Sunday, January 25, 2015

An Interview With Jeffrey Cook, First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen, Carousel Seas by Sharon Lee, The Observations by Jane Harris and After the War is Over by Jennifer Robson

I have been on a reading jag lately, and I've read some wonderful books that I want to review here, but first, I want to put in a link to a wonderful interview with local (Maple Valley) author Jeffrey Cook, who is, as they used to say, a gentleman and a scholar. He has two fine steampunk books out, and they, unlike most self published books, are well worth the time it takes to read them.
Here's the link:

Yesterday was National Reading Day, and I took full advantage, digging into Mary Roach's Gulp and Sarah Addison Allen's First Frost (more about the latter, later)
Here's more from Shelf Awareness:
National Readathon Day Makes Debut This Saturday
To promote National Readathon Day, which makes its debut this Saturday, January 24, and is sponsored by the National Book
Foundation, Penguin Random House, GoodReads and Mashable, 15 authors
appear in a video discussing why reading is
important and what they like to read. Among our favorite comments:

Delia Ephron: "If you don't make time to
read, your brain will rot."

Norman Lear: "I read when I should be looking at television."

Annabelle Gurwitch: "I like to pick up a book at my local neighborhood
bookstore because I like a random encounter."

David Milgrim: "Everything we hold dear is in books, and all you gotta
do is pick them up. It's all there."

As part of National Readathon Day--when book lovers are asked to pledge
to read for four hours starting at noon in their respective time
zones--nearly 200 bookstores, libraries, schools, universities and other
organizations are hosting events. For example, at WORD
bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., participants
are invited to "grab a seat in the basement and a donut and get in some
quality reading time" while at WORD's Jersey City, N.J., store, "the
cafe will be reserved for readers from noon to 4 p.m. (no laptops
allowed!)." BookPeople , Austin, Tex., is
reserving "our quiet, peaceful third floor space... for anyone who wants
to sit down and read from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m." At the Bookshelf Thomaston, Ga., volunteers will
read aloud Wonder by R.J. Palacio in the children's section, and the
store will donate 10% of all sales between noon and 4 p.m. to the
National Book Foundation. And at Watermark Books and Café, Wichita, Kans., the store will "keep
things quiet" between noon and 4 p.m. so readers can "curl up with your
favorite book" and "enjoy reading in a community of readers."

An important component of National Readathon Day is fundraising
to support the
National Book Foundation's efforts to create, promote and sustain a
lifelong love of reading in the U.S. Proceeds will go to Foundation
education programs like BookUp, the after-school reading program that
has given away more than 25,000 books to middle schoolers since 2007. So
far, teams and individuals have raised more than $25,000.

The National Book Foundation is providing some prizes for fundraisers:
for $100 raised, an I Love Reading tote bag; for $250 raised, a copy of
a 2014 National Book Award-winning book; $1,000, an I Love Reading tote
bag and all four 2014 National Book Award-winning books; $2,500, two
tickets to the 2015 National Book Awards ceremony, dinner and
after-party; and for $7,500 raised, two tickets to the 2015 National
Book Awards ceremony, dinner and after-party as well as hotel and

First Frost is the third book that I've read by Sarah Addison Allen, having read her first Waverly sisters novel, Garden Spells and then Lost Lake. Since I was mesmerized by those first two books, I was not surprised that First Frost enchanted me so swiftly, too. Here's the blurb:
It's October in Bascom, North Carolina, and autumn will not go quietly.  As temperatures drop and leaves begin to turn, the Waverley women are made restless by the whims of their mischievous apple tree... and all the magic that swirls around it. But this year, first frost has much more in store.
Claire Waverley has started a successful new venture, Waverley’s Candies.  Though her handcrafted confections—rose to recall lost love, lavender to promote happiness and lemon verbena to soothe throats and minds—are singularly effective, the business of selling them is costing her the everyday joys of her family, and her belief in her own precious gifts.

