Friday, December 30, 2016

The Darkness Knows by Cheryl Honigford, God Save the Queen by Kate Locke, The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain and The Empress Game: Cloak of War by Rhonda Mason

This will be my last blog post this year, so I will dispense with the movie previews and book industry news and get right to the book reviews for four books I just finished in this, the final week of 2016, which was a very difficult year.

The Darkness Knows by Cheryl Honigford is the first in a new series of "Charlie and Viv" mysteries that take place in 1938-39 Chicago at radio station. As I'm a fan of Charles Todd's Bess Crawford Mysteries (which take place during WWI) and of the Maisie Dobbs Mysteries, which take place after WWI and right up to the beginnings of WWII, I was prepared to like this mystery with a female protagonist, Vivian, working with a local private eye to solve the mystery of who killed one of her co workers, an on-air talent at the radio station. The show Vivian does, called "The Darkness Knows" is, of course, a blatant rip off of "The Shadow" radio program, popular in the 1930s, with the tagline "The Shadow Knows." Unfortunately, that wasn't the only thing Honigford ripped off for her debut mystery. Everything that happens in the book is predictable, and the characters are all cliches and stock characters from old movies, like the Thin Man films or the Maltese Falcon. Vivian, or Viv, for example, is from an upscale family, but wants to break out on her own and be a radio star, because she's a plucky but petite redhead who is just too darn curious and "smart" for her own good. The private eye, Charlie, who is assigned to the case is, of course, a big handsome manly lug of a guy who is kissing her one minute and pushing her away the next. Though he's assigned to protect her, he frequently leaves her alone so he can pursue his own agenda, which is to find his birth parents and "out" them for giving him to an orphanage. Here's the blurb:
Bright lights. Big city. Brutal murder.
Chicago, 1938. Late one night before the ten o'clock show, the body of a prominent radio actress is found in the station's lounge. All the evidence points to murder—and one young, up-and-coming radio actress, Vivian Witchell, as the next victim. But Vivian isn't the type to leave her fate in the hands of others—she's used to stealing the show. Alongside charming private detective Charlie Haverman, Vivian is thrust into a world of clues and motives, suspects and secrets. And with so much on the line, Vivian finds her detective work doesn't end when the on-air light goes out...
The gripping first novel in a new series from debut author Cheryl Honigford, The Darkness Knows is a thrilling mystery that evokes the drama and scandal of radio stardom in prewar Chicago. Publisher's Weekly: Honigford’s atmospheric first novel, a series debut, brings to life the world of radio in 1938 Chicago. Aspiring actress Vivian Witchell, formerly a secretary at station WCHI, now has some small roles in the station’s live dramas. When she discovers the body of elderly—and alcoholic—star Marjorie Fox, early evidence suggests a crazed fan might want Vivian dead as well. Terrified, she spends most of the book trying to show up at work and behave normally while other characters urge her to stay home. That includes Charlie Haverman, a private detective hired to protect her. Their frequent sparring sounds rather more like whining than lighthearted romantic banter. Meanwhile, Vivian’s high-society mother disapproves of her career, a glamorous costar may be using her, and a colleague is out to snag all her roles. Some readers may be disappointed that it requires no sleuthing on Vivian’s part to expose the murderer.
Publisher's Weekly is correct in that statement that Viv spends a lot of time whining and crying and being freaked out and frightened, but very little time actually getting the clues together to solve the mystery, which is actually done for her by the villain, who tells her the whole story while holding her at gunpoint. Though she wants to be taken seriously, she doesn't act like anything but a delicate damsel most of the time, fainting and shaking and crying over the least problems. Still, the prose was clean and clear and the plot moved faster than a runaway subway train. An okay read, if not one with much depth. A B+ and a recommendation for those who like easily solved historical mysteries.

God Save the Queen by Kate Locke was a Dollar Store find (in hardback, no less), and as it is British steampunk and full of supernatural characters ala Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, I swooped in on this gem immediately. Alexandra "Xandy" Vardan is a halfie, half vampire and half human, or so she thinks. In a world where the aristocracy are vampires or werewolves and the underbelly of the city is run by Goblins, while the half-human supernaturals are used as royal guards for the aristocracy to keep regular humans from killing them out of fear or prejudice, Xandy is in the perfect position to hunt for her sister, who would appear to be dead, but Xandy knows different. Here's the blurb: 
The first in an alternate fantasy series where vampires, werewolves, and goblins rule London.
Queen Victoria rules with an immortal fist.
The undead matriarch presides over a Britain where the Aristocracy is made up of werewolves and vampires, where goblins live underground and mothers know better than to let their children out after dark. It's a world where the nobility are infected with the Plague (side-effects include undeath), Hysteria is the popular affliction of the day, and leeches are considered a delicacy. And a world where technology lives side by side with magic. The year is 2012 and Pax Britannia still reigns.
Xandra Vardan is a member of the elite Royal Guard, and it is her duty to protect the Aristocracy. But when her sister goes missing, Xandra will set out on a path that undermines everything she believed in and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to topple the empire. And she is the key -- the prize -- in a very dangerous struggle.
The prose in this first of a series steampunk fantasy novel was so bouncy and bright it nearly flew off the page, and it certainly kept the breakneck speed of the plot moving. There's great humor and a delightful romance woven into the plot, and though I generally don't love petite and plucky heroines, I truly liked Xandra and her quest for the truth of her heritage, her role within the government and the rebel group that her sister has fallen in with. I enjoyed the book so much I am going to get book #2 from the library ASAP. A well deserved A, and a recommendation for anyone who loves well-written steampunk.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain was recommended to me by a website touting "books about bookstores and the booklovers who run them." This short novel was, I believe, translated from French, and yet it retains all the lyrical beauty of the French tongue in every paragraph. The story is about a bookstore owner who happens to find a beautiful handbag one day, discarded after a thief removed the wallet and credit cards. The woman who owns the handbag is in a coma in the hospital after being mugged, and the bookstore owner tries to find her by removing everything from her bag and using the items therein as clues to her identity. Here's the blurb: 
Heroic bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street. There's nothing in the bag to indicate who it belongs to, although there's all sorts of other things in it. Laurent feels a strong impulse to find the owner and tries to puzzle together who she might be from the contents of the bag. Especially a red notebook with her jottings, which really makes him want to meet her. Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?
I loved the gentle love story of the lonely bookseller falling in love with a woman through the items in her handbag, from her signature perfume to her red notebook that contains her hopes and dreams and fears. The one thing I didn't like about the book was Laurent's horribly rude and disrespectful daughter who is manipulative and cruel and whose parents can't seem to discipline her, for some ridiculous reason. I wanted to slap her 5 minutes after she was introduced in the book. Other than that, the prose is sublime and the plot gentle and evenly paced. Though it's easily read in an afternoon, I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who loves Paris and bookstores and romance. 

