Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review - Kate Morton's The Lake House

The Lake House by Kate Morton
Published by: Atria Books
Publication Date: October 20th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 512 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Midsummer has always been celebrated at Loeanneth with a grand gala. The lake house is strewn with lanterns and gondolas float on the river with fireworks dazzling the night sky above the great bonfire. While the Edevane family might enjoy their solitude in Cornwall, they still keep this tradition alive. It is 1933 and this will be the last year the family holds this celebration. Soon the house will be shuttered and it will be a time capsule of that night; the night everything changed. Young Alice Edevane would usually be reveling in these festivities, but this year is different. She no longer has time for Mr. Llewellyn, artist in resident and family friend, or her mother who wants her to help with preparations. She only has time for two things, plotting her first mystery novel and Ben. Ben is the gardener and she fancies herself in love with him. He listens raptly when she tells him about her book and talks to her like an equal. But could her book be what destroyed everything? Because in the wee hours of the night her baby brother Theo was taken from his crib. Seventy years later the case remains unsolved. Alice is now a successful mystery writer but she has never resolved what happened to her baby brother. Enter Sadie Sparrow. She's on leave from the MET with a forced vacation in Cornwall at her grandfather's house. Yet she can't sit still. Sadie stumbles on Loeanneth and the cold case consumes her. Will a fresh set of eyes find the truth of that long ago midsummer night?

There are times in your life when you just need to get away from reality and hide in a book. Sometimes it works and you fall into the story and it consumes you. Other times it backfires on you and all the troubles you were trying to escape are reflected back at you through this medium. Not only is the book too close for comfort, but once you put it down you'll be faced with reality again. Which is the situation I found myself in with Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, leading to me not being one of the worshipful majority. But that's another story for another time. When I finally picked up The Lake House it was precisely the book I needed at just the right time. It had just enough mystery with just the right level of predictability that I wanted to stay there as long as possible. I usually devour a book in a matter of days, but here I spent a week, taking my time and having a well deserved respite from reality. I languished at Loeanneth. The book became so much a part of me that I dreamt of Cornwall. I remember quite vividly being in the half-dream state where I wasn't quite fully awake but I had already started to leave my dream behind and hearing the garbage trucks making their morning rounds. The beeps were confusing and incongruous to me. There was still a part of me that knew they were garbage trucks, but my thoughts were consumed with the fact they didn't belong. The technology didn't exist yet and they would never spoil the idyll that was the lake house, because that is where I was. I haven't had this kind of dream disassociation since years ago when I thought some crop dusters were Messerschmidt's, again another story for another time.

Kate Morton's books aren't for everyone. In fact they only occasionally work for me. They spend loving detail on atmosphere and if you are more interested in narrative, well you can feel like you are languishing in a story with no forward momentum. The mysteries Morton concocts are very pedestrian. Her own creation, Alice Edevane, would weep for their simplicity. In fact the only thing that didn't ring true to me in The Lake House is that Alice Edevane is this grand dame of mystery writers the likes of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell yet she was never able to solve this mystery in her own life. Yes, you could say it's because she didn't want to know the truth, but that seems cliched. But the truth you need to remember in Morton's book is the mystery is always secondary. Yes, she did a better job this time of spacing out the clues so just when you thought nothing would progress, bam, new evidence showed up on the scene. That doesn't mean I didn't figure it out hundreds of pages earlier, but I liked the pacing. I also liked the characters, I felt like they were more fleshed out in this tale. Morton likes to have the old lady with these wonderful stories and secrets that must be passed on or solved by younger generations. It's her thing, it's her trope. But here Alice was so alive. She was the spark that kept things together. She's a spunky old lady who plays her cards close to her chest, and I just loved that. Instead of a dead aunt, a mother on her deathbed, or an old lady in a nursing home, the elderly lady this time around was active not passive and it made a huge difference.

While having the disappearance of the one Edevane son as the fulcrum this book is really about women. Particularly the bond between mothers and daughters and all the shapes and forms these bonds come in. I liked that we had mothers who knew the best thing for their child was to let them go, while also having mothers so selfish they pushed their daughter away for the sake of their own appearance. It really cast a light on the fact that there's not just one single and simple way that mothers and daughters interact. People are so different and to assume that their relationships are all the same is folly. What is also interesting is to see how the mother daughter relationship is formed by experience and also by society's conventions and how those conventions have changed over time. The relationship between Alice's mother and grandmother, women of the previous century, was more staid and reserved, because of the time and also a tragedy Alice's grandmother endured. Going forward Alice's mother wants to have a better relationship with her own daughters but realizes that her husband stands in the way of her being the "fun" parent and therefore sadly accepts her fate. Then we look to Sadie and how her own mother threw her out because Sadie got pregnant and opted to give the baby up for adoption. Just a few women, and yet their relationships are so complex and we are given insight into each one, we get to understand if not empathize with how they lived and loved.

