
Frank McCourt High School of Writing, Journalism and Literature, an
application-only high school to open next fall on West 84th Street."

Shortly before his death, McCourt was told that the school project might
happen. According to Tom Allon, a former student, now a teacher, "I
said, 'It's looking very good, Frank, and there's a lot of good will
about it.' He said, 'What an honor. What a great thing that would be.'"

I think this is a great idea, to name schools for writers, but at the same time, I fear that there will be no jobs for those students once they graduate, as journalism is a dying art/skill/career.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What's in my TBR stack

The following is from Shelf Awareness, an email newsletter for the book trade:

"Bookseller, where art thou?" asked Kristina Chetcuti in the Times of
Malta observing: "Unfortunately, bookselling is a dying art. Not only in
Malta, I would say. I think it's the globalisation/chainstore effect.
Instead of personal recommendations we are given bestseller lists which
are almost the same in every shop worldwide. Instead of bookworm
independent booksellers we have stores full of very efficient, polite
salespeople, many of whom are not readers. It's like going to a
beautician and when you lie on the couch you realise she has a thick
dark moustache: however good the service, you want someone who practises
the service they're giving.

"This is my idea of a bookshop: rickety-hickety and with a little bell
which rings when you go in. I know that probably it does not make
business sense, but I know it makes a very harmonious place for the
soul. As Franz Kafka says 'A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas
frozen inside our soul.' How I wish we could stop selling and buying
books from soulless places."

I agree, and wish desperately that I could have an ideal bookshop with a little bell over the doorway.
I've finished a book called "The Tenth Gift" and am currently trying to read "The Earth Hums in B Flat" by Mari Strachan, which is proving to be a difficult task, as the plot is plodding along at a snails pace.

The books languishing in my TBR are:

There's No Place Like Here by Cecelia Ahern
Afternoons With Emily by Rose MacMurray
Cathouse by Dean Ing (I read this book when I lived in Florida)
Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Silent in the Sanctuary by DeAnna Raybourn
An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice
Return to Gone Away by Elizabeth Enright
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe by Jennie Shortridge
Winterlands and IceFalcons Quest by Barbara Hambly
The Sex Life of Food by Bunny Crumpacker
Faery Moon by PR Frost
The Book of Joby by Mark Ferrari
The Winter Rose and The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
The Glory Cloak and Harriett and Isabella by Patricia O'Brien
Cranberry Queen by Kathleen DeMarco
An Irish Country Village and an Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor
Firebird and The Taylors Daughter by Janice Graham
The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir
The Bride Stone by Thomas Williams
King of Sword and Sky by CL Wilson
Cybeles Secret by Juliet Marillier

I've got a few more on stand by in the bathrooms for when Crohns strikes and I need to keep my mind off the pain, but you get the idea.
So what should I start in on next?
It is prime reading weather, with cooler, often rainy days and hot tea and blankets at the ready! I love autumn!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Books and Letters of a Bygone Era

"Any book that is passionate, gorgeously written and afterwards haunting.
If a book isn't all those things, it is, as Willa Cather said, a cereal
box. I want to eat real books."
Kim Addonizio is a fiction writer, poet and teacher

Very true, Kim, who is a writer after my own heart.

I finished re-reading Helene Hanff's marvelous "84 Charing Cross Road" last night and I must note that it stands the test of time brilliantly. I first read the book about 26 years ago, and soon discovered that my best friend Muff Larson was also a fan of Hanffs, mainly because her mother, author Jean Russell Larson, was a correspondent of Hanff's, having started writing letters back and forth years earlier, one author to another.

Soon after, Muff and I began seeking out any of Hanffs books that we could find, and were delighted with each new volume, from "Underfoot in Show Business" to "Q's Legacy." When Helene Hanff passed away in 1997, Muff and I mourned her passing with a re-reading of all the volumes of her work that we could lay hands on, and then spent an evening chatting about them over the telephone.

In 84 Charing Cross Road, Hanff publishes her 20 year correspondence with Frank Doel, an employee of Marks and Company bookstore in England. She regales Doel with her love of non fiction classics and insights into her life as a screenwriter living in New York City, and Doel in turn supplies her with gorgeous copies of books for very low prices that she would be unable to find in the US. He also tells her a bit about life in post WW2 England, with its rations and soforth, and Hanff responds as a true American, by sending packages of meat and eggs, sugar and nylon stockings over the pond to supplement the rations of the bookstore employees and their elderly neighbors.

