Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Book Club and Wrinkle in Time Movies, A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Maas, Goodnight from London by Jennifer Robson and Gods and Ends by Devon Monk

This sounds like an excellent film, even though they're reading a book I found truly awful. 

Book Club Movie

Mary Steenburgen is joining Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen
for the film Book Club
which "revolves around four lifelong friends who read 50 Shades of Grey
in their monthly book club and have their lives changed forever,"
Deadline reported. The project marks the directorial debut of A Walk in
the Woods writer-producer Bill Holderman and is based on an original
script by Holderman and Erin Simms. It is in pre-production.

Another movie that looks exciting! I read a Wrinkle In Time back when I was a kid, and then I read it again as an adult in my 20s. It stands the test of time as a science fiction classic.

Movies: A Wrinkle in Time

"The clock ticks, time bends, space shifts, and Oprah is your
planet-hopping tour guide through all of it," Entertainment Weekly noted
in showcasing a first look at director Ava DuVernay's (Selma, 13th) film
adaptation of Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time
Oscar winner Jennifer Lee (Frozen) wrote the script for the project. In
addition to Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which, the film's cast includes Mindy
Kaling (Mrs. Who), Reese Witherspoon (Mrs. Whatsit), Storm Reid (Meg),
Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

DuVernay said she discovered the novel as an adult: "I went to school in
Compton and it wasn't on my reading list. I saw so much beauty in it,
but also so much meaning. She's a very radical thinker and she embedded
her sense of what society should and could be in this piece, and a lot
of it I agree with. And through that, the story of this girl saving the
world and being out there in the universe slaying the darkness, it also
says a lot about slaying our own dragons."

She added that the first image she had "was to place a brown girl in
that role of Meg, a girl traveling to different planets and encountering
beings and situations that I'd never seen a girl of color in. All of
those scenes struck my fancy, and then it was also something that
[Disney v-p of production] Tendo Nagenda said to me, which I'll never
forget. One of the things that really made me want to read it was when
he said, 'Ava, imagine what you would do with the worlds.' Worlds!
'Planets no one's ever seen or heard of,' he said. There aren't any
other black women who have been invited to imagine what other planets in
the universe might look and feel like. I was interested in that and in a
heroine that looked like the girls I grew up with."

DuVernay also observed: "My whole process with this film was, what if?
With these women, I wondered, could we make them women of different
ages, body types, races? Could we bring in culture, bring in history in
their costumes? And in the women themselves, could we just reflect a
fuller breadth of femininity?"
 A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Maas wasn't the YA novel I was expecting. I had assumed it would be more about a cat and her relationship with her person, in this case, a teenage girl. But the book isn't really about Mango the cat, it's about a girl named Tia Winchell who has Synesthesia, which is the ability to see colors in music, numbers or other everyday things. Here's the blurb:
Thirteen-year-old Mia Winchell is far from ordinary: she suffers from a rare condition called synesthesia, the mingling of perceptions whereby a person can see sounds, smell colors, or taste shapes. But because she has kept it a secret from everyone, she appears to be the most normal kid in her family. Her younger brother Zack keeps a chart of all the McDonald's hamburgers he's eaten in his lifetime. Her older sister Beth dyes her hair a different color every week and might be a witch.
When trouble in the school finally convinces Mia to reveal her secret, she feels like a freak; and as she embarks on an intense journey of self-discovery, her family and friends have trouble relating to her. By the time she realizes she has isolated herself from all the people who care about her, it is almost too late. Mia has to lose something very special in order to understand and appreciate her special gift in this coming-of-age novel. Publisher's Weekly:In an intriguing first novel, Mass introduces a 13-year-old heroine with an unusual perspective. Mia Winchell is a synesthete; her visual and hearing senses are connected so that numbers, letters, words, sounds and even some people's auras appear to her as colors. The letter "a," for instance, is the shade of a "faded sunflower," screeching chalk "makes red jagged lines in the air," and Mia's beloved cat, Mango, is surrounded by an orange cloud. Mia's unique view proves to be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, she enjoys having heightened senses ("If I couldn't use my colors, the world would seem so bland-like vanilla ice cream without the gummy bears on top," she says). On the other hand, sometimes it's hard for her being reminded that she is different, like when her brother, Zack, calls her "the Missing Link." Although the story line, at times, seems cluttered with underdeveloped subplots about Mia's friendships, potential romances and conflicts at school, the novel's premise is interesting enough to keep pages turning. The author successfully brings abstract ideas down to earth. Her well-defined characterizations, natural-sounding dialogue, and concrete imagery allow readers to feel Mia's emotions and see through her eyes a kaleidoscopic world, which is at once confusing and beautiful.
I agree with Publisher's Weekly that the plot/storyline are somewhat cluttered and confusing, however, the prose and well drawn dialogue really keeps you turning pages, and hoping that Mia gets things figured out also kept me engrossed. This book helped me remember what it was like being different in my early teens, and how desperate I was to fit in and be "normal" like the other kids. Eventually, you figure out that your differences, what makes you unique, are your strength and the best part of you as you grow into your gifts. Though it was a bit uneven, I would still give this book a B+ and recommend it to any young girl who is trying to find out where she fits in.
Goodnight From London by Jennifer Robson was the 4th book of hers I've read, and enjoyed them all. Robson has a strong sense of place in her books, and though they're basically historical romances, she still keeps the prose imbued with a literary luminosity that makes you feel like you're reading a book from the classic canon of literature. Here's the blurb:
From USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Robson—author of Moonlight Over Paris and Somewhere in France—comes a lush historical novel that tells the fascinating story of Ruby Sutton, an ambitious American journalist who moves to London in 1940 to report on the Second World War, and to start a new life an ocean away from her past.
In the summer of 1940, ambitious young American journalist Ruby Sutton gets her big break: the chance to report on the European war as a staff writer for Picture Weekly newsmagazine in London. She jumps at the chance, for it's an opportunity not only to prove herself, but also to start fresh in a city and country that know nothing of her humble origins. But life in besieged Britain tests Ruby in ways she never imagined.
Although most of Ruby's new colleagues welcome her, a few resent her presence, not only as an American but also as a woman. She is just beginning to find her feet, to feel at home in a country that is so familiar yet so foreign, when the bombs begin to fall.
As the nightly horror of the Blitz stretches unbroken into weeks and months, Ruby must set aside her determination to remain an objective observer. When she loses everything but her life, and must depend upon the kindness of strangers, she learns for the first time the depth and measure of true friendship—and what it is to love a man who is burdened by secrets that aren’t his to share.
Every Time We Say Goodbye, inspired in part by the wartime experiences of the author’s own grandmother, is a captivating, heartfelt, and historically immersive story that readers are sure to embrace.
Please note that I believe "Every Time We Say Goodbye" was the original title of the book, which was changed to Goodnight From London later on. It's not just because I was once a magazine writer who became a magazine editor (and eventually a newsroom journalist on the lifestyle beat, which meant a lot of personality profiles in which I interviewed people, just like Ruby did) that this novel "spoke" to me, it's also the clean and elegant prose with the graceful and swift plot and truly engaging characters that kept me up late into the night turning pages!  Robson has a way with emotional moments that keep you feeling for the characters as they make do and go about their business during the London Blitz in 1940, and the events that lead up to the US entering WWII in 1941. Ruby was so scrappy and dedicated to being a great journalist, I understood her decisions and her travails and fears in terms of the magazine really well. While I didn't grow up an impoverished orphan, I found her issues with growing up with no one to rely on, completely understandable. I just wish she'd adopted an orphan from the British orphanage that she visits, because she understood what it was like to not have a family or be wanted, and those children were longing for a home. Though it might not have been feasible during the war, afterwards, when she marries her beau, I would think she'd be ready and willing to adopt a child to give him or her the childhood that she was denied. That said, there's a great HEA with the handsome Bennett, and his family has become her family, so I felt that we left Ruby in a good place at the end. This is a book that's so good, it's too short! I'd give it an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys WWII stories about journalists and romance across the pond.