The Empress Game: Cloak of War by Rhonda Mason is book two in this fascinating space opera series. I read and loved the first Empress Game novel, gotten from Powells this past summer, so I was fairly confident that the sequel would be just as thrilling a space adventure as the first book. Unfortunately, all the strides that were made in the first book seem to be obliterated in the heat of political machinations and betrayals in this novel, as Kayla is thrown under the bus by Isonde and by the IDC, not to mention her own people, who, though they're supposedly big tough telepaths, end up calling her for help to save them, because a whole crew full of people aren't smart enough to get themselves out of a bad situation. I really hate it when suddenly only the protagonist has a brain, and everyone else regresses into child like idiocy. Here's the blurb: The bloody tournament to determine the new empress of the intergalactic empire may be over, but for exiled princess Kayla Reinumon, the battle is just beginning. To free her home planet from occupation, Kayla must infiltrate the highest reaches of imperial power. But when a deadly nanovirus threatens to ravage the empire, it will take more than diplomacy to protect her homeworld from all-out war.
Another point of insanity in this book is when Kayla decides to give up the most important tech secrets, which could put her people and everyone else in the galaxy at risk for mental slavery, to an insane meglomaniac woman in the IDC (the galactic police chief, basically) in exchange for the guy she's been dating for like half a minute. Seriously, it makes no sense, even after the author tries to justify it with a ridiculous "I'm a woman in love" speech, because Kayla, up to this point, wouldn't sell out the whole galaxy for a guy whom she has only just admitted that she loves. She hasn't known him for even a year yet, and somehow he ranks above the entire galaxy? I have to call BS on that, because it just doesn't smell right for the character at all. Now, of course, Kayla and her guy are intergalactic fugitives, along with his coworkers, and they have to find a way to save her sister and brothers who are stranded in space, and their planet is on the brink of being overrun by the military, as the galaxy goes to war to wipe out the despised telepaths who won't give them a cure for a nanovirus (they don't actually have the cure, but that seems to be beside the point) and whom everyone seems to hate and fear. The third book comes out early next year, and while I found this installment depressing and senseless, I still enjoyed the characters enough to want to find out what happens to Kayla and her family. I hope that Isonde, whom it turns out is a power-hungry despicable bitch, dies a horrible death in the third book, because she deserves nothing less for what she's done to Kayla. This book gets a B, and a recommendation to anyone who has read the first book, with a warning that the sequel is bloody and frustrating and depressing.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Bookstore Laundromat, Blade Runner Reboot, Den of Wolves by Juliet Marillier, The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst and Dante Valentine by Lilith Saintcrow

This is an awesome idea, and one that I wish we could create here in Maple Valley, where there is no bookstore, and a only a very grungy, uninviting laundromat.

Cool Idea of the Day: Books & Laundry

Turning the Tide in Saskatoon
Peter Garden, who has been running Turning the Tide
bookstore in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan's Broadway shopping district for 13
years, recently opened a satellite location at the Come Clean Laundromat
in Regina, CBC News reported. Garden said the new venture "was a trial
to test the waters before opening a more permanent shop in Regina."

"Maybe some people are coming to buy books and they have a basket of
dirty laundry that they can bring down with them too," said Garden. "Two
birds with one stone.... I don't expect Regina readers to want exactly
the same thing as Saskatoon and I think we're going to find out as we
get feedback as to what people are looking for."

I was a fan of the original story (I've been a fan of PK Dick since I was in junior high school) long before the movie came out, and then when I saw the movie in the 80s, I loved the fascinating visual environment created by the production company and brought to life by the actors and director, Ridley Scott. Unfortunately, it appears someone feels the need to revamp and update the movie, and though I am not sure of the quality, I will go and see this movie in honor of the original. 

Movies: Blade Runner 2049

"Some things look familiar, some things look really different, and few
things have changed a lot in this first tease from the sequel to Blade
Runner," io9 reported in featuring a trailer for Blade Runner 2049
a followup to the classic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids
Dream of Electric Sheep? The film will be released October 6, 2017.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and again starring Harrison Ford, the story
takes place 30 years after the events portrayed in the first movie, when
"a new blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), unearths a
long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what's left of
society into chaos. K's discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick
Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing
for 30 years."