The long distance friendship that develops between Doel and Hanff is achingly beautiful and poignant, and the funny/tender moments still bring a tear to the eye of the reader, even after multiple readings. I am always stricken, too, by Frank Doels wife Nora's letter to Hanff after his sudden death of a burst appendix, in which she relates that she was somewhat jealous of Hanff and Doels relationship, because her husband loved Hanffs letters, her sense of humor and her book addiction so much.

Amazing, too, is the fact that this kind of letter writing and beautiful English editions of books being shipped to America for a pittance are long gone, a genteel and lovely thing of the past that will only be mourned by bibliophiles of a certain age, who remember reading tomes that were published on creamy paper stock and bound in leather, with fancy flyleaf designs and gilt edges. It is sad that real old English bookshops, like newspaper journalism, have become things of the past, a bygone era and a better time.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Jenna Starborn, Garden Spells and Eating Heaven

I've just finished three novels, Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn, Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, and Eating Heaven by Jennie Shortridge.

Garden Spells is the story of Sydney and Claire Waverley, members of an eccentric Southern family, all of whom have somewhat magical 'talents' and who come to live in an old house with a magical garden and an apple tree that is, for all intents and purposes, sentient. The tree throws apples at people and if one happens to eat an apple from the tree, they are treated to a vision of their future, good or bad.
Because they grew up being "strange" Claire became a hermit and Sydney ran away from her heritage and her past, and got into trouble with a series of evil men. Claire runs a successful catering business, using the magical plants and flowers from her garden, when Sydney comes home with a daughter, fleeing her abusive spouse.
If any of this sounds familiar, it's because this book has plagiarized Alice Hoffman's "Practical Magic" by taking the main premise and the characters, adding a little of this and that, and sending it forth as a chick lit novel. Really, there are no surprises here, and the reader knows by the second chapter that Claire will fall in love with Tyler, the hot new neighbor, and that Sydney will have a showdown with her evil abusive husband, but will be saved by the family's magic tree. Even with such a transparent plot, though, this is an enjoyable read, full of drool-worthy recipe descriptions and foods, as well as information on the 'magic' and healthful properties of plants. So while I wouldn't recommend it to anyone seeking something they can sink their teeth into, I would recommend it to gardeners and folks who appreciate the magical and medicinal properties of plants, and women who like sister romances.

Eating Heaven was written by a Pacific NW author (she lives in Seattle)and reminded me of the parts of "Shes Come Undone" that I liked, which were few, but there. The book is about Eleanor Samuels, a fat freelance journalist who writes diet recipes for magazines. Eleanor, like most fat protagonists in books, has a beast of a mother who is thin, and has harassed her about her weight since childhood, withholding love and support from Eleanor and lavishing it on her slender sisters. Though her father is not a nice man either, Eleanor grows up with the love and support of an "uncle" Benny, a man who has been in their family's life forever, and was, it is understood, her mothers lover.
Uncle Benny becomes ill with cancer, and no one is there to help him but Eleanor, who puts her life on hold to take care of this kind and gentle man, only to discover that he is the keeper of a number of secrets about her life and her mother's life.
{Author's note: Herein begins a rant that points more toward She's Come Undone than Eating Heaven, mainly because Shortridge's protagonist is more believable and a better character than the protagonist of She's Come Undone. I truly believe that Eleanor would have been fine had she not lost weight, but just learned to control her emotional eating, which was her response to the pain and frustration in her life.}
What bothered me about this book was something that bothered me about She's Come Undone, to a lesser extent. The author assumes that all fat women have been abused by their mother or father, and that once they get help from a therapist and are stressed enough to stop overeating and lose weight, their lives are immediately full of purpose, joy, and a life-mate, whom they could not possibly attract while fat.
Fat women, after all, couldn't possibly be sexy or attract a good, handsome, unmarried man, because we all know men eschew fat women as a matter of course.
I call BS on that whole notion, because I know of larger women, myself included, who can and have attracted men for dating, sex and marriage while still being chubby. Sexuality is mostly in the mind anyway, from what I have seen and experienced. If you think you are sexy and you care for yourself, fat and all, you will find someone who agrees with you and wants to have a relationship. Not all men like stick figures in the bedroom...there are many who love curvy and voluptuous women. Fat doesn't automatically equal misery!
{End rant.}
Still, I enjoyed this book for its protagonist, who was a kind and generous soul in a family that had very few such members. She seemed the sanest of the bunch, really, and I loved that she became enamored of a chef who sounds something like Seattle's Tom Douglas, a local chubby celebrity chef whose restaurants and recipes are awesome.
The prose was straightforward and clean, and the plot moved along at a brisk clip, not wandering off the beaten path more than once. The recipes and foodie chat were lots of fun, and though Eleanor is certainly tougher and more able to face the family skeletons than her mother, we see her break down as she deals with uncle Benny's past and her own, and see her emotional triumph over her family's past. I would recommend this book to any woman looking for some insight on being a larger woman, a hospice caregiver and a freelance journalist, which is most women at one time or another. Eating Heaven certainly deserves more credit than She's Come Undone for an authentic heroine. It's a better book all around, in fact, with more realistic and interesting characters and a plot that keeps you turning pages.

