Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Parnassus Books on Sunday Morning, Hidden Figures Wins Award, What NOT to Read, Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti and A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn

I watch CBS Sunday Morning every single week, it's one of my Sunday rituals. Sunday Morning is a gentle, lifestyle-story laden show that gives you the good news often ignored by regular television news shows that air in the morning and evenings. When I started watching Sunday Morning, Charles Kuralt was the affable host, but once he passed, Charles Osgood did a wonderful job as his replacement. Now that Osgood has retired, Jane Pauley has taken the reins, and with the newly refurbished set, she is doing a fabulous job as host of my favorite news magazine, as it used to be called. I was thrilled to see this piece appear this past Sunday, and though I am not a fan of Patchett's books, I love that she's taken over the bookstore and is making a success of it.

Patchett, Parnassus Featured on CBS Sunday Morning
"Ann Patchett doesn't just write books, like her latest bestseller,
Commonwealth; she sells them," CBS Sunday Morning
observed on yesterday's program, which featured Patchett giving 60
Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl a tour of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., the store that Patchett co-owns. "As you might expect from a novelist, there's a good
story behind Parnassus Books, and it's one that's bigger than just one
brick-and-mortar retailer," CBS Sunday Morning noted.

The story had its roots at Winter Institute 2017, when Patchett
conducted an interview of Stahl on the
occasion of the publication of her book Becoming Grandma. At one point,
Patchett pitched Stahl on a 60 Minutes story about independent
bookstores and "about this industry and how surprisingly successful it

Hidden Figures is my library book group's book for October, so I was thrilled to read that it had garnered yet another award. 

Hidden Figures Wins GABP
Margot Lee Shetterly has won the $13,000 2017 Grateful American Book
The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women
Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (HarperCollins), which was
the basis for the Oscar-nominated film of the same name. 
David Bruce Smith, co-founder of the prize, commented about the book's
subject: "They were called 'computers' where they worked and were
largely dismissed until the authorities at the space agency's Langley
Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia realized that their help
was indispensable if the U.S. was to prevail over the Soviet Union in
the conquest of space. Despite the rampant racism of the times, four
mathematicians, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and
Christine Darden, showed they had the right stuff. Using primitive tools
by today's standards--pencils and adding machines--they calculated the
trajectories that would successfully launch America's first astronauts
into outer space."

What NOT to read: I don't normally write about books that I can't finish, due to the book being truly awful. I'm making an exception for two books that I just tried to read in the past few days, because one was so bad it was unbelievable, and the other was a major disappointment. 
First up is The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neil. This was quite possibly the worst book I've ever read in the past 53 years, and that is saying something, considering I've read thousands of books. LHH had the trifecta of things I do not want to read about, namely pedophilia and pedophiles, child abuse by evil people masquerading as religious figures (ie nuns, priests), and pornography/overt bizarre sexuality, with the added horror of drug addicts and mob bosses running crime syndicates and brothels. This book takes place in the 1920s-30s, and while I know that the USA was a mess during that period, I was unaware that things were just as bad in Canada, where this book takes place. The story revolves around two orphans, abandoned at birth at a Catholic orphanage in Montreal. Rose and Pierrot are both innocents who develop amazing talents, Pierrot for the piano and music, and Rose for dance and singing.Unfortunately, one of the nuns begins sexually abusing Pierrot when he's around 7 years old, and due to his relationship with Rose (they perform together) she jealously beats Rose up, or has her beaten and punished by locking her in a cupboard without food or water or light for weeks to keep her from Pierrot, whom she believes will love and marry her so she can continue to sodomize him. One time, Rose is nearly beaten to death before the Mother Superior, who considers all the orphans expendable, but likes the fact that Rose and Pierrot bring in extra cash to the orphanage, stops the pedophile nun by explaining that Rose is worth more alive than dead, but still doesn't reprimand the nun for almost killing her. 
Eventually, Rose and P leave the orphanage, P is adopted as a teenager by a wealthy old man confined to a wheelchair who loves to hear him play the piano. The old guy tries to leave some of his money to P, only to have his horrible greedy adult children burn the codicil to the will, leaving him with nothing. He tries to find Rose, but the evil nun tells him that she's married with children and has forgotten about him. Rose hasn't forgotten about him, but after being the governess of a mob boss's children, she has sex with the mob boss who sets her up as his mistress and wants to possess her completely, which in his mind means that he must abuse and degrade and humiliate her until her spirit is crushed and she is his slave. P finds himself in an affair with a prostitute who has a heroin addiction, so she gets P into heroin, and that sets him on a life of crime, robbing rich people's homes of expensive paintings and items that he doesn't know the value of, but will sell for any amount of money so that he can continue being a junkie. Rose leaves the mob boss, but of course his ego can't have that, so he sets out to find and kill her. She ends up being a model for pornographic books and postcards, and eventually does pornographic movies. Rose and P come within spitting distance of each other several times, but they always manage to miss one another by a few moments. At this point, 204 pages into the book, I couldn't take this horrific and dreary and depressing tale anymore. Rose and Pierrot start as dreaming children, but eventually they seem just plain stupid, making every wrong choice in a disgusting underworld populated by vile people. I would give this book an F, and I can't imagine anyone enjoying such a disgusting, horrific story, written in painfully 'pretty' prose.

