Saturday, September 27, 2014

Kittery Bookstore, Small Business Saturday and Entwined by Heather Dixon, Stormbringer by Phillipa Gregory and The Secret Life of Violet Grant by Beatriz Williams

I lived in Kittery Maine for a summer in 1983, and I worked part time for a bookstore called The Gentle Reader. I totally adored that tiny bookshop, and I was so sad when the owner decided to close it down. However, cheek and jowl with Kittery is Portsmouth, NH, which has a bunch of great stores and cafes, and now they will have the only bookstore for the two towns to share. I wish I could visit the place again and see how much has changed in the past 30 years. 
close its Kittery, Maine, location, which opened last year
announcing the decision, Riverrun said its flagship store in nearby
Portsmouth, N.H., "is NOT closing, it is alive and well."

Expressing gratitude to "customers who supported RiverRun in Kittery
Foreside," the bookseller noted: "We loved, loved, loved being there,
but unfortunately our sales at that location have not come close to the
level needed to sustain our expenses. Nothing ventured, nothing gained
as they say, and we are happy we took the risk. We will miss that
location greatly."

I love Neil Gaiman, and though I find his latest wife rather annoying and attention-seeking, I appreciate that she seems to support him in his love of indie bookstores and wordsmithing. As I also wanted to work in a bookshop or a library when I was a child, I found this idea from the two of them to be truly delightful. I don't know that the owner of the Sequel or the owner of Finally Found Books, the two closest bookstores to me (in Enumclaw and Auburn, respectively) would welcome my help in their stores, but I can visit their stores and buy books in the next couple of weeks, after my wedding anniversary trip to Powells next weekend.

In an open letter to "you lot: writers of books
Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer called on their fellow authors to actively
support Indies First by linking to
indies for book sales and signing up to be booksellers at their favorite
independent bookshops on November 29, Small Business Saturday
Bookselling This Week reported. Among the letter's highlights:

"Neil wanted to be an author when he grew up. But if he wasn't an
author, he thought, the best possible profession would be working in a
bookshop, pointing people at books they might like, ordering books for
them, divining with some kind of superhuman ability that the book with
the blue cover that their granny needed was actually Forever Amber, and
otherwise making people's lives better while being in bookshops....

"The Internet cannot make this magic happen. It cannot suggest books you
have no idea you want. There's nothing like the human, organic
serendipity of an independent bookshop, where people who read and love
books share their love with others....

"So: choose your independent bookshop, talk to the owner or manager, and
agree on what you are going to do that day.... You will be supporting
independent bookshops. They need your help. They in their turn will be
supporting you. Everybody wins."

