Friday, September 15, 2017

RIP Jerry Pournelle and Peter Hall, To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway, Alias Grace on Netflix, The Dispatcher, Miniatures and Unlocked by John Scalzi, Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth, and the Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

I remember reading books by Pournelle and Niven back in the 80s, and though they were more "hard" science fiction than I generally read by that time, I really enjoyed them. RIP JP.

Obituary Note: Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle, a prolific author, editor and columnist on a variety of topics, including science fiction,
military matters, space, technology and politics, died on Friday. He was
84. He also had positions in the aerospace industry and was a political

His first novel, Red Heroin, an action/adventure mystery, was published
in 1968. Among his best-known books were Footfall and Lucifer's Hammer,
both written with Larry Niven, two of many collaborations with Niven,
one of several writers with whom he collaborated. He received five Hugo
and three Nebula nominations and, in 1973, was the first winner of the
John W. Campbell Award for best new writer (when the finalists included
George R.R. Martin!).

Pournelle contributed for years to BYTE magazine and continued to write
maybe the first that looked at computers from the user's point of view,
until his death. He also was science columnist for the National Catholic
Press, a columnist for Analog SF Magazine and science editor/columnist
for Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine. He was a past president of the
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and last year won the
National Space Society's Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award for lifetime
achievement in "promoting the goal of a free, spacefaring civilization."

Cat Rambo, president of the SFWA, commented: "I frequently interacted
with Jerry, sometimes agreeing, other times not so much, but always
knowing our arguments were motivated by a mutual love of SFWA and the
genre. As someone seeing behind the scenes of the Emergency Medical Fund
(Jerry was one of the stewards), I came to realize how much generosity
lurked in him, each time brought out by an applicant's situation. I will
definitely miss Jerry and think of him with fondness."

I am so excited about this magnificent classic being mounted as a stage production again, and the premier is the day after my 58th birthday. Oh, if only I could visit Broadway!
On Stage: To Kill a Mockingbird
A new stage production of Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a
will arrive on Broadway December 13, 2018. Playbill reported that Aaron
Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) has written the new adaptation.
Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher (Golden Boy, The King and I, South
Pacific) will direct the Broadway premiere, which is produced by Scott

Margaret Atwood is a favorite author of mine, and I am delighted that lately, her books are being made into Netflix series (like the recent series of the Handmaid's Tale) and now Alias Grace, which tells a completely different story. I can only hope that Cat's Eye and Blind Assassin are next on the list!
Netflix has released a trailer for its upcoming six-part limited series
Alias Grace
based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. Variety reported that the trailer
introduces Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), "who explains she has been an
inmate for 15 years. She, along with stable hand James McDermott (Kerr
Logan), has been accused of the infamous 1843 double murder of her
employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper Nancy
Montgomery (Anna Paquin)."

The miniseries, which also stars Zachary Levi and Edward Holcroft, was
written and produced by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron. It
streams on Netflix November 3.

Another great light of literature and theater is extinguished. This has been a terrible year for losing authors and theater legends.

