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.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: January 26th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife returns with a triumphant new novel about New York’s “Swans” of the 1950s—and the scandalous, headline-making, and enthralling friendship between literary legend Truman Capote and peerless socialite Babe Paley.

Of all the glamorous stars of New York high society, none blazes brighter than Babe Paley. Her flawless face regularly graces the pages of Vogue, and she is celebrated and adored for her ineffable style and exquisite taste, especially among her friends—the alluring socialite Swans Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill. By all appearances, Babe has it all: money, beauty, glamour, jewels, influential friends, a prestigious husband, and gorgeous homes. But beneath this elegantly composed exterior dwells a passionate woman—a woman desperately longing for true love and connection.

Enter Truman Capote. This diminutive golden-haired genius with a larger-than-life personality explodes onto the scene, setting Babe and her circle of Swans aflutter. Through Babe, Truman gains an unlikely entrĂ©e into the enviable lives of Manhattan’s elite, along with unparalleled access to the scandal and gossip of Babe’s powerful circle. Sure of the loyalty of the man she calls “True Heart,” Babe never imagines the destruction Truman will leave in his wake. But once a storyteller, always a storyteller—even when the stories aren’t his to tell.

Truman’s fame is at its peak when such notable celebrities as Frank and Mia Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, and Rose Kennedy converge on his glittering Black and White Ball. But all too soon, he’ll ignite a literary scandal whose repercussions echo through the years. The Swans of Fifth Avenue will seduce and startle readers as it opens the door onto one of America’s most sumptuous eras."

This week is called, all the eras I'd visit if I had a time machine...

The Record Set Right by Lauren Willig
Published by: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication Date: January 26th, 2016
Format: Kindle
To Buy

No description, but this is a short story that is part of the book Fall of Poppies out in March. Also, Lauren Willig, so duh I'm buying it AND the collection!

The Plague of Thieves Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
Published by: Forge Books
Publication Date: January 26th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 256 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"John Quincannon has been hired by the owner of the Golden State brewery to investigate th ''accidental'' death of the head brewmaster, who drowned in a vat of beer. John is certain he can catch his quarry, but his partner, Sabina, is not sure she even wants to catch hers: Sherlock Holmes or, rather, the madman claiming his identity. A Mr. Roland W. Fairchild of Chicago claims the man is his first cousin, Charles P. Fairchild III, who is due to inherit a $3 million estate-- if Sabina can find him and if he can be proved sane. Sabina is quite certain he is mad but quite uncertain what will happen when he is confronted with the truth. Does every mystery need to be solved?"

Time to slip into some Victorian Streampunk.

The Case of the Girl in Grey by Jordan Stratford and Kelly Murphy
Published by: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 26th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 224 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"This history-mystery series continues with another fine display of brains and bravery from the Wollstonecraft Girls—Ada Bryon Lovelace and Mary Shelley. Inspired fun for middle grade readers and fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society and Lemony Snicket!

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency was supposed to be a secret constabulary, but after the success of their first case, all of London knows that Lady Ada and Mary are the girls to go to if you have a problem.

Their new case is a puzzle indeed. It involves a horrible hospital, a missing will, a hasty engagement, and a suspiciously slippery servant.

But Mary’s stumbled onto a mystery of her own. She spotted a ghostly girl in a grey gown dashing through the park. A girl who is the spitting image of their new client.

The two cases must be linked . . . or else there’s a perfectly supernatural explanation."

I picked up the first book in The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series at Target one day, mainly because of my love of Kelly Murphy's illustrations, and mainly because it looked so darn cute. Can not wait for this second volume!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review 2015 #3 - Lauren Willig's The Other Daughter

The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: July 21st, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Rachael Woodley has spent seven long years on the continent away from her beloved mother working as a governess. Rachael wanted to take a typing course and work as a secretary but her mother thought that was too modern. Perhaps if Rachael had been a secretary she would have gotten to her mother's sickbed in time to be there when she died. Rachael is unmoored by her mother's passing. They had a poor if peaceful life after Rachael's father died and they moved to the little village of Netherwell. But now that life is forever shut to her. The landlord wants Rachael gone, yet where is she to go? In her mother's sickroom she finds something perplexing. It's a clipping from a recent newspaper showing her father. But not her father as she remembers him, but her father as he would be now if he had never died. That isn't possible! Her father died, he's not Lord Ardmore, the man escorting his daughter Olivia, but a botanist who died an ocean away. But it looks like him... and she can't let it drop. Going to her only relative, her cousin David, she learns that it is indeed her father in the clipping. He has another life and she is nothing more than a by-blow. David asks his friend, the gossip columnist Simon Montfort, to escort the by now distraught Rachael to her train. Instead Rachael and Simon concoct an elaborate plan wherein Rachael will infiltrate the ranks of the Bright Young Things as a Vera Merton in order to accost her wayward father. But things rarely go as planned and soon the glittering world Rachael has been thrust into is a welcome distraction from the truth of her life which she would sooner forget.