Sharon Shinn's Jenna Starborn is a Science Fictional retelling of Jane Eyre, which was, oddly enough, quite engrossing. Jenna is a gen-tank baby commissioned by an evil childless woman who manages to become pregnant and, after producing her own son, has no need or desire to raise Jenna, and so treats her like she's disposable.
Jenna is sent off to a technical school that trains her to be a nuclear engineer, and after teaching at the school for several years, she's called to a planet called Fieldstar, where she is to keep the generators going for a wealthy man named Everett Ravenbeck. Ravenbeck has a child ward, Areletta, who is probably his bastard from a bad liaison. He is also engaged to a wealthy, stupid socialite, and has a secret cyborg wife who has gone insane, locked away in a mining community nearby. Things progress much as they do in the original Jane Eyre, with Jenna learning of the insane cyborg wife only at the final moment as she's about to marry Ravenbeck, and she flees on a hibernation ship to a far-flung planet, where she helps a missionary family who take in people who are new to the planet and have nowhere to go and no skills to start life anew. Jenna discovers that the two women and the man who run this facility are, in fact, tank-generated children from the planet Baldus, just like herself. Soon after, she discovers that the gen-tank facility owner, who has died, has made her his heir, and, though she splits the money between the four of them, she still has enough to buy herself full citizenship (all tank babies are considered half-citizens at birth). The planets have all developed a hierarchy based on wealth and status, the topmost people being first citizens, with lower folk being second or third citizens, or worse, half-citizens. Cyborgs are barely even considered half citizens, apparently, and inevitably, Ravenbecks wife burns down the force field holding out the vacuum of space and kills herself while trying to kill Ravenbeck, who merely loses a hand and his eyesight. Jenna hears of the tragedy and rushes back to Ravenbecks side, where they reconcile, marry and have a child.
The prose is a variation on the stilted and formal British lit style of the Bronte sisters, so it is not a fast read. However, the plot, though derived from a classic, is intriguing and the characters interesting, so much so that I stayed up unto the wee hours reading this book to its conclusion. I would recommend it for Jane Eyre fans, and those who like their chick lit with some added bite and unusual settings.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Naamah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey

First, a bit of truth from Cecelia Ahern, my favorite Irish author:

Bestselling author Cecelia Ahern wrote a letter to booksellers "to woo
them into pushing her new novel. With her baby due in December, Ms.
Ahern will not be able to do a lot of publicity for her new book, The
Book of Tomorrow," the Irish Independent reported.

"I believe in the magic of books," Ahern observed. "I believe that
during certain periods in our lives we are drawn to particular
books--whether it's strolling down the aisles of a bookshop with no idea
whatsoever of what it is that we want to read and suddenly finding the
most perfect, most wonderfully suitable book staring us right in the
face. Unblinking. Or a chance meeting with a stranger or friend who
recommends a book we would never ordinarily reach for. Books have the
ability to find their own way into our lives."

Exactly, Ms Ahern! I have two of her novels awaiting my reading pleasure, "There's No Place Like Here" and "If You Could See Me Now."

I'd like to discuss the last three books I've read, but I want to first list what I am reading now, "Jenna Starborn" by Sharon Shinn and "Garden Spell" by Sarah Addison Allen. Despite the fact that one is science fiction and the other more chick lit, the two books are remarkably similar. Both have heroines who are abused and nearly crushed by parents or spouses or both, and yet they soldier on and try to make a life for themselves once they are away from their abusers. I'm trying to derive inspiration from these women for the hard times we are experiencing right now as a family.