Obituary Note: Peter Hall 
Sir Peter Hall
who staged the English-language premiere of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for
Godot and the world premiere of Harold Pinter's Homecoming, and "was the
single most influential figure in modern British theatre," died
September 11, the Guardian reported. He was 86. "As a director of plays,
especially Shakespeare, Pinter and Beckett, he was very fine.But it
was through his creation of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early
1960s and his stewardship of the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988 that
he affirmed his passionate faith in subsidized institutions. If we now
take their existence for granted, it is largely because of the
pioneering battles waged by Hall and his visionary enthusiasm," the
Guardian wrote.
Oberon Press went on to publish numerous works by Hall, including The Peter
Hall Diaries; Making an Exhibition of Myself; and Sir Peter's
Shakespeare's Advice to the Players. "Fifteen years ago when this titan
of the theatre put his trust in us to publish his work I was of course
overjoyed and privileged," Hogan said. "Peter was meticulous about his
books, ever patient and never wrong.... As we know, among his many great
qualities was his devotion to the works of Shakespeare. He knew each
play by heart line by line. But he was equally devoted to new
writing.... Most of all I miss his generous advice on theatre and
publishing which I treasure to this day."
The Dispatcher, Miniatures and Unlocked by John Scalzi are all short works that if combined, would make up enough word count to be a regular novel of 300 pages or so. I realized, after reading a post on Scalzi's hilarious and wonderful blog, Whatever, that while I'd read many of his major works, I'd neglected to read much of his short fiction because it was only available at first in either e-book format, which I dislike, or in magazines as an article/short story. What this boils down to is that I missed some really good stuff. So, with judicial use of the local library, I snagged these three books and read them in rapid succession. They were each amazing and wonderful in their own way, but since I have two other books to review, I will try to summarize. 
The Dispatcher takes place in a world where suddenly (and for no reason anyone can discern) people who have been murdered (not suicides or those who die of natural causes) or killed by accident, such as a bad surgery or the wrong medication, disappear after they die, only to reappear almost immediately in a place they feel safe, unharmed and naked. It's like a cosmic reset button. There develops an industry of professional men who are assigned to hospital operating rooms or ERs who are equipped to shoot and kill patients who "die" due to doctor error or for whatever reason on the table, so they can be resurrected at home. Of course, the rich immediately find a way to misuse these "dispatchers" and therein lies the tale, with Scalzi's protagonist, Tony Valdez, unwinding a mystery of what happened to his fellow agent, after said agent goes missing when a dispatch goes wrong and the patient dies. The prose is mostly dialog and the pace of the plot blistering, as Valdez works with a sassy police officer to get to the truth. There are some excellent questions and quick meditations on the way humanity views death and how we process death and dying as a society here, but for the most part, reading the Dispatcher was like watching a great movie on Netflix. You get in, you enjoy, you get out. A definite A, recommended to everyone.
Miniatures was like a box of chocolates without the inevitable coconut one that everyone despises. Each story was it's own hilarious nugget of fun, and some were so short that you feel like you're reading Scalzi's Twitter feed for a day. Though every chapter/story was delicious, I did have some favorites, mainly Denise Jones, Superbooker, and The Other Large Thing, while The State of Super Villainy took a close third. Honestly, if you're not howling with laughter (or at least chortling) by the time you finish these stories, there is something wrong with you. I nearly wet myself halfway through "Denise Jones..." and I had a coughing fit during the State of Super Villainy. Scalzi has the best sense of humor of any science fiction/fantasy writer alive, and his recent success in securing a multi-million dollar contract for future work is just one example of what fans of his work have known for years, that he's taken up the torch of the late, great Ray Bradbury when it comes to writing brilliant short fiction. Another A, with a recommendation to anyone and everyone.
Unlocked is the prequel or background book to Scalzi's landmark post-epidemic apocalyptic novel, Lock In. Unlocked tells the tale of how Haden's Syndrome, a horrific virus that kills millions before it leaves others with completely paralyzed bodies, but still healthy, active minds, makes its way from a global epidemiologist's convention (and the irony that a bunch of virus doctors spread a plague is lost on no one) to the White House, where it strikes down the first lady who gives the plague it's name. Since this is a fictional "oral history" it is told through the POV of everyone from doctors and scientists to a prison inmate who was one of the first to survive volunteering for experimental treatment. These voices seem so authentic, that it's hard to believe that Haden's Syndrome isn't real, and that there aren't "threeps," or robotic avatars with the Haden's patients conscious mind controlling them, walking around. Still, I would only hope that any president would react to a global epidemic with the same monetary and scientific force that this president does, because he gets the job done in terms of helping scientists to find a way to get those who are locked in back out into society and living their lives, even having children. Well done, Mr Scalzi. Another A, with the same recommendation.

Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth (author of the Divergent series) is the start of a new YA dystopian series that is darker and even more violent than her famed Divergent books. After the betrayal I felt with Divergent, (SPOILER, Roth kills off her female protagonist and leaves the douchebag father of the male protagonist alive), I wanted to believe she'd gotten her head straight and was ready to create a world where heroines don't have to become martyrs to love or to the world to be effective. While her protagonists in Carve aren't as smugly perfect as Tris and Four, they're still too "star crossed" and saddled with the terrible and/or dead parents to really separate them from the legacy of the Divergent Duo. Here's the blurb:
Fans of Star Wars and Divergent will revel in internationally bestselling author Veronica Roth’s stunning new science-fiction fantasy series.
On a planet where violence and vengeance rule, in a galaxy where some are favored by fate, everyone develops a currentgift, a unique power meant to shape the future. While most benefit from their currentgifts, Akos and Cyra do not—their gifts make them vulnerable to others’ control. Can they reclaim their gifts, their fates, and their lives, and reset the balance of power in this world?
Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power—something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows.
Akos is from the peace-loving nation of Thuvhe, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Though protected by his unusual currentgift, once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get his brother out alive—no matter what the cost. When Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. They must decide to help each other to survive—or to destroy one another. Publisher's Weekly: Roth (the Divergent series) returns with a gripping space opera about two individuals who share a planet but come from very different worlds. Cyra belongs to the ruling family of the Shotet, a people wrestling for planetary power against the gentle, prophetic Thuvhesit. Like all people, Cyra has a “currentgift” bestowed by the galactic current that connects all living things, but hers is darker than most: she lives in debilitating pain, eased only when she unleashes it on another—a fearsome spectacle that her cruel, power-hungry brother often forces her to employ. Akos, raised among the Thuvhesit and kidnapped by the Shotet, has a similarly singular currentgift: his touch relieves Cyra of her pain. Forced together, the two become hesitant friends and unlikely allies as the simmering tension between their two nations reaches new heights. Roth’s worldbuilding is commendable; each nation is distinct, interacting with the current in ways that give insight into her characters’ motivations. Amid political machinations and forays into space, Roth thoughtfully addresses substantial issues, such as the power of self-determination in the face of fate.
While the blood, pain and death never seemed to let up, I still wanted to like this book and the characters in this new series. However, I am not a fan of horror, or political machinations, or of martyred female protagonists, as Cyra seems to be, though she's so abused that it seems inevitable that she will sacrifice herself for the one person to show her any kindness or compassion, Akos. Meanwhile, Akos comes off as an idiot who won't let his brother go, even when it becomes obvious to everyone that his brother Eijeh has been brainwashed, in a literal sense, by Cyra's evil brother, ruler of the Shotet people. Eijeh even kills an innocent childhood friend, and, while Cyra has been telling Akos that there is no way back from the mindwiping/memory-swapping currentgift that her brother has used on him, Akos still insists that Cyra keep her evil brother alive and save his brother so that his brother might be healed in some fashion. This puts Akos clearly in the "too stupid to live" category, and I found myself losing even more interest in this depressingly dark and ugly book. Ironically, Veronica Roth looks, in her author photo, like everyone's idea of the perfect wee fairy princess, or manic pixie dream girl out of an 80s rom-com. It begs the question (also out of a 90s romcom) "What is your damage?" Either she has had to endure horrible parents and constant physical pain, or Roth is enamored of the idea of those things, enough to make them the foundation of this book. It bothered me that even Cyra's psychopathic brother is blamed on their evil psychopathic father, who raised them as killers. So, while Roth's prose is good, and her plot strong, I can't really give this book more than a B-, and I would only recommend it to those who like military science fiction with very dark and grim worldbuilding beneath it.

