Wednesday, April 19, 2017

No Book But The World by Leah Hager Cohen, Design for Dying by Renee Patrick, The Midnight Work by Kassandra Sims, and Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend


Since I have four books to review, I'll get right to it today. 

No Book But The World by Leah Hager Cohen was a hardback book that I bought because I LOVED her non fiction title Glass, Paper, Beans with such a ferocity that I remember writing her an email and gushing about how brilliant it was, how the prose was so lush and beautiful that I felt like I was reading classic literary fiction. She reminded me of Diane Ackerman, who also writes gorgeous non fiction (and some great fiction based on historical fact, too), and whose work I've read over and over. That said, I hadn't been able to get into Cohen's book about grief, perhaps because it is about such a depressing subject. So I was a tad anxious about this novel, but I need not have worried, Cohen handles fiction like the pro that she is, and manages to make a tough and bittersweet story into a page turner that I read in 24 hours. Here's the blurb: 
A lush, gripping, psychologically complex novel that asks: How much do siblings owe one another?
At the edge of a woods, on the grounds of a defunct “free school,” Ava and her brother, Fred, share a dreamy and seemingly idyllic childhood—a world defined largely by their imaginations, a celebration of curiosity and the natural environment, and each other’s presence. Their parents, progressive educators, believe passionately that children develop best without formal instruction or societal constraint. Everyone is aware of Fred’s oddness—the word “autism” is whispered—but his parents’ fierce disapproval of labels keeps him free of clinical evaluation, diagnosis, or intervention, and constantly at Ava’s side.
Decades later, Fred is arrested for a shocking crime, and Ava is frantic to piece together the story of what actually happened. A boy is dead. Fred is held in a county jail. But could he really have done what he’s accused of? By now their parents are long gone, and the siblings have fallen out of touch, which causes Ava considerable guilt. Who is left to reach Fred? To explain him and his innocence to the world? Convinced that she alone can ensure he is regarded with sympathy, Ava tells their enthralling story.
A writer of enormous craft, Leah Hager Cohen brings her trademark intelligence and storytelling to a psychologically gripping, richly ambiguous novel that suggests we may ultimately understand one another best not with facts alone, but through our imaginations.
I found that I really loathed Ava and Fred's parents for not dealing with their son's autism disorder by pretending it didn't exist, and therefore leaving him to a world that takes advantage of mentally handicapped people and inevitably destroys them. I was also not a fan of Ava's, because she was able to interpret the world for, and understand Fred from a young age, but then suddenly when she became an adult, she was unable to handle his being "different" so she basically abandoned him. Then when her insane parents died, and their mother had consigned Fred's care to some drug dealing lowlife  (which makes no sense, but then, their parents were truly bizarre people) Ava was afraid that having Fred in her life would disrupt her marriage and make her husband divorce her, though it's obvious that he's very much in love with Ava, no matter how weird and fragile she is. So when Fred moves in with a junkie prostitute who abuses her son, it's only a matter of time before the son is dead and Fred, (who is abandoned by the prostitute) who is, by then, living like a cockroach above a garage and recycling bottles and cans for food, is accused of killing the boy. It seemed very apparent to me that Fred should have been institutionalized when he was a child, because he was a sociopath of low intelligence who wasn't taught right from wrong by his idiot parents, and that's a recipe for disaster when a child with no moral compass grows up and doesn't understand the world around him or the people who inhabit it. And Ava seemed to only care about herself. Though I didn't like any of the characters in the book, I did enjoy Cohen's glorious prose and storytelling abilities. For that reason alone I'd give the book an A-, though I would only recommend this book to those who don't get depressed easily, as it's a tragic tale that doesn't have a happy ending. 

Design for Dying by Renee Patrick is the first book in a series of mysteries that take place in the late 1930s, with the crime-solving team of Lillian Frost and famed costume designer Edith Head. I went into this novel completely unaware of what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised by the smooth as silk prose that aided a beautifully intricate plot, which floated along on wings of wit. Here's the blurb:
Los Angeles, 1937. Lillian Frost has traded dreams of stardom for security as a department store salesgirl . . . until she discovers she's a suspect in the murder of her former roommate, Ruby Carroll. Party girl Ruby died wearing a gown she stole from the wardrobe department at Paramount Pictures, domain of Edith Head.
Edith has yet to win the first of her eight Academy Awards; right now she's barely hanging on to her job, and a scandal is the last thing she needs. To clear Lillian's name and save Edith's career, the two women join forces.
Unraveling the mystery pits them against a Hungarian princess on the lam, a hotshot director on the make, and a private investigator who's not on the level. All they have going for them are dogged determination, assists from the likes of Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck, and a killer sense of style. In show business, that just might be enough.
The first in a series of riveting behind-the-scenes mysteries, Renee Patrick's Design for Dying is a delightful romp through Hollywood's Golden Age. Publisher's Weekly:
Set in 1937, Patrick’s upbeat, name-dropping debut starring real-life Hollywood costume designer Edith Head puts feminine cleverness, fashion sense, and social acumen front and center. The police suspect Edith and Lillian Frost, a department store salesperson and wannabe actress, in the murder of Lillian’s often opportunistic ex-roommate, Ruby Carroll, who’s found dead in a gown that turns out to have been stolen from the wardrobe department of Paramount Pictures, where Edith works. To clear themselves, Lillian and Edith seek to unwind the threads of Ruby’s final ruse. The interests of celebrities, socialites, and European royalty cross with those of a shady photographer, a club owner, and a boarding house landlady—to create both a complex environment for sleuthing replete with possibilities and an exciting sense of the glamorous, gossipy, and creative world of cinema’s golden age. The warm working relationship that develops between Lillian and Edith will leave readers eager to see more of their adventures