Den of Wolves by Juliet Marillier is the third book in the Blackthorn and Grim fantasy series. I read the first of her B&G series, Dreamer's Pool, when I was given an ARC by the Ace/Roc publishers in exchange for an honest review. I enjoyed it enough that I was delighted when I got a copy of the sequel, also in advance, and was able to review it. Den of Wolves I bought new in hardback, however, because now I know that Marillier isn't going to let me down and will provide some fine prose and storytelling for my book buying dollars. Here's the blurb: Feather bright and feather fine, None shall harm this child of mine...
Healer Blackthorn knows all too well the rules of her bond to the fey: seek no vengeance, help any who ask, do only good. But after the recent ordeal she and her companion, Grim, have suffered, she knows she cannot let go of her quest to bring justice to the man who ruined her life
Despite her personal struggles, Blackthorn agrees to help the princess of Dalriada in taking care of a troubled young girl who has recently been brought to court, while Grim is sent to the girl’s home at Wolf Glen to aid her wealthy father with a strange task—repairing a broken-down house deep in the woods. It doesn’t take Grim long to realize that everything in Wolf Glen is not as it seems—the place is full of perilous secrets and deadly lies...
Back at Winterfalls, the evil touch of Blackthorn’s sworn enemy reopens old wounds and fuels her long-simmering passion for justice. With danger on two fronts, Blackthorn and Grim are faced with a heartbreaking choice—to stand once again by each other’s side or to fight their battles alone...
There were so many layers to this book, that I hardly know where to begin to discuss them. Suffice it to say that the story of the troubled teenager, Cara and her fathers (real and adoptive) were heartbreaking and riveting, a study in what happens when a man builds a relationship on lies. The secondary storyline of Blackthorn finally getting her day in court was equally riveting, however, and when Conmael the fey releases her from her 7 year debt on pages 400-402, I cried like a baby. This highlights one of the many things I loved about this novel, the lovely, lyrical prose and the beautifully drawn characters. They made the story so mesmerizing that I finished the novel in one sitting, though I was loathe to do so, since I was enjoying it so much. Blackthorn has grown from an abused, angry and bitter woman to a compassionate, loving healer who never fails to help her companion Grim, who in turn helps her in ways both large and small. Grim's journey from angry prisoner to kind and gentle craftsman has also been amazing, and the way that he loves Blackthorn, without any thought to himself or his own needs, is rare and wonderful to behold. I give this novel an A and highly recommend it, and the whole series, to anyone who is a Patricia McKillip fan, or a fan of fantasy novels with flawed but fascinating characters. 
The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst was recommended to me by someone who knows I enjoyed YA fantasy series by Maria Snyder and Ericka Johansson (Queen of the Tearling) and Victoria Aveyard. This is book one of a new series, so we begin by learning that this world is not as easily inhabited as other fantasy worlds, since the "spirits" or "fey" of the world do not want the humans to live on their planet, and would, if possible, kill them all off in various gruesome ways. The only thing keeping them in check is the Queen of Blood, who is trained to use her mastery of the elements to force the spirits to do no harm to the populace. The current queen is, inevitably, vain and corrupt, however, and has been  making a pact with the spirits to uplift her flagging powers so that she will not be deposed, in exchange for the spirits taking out a village or two and killing as many humans as possible. Into this horrific situation steps the young queen candidate Daleina, who, though she doesn't have the power and mastery of the elements that her classmates do, she has the ability to get others with greater powers to work together in a common cause. She can also delegate and think strategically, and she is under no illusion that she is the strongest or best candidate for Queen. A disgraced champion (the men and women who train the queen candidates) named Ven, who has been wrongly slandered by the evil and manipulative queen, helps Daliena learn to make the most of what she has, and when the queens treachery comes to light, Ven and Daleina must work together to save their people. Here's the blurb: Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow…
But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still only human, and no matter how strong or good they are, the threat of danger always looms.
Because the queen’s position is so precarious, young women are specially chosen to train as her heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Meanwhile, the disgraced champion Ven has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. When Daleina and Ven join forces, they embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land…before it’s bathed in blood.
Though I enjoyed a somewhat fresh take on the magical fantasy genre, I found myself knowing what was going to happen long before it happened, and I thought that Ven's innocence in thinking that the queen was redeemable (just because they'd been childhood sweethearts) was more that a bit ridiculous for a grown man.  Still, I found the prose to be well wrought and the plot swift. I'd give this book a B+, and recommend it to those who liked Hunger Games or Divergent, and are interested in magical fantasy.
Dante Valentine: The Complete Series by Lilith Saintcrow is a massive omnibus of over 1260 pages that I happened upon at the Half Price Books warehouse sale. I'd read another steampunk series by Saintcrow, (Bannon and Clare) and enjoyed it enough that I assumed this series would be just as well written. I have a feeling that this is Saintcrow's early works, however, as the books are somewhat uneven in plot and the characters not as well drawn as her later works. Dante is basically a feral half-demon bounty hunter with claustrophobia and severe abandonment issue who navigates a dystopian future in which religion is dead and magical powers are real. Here's the blurb:
Necromancer. Bounty hunter. Killer.
Dante Valentine has been all three in her life. But in the beginning, she was a Necromancer for hire. And while she was choosy about her jobs, there were just some she couldn't turn down. Like when the Devil showed up at the door and offered her a deal. Her life - in exchange for the capture and elimination of a renegade demon. But how do you kill something that can't die?
Dante Valentine, one of urban fantasy's hottest series, is compiled into one volume for the first time. Included in this omnibus edition are: Working for the Devil, Dead Man Rising, The Devil's Right Hand, Saint City Sinners, and To Hell and Back.
Like most who have read this series, I found myself liking Dante/Danny at first, because she'd come from an abused and disadvantaged background, and she'd managed to become a decent person with a code of honor and a job bringing back the dead to answer legal questions for the living. The fact that she's also great at martial arts and is surrounded by good friends who are like family also helped make her seem like a female Harry Dresden.  Unfortunately, also like most who have read this series, I found myself becoming increasingly dismayed and disgusted by Dante, the further into the novels I read. 
While she seemed to be strong and smart, once she hooked up with Japhrimel the greater demon, the Devil's right hand and assassin, she regresses into a big, whiny child who has to be physically and emotionally rescued at every turn, though of course she doesn't see it that way, and plunges herself into suicidal situations repeatedly in defiance of her demon lover. She constantly pouts and complains that he won't talk to her and explain what is going on, what he's doing and why, and she somehow thinks that he's not going to be like other demons, and he won't be abusive, (he nearly throttles her at one point), possessive and cruel, in addition to lying to her and forcing her to do what he wants her to do to keep her "safe." Nearly all of her friends are killed, and she still manages to be blind to what is really going on because she's such an emotional infant and so selfish that she can't see beyond her own sulking. Japh is this dark and brooding almost father-figure (which is nauseatingly  incestuous) who claims Dante's safety is paramount to her regard of him...insert raised eyebrow of disbelief here. It's odd, too, that much text is given to Dante complaining that Japh can't communicate honestly with her, yet she can't seem to tell him how she feels, either, or to tell him about Gabe's daughter or anything else going on in her head. She's too busy being needy and insecure. In several scenes, she even acknowledges that she's acting childish, but she doesn't do anything to remedy the situation, going as far as to hide under a bed and talk in a high pitched childish voice, and waiting for her demon lover to go into the bathroom and break the mirror for her so that she doesn't have to face herself and what she looks like while bathing. It's pathetic. I only kept reading in the hope that Dante would grow up and learn from her mistakes and be the heroine that readers hope she will become. 
When she's raped, again, by Lucifer himself, and Japh is once again not to be found when she really needs him, and he takes her to have a "worm" removed from her abdomen (Seriously? Anyone with half a brain is going to know that this is a metaphor for a fetus, because Dante is terrified of having children), it is obvious that Dante is never going to mentally recover from a second round of abuse, and that she will mentally and physically implode at some point, probably at the worst moment. All of the other men who are magical, including an immortal, seem to have nothing but contempt for her as a female, and yet at the end they all suddenly want to be "friends." So in the end we're left with a severely mentally traumatized woman who is left in charge of a child that she's promised to raise, and she's vanquished one devil in favor of another (and readers aren't certain it's an improvement). Another problem I noticed was that each book had on average of three obvious typos in the text. I find it hard to believe that no one at Orbit/Little Brown/Hachette could spring for a copy editor or a proofreader. And I am only talking about really obvious typos, like spelling mistakes or using the wrong word. Any decent copy editor could also have trimmed out all the redundancies (such as the constant reference to the "burnt cinnamon smell" of demons) and saved readers at least 150 pages of recap.  I'd give this series a B- (and in some cases it slides down to a C) and recommend it only to those who are so into urban fantasy that they don't mind misogynistic characters and trigger situations among the profanity-laden text. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

