Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

"Oh there you are, you odious little prawn..." Ophelia "Feely" de Luce, sister of Flavia de Luce from A Red Herring Without Mustard

Is there anyone better at the stinging insult, the perfect put-down, the withering glance or the subtle, yet vicious revenge as the British? I think not!
Just as they excel at creating marvelous actors and wonderful classic and science fiction television programs (witness "Lark Rise to Candleford," "Upstairs, Downstairs" and the glorious "Dr Who"), the British detective who is brilliant, witty and eccentric has become an icon of the mystery genre of fiction.
Thus I had to stop a moment and whisper "God save the Queen!" as I delved into the latest delicious mystery by the always astute Alan Bradley, who is actually a Canadian, not a Brit.
Flavia de Luce is the 11-year-old heroine of Bradleys mysteries, set in the English countryside of the 1950s at a suitably decaying estate full of hidden passageways and unused, spooky rooms. This time our intrepid Flavia is dragged into a mystery when, after burning down her fortune-telling tent, Flavia finds an old gypsy woman covered in blood in her caravan on the grounds of Buckshaw, the de Luce estate (and again, I must pause to say I just adore the way the British have names for their homes; it makes them seem like characters unto themselves), barely alive. Soon after, Flavia stumbles across the old gypsy's granddaughter, Porcelain, and the two of them discover the body of a local poacher and thief hanging dead from the fountain statue of Poseidon. There are plenty of red herrings that Flavia must root through in this edition, however, as she wends her way along the rutted country roads on her trusty bicycle, Gladys. She even finds that a local portrait artist had painted a portrait of her mother and her sisters, with herself as a baby, and just never had the courage to have her grieving father pick it up. She also comes across a strange religious sect and the neighbors secret.
As a reader you can always count on Bradley to write spotless, thoroughly engaging prose that reads much like an updated version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries. He drags you into Flavia's world and before you know it, the denouement has happened and you're at the end, after having been unable to put the book down for fear of missing out on what Flavia is up to next. That is really the worst that can be said of Flavia de Luce mysteries, they end too soon, leaving the reader salivating for more of this bright young girls world full of chemistry experiments and sisterly torment. "A Red Herring Without Mustard" deserves a solid A, and I'd recommend it to anyone who finds the British as fascinating as I do, or those who relish a good mystery solved by an improbable heroine.
Now I am on to the marvelous new book of Diana Tregarde supernatural mysteries, "Trio of Sorcery" by Mercedes Lackey, who never disappoints. I also got a copy of Patricia Briggs "Masques and Wolfsbane" because it sounded somewhat interesting. We shall see.
This was an interesting article, from Shelf Awareness:
Flavorwire showcased "ten of our favorite retold stories Some
of the following plots are lifted from ancient myths, while others come
from relatively new novels. All have put a new spin on familiar tales,
but have been able to make them their own."
And lastly, this is just a sad note on the passing of typewriters:
A moment of silence, please, to mark the end of an era. Godrej and
Boyce, the last company in the world still manufacturing typewriters,
has shut down its production plant in Mumbai, India, with just a few
hundred machines left in stock. The Daily Mail
reported that even though "typewriters became obsolete years ago in the
west, they were still common in India--until recently. Demand for the
machines has sunk in the last ten years as consumers switch to

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

More Tidbits

"It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip
emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the
butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is
forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That
is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches
the changes of his mind on the hop."

~ Vita Sackville-West

From Shelf Awareness:

Flavorwire showcased the 10 most badly bungled classic-book-to-film
adaptations including the "wacky, flatulent 3-D family comedy version of Gulliver's
Travels" that was released on DVD yesterday.


Bookshelf/kitten video of the day,
courtesy of the Book Lady's Blog, which vowed that this "is the
first--and probably the only--time I'm posting a cat video. But it's
Wednesday, and we all need a break, right?"

