Monday, May 31, 2010

Lucia, Lucia, The Rossetti Letter and Dead in the Family

I just finished three more books that I found interesting, each in their own way.
Lucia, Lucia by Adriana Trigiani is another of her stand-alone books that tells the story of an Italian American woman in New York, in this case, in the 1950s. Lucia Sartori tells her story via flashback to a young Italian-American girl, Kit Zanetti, who lives in her apartment building in Greenwich Village.
Lucia is the youngest child of a successful Italian grocer in New York, who she is also gorgeous, niave and ambitious. As an apprentice tailor to a designer named Delmarr at B Altman's Department store on Fifth Avenue, Lucia loves putting together beautiful dresses and suits for the wealthy and celebrated women of New York, yet her Italian heritage/culture dictates that she get married, stop working and start a family of her own. Lucia is engaged to a childhood sweetheart, Dante, whom she loves in a somewhat childish fashion. Although she knows she is supposed to marry, move into his house and take care of his parents, Lucia loves her job and tells Dantes harridan mother that she isn't ready to become a subserviant housewife and broodmare, which breaks up the engagement and sends the local Italian community into a tailspin. Lucia meets a handsome rogue named John Talbot, and is swept off her feet by his charm, flashy car, nice clothing and movie star looks. Determined to marry John, despite her father's misgivings, Lucia is left at the altar by this con man who destroys her confidence in men. Her four brothers marry and have children, her father dies and her mother sickens, and Lucia's department at B Altmans is scuttled in the wake of 'retail modernization' that allows women to choose clothes 'off the rack' instead of having them custom made. Throughout the novel, Lucia maintains a niavete that is often seen as the hallmark of women of the post-war era, and while it is refreshing at first, it quickly becomes annoying when the character is so blind to reality that she hands over her life savings to a handsome con man, against the advice of her family and friends. Trigiani never allows Lucia to wallow in self pity or become a cliche, however, and when Kit takes Lucia to the state pen to give her closure with the man who ruined her life, it's a poignant, rather than maudlin moment. The prose is clean and snappy, the plot, like life, has a few twists and turns, but never fails or plods, and the characters are, like all Trigiani's works, full of life and color.
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a peek back into recent history with a dash of romance.
The Rossetti Letter was an interesting tale of romance and intrigue surrounding the Spanish plot to overthrow the government of Venice, Italy in 1618. A PhD candidate, Claire Donovan and her rival, historian and celebrity author Andrew Kent are thrust together in Italy to try and unravel the clues to the Spanish Conspiracy via the diary and letters of a courtesan, Alessandra Rossetti, who supposedly wrote a letter naming the Spanish conspirators to the Powers that Be in Venice and managed to save the day.
All sorts of evidence is uncovered that proves that things were not as they seem, and every other chapter tells the tale from the viewpoint of Rossetti herself, who had things a lot harder than it first appears. There's an HEA and lots of surprises to keep the reader interested, and the prose is dense and engrossing, as is the forceful plot. While I enjoyed the Italian history and the background on courtesans of the 17th century, I have to say that the modern day scholar Claire seemed weak and wimpy by comparison, often coming off as immature and idiotic in her actions/reactions. Still, I found myself becoming immersed in the lives of the characters and hoping that Alessandra would find a way to stay alive and thrive through all the political intrigue.
I'd recommend this book to historical romance readers and those who are fascinated by Italian history.
The final book I finished was the 12th Sookie Stackhouse book (if you count a short story collection), called "Dead in the Family" by Charlaine Harris. The "Southern Vampire mystery" series has been adapted for television in a series called "TrueBlood" named for the elixr that was created by the Japanese to sate vampires so they don't have to prey on humans for sustenance. I watched 3 episodes of TrueBlood and was horrified to discover that they'd taken a layered and interesting mystery series and turned them into soft core pornography, where the main reason for the characters is the sexual interactions they get into with humans and supernaturals. The storylines were totally overwhelmed with the sexuality, and as a fan of Sookie, I was disgusted that Harris had allowed television to bastardize her works and turn Sookie from a sympathetic telepathic bombshell waitress into a pale and pathetic Anna Paquin wearing short-shorts and acting stupid with a fake drawl. Sookie's a larger-than-life, tough Southern Belle who has managed to survive through supernatural wars and death threats and all manner of crazy religious fanatics who want her dead. Yet in this latest novel, Harris seems to have dumbed Sookie down, making her seem silly, full of self-pity and horny as a short, she seems to be matching the TV version of Sookie to the book Sookie, which is a terrible mistake. Prior to the TV show, Sookie was maturing and becoming a smart, savvy woman who cared about supernaturals and the ignorance surrounding them, who wanted to irradicate that prejudice and help others see that the vampires and were-people had good and bad folks in their groups, just as humans do. This is also the only book that hasn't had Sookie get beaten to a pulp, or beaten and tortured, as she was in the last book. There was also more information and background on the Faery side of Sookie's family, and her brother Jason seems to have become a decent human being all of a sudden, ready to marry his sweetheart and actually help his sister instead of asking her to risk her life to bail him out, as usual.
Yet the handsome Viking vampire Eric Northman is also brought low in this book, by his sire, a Roman who chose to 'turn' the last Romanoff heir, who becomes insane and tries to gut half the characters in the book. Fortunately, Vampire Bill Compton has a short part in the book, helping an older character pass away after revealing their shared heritage, which is sweet. His long lost 'sister' vampire is discovered, and he is healed of his wounds caused by the silver-tipped fangs of a Fairy.
Though we discover who is behind the attempts to get Sookie into trouble, and everything is wrapped up neatly at the end of the book, I left dissatisfied with Sookie and her slide back into childish dependancy on anyone who can get her out of a jam. But I won't stop reading this series, in hopes that Harris gets Sookie back on track and back to her independent self soon. I'd recommend this book to those who have read the other Sookie Stackhouse novels, with the caveat that they overlook some of the more salacious scenes as an homage Harris is paying to the TV people.
I just hope that the TV show doesn't ruin the books any further.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Honoring Sylvia Beach