Independent Bookstores in Iowa, The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg, the Empress Game by Rhonda Mason and Book Doctor by Esther Cohen

Though I am an Iowa native, and proud of it, I never had the chance to visit any of these independent bookstores in various small towns in Iowa. I had to make do with the libraries and the library book sales and garage sales.I think it is great that there are so many bookstores now in Iowa for bibliophiles to support.

Indie Bookstores Among 'Coziest Spots in Iowa

"When the weather outside is frightful, you'll find these 19 cozy places
so delightful
Travel Iowa noted in recommending several indie bookstores, including:

The Book Vault, Oskaloosa: "Cozy up in a corner with a classic novel from the Book Vault, a bank gone bookstore
in the heart of Oskaloosa. This historic downtown building keeps
hundreds of books in some of the old bank vaults."

Plot Twist Bookstore, Ankeny: "This book store has an events calendar to keep you out of the cold all winter
long with ornament making or book signings."

The Book Vine, Cherokee: "[Y]ou can sip on fine wine while browsing the book selection. The tin roof, fireplace and
tall bookcases with sliding ladders add to the cozy atmosphere."

Book Vault manager April Gorski
told the Oskaloosa Herald: "We are a cozy store. I imagine there's a lot
of other nice stores, but we like to think that we're pretty special, so
this is kind of a feather in our cap.... You come in and just have a
feeling that you stepped back in time, and being surrounded by books and
the other eclectic things that we put here just add to that. We're not
trying to be too hip and too cool and too loud. We're just ourselves."

I just finished The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg, and since I paid full price for this hardback book, I had high expectations. I've also read all of Flaggs other books, and I've enjoyed all of them to one degree or another. Unfortunately, this latest novel, about the fictional town of Elmwood Springs Missouri, was a disjointed disappointment. It seemed to be one long lament for the "good old days" and there was a lot of whining about the younger generation being lazy and worthless, which has been a complaint of the previous generation since well before the first World War. Also tiring was the grousing from the dead folks in the Still Meadows Cemetery. Readers are supposed to think that the town founders, immigrants from Sweden and Germany, are the very best people, hardworking and kind and clean and reverent, while their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are slothful idiots. Of course there are no gays or lesbians in this small town (though Flagg herself is gay) and the only truly evil people come from outside of Elmwood Springs, from big cities like Chicago (of course there are never any con men or bad people in small towns, right? HA. I grew up in small Midwestern towns, and there are always bad people who take advantage of the good folks for money or fame or whatever, and have been since the towns began. Granted, there tends to be less crime, or there was in the small towns I grew up in in Iowa, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't child abuse, rape, adultery, thievery, alcoholism and a host of other ills, they were just "not talked about" back in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, and it wasn't until I was a teenager that anyone was even willing to admit publicly that gays and lesbians were right there, living among us all along. People started to try to be more open about abuse and sexual assault, and when I was in college, and a teacher I'd had for years was finally was charged for having sexual relations with both his male and female underage students (I'd tried to tell other teachers about him since he started teaching music when I was in junior high school, but no one believed me). So I found it hard to believe that all the town founders and their next generations were so perfect and wonderful, until the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when apparently everything that was good about the town died out with its elders. Still, it wasn't such a bad read, with bouncy prose and a plot that was as sprawling as the town. Here's a review from Shelf Awareness:
Fannie Flagg's sprawling and intricately plotted saga The Whole Town's Talking chronicles the founding of a small Missouri farming community called Elmwood Springs and, over the next 140 years, follows the quirky and endearing townspeople through their lives, deaths and beyond. Yes, beyond. When the town's inhabitants die and are buried in Still Meadows cemetery, their conscious existence continues and they (like the characters in Thornton Wilder's Our Town) watch and comment on the activities that continue in the living world.

