Sunday, June 24, 2012

Enchantments, Caleb's Crossing and Vox

Epilogue--The Future of Print is a beautiful
documentary short about the world of print and a moving tribute to
books, booksellers and book makers. The student project was "built upon
interviews with individuals who are active in the Toronto print
community and questions whether or not they expect to see the
disappearance of the physical book within our lifetime.

 The three books I've just finished are Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison, Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, and Vox by Nicholas Baker.

I've read three other books by Geraldine Brooks, starting with the stunning Year of Wonders about the bubonic plague in England, followed by March, and People of the Book. Brooks is nothing if not thorough in her historical research, and such meticulous historical details always gives her fiction a feeling of being real and true. Caleb's Crossing is the fictionalized account of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in the 17th century. Though the book is ostensibly about Caleb, a Wopanaak native living on what would eventually become Martha's Vineyard, the story is told from the perspective of Bethia, the local ministers daughter and bright renegade who basically steals her education by listening in on other's lessons. She manages to confound or work around a number of strictures to Puritan society, especially where women are considered chattel to be married off to whomever their fathers or brothers choose for them. I found Bethia's story fascinating, and Brook's shining prose, though journalistic in tone, manages to make the plot move faster than a greased piglet at the county fair.  I highly recommend this book to those who find US history fascinating, and to those who are interested in the history of Native Americans in this land. A definite A.

I must first point out that I do not, generally read erotica or porn, because it tends to be poorly written and laughably absurd, but I'd read that Vox, by Nicholas Baker, was intelligently written, witty and fun, so I decided to give it a shot. I was, in fact, surprised by how much I liked this book, which is hilariously witty, full of fun and sexy as heck. This slender volume is basically a conversation between two unnamed people on a sex chat line that goes on for hours. The woman and the man are both smart enough to not fall into any stupid cliches, (I have always hated it when romance novels call body parts by euphemisms like "throbbing manliness" for penis--just call it what it is, for heavens sake!) but instead carry on a very candid conversation where they confess their fantasies and their needs to one another, and in the process reveal their vulnerabilities to one another. There's a backwash of tenderness in the way they seem to care for one another over the course of the conversation, and when they finally are finished with the conversation, the reader is left breathlessly wondering what the fallout will be in each of their lives. Will the guy call the woman on her land line now that he actually has her real number? Will they ever meet in person? Will they start a relationship? The cagey Mr Baker leaves the reader yearning for more. I'd recommend this book to those adults who enjoy the erotic power of words, and it, too, deserves an A.

Enchantments is the story of Masha, one of two daughters born to Grigory Rasputin, the mad monk of St Petersburg Russia. The story takes place in the final days of Tzar Nicholas and Alexandra, around 1917, right after Rasputin was murdered and his daughters taken to the Imperial Palace for their 'safety's sake' to live with the Romanovs. Alexandra had hopes that her savior Rasputin's daughter would be able to help her hemophiliac son  as her father had done for so many years.  Unfortunately, Masha's only talents are with bareback horseback trick riding and storytelling, so readers are treated to a 1001 Nights style of stories that she tells to the heir to the throne, Aloysha, while he recovers from injuries inflicted on himself by playing at such things as riding a tea tray down the stairs and running into a banister with his leg.
Fortunately, Masha is unsparing in her tales of what her famous father was really like (more of a divinely-touched smelly homeless peasant whose healing abilities were fueled by his rampant sexual addiction), what Alexandra and Nicholas' courtship was like, the rise of the Bolsheviks, the cruelty of the red army, who eventually executed the royal family, cut their bodies up and threw them down a mine shaft, and the enormous contrast of the wealthy lifestyles of the few with the famine and poverty of the many Russians trying to survive. Though her prose is elegant, Harrison tended to float off into lengthy descriptions of the countryside, or the towns, or snow that seemed to be almost like drug-induced fever-dreams. Though they were rich with imagery, they slowed the plot to a crawl at times, and I ended up skimming parts of the book that I felt read like gilding the lily. Once the plot moves toward the final two chapters, it's moving at a clip, and yet I was disappointed with the ending, because we don't find out what happened to our intrepid protagonist. Still, I would recommend this book to all those who enjoy Russian history and Royal history, or any historical fiction that is based in fact. I'd give the book a B+.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Jeopardy, Iowa State Bookstore Closing, Kindles

From Shelf Awareness comes this query, to which my answer is a resounding YES!
Want to spend the night in a British bookshop? The Sanctuary Bookshop
in central Lyme Regis (the "Pearl of Dorset") features "ten rooms of
books on four floors... a reading room with comfortable armchairs, a
cozy fire, a floor of books mostly $1 or less, and, if desired,
some overnight accommodation for book lovers." It is located in the
region where adaptations of John Fowles The French Lieutenant's Woman
and Austen's Persuasion were filmed.