Cruel Crown by Victoria Aveyard is a compilation of two novellas that take place in the Red Queen universe. I've read all the Red Queen books, and while I enjoyed them, these two novellas were a big disappointment. The first, Queen Song, is only 54 pages long, and tells the story of how Queen Coriane was driven mad by Elara, a psychic vampire of sorts from another royal house who covets Coriane's crown and power. So this is why Queen Elara is such a horrible person, because she was possessed by a psychopath. After that depressing little appetizer, there follows Steel Scars, which is the story of some battles and troop movements and so forth with the Red Guard, run by the mean Colonel and the much beloved and trusted Captain Farley. Interspersed throughout are missives between the two, in which orders given by the Colonel are ignored by Captain Farley, as she runs her own war the way she sees fit. Unfortunately, the story gets bogged down in political/military details, and becomes terribly boring after the first 30 pages. The author didn't make me care about the characters as she had in the full length novels, and there really isn't anyone here to root for, as Farley is bitter and paranoid, and not really enough of a character to hold the readers interest for more than a few pages. So I'd give this small book a D, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but the most die-hard fans of the Red Queen books, or someone who needs a cure for insomnia.

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti is a short volume that reads like a journalist's long form article from a newspaper, that has been padded out with photos and cartoons to make it into a saleable book.   Here's the blurb from Publisher's Weekly: In this thoroughly researched biography, Bartoletti (They Called Themselves the KKK) seeks to illuminate the backstory of “Typhoid Mary,” who allegedly infected nearly 50 individuals with the disease. Mary Mallon cooked for wealthy families in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City until she became the first documented “healthy carrier” of typhoid in the U.S. and was imprisoned in hospitals for most of her remaining life. Little is known about Mallon outside of one six-page letter she wrote, official documents, newspaper reports, journal articles, and other firsthand accounts of her. Though Bartoletti forms an objective portrait of Mallon’s case, she often has to rely on conjecture (“Mary probably didn’t understand that she could be a healthy carrier”), filling in gaps using deductive reasoning based on facts from that era. In the end, this study of Mallon’s ill-fated life is as much an examination of the period in which she lived, including the public’s ignorance about the spread and treatment of disease, the extreme measures health officials took to advance science, and how yellow journalism’s sensationalized stories could ruin someone’s reputation. 
I was surprised at how readable this book was, and how fascinating Mary Mallon's real story has become, when examined in the light of history and how women were treated differently in a highly sexist society. Mary, under the most horrible circumstances (she was imprisoned and forced into quarantine, though they couldn't prove that she was actually spreading typhoid all the time) still managed to maintain her dignity, to have friends and a life and some agency over her career.  She wrote letters of protest and she always denied that she had given so many people typhoid. When health officials found men who were healthy carriers of typhoid, ie those who had the bacteria in their system but didn't display any symptoms themselves, they were not treated to the same stringent measures and quarantines as Mary, and were, in fact, let go so that they could get on with their lives. Meanwhile, Mary, once she was released, was hounded by health officials and the press, who sought to demonize her in order to sell papers, or, in the case of health officials, make a name for themselves. Due to the journalistic style of the prose, I enjoyed reading this book, and the plot, or story arc, was smooth and went off without a hitch. I'd give this book a B+, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in plagues of the 20th century.