Three of Flagg's previous novels were set in Elmwood Springs (including Can't Wait to Get to Heaven), and longtime fans of her uplifting fiction will appreciate discovering the backgrounds of many of their favorite characters, including plain-talking Elner Shimfissle, her social climbing sister, Ida, and Ida's nervous daughter, Norma. There are also numerous new and endearing characters, including town founder Lordor Nordstrom; his mail-order bride, Katrina; schoolteacher Lucille Bremer, who becomes the official greeter to new arrivals at Still Meadows cemetery; and the town's Peeping Tom, Lester Shingle, who has to wait decades to discover who murdered him. 

Flagg is a natural storyteller who fills her novels with offbeat characters, complex plotting and generally upbeat messages. As she writes, "It takes time and a lot of suffering, but sometimes, when you least expect it, life has a strange way of working out." The Whole Town's Talking is a real crowd-pleaser: an exuberant, ambitious and plus-sized novel (more than 400 pages) that is filled with warmth, sentimental nostalgia and hilarious Southern sass. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant 
So, while I don't agree that this is as much a crowd-pleaser as a novel for geezers who want verification that everything was better in the old days (and who don't mind a real bummer of an ending), I'd still give it a B+, and recommend it to seniors who grew up in small towns and want to relive their glory days.
The Empress Game by Rhonda Mason was a purchase made from Powells via a recommendation for those who enjoyed the Hunger Games and the Divergent series, and YA with strong female protagonists. I have to say that though the book was slow-going initially, it was soon flying by, and I was thoroughly engrossed in this highly adventurous story.  Here's the blurb: One seat on the intergalactic Sakien Empire’s supreme ruling body, the Council of Seven, remains unfilled, that of the Empress Apparent. The seat isn’t won by votes or marriage. It’s won in a tournament of ritualized combat in the ancient tradition. Now that tournament, the Empress Game, has been called and the females of the empire will stop at nothing to secure political domination for their homeworlds.
The battle for political power isn’t contained by the tournament’s ring, however. The empire’s elite gather to forge, strengthen or betray alliances in a dance that will determine the fate of the empire for a generation. With the empire wracked by a rising nanovirus plague and stretched thin by an ill-advised planet-wide occupation of Ordoch in enemy territory, everything rests on the woman who rises to the top. 
Publisher's Weekly: Debut author Mason opens a space opera series with this fascinating merger of galactic exploration and deadly competition. Kayla Reinumon was once a princess of Ordoch, a “Wyrd World” whose inhabitants possess incredible psionic powers, but she fled with her brother during a coup that killed their entire family. Now a refugee fighting in nightly blood matches on a distant planet under an assumed name, Kayla is approached by the very same people who killed her kin, inviting her to compete in the Empress Game—a grand tournament by which the Sakien Empire will find its new queen. For the chance to return home and regain what’s left of her old life, Kayla must enter a world of political intrigue, betrayal, and conspiracies within conspiracies that threaten the fates of entire planets. Mason takes every opportunity to raise the stakes for her characters, and the result is an immersive and intriguing thriller. Tonally, however, her prose is more than slightly uneven; the frequent use of current colloquialisms alongside alien terminology is distracting at best. But Mason’s deft plotting packs an emotional punch and leads to a solid cliffhanger that could spark a fascinating new series
I found Kayla's struggles to be fascinating, and her desperate attempts to keep her weak younger brother alive were endearing and heartfelt. The whole military/government conspiracy wasn't a surprise, and the evil scientist/doctor, who used her family to gain power for himself (killing many of them in the process) was also not surprising (but his death was satisfying). I felt invested in the characters and the worlds that they live in, and I loved Kayla's fierceness. I wasn't as excited about the love story that evolved, mainly because I didn't want Malkor to become her knight in shining armor and rescue her when she could obviously rescue herself. That said, the love affair unfolded in a natural way and though the ending was a cliffhanger, I am more than ready to enter this world again and watch Kayla kick butt all over again. A solid A, with the recommendation to anyone who likes strong female protagonists in their YA sci-fi fantasy novels.

Book Doctor by Esther Cohen was a library book sale find, and not really about what I thought it was going to be about. I thought it was going to be about a very bright editor who fixes novels and is able to cut through the nonsense to see the actual viable books. Really, though, Arlette is as at sea as many of her nascent authors. Though it had some laugh out loud moments, it was a rather neurotic novel, full of characters who don't know what they're doing.  Of course it takes place in New York, and of course everyone thinks they're going to be the next famous novelist, but Arlette Rosen is there to help along some authors and shut down others, telling them that they need to find someone else to shepherd their book into being, or to edit into profitability. Here's the blurb:
Inspired by the frustrations of writer's block, the vagaries of modern romance, and a deep-seated love for reading, The Book Doctor combines urbane, sophisticated, mordantly funny storytelling with tremendous heart.
Smart, independent, quirky, and well-read, Arlette Rosen makes her living helping people write the books they've always dreamed of, and she's quite good at it. She likes this work, likes the freedom of someone else's sentences, likes being able to change, in intuitive ways only she knows, small details here and there. By the time she meets new client Harbinger Singh, she has worked on sixty-four books, chosen from hundreds of submissions. Harbinger Singh makes his living as a tax attorney, but what he really wants to do is write a novel, a grand, sweeping saga he intends to call Hot and Dusty.
While the romance that blooms between these two unlikely lovers is more about longing than lust, it triggers something in each that just might be called hope. With uncompromising wit and a fierce tenderness, Esther Cohen has written a modern-day comedy of manners about relationships, writer's block, and the enduring-if elusive-creative spirit.
Arlette finds that Harbinger's weirdness allows her to foment her own creative spark, and visa versa, though Harbinger, it is discovered, isn't as much interested in writing a "revenge" novel to get back at his ex-wife than he is in getting back together with her and having sex with other women along the way. He and Arlette only have sex once, and even then, it is awkward, and Harbinger seems to be a cad for doing it out of curiosity rather than any loving feelings he's developed for her as a mentor. Harbinger is creepy, and his constant evaluation of every female he comes into contact with for her looks and body type and whether or not he'd like to have sex with her got old, fast. It made him seem crude and immature at best.  Along with Arlette's whining and inability to know her own mind, and her boyfriend Jakes ridiculous pretentions, I found that I didn't really like any of the characters in this cynical novel, and I got bored about halfway through. The only reason I finished reading it was because I only had 100 pages to go, and I had hopes that it would end well. I'd give this book a C for mediocrity, and I can't really think of anyone to recommend it to other than jaded New Yorkers who are interested in the vagaries of book doctors and their personal lives, pathetic as they may be. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society on Film, NYT Loves Bookstores, Level Grind by Annie Bellet and The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square by Rosina Lippi

This was one of my favorite books the year that it came out, and it was also beloved by the Tuesday Night Book Group that I lead at the Maple Valley Library. I am thrilled that it is being made into a film in the UK!