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan is a delightful and charming debut novel. Having been a fan of British literature since I was 12, I was eager to read this novel, which was touted as being in the same realm as books like the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and Me Before You, both of which I adored. Here's the blurb:
A charming, clever, and quietly moving debut novel of of endless possibilities and joyful discoveries that explores the promises we make and break, losing and finding ourselves, the objects that hold magic and meaning for our lives, and the surprising connections that bind us.
Lime green plastic flower-shaped hair bobbles—Found, on the playing field, Derrywood Park, 2nd September.

Bone china cup and saucer—Found, on a bench in Riveria Public Gardens, 31st October.
Anthony Peardew is the keeper of lost things. Forty years ago, he carelessly lost a keepsake from his beloved fiancĂ©e, Therese. That very same day, she died unexpectedly. Brokenhearted, Anthony sought consolation in rescuing lost objects—the things others have dropped, misplaced, or accidently left behind—and writing stories about them. Now, in the twilight of his life, Anthony worries that he has not fully discharged his duty to reconcile all the lost things with their owners. As the end nears, he bequeaths his secret life’s mission to his unsuspecting assistant, Laura, leaving her his house and and all its lost treasures, including an irritable ghost.
Recovering from a bad divorce, Laura, in some ways, is one of Anthony’s lost things. But when the lonely woman moves into his mansion, her life begins to change. She finds a new friend in the neighbor’s quirky daughter, Sunshine, and a welcome distraction in Freddy, the rugged gardener. As the dark cloud engulfing her lifts, Laura, accompanied by her new companions, sets out to realize Anthony’s last wish: reuniting his cherished lost objects with their owners.
Long ago, Eunice found a trinket on the London pavement and kept it through the years. Now, with her own end drawing near, she has lost something precious—a tragic twist of fate that forces her to break a promise she once made.
As the Keeper of Lost Objects, Laura holds the key to Anthony and Eunice’s redemption. But can she unlock the past and make the connections that will lay their spirits to rest?
Full of character, wit, and wisdom, The Keeper of Lost Things is heartwarming tale that will enchant fans of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Garden Spells, Mrs Queen Takes the Train, and The Silver Linings Playbook.
I find it odd that no one mentions, until very late in the book, that Sunshine has Down Syndrome. To any but the most obtuse reader, this will be obvious when we first meet Sunshine, but annoyingly, the author never seems comfortable with coming right out and saying it. That it makes her character no less annoying by avoiding giving her handicap a name is telling. Still, I loved Laura and her ridiculous romance with gardener Freddy. I also adored the story of Boomer and Eunice, whose wit and tenderness was refreshing. Between all this are the stories behind the lost things, some tragic and most heartbreaking, but all fascinating. I was riveted to this story the moment I opened the book and read the first page. Hence, I'd give this page-turning tale an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes Sarah Addison Allen's magical realism or insightful novels like Mrs Queen Takes the Train (which I read and loved, BTW).

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Movie, A Front Page Affair by Radha Vatsal, The Clockwork Crown by Beth Cato, Shadowed Souls Anthology, edited by Jim Butcher, and The Secret Ingredient of Wishes by Susan Bishop Crispell

I loved Hotel At the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and I'd read that Jamie Ford, a Seattle resident for many years, had been seeking someone to do justice to the novel's characters in Hollywood, without success (he did, however, allow local theater troupe Book It Repertory to mount a stage production adapted from his book, and I gather it was a great success). I am thrilled that he's finally found someone to do this fine work justice. 

Jamie Ford's bestselling debut novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and
is being developed into a film, with George Takei as executive producer,
Deadline reported. Producer Diane Quon acquired the film rights, and
Joseph Craig of StemEnt is also producing. Production is expected to
begin next year.

"The book tells an intimate love story that is, at once, poignant and
sweeping with historic magnitude told against the backdrop of the
internment of Japanese Americans during World War II," said Takei. "I
was captivated by Jamie Ford's novel when I first read it and visualized
a compelling film in my mind's eye. I saw the drama of enduring love
despite governmental racism, the passage of time and the vicissitude of
life. What a wonderful film it would make. Now we are beginning the
exciting adventure of making it happen."

Ford, who is co-writing the screenplay, said, "The number one question I
get from fans from all around the world is--will there be a film? I'm
delighted to say yes because for years I said no to filmmakers who
wanted to change too many things about the story (like the ethnicity of
my main character). With this team, I'm confident that fans will get a
satisfying film that remains true to the spirit of the book."