A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn is the second Veronica Speedwell mystery that I've read. The first, A Curious Beginning, held my interest and introduced Veronica, who is the bastard child of royalty, and Stoker, her aristocratic friend and possible love interest. This time the duo, who work mounting butterflies and taxidermy specimens of animals for a small museum, find themselves being asked to save a man from hanging by one of Queen Victoria's married daughters, Princess Louise (who calls herself Lady Sundridge). The man about to hang has an alibi, he was sleeping with Louise at the time of the murder, but he can't use it as the scandal would wreak havoc on the monarchy. So Veronica and Stoker go haring off into danger to unmask the killer, whom I knew from the start (SPOILER) would be female. Here's the blurb:
London, 1887. At the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Ramsforth, accused of the brutal murder of his mistress, Artemisia, will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if the real killer is not found.
But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural-historian colleague, Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed....Publisher's Weekly: Raybourn’s effervescent sequel to 2015’s A Curious Beginning combines witty suspense with a playful look at the secrets proper Victorians hid. When Veronica, an adventurous lepidopterist, meets a woman calling herself Lady Sundridge, she easily deduces her exalted true identity. Lady Sundridge wants Veronica to reinvestigate the murder of an artist known as Artemisia. Though she wants her late friend’s death avenged, the woman insists that Artemisia’s lover, Miles Ramsforth, soon to be hanged for the crime, is not guilty. Veronica and her associate, aristocratic natural historian Revelstoke “Stoker” Templeton-Vane, wend their way through opium dens, artists’ studios, the headquarters of Scotland Yard, and the Elysian Grotto, an underground cave lavishly fitted out for sexual pleasure on the Ramsforth estate. The sleuths’ lives are threatened as their investigation uncovers peccadilloes at the highest levels of society. Revelations about Stoker’s painful past add nuance to the pair’s spirited and sexually charged banter in this playful historical mystery.
So it turns out (SPOILER) that Stoker is also a bastard, and if anyone can understand Veronica's desire to show up the snobbish relatives who shun her because of her birth, it's Stoker. Yet he uses his aristocracy to help unwind the layers of lies and half-truths surrounding the murder of Artemisia, instead of trying to prove something to them. The frisson of sexual tension between Veronica and Stoker is lovely, and the banter between the two delightful. I liked Raybourn's sparkling prose and her zingy plot in this novel, and I felt that the relationship between the protagonist blossomed in a natural fashion. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys Steampunk, historical mysteries and spirited British heroines.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Handmaid's Tale Wins Emmy, A Twist of the Knife by Becky Masterman, Fireborn by Keri Arthur, Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi, and Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

It is no secret that I've been a fan of Margaret Atwood's chilling tale of a dystopian future run by old white Christian men, The Handmaid's Tale, since it debuted. This most recent adaptation is supposedly wonderful, but since I don't have access to Hulu, I've not been able to see it, yet. Still, I am thrilled that the show cleaned up at the Emmy Awards this past week. 

Primetime Emmy Winner, The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood with the cast of The Handmaid's Tale. photo: Inwood/AP
Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, based on Margaret Atwood's novel, and HBO's
Big Little Lies, adapted from the novel by Liane Moriarty, were big
winners at last night's Primetime Emmy Awards
The book-to-TV adaptations dominated the festivities, garnering wins in
several major categories, including:

The Handmaid's Tale: outstanding drama series, Elisabeth Moss (lead
actress, drama series), Ann Dowd (supporting actress, drama series),
Alexis Bledel (guest actress, drama series), Reed Morano (director,
drama series), and Bruce Miller (writing, drama series for the pilot
episode "Offred"). In her acceptance speech, Moss expressed her
gratitude to Atwood: "Thank you for what you did in 1985 and thank you
for what you continue to do." A short time later, the author
received a standing ovation as she took the stage
outstanding drama series Emmy was announced.

A Twist of the Knife by Becky Masterman is a taut mystery/thriller that I picked up because the protagonist is a 60 year old woman who, despite being middle aged and retired, still manages to unravel this mystery and find the perpetrators of a heinous crime. Few books (really we're rare in any medium, from books to TV to movies) have any women over 50 in them playing anything but a side role as someone's mother or grandmother. It's even rarer to find a fat/overweight female in books, TV or movies, and when they do, it's always about losing weight, because a woman can't possibly be happy with herself unless she looks like a barbie doll or a starving model (insert eye rolling here). Fortunately, this book's protagonist, Brigid, has it handled, and doesn't let anyone elses opinions about her keep her from doing what she does best--solving mysteries/cold cases. Brigid is part of a big Irish Catholic family, of course, and intertwined with the mystery is her need to be by her father's side as he dies from pneumonia and emphysema. Here's the blurb:
Ex-FBI agent Brigid Quinn, now happily settled in Tucson, doesn’t visit her family in Florida much. But her former partner on the force, Laura Coleman—a woman whose life she has saved and who has saved her life in turn—is living there now. So when Laura calls about a case that is not going well, Brigid doesn’t hesitate to get on a plane.
On leave from the Bureau, Laura has been volunteering for a legal group trying to prove the innocence of a man who is on death row for killing his family. Laura is firmly convinced that he didn’t do it, while Brigid isn’t so sure—but the date for his execution is coming up so quickly that they’ll have to act fast to find any evidence that may absolve him before it’s too late…Publisher's Weekly: Edgar-finalist Masterman presents a compassionate, clear-eyed depiction of the painful foibles of human nature in her chilling, twist-filled third thriller featuring retired FBI agent Brigid Quinn. Brigid flies from Phoenix to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to be with her mother after her 83-year-old father is hospitalized. While there, Brigid is contacted by former colleague Laura Coleman, an Innocence Project investigator, who asks Brigid to help her exonerate death row inmate Marcus Creighton. Fifteen years earlier, Creighton was convicted of killing his wife; his three children have been missing since the night of the murder. The execution date is set, and time is running out. The problem is that Brigid believes that Creighton is probably guilty. Still, Brigid wants to help Laura, and the distraction of an investigation is just the thing to take her mind off her complicated family relationships. A compelling, complex lead, Brigid has no problem skirting the straight and narrow in her quest for justice.
Though this book defines the 'dark and gritty' mystery genre that is supposedly more realistic than the cozy mysteries I usually enjoy reading, I found it to be a real page-turner, with prose that was zesty and highly readable. The plot was more straightforward than the title would have you think, though there was a bit of twist at the end, which I won't spoil for you. While I'd give it a B+, I don't think I will read anymore of these books, because this one was compelling but way too depressing for my tastes. 