Gods and Ends by Devon Monk is book three in the Ordinary Magic series. I've read everything that Monk has written, because I am addicted to her deliciously witty prose, fascinating characters and wind-tunnel plots that blow me away. She's written SIX series (I don't know when that woman has time to sleep) and all of them were stellar page turners that had me desperate to read the next book the minute it came out. Oddly enough, though she lives in Portland, Oregon, when I made my annual pilgrimage to the City of Books, they didn't have one copy of Gods and Ends on hand! I was astonished, so I mentioned this to Monk on Facebook, and I hope that by now she's rectified the situation, so others who love her work will be able to get copies of it at Powells in the Fantasy section. At any rate, when last we saw our brave protagonist Delaney Reed, things were going from bad to worse in Ordinary, as an ancient vampire kidnapped a firefighter and bit Delaney on the neck. Here's the blurb:
Keep your gods close and your monsters closer...
Police Chief Delaney Reed thinks she knows all of Ordinary, Oregon's secrets. Gods on vacation, lovelorn ghosts, friendly neighborhood monsters? Check.
But some secrets run deeper than even she knows. To take down an ancient vampire hell-bent on revenge, she will have to make the hardest decision of her life: give up the book of dark magic that can destroy them all, or surrender her mortal soul.
As she weighs her options, Delaney discovers she can no longer tell the difference between allies keeping secrets and enemies telling the truth. Questioning loyalties and running out of time, Delaney must choose sides before a kidnapping turns into murder, before rival crochet and knit gangs start a war, and before the full moon rises to signal the beginning of Ordinary's end.
I love that Ordinary, as a town, is completely misnamed, and is, in fact, the most extraordinary town in America, as gods and demi-gods and monsters of all stripe play out their lives and loves within its borders. I also love that Delaney and her sisters all fight and scrap and love each other so fiercely. I wasn't too happy about Delaney giving up her soul so quickly in exchange for Ben and the release of her father's soul. But I did know that, with all her family and friends around her, they would manage to pull her out of each deadly situation that she gets herself into.
I also find it more than a bit creepy that her boyfriend Ryder has a god of contracts, Mithras (who just happens to hate Delaney because he wants her job) in possession of his soul, or at least his body. How could you sleep with someone who might be taken over by a murderous god at any moment? Yikes!  That said, this book is full of intense moments and epic battles. I gather that Monk was considering this her last book in the "Ordinary" series, but then got the idea for three short stories and two more books. Hurrah! I can hardly wait to read the short stories later this year, and the books next year. A well deserved A for this delightful urban fantasy, with a recommendation to anyone who likes magic grounded in myths and 'real' life.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Little Women Adaptation, The Little French Bistro by Nina George, Kiss Carlo by Adriana Trigiani, The Waking Land by Callie Bates and All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

On the 150th Anniversary of one of the great classic novels for women (and I say that because I've never met a man who enjoyed Louisa May Alcott's books) the wonderful British are finally bringing the story to Masterpiece on PBS. Hurrah!

TV: Little Women

Principal photography begins in Ireland this month on a three-part
series adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women
for BBC One and PBS Masterpiece, Deadline reported. This year marks the
150th anniversary of the classic novel. The project is being written by
Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) and directed by Vanessa Caswill

The cast includes Angela Lansbury as Aunt March, Emily Watson as Marmee
and Michael Gambon as Mr. Laurence. The March sisters will be played "by
an ensemble of four young actresses": Maya Hawke (Jo), Willa Fitzgerald
(Meg), Annes Elwy (Beth) and Kathryn Newton (Amy), with Jonah Hauer-King
as Laurie Laurence. Little Women will air in 2018.