A Front Page Affair by Radha Vatsal was recommended to me by Barnes and Noble's Facebook page as being similar to Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy Mysteries. This series, unlike Bowen's, involves a budding journalist, Capability "Kitty" Weeks, who is working at the a local paper during WW1 as the assistant to the Ladies Pages editor. Of course, she longs to be a 'real' journalist and work on investigative news stories, but such things were rarely allowed women in 1915, an era of pervasive sexism and misogyny. Still, when Kitty discovers a body at a 4th of July party, she finds herself in the midst of a mystery that she must solve. Here's the blurb:
New York City, 1915
The Lusitania has just been sunk, and headlines about a shooting at J.P. Morgan's mansion and the Great War are splashed across the front page of every newspaper. Capability "Kitty" Weeks would love nothing more than to report on the news of the day, but she's stuck writing about fashion and society gossip over on the Ladies' Page—until a man is murdered at a high society picnic on her beat.
Determined to prove her worth as a journalist, Kitty finds herself plunged into the midst of a wartime conspiracy that threatens to derail the United States' attempt to remain neutral—and to disrupt the privileged life she has always known.
Radha Vatsal's A Front Page Affair is the first book in highly anticipated series featuring rising journalism star Kitty Weeks.
Though it is obvious that Kitty is bucking tradition by trying to solve a mystery and writing about it for the newspaper (though she is only allowed to type up her interview and observation notes and hand them over to a male journalist in the newsroom, where she's treated with disdain and not allowed beyond a windowed barrier) she seems less tough and smart than Bowen's take-charge heroine Molly Murphy, who would never kowtow to society matrons or others who try to tell her what she can and cannot do because of her gender. Kitty isn't made of sterner stuff, and she's often easily swayed into doing what is expected of her as a woman. That said, she uncovers some shady dealings by her father, and eventually solves the mystery (and gets into danger because the perp is female), but she is left working on the Ladies pages, where she seems to think she must remain as a woman of "gentle breeding" and high society. I found that very disappointing. However, the prose was clean and easy, the plot fast and sure, and all in all, the work is worth a B, with the recommendation to those who just want some light distracting reading for something like airplane travel.

The Clockwork Crown by Beth Cato is the second book in her Clockwork Dagger series, following The Clockwork Dagger, which I read last year. These are the further Steampunk adventures of healer Octavia Leander and the Clockwork Dagger sent to kill her (whom she managed to subvert to her cause and who fell in love with her), Alonzo Garrett. The prose in this book was refined to within an inch of it's life by the swift and enchanting plot that had me careening from chapter to chapter at breakneck speed. I could not put it down! More engrossing than the first book, this volume gets to the real meat of the matter, as Octavia is being groomed to succeed the source of all magical healing in the world, whether she wants the role or not. Here's the blurb:
Rich in atmosphere, imagination, and fun, the action-packed, magic-filled sequel to The Clockwork Dagger is an enchanting steampunk fantasy, evocative of the works of Trudi Canavan and Gail Carriger.
Narrowly surviving assassination and capture, Octavia Leander, a powerful magical healer, is on the run with handsome Alonzo Garrett, the Clockwork Dagger who forfeited his career with the Queen’s secret society of spies and killers—and possibly his life—to save her. Now, they are on a dangerous quest to find safety and answers: Why is Octavia so powerful? Why does she seem to be undergoing a transformation unlike any witnessed for hundreds of years?
The truth may rest with the source of her mysterious healing power—the Lady’s Tree. But the tree lies somewhere in a rough, inhospitable territory known as the Waste. Eons ago, this land was made barren and uninhabitable by an evil spell, until a few hardy souls dared to return over the last century. For years, the Waste has waged a bloody battle against the royal court to win its independence—and they need Octavia’s powers to succeed.
Joined by unlikely allies, including a menagerie of gremlin companions, she must evade killers and Clockwork Daggers on a dangerous journey through a world on the brink of deadly civil war. Publisher's Weekly: Dire circumstances and an unsettling sense of inevitable heartache make Cato’s sequel to The Clockwork Dagger a more somber affair, grounded in earth magic rather than the high-flying razzle-dazzle of steampunk. Magical healer Octavia Leander is alarmed by the scope of her new powers and slightly dispirited as she and Alonzo Garrett, the dashing assassin turned love interest, try to uncover information about the Lady, whose mysterious tree is the source of Octavia’s powers. An unexpected source of menace moves the story into fresh territory, while the escalating hostilities between the corrupt kingdom of Caskentia and its even more violent rebel province, the Dallows, put the vigorously determined Octavia in more than enough danger to satisfy her fans. Cato continues to defy expectations, moving the saga toward an unexpected, heartfelt conclusion, and the revelations about Octavia’s abilities are amply rewarding.
Though political machinations generally bore me to tears, I found that Cato managed to make them palitable enough that I was able to continue to devour each chapter, hoping that Octavia would find a solution to the problem of bark growing all over her body, turning her into the lady's tree, while what she really wants to do is continue to work as a healer and marry Alonzo, the love of her life. Fortunately, a last-minute hail-Mary pass is made, and all ends well for the couple. I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Gail Carriger's fantastic steampunk novels. 