But if I'm honest what really intrigued me with The Lake House was the real life parallels. Theo's disappearance has parallels to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which the book doesn't shy away from pointing out. There's something about these unsolved crimes that echo down the generations and draw us in and therefore make for great inclusions in fiction. As for my Lindbergh baby obsession, it's not as bad as my Jack the Ripper obsession, though both make me wish I could time travel just to solve unsolved crime. The thing is Lindbergh went to the same university as me and I can actually see the house where he lived from my office window. As for the kidnapping, I saw a riveting one person play on the convicted kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann that has always stuck with me. Though it wasn't just the Lindbergh allusions that I loved. Mr. Llewellyn and his children's book based on Alice's mother had so much Lewis Carroll in it I could sqwee for joy. Plus Morton played with our preconceptions based on this real life connection. She threw suspicion on Mr. Llewellyn but also called into question his relationship with the family, much as Carroll's was with the Liddells. Oh, and to hark back to those great dames of detection, there's more than a little Anne Perry in Alice Edevane. Of course Anne Perry's childhood crime of murdering her best friend's mother prior to becoming a bestselling crime writer was immortalized in the wonderful film Heavenly Creatures. This crime occurred in New Zealand, a stone throws from Morton's Australia. The idea that Alice might somehow be guilty and therefore an unreliable narrator, I can't tell you how much I loved this. Also the Mitford parallels, with Deborah, Alice, and Clemmie Edevane mirroring Diana, Nancy, and Jessica Mitford respectively was just the cherry on top of the sundae.

The only real problem I had with the entire book was Sadie Sparrow. While you might think it's a hatred of her pigheadedness and her just not really listening to people, it has nothing to do with that, I could overlook that as character flaws. My problem is her name: Sadie Sparrow. I'm sure when everyone first saw the Doctor Who episode "Blink" written by Steven Moffat they all thought that Sally Sparrow was the coolest name ever and were wishing that they had thought of it first. I know I did and I'm a reviewer not a writer! In fact my handle on my knitting site actually is Sally Sparrow, I am unashamed of my geekiness and I fully admit it. It's such a unique and distinctive name that once you hear it you can't ever forget it. Now here we have Sadie Sparrow. She's like a weak imitation, a bad knock off, a wannabe Sally but alwaysbe Sadie. Why would you EVER choose this as your characters name? Why would an editor ever let you do it? Yes the name might seem perfectly acceptable to you, the author, but it's not. This name wasn't your invention. To make matters worse Sally and her friend Kathy joke about being investigators, Sparrow and Nightingale! A bit ITV, but I'd still watch it. And here's "Sadie" being all investigative and then a PI! I'm sorry. This is just unacceptable. You could argue it's coincidence, that Kate Morton has never even seen Doctor Who. Guess what? I don't care. Yes her book has lots of real life connections and allusions, but she makes them her own. If it was a original thought or Sally just became Sadie, it's too close and MUST be changed. This isn't Moffat, it's Morton. And the last thing any writer wants to be is Moffat.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

Arcadia by Iain Pears
Published by: Knopf
Publication Date: February 9th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 528 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From the author of the international best seller An Instance of the Fingerpost, Arcadia is an astonishing work of imagination.

Three interlocking worlds. Four people looking for answers. But who controls the future—or the past?

In 1960s Oxford, Professor Henry Lytten is attempting to write a fantasy novel that forgoes the magic of his predecessors, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. He finds an unlikely confidante in his quick-witted, inquisitive young neighbor Rosie. One day, while chasing Lytten’s cat, Rosie encounters a doorway in his cellar. She steps through and finds herself in an idyllic, pastoral land where Storytellers are revered above all others. There she meets a young man who is about to embark on a quest of his own—and may be the one chance Rosie has of returning home. These breathtaking adventures ultimately intertwine with the story of an eccentric psychomathematician whose breakthrough discovery will affect all of these different lives and worlds.

Dazzlingly inventive and deeply satisfying, Arcadia tests the boundaries of storytelling and asks: If the past can change the future, then might the future also indelibly alter the past?"

This sounds like an especially awesome episode of Inspector Morse or Lewis or Endeavour! 

The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith
Published by: Anchor
Publication Date: February 9th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Excitement abounds when the revolving door of life brings fresh faces and hilarious new developments to the residents of 44 Scotland Street.

Things are looking up for seven-year-old Bertie Pollock. The arrival of his spirited grandmother and the absence of his meddlesome mother—who is currently running a book club in a Bedouin harem (don’t ask)—bring unforeseen blessings: no psychotherapy, no Italian lessons, and no yoga classes. Meanwhile, surprises await Scotland Street’s grown-ups. Matthew makes a discovery that could be a major windfall for his family, but also presents a worrisome dilemma. Pat learns a secret about her father’s fiancée that may shake up her family, unless she can convince the perpetually narcissistic Bruce to help her out. And the Duke of Johannesburg finds himself in sudden need of an explanation—and an escape route—when accosted by a determined guest at a soirée. From the cunning schemes of the Association of Scottish Nudists to the myriad expressive possibilities of the word “aye,” Alexander McCall Smith guides us through the risks and rewards of friendship, love, and family with his usual inimitable wit and irresistible charm."

New 44 Scotland Street! Woo hoo!

Nelly Dean by Alison Case
Published by: Pegasus
Publication Date: February 9th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A gripping and heartbreaking novel that re-imagines life at Wuthering Heights through the eyes of the Earnshaws’ loyal servant, Nelly Dean.