The graph below is from Shelf Awareness. I have always wanted to visit Shakespeare and Company, and figure that is one of the main reasons I'd ever want to visit Paris.

Sylvia Beach's Legacy: Communicating 'Vitality of the Book'

"For anyone who loves books, and who mourns the loss of so many
independent bookshops, and must now mourn the loss of the book itself
and wonder at its ghostly reincarnation as an electronically disembodied
text, the Sylvia Beach legacy has hope in it.... To be in Shakespeare
and Company at any time is to remember how wonderful books are,
especially piled in their thousands. But not in the chilly corporate way
of chainstore retail: rather as a noisy conversation, books, readers and
writers talking to each other, which is what happens tenfold at festival
time, a chaotic, exuberant celebration of the written word and its
power.... The best news is that a bookstore that helped to shape the
20th-century world of ideas and exchange has moved vigorously into the
21st century, communicating to a new generation the vitality of the
--Jeanette Winterson in her Times of London
review of a new edition
of The Letters of Sylvia Beach (Columbia University Press).
Beach founded the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris.

Monday, May 10, 2010


This is from Shelf Awareness, and I couldn't agree more:
Bookstores Exist for 'Tolerance of Perspectives'

"In a world where it is increasingly possible to seclude yourself in a
hive with fellow creatures who buzz the way you do, bookstores, like
libraries and newspapers, are among the few places where a variety of
ideas and opinions can jostle together for your attention. That
tolerance of perspectives, including contradictory ones, isn't a
marketing strategy for those institutions. It's part of their DNA. It's
why they exist."
--Jim Higgins in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial
Next Chapter bookstore owner Lanora Hurley,
who has been criticized for scheduling a book signing by Karl Rove.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Three Recent Reads