The Little French Bistro by Nina George is the second novel of hers that I've read, having enjoyed her bestseller, the Little Paris Bookshop last year with my book group at the library. George has a delightful way with outrageous and odd characters, weaving them into an almost soap opera-like drama that always highlights some gorgeous village in France that is filled with luscious foods and wine and dancing and art. Here's the blurb: 
Marianne is stuck in a loveless, unhappy marriage.  After forty-one years, she has reached her limit, and one evening in Paris she decides to take action. Following a dramatic moment on the banks of the Seine, Marianne leaves her life behind and sets out for the coast of Brittany, also known as “the end of the world.”
Here she meets a cast of colorful and unforgettable locals who surprise her with their warm welcome, and the natural ease they all seem to have, taking pleasure in life’s small moments. And, as the parts of herself she had long forgotten return to her in this new world, Marianne learns it’s never too late to begin the search for what life should have been all along.
With all the buoyant charm that made The Little Paris Bookshop a beloved bestseller, The Little French Bistro is a tale of second chances and a delightful embrace of the joys of life in France. 
George paints life in Kerdruc with a colorful canvas of juicy prose and a richly romantic plot. But what struck me most about this novel was the main character, Marianne, who is only three years older than I am, at 60, and who is living a life of self abegnation and colorless slavery to her horribly cruel and dismissive German husband. She feels worthless and worn out, and as she prepares to escape by jumping in the Seine and committing suicide, I truly felt her pain at having not lived the life she thought she should have lived. For women who are nurturers, as so many of us are, our lives become all about helping, raising, healing and pleasing others...our husbands, our children, our aged parents, our co workers.  Often there is nothing left over, no energy to care for ourselves, to nurture our own passions, find our own joy and pursuit of happiness, the things that make life worth living. Eventually, this will leave women in middle age, in their 50s and 60s, who are going through menopause and other physical changes, just as they are undergoing changes within their households as children fly the nest, feeling like a dried out husk who has been used up and is ready to be discarded. 
Though I have more self esteem than Marianne, so I don't feel like I need to jump into a river or ocean and end it all just yet, I still completely identified with her feelings of desperate yearning for joy, love, sensuality, beauty and creative fulfillment. French society doesn't sideline middle aged women (and men) as much as American society does, with its reverence for youth and slender beauty. Few in America want to be reminded of age and the march to death that age represents in our society. So the elderly are locked away, out of sight in nursing homes and hospitals, and older women are ignored and made to feel invisible and useless now that they are no longer seen as sexually viable to the vaunted demographic of males between the ages of 18-35. It's tragic, and very slowly changing, but what impressed me about this book was that the French in this small village faced the aging people in it and their diseases, from Alzheimers to Parkinsons, head on, and the older characters were seen as just as sexual and vital and worthwhile as the young characters. Everyone loved and took care of everyone else, and there was a reverence for the wisdom and compassion of the older women and their competence. In short, if you're a female member of the Baby Boomer generation (or even Generation X that followed), this novel will make you want to move to France and take up with a lover tout de suite! I'd give this sublime story an A, and recommend it to Boomers and anyone else who feels like they need a peek into what life's second chapter could be.

Kiss Carlo by Adriana Trigiani is her 17th novel, and having read them all, one of her very best yet. The story takes place in 1949 Philadelphia, with a young veteran Nicky Castone at its center. The 50s were a time of booming business and blooming families all over America, as the country worked to reinvent itself after WWII. Trigiani, with her love of all things Italian and her vivid and spotlessly clean, clear prose, manages to take readers on a journey that immerses you into the life of hard-working American Italians and their feuds, fights, loves, laughter and creativity.  These are the people who helped rebuild this country and create a forward-thinking and innovative society that pushed for the best that the future had to offer. Here's the blurb:
It’s 1949 and South Philadelphia bursts with opportunity during the post-war boom. The Palazzini Cab Company & Western Union Telegraph Office, owned and operated by Dominic Palazzini and his three sons, is flourishing: business is good, they’re surrounded by sympathetic wives and daughters-in-law, with grandchildren on the way. But a decades-long feud that split Dominic and his brother Mike and their once-close families sets the stage for a re-match. 
Amidst the hoopla, the arrival of an urgent telegram from Italy upends the life of Nicky Castone (Dominic and his wife’s orphaned nephew) who lives and works with his Uncle Dom and his family. Nicky decides, at 30, that he wants more—more than just a job driving Car #4 and more than his longtime fiancée Peachy DePino, a bookkeeper, can offer. When he admits to his fiancée that he’s been secretly moonlighting at the local Shakespeare theater company, Nicky finds himself drawn to the stage, its colorful players and to the determined Calla Borelli, who inherited the enterprise from her father, Nicky must choose between the conventional life his family expects of him or chart a new course and risk losing everything he cherishes.
From the dreamy mountaintop village of Roseto Valfortore in Italy, to the vibrant streets of South Philly, to the close-knit enclave of Roseto, Pennsylvania, to New York City during the birth of the golden age of television, Kiss Carlo is a powerful, inter-generational story that celebrates the ties that bind, while staying true to oneself when all hope seems lost.
Told against the backdrop of some of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, this novel brims with romance as long buried secrets are revealed, mistaken identities are unmasked, scores are settled, broken hearts are mended and true love reigns. Trigiani’s consummate storytelling skill and her trademark wit, along with a dazzling cast of characters will enthrall readers. Once again, the author has returned to her own family garden to create an unforgettable feast. Kiss Carlo is a jubilee, resplendent with hope, love, and the abiding power of la famiglia.
My only problem with this magnificent family epic is that Calla Borelli makes it plain toward the end of the novel that she doesn't really want to be a typical 50s housewife and mother. She wants to continue to be a theater owner and director, a creator who uses her brains and talent to mount Shakespeare's classic plays in the theater she grew up in. Nicky, instead of being kind and understanding toward her as she prepares to lose her family's theater, comes off as a complete jerk as he "mansplains" to her that the theater is in the red and she needs his money to keep it going. He reacts to her rather cruelly, and instead of telling him that she doesn't want to retire from her career to be a typical housewife, she blusters a bit and then ends up completely capitulating to his desire to marry her. "She didn't want to give up her dreams for that great privilege. But how could she tell him that? She couldn't." Still, there is the hope that Calla managed to keep working in the theater and still have a marriage to Nicky, though why she forgave him for being such a bastard to her, I don't know. But the theme of the book is love conquers all, so in this case, it appears to have conquered all of the problems with nary a qualm from the characters. Other than that, I enjoyed the family fun, even the rift between the brothers, and the way the women of the household always managed to be completely, brutally honest without any consequences. I'd give this sprawling epic tale an A, and recommend it to anyone who has even an ounce of Italian heritage. Even if you don't, you should buy this book, it's heartwarming, funny and so worth it.

