Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lovely Libraries, Shakespeare's Champion and Shakespeare's Christmas by Charlaine Harris, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion and The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

Libraries were my sanctuary when I was a child, a place where I could go and travel with my mind to far distant lands via stories. It made the life of a very allergic asthmatic bearable. So I loved looking at these photos of unusual libraries across America. Havens filled with books and kind librarians. 

'Quiet Majesty of America's Public Libraries'
Over the past 18 years, photographer Robert Dawson has captured nearly
700 public libraries
across 48 states, and the Library of Congress recently purchased a full
collection of his library photographs as part of its permanent archive.
CityLab featured a selection of those images, many of which were
featured in Dawson's 2014 book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay
(Princeton Architectural Press).

Libraries are "not just a nice add-on," he said, noting that across the
U.S. they are "providing the basic things that have become essential to
functioning in our society.... I'm as cynical as anyone, but visiting
these libraries, I really found that most people have more in common
than not. They go to work, work hard, love their families, and love
their communities. There's a lot that we share, and the public library
is another one of those things."

Dawson is on a six-week trip across Europe to photograph libraries
there. He told CityLab he is currently in Germany, where newly arrived
refugees use libraries to immerse themselves in the local language and
culture: "It's a different kind of story here."

Shakespeare's Champion and Shakespeare's Christmas by Charlaine Harris of the Sookie Stackhouse books (and abhorrent True Blood television series) are the second and third books in this series about a damaged woman who moves to a town called Shakespeare in Arkansas. I really wanted to like Lily Bard. But for some reason, Harris has written her to be someone to whom rapists flock, like killer bees to flowers. Add to that a propensity for death to also follow her around, and you have a rather odd protagonist who doesn't inspire readers but instead fills them with dread on her behalf. Lily is slowly recovering from a horrible gang rape and torture by learning martial arts and becoming a "gym rat" who lifts weights and works out several times a day in order to become strong and able to defend herself. It would be great if Harris would allow Lily to do just that, but instead Lily tends to get kidnapped, get her butt kicked and often has a man who comes to her rescue. Because she works as a maid, she is looked down upon by many of her clients and neighbors, with the exception of the men in town, who all drool over her, even the gay ones, as if she's irresistible. Though she keeps everyone at a distance,(except the gym owner and the town sheriff, whom she strings along) Lily eventually falls for a private detective who manages to overcome her fairly easily (during a fight) the first time they meet. Why she would find this sexy is beyond me, as being held captive is her flashback nightmare. Here's the blurbs:
Shakespeare, Arkansas, is a small Southern town with plenty of secrets, and Charlaine Harris’s Lily Bard, fresh from her acclaimed debut in Shakespeare’s Landlord, is just one more of its residents–albeit one harboring a few secrets of her own–with a desire to live quietly.
Lily keeps to herself, between her job as a cleaning woman for several townspeople and her visits to the gym, where she’s a devotee of karate and bodybuilding. These two pursuits seem a bit odd for the petite Southern woman, but as work and play, they keep her focused and balanced.
When a fellow gym member is found dead after a workout with a barbell across his throat, Lily wants to believe it’s an accident. But looking at the incident against the background of other recent events in Shakespeare, including a few incidents that appear to be racially motivated, she’s afraid it could be a part of something much, much bigger–and more sinister…in Shakespeare's Champion. In Shakespeare’s Christmas, Lily Bard's third appearance, she heads home to Bartley, Arkansas–always an uncomfortable scenario for the introverted Lily­–for her sister Varena’s Christmas wedding. But Lily’s got more to worry about than being a bridesmaid for a sister to whom she’s no longer close. Soon after she arrives in Bartley, Lily’s private-detective boyfriend shows up too, and not just for moral support: He’s investigating a four-year-old unsolved kidnapping. Try as she might, Lily can’t help but get involved when she discovers that the case hits dangerously close to home–for Varena’s new husband is the widowed father of a girl bearing a remarkable resemblance to the vanished child.