Meanwhile, I've finished reading "Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism" by Georgia Byng, "Princess of the Sword" by Lynn Kurland and "Naamah's Kiss" by Jacqueline Carey.

I had the good fortune to meet Ms Carey several months ago at the University Bookstore. I've already written about it on my blog, so I won't repeat myself, but suffice it to say I wish that I had owned a copy of this book then so I could have had her sign it, and could have explained to her how wonderful it truly was to read her latest work.
"Naamah's Kiss" is so sensual, juicy and delicious a read that I envy those who haven't cracked the book open yet to inhale its contents. The book takes place 100 years after the last of her Kushiel's series, and instead of outlining the lives of Phaedra's decendants, we are treated to follow the life of Moirin, great-grandaughter of Alais the wise, sister to the heir to Ysandra's throne in Terre D'Ange. Moirin is also born into the Maghuin Dhonn, the folk of the bear goddess and the oldest tribe in Alba.Though they used to have great powers, those powers were lost when one of their number broke faith and killed Prince Imriel's wife and unborn child. Still, Moirin can make herself invisible (through a process called "gathering the twilight" which is so lyrical and such a perfect way of putting it that I found myself wanting to applaud Ms Carey for her way with conventions)and can help heal others, as well as removing other's memories from their minds. She can also converse with dragons and is, as a half D'Angeline, an amazing lover and friend who brings healing, hope and love with her use of Naamah's arts.
Moirin sets off under the aegis of not only the bear goddess, but Naamah, and Anael (I don't think I am spelling that right) two of Terre D'Ange's gods, of love and planting, to find her destiny and her father. Though Moirin finds her father, a priest of Naamah who was drawn to her mother for one night, she discovers that her soul tells her that her destiny lies toward the East, to China, where she travels with a Master and his apprentice to help a Chinese princess who has been possessed by a dragon.
The prose in this book is lyrical and sensuous, and the plot, which meanders a bit at first, finds its feet and sails along swiftly, like the Chinese ship after opening the silken bag of fast winds and thunder. My only quibble was that Moirin let herself be used nearly to death by a man with few scruples and great selfish ambitions. The fact that he is handsome didn't really cut it with me as an excuse for his using her sexually and magically for his own ends. Moirin is then saved by the queen, who has a very understanding husband, and, though she is treated better, I felt she was still sublimating her own interests in favor of being the queens lover and confidant. Granted, Moirin is a teenager, and young love is passionate, but I wanted her to be stronger early on, and not be used so severely. Yet Moirin is a loving, generous person, and her character charms everything and everyone she meets, from plants to potentates.
At any rate, I did love this book and its beautiful descriptions and heroine who manages to save the day in a foreign land. I highly recommend it to those who exult in stories of magic, love and destiny.

I was also enchanted by Lynn Kurland's "Princess of the Sword" the final book in her Nine Kingdoms trilogy. Morgan and Miach finally manage to marry and consumate their love, which is something that readers have been pining for through the other two novels, in which the characters just manage to kiss once or twice.
In this installment, Morgan and Miach are searching everywhere for the spell that will close the well of evil that was opened by Morgan's father, Gair the black mage of Ceangail, killing his wife and all but three of his seven children. Morgan must also deal with learning more about her own powers and those of her fiance, Miach.
There are fierce sword battles, horses turned to flying dragons, Catriona and Mehar, queens in their own right forging another singing sword, Fey relatives of Morgan reuniting, and the job of King landing literally on Miach's shoulders. A lot happens in this book, yet Kurland still finds time for her trademark witty dialog and fascinating supporting cast of characters. I couldn't put this book down toward the end, and was delighted by the HEA, though I knew it was coming. I highly recommend this series for all who enjoy their fantasy with swords ablaze, magic aplenty, light romance and women who aren't afraid to get their hands and skirts dirty.

