Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Fly Away, Baker Street Letters and The Ocean at the End of the Lane

First, as usual, a couple of bits of book news:

Shelf Awareness hosts book giveaways twice a month as a fun way to
promote new books, and our current giveaway--10 signed copies of Neil
Gaiman's new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane--is breaking
records. More than 10,000 people have entered already, which is a
testament to how much people adore Gaiman's work.

Take a look at the contest here
http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz17469549 and watch for future
giveaways from DC Comics, Charlaine Harris and other writers.
Bookstores, bloggers and others can join in by posting the contest
button on their websites--the instructions are here http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz17469550.

Sadly, great writers seem to be passing away in great numbers recently:

Richard Matheson http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz17469573,
American author (I am Legend, The Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come,
Hell House) and screenwriter (Twilight Zone, Steven Spielberg's film
Duel), died Sunday, Tor.com reported. He was 87. Matheson received a
World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime
Achievement and in 2010 was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of
Fame. Ray Bradbury called him "one of the most important writers
of the 20th century," io9 noted, adding that Stephen King credited
Matheson as "the author who influenced me most as a writer."

City Lights Bookstore is celebrating their 60th anniversary this week, too. It's great, and at the same time sad, that Elliott Bay Bookstore is one of the last independent bookstores left in Seattle. They had to move from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill, which may have limited them a bit.

Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn explored the "evolution of
Elliott Bay Book Co. http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz17469584," which
celebrates its 40th anniversary later this week.

"It was 1973, and Walter Carr had a dream," Gwinn wrote. "He wanted his
own enterprise. He wanted to own a bookstore. He had grown up in San
Francisco, and knew City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, a beacon of
books and literature in a picturesque old neighborhood close to a bay.

"He considered Seattle, and like others eyeing opportunity here found
that Seattle's population was just as educated as San Francisco's,
similarly prosperous, but living in a less crowded and more accessible
town. He had lunch at Ivar's with a friend, walked around the historic
old Pioneer Square neighborhood, sat down in the Grand Central Bakery
and looked across the street at the old Globe Building. He called the
landlord. That is how the Elliott Bay Book Co. http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz17469585, one of the country's most loved and
revered bookstores, was born."

Among the amusing anecdotes was one from current owner Peter Aaron, who
recalled the "watershed moment" when Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay's
longtime head buyer and events coordinator, "turned up, holding onto a
garbage can from the nearby restaurant where he worked. He had just
finished high school, and he poked his head in and said, 'Oh, this is
great, I love books.' "