The Waking Land by Callie Bates was, I thought, a YA fantasy novel, but it reads more like fantasy romance with a touch of adventure.  The prose is glittering and gritty, and the plot labyrinthine, but understandable. The protagonist comes off as somewhat stupid and wimpy at first, but she gains in strength as she grows in talent throughout the novel. Here's the blurb:
In the lush and magical tradition of Naomi Novik’s award-winning Uprooted comes this riveting debut from brilliant young writer Callie Bates—whose boundless imagination places her among the finest authors of fantasy fiction, including Sarah J. Maas and Sabaa Tahir.
Lady Elanna is fiercely devoted to the king who raised her like a daughter. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is accused of his murder—and must flee for her life.
Returning to the homeland of magical legends she has forsaken, Elanna is forced to reckon with her despised, estranged father, branded a traitor long ago. Feeling a strange, deep connection to the natural world, she also must face the truth about the forces she has always denied or disdained as superstition—powers that suddenly stir within her.
But an all-too-human threat is drawing near, determined to exact vengeance. Now Elanna has no choice but to lead a rebellion against the kingdom to which she once gave her allegiance. Trapped between divided loyalties, she must summon the courage to confront a destiny that could tear her apart. Publisher's Weekly: This superior novel blends passionate romance and sweeping magic in the first-person, present-tense narrative of a young woman struggling with her destiny in a magical analogue of 13th-century Britain. Elanna was only five when King Antoine seized her as a hostage to stop her father from plotting revolt. She’s 19 now, saturated with the attitudes of the royal court but still drawn to the ancient stone circles where the forbidden magic of her northern homeland lurks. Elanna has been taught to deny everything she is, or could be; she knows that she has a special kinship with plants and has the power to control them, but she has subsumed that into planning a career in botany. All this must change when the king is poisoned, she is accused of the murder, and she flees from smothering safety to the wild, free danger of her potential role as “steward of the land.” Throughout, she is aided, tempted, and intoxicated by Lord Jahan, a conflicted sorcerer himself. Watching Elanna’s gentle desires merge with the angry needs of her oppressed people is fascinating, and Bates has a delicate, precise touch with human and superhuman relationships.
As is often the case with me with books and TV shows, I found that I fell in love with many of the "sidekick" characters of this novel faster than I fell in love with the protagonist. Elanna seemed frustratingly obtuse at times, so when her friends like Victoire or Jahan or Hugh came to the fore, I enjoyed their decisive actions and reactions. I was glad Denis Falconier got his just desserts, and though I understood why, I honestly wish that Elanna had killed Loyce instead of having her exiled. Still, the lovely HEA was satisfying and the book itself provided plenty of surprises to keep readers turning pages long after they should have been in bed. I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys earth and plant-based magic fantasy stories.

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai was hailed as a wonderful new science fiction time travel novel that supposedly gives readers a lot to think about. Perhaps it's just me, but I've noticed lately that the books that I read that are written by men focus on women's bodies and sex and rape and abuse way too much. This is a science fiction novel, and while I appreciate the romantic thread woven through it, I found that sexual focus nauseating, because instead of a "love conquers all" theme, the male author seems to believe that the only love that conquers all is sexual love and a man's possession of the woman he loves for sex and reproduction of his genetic line, a form of immortality. The protagonist of this book, a ne'er do well named Tom Barren, is horrified that the woman that he's supposedly in love with (though he has only had relations with her once, and he never told her of his true feelings, fearing that she wouldn't return them) kills herself by disintegration while pregnant, therefore killing what he feels is "his" baby, which seems to him to be the worst thing about her death, that she's taken "his" zygote with her. Her right to her body and its products isn't even considered. Then, later in the novel, he physically abuses/rapes a young co worker while one of his incarnations inhabits his body, so he of course feels that her bruises and pain and shame are not his fault at all. He also sexually mistreats his girlfriend Penny, who eventually forgives him, in another head-scratching, disgusting moment of the book. Women aren't sex toys, slaves or possessions that your male characters have every right to abuse or misuse as they see fit, Mr Mastai. Women are human beings with their own agency. Shame on you for trying to present abuse as forgivable and sexism as normal. Here's the blurb:  
You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn’t necessary.
Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.
But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and—maybe, just maybe—his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be.
All Our Wrong Todays is about the versions of ourselves that we shed and grow into over time. It is a story of friendship and family, of unexpected journeys and alternate paths, and of love in its multitude of forms. Filled with humor and heart, and saturated with insight and intelligence and a mind-bending talent for invention, this novel signals the arrival of a major talent.
I didn't actually find it full of "humor and heart." I felt that there were way too many scientific explanations that went on for pages, while most readers would find these discussions of physics and time science incomprehensible and boring. Tom Barren is a shallow, cynical and stupid man who, though he's grown up in a utopia, is warped by having a cold and cruel "genius" narcisisst of a father and a complete wimp for a mother. I was actually relieved when she was killed, because she's only there as a slave to his father's will. His father apparently "allowed" her to have a child because she was lonely, since all Toms father did was work and treat his son like crap. So yet another layer of misogyny was added to an already sexist novel. In this reality/timeline, Toms name is John, and his father is actually a caring person who loves his mother, a dynamic English professor at a local college. He has a rather "twisted" sister who is full of bile and cynical regrets. She comes off as rather creepy, but by this point I wasn't surprised at Mastai's sexist portrayals of women. Somehow, Tom figures out how to time travel back and forth enough to save the world and find his happy ending with Penny here in this reality. So the utopia never existed, but Tom and Penny of course find ways to try to build the other reality here, and become better stewards of the earth. Though it seemed far-fetched, the HEA was actually the best part of the book. I'd give it a B-, and recommend it only to those for whom the sexual aggressiveness isn't a trigger.  