Having spent the better part of the last year re-reading Lauren's oeuvre, I think I'm uniquely qualified to praise her third stand-alone. While I won't say it's my favorite of her books, that would be too hard to choose, I will unreservedly say that I think The Other Daughter is Lauren's most accomplished book to date. While I was one of Lauren's readers championing her use of a modern framing device in her Pink Carnation series, I think that carrying this device into her non-Pink books had made the these new books feel too much like the rest of her writing. While there are many authors who have never broken free of this convention, Kate Morton comes to mind, I feel that this framing had become a crutch for Lauren and was holding her back. By getting ride of this prop she has freed herself to concentrate all her energy on the one story. This made her narrative stronger and gave her the ability to have more depth, insight, and heart. I'm not trying to denigrate her other books, which I love, but sometimes a story is best served by just living in the moment and not thinking about what the future holds. Often a modern narrator limits the ability of the storytelling by being the definitive end point. The story must end in such and such a way because we've seen the future. Sometimes not knowing, sometimes having the happily ever after be a ship sailing off into the sunset is what a story needs, instead of ancestors picking over the past.

The 1920s have always fascinated me, but as for the literature of the time and the people who characterized this bright, young, and lost generation, my wheelhouse was limited to those in the Mitford circle, thus including Evelyn Waugh and his cronies. Having spent "Jazzy July" reading the books that sparked Lauren's imagination I now have this new insight into the 1920s and its trailblazers. What is wonderful about Lauren is she knows her history and knows when to tweak it. But she also knows how to artfully drop in a cameo or two without having it overpower the narrative. Brian Howard, Evelyn Waugh, even Tallulah Bankhead make amusing appearances, but they are limited to fully realized furniture. They add to the experience but never take over the plot. But more than that, they also don't feel gratuitous. Sometimes a historical cameo can feel trite. Here's Tesla just because I wanted Tesla to wander in. Lauren over the years has developed a knack for just how the historical cameo should work in her writing, and I can think of no better example than here. The pinnacle of her achievement is at the famous Impersonation Party of 1927, where people all came as each other. Not only do we get the cameos, but the swirling whirling world that Rachel has been moving in is captured perfectly in this one scene that while historically accurate could also be straight out of Alice in Wonderland. 

Reading so many books of this period makes you realize the flaw in this generation. They burned bright and fast and if someone was left by the wayside, well, they burned out and were forgotten. There was a pain that was masked and glossed over. The majority of these people were too young for the Great War, but they lived ever in it's shadows. Instead of acknowledging this pain, instead of self-analysis, they just partied harder and louder. I can think of no better example then the two startling deaths that happen in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies. Two characters die, rather horrifically, one by his own hand, and never once do the characters mourn. They just party on. This, more than anything, made it hard for me to connect to some of the books. I am not callous. If someone dies, even in fiction, they should make an impact. And not to put too fine a point on it, Evelyn's work was nothing more then writing what he saw, so those deaths did happen, that callousness did exist. And that's what makes The Other Daughter so much more. Comparing Lauren's book to the literature of the day you see the depth and insight, you see that Lauren isn't masking the pain, she is exploring it. Simon suffered horribly during the war and his unburdening himself to Rachel is such a real and true connection in a time of shallow characters that you connect to these characters and this book in a way you never could to other books of that period. Lauren has taken a shallow world and made it lush and dimensional.