That last line from Publisher's Weekly is all too true. I couldn't get enough of the champagne-fizzy-ticklish wit of the prose and the fascinating characters. I was surprised and saddened that Ruby was pretending to be a princess in order to get a screen test and get work in Hollywood, when her talent should have been enough, but sexism was everywhere at that time, and women in tinsel town had to do outrageous things to get on the studio bosses radar. Renee Patrick is actually a non de plume for a way too good looking couple living in Seattle who just happen to write mysteries together. I certainly became a fan after reading this book, and I hope that the next one, which I have on hold at the library, will be just as fun. I'd give this book a well deserved A, and a recommendation to anyone who is curious about Hollywood and costumes of the 1930s, or just about Edith Head, who costumed many famous actors and actresses for years on stage and screen. 

The Midnight Work by Kassandra Sims is a sham of a novel, listed as a romance when it is actually dark urban fantasy bordering on horror, and written by someone whose first language isn't English, made obvious by the cliches and poor use of idioms.  I kept waiting for the writing to get better (it didn't) or the characters to seem less like cardboard cutouts of the Kardashians (they didn't), or for the plot to start making sense (never happened).The only "romance" in the book is the first encounter of the protagonists, Sophie and Olivier, when they basically have sex without even knowing one another, and then Sophie gets turned into a vampire because someone pushes her down in the street and she breaks her neck. Olivier, who is a Cathar (a weird religious sect that was killed off by Catholics a thousand years ago) somehow thinks that Sophie is the reincarnation of his one true love, though he doesn't even try to tell her that until very late in the book. Meanwhile, Sophie is an idiot who can't manage to do anything without one of her friends/room mates around to tell her what to do, so she makes one of her room mates, an African American gal who is an anchor person on the local news into a vampire, and said roomie just lets loose with all her sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies and starts killing and enthralling anyone whom she doesn't like (and that includes anyone but herself and Sophie). They also steal a lot, and Olivier and his frenemy Luc just sit back and wait for the girls to come to them and ask about the limits of their abilities. Things turn even uglier from there, with nasty Fairies making deals for the life of their other room mate, who is a witch, and the prose gets even more stilted and stodgy, while the characters ramble on about the Cathars and life and whatever else suits their nihilistic view of the world. This novel deserves an F, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, because it's even worse than Twilight.

Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend was a very readable book that I was expecting to be an adventure story, or a mystery, when it ended up being more of a reflective novel about World War 2. 
Here's the blurb:
Born to immigrant parents in Minnesota just before the turn of the century, Frances Frankowski grew up coveting the life of her best friend, Rosalie Mendel. And yet, decades later, when the women reconnect in San Francisco, their lives have diverged. Rosalie is a housewife and mother, while Frances works for the Office of Naval Intelligence and has just been given a top-secret assignment: marry handsome spy Ainslie Conway and move to the Galápagos Islands to investigate the Germans living there in the build-up to World War II.
Amid active volcanoes, forbidding wildlife and flora, and unfriendly neighbors, Ainslie and Frances carve out a life for themselves. But the secrets they harbor—from their friends, from their enemies, and even from each other—may be their undoing. Publisher's Weekly: In Amend’s mesmerizing third novel, Frances Conway struggles through the lies of her life and marriage, where “the circles of deception were endless.” Frances’s childhood and adolescence are shaped by her friendship with Rosalie, but their close relationship is destroyed by a stunning betrayal. Years later in the 1930s, Frances is a 50-year-old secretary for the U.S. Navy in San Francisco. Bored and restless, Frances is persuaded to join in a marriage of convenience with a naval officer 11 years her junior, as a cover for an obscure intelligence operation on the Galapagos Islands just prior to World War II. Her new husband, Ainsley, is handsome and charming, but with disturbing secrets of his own. Their marriage is odd—they may be married, but they are not husband and wife. Their life on the Galapagos Islands is spartan, consisting of hard work in a harsh, beautiful environment, keeping an eye on the few Germans living there. Always watchful and wary, they make it through the war, but Ainsley’s secrets take a darker, more sinister turn. This is a taut, powerful tale of human relationships and the sacrifices people make to maintain their balance.
Most of the novel is narrated by Fanny/Frances, who is, at the outset, a mean and jealous woman who never seems to be able to forgive Rosalie for becoming a wealthy success story due to marrying a philandering philanthropist. Fanny, described as skinny and plain, ends up marrying a gay man so that they can spy on German agents who live on the Galapagos Islands. Rosalie comes from a horrible family who prostitute her out to their landlord in exchange for rent from an early age. It's no surprise then that Rosalie ends up having sex with Fanny's beau/fiance, (which ends their friendship for decades) and then becomes a prostitute just to keep herself alive. Rosalie seems to cling to Fanny whenever she can, and still constantly writes to her and wants to be her friend, though Fanny doesn't seem to have the compassion or kindness to forgive Rosalie, even when they're old ladies and Rosalie is getting an award for her work during the war that she's lied about. Rosalie knows that her husband is a jerk, but she likes being rich and having four children to raise (and their paternity doesn't seem to matter), so Fanny continues to steam and stew about her friends life, and all her advantages, while she isn't allowed to reveal her own work as a spy during the war that saved countless lives. I gather readers were supposed to like Ainsley, who is supposedly so handsome, but I found that his ability to be a cold blooded killer and a closeted homosexual whose only care was for himself and his own desires, made him a villain to me. I would give this book a B+, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in stories of the Galapagos Islands during WWII.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

No More HPB in Seattle, Brother's Ruin by Emma Newman, The Doll House by Fiona Davis, A Certain Age by Beatriz Wiliams, and Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon


I am so upset that HPB is closing, but I am even more upset that I missed out on their closing sale this past weekend! ARG! If I had only known! My family just visited this HPB in the University District about 6 months ago. We not only bought some books there, we found out about their warehouse sale, and I was able to get two huge bags of books for $25 a bag.