Young Nelly Dean has been Hindley’s closest companion for as long as she can remember, living freely at the great house, Wuthering Heights. But when the benevolence of the master brings a wild child into the house, Nelly learns she must follow in her mother’s footsteps, be called "servant" and give herself over completely to the demands of the Earnshaw family.

But Nelly is not the only one who finds her life disrupted by this strange newcomer. As death, illness, and passion sweep through the house, Nelly suffers heartache and betrayals at the hands of those she cherishes most, tempting her to leave it all behind. But when a new heir is born, a reign of violence begins that will test even Nelly’s formidable spirit as she finds out what it is to know true sacrifice.

Nelly Dean is a wonderment of storytelling and an inspired accompaniment to Emily Bronte’s adored work. It is the story of a woman who is fated to bear the pain of a family she is unable to leave, and unable to save."

What better way to spend a bleak February day then seeing Wuthering Heights in a new perspective?

The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horder by Shannon and Dean Hale
Published by: Candlewick
Publication Date: February 9th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 96 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"It’s a case of monstrous cuteness as the Princess in Black encounters her biggest challenge yet: a field overrun by adorable bunnies.

Princess Magnolia and her unicorn, Frimplepants, are on their way to have brunch with Princess Sneezewort, an occasion Frimplepants enjoys more than anything in the world. But just when he can smell the freshly baked bread and the heaping platters of sugar-dusted doughnuts, Princess Magnolia’s glitter-stone ring rings. The monster alarm! After a quick change in the secret cave, Princess Magnolia and Frimplepants are transformed into the Princess in Black and her faithful pony, Blacky. But when they get to the goat pasture, all they can see is a field full of darling little bunnies nibbling on grass, twitching their velvet noses, and wiggling their fluffy tails. Where are the monsters? Are these bunnies as innocent as they appear?"

Bunnies, bunnies, it must be bunnies!

Fridays with the Wizards by Jessica Day George
Published by: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Publication Date: February 9th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 240 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Princess Celie and her companions have made it home safely from the Glorious Arkower, and everything is back to normal now that the Eye of the Castle is where it belongs. With more magical griffins to care for, Celie, Lilah, and Rolf have their hands full. But when the dangerous ancient wizard Arkwright escapes the dungeon and goes missing within the Castle, no one can rest until he is found. Only Celie knows where he is most likely hiding--deep within the secret passageways behind the walls of their beloved Castle. With danger lurking behind every tapestry and under every trap door, Celie must find the wizard and save her family.

Readers will be swept away by another charming magical adventure featuring Princess Celie and her very special Castle."

Rounding off the week with another Utah YA writer...

Friday, February 5, 2016

Book Review - Adele Whitby's Secrets of the Manor: Kate's Story

Secrets of the Manor: Kate's Story, 1914 by Adele Whitby
Published by: Simon Spotlight
Publication Date: June 24th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 148 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Kate can not wait for her twelfth birthday. Not only will she finally be receiving the Katherine necklace, the beloved family heirloom passed on to every Katerine in the family when she turns twelve, but her beloved cousin Beth is also coming all the way from England to Vandermeer Manor in Rhode Island. The cousins have never met because of the ocean that divides them, but they are devoted to their correspondence and know they will be kindred spirits and the best of friends. What's more, Beth just received the Elizabeth necklace for her twelfth birthday and for the first time since their great-grandmother's day the two halves of the necklace will be reunited. Though all the party planning in the world can't take into account the assassination of Archdukes! The news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand shortly after Beth's arrival in America leads to her parents ordering her home. War is on the horizon and Beth needs to be with her family. It is hard to choose between your heart and your duty, but Beth reluctantly agrees to return home, but not until after she and Kate have a few adventures of their own and reunite the two halves of the locket. 

To say I didn't like the first book in this series would be a gross understatement. Beth's Story so rubbed me the wrong way that besides the spewing of vitriol in my review I might have sold that book faster than any other in recent history. Yet I couldn't part with Kate's Story until I had read it. Yes, I know this might sound absurd, but I had bought this book and gosh darn it it wasn't leaving my shelves until it was read. Thankfully it was a mercifully short book that I knocked out in an hour or two. In fact I might have spent more time writing this review than I did reading the book if you needed a comparison. But in the end I obviously read it and, while I still didn't like Adele Whitby's writing style or story, I didn't hate it with the fury of ten thousand suns like I did the first volume. I think the primary reason for this is that having this book set in America and not in England it is in a society that had more fluid rules and protocol. Beth's Story being in England in 1914 meant that there were society's strictures that were to be obeyed and Adele Whitby flaunted them, if she ever knew them in the first place. While America did also have rules, being such a new country, one which took great joy in shaking off the strictures of England, there was room to play. There weren't any glaring incidents that made me hope that my eyeballs could light the book on fire with the power of my thoughts. In other words, I was able to make it to the end without any real rage forming.