Shadowed Souls is an anthology of urban fantasy short stories, gathered and edited by Jim Butcher of the Dresden Files and Kerrie L Hughes. Being the huge Harry Dresden fan that I am, I couldn't wait to get my hands on a short story set in the Dresden Files universe. Fortunately, there were also stories by Seanan McGuire (the October Daye series, which I've read) Tanya Huff, Kat Richardson, Kevin J Anderson and Jim C Hines. There were a few others by authors I'm not familiar with, so I felt no need to read those stories, and skipped over them. Here's the blurb:
Featuring short stories from Jim Butcher, Seanan McGuire, Kevin J. Anderson, and Rob Thurman, this dark and gritty “must-read anthology for UF fans”(RT Book Reviews) proves that nothing is as simple as black and white, light and dark, good and evil...
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Jim Butcher’s Cold Case, Molly Carpenter—Harry Dresden’s apprentice-turned-Winter Lady—must collect a tribute from a remote Fae colony and discovers that even if you’re a good girl, sometimes you have to be bad...
New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire’s Sleepover finds half-succubus Elsie Harrington kidnapped by a group of desperate teenage boys. Not for anything “weird.” They just need her to rescue a little girl from the boogeyman. No biggie.
In New York Times bestselling Kevin J. Anderson’s Eye of Newt, Zombie P.I. Dan Shamble’s latest client is a panicky lizard missing an eye who thinks someone wants him dead. But the truth is that someone only wants him for a very special dinner...
And New York Times bestselling author Rob Thurman’s infernally heroic Caliban Leandros takes a trip down memory lane as he deals wih some overdue—and nightmarish—vengeance involving some quite nasty Impossible Monsters. Publisher's Weekly: The morally gray heroes of this urban fantasy anthology refute the idea that all magic users are either good or evil. Butcher opens with his own “Cold Case,” the heart-wrenching story of a young woman trying to reconcile her new and terrible power with the duty she must perform. Seanan McGuire’s “Sleepover” follows nicely, revealing a world where magical people are reviled and unwelcome. Tanya Huff’s “If Wishes Were,” the grim story of a vampire holding desperately to her humanity through the man she loves, rounds out a powerful opening, but from here the anthology begins to lose momentum. Several stories are amusing but not exceptional. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Sales. Force.” revives the flagging collection, but the final story, “Impossible Monsters” by Rob Thurman, falls flat, adding an incidental magical element to the tired trope of a serial killer who goes after evildoers. Not every story will appeal to every reader, but the best of them truly shine.
Normally I am not a fan of the horror genre or the "evil is good" anti-hero trope, as I need someone to root for, someone to identify with when I read a book. I read all of the stories by authors whom I've read before and trust (trust that they know how to write decent prose and a strong plot with great characters), but even after Jim Butchers exceptional Molly Carpenter story and Seanan McGuires fun succubus story (it put me in mind of Lost Girl, a TV show I desperately miss), Tanya Huff's vampire tale and Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Sales Force, I found that Kevin Anderson's grim zombie story didn't do it for me at all, and I wasn't engaged enough to read Thurman's Impossible Monsters, or several other tales by authors whose works I've never heard of. I'd give the anthology a B, but I would only recommend it to those who don't mind some clinkers in amongst the good stuff by authors like Butcher and McGuire. 

The Secret Ingredient of Wishes by Susan Bishop Crispell was recommended to me by someone who knows I am a fan of Sarah Addison Allen's magical realism and Dorothea Benton Frank's southern books. I had such high enough hopes for this novel that I was willing to buy it in hardcover, something I try to avoid doing with all but the most desirable books on my Wish List because I can't afford to indulge in book ownership when my family's finances are so precarious. While I did like this story, I felt there were some problems. Though my hopes weren't exactly dashed, I didn't feel that the book met all of my expectations, particularly when the main character became progressively weaker around the male protagonist, and couldn't seem to stand up for herself in the face of bullying. That said, the magic was presented in a charming fashion and the small town characters were fun, even the stereotypical jealous "mean material girl" ex-wife of the male protagonist. The HEA, though inevitable, left a lot of questions unanswered, which was truly frustrating. I dislike authors who can't write a satisfying conclusion to their stories. Here's the blurb:
26-year-old Rachel Monroe has spent her whole life trying to keep a very unusual secret: she can make wishes come true. And sometimes the consequences are disastrous. So when Rachel accidentally grants an outlandish wish for the first time in years, she decides it’s time to leave her hometown—and her past—behind for good.
Rachel isn’t on the road long before she runs out of gas in a town that’s not on her map: Nowhere, North Carolina—also known as the town of “Lost and Found.” In Nowhere, Rachel is taken in by a spit-fire old woman, Catch, who possesses a strange gift of her own: she can bind secrets by baking them into pies. Rachel also meets Catch’s neighbor, Ashe, a Southern gentleman with a complicated past, who makes her want to believe in happily-ever-after for the first time in her life.
As she settles into the small town, Rachel hopes her own secrets will stay hidden, but wishes start piling up everywhere Rachel goes. When the consequences threaten to ruin everything she’s begun to build in Nowhere, Rachel must come to terms with who she is and what she can do, or risk losing the people she’s starting to love—and her chance at happiness—all over again.
The prose was beautifully clean and crisp, and the plot, though it zig-zagged a bit, never lagged. Crispell has the ability to write so you can visualize every scene, and feel compelled to know what's going to happen to these characters next. I am a big fan of page-turners, and this book certainly qualifies. That said, I still do not know if Rachel ever told her brother that he is her "magically displaced" brother, or if she gets together with Ashe and eventually marries him. Does she continue to be the town's Wish Granter, or does she just work with Catch to make magical pies? What happens to her best friend Mary Beth and her family, who seem very attached to Rachel, but live in another town? Especially Mary Beth's daughter Violet, who sounds like a horribly spoiled brat who uses her godmother Rachel to get whatever she wants, which is merely greedy, not charming, especially when her mother doesn't stop her from these machinations. Does Ashe ever find out that his evil, skeevy father had an affair with his wife, when Daddy dearest wasn't throwing widows and orphans off their land (could they have made him any more of a Snidely Whiplash-like evil villain?) Does he ever get his comeuppance, or does he try to use his powers of snake-charming on Rachel to get back his ill gotten gains? Ah well, if there's any justice in the world, there will be a sequel that answers all these questions. Meanwhile, I'd give the novel an A, and recommend it to those who enjoy Southern small-town characters, magic and pie.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Obit for Susan Vreeland, Dietland TV Show, Two Books I'd Like To Read, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig, Breath of Fire by Amanda Bouchet and The Love Letter by Cathleen Schine