Half Price Books in Seattle Closes

The Half Price Books http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz32262221 near the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash., closed on Sunday
the Daily, the school's student newspaper, reported. The store was
founded some 30 years ago and was part of the Half Price Books chain,
which has more than 120 locations across the country.

In announcing the closing, the store wrote in part, "We have loyal
customers in the University District, but unfortunately, the customer
traffic hasn't been high enough to allow us to stay, so we are focusing
our resources on our six other Seattle-area locations."

The paper speculated that among reasons for the closure could be "the
new upzone legislation," which should make land values in the university
district increase "in the near future."

Another Half Price Books, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, closed in
2013.

Brother's Ruin by Emma Newman is the first book in a new steampunk fantasy series by the author of Planetfall, a science fiction novel that I read in ARC version from Ace/Roc books a year or so ago. I didn't like Planetfall at all, and felt the protagonist was creepy and unhinged. So I was uncertain as to whether I wanted to embark on another reading excursion with Newman, but this slender volume proved to be right up my alley. I love smart female protagonists with grit and talent enough to defy societal conventions, and that's just what Newman provides in Charlotte Gunn, a young illustrator who has to hide her identity (otherwise she won't be published due to the sexist mores of the Victorian era) and her latent magical talent if she's to have a life, because those who have magic are enslaved by the government and not allowed to marry, have a family or any sort of career other than using magic to make things work for the government. Here's the blurb:
The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben's life and their own livelihoods.
But Benjamin Gunn isn't a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.
When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.
Brother's Ruin is the first in a new gaslamp fantasy series by Emma Newman.
As in most books with a strong female protagonist, everyone around Charlotte is either weak and suffering from some dreadful wasting disease, or they're idiots who get in too deep with loan sharks, (as does Charlotte's father) or both. Why must the family of the protagonist always be so stupid and/or cruel? It just seems to have become another trope that authors use in nearly every series, and I tire of hearing how the lead female must suffer fools and save the day by herself in every single book. That said, Charlotte discovers that one of the mages who comes to test her brother (the devastatingly handsome one, of course), is smart enough to uncover Charlotte's secret, and her father's secret, so he eventually helps her neutralize the bad guys and makes a deal with her to train her talents while also using her as a secret agent to diffuse other bad guys with evil intentions. Newman's prose is so clean and clear it's like glass, and it shines along the breakneck speed of the well-wrought plot. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes steampunk stories that contain magic and mystery.

The Doll House by Fiona Davis is something of a potboiler of a novel, almost to the point of being 50s pulp fiction, with its melodramatic plot and iconic characters. Here's the blurb: "The Dollhouse. . . . That's what we boys like to call it. . . . The Barbizon Hotel for Women, packed to the rafters with pretty little dolls. Just like you."

Fiona Davis's stunning debut novel pulls readers into the lush world of New York City's glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, where in the 1950's a generation of aspiring models, secretaries, and editors lived side-by-side while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success, and where a present-day journalist becomes consumed with uncovering a dark secret buried deep within the Barbizon's glitzy past.

When she arrives at the famed Barbizon Hotel in 1952, secretarial school enrollment in hand, Darby McLaughlin is everything her modeling agency hall mates aren't: plain, self-conscious, homesick, and utterly convinced she doesn't belong—a notion the models do nothing to disabuse. Yet when Darby befriends Esme, a Barbizon maid, she's introduced to an entirely new side of New York City: seedy downtown jazz clubs where the music is as addictive as the heroin that's used there, the startling sounds of bebop, and even the possibility of romance.

Over half a century later, the Barbizon's gone condo and most of its long-ago guests are forgotten. But rumors of Darby's involvement in a deadly skirmish with a hotel maid back in 1952 haunt the halls of the building as surely as the melancholy music that floats from the elderly woman's rent-controlled apartment. It's a combination too intoxicating for journalist Rose Lewin, Darby's upstairs neighbor, to resist—not to mention the perfect distraction from her own imploding personal life. Yet as Rose's obsession deepens, the ethics of her investigation become increasingly murky, and neither woman will remain unchanged when the shocking truth is finally revealed. 

Darby and Rose's stories alternate chapters, which is normally not too jarring, but I found myself wanting to stay in the 50s part of the story longer than in the modern day part, mainly because Rose seems too wimpy to be an actual investigative journalist. I like that the author hinted at Esme being gay, but it felt like a foregone conclusion that she had to die because she'd become involved in drugs and went insane when Darby refused to run away with her. I also felt that Rose apologizing and agonizing over staying in Darby's apartment while she was away, (and reading her letters) was a bit much considering Darby killed Esme, which is a much larger ethics violation, really. The prose was very straightforward and the plot very melodramatic and noir-ish, yet I found myself unable to put the book down once I'd read beyond the first 100 pages. A solid B, with a recommendation to anyone who wonders what life was like for women alone, living at the famed Barbazon Hotel in the 1950s. 