Yet just because there weren't glaring errors, doesn't mean that this book didn't have aspects that annoyed me. They just annoyed me less and therefore I gave the book some leeway. My main gripe is with Kate and her "responsibilities." She is just about to turn twelve and she is already expected, or should I say honored, to attend meetings of The Bridgeport Beautification Society. So a twelve-year-old is to help an organization that is run by new wives and her mother's generation and older? A twelve-year-old! I can understand instituting civic-mindedness in a young girl, but to put her on an equal footing? Seriously!?! I just don't get this whole twelve-year-olds get all the responsibility that is going on in this series. They get expensive jewel encrusted necklaces and all the responsibility that comes with it all seemingly because this is how it happened to their great-grandmothers so obviously we must continue with this tradition. And hang on a minute, in 1848 would twelve-year-olds really be active in the life of their family in the aristocracy? They'd still be in the nursery... this whole thing is just a house of cards waiting for me to blow on it! I get that today in society twelve is kind of the age where things shift, you're on the brink of being a teenager and getting responsibilities, but in previous generations that wasn't the case. This book seems to be trying to shoehorn today's morays on yesterdays! In fact the word teenager didn't even exist until the time of Kate and Beth's daughters! Grumble.

Seems to me more and more that Adele Whitby needs some lessons in history before she's allowed to "teach" it in her books. What annoyed me in this book is that her inclusion of history has now turned into "teaching moments." In the first book the history was cheesy but was just part of the story, we weren't hit over the head with it. Here, here it's a different story. Learn about suffragettes! LEARN I SAY! I'm a person who likes to learn in two ways. The first is when I set out to learn. I take a class, I read the books, I study, I learn in that environment. The second way is passive learning. What you pick up here and there in books. Like Eddie Izzard says, you're flipping through the TV channels, stop for a moment on a show go, hey, I didn't know that, that's interesting, you move on. In other words I will never ever condone knowledge being forced on me. If there's one way to piss me off if I'm meeting you and you have something you want to tell me, if you call it a "teaching moment," know, that in that moment I am doing everything in my power not to punch you in the face. Looking ahead in the series it looks like these "teaching moments" are starting to take over with the potato famine, the great depression, ugh. Stop it now.

But what I think gets under my skin most is just how earnest this series is attempting to be. All about family loyalty and love. The only thing I can think of as being true is the secret that they harbor... because show me an insanely happy family and I'll show you their dirty dark secret. And again, the secret is that the original Katherine and Elizabeth switched places in case you forgot or were hit on the head, because you don't need all six books to figure it out, you need one, if that. No family in the world could be suffused with this much goodness. It's so saccharine and sweet that it makes my teeth ache. Oh, and Kate and Beth finally meeting? Like any cousins have this immediate sisterly bond? Ugh. I'm all for a happy read, but when they meet, oh, and when they join their lockets together? It was like some bizarre Edwardian power rangers. "With the power of our lockets combined we can transmute everyone into happy lovey-dovey zombies!" Because really, what other power could that locket give? Oh, maybe it gives off a brainwashing vibe? Yeah, that could be why everyone doesn't ring true. OK, I'm going with that, they are all under some sort of mind control. That's the only answer.

While these perfect bonds, cousinly and otherwise, are what this book is ostensibly about it really comes down to a lack of dimension. And seriously, I believe in true love, I want a happy ending, most of the time, but it's all in the way it's told that makes the difference. Yes I believe in love at first sight. Did I buy the chauffeur and Beth's maid's instant love? No. Because it was comic book level. It was caricature. Just because you are writing for younger readers doesn't mean that you don't put in the time to tell a good story. Like after two days they'd upset their whole lives to be together? They both knew where the other worked, they could have taken their time instead of doing something reckless. Plus really show the connection, not just hint at them blushing and leave it at that. And that's what it all comes down to. The shallowness of the book makes it predictable and dull. Yes I'm not the age it was written for, but a good story is for all readers, and this isn't a good story. There's a part of me that wants to read the rest of the series just to be vindicated that I saw all the twists and turns like the time I bothered to watch The Village, but really why submit myself to that? I'm not a masochist. Well, OK, sometimes I am with my reading, but I think I can finally walk away from this series and call it a day. If you'd take my advice, don't ever walk towards this series.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review - Trisha Ashley's A Winter's Tale

A Winter's Tale by Trish Ashley
Published by: Avon
Publication Date: November 17th, 2008
Format: Paperback, 405 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Sophy Winter spent her formative years living in her family's stately home, Winter's End, until she was one day whisked away by her hippie mother without a backward glance. Her life then took on an itinerant feel, never really settling down until she got married and got pregnant. The pregnancy scared the husband off and she made do as a single mother working in great estates like the one she grew up in. Her daughter is now all grown up and teaching in Japan and Sophy is at loose ends, having lost her job and her home in a matter of minutes. That's when the miracle happens; she inherits Winter's End. A cousin she never knew about, Jack, has come to tell her of her good fortune and to offer to buy the house from her. He explains that Winter's End isn't in the best of shape, her grandfather funneled all the money into the restoration of the gardens at the expense of the house. Therefore Jack's solution would solve Sophy's money problems and sooth the wounds inflicted on Jack when he found out he only inherited the title. It's win win. But when Sophy arrives home she realizes she could never sell Winter's End, even to family. She doesn't care how desperately she needs to find money for it's upkeep or how upset Jack will be or how cantankerous the gardener Seth is, she only knows that she will find a way to do what is in the best interest of the house. Her home.

