Saturday, May 27, 2017

Powells CEO on the Wonder of Books, River Lights Bookstore 10th Birthday, The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman, and In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen

It's no secret that my favorite bookstore and mecca for bibliophiles (like myself ) is Powells City of Books in Portland, Oregon. My family and I travel there every summer, and I exchange boxes of my used books for as many books from my Wish List as I can afford with the credit I get. I love that Miriam Sontz, CEO of Powells, totally "gets it" when it comes to the power and glory of storytelling and holding a real book in your hand. Here's an excerpt of an interview with her from a blog.

Powell's CEO Miriam Sontz: 'Portrait of a Bookseller'
Powell's Books, Portand, Ore., focused its most recent "Portrait of a Bookseller
blog series on the company's CEO Miriam Sontz. Among our favorite q&a
Powell's CEO Miriam Sontz:

How would you describe your job?
"I try to provide a framework and let everyone else paint inside tha

What is the best part of your job?
"I can leave my office at any time and walk through the store and be
reminded of the power of books."

Why do you think bookstores remain so popular in the digital age?
"Bookstores are an incredible cauldron of serendipity. What comes next
into your field of vision is a combination of randomness and curation by
staff, a totally human and irreplaceable experience. I can walk down the
same aisle every day and see something different."

What makes for a good book in your eyes?
"A good book takes my singular view of the world and turns it into a
I wish to heaven that River Lights had been in Dubuque back in the early 1980s when I attended Clarke College (now Clarke University). Perhaps it's a good thing, however, as I would have spent time and money that I didn't have in this place! If I ever go back for another class reunion, I will make it a point to visit River Lights.
Happy 10th Birthday, River Lights Bookstore
Congratulations to River Lights Bookstore
in Dubuque, Iowa, which will mark its 10th anniversary with a
celebration on June 3 featuring door prizes, goodies for the kids,
special discounts and cake. Noting that "our years on Main Street have
been a wonderful adventure and we have loved being a part of the
revitalization of the district," owner Sue Davis said the bookshop's
customers are "passionate about literature and value real books and
honest recommendations. Their support over the years has allowed this
indie bookstore to thrive in Dubuque."

Davis is personally celebrating 30 years as a bookseller. She recalled
"having learned the trade from Margaret and Martha Fuerste while working
at Inn Books. After Margaret closed that store, six of us including the
Fuerstes, Ellen Haley, Sue Simon and Elinor Weis opened River Lights
Bookstore in Plaza 20 and then later moved to Wacker Plaza. When my
partners decided to move on to other adventures, I decided to continue
doing what I love and the 1000 Block of Main seemed like the perfect
place. I was able to start from scratch at 1098 Main and design my ideal
indie bookstore. Focusing on personal attention, community involvement,
devotion to the cause of literature and a commitment to local authors."

Over the past decade, River Lights "withstood the opening (and closing)
of Borders. Witnessed the rise and decline of e-books. And has weathered
the storm of online mega-retailing. What has always set River Lights
apart is our passion for literature, the events we host and the personal
service we offer. The Indiebound tagline has always said it best...
Culture, Community, and Connectedness," Davis observed.

She also praised the bookstore's staff, who "have diverse expertise in
varying book genres and talents for merchandising that add to our
ambiance," as well as "the unwavering support of my husband Steve Oeth,
my children Emma and Walter, and my designer (and friend) Carla
Heathcote. I couldn't have gotten this business off the ground without
Elizabeth Eagle nor found my footing without Marie Moronez."

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (his last name means "Wolf Kisser" according to the Italian member of our book group) is June's book for my library book group at the local branch of KCLS. It was on the head librarian Jen's list of must-read books, and it was said to be a science fiction/dystopian thriller that received all kinds of acclaim. Having been a fan of science fiction for the past 50 years, I was looking forward to this novel, so I was seriously disheartened when it turned out to be more like a dystopian horror novel by Cormac McCarthy than an exciting science fiction thriller. This book is bathed in blood, and every other word is the f-word, plus there is violent sex, murder, drugs and every kind of political viciousness you can imagine. Death and destruction and mayhem lurk on every page. There aren't many decent people to empathize with because everyone is cynical and hard and has either seen murder or committed it or both. The women in the book are, of course, either evil masterminds or whores. There's a journalist, but it turns out she loves violent sex and pain/suffocation turns her on, so it's inevitable that she die, because any woman who isn't "selling ass" as they term it in this book isn't worth saving. Sexism reigns in this world, where the men are exploitative thugs and gangsters, even the protagonist, Angel, who is a "water knife" or a thug who works for a cruel murderous woman in Las Vegas, as an assassin. We're supposed to identify with him, I gather, but he turned my stomach and seemed to be immortal and impervious to bullets, which strained my credulity. Here's the blurb: WATER IS POWER
 In the near future, the Colorado River has dwindled to a trickle. Detective, assassin, and spy, Angel Velasquez “cuts” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, ensuring that its lush arcology developments can bloom in Las Vegas. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in Phoenix, Angel is sent south, hunting for answers that seem to evaporate as the heat index soars and the landscape becomes more and more oppressive. There, he encounters Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist with her own agenda, and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas migrant, who dreams of escaping north. As bodies begin to pile up, the three find themselves pawns in a game far bigger and more corrupt than they could have imagined, and when water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand, and the only truth in the desert is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink. Kirkus Reviews:
The frightening details of how the world might suffer from catastrophic drought are vividly imagined. The way the novel's environmental nightmare affects society, as individuals and larger entities—both official and criminal—vie for a limited and essential resource, feels solid, plausible, and disturbingly believable. The dust storms, Texan refugees, skyrocketing murder rate, and momentary hysteria of a public ravenous for quick hits of sensational news seem like logical extensions of our current reality. An absorbing . . . thriller full of violent action.
 I disagree that this was absorbing or, as other professional reviewers put it, appealing to a wide audience with a compelling story. This story was much like a car accident or a train wreak that you stop to look at out of morbid curiosity. I am not usually the time of person who gawps and gapes at such tragic scenes, looking for blood and bodies like some of my journalist brethren, because the grotesque and horrific don't interest me, I am repelled by them. I am sure there is a mostly male audience for this kind of book (and yes, I am sure there are some women who would enjoy this blood-soaked book), but I can't in good conscience give it anything higher than a C-. The prose was crude, and the story awful, so I can only recommend it to fans of horror science fiction. 