A Certain Age by Beatriz Williams reads like a mashup between the Great Gatsby and a Strauss opera, with some Movable Feast thrown in for good measure. Also, the title is a double entendre, as Theresa, the protagonist, is middle aged, while living in the "certain age" of the Roaring Twenties.  Here's the blurb:
The bestselling author of A Hundred Summers brings the Roaring Twenties brilliantly to life in this enchanting and compulsively readable tale of intrigue, romance, and scandal in New York Society, brimming with lush atmosphere, striking characters, and irresistible charm.
As the freedom of the Jazz Age transforms New York City, the iridescent Mrs. Theresa Marshall of Fifth Avenue and Southampton, Long Island, has done the unthinkable: she’s fallen in love with her young paramour, Captain Octavian Rofrano, a handsome aviator and hero of the Great War. An intense and deeply honorable man, Octavian is devoted to the beautiful socialite of a certain age and wants to marry her. While times are changing and she does adore the Boy, divorce for a woman of Theresa’s wealth and social standing is out of the question, and there is no need; she has an understanding with Sylvo, her generous and well-respected philanderer husband.
But their relationship subtly shifts when her bachelor brother, Ox, decides to tie the knot with the sweet younger daughter of a newly wealthy inventor. Engaging a longstanding family tradition, Theresa enlists the Boy to act as her brother’s cavalier, presenting the family’s diamond rose ring to Ox’s intended, Miss Sophie Fortescue—and to check into the background of the little-known Fortescue family. When Octavian meets Sophie, he falls under the spell of the pretty ingénue, even as he uncovers a shocking family secret. As the love triangle of Theresa, Octavian, and Sophie progresses, it transforms into a saga of divided loyalties, dangerous revelations, and surprising twists that will lead to a shocking transgression . . . and eventually force Theresa to make a bittersweet choice.
Full of the glamour, wit and delicious twists that are the hallmarks of Beatriz Williams’ fiction and alternating between Sophie’s spirited voice and Theresa’s vibrant timbre, A Certain Age is a beguiling reinterpretation of Richard Strauss’s comic opera Der Rosenkavalier, set against the sweeping decadence of Gatsby’s New York.
I believe we're supposed to feel sympathy for Theresa Marshall, who is an aging society maven, but she seemed too controlling, manipulative and dissipated for me to actually like her as a protagonist. Her opposite is the naive and stupid Sophie, who, it turns out, watched her mother's throat be slit by a murderer when she was only 2 years old. Of course she's blocked that all out, and of course she falls for Theresa's "boy toy" Rofrano, who can't resist her innocence. But here again the jaded Theresa holds all the cards, because apparently Rofrano has no will of his own, and can't leave Theresa unless she sets him free.Why is never really explained, especially considering that it is noted several times that Theresa is 44 years old and her "Boy" Rofrano is only a year or two older than her son. Eww. Though she tries to manipulate Sophie into her grotesque brother's arms and keep her claws into Rofrano, in the end, she shows a spark of decency and gives him up, thus securing an HEA. While I am not familiar with the Strauss opera on which the story is based, I am familiar enough with the Great Gatsby that I recognize someone attempting to imitate Fitzgerald's style, to no avail. I'd give this novel a C+, and recommend it to anyone interested in the opera and Jazz age stories of New York.

I happened across a beautiful paperback copy of Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon at the Dollar Store, of all places, and I was so thrilled to come across one of my favorite authors that I did a little jig in the aisle. I hadn't heard of Marina, otherwise I would have sought it out before, but apparently it's not been translated (from Spanish) until recently. Zafon notes in the introduction that this is his first novel, and that he holds a special fondness for it, of all his books. I read The Shadow of the Wind years ago, and it was my favorite novel of that year, full of Gothic mystery, romance and fantastical bookstores. This is also a Gothic novel, and it's regarded as a cult classic in Spain (it should be one here, too). Here's the blurb:
"We all have a secret buried under lock and key in the attic of our soul. This is mine."
When Fifteen-year-old Oscar Drai suddenly vanishes from his boarding school in Barcelona, no one knows his whereabouts for seven days and seven nights.
His story begins when he meets the strange Marina while he's exploring an old quarter of the city. She leads Oscar to a cemetery, where they watch a macabre ritual that occurs on the last Sunday of each month. At exactly ten o'clock in the morning, a woman shrouded in a black velvet cloak descends from her carriage to place a single rose on an unmarked grave.
When Oscar and Marina decide to follow her, they begin a journey that transports them to a forgotten postwar Barcelona—a world of aristocrats and actresses, inventors and tycoons—an reveals a dark secret that lies waiting in the mysterious labyrinth beneath the city streets.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon's haunting Marina has long been a cult classic in Spain and is now an international bestseller.
I've always found Zafon's prose to be spell binding and his characters enchanting, but with Marina, I was so engrossed that I couldn't put the book down, and read it all in an afternoon. This book has it all, ill fated romance, suspense, mystery and fantasy along the lines of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."  I am aware that many consider Frankenstein and its ilk to be horror, but not being a fan of horror fiction, I'd rather consider it dark fantasy. I loved that Marina and Oscar uncovered the villains plot of vengeance and murder, and that they're able to show how love can lead to insane levels of heartbreak and horror. Though there isn't a real HEA to be had here, there is a satisfying conclusion to the tale, and, as with Shadow of the Wind, Zafon leaves readers hungry for more of his lush prose, spooky plots and mysterious characters. A definite A, with a recommendation for anyone who loves Neil Gaiman's more Gothic offerings, or Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire.