Unfortunately, I was not thrilled with "Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism," mainly because it was as if the author read all of Roald Dahl's books, figured out his formula or general outline, and then filled in the blanks with her own transparent orphan heroine and her sidekick, and felt that was enough to make a book. It's not, it is just a derivation of Roald Dahl with a few extra modern British tidbits thrown in. I gather that this is Ms Byng's first book, and it shows. Her prose is niave and light, her plot is bogged down by clearly telegraphed happenstance and her characters not really lovable or nice enough to warrant the reader's sympathy. Though there were funny moments, the author drew them out too long, so they ceased to be amusing and just became pedestrian. Though everything turns out all right in the end, it wasn't a satisfying story. I can't recommend this book, unless you're too lazy to read Roald's work and would prefer the watered-down version with a pathetic heroine.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Heroines and Walking the Gobi

The Heroines by Eileen Favorite is the story of Penny Entwhistle and her mother, Ann Marie, who run a unique bed and breakfast that serves as a refuge for heroines from classic literature who need some tea and sympathy before they disappear back into their storylines.
Penny is a teenager in the 1970s (as was I) and as she tries to find her way through the labyrinth of hormones and emotions, she encounters jealousy of her mothers time spent with one particular heroine, Deidre, whose paramour, the King of Ulster, kidnaps Penny in the woods and stirs her passions as well as roughing her up a bit. When Penny breaks her mothers rules and tells police who it is who kidnapped her, her mother signs her into a loony bin, just to "keep her safe" while she deals with this problematic heroine and Conor the king.
Penny's time in the mental ward reads a lot like One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest for the Girl Interrupted crowd, but when Conor breaks Penny out of the ward, everything comes right again and Penny and her mother deal with some long-overdue family issues right before the HEA.
I enjoyed this book, and felt very akin to Penny, as my mother probably would have done the same thing to me, had I been in Penny's dire straights. Still, it annoyed me that Ann Marie was so blind to her daughters changing needs and desires, and so easily influenced by greedy doctors that she'd allow her daughter to be locked up and mistreated. I found the encounters with the heroines, such as Scarlett OHara, Emma Bovary and Zoey to be fascinating reading, fun and interesting in allowing us a peek behind the curtains of their particular dramas.
I would recommend this book to any teenager who has wondered about the life of heroines in literature, what they'd be like if one ever encountered them in person, and whether or not they're really as much of a heroine as portrayed by their authors.

Walking the Gobi, by Helen Thayer, is a non fiction book I read for my book group, and I gather we can meet the author at the Covington Library next month.
I found this story, of 63 year old Helen and her 75 year old husband, traversing the Gobi desert in Mongolia to be surprisingly riveting reading. Thayer and her husband have also hiked mountains, crossed Death Valley and traversed the 4,000 mile Sahara desert in Africa prior to this trip, so they were well aware of the hazards of extreme weather and waterless climate.
Yet though both were in a car accident just prior to the trip, Helen insists on walking the Gobi with a bum leg because she doesn't want to disappoint her husband. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the Mongolian people, their culture and food, their kindness and ever present hospitality to strangers. The Thayers are assisted by desert nomads and eventually assist one nomadic family in need, and it is hard for the reader to not get misty-eyed over the joy that is had by both parties.
I enjoyed Thayer's tight, poetic prose and her reporter-like determination to record the facts and happenstance of their trip. Though they are seniors, Helen and her husband are heroes and tough as they come, a real inspiration to those who aspire to challenge themselves physically and mentally against the elements of nature.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Libraries, The Art of Racing in the Rain and Runemarks

Louise Brown, a 91-year-old Scottish woman "is believed to be Britain's
most prolific library book reader," according to the Guardian
Brown is on the verge of borrowing her 25,000th book.

Hurrah for Ms. Brown, a woman after my own heart. I should mention that I am attempting to get a position at my local library, in hopes of combining my passion for books with my devotion to the one stable place in my life. Though we moved every couple of years when I was a child, my mother never failed to take me to the local library first, so that I could get my own library card and start digging into the stacks. Because she read to me from the moment she brought me home from Henry County Memorial Hospital, I learned to read by the time I was 4 and, as I was a child with severe asthma who couldn't play outside often, like other kids, I read books and traveled in my mind to exotic locales.

