Saturday, March 04, 2017

AAAL Honors Ursula LeGuin, Cumberbatch Stars as Melrose, The Shadow Queen by CJ Redwine, The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jefferies, The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman and Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst

Ursula LeGuin has been one of my favorite science fiction writers since 1977, and after meeting her and hearing how difficult it is for female authors, who write over half the books in this country to get even a small percentage of writing awards, I admire her even more, and am thrilled to hear it when she bags a well-deserved prize like this!

Writers Honored by American Academy of Arts and Letters

Ten writers are among the newly elected members of the American Academy
of Arts and Letters
They will be honored in mid-May when the academy holds its annual
induction and award ceremony, during which Calvin Trillin, secretary,
will induct 14 members into the 250-person organization and president
Yehudi Wyner will induct three foreign honorary members. Joyce Carol
Oates is delivering the centennial Blashfield Foundation Address. The
new academy members include:

Henri Cole, poet
Junot Diaz, writer
Amy Hempel, writer
Edward Hirsch, writer
Ursula K. LeGuin, writer
Column McCann, writer
Ann Patchett, writer
Kay Ryan, poet

Foreign Honorary Members
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writer of Nigeria
Zadie Smith, writer of England

I adore Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock on TV, so I am thrilled he's taking on another book-related role.

TV: Cumberbatch as Melrose
Showtime has ordered Melrose
a five-part limited series that will feature Benedict Cumberbatch as
star and executive producer. Deadline reported that the project, a
co-production of Showtime and Sky Atlantic, is based on the Patrick
Melrose series of semi-autobiographical novels (Never Mind, Bad News,
Some Hope, Mother's Milk and At Last) by Edward St. Aubyn.

David Nicholls (Far From the Madding Crowd), who called Cumberbatch "the
perfect Patrick Melrose," is writing all of the episodes. The search for
a director is currently underway for the series, which will begin
shooting in New York, London and the South of France in August.

"We have been huge fans of these books for many years and David
Nicholls' adaptations are extraordinary," said Cumberbatch and Adam
Ackland of Cumberbatch's SunnyMarch TV.

I've got too many books piled up this time to review, so I am going to try and keep the reviews as brief as possible and only do 4 out of the 5 (by the end of the weekend it will be 6) books that I've read in the past 7 days.

First up is the Shadow Queen by CJ Redwine, which is a rebooted fairy tale, based on sleeping beauty, and told in a YA style that was fresh and interesting. Here's the blurb:
A New York Times bestselling dark epic fantasy inspired by the tale of Snow White, from C. J. Redwine, the author of the Defiance series. This breathtakingly romantic, action-packed fantasy is perfect for fans of A Court of Thorns and Roses and Cinder
Lorelai Diederich, crown princess and fugitive at large, has one mission: kill the wicked queen who took both the Ravenspire throne and the life of her father. To do that, Lorelai needs to use the one weapon she and Queen Irina have in common—magic. She’ll have to be stronger, faster, and more powerful than Irina, the most dangerous sorceress Ravenspire has ever seen.
In the neighboring kingdom of Eldr, when Prince Kol’s father and older brother are killed by an invading army of magic-wielding ogres, the second-born prince is suddenly given the responsibility of saving his kingdom. To do that, Kol needs magic of his own—and the only way to get it is to make a deal with the queen of Ravenspire, promise to become her personal huntsman—and bring her Lorelai’s heart.
But Lorelai is nothing like Kol expected—beautiful, fierce, and unstoppable—and despite dark magic, Lorelai is drawn in by the passionate and troubled king. Fighting to stay one step ahead of the dragon huntsman—who she likes far more than she should—Lorelai does everything in her power to ruin the wicked queen. But Irina isn’t going down without a fight, and her final move may cost the princess the one thing she still has left to lose.
Irina the wicked queen was almost too wicked, in the sense that she seemed to have no heart, and was willing to kill the man she loved for power. Still, Lorelai was spunky and fiesty and strong enough to be a true heroine, which more than made up for the cartoonish evil of the evil queen. The prose was lovely and light, and the plot full of surprises, and I loved the dragon people of Eldr and their outrageous attitudes. A definite A, with the recommendation that anyone who likes rewritten fairy tales with character grab this one off the shelf ASAP.

