Saturday, April 25, 2015

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman, Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore, Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew and Dayshift by Charlaine Harris

I'm trying not to be frustrated today with two books that I picked up and could not read. One I have absolutely no clue as to why I even ordered it, (Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup) and the other, Dream Lover, by Elizabeth Berg, which is a fictionalized account of the life of author George Sand, is just so dreadfully dull it gives me a headache whenever I attempt to read more than a few pages. I've read and adored most of Berg's fiction, so I can't imagine why her usually stellar prose has become so stilted and dull in this book. However, my mother, who loves Berg's books, would also find it uninteresting, so I don't feel comfortable just passing it on to her. Nor do I think she would find Here if You Need Me any good, as she's an atheist, and the book is about a female pastor who works with Search and Rescue teams and the police to bring comfort through prayer to those in emergency situations. Insert gusty sigh of resignation here.
Anyway, on to the reviews.

Alice Hoffman's Nightbird is a YA title that is simplistic in it's joy and beauty, yet complex in its message of accepting who you are, even when you're very different from those around you in a small community. Here's the blurb, from Publisher's Weekly:
Once again, Hoffman (Green Angel) works her magic to transport readers to a realm where enchantment intermingles with everyday realities. Sidwell, Mass., is famous for its apples, “so sweet people come from as far as New York City during the apple festival,” and the mysterious winged monster rumored to reside there. Twelve-year-old Twig Fowler leads an isolated existence in an ancient farmhouse with her mother, a skillful baker. The two of them rarely venture into town because no one must discover their family secret: that Twig’s older brother (whose very existence they’ve kept secret) has been afflicted with a 200-year-old curse. Twig remains friendless until she meets new neighbor Julia Hall and her older sister, who might be able to help reverse the spell plaguing the Fowler family. The book’s evocative setting and distinctive characters will immediately hook readers, and the history of Twig’s family, uncovered bit by bit, will keep them engaged. The risks Twig takes in reaching out to the Hall sisters bring gratifying rewards and unexpected connections to others in the community. 
Twig was my kind of outcast, a smart and compassionate teenager who loves the people in her community and loves to read books. But because she has a brother cursed with wings, she isn't allowed to have friends over, or to go out, until the neighbor girl moves in, and then everything changes, as Twig and her friend Julia work to break the curse that has kept her family in the shadows for so long. Having read at least 5 or 6 of Hoffman's other books, I expect her prose to be impeccable, beautiful and slightly melancholy, but in Nightbird Hoffman seems to unfetter her prose so that it becomes light and bright and aids the swift plot to a very satisfying HEA ending. A lovely book that deserves an A, and a recommendation to those who enjoy remodeled fairy tales.

Born With Teeth is actress (and fellow Iowan) Kate Mulgrew's highly anticipated memoir that just came out this month. I was able to snag a ticket to hear Mulgrew read from her book at Town Hall in Seattle last week, and a book was included in the ticket price. Having met Kate Mulgrew in 1983, when she came to speak to the Clarke College theater majors, I knew her to be an expert storyteller, full of the "gift of the gab" so delightfully common among people of Irish heritage. In the 80s, I had seen her on TV in a soap opera, and in movies and TV as Mrs Columbo, but at that point, she hadn't yet taken on her most famous roles, first as Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek Voyager for 7 years, and now as Red Reznikov, a prison inmate among the crazies in the addictive Netflix series, Orange is the New Black. Yet still Kate captivated us in the lounge area of Mary Josita Hall at Clarke, regailing us with tales of naked David Bowie rambling around during an audition, and lusty Richard Burton chasing her mother around the set of the movie Tristan and Isolte. I remember being amazed at how petite she was in real life, as she seemed to be an amazon on television. I also remember how beautiful she looked, and how kind and gracious she was to answer our questions and laugh with us. In subsequent years, I'd seen her at her second Star Trek convention, when she actually told the crowd how much money she made per episode during that first year of Voyager, which was a huge no-no due to the NDAs of Paramount (it was 330,000 per ep, and I'd imagine that number went up each year, so that by the time she completed 7 seasons, she was doubtlessly a millionaire and wouldn't have to work again for years.) I'd also seen her backstage at a fundraiser for the Seattle Rep Theater Company, and she had graciously signed a menu for me when she was in town in the late 1990s via my husband, who told her I was a Clarkie, like herself.
That brings me to one of the very few problems I have with Kate's memoir. She gives only one sentence to her Clarke College experience, though I gather she attended Clarke for 9 months about 5 years before I got there. According to the book, her father forced her to attend "a local all women's college" as a punishment for her wild ways as a teenager with a ton of talent who wanted to move to NYC and make a name for herself as an actress. I can understand being itchy to get out of Iowa, as I wanted to get out, too, but I don't think anyone forced her to play the lead in "The Plow and the Stars" at TDH at Clarke, and I gathered from Sr Carol Blitgen, head of the Drama Dept, that Kate was quite the diva, but because she was so talented, everyone put up with her shenanigans. So why no Clarke love, Kate? Why pretend that you hardly know the name of the place when you were a commencement speaker back in the 90s, and I gather you've given money to Clarke more than once? I am tremendously proud of having graduated from Clarke, it made a reasoning adult from a child riddled with guilt by her parents divorce.
Still, I must give major kudos to Kate for her sublime prose, riddled with delicious insights into theater, television and movie-making, as well as stories from her exciting and fascinating life with her wild Irish Catholic family to her many relationships, both good and bad, and her desperate search for her daughter, whom she'd given up for adoption. Danielle, her daughter, who is now a 38 year old woman, was there at the reading Kate gave in Seattle, and seeing how much the two look alike was heartwarming. Danielle is also a lovely person, warm and kind, and it was wonderful to see Kate's face, full of pride and joy as she watched her daughter field questions at Town Hall that night. Born With Teeth is a fast read, a page-turner that doesn't let up until the final paragraph, which is open-ended enough that no one would be surprised if there were a sequel in the works. There should also be a trigger warning in Born with Teeth, for anyone like myself who is a rape survivor. Kate details a brutal rape and robbery that she experienced in New York. She never says whether or not they caught the bastard who hurt her, but I felt an extra kinship with her for her honesty about the horrors of rape and the strength that it takes to get back to your "normal" life after it's over. The fact that she managed to marry a couple times and have two sons stands as a testament to her courage and grace under fire. She has said that the reason she wrote this book was because she wanted people to know her, as a person, through her honest and startling revelations about her life. Mission accomplished, Captain. This book gets a well deserved A, and I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in women in theater, in Star Trek or in just a ripping good read. Nicely done, Kate. Here's a link to one of many interesting interviews with Kate Mulgrew:

Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore is a marriage of the graphic novel Constantine and Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" series, featuring Chicago's favorite wizard, Harry Dresden. Eric Carter is a necromancer, a guy who can see and talk to (and use) the dead, no matter what form they may take.
Here's the blurb:
Necromancer is such an ugly word, but it's a title Eric Carter is stuck with.
He sees ghosts, talks to the dead. He's turned it into a lucrative career putting troublesome spirits to rest, sometimes taking on even more dangerous things. For a fee, of course.
When he left LA fifteen years ago, he thought he'd never go back. Too many bad memories. Too many people trying to kill him.
But now his sister's been brutally murdered and Carter wants to find out why.
Was it the gangster looking to settle a score? The ghost of a mage he killed the night he left town? Maybe it's the patrion saint of violent death herself, Santa Muerte, who's taken an unusually keen interest in him.
Carter's going to find out who did it, and he's going to make them pay.
As long as they don't kill him first.
Turns out, as it did with Harry Dresden, that Santa Muerte is willing to kill Eric's sister and do just about anything to get him to be her "consort" or willing indebted servant. Though with Dresden it was Mab, winter queen of the fae, it's no less brutal for Eric to give up his freedom in order to banish a really bad spirit, Boudreau, who is killing and possessing his friends to try and reclaim life among the living. Hence we are set up for more mayhem in the future with this series, but I won't be reading any more of these books. Not only because it was full of f-bombs and cursing, but also because Eric Carter, while getting the snot beat out of him repeatedly, doesn't have the same charm or good intentions or decent nature that Harry Dresden has. He's lonely, bitter, alcoholic and cruel. There's also gore and violence on every page of this book, which makes me nauseous and tired. I do not like the horror genre. But if you do, I'd recommend this B grade book to you.

Proper disclosure, I received an ARC of Charlaine Harris' Day Shift from Ace/Roc/Penguin publishers this month. Having read all of Harris' Sookie Stackhouse paranormal romance/mystery books,I had certain expectations of Day Shift, which is "A novel of Midnight, Texas" and comes out in May. Unfortunately, though characters from the Sookie books make appearances in Day Shift, the book itself is uneven, with staccato-like prose and a disjointed plot. I didn't really fall in love with any of the characters, as I did with poor psychic Sookie and her vampire paramours. Everyone in this novel seemed to be at odds with themselves or others, and there were more than a few nasty people, bitter, mean and/or violent that I can only assume we are supposed to love, whom I just pitied or disliked. Here's the blurb:
In Midnight Crossroad, Charlaine Harris “capture[d] the same magic as the world of Bon Temps, Louisiana, and [took] it to another level" (Houston Press). Now the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels returns to the one-traffic-light town you see only when you’re on the way to someplace else…
There is no such thing as bad publicity, except in Midnight, Texas, where the residents like to keep to themselves. Even in a town full of secretive people, Olivia Charity is an enigma. She lives with the vampire Lemuel, but no one knows what she does; they only know that she’s beautiful and dangerous.
Psychic Manfred Bernardo finds out just how dangerous when he goes on a working weekend to Dallas and sees Olivia there with a couple who are both found dead the next day. To make matters worse, one of Manfred’s regular—and very wealthy—clients dies during a reading.
Manfred returns from Dallas embroiled in scandal and hounded by the press. He turns to Olivia for help; somehow he knows that the mysterious Olivia can get things back to normal. As normal as things get in Midnight…
Since this is the second book in the series, I can only assume that Harris will go on to write about each resident of the town, what their powers are, what their problems are, etc. Unfortunately, she hasn't made them good enough to warrant a book focused on them, or given us enough background to want to delve further into their lives. Sadly, I have to give Day Shift a C, and I would recommend it to those who don't mind anti-heroes or books without a clear protagonist to root for. 

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