Thursday, July 07, 2016

RIP Elie Wiesel, Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall, Stiletto by Daniel O'Malley and A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

I read Night by Elie Wiesel when I was in my late teens, and it overwhelmed me with sadness and despair at the inhumanity of prejudiced humans against other humans they deem lesser, in this case by their religion. It made me horrified at my German ancestry, and at the same time, it uplifted me because Wiesel wrote so eloquently of the inexhaustible human spirit, and the immortality of love. Rest in peace, Elie.

Obituary Note: Elie Wiesel

"the Auschwitz survivor who became an eloquent witness for the six
million Jews slaughtered in World War II and who, more than anyone else,
seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world's conscience," died
Saturday, the New York Times reported. He was 87.

Wiesel, who wrote several dozen books and in 1986 was awarded the Nobel
Peace Prize, "was defined not so much by the work he did as by the
gaping void he filled.... [B]y the sheer force of his personality and
his gift for the haunting phrase, Mr. Wiesel, who had been liberated
from Buchenwald as a 16-year-old with the indelible tattoo A-7713 on his
arm, gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the
history books."

Night, the 1960 English translation of his autobiographical account of
the horrors he witnessed in the camps as a teenage boy, has sold more
than 10 million copies, "three million of them after Oprah Winfrey
picked it for her book club in 2006 and traveled with Mr. Wiesel to
Auschwitz," the Times wrote, adding that it was followed by novels,
books of essays and reportage, two plays and even two cantatas--"an
average of a book a year, 60 books by his own count in 2015." His Night
Trilogy includes Dawn and Day.

President Obama, who visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration
camp with Wiesel in 2009, said Saturday: 'He raised his voice, not just
against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in
all its forms. He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings,
to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that
pledge of 'never again.' "

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall was recommended to me by the publisher's blog and email newsletter, as a story similar to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Help. While I could see how the young Southern girl POV would remind people of Harper Lee's Scout, I found the book to have more echoes of Fried Green Tomatoes at The Whistle Stop Cafe mingled with Mockingbird and the Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Therefore, though the book was fairly derivative, I did enjoy the lively prose and first person POV of Starla, the red-headed feisty child who brings us her tale of running away and getting into trouble with an abused black woman in 1960s Mississippi.Here's the blurb:
From an award-winning author comes a wise and tender coming-of-age story about a nine-year-old girl who runs away from her Mississippi home in 1963, befriends a lonely woman suffering loss and abuse, and embarks on a life-changing roadtrip.
In the summer of 1963, nine-year-old spitfire Starla Claudelle runs away from her strict grandmother’s Mississippi home. Starla hasn’t seen her momma since she was three—that’s when Lulu left for Nashville to become a famous singer. Starla’s daddy works on an oil rig in the Gulf, so Mamie, with her tsk-tsk sounds and her bitter refrain of “Lord, give me strength,” is the nearest thing to family Starla has. After being put on restriction yet again for her sassy mouth, Starla is caught sneaking out for the Fourth of July parade. She fears Mamie will make good on her threat to send Starla to reform school, so Starla walks to the outskirts of town, and just keeps walking. . . . If she can get to Nashville and find her momma, then all that she promised will come true: Lulu will be a star. Daddy will come to live in Nashville, too. And her family will be whole and perfect. Walking a lonely country road, Starla accepts a ride from Eula, a black woman traveling alone with a white baby. The trio embarks on a road trip that will change Starla’s life forever. She sees for the first time life as it really is—as she reaches for a dream of how it could one day be.
What interested me is how Starla began her journey for purely selfish and idealistic, overly romantic reasons, and once she stumbles on the reality of the cruelty, poverty, prejudice and powerlessness black women lived with every day at that time, she begins to see beyond her own needs and to the needs of those less fortunate around her. She becomes less of a brat and more of a realized character. Her understanding of how horrible people come in all colors also brings about Starla's realization that she has a strong sense of justice and a need to protect those who are weak or helpless. The prose was easy and breezy, but the plot completely predictable, and the ending almost syrupy sweet. Still, I'd give this book a B and recommend it to anyone who loves Southern fiction of the 60s, and funny, troublesome protagonists. 