I had somewhat the same problem, only in the other direction (too much erotic fantasy) with Fireborn by Keri Arthur. Emberly isn't your standard Phoenix; she can become a bird, a column of fire or be wrapped in a human-looking exterior. But don't let that fool you, she's a "creature of spirit" who can't be harmed by the same things that can harm vampires or werewolves. She also can't live without a Phoenix mate, one who will renew her fires and have sex with her, but who cannot love her according to some ancient curse of her people. What this means is that Emberly, who dies and is reborn every 100 years, can have love if she hooks up with someone outside of her relationship with Rory, her mate, but that person has to be okay with her having sex with (and renewing her fires with) Rory whenever the mood strikes either of them. She also seems to be polyamorous, in that she claims to have been in love with a cop turned special agent (who rejected her and her kind when he found out about Rory) but during this book she's always flirting with nearly every male she meets, and she ends up having sex and dates with a fire Fae, who is, of course, gorgeous and slightly dangerous. This basically gives Arthur a way for the protagonist to have explicit sex in every chapter. While I don't mind some romance and a bit of sex in my science fiction or fantasy novels, it has to be woven into the plot so that things don't slow to a crawl every time the main characters get hot for one another. Sadly, the plot all but stops in Fireborn every time Emberly has "sizzling" sex with someone. Here's the blurb:
Emberly Pearson—a phoenix capable of taking on human form and cursed with the ability to foresee death....
Emberly has spent a good number of her many lives trying to save humans. So when her prophetic dreams reveal the death of Sam, a man she once loved, she does everything in her power to prevent it from happening. But in saving his life, she gets more than she bargained for
Sam is working undercover for the Paranormal Investigations Team, and those who are trying to murder him are actually humans infected by a plaguelike virus, the Crimson Death—a by-product of a failed government experiment intended to identify the enzymes that make vampires immortal. Now all those infected must be eliminated.
But when Emberly’s boss is murdered and his irreplaceable research stolen, she needs to find the guilty party before she goes down in flames....Publisher's Weekly:Arthur's riveting Souls of Fire series launch introduces Emberly Pearson, a phoenix reluctantly investigating her boss's murder and assigned to find his missing research for curing the red plague, a disease that creates the vampire-like Red Cloaks. Emberly, who dies and is reborn every 100 years, lives in Melbourne, Australia, with Rory, a phoenix she doesn't love but is physiologically required to have sex with. Her love in this particular life cycle is Sam, but he thinks she's unfaithful, misunderstanding her existential need for pyrotechnic physical intimacy with Rory. Sam works undercover for the Paranormal Investigations Team and fears that Emberly's investigation will interfere with his efforts to end the plague outbreak. Their conflicts heighten after Emberly joins forces with Jackson, a fire fae PI, and becomes a target for the sindicati, the vampire mafia.

The prose here was melodramatic and simplistic, while the plot had more stops and starts than a city bus. The characters were stereotypes and cliches,which made them silly instead of endearing. Emberly still carries a torch (ha, ha) for Sam, though he acts like a real douchebag throughout the book, and not only abuses her physically, but drugs her enough that she's left unable to defend herself. For someone hundreds of years old, Emberly seems fairly stupid and makes a number of childish mistakes that nearly cost her her life. I'm not really a fan of the "perfect petite blond" female protagonist who is irresistible to all men at all times, so I don't think I will be reading any more of this series. I'd give it a generous B, and only recommend it to someone looking for some soft porn with their fantasy story.