Several people over the years have recommended A Winter's Tale to me knowing of my love of grand English estates and chick lit. So the book had made it's way onto my shelves and languished, until this past December when it sounded like just the right read for a cold Christmas day. The thing is, there's not much Christmas in it... yes, Christmas is there, but it's almost an afterthought, the book actually getting it's title from Shakespeare not from being all yule. Yet for my love of country estates this was perfect. It's not so much a fairy tale as other books I've read go, though it would be a dream come true to inherit such a house, it's more a realistic fairy tale if that makes sense. We are given insight into the nuts and bolts of the day to day struggles to keep a grand house running. Basically the more down and dirty reality of owning Downton Abbey. Keeping the staff happy, keeping the house repaired, finding money to keep the restoration of the garden underway. Finding a happy balance between wants and needs. Prioritizing that which must get done. And cleaning. Seriously, the amount of cleaning a place like this takes, well, if you hadn't thought about it before in your fantasies about becoming on heiress, you will now. And not that that's a bad thing. In fact reading all about this minutiae, it gives you a stronger connection to this way of life than if you were to the manor born.

The minutiae is where this book lives. In the purchase of special beeswax for banisters and brushes for paintings. There's a languid feel that makes this book the perfect bedtime read. You slip into bed and you sink into the story that lulls you into a safe world of hard work with wonderful rewards. The pacing for most of the book continues on in this vein. Hundreds of pages of day by day tasks to have it abruptly changed. As Christmas nears the pace is picked up, soon we aren't spending languid days seeing the house brought back to life slowly, we're zooming along until it's later the next year at the happily ever after is thrust upon us. This is where the book kind of lost me. It's weird when the pace is abandoned in favor of some new narrative style. The book lost some of it's charm by changing tempo. I didn't feel as connected to these characters I had spent so much time forging a bond with. I felt like the bond was severed and I was left on the outside looking in as everything came together, but without me. Yes, if Trisha Ashley had continued the narrative style throughout A Winter's Tale might have been a doorstop of a book, but as I've said before and I'll say again, I don't care how long or how short a book is, it should be exactly as long as it takes to tell the story and do it justice. This book needs a little of the justice that came Jack's way.

Speaking of Jack. He is the major thorn in my side in this book. He is sleazy and scheming yet everyone thinks he's God's gift and why not let Jack have the house? He couldn't possibly do something underhanded, insert ominous music here. I give credit to Sophy that she stays the course, but there is too much of her waffling. Too many times she questions herself and doesn't stand up to Jack. So while Jack is the villain of the piece, with his dirty deals and his desperate ways, the main problem I have is that he illuminates the flaws of our heroine. Sophy is so strong of will and motivated by hard work I find it hard to believe that she'd buy any line coming out of Jack's mouth, no matter how seductive and silken. I mean, how can she be so naive? She just lost her job and her home because of a scheming relative of her employer and here she is in a similar situation and yet she's all, oh Jack, you're so pretty, you could never love frumpy me with my frizzy hair. Gaw. Just no. I know it's a staple of chick lit to have the to go to be true bad boy and the brooding good boy with the befuddled heroine in the middle not knowing what to do, but seriously? Sophy is so much stronger than the average Bridget Jones that I am baffled that she didn't call shenanigans sooner.

What sets this book apart from the run of the mill chick lit or Downtonesque book is the olde thyme stuff, IE Shakespeare! I admit about a few pages in I should have gotten that the title was from Shakespeare, given all the references in the text, but sometimes I'm not quite on the ball and as I mentioned before I seriously thought this was a Christmas book. This Shakespearean element also elevates the book to a kind of historical fiction chick lit fusion that is fun for fans of both genres. But the downside is that I think you'd have to be somewhat to fairly knowledgeable about Shakespeare and his life to get the personal references peppered throughout the story. The extracts from Alys Blezzard's journal are purposefully very cryptic and written for those with knowledge of the Bard. Therefore this book can be read on two levels, the plain old chick lit HEA, and the fusion level. Personally, if I was only reading it on the chick lit level without my knowledge of Shakespeare, I'm not sure I would have been as drawn into the book. It's the mystery woven throughout about Alys being dark of complexion, that connects with Shakespeare's sonnets to "The Dark Lady." The Shakespeare angle adds so much that without it I just don't know if it would work.