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Fantastic Beasts Sequel, The Unlikelies by Carrie Firestone, The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Though I haven't seen the first "Fantastic Beasts" yet, I am thrilled that there are more stories to tell in this universe. JK Rowling is such a miraculous author, creating worlds that seem so real, yet are so full of fun fantasy. 

Movies: Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them Sequel

Principal photography began yesterday "on the as-yet untitled Fantastic
Beasts and Where to Find Them
sequel at Warner Bros Studios Leavesden outside London," Deadline
reported, adding that along with the main cast from the first film and
previously announced newcomers like Jude Law as a young Albus
Dumbledore, the most recent cast additions include Claudia Kim, William
Nadylam, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Olafur Darri &Olafsson and
Kevin Guthrie.

J.K. Rowling wrote the screenplay for the film, "which opens in 1927, a
few months after magizoologist Scamander helped to unveil and capture
the infamous Grindelwald in the first installment," Deadline noted. This
is the second in a planned five-movie series with the original film's
director David Yates. Warner Bros. has set a release date of November
16, 2018 for the sequel

The Unlikelies by Carrie Firestone was a total surprise to me. I read a lot of YA fiction, fantasy and science fiction (and subgenres thereof), and I was expecting this to be full of the usual tropes of girl in a horrible situation with horrible or very stupid parents is part of a love triangle that she needs some kind of magic to get out of, and of course she's also a petite blonde whom every guy lusts after, because petite blondes are the standard of attractiveness for women and girls everywhere...NOT. (But try telling that to authors!)
Fortunately, this book was NOTHING like that. The protagonist, Sadie, is half-Iranian and half Irish, much beloved of her parents and grandparents, and she's smart and funny, kind and compassionate, something usually in short supply in books about teenagers. She works in the Hamptons at a fruit and vegetable stand, and while at work notices that a horrible roaring angry drunk has a screaming baby in the backseat of his car in the heat, and as she tries to get the baby out of the hot car to safety, the drunken father beats her with a liquor bottle and his fists, and breaks her ribs and causes internal and facial injuries. The police arrive, arrest this asshat, and discover that he's stolen the child from her mother, and he is subsequently jailed and the baby returned to her mother. While accepting an award from the local Rotary for being a "hometown hero," Sadie meets up with several other teenagers doing good things in the community, and they band together on the spot, eventually developing various ways to counter cyber-bullying and helping others in need in their community as an anonymous group they dub "The Unlikelies." Here's the blurb:
Five teens embark on a summer of vigilante good samaritanism in a novel that's part The Breakfast Club, part The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and utterly captivating.
Rising high school senior Sadie is bracing herself for a long, lonely, and boring summer. But things take an unexpected turn when she steps in to help rescue a baby in distress and a video of her good deed goes viral.
Suddenly internet-famous, Sadie's summer changes for the better when she's introduced to other "hometown heroes." These five very different teens form an unlikely alliance to secretly right local wrongs, but when they try to help a heroin-using friend, they get in over their heads and discover that there might be truth in the saying "no good deed goes unpunished." Can Sadie and her new friends make it through the summer with their friendships--and anonymity--intact?
This rich and thought-provoking novel takes on timely issues and timeless experiences with a winning combination of romance, humor, and wisdom.
The Unlikelies are all from various backgrounds and cultures, from Latina to African-American, and Gordie, the rich kid who cares nothing for wealth (and who Sadie's had a crush on for years), discover that money, while helpful in some cases, is no substitute for actually being there, for volunteering and showing up in person to help others. A rich old man ends up giving Sophie a fortune in Canary or yellow diamonds, and once she discovers that not all problems can be solved by giving someone money, The Unlikelies find that it's okay to help each other get where they need to go, too. They also find that any good idea is inevitably corrupted by someone for their own self-aggrandizement and profit, which is a sad and cynical lesson to learn (but one I wish I'd learned as a teenager in the 70s). This novel's prose was like cold watermelon on a hot day...utterly blissful and juicy. The plot flew along, and the characters were realistic and fascinating. I could not put the book down, and read it straight through while my husband drove us to Portland, Oregon. A strong A for this one, with a recommendation for anyone looking for a great "beach read" or just a well told tale.