Sydney Waverley, too, is losing her balance. With each passing day she longs more for a baby— a namesake for her wonderful Henry. Yet the longer she tries, the more her desire becomes an unquenchable thirst, stealing the pleasure out of the life she already has.
Sydney’s daughter, Bay, has lost her heart to the boy she knows it belongs to…if only he could see it, too. But how can he, when he is so far outside her grasp that he appears to her as little more than a puff of smoke?
When a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of their family, each of them must make choices they have never confronted before.  And through it all, the Waverley sisters must search for a way to hold their family together through their troublesome season of change, waiting for that extraordinary event that is First Frost.
Lose yourself in Sarah Addison Allen's enchanting world and fall for her charmed characters in this captivating story that proves that a happily-ever-after is never the real ending to a story. It’s where the real story begins.
What the blurb neglects to mention, is that Allen has that knack of all good storytellers, to weave words in such a magical fashion that the reader finds herself lost to everything around her as she turns page after page, and puts life on hold to find out what happens to these so-real-seeming characters. I fell in love with Sydney, Claire and Bay, and was anxious for them to solve their problems by the magical first frost, so they could get on with their lives.  Bay is an especially self-possessed character, considering she's the same age as my son, 15. I see way too many young women without much self esteem wandering the halls of the school, looking for validation from everyone but themselves. It was refreshing to see a young woman who knows what she wants, what fits in her life, and is patient enough to wait for it to manifest. I was also delighted that the sinister con man from, naturally, Florida, was unable to steal money from Claire, or shake her conviction in her heritage. And Sydney was going to get a baby, one way or another, I knew, but I hope that she doesn't run into trouble down the road. That can only be answered by Allen writing another Waverly sisters/cousins/children novel!
Please, Ms Allen, can we (readers) have some more? A solid A for this wonderfully magical realism book, and I find myself hoping that author Sharon Lee picks up a copy, because I have a feeling that she and Ms Allen are kindred spirits in the writing world. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books by MJ Rose, Sharon Lee's fantasy novels or the works of Alice Hoffman.