I watched this local gal win a pile of cash on Jeopardy, and was right proud of her prowess:
Last Thursday, after back-to-back winning nights--for a grand total of
$59,198--on Jeopardy, Kathy Wright of the University Bookstore, Seattle,
Wash., lost. Incidentally, one of her choices was in the category
"websites from A to Z." For $200, the question was "It started as an
online bookstore run from Jeff Bezos' garage."

Wright noted that her correct answer, "," was "muttered
through clenched teeth, grudgingly." She added, in a reference to
longtime Jeopardy winner Ken Jennings's comment after losing to IBM's
Watson last year, "I want to let people know that what I meant to add,
but didn't, was 'I, for one, do NOT welcome our new computer overlords.'"

On a sad note, I have been to this bookstore when I was growing up in Iowa, and I think it is terrible that it's closing down.
 The Campus Book Store, Ames, Iowa, is closing
after 39 years in business, the Iowa State Daily reported. All
merchandise is discounted 50% and fixtures, displays and shelving are
for sale.
Floyd and Sandra Ballein, the founders and owners of the store, which
serves Iowa State University, had no comment on its closing.

This sounds like an awesome initiative to get kids in other countries reading
and learning from an e-reader. In a side note, my husband Jim just bought Amazon's Kindle Fire,
and has been loving its many applications.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and founder and CEO Jeff
Bezos are holding a press conference on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.,
to announce the launch of the Kindle Mobile Learning Initiative, reported.

According to the State Department, the "public-private partnership with
Amazon and the U.S. government" is intended to create "a global e-reader
program that introduces aspects of U.S. society and culture directly to
young people, students, and international audiences in new ways and
expands English language learning opportunities worldwide."

Under a no-bid contract that is still in a "pilot program" phase, the
State Department will pay $2.29 million to Amazon in the first year of
the program for 2,500 Kindles, content, support and more. Over five
years, the full cost of the program could be $16.5 million for 7,000
Kindles a year.

This is a funny video of a woman trying to explain her novel to several famed
Seattle booksellers, which is no easy task for even the most prominent authors.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette: A Novel
by Maria Semple (Little, Brown), via Entertainment Weekly, in which
Semple, an Arrested Development writer, tries pitching her upcoming book
to Seattle booksellers and others. Includes appearances by actor Tom
Skerritt and cameos by Elliott Bay's Rick Simonson and Karen Maeda
Allman, University Bookstore's Stesha Brandon and Matthew Simmons and
Hugo House's Brian McGuigan. Hilarious.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Three New Books and a Great Local Quote

"At home here in Washington State, I continue to relish the Seattle Arts
and Lecture series inside the same grand Benaroya Hall where the
symphony performs and Pearl Jam cut a live album. For me, it really
doesn't even matter who the author is. What inspires me is the crowd,
that up to 2,000 people come out to hear prominent and promising
authors. There are some belly laughs and standing ovations, but mostly
there's the gentle hum and murmur of the stimulated minds of intense
readers coming together to listen to and think about words. In these
days of electronic mania and shrinking attention spans, just being there
can make you feel like you are part of some intelligent and subversive

--Jim Lynch,
whose latest book is Truth Like the Sun, writing for the National Post's
Afterword blog

The above is true of this wonderful state I live in...people here support books and reading, which makes this a bibliophiles paradise!

This past week I read "Need" by Carrie Jones, "The House at Tyneford" by Natasha Solomons and "The Haunting of Maddy Clare" by Simone St James, (*which strikes me as a rather flimsy pen name).