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society on Film
Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones) will star opposite Lily James in The
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
adapted from the novel by Annie Barros and Mary Ann Shaffer, Deadline

Directed by Mike Newell from a script written by Don Roos & Tom Bezucha,
the film's producers are Mazur/Kaplan Company's Paula Mazur and Books &
Books <> owner Mitchell Kaplan; alongside
Blueprint Pictures' Graham Broadbent and Pete Czernin. Filming is set to
begin in the U.K. next spring.

Road Trip: The New York Times Loves Bookstores
This week the New York Times has been featuring several
bookstore-related pieces in its Travel
section, including:

7 Writers on Their Favorite Bookstores
"Geraldine Brooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Pamela Paul and others in the
literary world reveal their favorite bookstores."

Ann Patchett's Guide for Bookstore Pilgrims
"If bookstores are a must on your travel itinerary, Ann Patchett has a
road map for you."

Temples for the Literary Pilgrim
"From Mexico City to Hangzhou, bookstores that are destinations in and
of themselves."

A Bookworm's Travel Plan
"For the writer, a good bookstore in a faraway place is as basic a need
as a decent hotel, a hot shower and enough underwear."
Level Grind: The Twenty Sided Sorceress by Annie Bellet was a big discovery for me, because I had no idea that this omnibus of great urban fantasy even existed. The protagonist is a Native American woman named Jade Crow who has been hiding her powers as a sorceress from everyone she knows in this small town in Idaho, because her ex-boyfriend and mentor is an evil master sorcerer whose mission in life is to take young, talented teenagers, teach them how to use their powers and then kill them, eat their hearts and thereby gain more power for himself. But Jade figures if she doesn't use her powers, Samir the evil one can't track and find her, and she can continue to run her gaming/comic book shop in peace. Unfortunately, stuff happens, and Jade ends up outing herself, thereby painting a target on her back and on the backs of her shape-shifting friends. Here is the blurb:
An omnibus of the first seven books in the USA TODAY bestselling fantasy series—collected together for the first time in one volume. Jade Crow is a sorceress hiding from the most powerful sorcerer in the world: her ex-boyfriend.
Gamer. Nerd. Sorceress.
Jade Crow lives a quiet life running her comic book and game store in Wylde, Idaho, hiding from a powerful sorcerer who wants to eat her heart and take her powers—her ex-boyfriend Samir. Yet when dark powers threaten her friends’ lives, Jade must save them by using magic. But as soon as she does, her nemesis will find her and she won’t be able to stand up against him when he comes.
This is the collection of the first seven volumes of the Hugo Award nominated series: Justice Calling; Murder of Crows; Pack of Lies; Hunting Season; Heartache; Thicker Than Blood; and Magic to the Bone. Publisher's Weekly: This omnibus collects the first four novellas of Bellet’s series featuring Jade Crow, a comic and gaming shop owner and sorceress, into a lighthearted paranormal romance story that gradually becomes more serious. Jade once belonged to a group of crow shape-shifters drawn from various Native American tribes, but she’s been exiled. She hides from a dangerous former mentor, Samir, in a small Idaho college town that’s home to shape-shifters, witches, and a leprechaun. Threats mount as a warlock tries to draw power from captive shifters, a malignant spirit seeks vengeance on Jade’s grandfather, and the werewolves fight among themselves to name a new Alpha of Alphas. Meanwhile, Jade tries to define her relationship with Alek, a weretiger sworn to uphold shifter justice. Bellet infuses her prose with multiple shout-outs to geek and gamer culture, and the tone of her ensemble resembles Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s gung-ho Scooby Gang. But Jade gains power to face Samir by eating the hearts of sorcerers she defeats (with jarring references to the Catholic liturgy around Communion) and Alek is the one who must choose between duty and love. Fans of urban fantasy will be drawn to this intriguing series.
I flat out loved these books and the characters therein, even though I had to ask my teenage son about the gaming references and the acronyms that popped up several times. Being a middle aged woman, I don't have a handle on as much of the latest lingo and texting-speak as he does. Fortunately, asking him about these words and acronyms sparked his interest in the book itself, and now he's planning on reading Jade Crow's epic story himself. The prose was clean and full of wonderful references to every sci-fi film and TV nerd's favorite shows, from Star Wars to Firefly. The plot was swift and sure, and there wasn't an ounce of flabby prose to be found anywhere, throughout the four volumes of the omnibus. My only minor quibble was the bizarre reference to the smell of Alek the Siberian were-tiger when he was in human form and either ready to do the nasty with Jade or finished doing the nasty with her (or he was cuddling her). She refers to his "vanilla and musk scent" every single time Jade is even in the same room with Alek. By the 10th time she says how much she loves how he smells like vanilla and musk, I couldn't help but roll my eyes and think of the way that Bella's strawberry shampoo in the godawful Twilight novels is referenced over and over, until you want to scream and write to that hack Stephanie Meyer and explain that they actually have strawberry shampoo in Fall City, Washington, and that women in this state have been using fruity shampoos for many years before boring Bella arrived. Ugh!  Still, despite this, I felt the book deserved an A, and a recommendation to anyone who loves Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid novels, or Devon Monk's Magic in the...novels, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Also, readers can take heart in knowing that the second omnibus will be available on January 3, 2017, which is less than a month away. 