Thursday, April 06, 2017

RIP Alex Tizon, Poison or Protect by Gail Carriger, Heartless by Marissa Meyer, Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, and Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn


It seems that I start too many of my posts these past couple of years with an obituary. I don't know if that is because of my age, or because all those tail-end Baby Boomers like myself are getting older and dropping like flies. But whatever the reason, I was shocked and disheartened by this latest obit of Alex Tizon, a respected journalist. I actually knew Alex because he married a young woman, Melissa, who worked at the Mercer Island Reporter, as I did. Melissa and Alex also had a child the same year that my husband and I had Nick, and Melissa, knowing that I would be overwhelmed, brought me a bag of groceries and some baby essentials the week we brought Nick home from the Swedish Hospital NICU. I nearly wept with relief. But I remember Alex best as a charming man with a thousand-watt smile who spoke about journalists as storytellers during a writers workshop I attended when I was still with the MIR. He was smart, funny and an amazing reporter. I am so sad that he died so young (of what, I don't know). My prayers go out to Melissa and their children. Rest in peace, Alex.

Obituary Note: Alex Tizon

Alex Tizon
a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter whose 2014 memoir, Big Little Man: In
Search of My Asian Self, "documented his insecurities and alienation as
a Filipino-American," died March 23, the New York Times reported. He was
57. Tizon, along with Eric Nalder and Deborah Nelson, shared a Pulitzer
in investigative reporting in 1997 for Seattle Times articles "about
problems facing a Department of Housing and Urban Development program to
help Native Americans build homes.... The series resulted in a
congressional investigation and changes in the federal program."

In Big Little Man, he addressed many of the stereotypes he had
internalized as an Asian-American, having experienced them "as a set of
suspicions that seemed corroborated by everyday life.... When did this
shame inside me begin? Looking back now, I could say it began with love.
Love of the gifted people and their imagined life; love of America, the
sprawling idea of it, with its gilded tentacles reaching across the
Pacific Ocean to wrap around the hearts of small brown people living
small brown lives. It was a love bordering on worship, fueled by
longing, felt most fervently by those like my parents who grew up with
America in their dreams. The love almost killed us."

Michele Matassa Flores, managing editor of the Seattle Times, said that
as a reporter, Tizon "focused on the gray.... The world was not a simple
place for Alex, and he wanted to convey that to his readers."

Poison or Protect by Gail Carriger is a slender volume of steampunk/adventure/romance, written with Carriger's usual witty style and panache. The protagonist of this tale is one of Carriger's "finishing school" graduates, an academy on a dirigible that teaches young ladies manners and spycraft. Preshea is a broken-hearted young widow who has been sent to prevent the assassination of a Lord and break up the courtship of his daughter to an unsuitable young gadfly. Fortunately, said gadfly is accompanied by a muscular, manly Scotsman named Gavin Ruthven, who falls for Preshea on sight. Mayhem and flirtation ensues. Here's the blurb:
Can one gentle Highland soldier woo Victorian London’s most scandalous lady assassin, or will they both be destroyed in the attempt?
New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger presents a stand-alone romance novella set in her popular steampunk universe full of manners, spies, and dainty sandwiches.
Lady Preshea Villentia, the Mourning Star, has four dead husbands and a nasty reputation. Fortunately, she looks fabulous in black. What society doesn’t know is that all her husbands were marked for death by Preshea’s employer. And Preshea has one final assignment.
It was supposed to be easy, a house party with minimal bloodshed. Preshea hadn’t anticipated Captain Gavin Ruthven – massive, Scottish, quietly irresistible, and… working for the enemy. In a battle of wits, Preshea may risk her own heart – a terrifying prospect, as she never knew she had one.
I've read all of Carriger's other steampunk fantasy novels, and really enjoyed them for their wit and wonderful characters. This novel was no exception, with its spare but sparkling prose and precise plot that ends in an delightful HEA. I'd give it an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes steampunk romances that are fun and fancy.