I think this is a marvelous idea from the designer who created one of the sexiest men's colognes I've ever smelled on a man, my husband, back when I first met him in 1989. Now I would LOVE it if he'd buy me this cologne that smells like a book!
Karl Lagerfeld, fashion designer, artist, photographer and book lover,
plans to open a bookstore in New York City together with Gerhard Steidl,
who has published many of his books and with whom he has an imprint
called Edition 7L, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Called Word and Image, the store would highlight Steidl titles as well
as books from other publishers chosen by Lagerfeld and build on what has
been a profitable business in Lagerfeld's 7L bookstore in Paris: selling
custom libraries to readers. Steidl told the paper that the best
location for the store would be in lower Manhattan near the New Museum
on the Bowery.

One title to be carried is a sweet novelty: a hardcover book called
Paper Passion whose interior will be hollowed out to hold a container of
a new perfume with the same name that smells of paper--an idea Lagerfeld
had while leafing through the new Chanel catalog.

Finally, I wrote this letter to the founder of Luna Guitars on Monday:

Dear Ms Yvonne,
I just wanted to drop you a line and say that your guitars are the most beautiful instruments I've ever seen! They look more like pieces of art than instruments, yet they clearly function perfectly in making music while being aesthetically pleasing, especially to women.
I was thrilled to see you add my favorite symbol of transformation and rebirth, the butterfly, to your guitars, and I hope that one day I will be able to afford to buy one for myself, and fulfill a dream I've had since I was a teenager in the 1970s of playing guitar like Ann and Nancy Wilson of "Heart."
Thank you, also, for your lovely catalogs, which I've spent hours poring over and enjoying, not just for the guitars but for the stories of those who own them and play them.
What a wonderful legacy you've made in creating Luna guitars.
Thank you, again.
DeAnn Rossetti

She responded on Tuesday with this lovely letter (though I love their guitars, $400-600 per instrument is not really affordable):

Dear DeAnn......

Wow! You just made my day = )

Thank you for your lovely and kind words. It's hearing from players like you that keeps me going! We have tried really hard to keep our instruments accessible, so I hope that you will soon be holding a Butterfly in your arms and living your dream!

Warm wishes,


Yvonne de Villiers
Creative Director/Designer
Luna Guitars
4924 W. Waters Ave.
Tampa, FL 33634
"Join the Luna Tribe!"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Stew of Book News, from Accessories to Movies

Below are some wonderful gleanings from Shelf Awareness, the booksellers and librarians listserve:

Best literary birthday letter ever
In 1889, Mark Twain wrote a congratulatory message to Walt Whitman on
the occasion of the poet's 70th birthday. Letters of Note presented this
eloquent missive, which was "not just a birthday wish, but a stunning
4-page love letter to human endeavor, as seen during Whitman's

This really is an awesome letter, though it is hard to read Twains handwriting.

"What do you get for the book nerd who has everything--or at least all
of the paperbacks that their apartment can hold?" asked Flavorwire
before helpfully offering a few irresistible suggestions in a post
headlined "Design Porn: Accessories for Bookworms

Really cool typewriter necklace and the ring made out of a book is gorgeous!

Book Review: The Year We Left Home
A war at the beginning (Vietnam) and one at the end (Iraq) frames an
American family's path through 30 years of life in America, from 1973 to
2003. It is a portrait of the Erickson family of Grenada, Iowa, in
alternating viewpoints of family members and their cousin, Chip, a
damaged vet of the Vietnam War.

The story opens with Anita's wedding to Jeff. She is the eldest of four
children; the others are Ryan, Blake and Victoria. Through vignettes
that capture moments of their lives both important and ordinary,
Thompson (author of the story collection Do Not Deny Me) paints a
picture--who they are, what they want and what they will eventually
settle for. The constant thread throughout all their stories is that
these are basically good-hearted individuals, often saddled with more
than they are equipped to handle. Anita's husband is a banker,
responsible for foreclosing on loans to farmers Anita has known all her
life. At one of the farm auctions, Anita cleans out their bank accounts
and gives the money to now-homeless relatives. Ryan does Chip a great
kindness when Chip is past 50 and on his uppers. Ryan buys the farmhouse
that once belonged to Uncle Norm and Aunt Martha, now long gone, but
prototypical examples of that exemplary American farm couple: thrifty,
hardworking, honest, church-going and long-suffering. He worked every
day while she canned, cooked and cleaned. Blake says of them: "They
didn't think in terms of happy."