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman is the second novel of his I've read, the first being the wonderful A Man Called Ove, that rare book which everyone in my book group enjoyed. Britt-Marie is somewhat the same, yet different than Ove, in that she's a strange, OCD inflicted curmudgeon, but she's not trying to kill herself, like Ove, and her spouse isn't dead, just separated from her and they're getting divorced due to his affair with a younger woman. This lands Britt-Marie at the Unemployment Office, where her long-suffering case worker finally capitulates to Britt-Marie's consistent harassment and gets her a job in a small dying town called Borg, cleaning the community center (Yes, as a Star Trek fan, I did laugh that the name of the town is the same moniker for a race of beings who live and work as a robotic collective and try to assimilate all species into their cubes). Here's the blurb:
The New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry “returns with this heartwarming story about a woman rediscovering herself after a personal crisis…fans of Backman will find another winner in these pages” (Publishers Weekly).
Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. A disorganized cutlery drawer ranks high on her list of unforgivable sins. She is not one to judge others—no matter how ill-mannered, unkempt, or morally suspect they might be. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention.
But hidden inside the socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and a warmer heart that anyone around her realizes.
When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg—of which the kindest thing one can say is that it has a road going through it—she finds work as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center. The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. Most alarming of all, she’s given the impossible task of leading the supremely untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?
Funny and moving, sweet and inspiring, Britt-Marie Was Here celebrates the importance of community and connection in a world that can feel isolating.
Though Britt-Marie's way of living seemed rather bizarre to me, (instead of exterminating a rat she comes across, she feeds it a Snickers candy bar every day on a plate with a napkin), she was able to win me over by doing her best to help the town's children, who have formed their own soccer team, but appear to have been forgotten and neglected by their parents. Most of the adults in town seem to have given up, and Britt-Marie, though she's got some serious mental issues, isn't the type to give up on anyone or anything. She perseveres through every disaster thrown at her, mostly by obsessive cleaning with baking soda and an oddly named cleaning spray called Faxin. It's how she shows she cares for others. There are some funny/sad moments that are heartwarming, but the ending seemed a bit contrived (where the townspeople were able to get enough money to buy her enough gas to get to Paris is never fully explained) and the rivalry between her husband and the town sheriff (over a 63 year old woman? Really?) comes off as a cliche. Still, I found this book charming, and a page-turner full of sturdy prose. I'd give it an A, and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoyed A Man Calle Ove or anyone who likes characters with significant quirks.

In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen is a stand alone novel about people living in a small English town during WWII. It reeks of Downton Abbey, which is a good thing, if you're a fan of that Masterpiece, as I am. I've read most of Bowen's Molly Murphy mysteries, and also one of "her royal spyness" novels, the latter of which weren't to my taste, as I found the protagonist too flip and frivolous. But there's nothing flip or frivolous about Farleigh Place, the home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters. Most of the book revolves around Pamela, or Pamma, as she is called, who works at Bletchley Park cracking German codes.  Here's the blurb:
World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.
As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?
Inspired by the events and people of World War II, writer Rhys Bowen crafts a sweeping and riveting saga of class, family, love, and betrayal. Publisher's Weekly: Set in England during the early years of WWII, this well-crafted, thoroughly entertaining thriller from Agatha Award–winner Bowen (Crowned and Dangerous and nine other Royal Spyness mysteries) follows the lives of three childhood friends: RAF flying ace Jeremy Prescott, a city financier’s son; Lady Pamela Sutton, the Earl of Westerham’s third daughter, who works for a mysterious government department; and Ben Cresswell, a vicar’s son, who, due to an accident, is deemed unfit for military duty and is recruited into a British intelligence unit. Glimpses of their initially carefree youth contrast with how the war gradually shapes their characters. The gripping action shifts among Farleigh Place (the Sutton family’s stately home in Kent), London, and various hush-hush locations. Soon it’s a game of spy versus spy, and with every twist and turn, the reader is unsure whom to trust.
I agree with the reviewer who called the novel riveting, because once begun, I couldn't put it down. It really was very "Downton Abbey during WWII," and though I knew who the German spy was before he was revealed, I wasn't aware of who his accomplice was, and I was biting my nails to the quick during the whole last quarter of the book. Bowen's prose is as smooth as silk, and the plot is a roller coaster ride of red herrings and twists and turns. I was surprised that Bowen left us with an open end in terms of romance, but if this means that she's got another book about Farleigh Place in the works, I am more than happy to see that door left unlocked. So if you don't mind a "happy for now" ending instead of a "happily ever after" last chapter, I'd recommend this book to you, and I'd also give it an A. It's just the thing for anglophiles and those interested in the English aristocracy during WWII. I also recommend reading it with a nice cuppa tea and some biscuits.

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