The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack is a gripping historical fantasy/mystery, similar to MJ Rose's "Hypnotist" series. Semele, the protagonist, is a book antiquities appraiser who finds a book and a set of Tarot cards that have links to her through time. Here's the blurb: 
Semele Cavnow appraises antiquities for an exclusive Manhattan auction house, deciphering ancient texts—and when she discovers a manuscript written in the time of Cleopatra, she knows it will be the find of her career. Its author tells the story of a priceless tarot deck, now lost to history, but as Semele delves further, she realizes the manuscript is more than it seems. Both a memoir and a prophecy, it appears to be the work of a powerful seer, describing devastating wars and natural disasters in detail thousands of years before they occurred.
The more she reads, the more the manuscript begins to affect Semele’s life. But what happened to the tarot deck? As the mystery of her connection to its story deepens, Semele can’t shake the feeling that she’s being followed. Only one person can help her make sense of it all: her client, Theo Bossard. Yet Theo is arrogant and elusive, concealing secrets of his own, and there’s more to Semele’s desire to speak with him than she would like to admit. Can Semele even trust him?
The auction date is swiftly approaching, and someone wants to interfere—someone who knows the cards exist, and that the Bossard manuscript is tied to her. Semele realizes it’s up to her to stop them: the manuscript holds the key to a two-thousand-year-old secret, a secret someone will do anything to possess. Publisher's Weekly: Semele Cavnow, an expert in historical manuscripts, thinks the only complication of her job in Switzerland is the inappropriate sexual chemistry between her and Theo Bossard, her client. Grieving her father’s sudden death and hurt by a fight with her mother, Semele retreats into her work. When she discovers a prophetic manuscript on her last day of the job, she embarks on a quest that stretches back through her personal history and all the way to the ancient world. The prophecy, written by a seer with ties to the library of Alexandria, contains vignettes from throughout history. These are much more interesting than Semele’s story, which is both predictable and slightly melodramatic. With considerable attention to historical detail, Womack gives the readers windows into life in ancient Gundeshapur, Renaissance-era Milan and Paris, and revolutionary Russia.
Personally, I didn't find Semele's story predictable or too melodramatic at all. I found the prose to be very densely woven, but in a rich and interesting fashion, and the plot was succulent and full of twists that kept me turning pages long into the night. I couldn't sleep until I found out what happened to Semele and the manuscript and the son of the insane Russian telepathy scientist (who was also insane, unsurprisingly) who thought that he could force Semele into doing psychic experiments back in Russia with him. Fortunately, he's thwarted in his evil plans, but the manuscript and the cards are lost forever. There's some riveting history of the Tarot and cards in general in this novel, and the idea of psychic powers being encoded onto our DNA also fascinated me. I'd give this page-turner an A, and recommend it to anyone who reads MJ Rose's novels and who likes historical mysteries with a magical twist or three.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman is the third book that I've read of his, and all have contained some of the same weird, crazy, disabled and/or mentally unsound characters, all usually living together or working together somewhere in Sweden, which is apparently a hotbed of people with OCD and alcohol problems. A Man Called Ove was his breakout book, widely read and revered, and my book group, which rarely agrees on anything, read it an loved it! After reading Ove, I got a copy of "Britt Marie Was Here" and read that ASAP, and discovered that Backman has a through-line of strange people with serious mental/physical problems in his books, and that he takes the most irrascible of those and makes them his main character in each book. Britt-Marie is a habitual cleaner, phobic about germs and dirt, and annoyingly self-abasing and shy, but still cruel because no one pays attention to her, including her husband. Once his infidelities are discovered by everyone in a humiliating fashion, Britt-Marie heads off to a small town in the middle of nowhere to be a rec center cleaner, and there she finds herself and her place in the world. Now in "Grandmother," we have a child who is Britt Marie's neighbor before the events of her book, as the protagonist of this story. Elsa is 7 and a half years old, and somehow the most mature member of her family, which includes herself, her mum and her wild and crazy Grandmother, who is dying of cancer, but neglects to tell her grand daughter until it is too late. Here's the blurb:
A charming, warmhearted novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller A Man Called Ove.
Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy—as in standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-strangers crazy. She is also Elsa’s best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother’s stories, in the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas, where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal.
When Elsa’s grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa’s greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother’s instructions lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and old crones but also to the truth about fairy tales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is told with the same comic accuracy and beating heart as Fredrik Backman’s bestselling debut novel, A Man Called Ove. It is a story about life and death and one of the most important human rights: the right to be different.
Somehow, Backman manages to make his characters believable but fanciful and whimsical and quirky all at once. As a big fan of characters who are different being able to triumph over the forces of rigid conformity and so-called normalcy, this book made me laugh and cry and feel elated and frustrated, all at the same time. Backman must have known and worked with a number of autistic, OCD, alcoholic or other individuals living with disabilities, because his portrayal of them in his books is spot on. That said, I can't imagine a dog being able to survive on cookies and chocolate and beer. I gather that they need protein to be healthy, and that grains and sugar and chocolate actually make them ill and can be fatal. But in Backman land, all things are possible, and giant dogs can live on cake mix and water, or chocolates, for days on end. Backman's translated prose is insightful and funny, while his plot seems to meander, it never really derails completely. I'd give the book an A, and recommend it to anyone who found "Ove" charming, and who doesn't mind books with child protagonists and large dogs called Wurses. 

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Quote of the Day, New Blade Runner 2049 trailer, Irish Indie Bookstores, Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone, Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom by Bradley Schenck, The Diary by Eileen Goudge and Dark Orbit by Carol Ives Gilman

I completely agree with Mr Barry, bookshops are chapels for the holiness that is the printed word. I've always felt that libraries were like churches, as well as theaters. Holy ground for stories, which, as Neil Gaiman once noted, are what we all are made of in the end.

Quotation of the Day

"If books constitute a magical religion that doesn't persecute anyone,
then obviously a bookshop is a radiant chapel of that religion. In this
strange new world the importance of books and bookshops has taken a
quantum leap. I am thrilled, strengthened and frankly improved by
receiving this award from this Atlas-like sector of society--may
independent bookshops thrive, and indeed be nurtured, till the end of

--Author Sebastian Barry, in his remarks after winning this year's U.K. Independent Bookshop Week award for Days Without End.

I am so looking forward to Ridley Scotts sequel to his famed Blade Runner movie, based on the fantastic short story by PK Dick. Since this film premiers the day after my 20th wedding anniversary, I think it's a safe bet that I will be happily ensconced in a theater on October 6.

A new featurette is out for Blade Runner 2049
that "includes never-before-seen footage from Denis Villeneuve's sequel,
plus cast and crew interviews," Indiewire reported. Starring Ryan
Gosling and Harrison Ford, the film, inspired by Philip K. Dick's Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, "is the latest major gig for
Villeneuve, whose profile has been rising significantly over the last
several years thanks to projects like Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival,"
Deadline wrote, adding: "Blade Runner 2049 will reunite him with
cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the duo have cooked up what looks to
go down as the most visually stunning movie of 2017." It opens in
theaters nationwide October 6.

When I visited Ireland in 2000, I remember falling in love with a small dusty bookshop in Dublin that had the most exquisite collection of fountain pens. They also had gorgeous writing paper, wonderful leather bound journals and of course, tons of old books. The place smelled delicious to me, like a bibliophile's dream of heaven. So I was thrilled to see in Shelf Awareness that the Irish indie bookstores are doing just fine, thanks. I would expect nothing less of a country that produced the Long Room Library at Trinity College in Dublin.