Heartless by Marissa Meyer is the author's YA take on the Alice in Wonderland story, with a few twist and turns to keep it interesting and relevant to today's young adult audience. I've read Meyer's "Lunar Chronicles" and while I enjoyed most of them, I noticed a tendency to over-complicate the plot with too many side characters and subplots. Heartless suffers from the same malady, but only marginally. Here's the blurb:
Long before she was the terror of Wonderland—the infamous Queen of Hearts—she was just a girl who wanted to fall in love. Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a favorite of the unmarried King of Hearts, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, all she wants is to open a shop with her best friend. But according to her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for the young woman who could be the next queen.
Then Cath meets Jest, the handsome and mysterious court joker. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the king and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into an intense, secret courtship. Cath is determined to define her own destiny and fall in love on her terms. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.
In her first stand-alone teen novel, the New York Times-bestselling author dazzles us with a prequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Though Catherine seemed way too naive and gullible, and her friend Mary Ann seemed equally blind to reality (though she was supposedly the sensible one because she was a servant/ladies maid) I was fine with her plotting until she revealed her plans to her parents, greedy and ambitious and stuffy people that they were, and then is surprised when they threaten to disinherit her, toss her out on her ear and have nothing to do with her unless she marries the ridiculously childish and idiotic (but wealthy) King. Meanwhile, she's fallen in love with a Rook from the Chess side of Wonderland, and though he reveals to her that he needs the heart of a Queen to stop a war on his side of the country (and thus he had an ulterior motive for her to marry the king, so he could take her heart), she still loves and adores him and yet proceeds to put herself in danger by flouting a prophecy to save Mary Ann, after Mary Ann turns stool pigeon and traitor and ruins Catherine's chances at happiness. Add into this mix the "Mad" Hatter, called "Hatta," who is truly the evil at the heart of all of Catherine's troubles (and her kingdom's troubles) and you have a recipe for a book with no good protagonists that you can actually root for. Also, Catherine's parents make a 360 on their controlling her life by saying, late in the novel, that they "only want her to be happy" when she'd explained previously that she wanted a bakery of her own and the Rook to be happy, and they both told her NO, in no uncertain terms, that her happiness didn't matter one iota to either of them. Why the sudden reversal? We are not to know, apparently. What we're left with, at the end, is a cruel Queen who is bitter and literally without a heart. How can anyone enjoy a book that ends with such ugliness? For that reason, I'd give this book a B-, and recommend it only to those who are huge Alice in Wonderland fans.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain is our April Book Group novel that we'll be discussing at the library next week. This book is a fictionalized account (based on known facts about her life) of the life of Beryl Markham, an English born woman raised on a farm in Africa around the turn of the century. I read Markham's autobiography, West With the Night way back when I was barely out of my teen years, and I remember being thrilled about her tales of flying and adventure and going against what women were expected to do in the 1920s. I don't recall reading so much about her work training racehorses, which, in addition to her dealings with Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen, who also had a farm in Africa near Beryls) and all the men she seduced and married, makes up a majority of this books chapters. Not being a huge fan of horses, I was rather quickly bored by Beryl, her weak family and 'friends' and string of awful lovers. We also read McLain's popular novel "The Paris Wife" about Ernest Hemingway's appalling treatment of his first wife during his early career in Paris, last year. While I'm aware that we're supposed to find these deeply flawed protagonists sympathetic in both of McLain's novels, for me, she never manages to elevate them beyond their own easily avoided mistakes and pathetic weaknesses so that the reader can have anything other than contempt for them. Here's the blurb:
Paula McLain, author of the phenomenal bestseller The Paris Wife, now returns with her keenly anticipated new novel, transporting readers to colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.
Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.
Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.
Set against the majestic landscape of early-twentieth-century Africa, McLain’s powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.
I've long been a fan of Isak Dinesen's works, including Out of Africa, and I was horrified that McLain cheapened her character by making her seem delusional and old hag-like, sort of a Norma Desmond of Africa, who clings to her lover though he's having it off with Beryl (and presumably everyone else) because she claims she "can't live without him" and will kill herself if he leaves her. We also don't get to read much about Beryl's flying career until the end of the book, which frustrated me, as that was what I found most interesting about her. McLain's prose is drowsy and hot, like an African afternoon, and her plot is sluggish, though it gets you there eventually. I'd give this book a C+, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in colonial Kenya and horse racing/training in the 1920s.

Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn is  a fast-paced and fun new series for the author of the Kitty Norville books, (all 14 of them) which I read within a month or so and enjoyed, for the most part. This is a YA science fiction novel, which is a departure for Vaughn, as the Norville series is supernatural urban fantasy. Fizzy prose drives a zero G plot that floats off the page, with brother and sister protagonists that are more human and realistic than the "earth born" people around them. I adored practical Polly Newton and her evil genius twin Charles, who are sent to a posh school on earth by their heartless and cold mother, who has an agenda to further her own career, even at the cost of her children's lives. Here's the blurb:
Well-known for her bestselling series Kitty Norville, Carrie Vaughn moves to science fiction with Martians Abroad, a novel with great crossover appeal. Polly Newton has one single-minded dream, to be a starship pilot and travel the galaxy. Her mother, the Director of the Mars Colony, derails Polly's plans when she sends Polly and her genius twin brother, Charles, to Galileo Academy on Earth.
Homesick and cut off from her plans for her future, Polly cannot seem to fit into life on Earth. Strange, unexplained, dangerous coincidences centered on their high-profile classmates begin piling up. Charles may be right—there's more going on than would appear, and the stakes are high. With the help of Charles, Polly is determined to find the truth, no matter the cost.
Though Publisher's Weekly notes in their critique that
"the color-within-the-lines plot and young characters without any depth fail to create interest, much less sustain it."
I found the plot to be straightforward and the characters had natural depth that grew as the characters matured throughout the book. I loved that Polly always came to the rescue of her classmates and automatically helped people because it was in her nature to be caring and kind, without regard to her own gain. My only qualm with the book was their evil Martian mother, who seemed not to care if her children were killed in a series of horrific accidents that she set up to allow Polly and Charles to "prove" themselves and provide her with some kind of political or business cachet with the wealthy kids parents. Making a parent so cold and calculating seemed unreal to me, almost as if she were a robot and not a human. 
Despite that, I'd still give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA science fiction with winning characters. I look forward to the sequel.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Becomes a Movie, The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron, and Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was my favorite book the year that it came out, and I am thrilled it's now become a movie. I will be first in line for a ticket when it premiers!