Stiletto by Daniel O'Malley was the sequel to the dynamite Rook, which came out in 2012. I wasn't aware of the Rook until a couple of months ago, and once I started reading it, I was entranced. Brilliantly written and full of fascinating characters, The Rook reminded me that there are still authors out there who care about telling a truly innovative and exciting story. Hence, I was delighted to learn that the sequel, the Stiletto, was coming out this month, and I managed to get a copy from Barnes and the day after it was released.  Often sequels are a disappointment, and due to the size of this sequel (over 600 pages) I was worried that it might not live up to the Rook, but I was worried for nothing. Stiletto was a delight from start to finish, full of the legendary dry wit that the British are known for, and introducing more intrepid pawns and characters from both the Checquy and the Grafters. Here's the blurbs: 
When secret organizations are forced to merge after years of enmity and bloodshed, only one person has the fearsome powers—-and the bureaucratic finesse—-to get the job done. Facing her greatest challenge yet, Rook Myfanwy Thomas must broker a deal between two bitter adversaries:
The Checquy—-the centuries-old covert British organization that protects society from supernatural threats, and...
The Grafters—-a centuries-old supernatural threat.
But as bizarre attacks sweep London, threatening to sabotage negotiations, old hatreds flare. Surrounded by spies, only the Rook and two women who absolutely hate each other, can seek out the culprits before they trigger a devastating otherworldly war. Kirkus Reviews:The Brotherhood of the Checquy, England's "secret government organization that employed the supernatural to protect the populace from the supernatural," believes it's time to form an alliance with the Wetenschappeljik Broederschap van Natuurkundigen, known as the Grafters. Since a failed 17th-century invasion of the Isle of Wight, the Grafters, Belgian alchemists who have developed fantastical modifications for the human body, have been the Checquys' mortal enemies. That means there are dissenters to the merger, but influential Rook Myfanwy Thomas (Checquy agents are ranked as chess pieces) supports the alliance. But the diplomatic scenario becomes thorny when the Checquy learn that the Grafters haven't told them about the Antagonists, a terror group that's pursued the Grafter delegation to England. O'Malley (The Rook, 2012) weaves a complex, action-packed, cast-of-thousands narrative. Thomas becomes a target late, but Pawn Felicity Clements, one of the preternatural MI5-type agents, leads the action. With Myfanwy serving as the M to Felicity's Bond, both become appealing, nuanced characters. We first see Felicity target a killer whose victims have B-positive blood and confront the Oblong of Mystery—a huge fleshy entity occupying a house—but then Antagonist-inspired bad stuff threatens negotiations, and she's assigned to the Grafter delegation as security for Odette Leliefeld, scion of Grafter royalty, allowing O'Malley to riff on the buddy-comedy genre while continuing to add paranormal frosting to the spy-thriller genre. A craftily imaginative mashup of spies and the supernatural, but it's a tad too long for all but the most ardent fans.
Felicity and Odette were a great combo, and seeing things through both their eyes was a great way to really understand how different, and yet how similar their organizations were. Though I wasn't fond of the rich, spoiled and weak Odette, by the end I realized she had hidden depths and would be just fine as an agent of their combined forces. Though the book could have used a bit of a trim here and there, I was never bored while reading it, which is unusual for a book this size. O'Malley's prose is golden, and his plot is twisty enough to keep even the most jaded reader up late, turning pages into the wee hours. A well deserved A, with a fervent plea for the third in this series to come out by early next year. I'd recommend it to anyone who loves Doctor Who, or Monty Python, or supernatural tales and spy stories.

I received a trade paperback copy of A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. I'd heard of this steampunk genre book on Facebook, on the Gail Carriger (author of the Soulless and Imprudence series) page, and it sounded right up my alley, with an intelligent female protagonist in a steampunk setting attempting to solve a mystery. Veronica Speedwell is an adventurer and a dauntless young woman who doesn't let romance turn her into a simpering, weak-headed fool. She never lets circumstances stop her from her intended goal, and she uses her considerable wits to get herself and her companion out of danger several times. I was utterly enchanted by Veronica, especially due to my love of science and butterflies, which Veronica collects and sells to support her expeditions. Here is the blurb:
London, 1887. After burying her spinster aunt, orphaned Veronica Speedwell is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as with fending off admirers, Veronica intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime.
But fate has other plans when Veronica thwarts her own attempted abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron, who offers her sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker, a reclusive and bad-tempered natural historian. But before the baron can reveal what he knows of the plot against her, he is found murdered—leaving Veronica and Stoker on the run from an elusive assailant as wary partners in search of the villainous truth. Kirkus Reviews:Determined to live an independent life, Veronica Speedwell is anything but a proper Victorian lady. So when her home is attacked during her aunt's funeral, a rollicking adventure ensues. Mastermind of the charming Lady Grey Mysteries series, Raybourn (Bonfire Night, 2014, etc.) introduces her latest feisty heroine, deftly twining together suspense, romance, and cracking good dialogue. Certainly, lepidoptery should be a suitable hobby for a lady; chasing pretty things like butterflies can hold no dangers. But Veronica, a foundling raised from birth by her two late aunts, has taken things a little too far: by capturing and selling highly sought-after butterflies, she's financed her own expeditions to exotic locations, where she's indulged in emotionally careful yet physically torrid affairs. After rescuing Veronica from her attacker, Baron von Stauffenbach whisks her to London, depositing her in the care of the enigmatic Mr. Stoker, a brooding, Byronic hero of the natural history persuasion. Before the Baron can return to tell Veronica what he knows of her mother, he's found dead, and the police like Stoker for a suspect. Stoker and Veronica partner up to find the real culprit, hurtling pell-mell into a captivatingly intricate plot, including a traveling circus, the fetid Thames, and the Tower of London, as they dodge villains with murky motives and hulking henchmen. Soon, they realize that Stauffer's death may be connected to the mystery of Veronica's birth parents, and Stoker himself has a few secrets to discover, including what really happened on his disastrous expedition to the Amazon, which left him scarred and disgraced. As Veronica and Stoker careen through dastardly plot twists, they match wits, bantering with skill worthy of Tracey and Hepburn. A thrilling—and hilarious—beginning to a promising new series.
I completely agree with the Kirkus Reviewer in that reading this delightful novel is like watching a good Tracey/Hepburn film. You just can't take your eyes off of the two of them as they banter and slowly reveal their secrets to one another as their chemistry sizzles. The prose is gloriously British and yet remains clean and clear while the reader hangs on during the roller-coaster ride of the plot. I was so engrossed in this page-turner that I stayed up way too late to finish it last night. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys strong female protagonists, the steampunk genre and a ripping good read created by an expert storyteller. Oh, and I sincerely hope that the sequel comes along soon!

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