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 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

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 ingĂ©nue, 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.

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