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. 

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