The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jefferies was a completely different novel than I thought it would be. It was somewhat like Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier in its bones, but there were hints of Brideshead Revisited and Jane Austin novels woven throughout. Here's the blurb from Publisher's Weekly: In her U.S. debut, Jefferies (The Separation), who was born in Malaysia and lives in England, delivers an engrossing tale of mystery, manners, and prejudice set against the backdrop of Ceylon (current-day Sri Lanka). Arriving from England by ship not long after the sinking of the Titanic, Gwen, the 19-year-old bride of Laurence Hooper, heir to a massive tea plantation, senses tension on every side when she comes to the serene but secluded plantation. Who is this widowed man she has married, and what is he hiding from his past? And why does everyone—Laurence’s sister, the plantation manager, and Laurence himself—want Gwen to keep her distance from the affairs of the native workers? As Laurence becomes involved with a mysterious businesswoman and Gwen spends her time with a local Sinhalese man, the past begins to spill into the present at the scenic plantation. Though the writing is at times cluttered and needlessly verbose, Jefferies shows that she can weave a suspenseful tale in which characters’ complex motivations converge in surprising ways—where compromise can turn out to have been cruelty, and where the aspiration to love overcomes prejudice and tradition. While characters aside from Gwen and Laurence never feel fully fleshed out, Jefferies makes up for this defect by offering suspense and pathos, and by resisting the temptation to gloss over true heartbreak and regret.
What this review neglects to mention is the evil sister in law, Verity, whose name is truly ironic, as she's the one who can't tell the truth to anybody, and who not only tries to kill her Gwen, her brothers new wife, but she doesn't get her nephew a diptheria vaccination and he almost dies of the disease. Then she tries to blackmail her brother and Gwen, and when she's not doing that, she is doing everything in her power to cause everyone else pain and penury. This is a SPOILER, but Gwen and her husband Laurence's prejudice against the natives of Ceylon is taken as a given, and cruel treatment seems to be the order of the day until Gwen has twins and one of them is "colored" or "black" as the Indian natives, so Gwen assumes a Sinhalese man, who is wealthy and handsome, raped her while she was drunk one night and fathered this twin, while the other white child was fathered by her husband. Due to the shame of this, which she puts squarely on her own shoulders (like the rapist should take no responsiblity for his actions in creating a child at all), Gwen sends her daughter off to be raised by a native, whom she's paying, while she lies and tells everyone that she birthed only one child. Eventually, the people caring for this poor little girl die, and because she's mixed race, none of the natives want to care for her, and Gwen realizes she can't let her daughter starve, so she brings her, reluctantly, into the home, disguised as the child of a servant. Unfortunately, her little girl contracts what would seem to be MS or Polio, and conveniently dies, but her mother realized that she loves her during her short stay in the household, and she also discovers that her husband has native blood in his heritage, which was expressed genetically in her one dark twin. Laurence confesses that his first wife had a dark child, and the shame and accusation of people assuming she'd had an affair drove her to kill herself and the child years before. All of the lives lost due to prejudice in this book disgusted me, and I found it hard to believe that these characters couldn't figure out that Laurence had native genes soon after the birth of his children, as I did. And I agree with the blurb in that the author needed a good editor, as the book dragged under the weight of the heavy prose more than once. The plot was too obvious, and tragic, but I'd still give the novel a B, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in colonial Ceylon during the 1920s and 30s.