Irish Independent Bookshops 'Are Flourishing'

Irish independent bookshops "are flourishing
the Journal reported, noting that "ahead of Independent Bookshop Week, we spoke to several independent booksellers on how they're surviving in the Amazon age, how they
differentiate themselves and the joys of a good book."

Bob Johnston, who founded Dublin's the Gutter Bookshop in 2009, said, "It was just one of those things that I always wanted to do. So I did it. And it was the best
thing I ever did.... I knew from the word go that you had to offer
something that would slightly differentiate you from the rest. We have a
small shop so we need to be careful what we pick, without being snobby.
We have everything from the latest thriller to Beckett, but we simply
say no to a lot of stuff. And it works in our favor."

Maria Dickenson of Dubray Books, with eight
locations across the country, observed: "A lot of people come in looking
for guidance on what to read, and the engaged staff in these shops offer
just that. We've seen a much more positive energy around the bookshop in
recent years.... These kind of book shops offer a unique space to
discover new books. There's a certain nostalgia element to what we
offer, and that pulls people in too."

Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone is either the second or third book I've read about a girl born with wings and her travails of being different and trying to find her place in the world of non-winged people. For some reason, this page-turner felt familiar to me, though I can't seem to find any evidence that I read it before or blogged a review of it. Still, if I did read it in 2015, when it debuted, then I don't remember it well enough to know more than the general outline of the plot and characters. At any rate, though it is yet another book set in WWII (and sometimes it seems as if I've read dozens of them), and I grow weary of reading about the horrors of war, Above Us Only Sky shows us what happened to the Lithuanians who were murdered by the Russians and the Germans during the war. Here's the blurb: On March 29, 1973, Prudence Eleanor Vilkas was born with heart-shaped wings pressed accordion-style against her back. Considered a birth defect, her wings were surgically removed, leaving only the ghost of them behind.
In 1980, Prudence’s mother takes her from Nashville to Florida, to a town inhabited by people who have run as far as they can without fins or wings. In this new town, Prudence is befriended by a boy who can see what others can’t, including Prudence’s ghostly wings.
The unexpected and unimaginable bubble up from the depths of the Atlantic to confront Prudence when she meets her long-estranged Lithuanian grandfather and discovers a miraculous lineage beating and pulsing with past Lithuanian bird-women, storytellers with wings dragging the dirt, survivors perched on radio towers, lovers lit up like fireworks and heroes disguised as everyday men and women.
Above Us Only Sky spans the 1863 January Uprising against Russian Tsarist rule in Eastern Europe to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Lithuania’s independence in 1991. It is a “daring, imaginative” (Milepost magazine) story of mutual understanding between the old and young; it is a love story, a story of survival, and most importantly, a story about disovering where we belong in the world.
Young-Stone seamlessly balances Lithuanian history with magical realism in this “amazing, spellbinding, incredible journey” 
Though Prudence's parents seem like complete idiots (her mother nearly abandons her because she fears she's deformed, then treats her with neglect and indifference throughout her life, even allowing her to smoke cigarettes when she's 15/16 years old, while her father, a musician, is some kind of overly emotional infantile jerk who, because he loves his daughter more than he loves his wife, is perfectly fine with them leaving him so he doesn't see his daughter for years), Prudence herself somehow gains a sense of self from her grandfather and her great aunt and best friend, all of whom accept her for what she is and help her develop her love of kinship with her Lithuanian family and their dark and terrible past. There is a sly undercurrent of shaming baby boomers and first generation immigrants who wanted to forget the horrors of their past and forge a new and better life in the United States. I honestly don't see the problems of letting go of "the old ways" if they're so out of date and shrouded in pain and darkness that all they bring is memories of pain and suffering. What really is the point of that? You can acknowledge your ancestry and history without allowing it to be a depressing fateful cloud over your life. Still, Young-Stone's prose is engaging and wistful, and her plot is dark and unrelenting. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who wonders about the Lithuanians during WWII.

I got a copy of Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A novel of Retropolis by Bradley W Schenck because of the title, and because it was recommended by the Barnes and Noble Science Fiction/Fantasy blog as a fun and "retro" read. Fortunately, the book lived up to it's title, and it was a lot like reading a script for an old 1950s radio serial program, like Buck Rogers, where there are wicked space aliens and robots and rockets and an adventurer/hero who brings down the bad guys while winning the hand of the female protagonist with his dashing good looks. Our hero, unsurprisingly called "Dash Kent" is not only a rocket jockey out to save the cats of Retropolis from the Spider Priests of the Moon, he's also a plumber, a private eye and an apartment manager. The lead female in this radio drama is Nola Gardner, who hires Dash to find out why she and her fellow televideo operators were fired without cause or explanation by the dastardly Howard Pitt, an evil genius engineer who finds humanity too messy and unorganized, and therefore hatches an elaborate plot to get rid of them. Meanwhile, the Robots are unionizing, there are two sadistic homicidal children running around with a miniaturized killer robot and an accountant and a robot builder are seeking the answer to the mystery of what Pitt is up to by using a ton of expensive supplies that aren't accounted for in the ledgers. Here's the blurb:
If Fritz Lang’s Metropolis somehow mated with Futurama, their mutant offspring might well be Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom. 
After a surprise efficiency review, the switchboard operators of Retropolis are replaced by a mysterious system beyond their comprehension. Dash Kent, freelance adventurer and apartment manager, is hired to get to the bottom of it, and discovers that the replacement switchboard is only one element of a plan concocted by an insane civil engineer: a plan so vast that it reaches from Retropolis to the Moon. And no one—not the Space Patrol, nor the Fraternal League of Robotic Persons, nor the mad scientists of Experimental Research District, nor even the priests of the Temple of the Spider God, will know what hit them. Publisher's Weekly: In this madcap homage to the pulp adventures and fanciful inventions of the early to mid-20th century, debut author and artist Schenck takes readers on a tour of Retropolis, an art deco city whose hallmarks include flying cars, pneumatic tube transports, and indentured robots serving numerous functions. When the Info-Slate switchboard operators are unexpectedly fired en masse, one of them, Nola Gardner, hires freelance adventurer Kelvin “Dash” Kent to find out why they’ve been replaced. Their quest takes them deep into the heart of Retropolis, where they stumble across an ambitious plan that could affect the entire population of the city. They also encounter spider cultists on the moon and the world’s smallest giant robot. The adventure grows ever stranger as the mystery deepens, invoking mad science and action at every turn. The story is brought to life by Schenck’s own retrofuturistic artwork; it’s suitably evocative where technology is concerned, but the depictions of humans are awkward. A genuine love for the material makes this a strong and entertaining debut.
While I enjoyed all the pulp fiction drama and goofiness of this book, I felt that more than once the prose became too mired in detail and narration, which slowed the plot to a crawl. It would pick up again a chapter later, but I found myself becoming bored by explanations of technical things that will never exist and also astonished that the author would portray children as bloodthirsty sociopaths. It might have been meant to be humorous, but it came off as sour and mean instead. Also, because the characters were stereotypes/archetypes, they often came off as shallow and stupid, bungling along without seeing the bigger picture. Still, I'd give the book a B, and recommend it to those who love old space opera and 1950s swashbuckling heroes.