Yet that "Dark Lady" Alys is still a questionable addition to the book in my mind. Not her connection with Shakespeare, nothing like that. It's her "other" qualities. IE, the magic of it all. By bringing in a paranormal aspect I think it might be stretching the narrative's credulity to it's breaking point. The Shakespeare secret, the history of the family and the house, that's all well and good, but the magic? I could see it if there were just ghosts and Alys having been condemned as a witch, because well, any smart woman was a witch back then, but that magic... That tangible real magic that gives Sophy insight and visions. It's just a step too far. It's almost like this book so wanted to be everything that it threw in everything and the kitchen sink and sometimes enough is enough. Sometimes being descended from Shakespeare is a big enough twist. Sometimes getting your HEA is enough. And sometimes just saving your family estate is enough. There doesn't need to be "real" magic too. Because isn't everything else magical enough? Apparently not according to Trisha Ashley. But then again, some people just don't know where to draw the line, like Sophy with her "relationship" with Jack.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Downton Denial Denouement

And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain... Yes the time has come. The ultimate denial is about to set in. Because after that last gathering around the Christmas Tree while Thomas aids Carson (and no, I wouldn't count that as a spoiler she says with shifty eyes), the doors to the Abbey will close forever. Unless they need the money and do a movie, but still, it looks like the end and they're making all that money off the costumes touring, which is fabulous by the way so you should go. Back to previous train of thought, the end was so good that it should be the end. So let's say it is the end, big ominous capital letters and all, The End. Therefore you need something to fill that gaping void more than ever. I am here to fill that void, and no, stop with the naughty thoughts. Stop it. I know how you feel and I have tried to find solace in books to take away the pangs. Therefore, for the last time, unless I'm desperate come next February, which let's face it, I probably will be, I give you the denouement of Downton Denial! A month full of books I've read and some of which you should read if just to capture that elusive magic that Downton Abbey brought into our lives every Sunday night for the last six years. Here's to Downton!

Tuesday Tomorrow

Stars Above by Marissa Meyer
Published by: Feiwel and Friends
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The enchantment continues...

The universe of the Lunar Chronicles holds stories - and secrets - that are wondrous, vicious, and romantic. How did Cinder first arrive in New Beijing? How did the brooding soldier Wolf transform from young man to killer? When did Princess Winter and the palace guard Jacin realize their destinies? With nine stories - five of which have never before been published - and an exclusive never-before-seen excerpt from Marissa Meyer's upcoming novel, Heartless, about the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, Stars Above is essential for fans of the bestselling and beloved Lunar Chronicles."

Even if I wasn't addicted to this world and needed to read all that I can get my hands on, all the new stories! Oh, and rumors of a royal wedding in one! Oh stars!

Jane and the Waterloo Map by Stephanie Barron
Published by: Plume
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Jane Austen turns sleuth in this delightful Regency-era mystery

November, 1815. The Battle of Waterloo has come and gone, leaving the British economy in shreds; Henry Austen, high-flying banker, is about to declare bankruptcy—dragging several of his brothers down with him. The crisis destroys Henry’s health, and Jane flies to his London bedside, believing him to be dying. While she’s there, the chaplain to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent invites Jane to tour Carlton House, the Prince’s fabulous London home. The chaplain is a fan of Jane’s books, and during the tour he suggests she dedicate her next novel—Emma—to HRH, whom she despises.

However, before she can speak to HRH, Jane stumbles upon a body—sprawled on the carpet in the Regent’s library. The dying man, Colonel MacFarland, was a cavalry hero and a friend of Wellington’s. He utters a single failing phrase: “Waterloo map” . . . and Jane is on the hunt for a treasure of incalculable value and a killer of considerable cunning."

Um, yes please! Anything Austen if you don't mind.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Book Review 2015 #1 - Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: September 30th, 2004
Format: Paperback, 1012 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Mr. Norrell is the only practical magician in England. He has devoted his life to finding, owning, and studying every book on magic and every book of magic he could beg, borrow, or steal. In Yorkshire, the heart of Northern England and The Raven King's domain, Mr. Norrell finds ways to eliminate all competition from theoretical magicians and plots how he will bring magic back to England. One would think eliminating magicians would be contrary to his goal, but Mr. Norrell disagrees. His destruction of the Learned Society of York Magicians provides an opportunity to get the press he needs through a John Segundus to herald his arrival in London. Norrell dreams that just removing himself from the confines of his home, Hurtfew Abbey, will have the government clamoring at this door begging for help with everything from the disgraceful street magicians who are nothing but swindlers to helping with the war with France.

But Norrell's views against fairy magic and his fusty nature make his entrance into society tricky. He eventually gets the ear of cabinet minister Sir Walter Pole, who quickly dismisses him. Yet a tragedy is about to change everything. Sir Walter's fiance dies and Norrell is encouraged to bring her back from the dead. Despite deploring fairy emissaries and assistants, he summons one who is indeed able to bring the future Lady Pole back from the dead, but not without exacting a terrible toll to all those Norrell knows. Norrell's new found popularity brings new opportunities, and despite all previous thinking that should another magician arise he'd hate them on sight, he instead decides to take the young Jonathan Strange as his pupil. The two quarrel and fight, but no one can deny that they have brought magic back to England, but at what cost to England, and more worryingly, at what cost to themselves?

You know that feeling you get when you find the perfect book? It's like finding a friend you'd never knew you'd missed or coming home, it was always a part of you even before you found it, a soul mate. That's what it was like when I first cracked open the pages of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Billed as Harry Potter for adults it's so much more. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has the sensibilities of Austen with the scope of Dickens with a readability for modern audiences. Yes, it is divisive, you either love it, as seen by it's numerous awards, our you hate it. But as for myself, I don't know if there's a way I can too strongly state my love for it, nor perhaps write a coherent and focused review, but that remains to be seen.

