Thursday, August 25, 2016

Librarians as Human Googles, The Wet Nurse's Tale by Erica Eisdorfer, This Pen for Hire by Laura Levine, and Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, plus a Study in Ashes by Emma Jane Holloway

I've always had a healthy respect and love of librarians, mainly because they are the priest and priestesses of the holy places that libraries are to me, but also because they never fail to help me find answers to questions large and small. Now that there are computers and search engines like Google, people forget that librarians are still a vital resource in the battle against ignorance. You can get a million answers to a question when you "google it" or you can get the right answer when you ask a librarian.

The 'Human Google' at the NYPL
Noting that "in an era of online searches, librarians at the New York
Public Library are still the most-trusted source," CBS News reported
that at the NYPL's Fifth Avenue branch, "the phones keep ringing for
researchers," who have been called the "Human Google

"One of the number one comments that we get from callers is, 'Thank God
I've reached a human being,' " said Rosa Li, who manages the library's
Ask Desk. "Even on chat sometimes people will say, 'Is this a robot or a
person?' We have to laugh and say, 'I'm a real person.' "

The Ask Desk receives about 300 inquiries a day--via telephone, e-mail,
chat and text message. "Facebook, Twitter, and even snail mail queries
from New Yorkers and even people from around the world," Li said,
adding: "We love the fact that more and more things are online. The
computer is a tool for us, so the faster we can find an answer for
somebody, the better."

CBS News also asked Li what she is able to discern after answering a
question. "Gratitude," she replied. "Also, that moment--that 'A-ha!,'
that 'A-ha!' moment is great to listen to. Hearing that joy in their
voice. It's almost like a little checkmark goes off and it's like, OK,
I've managed to accomplish that!"
The Wet Nurse's Tale by Erica Eisdorfer was a recent find at the Half Price Books Warehouse sale in Seattle. I was shocked to discover that it was a great read, well written and with an engrossing plot. Here's the blurb: 
A debut novel set in Victorian England with a delightfully cheeky heroine who will have everyone talking.
Susan Rose is not your average Victorian heroine. She's promiscuous, lovable, plump, and scheming. Luckily for Susan, her big heart is covered by an equally big bosom, and her bosom is her fortune- for Susan becomes a professional wet nurse, like her mother before her, and she makes it her business to know all the intrigues and scandals that the upper crust would prefer to keep to themselves.
When her own child is caught up in a family scandal, Susan must use all of her street smarts to rescue her baby from the powerful mistress of the house. The scheme she weaves is bold and daring, and could spell ruin if she fails-but Susan Rose has no intention of failing.
I fell in love with the big-hearted, smart Susan Rose right from the outset. Though the novel is written in a modernized "Canterbury Tales" style, the prose sparkles with wit and humor, and there's a lot of down-to-earth discussions of the plight of women in the 19th century. The plot moves along at a metered but swift pace, and I found myself sorry to read the final page of this fascinating tale. A well-deserved A, with a recommendation to anyone interested in historical women and mothers, as well as those wondering what the life of a professional wet nurse must be like.
This Pen For Hire by Laura Levine is another book that I grabbed off the shelves during the HPB Warehouse sale, mainly for it's cutesy cover of a woman reading in the bathtub. Also, the title intrigued me, as I've worked as a journalist for over 30 years, so I was also a "pen for hire" for awhile. Here's the blurb:
Smarmy personals ads. Daring declarations of love. Freelance writer Jaine Austen has penned them all. But no one needs her help more than geeky, gawky Howard Murdoch. His request is simple enough: a letter proclaiming his undying love for Stacy Lawrence, a gorgeous aerobics instructor. The fact that he's never actually met the woman gives Jaine pause—yet she soon overcomes her misgivings, and the unlikely Romeo lands a date! But his triumph is short-lived. On Valentine's Day, Howard finds Stacy bludgeoned to death with a Thigh Master—and is quickly named the prime suspect.
Jaine is shocked. Sure, Howard's awkward and eccentric. But a murderer? That's hard to believe. Especially after a little sleuthing reveals a plethora of people who harbored less-than-loving feelings towards the svelte Stacy. Now Jaine had better wrangle her clues quickly, before a crafty killer catches on—and puts a whole new spin on her ghost writing career. . .
While things get predictable about 2/3 of the way through the book, (it becomes obvious who the killer is), I still really enjoyed the sassy and silly voice of Jaine, who comes off as a real person with a real appetite and the same insecurities as nearly every woman on the planet. Lots of witty wordplay and well designed plot make this a winner of a mystery. I plan on finding the next few books in this series and indulging in my newfound "friendship" with the hilariously goofy and real Jaine Austen. I'd give this slender volume an A and a recommendation to anyone looking for a great, easy "beach read."
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard was recommended to me by several readers websites and by a friend who knows that I love well written YA Fantasy fiction.  Though I've been honest about having reader's fatigue from reading one dystopian YA novel after another during the past 15 years, I was actually intrigued by the stout and detailed world that Aveyard builds and populates with apparent ease. She never info-dumps on the reader, or makes aspects of court intrigue so intricate and difficult to understand/follow that the reader gets frustrated, or wants to let their mind wander from the twists and turns of the well-crafted plot. But as with JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, the real stars here are the characters. Our heroine Mare Barrow and her family and friends are so well drawn that they nearly live and breathe off the page. Here's the blurb:
Graceling meets The Selection in debut novelist Victoria Aveyard's sweeping tale of seventeen-year-old Mare, a common girl whose once-latent magical power draws her into the dangerous intrigue of the king's palace. Will her power save her or condemn her?
Mare Barrow's world is divided by blood—those with common, Red blood serve the Silver- blooded elite, who are gifted with superhuman abilities. Mare is a Red, scraping by as a thief in a poor, rural village, until a twist of fate throws her in front of the Silver court. Before the king, princes, and all the nobles, she discovers she has an ability of her own.
To cover up this impossibility, the king forces her to play the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks everything and uses her new position to help the Scarlet Guard—a growing Red rebellion—even as her heart tugs her in an impossible direction. One wrong move can lead to her death, but in the dangerous game she plays, the only certainty is betrayal.
The love triangle, the romance and the revolution never get in each others way, fortunately, though Mare does come off as more than a bit naive. While it is a given that Mare will come out of the betrayal by one of the princes alive, there was still the constant fear for her family and her friends that lent a frisson of tension to each chapter, and made the ruling Silver nobility seem all the more evil. I've read that other reviewers compare this series to Graceling (and it does have some similarities), but I found myself thinking of the Hunger Games and Divergent a lot while reading of Mare's adventures posing as a Silver. Like the heroines of those two series, Mare must go to great lengths to feed her family and ultimately to save them from being conscripted and dying as cannon fodder in a war only nominally fought by Silvers over territory. She's as feisty and fearless as either of the other heroines, and she never gives up, even when everything is turned against her, and she faces death by combat. A solid A, with a recommendation to anyone who loves strong female protagonists and well written YA fantasy. 