Movies: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  
Director Mike Newell has added several actors to his film adaptation of
the international bestseller The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Deadline reported that new cast
members include Glen Powell (Hidden Figures), Michiel Huisman (The Age
of Adeline, Game of Thrones), Matthew Goode (The Imitation Game, Downton
Abbey), Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey), Tom Courtenay (45 Years)
and Penelope Wilton (The BFG, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). They join
Lily James, who will star as Juliet Ashton in the project, which has
begun filming in the U.K.

The script was written by Don Roos, Kevin Hood and Tom Bezucha.
Producing are Paula Mazur and Mitchell Kaplan from the Mazur/Kaplan
Company (he is the owner of Books & Books http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz32082518 in southern Florida and the Cayman Islands), with Graham Broadbent and Pete Czernin from Blueprint Pictures (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, In
Bruges). 
Mazur/Kaplan "is a book-centric production company that recently wrapped
production on The Man Who Invented Christmas, directed by Bharat
Nalluri, starring Dan Stevens (Beauty and the Beast) and Christopher
Plummer," Deadline noted. "Also on its slate is The Silent Wife with
Nicole Kidman and All The Bright Places starring Elle Fanning and
directed by Miguel Arteta."
 
Speaking of GLPPPS, because it was such a successful book, hundreds of books that followed have been compared to it, including The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan, which I bought at full price, solely on the blurb and the comparison to the above. Unfortunately, like most comparisons with truly great novels, Chilbury falls short in several ways. Like Guernsey, it is an epistolary novel, told through diary entries and letters that the characters write to friends and relations during the dark days of World War II in England. But unlike Guernsey, which is rife with lovable and fascinating characters, Chilbury is a town full of selfish, cruel, greedy and unsavory people, as well as some delusional preteens, and they're not at all charming or fun. In fact, the only character I could identify with at all was Mrs Tilling, the local nurse, who was the most decent character in the whole town, and even she was willing to keep the horrible town midwife's secret, as long as it suited her agenda. I also felt like many of the characters were stereotypes that weren't fully fleshed out. There's the vain and cruel "prettiest" girl in town, Venetia, who spends a lot of time on her looks and bragging that she can seduce and discard any man/boy in town with nary a quiver of conscience, and there's her 13 year old sister Kitty, who has a beautiful singing voice and wants to be a star one day, but she's terribly jealous of her sister and believes that the town hero, who has been in love with her sister for years and assumes that they will marry, is actually going to marry Kitty, based on a side remark he made to placate her when they were children. There's their out of control brute of a father who literally horse whips his children until they bleed, and there's the spy disguised as an artist who paints the vain Venetia nude and eventually gets her pregnant.  Here's the blurb:  
As England enters World War II's dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar's stuffy edict to shutter the church's choir in the absence of men and instead "carry on singing." Resurrecting themselves as "The Chilbury Ladies' Choir," the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.
Told through letters and journals, THE CHILBURY LADIES' CHOIR moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit-- a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn't understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past-- we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir's collective voice reverberates in her individual life. In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the homefront, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.
The only thing that saves this novel is the choir, which actually saves the town's spirit and helps many of the women/girls in the town deal with their problems by making music. I could identify with that as a lover of vocal music since childhood. This novel could also be considered a romance, as all of the characters are paired up by the end, which is a nice, neat HEA for the most part. Still, the prose is clean and clear and moves the plot along smoothly. It's a fast read that I was able to accomplish in a day. For that reason and for the unshakable Ms Tilling, I'll give this book a B+, and recommend it to anyone who likes historical romantic fiction.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy was also rife with characters who weren't good people, in this case a black family with 13 children, raised in Detroit, Michigan and mostly messed up by addictions and infidelities of one kind or another. The eldest, Charles, called Cha-Cha, has the main story arc, followed by the youngest, Lelah, who has a gambling addiction. A majority of the children seem to lie, cheat, steal and have addictions to alcohol or drugs or gambling, and the few that don't aren't portrayed as being anything but self-righteous and dull.  The men, especially Cha-Cha, seem unable to see women outside of their family as anything but sexual prey. I found this to be rather nauseating and a stereotype of black men being unable to raise their children because they have illegitimate children with so many women. None of the Turners seem to be very self aware, or bright, and they thrive on secrets and unhappiness. Here's the blurb:  
The Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for over fifty years. Their house has seen thirteen children grown and gone—and some returned; it has seen the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit’s East Side, and the loss of a father. The house still stands despite abandoned lots, an embattled city, and the inevitable shift outward to the suburbs. But now, as ailing matriarch Viola finds herself forced to leave her home and move in with her eldest son, the family discovers that the house is worth just a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children are called home to decide its fate and to reckon with how each of their pasts haunts—and shapes—their family’s future. Praised by Ayana Mathis as “utterly moving” and “un-putdownable,” The Turner House brings us a colorful, complicated brood full of love and pride, sacrifice and unlikely inheritances. It’s a striking examination of the price we pay for our dreams and futures, and the ways in which our families bring us home.
Flournoy's prose is seductive and stylized in an urban sort of way, so even after I was disgusted with Cha-Cha's whining about the "haint" and his lusting after his therapist (who was clearly not interested, but that didn't stop him from hitting on her) and Lelah's constant lies to herself and others about her gambling addiction, I still read on, eager for someone to become self realized enough to get their life back on track and either raze their old house or short sell it. Unsurprisingly, no one did. Still, though the ending was disappointing, (and the book itself depressing), I'd give this book a B, mainly for the prose and the slippery plot, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the lives of African Americans who built cars in Detroit and then watched it fall to decay.