The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman is a truly fascinating novel based on a news story that I read a year or two ago, about an apartment in Paris that was sealed before WWII and was discovered only recently. When it was opened, there were opulent furnishings, ceramics, objets d'art and paintings, and an old-fashioned Mickey Mouse doll among the treasures found in the apartment, which had been paid for by generations of a family that eventually died out, so it was only discovered when the rent was no longer paid. I remember oogling the photos of this snapshot of a different time, and wondering about the woman who had lived there, and what her story might have been. Richman has come through with a lush and evocative tale of a beautiful courtesan whose patron lavished her with jewelry, money and exquisite gifts because he loved her. Here's the blurb:
As Paris teeters on the edge of the German occupation, a young French woman closes the door to her late grandmother’s treasure-filled apartment, unsure if she’ll ever return. 
An elusive courtesan, Marthe de Florian cultivated a life of art and beauty, casting out all recollections of her impoverished childhood in the dark alleys of Montmartre. With Europe on the brink of war, she shares her story with her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, using her prized possessions to reveal her innermost secrets. Most striking of all are a beautiful string of pearls and a magnificent portrait of Marthe painted by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. As Marthe’s tale unfolds, like velvet itself, stitched with its own shadow and light, it helps to guide Solange on her own path. 
Inspired by the true account of an abandoned Parisian apartment, Alyson Richman brings to life Solange, the young woman forced to leave her fabled grandmother’s legacy behind to save all that she loved.
Marthe's story, as told to her granddaughter Solange, is utterly riveting. Richman's prose is eloquent without being stuffy, and the plot flies on butterfly wings in this page-turner of a novel. I enjoyed the secondary plot of Solange discovering that her mother's ancient books are ancient Jewish texts that are extremely rare and valuable, and which are eventually sold to help her Jewish boyfriend and his family flee the Nazi occupation of Paris. This book deserves an A, and a recommendation to anyone who finds a peek into history and the objects we leave behind fascinating.

Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst is the second book of hers I've read. I recently read Queen of Blood and was amazed at the inventiveness of this story. Into the Wild appears to be one of her early writing efforts, created for middle school age students (rather than for the older YA audience.) This is not just a reboot of a fairy tale, but rather a peek into the inner workings of fairy tales, which are run in a place called "The Wild" which lives under Julie's bed. Here's the blurb via Kirkus Reviews: Imagining something called "The Wild," which might eat your shoes while living under your bed, might be easier for a 12-year-old than an adult. But The Wild doesn't stay under Julie's bed for long, and its identity emerges quickly for all readers. Once unleashed, it threatens to take over the entire community where fairy-tale characters live peaceful, ordinary lives in suburban Massachusetts. Set free by someone making a wish at the "Wishing Well Motel," it now re-launches the characters into their stories. Julie, however, blames herself for setting the fairy-tale cycle in motion: She has wished that her mother not be her mother. She's tired of being odd without knowing why, of entertaining the seven dwarves for dinner, of being picked up by Cindy in her orange Subaru and hanging out in the hair salon her mother, Zel, operates. Zel enters The Wild immediately to free the fairy-tale characters and stop its progression. Julie enters it to save her mother-and to learn her true identity and about the absent father she longs for. Deeper than most rewritten fairy tales, this existential story is chunked with big ideas about the fairy-tale genre, yet the story is lightened with touches that will connect with its audience. 
Zel is, of course, Rapunzel, whose mother is an evil witch once she's in the Wild, but outside of it is a rather hilarious and feisty grandma, intimidating only when she needs to. Julie is exactly what's called for, an intelligent and practical preteen who longs, as only middle schoolers can, for acceptance and entrance into the "in" crowd of popular, pretty kids. Of course, she's tormented by one of those perfect and pretty popular girls, and gets her revenge when this girl ends up having to sew outfits for hundreds of swans as part of a fairy tale. Julie learns, through her journey, the important lesson of the power of family to shelter and accept us, just as we are. I felt that the prose was a bit too simplistic, but the storytelling more than made up for any deficiencies, as did the swerving and diving roller coaster of the plot. This book deserves an A, and I'd recommend it to any middle grade girl who likes fairy tales turned on their heads.

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