Each of the Erickson children has thought in those terms, however, and
mostly have come up short in the happiness department. Each of them has
endured a difficult situation, hoping things would change. Anita has
become the smiling Realtor of the Year displayed on the back of the
grocery cart to compensate for Jeff, who turned out to be a chronic
alcoholic and is now barely hanging on to sobriety. Ryan says of his
marriage to Ellen: "At some point in their life together he had assumed
the burden of making her happy. Her most familiar mood, what he thought
of as her default position, was one of exasperated suffering." Blake
married "beneath him" and his mother and Anita never let him forget it.
Torrie made a bad decision that altered her life forever.

This all sounds grim, but it isn't. In Thompson's engaging style, each
characters has a life filled with much humor, insight, reconciliation
and understanding. Ryan tried to escape Iowa to a life in academe, only
to find that he was ill-suited for it. His consolation prize was being
at the beginning of the computer revolution and making a ton of money.
Anita never wanted to leave familiar surroundings--and didn't want
anyone else to, either. Chip is the wild card here. He bangs around the
country and Mexico, a real rolling stone, returning to Iowa with his
lungs and liver shot, grateful to Ryan and ready to settle down. At
story's end, the next generation is starting to leave Iowa. Who knows
what their outcome will be? Jean Thompson pulls the reader into this
novel and keeps us hoping for the best for her characters, as she
chronicles events and shows us their interior lives.--Valerie Ryan

I could have written the above book about my own family, growing up in Iowa...but you have to be from the tall corn state to know how true the line is about Iowa being a good place to be "from."

Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the first in a series of films based on the book
by Ayn Rand, opens April 15. Taylor Schilling stars as Dagny Taggart, a
railroad executive trying to fix a country plagued by social and
economic decay. Directed by Paul Johansson.

I was totally into the works of Ayn Rand when I was in high school, and I recall being moved to tears by Atlas Shrugged many times. I can't imagine how well the characters will hold up under the weight of filming this epic novel, or whether Rands philosophy will come off as being too cold and ruthless. We shall see. I have no idea who Taylor Schilling is, but I hope he's manly enough to change the world, at least for the duration of the movie.

Admitting "books can be harder to kick out than termites," Laura Jofre
chronicled her experiences with the delicate art of book purging in an
Associated Press piece
"In the name of renewal (and family peace), my husband and I repurposed
our rec room into a master bedroom and let our girls, ages 12 and 6,
have their own rooms. In the process, we had to redistribute everyone's
books. In the process, I was forced to admit it: I had too many books."

Oh my, do I ever know the pain of book purging, which I undertake about twice a year. It nearly kills me to part with books, even ones that were so-so at best. So I empathize with Ms Jofre.

This is an interesting article that claims to be able to tell something about your character as a person by what your favorite books were as a child. I can't say I really agree with that idea, but it does have an interesting kernel of understanding human nature in it.

Today I was fortunate enough to use my Barnes and Noble membership and buy 3 new books at the Bellevue Barnes and Noble: Shady Lady by Ann Aquirre, The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg (One wonders if she's any relation to Elizabeth Berg, an author whose works I've read and enjoyed), and Vampire Love, and anthology that includes a poem by the delicious Neil Gaiman. I also snapped up a copy of the new American Dr Who Insider magazine--hurrah! I can't wait to read all these treasures.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Spring Reading

As usual, I'd like to begin my post with a tidbit from Shelf Awareness, and then progress to short reviews of the 5 books I've read in the past couple of months:

What is the future of libraries in the e-book age? "Libraries have
always been thought of as a kind of 'temple of books'... a place you can
go to for peace and quiet, a place to read and think," NPR's
Lynn Neary said in her report on a new era in lending. "They are
intricate part of the fabric that pulls a community together. But if
they are to be relevant in the future they will have to make space for
themselves in the digital community as well."