I was gutted last week when I read about the unexpected death of author Susan Vreeland. Her book, The Forest Lover, about painter Emily Carr really moved me, and when I visited Vancouver and actually viewed paintings by Carr, I was utterly taken in by them, and felt that I had an even deeper connection to the art for having read Vreeland's novel. I was not aware that Susan Vreeland was in frail health, or that she'd had cancer. I read all but one of her novels, and I loved them all. She was a magnificent prose stylist who made art and artists come alive on the page. She will be missed. RIP.

Obituary Note: Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland, author of novels exploring about art and artists, died on Monday. She was 71.

Perhaps her best-known novel was Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999), about an
alleged painting by Vermeer and its various owners over the centuries.
Other works included The Passion of Artemisia, focusing on the inner
life of Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi; The Forest Lover,
a fictionalized account of the life of Canadian painter Emily Carr; Life
Studies, stories about Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters
from the points of view of people who knew them; Luncheon of the Boating
Party, about Renoir and his world as he creates his masterwork; and
Clara and Mr. Tiffany, about Clara Driscoll, who conceived and designed
Tiffany Lamps.

TV: The Shannara Chronicles, Dietland
A first-look trailer for the second season of The Shannara Chronicles
based on the fantasy series by Terry Brooks, has been released. It will
premiere October 11 on Spike, "its new home following the move from
sister Viacom network MTV," Deadline reported. The cast includes Austin
Butler, Ivana Baquero and Malese Jow.

I read Dietland a year ago, I think, and I enjoyed Plum Kettle telling her story about being a fat girl and fat woman. That said, Joy Nash, who is set to play Plum is just pleasantly plump, not really fat at all. But that's Hollywood for you, they rarely use actual fat people for roles that call for fat people. The exception is This Is Us, a TV show that hired the wonderful Chrissy Metz to play a larger woman on the program. Of course, she has to be desperately trying to lose weight, because if she accepted herself the entire diet industry would explode with concern trolls and 'professionals' signaling her doom from obesity, but at least there's a beautiful, smart and desirable fat lady on TV representing all of us who are bigger than a size 16, which is most women in America. 
Joy Nash (The Mindy Project, Twin Peaks) has been cast in the lead role
of Plum Kettle for Dietland
AMC's 10-episode straight-to-series darkly comedic drama based on Sarai
Walker's 2015 novel, Deadline reported. The project is from Marti Noxon
(UnReal), Skydance TV and AMC Studios.

"Joy is everything I hoped we'd find in our leading woman--beautiful,
smart and blazing with talent," said Noxon. "When she auditioned the
whole room was electrified. I can't wait for the world to meet her
'Plum.' "

I have been wanting to read the two books listed below since I first heard about them, so I am really excited that they're finally going to be out on shelves this month. 

Love and Other Consolation Prizes: A Novel by Jamie Ford (Ballantine,
$28, 9780804176750). "Ford excels at historical fiction, especially set
in the Pacific Northwest. In this tale, the reader follows the life of
Ernest Young, experiencing the early 1900s in Seattle. He is raffled off
in the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition. The story then follows adult
Ernest as the 1962 Seattle World's Fair opens. Rich with historical
detail and touching on a time period not widely known (the wilds of
Seattle's early days), this moving story comes together and draws the
reader in." --Alissa Williams, Morton Public Library, Morton, Ill.

