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.