"Need" is a YA paranormal romance that is somewhat similar to the Twilight series in structure, replacing evil pixies and shape shifters for vampires and werewolves, and trading a young girl's journey to Maine for a young girls journey to Washington state. Fortunately, that's where the similarities end, for the most part, as our teen heroine Zara isn't as dull, stupid and wimpy as Bella, and the prose is quite readable, while the zippy plot seems almost plausible.
Zara, who has just lost her beloved stepfather, feels so numb and out of it that she can hardly muster enough ire to protest when her mother sends her away to her grandmother's house in Northern Maine.  While there, Zara meets Devyn, a kid in a wheelchair, and Issie, a goofy hyper-active girl who manages to worm her way into Zara's heart. She also meets Nick, a handsome guy whose touch thrills her, and Ian, another handsome teen who competes for her attentions with Nick. There seems to be a strange man who keeps shadowing Zara, though, and she hears his voice whenever she's outside, begging her to "come to me" and generally creeping her out. Soon the trio of Devyn, Issie and Zara discover that the mysterious man is an evil pixie who leaves gold dust in his wake, and who is seeking his "queen," without whom he is forced to abduct teenage boys and suck the life out of them to fulfill his 'need.' Unsurprisingly, Nick turns out to be a werewolf, yet Zara's grandmother is a were-tiger and the school secretary is a were-bear (Devyn is the oddest of the bunch as a were-eagle). The group must fight off the evil pixies and Zara must face her destiny before the end of the story, which has three sequels. I found this first book in the series to be a pleasant enough read, not too full of cliches and bad prose to want to toss it, yet not really rising far enough above the Twilight stereotype to warrant lavish praise or longevity in the YA paranormal romance genre. That said, I plan on reading the next two books in the series, just to see how tough little Zara fairs. I'd recommend this as a good alternative to Twilight, (it is certainly better written) and I'd give it a solid B.

"The House at Tyneford" was a delicious novel for those of us enamored and yes, somewhat obsessed, with "Downton Abbey." It is the story of Elise Landau, a spoiled Viennese Jewish girl who is sent to the English countryside at the beginning of World War 2. Though she has had no training and has never had to work before, she's employed at an English mansion, Tyneford, as a maid. While there she encounters the perfectionist butler, the stiff chatelaine or house manager, and the Lord of the manor, Mr Rivers and his handsome son, Kit. Of course, Kit being the rebellious son, falls for Elise and though they plan on marriage, the war gets in the way, and when Kit is killed, Elise has to deal with her grief over not only his death, but the death of her beloved parents in a Jewish ghetto. Though Elise, now called "Alice" triumphs in the end, I found it heartbreaking that the beautiful English manor was requisitioned by the British military and never returned to its rightful owners, something that apparently happened all too often in the real English countryside during WWII. Still, a fascinating and engrossing tale that I'd recommend to all Downton Abbey fans and to readers of historical romance. The House at Tyneford deserves an A-.

Finally, "The Haunting of Maddy Clare" was a page-turning thriller/mystery/paranormal romance that I wasn't expecting to love as much as I did. The prose is mesmerizing and the plot flows like silk in the breeze, so swift and yet gentle that you don't realize you're completely engrossed until you look up at the clock and find that hours have slipped by.
Sarah Piper is a lonely young woman barely making ends meet in 1920's, post WWI England, when she accepts work (she is listed with a temp agency) for a young charismatic man named Alistair Gellis, who happens to be an author and a ghost hunter. There's the ghost of a young maid who hanged herself in the barn in a small hamlet in the English countryside who is haunting a couple of little old ladies. Apparently these ladies took in the maid when she appeared at their doorstep traumatized and covered in mud. Gellis, whose assistant Matthew Ryder, is away visiting his sister during labor, needs a woman to "talk" to the maid's ghost, who is said to hate men and refuses to talk to them or do anything but drive them violently away. Sarah, who is somewhat "sensitive" to paranormal phenominon, actually hears the ghost speaking to her and has visions of what happened to the maid, Maddy Clare, who seeks revenge for her rape and murder. During the course of the novel, we see Sarah grow as a person, and fall in love with Matthew, as well as taking on the task of finding justice for Maddy. This is the kind of novel I like to read to take my mind off of something dull or unpleasant, because it is so riveting you forget your surroundings, your pain and anything else that stands between you and finding out what happens to Sarah and Maddy's ghost. I recommend this book to historical mystery lovers and to those who find a paranormal romance with mystery woven throughout fascinating. I'd give the novel an A, and I hope to encounter Ms St James' other works.