The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square by Rosina Lippi was a library book sale find. This 2008 novel is packaged as general fiction, though it almost veers into chick lit territory because of the cute bedroom slippers and PJs on the cover. Unfortunately, it's another genre novel that has been mislabeled by the publisher, probably for sales reasons, which is ridiculous. Pajama Girls is a Southern romance novel with all the trimmings, including a side helping of sexism that seems inevitable in most every romance novel I've ever read. Here's the blurb:
Julia Darrow runs a thriving business in South Carolina, has a houseful of foster dogs-and she wears designer pajamas all day, every day.
John Dodge makes a living moving around the country, fixing up small businesses on the brink of disaster. His newest venture takes him to South Carolina, where he's greeted by an odd sight: Julia Darrow, walking across Lambert Square, in pajamas.
Intrigued, Dodge asks Julia out to dinner only to be refused. The townsfolk warn him that Julia is an unsolvable mystery, but Dodge likes mysteries, and he's really good at fixing things...

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Penguin Holiday Hotline, Kingkiller Movie, The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd, A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas and Lamp Black, Wolf Grey by Paula Brackston

This is a great idea that I wish more publishing companies would embrace for the holidays. I love having someone to call to ask for book recommendations for friends and relatives, since books are my go-to gift for Christmas.

Penguin Hotline Returns for the Holidays 
With the holiday shopping season now in full swing, Penguin has brought
Loosely modeled on the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, which provides
turkey-roasting help over the phone during the holiday season, the
Penguin Hotline offers personalized book recommendations over the
Internet. Book buyers fill out a simple online form, describing the
reading preferences and hobbies of the person for whom they're buying a
book and then receive an e-mail with recommendations put together by
Penguin staff members. The Penguin Hotline is publisher-agnostic--books
from all publishing houses will be up for recommendation.

The Penguin Hotline launched two years ago and within days reportedly
received more than 1,500 requests from readers across the globe. Some of
the requests the hotline volunteers have fielded in the past include
books for a father interested in conspiracy theories and aliens; a
cousin interested in shrimp farming; a friend going through a breakup;
and one from a woman wanting to know what book she should buy for the
man who bagged her groceries.

My son Nick and I are both huge fans of Kvothe, the Name of the Wind and Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. We are, like many people, anxiously awaiting the third book in the trilogy. Since that seems to be a bit farther out, we were both thrilled to read that these magnificent fantasy novels are going to be made into a movie and a TV series. I can hardly wait! Thanks, Mr Miranda and Patrick Rothfuss!

Movie + TV: The Kingkiller Chronicle
Lionsgate has announced that Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda "will
be the creative producer behind an ambitious feature film and TV series
adaptation of Pat Rothfuss's fantasy book trilogy the Kingkiller
the Wrap reported. Miranda will serve as a producer and "musical
mastermind," composing original music, as well as writing the songs. He
also has an option to be involved in future stage adaptations of the
Lindsey Beer is writing the film adaptation, based on The Name of the
Wind, the first book in the series. Simultaneously, a planned TV drama
series will "expand on the world outside of the books," according to
Erik Feig, co-president, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, said, "Lin is
an incomparable talent and a huge fan of the trilogy and, working
closely with Pat, his creative oversight of the franchise will bring an
incredible level of detail and continuity to all of the projects."Miranda said the books "are among the most read and re-read in our home.
It's a world you want to spend lifetimes in, as his many fans will
attest. Pat also writes about the act of making music more beautifully
than any novelist I've ever read. I can't wait to play a part in bringing this world to life onscreen."

The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd is the 8th Bess Crawford mystery, written by a mother and son writing team who use the pen name of Charles Todd.
In this installment, we are nearing the end of World War 1, and Bess is wounded and recovering in France when she happens upon a decades old mystery. Here's the blurb:
World War I battlefield nurse Bess Crawford goes to dangerous lengths to investigate a wounded soldier’s background—and uncover his true loyalties—in this thrilling and atmospheric entry in the bestselling “vivid period mystery series” (New York Times Book Review).
At the foot of a tree shattered by shelling and gunfire, stretcher-bearers find an exhausted officer, shivering with cold and a loss of blood from several wounds. The soldier is brought to battlefield nurse Bess Crawford’s aid station, where she stabilizes him and treats his injuries before he is sent to a rear hospital. The odd thing is, the officer isn’t British—he’s French. But in a moment of anger and stress, he shouts at Bess in German.
When Bess reports the incident to Matron, her superior offers a ready explanation. The soldier is from Alsace-Lorraine, a province in the west where the tenuous border between France and Germany has continually shifted through history, most recently in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, won by the Germans. But is the wounded man Alsatian? And if he is, on which side of the war do his sympathies really lie?
Of course, Matron could be right, but Bess remains uneasy—and unconvinced. If he was a French soldier, what was he doing so far from his own lines . . . and so close to where the Germans are putting up a fierce, last-ditch fight?
When the French officer disappears in Paris, it’s up to Bess—a soldier’s daughter as well as a nurse—to find out why, even at the risk of her own life.
Though I have read and enjoyed all of the Bess Crawford mysteries, for some reason, I found Bess rather annoying and aggressive in this book. She continues to badger the parents of a man whom she knows is innocent of attempting to kill a nurse/nun, even though they've told her again and again that they want nothing to do with her, and they throw her out of their cafe, twice. And even when she clears the name of the soldier and others, and find the culprit, everyone involved still thinks she's a horrible nosy person whom they didn't ask to stir up trouble. Still, the trademark crisp prose sails along the clear waters of the plot nicely, and the historic atmosphere of France in 1918 feels accurate and fascinating. I'd give the book a B+, and recommend it to anyone who has read any of the other Bess Crawford novels.