Lady Dragon, by Jewel Mason, What Men Want by Deborah Blumenthal and The Calder Game by Blue Balliett are the three books I've read in the past 3 weeks, so I thought I'd jot down some of my thoughts about them, especially since I'm still slightly miffed about Jim Butcher shooting Harry Dresden at the end of book 11, Changes (How could he leave all the Dresden Files fans in the lurch, wondering about Harry's fate for two years while he gets out another book?)
At any rate, Lady Dragon was discovered at my local dollar store, and it appeared to be a fantasy or paranormal fantasy at the outset, however, it is, in reality, just a garden-variety historical romance set in the era of knights and swords. The heroine is the usual thin blonde who is fierce because she has to be, and the hero is the usual royal manly-man, who inevitably falls for our fierce but frail and broken-hearted heroine. There is also the inevitable good grandfather and evil uncle who is trying to seize power and land from our heroine. Things turn out all right, however, and the Lady Dragon gets her guy, after some 'nursing back to health' moments on both sides. This is the kind of book you can finish reading in an afternoon, because you can see the plot moving along at an ordered pace to the conclusion you know is coming, the HEA.
While the author had a fairly firm grasp of the language and didn't make any huge errors, there was still a bit too much cliche woven into the text for my liking. Still, I think it would suit the nonchalant romance fan who just wants to escape for a couple of hours in a book that doesn't require much thinking.
What Men Want, in contrast, is poorly titled but a great read, full of fun and characters that intrigued me because they were reporters. Jenny George and Slaid Warren have been dueling journalists with columns in competing newspapers for years. Jenny, who is a cliche'd pert/petite blonde (why do so many authors assume that short blonde women are the only protagonists worth writing about? Why do they assume you have to be tiny/skinny to be sexy and desirable? Especially since the average American woman is a size 14, and 62 percent of women in America qualify as 'overweight.' I would be willing to bet that a majority of women are also brunettes, not blondes, especially natural blondes, which are hard to come by unless you live in Minnesota or Norway) finds out that a movie producer is paying city officials off to get himself a deal for filming in New York by taking them to the Caribbean. George sets off for the Caribbean to investigate with her newspaper editors blessing (you can tell this book was written before the recession when all the newspapers started closing and firing all their reporters, particularly the ones who had expense accounts and traveled to other countries for stories).
While in the tropics, Jenny flirts with the movie producer to try and get him to admit to wrongdoing and also eventually flirts with Slaid, who has followed her down to the vacation spot to try and scoop her on the story. The two try to work together, but, of course, they end up at cross-purposes. Jenny does way too much vacationing and flirting and not enough investigating and reporting to make this scenario seem real, but the witty bandinage between the two characters was well worth the fantasy element added to make journalism seem like the glamorous career it once was. Blumenthal's prose is zesty and her plot purrs like an expensive Italian sports car. While I am sure the publishers of this novel stuck it firmly into the 'chick lit' category before putting it between covers, I think that is doing this work a disservice. It should be considered general fiction and a good 'beach read' at that. I was surprised that the author chose to leave the ending a bit up in the air, but I was glad that Blumenthal didn't force Jenny to be a doormat for her wimpy slimebag ex-boyfriend who cheated on her with a starlet and then had the temerity to ask her to come back to him once he got bored with the starlets narcissism. I'd recommend this book to any woman who enjoys a good story about what being a reporter used to be like, and also likes office romances.
The Calder Game is the third of Blue Balliett's books that I've read, following Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3. Though they are young adult books aimed at the preteen and early teenager market, I've found Balliett's sensitive, smart and quirky triumvirate of teens to be delightfully entertaining as they make their way through each mystery with courage and just the right amount of awkward teen antics.
In the latest installment, Chicago teens Tommy, Calder and Petra are separated when Calder's father takes him to England for several months, leaving the uneasy Petra and irritating Tommy together without calm Calder as a buffer between them. The trio are studying the works of Alexander Calder, maker of mobiles and sculptures, in school, and Calder (who was named for the artist) finds that the village he's staying in has a large modern Alexander Calder sculpture near his B&B.
Unfortunately, the sculpture and Calder go missing the same day, and Calder's father decides to fly in Tommy and Petra, as well as their detective elderly neighbor, Ms Sharp, to see if they can come up with any leads on Calder's whereabouts. A perceptive and realistic account of British people's resistance to change, their feelings toward Americans and art, and teenagers ability to find trouble in places that were previously peaceful ensues. The kids set up a game and a code based on Calder the artists works, and those puzzles are layered throughout the novel. Though it wasn't as wonderful as Chasing Vermeer, which left me breathless with fascination (I couldn't put it down)The Calder Game is still a brisk and intricate YA novel that I'd recommend to all teenagers (and adults) who enjoy art and puzzles, as well as English history.