Of course justice prevails in both short books, and while that makes for a satisfying ending, I can't seem to muster up any real interest in reading any more of the Lily Bard series, which is formulaic and has a lackluster protagonist. The main virtue of these novels is the clean prose and swift plots, so you can finish one in a few hours while on an airplane or in a waiting room at the doctors or dentists office. I'd give them both a B-, and recommend them to anyone looking for distraction.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is the next book for July for the Tuesday night book group at my local library. We've been trying to get this book on the roster for a couple of years, and now that we finally had enough copies for my group, I found myself excited to read a book that was surrounded by so much hype and acclaim. The book takes place in Australia, and the protagonist is a man who has Aspergers, a form of Autism, but doesn't recognize it in himself, though he easily finds it in others, especially children, whom he admires. Here's the blurb:
The art of love is never a science: Meet Don Tillman, a brilliant yet socially inept professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers.
Rosie Jarman possesses all these qualities. Don easily disqualifies her as a candidate for The Wife Project (even if she is “quite intelligent for a barmaid”). But Don is intrigued by Rosie’s own quest to identify her biological father. When an unlikely relationship develops as they collaborate on The Father Project, Don is forced to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie―and the realization that, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love, it finds you.
What I loved about Dons unintentionally hilarious account of how he meets and rejects women, how he finds Rosie and ends up loving her, is that he is so quick to judge and find fault in others, and yet he sees himself as perfect (which readers will know is patently false). He also has a complete lack of understanding in how to behave, dress or react in social situations that, while funny, is rather pathetic. I kept wondering why his friends, a psychiatrist and a fellow professor, couldn't help him in more concrete ways by telling him that he's an "aspie" and that he needs help to learn to dress and act appropriately in public. Of course Rosie is his polar opposite, and it is inevitable that they'd fall in love. There is a character on the TV show Royal Pains who is an "aspie" research doctor, and though I'd imagine Don would have an Australian accent, I kept hearing his voice, while I was reading, as that of Dr Sackani from Royal Pains, who speaks in a monotone. Still, this was a fun read, full of laughter and pathos and quirky characters. I was not a fan of Don's best friend, who seemed like a sexual predator to me, especially in light of his neglect of his wife and children, but even he seems reformed by the end of the book, which deserves an A, and a recommendation to other book groups looking for some light hearted fiction.
The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson is the sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which is followed by The Bitter Kingdom, the final book in the trilogy, which I have on hold at the library. I loved Girl of Fire and Thorns, so I was surprised when I became totally engrossed in Crown of Embers, and read it all in a day. Elisa is an amazing character, who in the first book is actually a fat girl with plain dark hair and eyes and dusky skin. It is rare these days to read about any fantasy heroine who isn't slender, white, blonde and beautiful. Unfortunately, the author had Elisa captured and starved in the desert in the first book, so now, in the second, she's "normal" weight and considered decent to look at, if not as "beautiful" as her petite counterpart in another country (or her sister, who sounds like a real bitch). Here's the blurb:
The second book in Rae Carson's award-winning The Girl of Fire and Thorns fantasy trilogy, perfect for fans of Game of Thrones and Kristin Cashore. Tamora Pierce called the first book, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, "A unique and engrossing read!" A seventeen-year-old princess turned war queen faces sorcery, adventure, untold power, and romance as she fulfills her epic destiny.
In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Elisa won the war. She saved her kingdom. But no one prepared her for how hard it is to recover from a battle, or to rule a people who still don't trust her. She's still fighting—against assassination attempts and more—and her enemies lie both outside her court and within it. So Elisa will cross the ocean in search of the perilous, uncharted, and mythical source of the Godstone's power. With her go a one-eyed warrior, a loyal friend, an enemy defector, and the man she is falling in love with. A breathtaking, romantic, and dangerous second volume to Rae Carson's ambitious trilogy.
I loved that this is the book where Elisa discovers that the real power she wields isn't in the Godstone in her gut, it's in her mind and heart and soul, she only needs to realize it. I was surprised at the political machinations that were so rampant in the book, but they didn't get in the way of the smooth and well-wrought plot. Caron's prose is golden, weaving a colorful tapestry with the characters that readers will come to love. Elisa truly grows and changes in this book, and sees for the first time that those who have been making her decisions for her, and bullying her into accepting them weren't always doing the right thing for the right reasons, but had their own agenda. Unfortunately, the story ends on a cliffhanger, so now I am eager to get my hands on the third book to see what happens to Hector and Elisa and even young Rosario.  The Crown of Embers gets a well-deserved A, and a recommendation to anyone who loves fantasy fiction with unlikely heroines.

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