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is a rare stand-alone adult novel in Gaiman's stable of works, which include his famed Sandman graphic novels and his equally famous children's books, like Stardust and Coraline. But not since American Gods and Anansi Boys has Gaiman lead us into the world of revamped mythology catered to the 21st century's media-drenched palate. Since he's British, there are in his previous works that satiric nod to all the things that the British find reprehensible and incomprensible about the "American colonies." What's odd about The Ocean at the End of the Lane is that it's a very British novel with no hints of Gaiman's usual keen stripping of American glamor and culture down to it's skivvies.
No, this novel is what happens, apparently, when Gaiman is left alone, separated by continents from Amanda Palmer, his new, young wife.
The story starts with a middle aged man returning home to Sussex, England for a funeral.  We never learn the man's name, nor do we discover who died, exactly, but all that is immaterial as the book plunges the protagonist into memories of a pivotal time in his childhood. Boy protagonist, it seems, was a precocious lad who gets involved with the three Hempstock ladies who live at the end of the lane near his home. There's granny Hempstock, mum Hempstock and the enigmatic Lettie Hempstock, who claims the pond by her house is actually the ocean, and who befriends Boy P. Unfortunately, Boy P witnesses the dead body of a lodger and learns that Lettie and her mother and grandmother have an uncanny kind of magic which they use to try and set things right with the universe, which has somehow been torn asunder by the entrance of a being that is bent on 'giving people what they want' while also trying to ruin Boy P's life. Bizarre events culminate in Lettie paying the ultimate price to save her friend Boy P, whose memory is wiped clean every time he leaves the Hempstock's farm.
The aching loneliness and sadness of children and the selfish cruelty of adults toward children are strong themes woven throughout the dreamy prose of the book.
But what really struck me about this slender volume was the pagan "Maiden, Mother, Crone" characters of the Hempstock women, who were such large Deus Ex Machina compared to the small, curious, lonely boy protagonist that the reader finds herself wanting to launch a campaign to get Neil Gaiman a puppy, so he won't be so sad in remembering his childhood, which is what readers will assume this novel to be, a cleverly-disguised autobiography of Gaiman's youth, with magic thrown in for good measure. Gaiman is such a brilliant prose stylist that he can't actually write a bad book, yet I still felt somewhat emotionally manipulated by the end, and I found myself wondering, yet again, why all English writers seem to have had such awful parents. Are there no warm and loving human beings left in England who know how to parent? Still, the novel itself rates an A, with the caveat that no one who is depressed or who has lost someone recently should read it, lest they fall even farther down the rabbit hole of black thoughts/moods.
Fly Away by Kristin Hannah is the sequel to Firefly Lane, wherein we find out just what happened to Tully Hart and Kate Ryan, best friends whose lives intertwined and then broke apart after Kate's death from breast cancer. Tully's career is crashing and burning, and Kate's family is being torn apart by grief. But Tully strives to help, only to be rebuffed by Kate's husband (who comes off as a real asshat) Johnny, whose inability to parent his children borders on the ridiculous. Meanwhile, we also learn why Tully's mother "Cloud," was unable to parent Tully and why she became an alcoholic drug addict living with a series of abusive men (Tully's mother suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father while her mother swept the whole thing under the rug by forcing her daughter into mental institutions in the 1950s, where they used lobotomies, electroshock therapy and over medication to force young women into submission.) Though Cloud/Dorothy's story reads like a stereotype for addicts, homeless people and the mentally ill, I found her path of redemption, by going to AA and tending to her comatose daughter, to be so kind and lovely that it didn't matter that it was a heavily-trodden trope, it just mattered that mother and daughter forgave each other and reconnected. Tully herself was, at times, almost insufferably selfish, to the point where I wanted to smack her myself. Still, though she gave journalism a bad name, I found myself rooting for her recovery. That's a testament to the power of Kristin Hannah's writing ability, that she can take a sorrowful subject or two, like grief and addiction and turn them into riveting reading that will keep you turning pages long after midnight. The teenager Marah, Kate's daughter, has a rocky storyline that became annoying because of her blindness and naivete to being used by some goth creep. Fortunately, Marah wakes up just in time for an HEA ending, and again, I found myself wondering how I'd not looked up from the pages of Fly Away until 3 AM.  Deserving of an A, though it has a few B+ moments, I'd recommend this book to those who have addiction in their families.
Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson was a discounted book that I found at Barnes and Nobel, and I was surprised that it was better than I expected it to be. The novel is the story of two British lawyer brothers, Reggie and Nigel, who have taken over offices at the famed Sherlock Holmes address, 221B Baker Street in London. Though a fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, people have been writing letters to Holme's address for decades, and the lease on the offices comes with a codicil that requires the lease holders to answer every letter that arrives with a form note, explaining, one assumes, that Sherlock Holmes is fictional, and even if he were not, he'd be long dead by now, having been written in the late 19th century. While brother Reggie is a successful barrister, his brother Nigel is the quintessential black sheep, always doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, and getting into trouble that only his brother can get him out of all the time. While going through the letters, Nigel finds a note that is 20 years old and decides to fly to America and investigate himself. Meanwhile, brother Reggie discovers a dead compatriot in Nigel's office and a note about his flight to America. So Reggie sets off to Los Angeles to find his brother, only to become embroiled in the mystery himself. Though both brothers seem somewhat clueless and hapless, they do eventually solve the mystery and neither gets the actress girlfriend in the end. I found myself being annoyed with the snobbish, shallow attitude of Reggie, the successful brother and the stupidity and culpability/gullibility of Nigel, the screw up brother. Having two unlikable protagonists usually sends me out of a book, never to return, but I felt compelled by the mystery to see this one to the end. I am not certain I'd want to read another volume of the Hapless Brothers of Baker Street mysteries, but I can say with certainty that there are a number of Sherlock Holmes fans who would find the series an amusing distraction, especially for a summer 'beach' read. A C+ rating with a B for British ingenuity.

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