I've just finished the second book in Phillipa Gregory's charming YA series, "The Order of Darkness," called "Stormbringers" and I was even more delighted by this book than I was of the first book, "Changeling." Here's the blurb:
The year is 1453, and the end of the world is closer than ever.
As Luca and Isolde continue their journey, their attraction grows with each passing day. Even as they try to remain focused on the mysteries they’ve been ordered to investigate, the tension between them builds.
Their budding, illicit relationship is put on hold when a boy, Johann, and his army of children arrive in town. Johann claims to have divine orders to lead the children across Europe to the Holy Land, and the townspeople readily accept his claims. Luca wants to believe, but his training tells him to question everything...but when Johann’s prophecy begins to come true, Luca wonders if they have finally stumbled upon a real miracle.
Yet even the greatest miracles have the potential for darkness…and the chaos that follows Johann is unlike anything anyone could have imagined.
This book was quite a thrill ride, though the plot had it's moments of lagging behind the action a bit. The Pope's inquisitor, Luca Varo, is once again embroiled in the plot of a mystery, as he and his manservant Freize, along with Isolde and her Muslim maidservant Ishraq, (and the bothersome brother Peter) find themselves beguiled by a children's crusade and it's charismatic leader. Unfortunately, the leader, Johann, is a religious fanatic who believes the seas will part for himself and his group of starving children, so they can enter the holy land and wrest the place from the Ottoman Turks and the Muslims. Once the ocean pulls back, it appears as if Johann was right, only to have an earthquake produce a tsunami that drowns most of the children and the party assumes, Frieze, who had gone back to save the horses from drowning. Freize turns up again, thankfully, but not long after he comes back from the dead, the head of the Order of Darkness, whom no one seems to ever have seen (he wears a hooded cloak) decides to drop in and denounce the slaver pirate Radu Bey, a Muslim who tries to get Ishraq to leave with him. As if all this weren't enough, Luca is required by the townspeople to put Isolde and Ishraq on trial in an inquisition because they're accused of being "stormbringers" who conjured the tsunami by witchcraft (all because they'd been seen walking to the local pond to bathe). Fortunately they're found innocent, and yet a coolness develops between Isolde and Ishraq because Ishraq soothes Luca when he's grieving and also gives Freize a kiss when he returns from the dead. This apparently sets Isolde into fits of jealousy, and she seems willing to throw away a lifelong friendship for very little reason, which I found not at all plausible. Still, I enjoy the history, the excellent character development and the surprisingly complex mysteries that this group of young people are called upon to solve. I look forward to the third book, which I hope to find soon.I'd give this book a B+ and recommend it to anyone who enjoyed "The Name of the Rose" or Brother Cadfael mysteries.

Entwined by Heather Dixon reads like a retold fairy tale, modernized a bit, with dialog that sounds something like 1920s British, (with words like "ripping" and "cracking" being liberally strewn throughout the text), yet appears to be placed in a 19th-century mileau, complete with Victorian furnishings in a shabby castle inhabited by poor nobility. Here's  the Publisher's Weekly blurb, (because the publisher's blurb was uninformative):
Readers who enjoy stories of royalty, romance, and magic will delight in Dixon's first novel. Part confection, part acute observation, the story of Azalea and her sisters is a reimagining of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" by an author who knows both the protocols and the pleasures of dance. The girls lose that when their mother dies in childbirth, and the castle is plunged into deepest mourning. Their father, whom they call "the King," banishes the girls from his sight and shortly thereafter goes off to war without saying good-bye. Grieving, angry, and bored, Azalea discovers a hidden passage out of the princesses' room, and the magical pavilion it leads to, guarded by the enigmatic spirit Keeper, is the perfect place to dance again. Or is it? Azalea, keenly aware of her duties as the Princess Royale, cannot trust a dream-come-true scenario nor can she forget the warm brown eyes of Mr. Bradford, met briefly and now warring beside the King. The language is simple, rendering Dixon's insights with a light touch without simplifying the problems Azalea faces or the nuances of the understanding she develops.  I disagree with PW that the language is "simple," rather I found it to be clean and clever prose, with a plot that shot along like it was on greased rails. I ended up reading the whole book in 4.5 hours.  Dixon manages to make each of the twelve princesses a distinct character without having them become stereotypes. Plus, their father the King, whom they called "Sir" tended to be the more believable for being a military man who is consumed with grief for the loss of his wife who bore him so many children (no wonder she died young!).But because they are princesses and they must marry, there was a great deal of discussion about suitable men and their father's uncharacteristic kindness in allowing them to be married to someone they love. Of course, the evil "Keeper's" plot to free himself from the magic beneath the castle and rule again after killing their father puts a scarey spin on the whole story. Of course the men who come to the rescue are deemed suitable for marriage to these teenage girls (who are considered "of age" to marry when they are 15! Horrors!), and there is a nicely-tied up HEA, which I enjoyed, but while I realize that this is a romantic fairy tale, I was still a bit creeped out by the fact that the only things these girls seemed interested in was dancing, wreaking havoc and finding a man. Except for Azalea, the eldest, who had promised her mother on her deathbed that she'd take care of her sisters (and her father), there doesn't seem to be much ambition in any of the 11 other girls, which doesn't make a lot of sense, even for a fairy tale. It would have been better, I think, to see some of the princesses pining for a life of study at a University, or showing an interest in mathematics, engineering, science or politics. Still this book deserves a A- and I'd recommend it to those who like "reboots" of fairy tales.