Agent to The Stars by John Scalzi is his nod to the pulp science fiction of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. As with all of Scalzi's science fiction novels, there's plenty of humor and insightful satirizing of Hollywood and America, along with aliens who, as outsiders, often see things about humanity more clearly than humans do. Here's the blurb via Publisher's Weekly: In this slick, lightweight SF yarn from Scalzi (Old Man's War), Thomas Stein, a hot young Hollywood agent, has just negotiated a multimillion-dollar deal for his friend, starlet Michelle Beck, when his boss, Carl Lupo, foists a space alien called Joshua on him. Joshua and his people, the Yherajk, are intelligent, gelatinous, shape-shifting blobs that communicate telepathically and by sharing odors. They've been monitoring Earth's TV broadcasts and realize that before they can make first contact, they'll have to deal with their image problem. Tom takes on the job of making the friendly, odiferous creatures palatable to humanity, while keeping Michelle and the rest of his other acting clients happy. Several entertaining trips to the aliens' spaceship enliven the predictable plot.
The space-faring Yherajk have come to Earth to meet us and to begin humanity's first interstellar friendship. There's just one problem: They're hideously ugly and they smell like rotting fish.
So getting humanity's trust is a challenge. The Yherajk need someone who can help them close the deal.
Enter Thomas Stein, who knows something about closing deals. He's one of Hollywood's hottest young agents. But although Stein may have just concluded the biggest deal of his career, it's quite another thing to negotiate for an entire alien race. To earn his percentage this time, he's going to need all the smarts, skills, and wits he can muster.
Scalzi states in the foreword to this novel that he really didn't think it would ever be published, but that for some reason it has been published and republished several times, and it is often a fan favorite, which he finds mystifying. I know why, because it's laugh out loud funny, with moments of tenderness and insight into human nature, and it is also a ripping yarn told in Scalzi's pitch-perfect prose. You'd be hard pressed to find anything wrong with this page-turning romp. I didn't find the plot predictable at all, and I loved the HEA, which isn't a given in Scalzi's other works. A well deserved A, with a recommendation to anyone who loves stories of old Hollywood, classic science fiction and hilarious aliens. 

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence sounded like my kind of book. It had girls trained as assassins in an abbey, strong female teachers and character growth, and a fantasy/SF universe that was supposedly diverse and well written. I was expecting something similar to the Hunger Games, or Divergent, or the Mortal Instruments series or even Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth (also the Red Crown series). What I got, instead, was a horrific tale that was unrelentingly grim and depressing about a world in which children are sold like cattle (only they're not seen as valuable as feed animals) to either pit fighting rings, brothels or abbeys full of nuns who teach those with 'talents' or 'gifts' to fight and kill for survival. I can't believe I wasted money on buying a hardback copy at Powells City of Books this summer. Here's the blurb: 
At the Convent of Sweet Mercy, young girls are raised to be killers. In some few children the old bloods show, gifting rare talents that can be honed to deadly or mystic effect. But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls.
A bloodstained child of nine falsely accused of murder, guilty of worse, Nona is stolen from the shadow of the noose. It takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist, but under Abbess Glass’s care there is much more to learn than the arts of death. Among her class Nona finds a new family—and new enemies. Despite the security and isolation of the convent, Nona’s secret and violent past finds her out, drawing with it the tangled politics of a crumbling empire. Her arrival sparks old feuds to life, igniting vicious struggles within the church and even drawing the eye of the emperor himself.
Beneath a dying sun, Nona Grey must master her inner demons, then loose them on those who stand in her way. Library Journal:
Nine-year-old Nona Grey, accused of murder, is headed for the gallows when she is purchased by the abbess of Sweet Mercy and taken into a convent that raises young women to become trained killers. For ten years, girls are taught the ways of sword and shadow, and for many, the old blood of the ancestors eventually rises to the surface in the form of magical gifts that enhance their fighting skills. When Nona arrives, she finds a new future, a new family, and some new enemies. But her brief previous history in the world attracts the attention of powerful families, dangerous foes, and even the emperor himself. As external politics and internal conflicts within the church seep into the convent's isolated world, Nona will be forced to confront and embrace the darkness inside her, and no one will ever be the same. VERDICT In this stunning, action-filled series launch, Lawrence ("Broken Empire" trilogy) establishes a fantastic world in which religion and politics are dark and sharp as swords, with magic and might held in the hands of wonderful and dangerous women. Impatient George R.R. Martin's fans will find this a pleasing alternative until the next installment in his "A Song of Ice and Fire" saga arrives.
Nona is a very bitter and determined student because her best friend, who was just a little girl, was hanged just before Nona was slated to be killed. Think about that. This is a world where children are hanged for no reason, other than their existence is inconvenient. Add to that disgusting scenario the redundant plot, where we are told Nona's background story over and over, but each time we're told that this is the true version, readers are surprised all over again to learn that the version they just heard is a lie, and the new version the real story, until the next time Nona tells her tale. This becomes tedious quickly, and it slows an already overburdened plot that stumbles like a drunkard to a deeply unsatisfying conclusion. SPOILER ALERT. Lawrence has his heroic female lead, after killing nearly everyone else who stands in her path, decline to kill the classmate who sold out the entire class, for money, not caring whether or not they all died by her treachery. Somehow, we're supposed to think this is in character, or okay? Really? Also, the pedophilic overtones that slither through the prose in this novel are nauseating. This is horror fantasy at its worst, and I can't give it any higher grade than a C. I don't know that GRRM fans would enjoy this gore-fest, full of sloppy prose that needs to be trimmed by at least 67 pages. I can't really recommend it, but if killing and killer children are your jam, there you go.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, September 15, 2017

RIP Jerry Pournelle and Peter Hall, To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway, Alias Grace on Netflix, The Dispatcher, Miniatures and Unlocked by John Scalzi, Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth, and the Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

I remember reading books by Pournelle and Niven back in the 80s, and though they were more "hard" science fiction than I generally read by that time, I really enjoyed them. RIP JP.