Speaking of wonderment and joy, Carousel Seas, Sharon Lee's third Archer's Beach novel, was a true delight, filling in the last parts of the story begun in Carousel Tides, and continued in Carousel Sun. Here's the blurb:
Sequel to National Bestseller Carousel Sun. A gripping contemporary fantasy thriller from master storyteller Sharon Lee, award-winning cocreator of the highly popular Liaden Universe® saga.
Welcome to Archers Beach in the Changing Land, the last and least of the Six Worlds, where magic works, sometimes, and the Guardian husbands the vitality of the land and everyone on it — earth spirit and plain human alike.
Kate Archer, Guardian and carousel-keeper, has been busy making some changes of her own, notably beginning a romantic relationship with Borgan, the Guardian of the Gulf of Maine, Kate's opposite number, and, some would say, her natural mate.
Oh, and she's been instrumental in releasing the prisoners that had been bound into the carousel animals — which she's inclined to think is a good thing. . .
Until a former sea goddess sets up housekeeping in the Gulf of Maine, challenging Borgan's authority; endangering Kate and everything she holds precious.
. . .because the goddess has fallen in love in Borgan; and she'll stop at nothing to possess him.
Archers Beach is about to suffer a sea-change — and the question is whether Kate can survive it.
Nationally best-selling co-creator of the Liaden Universe® saga, Lee brings high energy action and romance to this tale of contemporary fantasy and redemption.
Sharon Lee, much like Sarah Addison Allen, has a way of crafting prose that is elegant, simple and yet enthralling. Her characters, though magical, seem more real, somehow, than real people, and their troubles and trials make them fascinating, in an almost voyueristic fashion. I kept wanting to jump in and help Kate and the Fun Country folks, and I wanted to strangle the goddess who wants to steal the power from Borgan and who thinks nothing of murdering the goblins of the seas. Though everything turns out okay in the end (and I am not going to spoil the book by telling you how), there were times in the reading when I was not certain that everything wasn't going to go down in flames, including our hero and heroine. I think this novel deserves an A, and I'd recommend it to those who enjoy urban fantasy and more realistic magical characters.
The Observations by Jane Harris was a book recommended to me because I'd read some books that had Irish and/or Scottish heroines, and also because I'd read books recently about the Victorian era. I was surprised by the gritty and gruesome aspects of the book, however, and found myself being less than thrilled by the fawning relationship between Bessy the maid and her mistress Arabella. This is a kind of epistolary novel, with Bessy writing a journal/diary account of her coming to work for Arabella, who is writing a "scientific" treatise on servants, and how inferior they are,both physically and mentally, and how to train them properly so that they're docile and will do as they're told. 
Here's the blurb:The Observations is a hugely assured and darkly funny debut set in nineteenth-century Scotland. Bessy Buckley, the novel's heroine, is a cynical, wide-eyed, and tender fifteen-year-old Irish girl who takes a job as a maid in a once-grand country house outside Edinburgh, where all is not as it seems. Asked by her employer, the beautiful Arabella, to keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts, Bessy soon makes a troubling discovery and realizes that she has fled her difficult past only to arrive in an even more disturbing present.
Though I believe it is meant to be "gothic" in style and tone, the novel creeps into the horror genre several times, and leaves readers unsettled and revolted. Especially when Bessy's mother, an alcoholic whore, shows up and Bessy relives some of the horrors her mother has visited upon her during her short life, putting her to work as a prostitute when she was only 9 years old. And if that's not enough to make you queasy, there's the repeated discussions of two characters being cut in half by railroad engines when they were pushed onto the tracks by Arabella, who is obviously insane (though somehow her beauty is supposed to mitigate any feelings of revulsion for her character.) I was also not aware that there were "nice" and "comfortable" lunatic asylums available during the Victorian era. Most of the places I've read about in the past were horrific Bedlam-style madhouses where terrible experiments were done on patients and where they had no protection from the ravages of other, more violent crazy people. Be that as it may, the prose, written in poor English by Bessy, is readable and moves the plot along at an even pace. I'd give this novel a C+, and recommend it to those who are fascinated by the Victorian era and how servants lived and died and were considered disposable.
After the War is Over by Jennifer Robson is the follow up to her first novel, Somewhere in France, which I read last year. These novels take place during and just after World War 1, and are fascinating in the detail that Robson brings to bear about life in a Liverpool, England that has lost so many of its young men to the ravages of war. Here's the blurb:
The internationally bestselling author of Somewhere in France returns with her sweeping second novel—a tale of class, love, and freedom—in which a young woman must find her place in a world forever changed
After four years as a military nurse, Charlotte Brown is ready to leave behind the devastation of the Great War. The daughter of a vicar, she has always been determined to dedicate her life to helping others. Moving to busy Liverpool, she throws herself into her work with those most in need, only tearing herself away for the lively dinners she enjoys with the women at her boardinghouse.
Just as Charlotte begins to settle into her new circumstances, two messages arrive that will change her life. One is from a radical young newspaper editor who offers her a chance to speak out for those who cannot. The other pulls her back to her past, and to a man she has tried, and failed, to forget.
Edward Neville-Ashford, her former employer and the brother of Charlotte's dearest friend, is now the new Earl of Cumberland—and a shadow of the man he once was. Yet under his battle wounds and haunted eyes Charlotte sees glimpses of the charming boy who long ago claimed her foolish heart. She wants to help him, but dare she risk her future for a man who can never be hers?
As Britain seethes with unrest and postwar euphoria fattens into bitter disappointment, Charlotte must confront long-held insecurities to fnd her true voice . . . and the courage to decide if the life she has created is the one she truly wants.
I really liked Charlotte, though I found her to be a bit wimpy at times. Still, she was passionate about the poor, and about helping others and showing the upper classes that they needed to help, too, not just ignore the way that society was changing around them. I also loved John Ellis, the newspaper editor who sees the talent and passion that Charlotte has for the poor and disenfranchised, and allows her to write a column in his paper, which ends up helping a number of people who would have otherwise slipped through the cracks.The character whom I failed to fall in love with was Edward, the Earl of Cumberland, who seemed like a great big whiny baby for most of the book, and he didn't seem to have the nerve to go against his parents wishes and realize that he loved Charlotte until the final chapters. Granted, I get that he was wounded and shell shocked and all of that, but for heaven's sake, man, get a grip and realize that it is your life, and you can do with it what you want, nobody is going to jail you for loving someone of another class! Money does confer a certain amount of power on those who have it, and I would think that he'd take what he could, marry whom he wanted to and get on with helping Charlotte get his life in order. At any rate, the prose was delicate and yet sturdy enough to keep up with the plot, which marched along at a brisk pace. I'd give this book a B+, and recommend it to those interested in what happened in England after the Great War.

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