Friday, June 08, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury, Plus Two Fantasy Novels

Author Ray Bradbury died on June 5 at age 91. Ray Bradbury was one of the best writers ever to grace our planet. He was a master of the short story, which is, in my opinion, one of the hardest forms of fiction to write, and he wrote classic works of science fiction that were read by people who normally would never touch a genre novel.  The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, were all books that I read and loved throughout my teen years. His story "Uncle Einar" made me weep, as did many of his other wonder-filled short stories, from "The Veldt" to his short story about the vampire family that was shamelessly ripped off by Stephanie Meyer for her "Twilight" series. When Jim and I visited Los Angeles in 1994, we made a pilgrimage to the Bradbury Building, where they filmed the Outer Limits episode, "Demon With a Glass Hand" and part of "Blade Runner." Those who are bibliophiles and other writers/authors mourn with me, as we shall not see his like ever again. Rest in Peace, Mr Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury,
the internationally--perhaps even universally--acknowledged master of
science fiction "whose imaginative and lyrical evocations of the future
reflected both the optimism and the anxieties of his own postwar
America," as the New York Times put it, died on Tuesday after a long
illness. He was 91.

His best-known works included Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles,
The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. He received
the 2000 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution
to American Letters, the 2004 National Medal of Arts and the 2007
Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.

"By many estimations Mr. Bradbury was the writer most responsible for
bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream," the Times
observed, noting that more than eight million copies of his books have
been sold in 36 languages.

In July, Morrow is publishing Shadow Show: All New Stories in
Celebration of Ray Bradbury edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle
consisting of short stories by 26 authors, including  Ramsey Campbell,
Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Audrey Niffenegger, Dave
Eggers and Jacquelyn Mitchard.

"[Wednesday] afternoon I was in a studio recording an audiobook version
of a short story I had written for Ray Bradbury's 90th birthday. It's a
monologue called 'The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury,' and was a way of
talking about the impact that Ray Bradbury had on me as a boy, and as an
adult, and, as far as I could, about what he had done to the world. And
I wrote it last year as a love letter and as a thank you and as a
birthday present for an author who made me dream, taught me about words
and what they could accomplish and who never let me down as a reader or
as a person as I grew up."

--Neil Gaiman
in a Guardian essay remembering his friend, who died earlier this week.

From Shelf Awareness comes a great list of audiobooks:

The Audio Publishers Association announced this year's Audie Award
winners Tuesday night. Tina Fey's memoir Bossypants was a double winner,
earning Audio Book of the Year honors as well as a win in the
biography/memoir category. Check out the complete list of Audie winners
and finalists here

I just finished reading "Among Others", which I adored, as I was a teen in the 70s, and I felt much the same way about science fiction and fantasy as does the protagonist, Mori, who lost her twin sister and still manages to see the good in life and in the fair folk. She loves reading as much as I did, and I could identify with her scouring the library and the bookshops for new things to read. I could also identify with her being bullied and picked on, as I was treated much the same way in high school. Though her mother was horrifically insane and evil, and my parents were never abusive to that extent, I did have to deal with my parents divorce and their horrible way of putting me in the middle and blaming me for things that were not my fault. So I could identify with Mori on that front, too.

Among Others by Jo Walton
Tor, 2011. 9780765321534.
Reviewed by Bill Barnes of Unshelved

Morwenna and her twin sister practiced magic with the fairies in the overgrown industrial ruins of Wales. Then something terrible happened. Now she's alone, with a crippled leg, being driven to boarding school in England by a father she only just met.

Why I picked it up: Mori's world revolves around the science fiction and fantasy novels she reads. It takes place in 1980, just two years before I moved to England, and the books she reads are the ones I read by Heinlein, Niven, Le Guin, and so on. I couldn't resist.

Why I finished it: Mori is the nerdgirl I always hoped to meet. I was a little jealous when she meets a boy at a sci-fi book club. But Mori really can do magic, and she bides her time, dealing with the petty politics of boarding school while preparing for the inevitable rematch with the being that killed her sister.

I'd give it to: Nigel, the first friend I made when I moved to England. We were both strangers in a strange land, and he'll be freaked out by the nostalgic smells and sounds Walton evokes, especially the sweet buns, for a long time the only food in England worth eating, which Mori and the other girls consume in quantity.

I also read Ann Aguirre's latest Corine Solomon novel, "Devil's Punch" and I was surprised at how deftly Aguirre managed to tie up loose ends while weaving in an original and often scary tale of Corine's battle to save her young friend Shannon literally from Hell, where the politics aren't quite what you'd think they are. Her relationship with Chance was also renewed and solidified, and even though she's taken over by the Queen of the Demons, Chance still loves her unconditionally. Though it had a sad ending, I am really looking forward to the next installment in this series.