Looking to the zeitgeist of the 20s I can think of no better way to sum up this generation then by saying these are people who have never grown up. They haven't and won't take on responsibility and therefore live in a suspended childhood. Waugh chose a quote from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There to begin Vile Bodies. Though Waugh's reason for choosing it had more to do with the logic of the set he found himself it. The nonsensical parties, the backward logic, that is what Waugh saw in this book. But I dearly hope that he was aware of the other implications this quote gives, that of people forever trapped in childhood. Lauren expands on this other aspect of this generation not just by quoting Carroll, but by bringing in other fairy tales and children's stories. "Hansel and Gretel" is the fairy tale that is most alluded to. This story is not only appropriate for the Bright Young People, but for Rachel as well. Hansel and Gretel were set loose in the wilderness by their father and wicked stepmother because of the poverty they found themselves in. Before Rachel has all the facts of her situation this is exactly how she views her life as she now knows it. She was abandoned for money. Her father unceremoniously tossed her aside to get the better wife with the rich coffers and the two perfect heirs. You can see the appeal to Rachel to go back to a time when she didn't know the truth, back to a childhood of happiness. That is why she is able to slip in among the Bright Young People so well, she has the same desires, but in the end knows she must grow up.

Much like Lauren's previous stand-alone, That Summer, The Other Daughter is about finding your place in the world, a place to belong. Your family isn't necessarily the one you are born with but the one you find. Rachel's childhood, while missing a father, wasn't sad, she made a family in her small town with the Vicar and his daughter Alice. But on discovering what she knew to be a lie Rachael needs to build a new life for herself. She needs to find her new family, and much of that is tied up with Simon. Simon is a refreshing hero. For once I was very happy not to have access to his inner workings. I didn't want to know what he thought, I liked him as a little bit of an enigma. He has a past that must be uncovered so that he can grow and be willing to return to his family. Because the truth about families are they are messy. No one is perfect, as we see with Rachel, she wants revenge, she wants to hurt her father, even though she knows it's wrong. As we work through this with her we see that she is building the future she will inhabit. She inspires Simon to fix his life and then there's a place for her there. I don't think it's so much the shock of her father being alive that jars Rachael, it's that she had her place in the world and this knowledge changes that. She must struggle through this new information to find the place where she now belongs. We all struggle to find that place. The greatest thing fiction can do is show us that this is possible.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Book Review 2015 #4 - Michael Crichton's Congo

Congo by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: 1980
Format: Paperback, 316 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Earth Resources Technology Services Inc. has a contract in the Congo to find a source of blue diamonds that can be used as a power source. They are fighting against a consortium of Japanese, Dutch, and German corporations so time is of the essence. When the first team is attacked and killed, possibly by gorillas, Karen Ross, despite her youth, begs to lead the follow-up expedition to not only find the diamonds but find out what really killed the first team. She wins over her boss's objections and also gets him to agree to something a little unconventional. ERTS funds Project Amy, which is a research endeavor by Doctor Peter Elliot to teach a Gorilla, Amy, ASL. She has always been an amazing student until recently when she has started to have nightmares. Nightmares of a place that just happens to be where the ERTS expedition met their fate. Ross has a feeling that Amy is the key to figuring out what happened in the Congo and to beating the consortium. But the location might be the biggest mystery of all. What really happened in the lost city of Zinj all those years ago and what will happen when they reach it?

When my Crichton obsession began in earnest Congo was the elusive Crichton book that I wanted to read more than any other. The only problem was I couldn't find a copy! In the back of one of my other Crichton books I had read a description and seen a grainy image of the cover and I knew deep in my bones that this would be the best book he'd ever written. I JUST KNEW IT! I looked everywhere to find a copy. I trolled the few bookstores in town, all to no avail. Every new town I went to I looked for it in any store that sold books, including drugstores and grocery stores, growing more and more frustrated. Why did my go-to bookstore in Door County have every Crichton book BUT Congo? Then one day, I saw it. Hilldale is a small shopping mall near my house that we went to mainly for groceries and shoes. They had a Walgreen's half way between the two stores. I was wandering the magazine aisle waiting for my mom to finish whatever it was she had come to do and there, on the bottom rack, was Congo. I couldn't believe that after all my searching I had found it in our local drugstore! I spent some time admiring the cover, imagining the story that the inside would tell, and then I dove in, and it was everything I had hoped for.