I didn't have to go far for the exotic in "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein, because his book takes place in Seattle and Mercer Island, WA.
Though I am not a fan of anthropomorphizing animals, as I've noted here before, I found Enzo to be a wonderful protagonist, full of simple wisdom and loving compassion. It stretched my credulity and suspension of disbelief to the max, however, considering the realistic setting and the plot and events laid out by Mr Stein. Enzo manages to see his owner, Denny Swift, through the death of his wife (from cancer), the custody battle for his daughter with his in-laws and a disastrous accusation of sexual misconduct with a teenage girl. Through it all, Enzo is the only member of the family who knows exactly what is going on, who to trust, who is evil and wrong (mainly by scent) and who needs him to intervene, as he does when Denny is about to sign away his right to parent his daughter.
Sadly, Enzo is old by the end of the book (the book actually begins with Enzo discussing how much of a relief it will be to die because he has hip displasia and is in pain as well as embarrassed at his inability to stand and go outside to void his bladder) and there are pages of tear-jerking reflection before Enzo actually dies on his own, his owner having been too much of a spineless wimp to have him euthenized, which would have been the merciful thing to do.
Yet despite all the death and sadness in the book, I enjoyed the dog's POV, the wise and insightful aspect he lent to human interactions in the book, and the gentle advice to live an authentic life that was apparent in all of Enzo's monologues. His joy in the simple act of being a passenger in a fast car was exhilarating, and his explanation of why he enjoyed it, wonderful. There were several funny moments, like when Enzo tears Zoeys toys to shreds because he is sure that the stuffed Zebra is "evil," or when he deficates on the in-laws carpet because they treat him like a dumb animal, not realizing that he is as intelligent as any human, and could prove it if he had those wonderful primate opposable thumbs!
Stein's prose was vital and almost poetic at times, reminding me of F Scott Fitzgerald in its rich emotional landscape. His plot, though methodical, would have moved faster had he not indulged in so much racing research that he felt it necessary to explain, in detail, the traditions, track conditions and other aspects of stock car and formula one racing. For those of us who are not into cars, those pages dragged the story down to a near-standstill. Fortunately, Stein doesn't do that often enough to spoil the entire novel, and the book moves briskly in its latter half to a splendid HEA.
I would recommend this novel to dog lovers and those who enjoy unusual philosophers.

"Runemarks" is Joanne Harris' only young adult novel that I know of, and I was fascinated by her Neil Gaimen-esque take on old Norse mythology.
The tale involves a teenager named Maddy who has a magical gift, but has learned to hide it lest she lose her life to the "Order" a group of religious fanatics and scholars who have cornered the market on magic and runes, forbidding its use to anyone but those indoctrinated into their circles.
Maddy is brought up by well-meaning, if somewhat dense and cruel people who allow her to learn from an old one-eyed traveling "outlander" who visits Maddy's hometown once a year and imparts magic lessons to her, as well as teaching her the Norse myths and rune lore. What she doesn't know is that one-eye is actually the all-father, Odin, and that she is his granddaughter by Thor, his son. Soon Loki, god of mischief, lies and trouble makes an appearance, and Maddy becomes embroiled in a war to save the old gods from destruction by the Order, and their leader, the Nameless, who seeks ultimate power over the world.
Having read, and adored all of Joanne Harris' novels (with one exception, I didn't like Gentlemen and Players) I was thrilled to read her foray into the YA world dominated by Tolkien, JK Rowling, Jane Yolen and Neil Gaiman. I was surprised that she chose Norse myths to update, as Harris has shown a predilection for all things French and European in her previous books. But we are treated to the same well-researched mileau and full-bodied characters here that Harris has drawn for us in her adult literature, so I find that I am happy to see her branching out into new territory. Loki gets more sympathy in Runemarks than he's ever gotten in the original myths and legends, and the female gods don't get any sympathy at all, coming off as cold and cruel or stupid and capricious for the most part. Yet I enjoyed this book and its saucy and bright young protagonist, who refuses to give up on Loki even after his death. I would recommend this book to anyone 13 and over who is fascinated by mythology and magic.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A prose poem about Neil Gaiman

This is from Shelf Awareness, and is marvelous and true:

Neil Gaiman is a storyteller.
The kind of storyteller
Who causes you to lean in
And listen to the story of a hand in the darkness
Holding a knife
And a child called Nobody Owens
Raised by ghosts in a graveyard--
The story that won the 2009 Newbery Medal.
On a Sunday night in July in the Windy City,
Neil Gaiman tells the story of a boy in a Sussex town in England,
"Raised by librarians among the stacks."
During his school holidays,
His parents would drop him at the library on their way to work,
Where he sometimes ate a sandwich in the library car park
But mostly feasted on J.P. Martin, Margaret Storey, Nicholas Stuart
"Victorian authors, Edwardian authors."
He loved A Wrinkle in Time, he said,
"Even though they messed up the first sentence in the Puffin edition:
'It was a dark and stormy night
In a small town somewhere in America.' "
Young Neil had a graveyard in his Sussex town,
Where a witch was buried.
Well, not a witch, he later discovered,
But rather three Protestant martyrs
Burned by order of a Catholic queen.
But the legend stayed with him.
Gaiman began his graveyard story 20 years ago
When his son Michael rode his tricycle
Among the headstones of that same graveyard.
But the author felt he wasn't ready yet to tell that tale.
He resumed it in December 2005.
He finished the story in February 2008.
Michael is now taller than his father;
He is 25; the same age Gaiman was when he started
The Graveyard Book.
As he wrote the last two lines, he realized,
"I had set out to write a book about a childhood . . .
I was now writing about being a parent.
The fundamental most comical tragedy of parenthood:
If you do your job properly . . .
They won't need you anymore.
If you did it properly,
They go away . . . .
I knew I'd written a book that was better
Than the one I had set out to write."

Ashley Bryan is a storyteller.
The kind of storyteller
Who causes you to shout out
In call-and-response--
To find the music in language.
"You are my people!" he begins, on that same July night in Chicago.
He leads us in a reading of Langston Hughes' "My People."
Ashley Bryan tells the story of a boy raised in the Bronx,
Among four- and five-story buildings, where
"Everyone looked after everyone as family."
"You are my family," says Ashley Bryan.
"Family need not be based solely on blood."
As its most recent winner,
He spoke of being humbled and deeply moved as a member of
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award family.
As a small child, he and his two siblings,
The first three of six children,
Used orange crates to cart books home from the library.
In kindergarten, he made his own first book,
An alphabet book.
He was writer, illustrator, binder and . . .
"It was the rave reviews
For these limited editions, one-of-a-kind, that kept me going."
Years later in the 1960s, when Bryan was in his 40s,
Jean Karl, founding editor of children's books at Atheneum ,
Visited him in his studio.
She "was excited by my varied approach to texts," Bryan recalled.
She offered him a contract and encouraged him to
Tell the African tales in his own words.
Bryan's challenge was "to find a way
To keep the voice of the oral traditions alive
As it is carried over into the book."
His lead was poetry.
In elementary school in the Bronx, he'd been taught,
"The soul of poetry, like song, is experienced in hearing it."
He leads us then in a call-and-response to
Eloise Greenfield's "Things."
Though a candy gets eaten
And a sand castle washes away,
The lines of a poem stay:
"Still got it
Still got it"
He says the refrain in a na-na-na-na-na
Children-on-the-playground voice.
We do, too.
When one leading art institute told a 16-year-old Bryan
That "it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person,"
He applied to Cooper Union,
Where the artist prepares an exam in three parts:
Drawing, architecture, and sculpture,
Displays it on a tray,
Then leaves, letting the work speak for the unseen artist.
Ashley Bryan was accepted.
He leads us now in
"Dreams" by Langston Hughes.
"Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly . . . "
Since he left Cooper Union, Ashley Bryan has experimented.
He used tempura paints in his first book of African tales,
In the tradition of African sculpture, masks and the Bushman rock
Swift line brush paintings inspired by Hokusai
For The Dancing Granny.
Woodblock prints for his spirituals
And, in Beautiful Blackbird, collage.
"Although now my books are printed in the thousands," he says,
"It is the feeling of the handmade book
That is at the heart of my bookmaking.
I'd like you, holding one of my books, to feel that I am offering you
A one-of-a-kind gift that you'll treasure and share."

Neil Gaiman and Ashley Bryan are storytellers.
They tell stories that cause you to lean in,
Stories that cause you to shout out,
Stories for child and parent.
These join us together, the storytellers say,
And make us family,
Raised by our neighbors in four-story buildings,
Raised by librarians among the stacks."--Jennifer M. Brown

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

"But there are a lot of people with talent and passion, and many of them never get anywhere. This is only the first step in achieving anything in life. Natural talent is like an athlete's strength. You can be born with more or less ability, but nobody can become an athlete just because he or she was born tall, or strong, or fast. What makes the athlete or artist is the work, the vocation and the technique. The intelligence you are born with is just ammunition. To achieve something with it you need to transform your mind into a high-precision weapon. Every work of art is aggressive...every artist's life is a small war or a large one, beginning with oneself and one's limitations. To achieve anything you must first have ambition and then talent, knowledge and finally the opportunity."
From "The Angel's Game" Carlos Ruiz Zafon