Monday, June 04, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, and The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

I can relate to this quote, having just started on a new Crohn's medication, and I'm feeling all sorts of new pains in my abdomen.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Khalil Gibran

I'm a huge fan of the new BBC TV series, "Sherlock" and I just recently learned that there will be a new American TV series about Sherlock Holmes called "Elementary." Here's the scoop from Shelf Awareness:
Given the recent success of the BBC/PBS Masterpiece Mystery series
Sherlock, Elementary
"has either the misfortune or, I'm sure according to CBS, the great luck
to arrive this fall" as yet another contemporary incarnation of Arthur
Conan Doyle's legendary detective," Indiewire reported.

In the CBS version, which is set in New York City, Jonny Lee Miller
plays Holmes and Lucy Liu will have the "genderflipping" role of Joan
Watson. The pilot was directed by Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.).

Indiewire noted that the "Miller's take on Holmes, while eccentric, is
less prickly than Cumberbatch's U.K. version. Incidentally, Miller and
Cumberbatch starred opposite one another in Danny Boyle's National
Theatre stage production of Frankenstein, alternating between the roles
of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature."

I wanted to shout YES when I read this quote:
"The ring is small, the punches come fast and relentlessly, the contest
is a mismatch, but why shouldn't we keep swinging? Good independent
booksellers are still capable of finding talented readers in quantity
for great books, books that might not find their way through the valley
of the shadow of remainder death without our help."Robert Gray

I've finished two fascinating books this past week, Michael Chabon's "The Final Solution" which is about Sherlock Holmes at the end of his life, and "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach, which has received a ton of hype and awards, including being named the NYTimes "Best Book of the Year" (I am assuming for last year, since the book is out in paperback now).
The Final Solution is a slender volume, but one that packs a hearty punch for its size. Chabon never calls his protagonist "Sherlock Holmes" but instead tells us all manner of little details about him, each an indellible part of his character, so that we know it is Holmes, albeit a decrepid and ancient Holmes, that we're dealing with. Chabon masterfully uses prose that is nearly exactly the same as Arthur  Conan Doyle's, so we're plunged into the mystery with the feeling that we've landed in familiar territory.The story revolves around a young Jewish mute who is removed to England during WWII with his African Gray Parrot, Bruno, a clever bird who has memorized some secret numbers and is being hunted by several different people, one of whom resorts to murder to obtain the bird. Holmes sets out not to solve the murder so much as to find Bruno and return him to Linus, his owner.
I highly recommend this book to Holmsian scholars and fans, from ages 12 to 95, who love to watch a master sleuth solve a mystery.
I was prepared to loathe "The Art of Fielding" because it is a book about baseball, and I am not a sports fan, and it takes place in the Midwest (Wisconsin) at a small, liberal arts college, and having attended a small liberal arts college in the Midwest (Iowa) I feared that here was yet another author set to make Midwestern people sound like laughable rubes and dupes (are you listening, Jane Smiley?).
Fortunately, I was wrong about the book, and from the first chapter, I was enchanted by the characters and their lives, as well as the strong and luscious prose that read like a cross between John Steinbeck and John Irving with a soupcon of WP Kinsella's Shoeless Joe and the Iowa Baseball Confederacy thrown in for spice.
The story takes place at Westish College, run by the handsome and affable Guert Affenlight, who has inexplicably fallen in love with a student, the lithe and wise Owen Dunne, though Affenlight has never been attracted to men before, and has a daughter, Pella, who is Owen's age. The protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, ends up being room mates with Owen, mainly because he starts school so late there are no other rooms left. Henry is something of a baseball phenom, a shortstop who never misses a ball, and he's discovered by Mike Schwartz, the college jock whose mentorship has lead many of the colleges athletes to scholarships. As it says on the back of the book "As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process, they forge new bonds and help one another find their true paths."
What the author doesn't tell you in that blurb is that we learn so much about the human spirit, the human capacity for love, and sacrifice, tragedy and triumph that you're left breathless with awe by the end, tears pouring down your cheeks, having fallen in love with these people and having prayed for their success as you would a beloved family member. I don't know how else to say it, but this is a GREAT book, one that is destined to be a classic, and one that will be read for decades to come by young and old, ebook and dead-tree readers alike. It gets an A+, and even if you don't like baseball, please read it, just for the stunning prose and wise characters alone. If you aren't crying by the time Owen, known as "Buddha" by the team, says, "You told me once that a soul isn't something a person is born with, but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love. And you did that with more dedication than most, that work of building a soul--not for your own benefit, but for the benefit of those who knew you," you're not human.