Of all the books I've picked up to re-read for my Crichton Celebration, this was the one I was most looking forward to. But I knew it had to be at just the right time. Firstly, and most importantly, I had to have a stretch of time where I could read uninterrupted. Once this book was started I knew I wouldn't be able to set it down again. Secondly the atmosphere had to be just right. It wouldn't feel right driving into this book when the view outside my window showed barren trees and a winter bleak landscape. Spring has finally come to Wisconsin and with it green has returned to the world. If I angled myself just right in my reading chair all I could see was verdant green and I could imagine being trapped under the humid canopy of the Congo. The weather played along with my reading plans bringing high humid and torrential rains and as night fell the colors outside my window mimicked the cover of my book and I felt chills. All these years later the mystery was still waiting between the covers for me. I devoured this book at a rapacious speed and sat back fully satisfied with a Crichton book for the first time in a long time.

Even as an over eager teenager Africa held me in it's spell. Growing up my parents ran an art galley and the artist we represented spent many years in Africa and his tales recounted by my father would enrapture me, as long as they weren't about mummies trying to kill me, a perennial favorite of my father's. When I went off to college I took a vast assortment of classes for no other reason then because they looked interesting. One class I was enrolled in was an African History class. While I would eventually drop this class due to an unconscientious TA who looked like Eric Stoltz and lazy teaching, I read a fascinating book on the Congo called King Leopold's Ghost. Sign number one I really didn't belong in that class is I was the only one who enjoyed the book because of it's insights. This book combined with my recent reading of Nelson Mandela's "Autobiography" gave me further insight on this reading of Congo. These two books led to a deeper understanding of the political strife in the book. The fact that the Chinese are a large presence in the book might shock some and was originally overlooked by me, but it's important because they viewed Africa as a place where revolts could lead to emerging countries using Communist ideals in setting up their governments. They helped Mandela's cause strongly, something I don't think many people are aware of.

But it wasn't just a greater sense of the current political strife in 1979 but the precedence of previous conflicts that I was made aware of. Congo is very much an adventure story the likes of which H. Rider Haggard would have written. When Haggard was writing the African continent was just being opened up and explored, and therefore being fought over and divided up by the various European Empires. No one at that time thought of Africa as anything but a big piece of land to be divvied up like a game of Risk. Flash forward a hundred years and it is still happening, but with different players and a faster timeline. The Japanese, the Dutch, and the Germans are trying to outpace the Americans for diamonds. The parallels are uncanny but Crichton doesn't beat us over the head with a stick. When I read this in high school I saw what I wanted to and read a rollicking good adventure. While the adventure is still there, to the older and hopefully wiser person I now am I see that Congo is showing a rape of a continent, mimicking what has been happening for centuries, but at a startlingly rapid rate.

To take this discussion even further, do we think that Africa would be in this state of political upheaval with wars and disease if not for what other countries have been doing for hundreds of years? The number one thing I learned from Mandela's book is that Afrikaners have historically been jackasses. These are people who are descended from Dutch settlers and Apartheid, that was all them. Outsiders destroying Africa. Raping and pillaging, taking diamonds and gold and slaves. Also, encouraging insurrection, handing out guns to every rebel who asks for one. I'm sure if we tried we could fuck up this country even more, but seriously, hasn't the rest of the world done enough? Deforestation, destruction of species, millions dead. I think that's enough. Crichton is able to show how truly horrible our actions are with what Ross does with one small explosion. She is so intent on finding the diamonds she was sent to Africa to find that she inadvertently starts a volcanic eruption that destroys a lost city that has survived for hundreds and hundreds of years right next to that volcano. But more then that she destroys the deadly, but new species of Gorillas! With one move she takes their cultural past, their resources, their wildlife, and their ecosystem. Seriously, how are we to survive with idiots like this in the world, and yes, Ross seriously reminded me of someone I know.

Re-reading so many Crichton books back to back you really start to see the similarities, especially between Jurassic Park and Congo, which both involve intelligent animals that are underestimated and people die because of this. But Congo succeeds on so many more levels then Jurassic Park, even if the Grey Gorillas of Zinj are basically Velociraptor prototypes. The reason Congo works is that it does a better job of keeping the suspense and drawing it right out until the last minute. At the beginning you get a hint of the danger in the Congo to come but it's not till the book is 2/3rds done that they actually make it to the camp site where their co-workers died. Yes, there are plenty of other, more mundane dangers, but they are just place holders for the real dangers, the Gorillas. But the Gorillas are more successful as villains because we have another ape to compare them to in Amy. Damn, I love Amy. Not just her personality, but the form of science she represents with being taught ASL and the deep connection this forms between her and Peter. In the end, nothing mattered except Amy getting a happily ever after, everything else was just extra.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Book Review - Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig's The Forgotten Room