Obituary Note: Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle, a prolific author, editor and columnist on a variety of topics, including science fiction,
military matters, space, technology and politics, died on Friday. He was
84. He also had positions in the aerospace industry and was a political

His first novel, Red Heroin, an action/adventure mystery, was published
in 1968. Among his best-known books were Footfall and Lucifer's Hammer,
both written with Larry Niven, two of many collaborations with Niven,
one of several writers with whom he collaborated. He received five Hugo
and three Nebula nominations and, in 1973, was the first winner of the
John W. Campbell Award for best new writer (when the finalists included
George R.R. Martin!).

Pournelle contributed for years to BYTE magazine and continued to write
maybe the first that looked at computers from the user's point of view,
until his death. He also was science columnist for the National Catholic
Press, a columnist for Analog SF Magazine and science editor/columnist
for Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine. He was a past president of the
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and last year won the
National Space Society's Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award for lifetime
achievement in "promoting the goal of a free, spacefaring civilization."

Cat Rambo, president of the SFWA, commented: "I frequently interacted
with Jerry, sometimes agreeing, other times not so much, but always
knowing our arguments were motivated by a mutual love of SFWA and the
genre. As someone seeing behind the scenes of the Emergency Medical Fund
(Jerry was one of the stewards), I came to realize how much generosity
lurked in him, each time brought out by an applicant's situation. I will
definitely miss Jerry and think of him with fondness."

I am so excited about this magnificent classic being mounted as a stage production again, and the premier is the day after my 58th birthday. Oh, if only I could visit Broadway!
On Stage: To Kill a Mockingbird
A new stage production of Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a
will arrive on Broadway December 13, 2018. Playbill reported that Aaron
Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) has written the new adaptation.
Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher (Golden Boy, The King and I, South
Pacific) will direct the Broadway premiere, which is produced by Scott

Margaret Atwood is a favorite author of mine, and I am delighted that lately, her books are being made into Netflix series (like the recent series of the Handmaid's Tale) and now Alias Grace, which tells a completely different story. I can only hope that Cat's Eye and Blind Assassin are next on the list!
Netflix has released a trailer for its upcoming six-part limited series
Alias Grace
based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. Variety reported that the trailer
introduces Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), "who explains she has been an
inmate for 15 years. She, along with stable hand James McDermott (Kerr
Logan), has been accused of the infamous 1843 double murder of her
employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper Nancy
Montgomery (Anna Paquin)."

The miniseries, which also stars Zachary Levi and Edward Holcroft, was
written and produced by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron. It
streams on Netflix November 3.

Another great light of literature and theater is extinguished. This has been a terrible year for losing authors and theater legends.