The Diary by Eileen Goudge was a paperback that I picked up at a garage sale that proved to be a delightful surprise. Though I am sure it's considered general fiction, this book is actually epistolary historical romance. Similar in style and tone to novels by Dorothea Benton Frank and Elizabeth Berg, Goudge creates a compelling and bittersweet story of a love triangle and the classes that separated society in the 1940s and 50s. Here's the blurb: Emily and Sarah Marshall are cleaning out their dying mother’s attic when Emily finds an old leather diary. Their mother’s handwriting on the yellowed pages takes them back to a small Nebraska town in the summer of 1951, where sheltered, almost-engaged Elizabeth Harvey is swept into a clandestine romance with AJ, her rebellious childhood friend. When AJ becomes the prime suspect in a neighborhood fire, Elizabeth has to make the most difficult decision of her young life and choose between passionate but unpredictable AJ and her stable, longtime beau, Bob. Shocked to learn that their mother was in love with a man other than their father, Emily and Sarah must confront painful truths about their mother, their father, and ultimately, themselves. Moving and uplifting, with a surprise ending readers won’t see coming, The Diary is a novel about the mysteries of romantic love and the unassailable bond between parents and children.Publisher's Weekly: As their mother lies dying in a nursing home, two sisters find her diary—and a mother they never knew. Written shortly before their parents' marriage, the diary details their mother's romance with another man, and the sisters are moved to discover the depth of their mother's heartache. Slipping between a nostalgic past and the present, the story is suspenseful and surprising, and the versatile author gives the characters the life, color and personality they deserve, effortlessly and faithfully conveying the middle-class, Midwestern setting. 
I realize the ending is supposed to be shocking, but I think any reader with half a brain will see it coming about halfway through the novel. Elizabeth herself comes off as flighty and pretty and stupid in more than one chapter, not being able to make a decision and waffling between what is expected of her and what/who she really wants. Still, she does make a decision in the end, and leads a happy life because of it. I have a feeling that my mother, who was a teenager in the 50s would love this book, and have a better understanding of it than I do. The prose was provocative and charming, and the characters fairly realistic. I'd give this short "beach read" a B, and recommend it to anyone who has some time to read something fun and distracting.

Dark Orbit by Carol Ives Gilman was recommended to me by a book blog that deals with science fiction/fantasy titles. I remember reading her book Halfway Human years ago, and not really liking it at all. That said, I wondered if the author had changed/grown over the years, so I decided to give this book a try, as it sounded like something right up my alley, with an alien planet and aliens and the people sent to find out if this planet held anything valuable for the corporations back home. The other selling point was that a majority of the characters were not white, but were instead Indian, black and female. There is too little diversity in science fiction, and while that is changing, there's still a long way to go. Sara and Thora, the protagonists, make a compelling case for having women be the ambassadors of first contact with alien races, because women are taught to listen, to compromise and to find solutions to problems that do not involve violence. Here's the blurb:
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate. Thora was once a member of the interplanetary elite, but since her prophetic delusions helped mobilize a revolt on Orem, she's been banished to the farthest reaches of space, because of the risk that her very presence could revive unrest.
Upon arrival, the team finds an extraordinary crystalline planet, laden with dark matter. Then a crew member is murdered and Thora mysteriously disappears. Thought to be uninhabited, the planet is in fact home to a blind, sentient species whose members navigate their world with a bizarre vocabulary and extrasensory perceptions.
Lost in the deep crevasses of the planet among these people, Thora must battle her demons and learn to comprehend the native inhabitants in order to find her crewmates and warn them of an impending danger. But her most difficult task may lie in persuading the crew that some powers lie beyond the boundaries of science.
This book had a style and tone reminiscent of Zenna Henderson's "The People" social science fiction novels that I read back in the 1970s as a teenager. There was a great deal of discussion about the way the visually blind aliens lived that pointed to how our society is so visually oriented and "blinded" by what we see. That said, I was somewhat disheartened by the stereotype of the "wise" aliens/natives, especially wise elderly native women who pass on their oral histories and have magical powers. Of course, the younger generation is more adventurous and accepting of the people who land on their planet, and yet, even after Moth (a young native) tries to learn to see using her eyes, it's made clear that the alien native's version of seeing is much more profound and spiritual than our way (they navigate the world by touch and hearing). Having read as much science fiction as I have, I grow weary of the whole "humans are hopeless and horrible" trope. Thora's long diary entries often veer into metaphysical discussions on the nature of reality that I found boring and that slowed down the plot considerably. There were also moments when the technical aspects of the mission overwhelmed the story. The prose was sturdy, but the plot was uneven and, as stated above, the characters were stereotypes. Still, I'd give this book a C+, which is still a passing grade, and recommend it to those who like social science fiction with plenty of diversity.