I need to make a small mention here of the final book in Emma Jane Holloway's Baskerville Affair series featuring Sherlock Holme's niece, called A Study in Ashes. I read the other two books in the series, and of course wanted to know how things turned out for Evelina Cooper, who, although a smart woman, somehow becomes a wilting blossom whenever she's kissed or touched by one of her swains, Tobias and Nick. Though I did love the Steampunk aspect of these books, and the solid prose that propelled the plot through some bizarre twists and turns, I kept getting irritated with Evie, who was so strong that she could kill the most evil wizard in existence, but then was so weak that she needed her boyfriend Nick to rescue her so she could whine about the darkness inside of her. She's consistently described as "frail" and "delicate" and small, yet she's got a huge amount of magical power within her, just waiting to be used for the good of all. Yet she somehow can't do that without a man by her side. The same goes for Imogen, her best friend, who manages to battle and kill her evil twin, but then is only able to recuperate with the help of her fiance Bucky, because somehow women in this book aren't complete without a male mate. Nick and Tobias both seemed to be total jerks to me, as they treated the women in their lives like possessions to be used for sex and breeding heirs. They also had to be small and weak and child-like in order to be attractive. This pervasive sexism lent a bad smell to these otherwise well done novels. Here's the blurb:
 As part of her devil’s bargain with the industrial steam barons, Evelina Cooper is finally enrolled in the Ladies’ College of London. However, she’s attending as the Gold King’s pet magician, handcuffed and forbidden contact with even her closest relation, the detective Sherlock Holmes.

But Evelina’s problems are only part of a larger war. The Baskerville affair is finally coming to light, and the rebels are making their move to wrest power from the barons and restore it to Queen Victoria. Missing heirs and nightmare hounds are the order of the day—or at least that’s what Dr. Watson is telling the press.

But their plans are doomed unless Evelina escapes to unite her magic with the rebels’ machines—and even then her powers aren’t what they used to be. A sorcerer has awakened a dark hunger in Evelina’s soul, and only he can keep her from endangering them all. The only problem is . . . he’s dead.

Though I didn't really like this version of Sherlock Holmes, who would never have been this emotional toward a relative, even if he had a sister who produced a niece, I would still give the book a B, and recommend it to Steampunk fans who aren't too put off by sexist male characters. 

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