George and Lizzie: A Novel by Nancy Pearl (Touchstone, $25,
9781501162893). "The daughter of two renowned narcissistic
psychologists, Lizzie's problem has always been overthinking everything.
George, raised in a very adoring family, comes into Lizzie's life with
one goal--to love her completely and forever. Can she relinquish the
past to move toward the happiness that could be hers in the future?
Relationships, good and bad, past and present, all come together to make
a truly wonderful tale of the reality of the struggles of everyday life.
Very well-written." --Debbie Wittkop, Southwest Public Libraries,
Columbus, Ohio
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, is a YA book that was recommended to me by Emily Weisenberger, whose teenager goes to school with my son Nick. I was way down on the holds list for the book at the library, so I was surprised when I discovered that I'd gotten a copy set aside for me about a fortnight ago. I was surprised again by how engaging the prose and plot were, and how fascinating the characters became as I ripped through the book in less than 12 hours. Though I realize all young male/female romances are compared to Romeo and Juliet, this novel earns a nod to the Bard's best, because they keep the tone light with humor and romantic with circumstance. Here's the blurb:  
Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.
Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.
The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?
Each circumstance seems to affect Daniel and Natasha's relationship, to the point where it seems that these two are doomed to never have anything but the one perfect day together, where they meet, fall in love and are torn apart again. But Yoon is obviously a hopeless romantic, enough so that she gets the two back together in a weird way for a last minute HEA that will have you going "Awwww" right up to the last paragraph. This beautifully written story deserves an A, and a recommendation to anyone who loves Romeo and Juliet stories set in modern day NYC, with diverse protagonists.

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig is our September book for my library book group. We'd read one other Doig book, and enjoyed it in the past, so I felt we couldn't go wrong with an author who tells stories of the Western US in the past with such heart and soul. That said, I didn't remember the late Doig's prose as being so bouncy and full bodied, nor his plots so engaging as to become page-turners. Yet I couldn't put down the Last Bus To Wisdom, because I just had to know what happened to 11 year old Donal on his trip cross country to stay with his great Aunt Kate for the summer. Here's the blurb:
The final novel from a great American storyteller.
Donal Cameron is being raised by his grandmother, the cook at the legendary Double W ranch in Ivan Doig’s beloved Two Medicine Country of the Montana Rockies, a landscape that gives full rein to an eleven-year-old’s imagination. But when Gram has to have surgery for “female trouble” in the summer of 1951, all she can think to do is to ship Donal off to her sister in faraway Manitowoc, Wisconsin. There Donal is in for a rude surprise: Aunt Kate–bossy, opinionated, argumentative, and tyrannical—is nothing like her sister. She henpecks her good-natured husband, Herman the German, and Donal can’t seem to get on her good side either. After one contretemps too many, Kate  packs him back to the authorities in Montana on the next Greyhound. But as it turns out, Donal isn’t traveling solo: Herman the German has decided to fly the coop with him. In the immortal American tradition, the pair light out for the territory together, meeting a classic Doigian ensemble of characters and having rollicking misadventures along the way.
Charming, wise, and slyly funny, Last Bus to Wisdom is a last sweet gift from a writer whose books have bestowed untold pleasure on countless readers.
I completely agree that this novel is charming, wise, funny and so heartfelt, that you'd have to be colder than the Dakotas in winter to not fall in love with the characters Doig sets before us. This novel gives us a delightful peek into what things were like at the end of an era, in the early 1950s, before the West was changed forever by the mores and nascent technology of the 60s and 70s (and the radical changes that took place in the 80s and 90s with the computer revolution). It's hard for those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s to imagine the hero worship of bronc-busters and cowboys and Indians of the West, and to understand the lifestyle of the tramps, hobos and migrant workers of that era who developed family-style groups that moved from place to place, harvesting hay, fruits and vegetables with backbreaking labor that was later taken over by machines. Donal is our view into an almost forgotten world, as we watch saints and sinners board the "dog bus" (Greyhound) and he strives to get their autograph and learn about their lives. Though this novel was about as near to perfect as it gets, I wish that Doig had given us a few paragraphs about what happened to Donal after he reunited with his grandma and he grew up on Rags Rasmussen's ranch. What would happen to such an insightful kid in the swinging 60s and the disco dancing 70s? What would he be like if he lived to today, a retired 80 year old ranch hand with a load of great stories to tell? At any rate, this last novel of Doigs deserves an A, and a recommendation to anyone fascinated by the old West.