I was looking forward to A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas, because I've read several other revamped, re-gendered Sherlock Holmes novels this past year, and a couple of them were quite good. This book is meant to be the first in a series, about Charlotte Holmes, who uses the name Sherlock so that she can pretend she has a brilliant brother and use her logical mind to solve mysteries that women in Victorian society were unable to engage with due to the rampant sexual/societal mores of the day.  Unfortunately, the gender switch here is somewhat clumsy and awkward, and Holmes nearly becomes homeless before being taken in by a wealthy former actress, Mrs Watson. Here's the blurb:  
With her inquisitive mind, Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable with the demureness expected of the fairer sex in upper class society. But even she never thought that she would become a social pariah, an outcast fending for herself on the mean streets of London.

When the city is struck by a trio of unexpected deaths and suspicion falls on her sister and her father, Charlotte is desperate to find the true culprits and clear the family name. She’ll have help from friends new and old—a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who has long loved her.
But in the end, it will be up to Charlotte, under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes, to challenge society’s expectations and match wits against an unseen mastermind. Publisher's Weekly: Charlotte Holmes, the independent-minded, upper-class heroine of this promising series launch set in 1886 England from Thomas (My Beautiful Enemy), has no wish to be married off like her older sisters and relegated to second-class status for the rest of her life. Charlotte’s choice to lose her virginity to a married man leads to her banishment from her family’s country house. She settles in London, where she uses her gift for “discernment” to provide helpful guidance to the police under the alias Sherlock Holmes. She writes to the coroner overseeing the inquest for aristocrat Harrington Sackville to suggest that Sackville’s apparent overdose of chloral is connected to the deaths of two of his relatives who expired shortly before he did, each of apparently natural causes. That communiqué brings Scotland Yard into the case and affords Charlotte an opportunity to exercise her skills on a complex mystery. Those looking for a very different Sherlockian lead will be rewarded.

Though I enjoyed the crime-solving aspect of the book, there was little enough of it and way too much blathering on about the restrictions put on women in society, and the horrible parents who continue this system. While I can appreciate that it was hard for women, especially smart women, it seemed to me that Charlotte shot herself in the foot by having sex with a married man, somehow trusting that her father would send her to college to earn her degree as punishment. Considering that she's the soul of logic, that didn't make a lot of sense, especially considering how infantilizing men were with women of that era.I would have thought she'd be smart enough to see that she was never going to get her father's approval to become educated and lead an independent life. That said, I loved the fact that Charlotte likes to eat, especially sweets, and has her caloric intake figured down to the last morsel, by how many chins she will wear if she eats too much plum cake. The prose was workmanlike, and the plot labyrinthine. I'd give it a B+ and recommend it to Holmes fans who like watching genius minds at work.

Lamp Black, Wolf Grey by Paula Brackston was billed as something of a supernatural romance married with literary fiction. I'd read a couple of Brackstons "Witch" novels, and I was certain that this book would be enjoyable and filled with memorable characters. I was wrong. Things were going along fine until page 100, when the protagonist becomes that most dreaded of creations, the character who is TOO STUPID TO LIVE, or TSTL.Laura Matthews is an artist (paintings) who cajoles her husband into moving out of London (and away from her horrendous mother...what a cliche, British parents who totally suck at parenting! Ugh) and into an old manor home in Wales surrounded by beautiful countryside. Her husband Dan will commute back and forth to London, and Laura will get much-needed time to wander and be alone and paint. Of course, it doesn't work out that way, and her nasty judgemental mother drives down to her new residence and immediately begins to harass her, and her husband kvetches constantly, while her best friend also insists on coming to visit and brings her two sons and her Scottish husband with her. Meanwhile, a local man named Rhys comes calling and is immediately smitten with Laura, so much so that he throws her down and tries to rape her after only having met her the day before. Laura manages to throw him off, but then a day later has sex with this guy, again without knowing a thing about him! Who does that? She claims to love her husband, but has been unable to have a child with him, and somehow she feels that this makes her "haggard" and dried up and unattractive, though the opposite is obviously true, if everyone around her is to be believed about how gorgeous she is. She seems to think that Rhys' attentions, which are flattering to her barren self, are the perfect reason to justify adultery. Ridiculous. I nearly threw the book across the room in disgust. What is wrong with women who somehow think that unless they have babies they aren't women? As if a woman's only worth is in her reproductive system! Here's the blurb:
Artist Laura Matthews finds her new home in the Welsh mountains to be a place so charged with tales and legends that she is able to reach through the gossamer-fine veil that separates her own world from that of myth and fable.
She and her husband Dan have given up their city life and moved to Blaencwm, an ancient longhouse high in the hills. Here she hopes that the wild beauty will inspire her to produce her best art and will give her the baby they have longed for. But this high valley is also home to others, such as Rhys the charismatic loner who pursues Laura with fervor. And Anwen, the wise old woman from the neighboring farm who seems to know so much but talks in riddles. And then there is Merlin.
Lamp Black, Wolf Grey tells both Laura's story and Merlin's. For once he too walked these hills, with his faithful grey wolf at his heel. It was here he fell in love with Megan, nurse-maid to the children of the hated local noble, Lord Geraint. Merlin was young, at the start of his renowned career as a magician, but when he refuses to help Lord Geraint it is Megan who may pay the price.
From New York Times bestselling author Paula Brackston, Lamp Black, Wolf Grey is an enchanting tale of love and magic featuring her signature blend of gorgeous writing, an intriguing historical backdrop, and a relatable heroine that readers are sure to fall in love with.
I didn't find this book relatable at all, I found it full of stereotypes and sentimental tropes and very stupid characters. The prose was lush, but not in a natural way. It felt overblown and melodramatic, and the plot "twists" were easy to see coming. I could have told Laura that Rhys was a nutball from the moment he was introduced, and that he was sick and dangerous, but she was too busy falling all over herself and seeing legendary people who were not there, like Merlin and Anwen. This made Laura seem even more idiotic, and I was relieved that the book wasn't longer, though it had an HEA ending. I'd give it a C (and I am being generous) and only recommend it to those who like simplistic characters and easily solved mysteries/plots.