Christopher Platt, director of collections and circulation at the New
York Public Library, told Neary that libraries "use intermediaries to
manage both their physical and digital book collections. He thinks
libraries could work with these intermediaries to develop subscription
packages of e-books. Libraries would pay the publishers for these
subscriptions and use them as they see fit."

"So I'd buy a title with 1,000 uses," Platt observed, "and then it's up
to us and our readers whether those 1,000 uses get used simultaneously
in the first few days or whether they get drawn out over time. And then
if they do get used quickly, we'll buy more."

Roberta Stevens, president of the American Library Association, would
like to see more publishers involved in the e-book conversation: "When
we look at the future then we have to really think very seriously about
what is our role--and how can we actually serve the millions and
millions of people who use our public libraries everyday if we can't
even get access to titles."

I've read:
Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear
Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine
Star Trek: The Lives of Dax edited by Marco Palmieri
Magic on the Hunt by Devon Monk

Starting with Wise Man's Fear, I honestly loved this novel as much as I loved the first book in the series, The Name of the Wind. Rothfuss is a master storyteller, and his epic tale of the life of the legendary Kvothe is just un-put-downable. Reading his books makes me wonder where the heck Rothfuss has been all my life. He just appeared out of nowhere with this tour De force of genius and we're supposed to believe he's never published anything before? Hmmm...makes me wonder.

The Swan Thieves is Elizabeth Kostova's second novel, following The Historian, which I enjoyed eventually, after it got off to a very slow start. The Swan Thieves falls prey, unfortunately, to the sophomore curse, and is an awful novel, full of tedious characters, dreadfully dull prose and a plot that drags like an anchor in tar. What is even more annoying is that the protagonist just sort of spontaneously gets better and is released from a mental health facility for no apparent reason by a vain psychiatrist who is sleeping with the protagonists ex-girlfriend. There is a lot of that in this book, leering old men who fall in love with gorgeous young women and go to all sorts of lengths to get them into bed, which is, frankly, revolting and disgusting. The painting by artists in the book is just merely a backdrop for all the sleazy old man romantic antics, and we're never really given a reason to like any of the men in this book, because it seems the women get the crap end of things every time, no matter the era. It takes some doing to make France and Impressionist artists boring, but Kostova manages it in 561 pages of rambling prose. I would recommend that anyone who liked the Historian skip this novel and move on to something better.

A Lesson in Secrets is the 8th novel in Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mystery series, and it's a gem. As was quoted by USA Today on the back cover: "Sometimes when you adore a series, you're terrified to crack open the next installment, fearing disappointment. Fortunately, Winspear fans can rest easy. Her new Maisie Dobbs mystery is...excellent." Which is most certainly true. In this installment, Maisie is asked to go undercover for Scotland Yards Secret Service (kind of like the CIA in America) as a professor at a college dedicated to pacifism, run by a man who stole a pacifist children's book, Greville Liddicote. When Liddicote is murdered in his office, Maisie has to do some serious sleuthing to find out whodunit. I couldn't figure out who was the culprit until the end, either, which is a testament to Winspear's skills as an author. Maisie is still mourning her mentor Maurice, who left her a substantial fortune, and we discover that she's doing good with the money, buying a house for Billy and his family and helping a gal whose husband was killed find paying work. The novel takes place in 1932-33, so things are starting to get ugly in Germany with the Nazi party, and I'd bet that Maisie will be involved in WWII in the next novel. I sincerely hope she gets married to James Compton in the next novel, too, because, though I love her independence and brilliant mind, I think Maisie deserves a happy and fulfilling relationship, especially if she is going to get involved in yet another war.
I highly recommend this novel for those who love a solid mystery and a good tale, well told.