Breath of Fire by Amanda Bouchet is the sequel to A Promise of Fire that I read a couple of weeks ago. Though these novels are primarily fantasy romances, I was hoping that the sequel would have the protagonist, Catalia Fisa, beloved (and protected) by the gods Zeus and Hades and Poseidon, being more independent and aggressive and working to fix the problems of the realms before things devolve into all out war and slaughter. Unfortunately, Cat, as she calls herself, is immature enough (and weak enough) that she still runs from her destiny and refuses to control her powers and deal with evil doers. She also "melts" and loses whatever mind she had to begin with the minute her mortal lover Griffin gets anywhere near her. He's extremely possessive and brutal, and he's abused her in the past, which she seems to feel is forgivable because his passionate love of her is so "sexy". Anyone who is that tyrannical and obsessed doesn't really understand the meaning of love, in my opinion, because if you have to compel or kidnap someone to be with you and force them into giving you binding vows that they will never leave you, you don't really love them or deserve their love in return. Love can't be compelled. It must be given of your own free will, with the knowledge that you can't force someone to have feelings for you. Though Cat constantly describes his rock hard body and his handsome face, I didn't find him attractive at all. He seemed frightening in a rapist and abuser kind of way, and the members of his team seemed to be the only men who could show Cat any understanding or tenderness that wasn't connected to sex. Anyway, here's the blurb from Publisher's Weekly: 
Bouchet ramps up the excitement in her second Kingmaker Chronicles fantasy romance (after A Promise of Fire) with high-intensity passion; adrenaline-fueled battles of wits, magic, and might; a host of magical creatures; and enough politics and world-shaking to keep readers eager for the final volume. Catalia Fisa is the “impetuous,” “reckless,” and “terrifyingly selfless” Lost Princess, inheritor of the bloodline of the gods. She has become both the lover of Sintan warlord Griffin and a key piece of his strategy to unite the three realms of Thalyria under a single ruler. But her powerful, sadistic mother, Andromeda, stands in their way at every turn. Bouchet treads gently as she develops the larger-than-life aspects of her setting, and godly support and oracular wisdom build dramatic tension around the idea of fate without falling into deus ex machina. Griffin’s good intentions make his possessive alpha jealousy feel loving, Cat’s sharp tongue and personal insecurities balance her magical powers, and the emotional complexity of the relationships among their fellow fighters supports a feeling of camaraderie that makes the fight scenes really work.
I disagree that Griffin's "possessive alpha jealousy" feels loving at all. It's more scary than loving, as he tries at every turn to keep Cat from "danger," while it's obvious that if they're going to win at the deadly arena games, they will need every single one of her powers and her reckless ability to throw herself into battle to protect and defend her loved ones. Even when Griffin realizes Cat is pregnant (before she does, which stretches my credulity), he allows her to battle in the arena and get kicked and cut in the abdomen more than a few times, yet he keeps telling her to be careful and cautious, as if that will help. At any rate, there is apparently one more book in this series coming out next year, and I will probably read it just to find out what happens at Cats wedding and if she's able to kill her evil mother in time to save the kingdoms. I'd give this book a B+, and recommend it to anyone who likes Greek mythology mixed in with their fantasy romance.

The Love Letter by Cathleen Schine was recommended on a book website as a book about a bookstore owner and other bibliophiles in a small town in New England. It isn't listed as a genre novel, though in reality, it's a romance novel for middle aged women, set in the 1990s. While this normally would be right up my alley, I was put off by the terribly vain and insecure protagonist, Helen, who is about 10 years older than I am, but in this novel she seems much younger than her 40s because of her immaturity. She's hypersexualized, and can't seem to control her "flirting" with everyone who she comes into contact with, from the patrons of the bookstore to the mailman and even her young co workers, whom she requires worship her (both male and female). If that weren't bizarre enough, she finds, reads and memorizes a love letter from "Ram" to "Goat" that is so passionate in its purple prose that she is certain that it must be about her, though there is no evidence of her name anywhere on it. A young man who works in the store, Johnny, who is all of 20, develops a crush on Helen that he's certain is love, so eventually Helen succumbs to his ardent and heated stares and has sex with him, though she knows its going to mean more to him than it will to her. Meanwhile, Helen's equally bizarre and vain mother and grandmother call to tell her they'll be coming for an extended stay/visit to the large family homestead, and once there, her mother Lillian slips in and out of the house on what are obviously liaisons with a lover somewhere in town. Readers will know who this lover is right away, and I am sure we're meant to find it comical that Helen thinks she's hiding her affair with young Johnny from everyone when her mother knows what is going on almost immediately. Here's the blurb via Publisher's Weekly: One summer morning in her 41st year, Helen MacFarquhar, the divorced owner of an audaciously pink bookstore in an exclusive Connecticut shore town, finds a mysterious letter in her mail. Addressed "Dear Goat,'' and signed "As Ever, Ram,'' it is a love letter of such intensity and passion that she becomes obsessed by its urgently suggestive message. The effect of that letter on Helen's orderly life is the burden of this comedy of manners, which in Schine's capable hands also becomes a witty send-up of cultural hypocrisies and modern relationships. The letter is next read by Johnny Howell, 20-year-old college student and part-time help at Helen's store. Magic strikes; like some characters in Shakespeare's comedies, Johnny immediately falls in love with Helen, and, after a series of misunderstandings, they consummate what has become a mutual passion. Subterfuge is necessary, of course, especially when Helen's 11-year-old daughter returns from camp and Helen's ditsy globe-trotting mother and grande-dame grandmother also decide to spend some weeks in Helen's large old house. Schine's prose is as light and delicate as gossamer and as earthy as colloquial slang and sex.  The twist ending is nicely foreshadowed and quite delicious in its implications. Like the love letter of the title, this book enchants and seduces.
Unfortunately, this book didn't enchant or seduce me at all. Helen is often as cruel as she is vain, flighty and demanding in her need for everyone to find her sexually attractive. Her egotism is nauseating as well. The only "magic" that strikes Johnny is lust, which seems normal for a 20 year old, but creepy when it's a 42 year old that is the object of his desire and when she preys on him, initially just for sex. When it is revealed that Lillian, Helen's mother, is moving in with the town librarian, an older woman, the only one who doesn't see it coming a mile off is Helen. In the end, Helen realizes that she's in love with Johnny, which would be okay if there was some kind of closure to the realization. Is Johnny going to quit college and come live with Helen and work in the bookstore, or is Helen going to fly to NYC and build a love-nest with her young boyfriend? We'll never know, because once it's revealed who the author of the love letter is (it's her mother's lesbian lover) the book just ends. The prose is fluffy and the plot scattershot. I'd give this bad romance a C, and only recommend it to people who find May-December romances riveting reading.