I won The Secret Life of Violet Grant from the publishers, Putnam, on a Facebook post, and it came with a spiffy little suitcase filled with colorful streamers, as if I were going on an ocean voyage in the 1920s. Here's the blurb:
Passion, redemption, and a battered suitcase full of secrets: the New York Times-bestselling author of A Hundred Summers returns with another engrossing tale. 
Manhattan, 1964. Vivian Schuyler, newly graduated from Bryn Mawr College, has recently defied the privilege of her storied old Fifth Avenue family to do the unthinkable for a budding Kennedy-era socialite: break into the Madison Avenue world of razor-stylish Metropolitan magazine. But when she receives a bulky overseas parcel in the mail, the unexpected contents draw her inexorably back into her family’s past, and the hushed-over crime passionnel of an aunt she never knew, whose existence has been wiped from the record of history.
Berlin, 1914. Violet Schuyler Grant endures her marriage to the philandering and decades-older scientist Dr. Walter Grant for one reason: for all his faults, he provides the necessary support to her liminal position as a young American female physicist in prewar Germany. The arrival of Dr. Grant’s magnetic former student at the beginning of Europe’s fateful summer interrupts this delicate d├ętente. Lionel Richardson, a captain in the British Army, challenges Violet to escape her husband’s perverse hold, and as the world edges into war and Lionel’s shocking true motives become evident, Violet is tempted to take the ultimate step to set herself free and seek a life of her own conviction with a man whose cause is as audacious as her own.
As the iridescent and fractured Vivian digs deeper into her aunt’s past and the mystery of her ultimate fate, Violet’s story of determination and desire unfolds, shedding light on the darkness of her years abroad . . . and teaching Vivian to reach forward with grace for the ambitious future––and the love ––she wants most.
This was, indeed, a very engrossing story, though I don't think the dialog of Vivian S in 1964 was realistic to how people spoke at the time, especially in a progressive city like New York. Vivian sounds like a character from the Great Gatsby, complete with sarcasm, wit and horridly snobbish relatives.An example: "Now I don't know if you would call me and Nicholas Greenwald Jr kissing cousins, I mean, we'd only kissed once. Well, twice. But we had a zing, he and I, if you know what I mean, and my poor wounded little heart revived just a smidgen at the way his handsome old scoundrelly face lit to blazes at the sight of me." I adored the fact that Vivian worked for a magazine and couldn't get a break until she gives up the man she's in love with in exchange for the chance to write and publish the story of her great aunt Violet's troubles leading up to the Great War. Ah the intrigue! The murder of Violet's horrid husband, who was her mentor and professor, and her struggle to become a scientist and be allowed to do her own experiments and take credit for her work was fascinating stuff. Though she seemed at times to be too naive and innocent, her character still rang true to the era, and she nearly made Vivian seem slightly less colorful by contrast. Still, the prose was very F Scott Fitzgerald, with a side of Edith Wharton and a plot fully as fast as the Queen Mary at full steam. Once you pick the book up, all bets are off for the rest of the day, as you will want to leap from chapter to chapter to find out what happens to both Schulyer women. The chapters trade off from Violets POV to Vivians, yet this doesn't disturb the novel's flow one iota. Deliciously rebellious as both women are, I was glad to see them tucked away in an HEA by the end of the book, and I found myself hoping that Beatriz Williams comes back to Vivian in one of her future novels, just so I can revel in the stream of bon mots. A well deserved A, and I'd recommend this novel to anyone who was fascinated by the life of Marie Curie or other women of science in the early part of the 20th century.

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