I have a plethora of copies from my first edition to later paperback ones, but despite how many editions I have the truth was, until recently, I'd only read the book the one time. If I loved the book so much to invest in multiple copies why read it only once? Because I was scared that this magical memory of it wouldn't sustain my scrutiny over ten years later. As you can no doubt see, I was wrong. The book was even better the second time around. I found more magic and nuance due to my extensive reading in the intervening years, and if anything the only quibble I have is that I really don't know how the BBC is going to make this into a successful miniseries, but only time will tell there.

The staging of the book in it's three volumes is wonderful in how each section builds off the previous and becomes more complicated and creates a deeper understanding of the world Clarke has built. We begin with Mr. Norrell, a rather typical and bookish grump who introduces us to his ideas on magic and we get a feeling for the world. Then we progress to Jonathan Strange, where the world is expanded and we start to question what we have already learned. We end, appropriately, with The Raven King, John Uskglass, who teaches us that all we think we knew is wrong. This mimics how we, as humans, learn. We study hard, we learn the lessons in our books, we start to question and we realize, like Jon Snow, we know nothing; and that in ignorance we are starting on the path of true knowledge.

More then anything Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a history book. Yes, it is a drastically altered history, but it's a believable one. What makes it such a rich tapestry is that Clarke is willing to take the time to tell us all the mythology and academic ephemera of past magician's and their work in order to round out her England. While I have read my fair share of history books, they aren't necessarily the most scintillating reads. Yet an aspect of history books that is a useful tool is the footnote. Never underestimate the joy of a good footnote. Yes the use of footnotes in fiction might be considered a trope nowadays, but I don't think it's a coincidence that my favorite authors all use footnotes to expand on their work and to do humorous asides. Terry Pratchett, Lisa Lutz, and Susanna Clarke all use footnotes to the betterment of their story, expanding the world at a slight angle to the rest of their narrative.

But everything I've mentioned so far just comes down to basic worldbuilding and writing techniques. Someone can be deft with these and still come up short when it comes to telling a good story. Where Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell really shines is in the dichotomy of England and the "safe" magic the magicians have practiced and the Otherworld, the realms of fairy, and the wild and dangerous magic that can rewrite the world. Fairy Tales, in their original non Happily Ever After origins, were dark and scary. Morality stories to keep women and children in line and to warn of dangers in the deep dark woods. There's a reason why witches were burned and magic was feared, something that Disney has helped us to forget.

Like Disney's whitewashing, The Raven King and other magicians have shown to people that perhaps fairies are good and there to help us. Clarke is here to show us once again that their nature is wild and mad, quite literally. The Gentleman with the thistle-down hair, or a more sadistic version of David Bowie's Goblin King as I like to think, embodies this evil madness. In deed, desire, and any and every way imaginable, this evil fairy shows that Norrell was right to fear them and that the true enemy of magic and man is vindictive fairies that are crazy beyond measure. They are the creatures to fear, they are the nightmare in the dark.

In fact, Fairy Tales are the original horror stories and Clarke does an amazing job in tapping into this. I have read horror stories and been left wanting by those considered the scariest and strangest. But in simple, straightforward yet elegant prose, Clarke is able to conjure up more horror then I experienced reading all of Danielewski's House of Leaves, whose house has no architectural style yet a banister, please. The King's Road is a thousand times scarier then the aforementioned house, with bridges spanning an eternity and rivers and moors of black desolation, all accessible through a mere reflection. That is the true horror. That this evil "other" world isn't fixed but can find it's way into your very house. You can be sitting in a chair and feel doors opening around you and long corridors stretching and a breeze where no breeze should be and the tingle of magic, and all while you felt safe in your snug little house. You are safe no more. Gives you a little chill just to think of it doesn't it?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book Review 2015 #2 - Mary Robinette Kowal's Of Noble Family

Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published by: Tor Books
Publication Date: April 28th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 579 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

After their ordeals in Italy, Jane and Vincent are enjoying their time in Vienna. They are catching up with Vincent's old mentor, Herr Scholes, as well as enjoying becoming acquainted with Jane's new nephew, Tom, who is the pride and joy of the combined Vincent, Ellsworth and O'Brien families. But the Vincents don't know where they will go next after Vienna. The death of Princess Charlotte has plunged England into a yearlong state of mourning, therefore glamourists are without commissions. A shocking letter from Vincent's older brother Richard might give their immediate future purpose. Vincent's hateful father has finally died on his West Indian plantation Greycroft after fleeing England and charges of treason. But even more shocking is the death of Lord Verbury's son and heir, Garland. Garland was killed in a carriage accident that also crippled Richard, the new Lord Verbury. Richard calls on Vincent's compassion, though he knows their family doesn't deserve the consideration, to go to Antigua and settle the estate for him.

Vincent has only started to heal from the abuse handed out by his father because of Jane's love. To travel to Antigua might undo all the good she has done for him. But Jane has a sneaking suspicion that until Vincent sees his father in his grave he will never be truly at rest. They decide to travel to Antigua and see what fate has in store for them. Fate is a cruel mistress. Richard wouldn't have sent Vincent to the West Indies if he had known the truth of things. Lies, betrayal, hatred, manipulation, in other words, a typical Hamilton family get-together is in store for the happy couple, who foresee another addition to their family in the near future. Though to get back to England and the happy arrival of their child they might just have to walk through hell without knowing who their allies are.