"Inspiration comes when you stick your elbows on the table and your bottom on the chair and start sweating. Choose a theme, an idea and squeeze your brain until it hurts. That's called inspiration." Ibid

"Bascially you read thousands of pages to learn what you need to know and to get to the heart of a subject, to its emotional truth, and then you shed all that knowledge and start at square one...emotional truth is sincerity within fiction. One has to be not honest, but skilled. Emotional truth is not a moral quality, it's a technique...
Literature, at least good literature, is science tempered with the blood of art." Ibid

"God lives, to a smaller or greater extent, in books, and that is why (Senor Sempere) devoted his life to sharing them, to protecting them, and to making sure their pages, like our memories and our desires, are never lost. He believed, and he made me believe it too, that as long as there is one person left in the world who is capable of reading them and experiencing them, a small piece of God, or of life, will remain."

I was looking forward to the next novel by Zafon, author of the near-perfect "Shadow of the Wind" and anticipating another great page-turning gothic adventure about books and that wonderful creation, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books that everyone who read Shadow of the Wind longed to visit, myself included.

I was, therefore, surprised to discover that Angel's Game isn't about a passion for books or a love of them as much as it is about writing and art, obsession and love, religion and reality/belief.

The protagonist, David Martin, is a journalist who started writing sensational short stories for his local newspaper in Barcelona. He is so talented that his fellow journalists shun him out of jealousy, and he's eventually forced to leave. He then develops a pseudonym and churns out pulp noir fiction for a couple of crooked publishers who come off as clones of the opera house owners in Phantom of the Opera, clueless about art or literature, and only involved in book publishing for whatever profits they can gain from Martin under the auspices of his brutally enslaving contract.
Martin purchases an old house and takes on a teenage apprentice (mainly because she forces herself on him) and discovers "like a slow poison, the history of this place seeps into his bones as he struggles with an impossible love. Close to despair, David (Martin) receives a letter from a reclusive French editor, Andreas Corelli, who makes him the offer of a lifetime, (to create a religion.) In return, he will receive a fortune...but as David begins the work, he realizes that there is a connection between the book and the shadows that surround his home." excerpt quote from the jacket copy of Angel's Game

Though I believe the quotes above, about the nature of writing, I found myself saddened by the current of bitter cynicism that was woven throughout this novel. Perhaps it is because Zafon takes on religion and belief and their value to humanity (he obviously thinks that the bad aspects of religion, such as fanaticism and killing in the name of God, far outweigh whatever good religion brings to humanity)instead of just staying with the value of words, reading and writing to humanity. But whatever the reason, I found his references to Lucifer, the "bringer of light" and Gods favorite until the fall from grace, to be like a toxic gas that poisoned all the words that came after it with ugliness. Martin finds that anyone who has had dealings with Corelli, who it's intimated is Lucifer, has met with madness, death, disease and every other horror known to man. Yet, in his Faustian bargain, Martin manages to do what none of the previous writers have, in researching and creating a manuscript that will create a religion that will suit Corelli and his dark view of humanity as sheep needing to be used by those who are smarter/better than they are for nefarious purposes.
In agreeing to do this dark deed for Corelli, Martin in effect sells his soul, and spends the rest of the book madly searching for a way out of his bargain, and a way to win the love of his life, who is married to another man out of gratitude and not love.

There are more twists and turns in this tale than in the previous novel, and most of them are too convoluted to explain here. Suffice it to say that the nature of reality is questioned, and the reader is left wondering what is and isn't real or happening to Martin. Martin himself comes off as an arrogant jerk for much of the book, and he treats women, even the one he claims to love, with thinly veiled contempt, as if they're a lesser species by nature. The ending doesn't make a lot of sense, but if you're a cynic about life and belief, then you'll find it appropriate.

Zafon's prose, which was stellar in Shadow of the Wind, starts out strong in Angels Game and then gets a bit rough in the middle of the novel where most of the action takes place. It smooths out again in the end, but the plot stalls and nearly nosedives several times before Zafon pulls a rabbit out of his hat for the finale.

Though we do get to enter the Cemetery of Forgotten Books twice in Angels Game, I was still disappointed by this novel, and its ugly tone, mean-spirited and cruel male characters and selfish, stupid women characters. I would only recommend it to those who find the dark and cynical side of life and art amusing, and those journalists and novelists who have read Faust and feel that life imitates art.