Lady of Hay is the first novel I've read by Barbara Erskine, and as it has to do with reincarnation and British and Welsh people, I figured it would be a real page-turner for me. Alas, it was not, being more along the lines of the Swan Thieves in terms of unlikeable male characters and horribly wimpy, stupid female characters who were all, of course, pretty redheads or blonds. There was a great deal of melodrama, weepy scenes, bitchy backstabbing and swooning going on, to the point of heaving-bosoms-style romance novels, which I detest. In this maudlin novel, we're expected to believe that Jo, a reporter, is the reincarnation of Matilda De Braose, a noblewoman of the 13th century who had three men wildly in love with her, Richard De Clare, a knight, William De Braose, her husband, and King John, Henry II's nasty youngest son, who comes off here as a sociopathic rapist. Apparently, three of the men in Jo's life, her photographer, her ex-boyfriend and his brother are the reincarnations of these three men and therefore obsessed with Jo and doing everything in their power to 'possess' her completely, which usually means they want to beat her and rape her or try to kill her. Jo waffles constantly between loving and hating them, and cries a lot, which doesn't endear her to the reader at all, it just makes her seem weak and ridiculous. Each chapter has back and forth versions of Mathilda's terrible life in the 13th century, followed by how poorly Jo is faring in the 20th century (the 1980s). The lengthy discussions of the political climate of the 13th century really bogged down the plot, and Jo's endless whining, coupled with the bitchy women around her constantly trying to make her life miserable got really old, really fast. I think about 200 pages could have been edited from this book without it losing anything, and in fact would make the book less dull. It would also be a good idea for the female characters to get a grip and be less wimpy. At any rate, I found the middle of the book hard going, and nearly gave up. I wouldn't really recommend this to anyone but the most die-hard historical romance fans.

Fortunately, I have the latest Allie Beckstrom novel, Magic on the Hunt, to wash the wussy women taste out of my brain. This is the 6th of Devon Monks "Magic" series, and though I have read all her other Beckstrom novels, this one is just as exciting as the previous books, with Allie B full of fight, ready to take on the bad guys and see justice done with her handsome boyfriend, Zayvion, to help. I really enjoy these paperback urban fantasy novels, mainly because the protagonist is realistic and intelligent, and the novels are set in Portland, Oregon, a favorite place for booklovers everywhere, myself included. Much like Jim Butchers Harry Dresden, Chicago Wizard at large, Allie Beckstrom gets the snot beat out of her and is always in danger of losing her life while fighting evil magicians who want to take over the world. But, also like Harry, she seems to be able to pull a rabbit out of her hat in each book, and though she gets battered and bruised and ends up in the hospital a lot, she has 9 lives and survives each encounter. This time is no exception, and at the end we have the birth of Allies half-brother to look forward to. I have to say that I wonder how many more books we'll have to go through before she gets her father, Daniel, out of her head and into a body or gone into another dimension, but I wasn't fond of the ancient coin-demon who possessed Harry Dresden for a couple of books, either. Still, the book deserves an A for the glory that is Allie and Zay on the hunt and kicking arse in their own inimitable fashion.

As to the Star Trek: The Lives of Dax book, I happened across this gem at a church rummage sale, of all places, and though I'd never seen its like before, (its trade paperback size, which is unusual) and I'm not generally a fan of Star Trek novels, I had to buy it because Dax was one of my favorite characters on Deep Space 9. In my experience, Star Trek novels are mostly poorly written, with a few exceptions such as the Captains Table series and a couple of novels by Christie Golden (and one by Peter David that was hilarious). Hence my reservations about this book. I need not have worried, however, as each author who took on telling the tale of one of the symbiont's lives was respectful of the characters background and the Star Trek universe in general. It was also a relief to discover that all the authors were professional writers, not just fans out to write a "Mary Sue or Marty Stu" tale as an ego trip. I would recommend this book to anyone who was a fan of Deep Space 9 or any of the Star Trek series. The prose was clean and delightful, the lives of Dax fascinating and most of the plots moved at warp speed.