This series, which started out as an homage to Austen with a magical bent has, over the past five years, evolved into a series that, despite it's fantastical alternate history, captures the complexity of the world better then Austen ever did. Each volume helped to create this ever expanding world view that touched on everything from warfare to basic human rights, with a pirate or two thrown in. While Jane Austen's novels are classics that defy comparison, there is something about the cloistered world that they reside in that gives you a very focused and therefore skewed view of the world. While yes, her drawing room dramas can be seen as a microcosm of the world at large, anything beyond the pale, from duels to fallen women to what exactly Sir Thomas Bertram was up to in Antigua are glossed over with just a line because it wouldn't be proper to dwell on them. Modern interpretations of Austen have tried to flesh out these omissions, what with Harold Pinter's portrayal of Sir Thomas Bertram as a reprehensible plantation owner in the unwatchable 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park, but they leave something to be desired.

Mary has built a far better basis for the discussion of race and slavery then Austen ever intended in her books. As someone I was close to said about the aforementioned adaptation of Mansfield Park, it helped if you didn't view it as Austen. That is the key. To get to these new conversations, to approach the world at large you have to think beyond Austen, evolve into something more. Mary has made that something more in this series. With Of Noble Family she is continuing the race discussion that was begun with the coldmongers in Without a Summer and single-handedly blasting away the whitewashing of this time period. All too often we see the world as we want to see it and are scared of tackling the big issues. Sad to say, I don't think I'd ever pick up a book that dealt slavery in Antigua and the running of plantations in the early 1800s. It's not in my wheelhouse. But by taking characters I love and putting them as the voice of reason in this sadly all too common situation my knowledge expanded and my empathetic nature was touched.

With Jane and Vincent's arrival in Antigua the whole series feels as if it has moved drastically forward in time, though I don't believe more then three years has elapsed chronologically for them. Charlotte Bronte, despite always dissing Jane Austen, is the natural evolution of female writing in the 19th century. We go from a constricted world with true yet not as emotional love to a world with Mr. Rochester. Think about it, he brings the passion, the fire (quite literally), and the loose morals. He is a man of the world while Jane Eyre is more out of Austen. Of Noble Family is rightly permeated with this more modern Jane Eyre vibe, even more so if you've read Wide Sargasso Sea. The one month journey across the sea has literally opened up a whole new world for Jane and Vincent and because of this we can have all these new conversations. We can talk about race and servant versus slave. I've loved this series from the beginning, but this volume goes out with a bang at almost double the length but without feeling burdened by it's more divisive topics.

What appealed to me as an artist is this idea of different ways for glamour to be looked at and taught. Jane has a very strict view of the proper way to do her art. She was taught in the greatest European traditions. But I love that through Nkiruka she learns that black Africans, in particular Igbo, have an entirely different way of creating glamour. I adore Nkiruka and that she's always admonishing Jane because Jane is constrained by what a certain glamour is called. Jane's knowledge of glamour comes from borrowing heavily on words and phrases derived from textile and weaving. But this is a hindrance. As Nkiruka points out, by naming something after something else you are limiting what you are able to do. This literally just blew my mind. There was an opening up in me and I was reminded of that quote "what would attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?" Working within constraints is often the bane of artists. Jane is giving herself impositions without even knowing she's doing it. With Nkiruka we have someone who has had a harsh life and doesn't have as much to lose and therefore she has been able to accomplish more in her art, to do things that those traditionally trained would think inconceivable.

Combining the craft of Nkiruka and exploration of race within Of Noble Family, there's a line that Mrs. Pridemore says that hits directly on something that you still see in the art world; and that is artists of color are viewed more as "folk art" then as just artists. While yes, there is a folk art tradition, how would you feel if all the art you made was labelled as such? Black artists are continually fighting an uphill battle to be taken seriously and not classified by their cultural history. We might like to blind ourselves to the world around us, to cocoon ourselves in an Austen drawing room, but seriously, look around yourself. This book might have been written about a time when slavery was still the norm, but it's not like race relations are doing that well at the moment. We need to have books like this that are able to connect and resonant with us on an emotional level with our love of the characters but are also able to open up our minds and start conversations. Start the healing.

And healing is needed for many things; for pain and emotional turmoil can happen to anyone, slave or not. Just look to Vincent. With his family and his past coming to the fore he is dealing with reopening his wounds so that they can finally heal properly. If you think about it the fight for freedom, the fight against slavery, the fight against family, all of it is about finding your place in the world. Finding a place to call home where you are safe and cherished and loved. Vincent fights great demons in this book, it is at times hard to read of his suffering, as hard as it is to read of the whippings, but it's all about moving forward. Vincent has always felt awkward around Jane's family because she grew up in a world of love. With the birth of their child he now has a place in that family, as well as a larger family found through strife and turmoil. The world would be a better place if everyone could find this solace somewhere. For me it is in the pages of this book.

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