Obituary Note: Peter Hall 
Sir Peter Hall
who staged the English-language premiere of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for
Godot and the world premiere of Harold Pinter's Homecoming, and "was the
single most influential figure in modern British theatre," died
September 11, the Guardian reported. He was 86. "As a director of plays,
especially Shakespeare, Pinter and Beckett, he was very fine.But it
was through his creation of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early
1960s and his stewardship of the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988 that
he affirmed his passionate faith in subsidized institutions. If we now
take their existence for granted, it is largely because of the
pioneering battles waged by Hall and his visionary enthusiasm," the
Guardian wrote.
Oberon Press went on to publish numerous works by Hall, including The Peter
Hall Diaries; Making an Exhibition of Myself; and Sir Peter's
Shakespeare's Advice to the Players. "Fifteen years ago when this titan
of the theatre put his trust in us to publish his work I was of course
overjoyed and privileged," Hogan said. "Peter was meticulous about his
books, ever patient and never wrong.... As we know, among his many great
qualities was his devotion to the works of Shakespeare. He knew each
play by heart line by line. But he was equally devoted to new
writing.... Most of all I miss his generous advice on theatre and
publishing which I treasure to this day."
The Dispatcher, Miniatures and Unlocked by John Scalzi are all short works that if combined, would make up enough word count to be a regular novel of 300 pages or so. I realized, after reading a post on Scalzi's hilarious and wonderful blog, Whatever, that while I'd read many of his major works, I'd neglected to read much of his short fiction because it was only available at first in either e-book format, which I dislike, or in magazines as an article/short story. What this boils down to is that I missed some really good stuff. So, with judicial use of the local library, I snagged these three books and read them in rapid succession. They were each amazing and wonderful in their own way, but since I have two other books to review, I will try to summarize. 
The Dispatcher takes place in a world where suddenly (and for no reason anyone can discern) people who have been murdered (not suicides or those who die of natural causes) or killed by accident, such as a bad surgery or the wrong medication, disappear after they die, only to reappear almost immediately in a place they feel safe, unharmed and naked. It's like a cosmic reset button. There develops an industry of professional men who are assigned to hospital operating rooms or ERs who are equipped to shoot and kill patients who "die" due to doctor error or for whatever reason on the table, so they can be resurrected at home. Of course, the rich immediately find a way to misuse these "dispatchers" and therein lies the tale, with Scalzi's protagonist, Tony Valdez, unwinding a mystery of what happened to his fellow agent, after said agent goes missing when a dispatch goes wrong and the patient dies. The prose is mostly dialog and the pace of the plot blistering, as Valdez works with a sassy police officer to get to the truth. There are some excellent questions and quick meditations on the way humanity views death and how we process death and dying as a society here, but for the most part, reading the Dispatcher was like watching a great movie on Netflix. You get in, you enjoy, you get out. A definite A, recommended to everyone.
Miniatures was like a box of chocolates without the inevitable coconut one that everyone despises. Each story was it's own hilarious nugget of fun, and some were so short that you feel like you're reading Scalzi's Twitter feed for a day. Though every chapter/story was delicious, I did have some favorites, mainly Denise Jones, Superbooker, and The Other Large Thing, while The State of Super Villainy took a close third. Honestly, if you're not howling with laughter (or at least chortling) by the time you finish these stories, there is something wrong with you. I nearly wet myself halfway through "Denise Jones..." and I had a coughing fit during the State of Super Villainy. Scalzi has the best sense of humor of any science fiction/fantasy writer alive, and his recent success in securing a multi-million dollar contract for future work is just one example of what fans of his work have known for years, that he's taken up the torch of the late, great Ray Bradbury when it comes to writing brilliant short fiction. Another A, with a recommendation to anyone and everyone.
Unlocked is the prequel or background book to Scalzi's landmark post-epidemic apocalyptic novel, Lock In. Unlocked tells the tale of how Haden's Syndrome, a horrific virus that kills millions before it leaves others with completely paralyzed bodies, but still healthy, active minds, makes its way from a global epidemiologist's convention (and the irony that a bunch of virus doctors spread a plague is lost on no one) to the White House, where it strikes down the first lady who gives the plague it's name. Since this is a fictional "oral history" it is told through the POV of everyone from doctors and scientists to a prison inmate who was one of the first to survive volunteering for experimental treatment. These voices seem so authentic, that it's hard to believe that Haden's Syndrome isn't real, and that there aren't "threeps," or robotic avatars with the Haden's patients conscious mind controlling them, walking around. Still, I would only hope that any president would react to a global epidemic with the same monetary and scientific force that this president does, because he gets the job done in terms of helping scientists to find a way to get those who are locked in back out into society and living their lives, even having children. Well done, Mr Scalzi. Another A, with the same recommendation.

Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth (author of the Divergent series) is the start of a new YA dystopian series that is darker and even more violent than her famed Divergent books. After the betrayal I felt with Divergent, (SPOILER, Roth kills off her female protagonist and leaves the douchebag father of the male protagonist alive), I wanted to believe she'd gotten her head straight and was ready to create a world where heroines don't have to become martyrs to love or to the world to be effective. While her protagonists in Carve aren't as smugly perfect as Tris and Four, they're still too "star crossed" and saddled with the terrible and/or dead parents to really separate them from the legacy of the Divergent Duo. Here's the blurb:
Fans of Star Wars and Divergent will revel in internationally bestselling author Veronica Roth’s stunning new science-fiction fantasy series.
On a planet where violence and vengeance rule, in a galaxy where some are favored by fate, everyone develops a currentgift, a unique power meant to shape the future. While most benefit from their currentgifts, Akos and Cyra do not—their gifts make them vulnerable to others’ control. Can they reclaim their gifts, their fates, and their lives, and reset the balance of power in this world?
Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power—something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows.
Akos is from the peace-loving nation of Thuvhe, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Though protected by his unusual currentgift, once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get his brother out alive—no matter what the cost. When Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. They must decide to help each other to survive—or to destroy one another. Publisher's Weekly: Roth (the Divergent series) returns with a gripping space opera about two individuals who share a planet but come from very different worlds. Cyra belongs to the ruling family of the Shotet, a people wrestling for planetary power against the gentle, prophetic Thuvhesit. Like all people, Cyra has a “currentgift” bestowed by the galactic current that connects all living things, but hers is darker than most: she lives in debilitating pain, eased only when she unleashes it on another—a fearsome spectacle that her cruel, power-hungry brother often forces her to employ. Akos, raised among the Thuvhesit and kidnapped by the Shotet, has a similarly singular currentgift: his touch relieves Cyra of her pain. Forced together, the two become hesitant friends and unlikely allies as the simmering tension between their two nations reaches new heights. Roth’s worldbuilding is commendable; each nation is distinct, interacting with the current in ways that give insight into her characters’ motivations. Amid political machinations and forays into space, Roth thoughtfully addresses substantial issues, such as the power of self-determination in the face of fate.
While the blood, pain and death never seemed to let up, I still wanted to like this book and the characters in this new series. However, I am not a fan of horror, or political machinations, or of martyred female protagonists, as Cyra seems to be, though she's so abused that it seems inevitable that she will sacrifice herself for the one person to show her any kindness or compassion, Akos. Meanwhile, Akos comes off as an idiot who won't let his brother go, even when it becomes obvious to everyone that his brother Eijeh has been brainwashed, in a literal sense, by Cyra's evil brother, ruler of the Shotet people. Eijeh even kills an innocent childhood friend, and, while Cyra has been telling Akos that there is no way back from the mindwiping/memory-swapping currentgift that her brother has used on him, Akos still insists that Cyra keep her evil brother alive and save his brother so that his brother might be healed in some fashion. This puts Akos clearly in the "too stupid to live" category, and I found myself losing even more interest in this depressingly dark and ugly book. Ironically, Veronica Roth looks, in her author photo, like everyone's idea of the perfect wee fairy princess, or manic pixie dream girl out of an 80s rom-com. It begs the question (also out of a 90s romcom) "What is your damage?" Either she has had to endure horrible parents and constant physical pain, or Roth is enamored of the idea of those things, enough to make them the foundation of this book. It bothered me that even Cyra's psychopathic brother is blamed on their evil psychopathic father, who raised them as killers. So, while Roth's prose is good, and her plot strong, I can't really give this book more than a B-, and I would only recommend it to those who like military science fiction with very dark and grim worldbuilding beneath it.

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan is a delightful and charming debut novel. Having been a fan of British literature since I was 12, I was eager to read this novel, which was touted as being in the same realm as books like the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and Me Before You, both of which I adored. Here's the blurb:
A charming, clever, and quietly moving debut novel of of endless possibilities and joyful discoveries that explores the promises we make and break, losing and finding ourselves, the objects that hold magic and meaning for our lives, and the surprising connections that bind us.
Lime green plastic flower-shaped hair bobbles—Found, on the playing field, Derrywood Park, 2nd September.

Bone china cup and saucer—Found, on a bench in Riveria Public Gardens, 31st October.
Anthony Peardew is the keeper of lost things. Forty years ago, he carelessly lost a keepsake from his beloved fiancĂ©e, Therese. That very same day, she died unexpectedly. Brokenhearted, Anthony sought consolation in rescuing lost objects—the things others have dropped, misplaced, or accidently left behind—and writing stories about them. Now, in the twilight of his life, Anthony worries that he has not fully discharged his duty to reconcile all the lost things with their owners. As the end nears, he bequeaths his secret life’s mission to his unsuspecting assistant, Laura, leaving her his house and and all its lost treasures, including an irritable ghost.
Recovering from a bad divorce, Laura, in some ways, is one of Anthony’s lost things. But when the lonely woman moves into his mansion, her life begins to change. She finds a new friend in the neighbor’s quirky daughter, Sunshine, and a welcome distraction in Freddy, the rugged gardener. As the dark cloud engulfing her lifts, Laura, accompanied by her new companions, sets out to realize Anthony’s last wish: reuniting his cherished lost objects with their owners.
Long ago, Eunice found a trinket on the London pavement and kept it through the years. Now, with her own end drawing near, she has lost something precious—a tragic twist of fate that forces her to break a promise she once made.
As the Keeper of Lost Objects, Laura holds the key to Anthony and Eunice’s redemption. But can she unlock the past and make the connections that will lay their spirits to rest?
Full of character, wit, and wisdom, The Keeper of Lost Things is heartwarming tale that will enchant fans of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Garden Spells, Mrs Queen Takes the Train, and The Silver Linings Playbook.
I find it odd that no one mentions, until very late in the book, that Sunshine has Down Syndrome. To any but the most obtuse reader, this will be obvious when we first meet Sunshine, but annoyingly, the author never seems comfortable with coming right out and saying it. That it makes her character no less annoying by avoiding giving her handicap a name is telling. Still, I loved Laura and her ridiculous romance with gardener Freddy. I also adored the story of Boomer and Eunice, whose wit and tenderness was refreshing. Between all this are the stories behind the lost things, some tragic and most heartbreaking, but all fascinating. I was riveted to this story the moment I opened the book and read the first page. Hence, I'd give this page-turning tale an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes Sarah Addison Allen's magical realism or insightful novels like Mrs Queen Takes the Train (which I read and loved, BTW).