The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron is a YA novel dystopian novel with a science fiction twist. It's somewhat like the Star Trek episode, "The Return of the Archons" in which the whole town worships "Landru" and goes crazy once a quarter and tears one another apart in a frenzy of Id. Or the movie "The Purge" with Ethan Hawke, where much the same thing happens. Only in this town, every 12 years, a "comet" comes by and wipes out everyone's memory of their horrible deeds. Every member of the town carries a book in which they record their memories so that when the Forgetting happens, they can at least remember their names and who their parents/siblings or husbands/wives are. Sadly, some use this opportunity to abandon their families and start over with other spouses/children. Their town is surrounded by a wall, which the town council has forbidden anyone to climb over, but, inevitably, it is climbed by the protagonist, an intrepid young woman named Nadia, who makes fascinating discoveries in the world outside of her walled village. Here's the blurb:  
What isn't written, isn't remembered. Even your crimes. Nadia lives in the city of Canaan, where life is safe and structured, hemmed in by white stone walls and no memory of what came before. But every twelve years the city descends into the bloody chaos of the Forgetting, a day of no remorse, when each person's memories -- of parents, children, love, life, and self -- are lost. Unless they have been written.
In Canaan, your book is your truth and your identity, and Nadia knows exactly who hasn't written the truth. Because she is the only person in Canaan who has never forgotten.
But when Nadia begins to use her memories to solve the mysteries of Canaan, she discovers truths about herself and Gray, the handsome glassblower, that will change her world forever. As the anarchy of the Forgetting approaches, Nadia and Gray must stop an unseen enemy that threatens both their city and their own existence -- before the people can forget the truth. And before Gray can forget her.
Of course there is a romantic subplot, because, as I've mentioned before, all YA dystopian fiction with a female protagonist HAS to have the girl fall in love with the rogue guy, who then partners with her to solve the novel's main problem, because teenage girls can't possibly exist without a guy and romantic entanglements. That said, at least Nadia is reluctant to reveal her secret forays and discoveries beyond the wall to Gray, and when it turns out he's been employed by the head of the council, who is completely evil, to follow Nadia and report back on her movements and discoveries, it appears that she was right in her reluctance. When it is revealed that there's a substance coming from the town trees, which bloom every 12 years that is actually the culprit in the forgetting, Nadia and Gray must try and save as many people as possible from its effects, while trying to bring down the corrupt head of the council. I liked the generational space ship crashed on the planet background, and I thought the novel's workmanlike prose and measured plot worked hand in hand to make this a page-turner of a novel. An A and a recommendation to those who like the themes presented above is well warrented.

Finally, Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister was a true delight of a novel, full of engaging characters and a thrilling plot that left me yearning for more. Here's the blurb:
Inspired by the real story of investigator Kate Warne, this spirited novel follows the detective's rise during one of the nation's times of crisis, bringing to life a fiercely independent woman whose forgotten triumphs helped sway the fate of the country.
With no money and no husband, Kate Warne finds herself with few choices. The streets of 1856 Chicago offer a desperate widow mostly trouble and ruin—unless that widow has a knack for manipulation and an unusually quick mind. In a bold move that no other woman has tried, Kate convinces the legendary Allan Pinkerton to hire her as a detective.
Battling criminals and coworkers alike, Kate immerses herself in the dangerous life of an operative, winning the right to tackle some of the agency's toughest investigations. But is the woman she's becoming—capable of any and all lies, swapping identities like dresses—the true Kate? Or has the real disguise been the good girl she always thought she was? Publisher's Weekly: Macallister (The Magician’s Lie) pens an exciting, well-crafted historical novel featuring Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective in 1856 Chicago. Kate is a widow and needs a job, convincing Allan Pinkerton that a female detective can go places and do things a male detective cannot. Once hired, Kate becomes skilled at lock picking and surveillance, but she is best in disguise—as a prostitute, rich matron, spinster, clerk, Southern belle, doting sister, and false friend—an expert liar, playing a role. She investigates burglaries, bank robberies, embezzlement, counterfeiting, blackmail, and murder. The Pinkerton Detective Agency is a man’s world, and Kate is forced to prove herself, especially when someone tries to discredit her. She eventually earns the respect of her fellow detectives, learning a secret to be used later. Kate carries a pistol, but her wit, careful observation, and boldness see her through tricky and unexpected situations with desperate, dangerous criminals. In 1861 Kate comes up with an ingenious plan to protect President Lincoln from a Southern assassination plot, and she later works as a Pinkerton spy in the South during the Civil War, vowing revenge on whoever betrayed her lover and focusing on a formidable adversary, the notorious real-life Southern spy Mrs. Rose Greenhow. Loaded with suspense and action, this is a well-told, superb story.
I can't say enough good things about this "well told, superb story." I enjoyed every chapter. Kate is a wonderful heroine, bright and tough, who refuses to let circumstances get the better of her. I loved that she rose in the ranks of Pinkerton's agency to have her own "ladies" section, where she could train female agents in detective methods and disguises. The pace of this novel is breathtaking, and just when you think Kate has solved one problem and is in the clear, something worse crops up, and Kate is called upon to use her burgeoning skills to ferret out the evildoer. I could not put this book down, and read it all in one sitting. A well deserved A, for Girl in Disguise, and a recommendation to anyone who enjoys historical thrillers, with a heartfelt plea for Ms Macallister to write more fiction, posthaste!