The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: NAL
Publication Date: January 19th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Olive is a maid in the opulent Pratt Mansion on the upper east side. She wasn't raised to be a maid, far from it, her father was a famous architect and had ambitions of grandeur for his family. Ambitions that ended when the Pratt's refused to pay for his work on the mansion and he ended his life. Olive has infiltrated the household to clear her father's name, little thinking that she might find something other then vengeance inside those four walls her father built. Almost thirty years later Olive's daughter Lucy hears her mother's deathbed utterance of the name Harry and has become convinced, in part due to her overbearing grandmother, that the Harry her mother spoke of was Harry Pratt. Could she be related to that once great family? She takes a job in the city working for the firm that handles the Pratt estate and gets a room at Stornaway House, a respectable boarding house for young women that was once the Pratt Mansion.

Though Lucy isn't the only one looking into the Pratts. John Ravenel, the son of the famous painter Augustus Ravenel, is trying to find a connection between the Pratts and his father. Lucy's life is caught up in the secrets of the past and present but can her heart endure the discoveries? More then twenty years have passed and World War II is raging, Stornaway House is now a hospital and they have a very competent female doctor on staff, Kate Schuyler, the daughter of Lucy. On a stormy night they receive a new patient, Captain Ravenel. The only room available is a disused and forgotten room at the top of the once great mansion that Kate has been sleeping in. Up in this secret aerie will Kate and her Captain connect the dots and reconcile the past and the present to make a future for themselves?

Books with multiple authors that aren't anthologies or short story collections are an interesting breed apart. You often get husbands and wives writing together, sometimes under a combined pseudonym, A.A. Aguirre is Anne Aguirre and her husband Andres, Ilona Andrews is Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon, something I didn't know until I met them. Even two good friends writing together happens, look at Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia. The key to these writing partnerships is that they have a bond that goes beyond the writing to an understanding of each other so they can form a cohesive narrative. There are even ways to work around cohesion, this being a more epistolary approach where each author takes a character and is their voice, much as Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer did with their Sorcery and Cecelia series. But to have more then two authors is a rarity.

To have three authors each tackling a different time period but working together to mesh their writing styles so that it feels like a cohesive whole seems in the abstract like an insurmountable task. Even when marketing this book Lauren commented on how the PR department had a hard time conveying that that they "were three authors writing a single novel... rather than an anthology." Yet when you start to read the book all your doubts leave. Aside from the minor exception that Kate's section is written in the first person the book feels like a cohesive whole, not like loosely strung together stories. I haven't read any other books by Karen White or Beatriz Williams, I signed on initially just for Lauren, but seeing how they worked together I'm excited to see what they all do next.

Even though the three writers created this cohesive story I still found myself liking certain characters more than others. I mean, it's nearly impossible not to pick favorite characters in a book, but when all those characters are in a certain section and you have to read two other sections to get back to them, it's hard not to be occasionally frustrated. What was must frustrating to me though is how the narrative is constructed so that only one of the three women gets the happily ever after. Seeing my favorite character NOT get her HEA, that got on my nerves, even if I figured it was inevitable. But seeing my least favorite character, Kate, get the HEA? Oh, yeah. I'm not a happy woman. So much of the love stories seemed to hinge on the star-crossed lovers motif that when the women used common sense and logic to settle down I was frustrated.

Olive and Lucy both seem resigned to their fates that they couldn't be with the ones they loved. Seriously, all I could think of was the 30 Rock episodes with Michael Sheen where he meets Tina Fey's character and he thinks that she is his settling soulmate. That the "universe wants us to settle for one another... fate is telling us this is the best we're ever going to get. We're each other's settling soulmates." Not the one true love, the one that you settle for. This is so depressing to me. There's this connection between the women of this family and the Ravenel men that passes down the line, they are inevitability drawn to each other like magnets yet it takes them three generations to get it right? Disgruntled sigh. But who I feel the worst for is the poor schmoes that Olive and Lucy marry. These two men ADORE these women, they are the loves of their lives and the women know this and settle and become bitter. Those men deserved women who loved them as much as they loved!

As for all these women searching out the truth and connecting with these Ravenel men, it makes you realize the importance of asking questions before it's too late. Family secrets build and fester and this shows what happens when you wait too long; you don't get the truth. Or you don't get the whole truth. The fact of the matter is we never think to ask questions of our parents or our grandparents when there's time. Why does the ancestry bug bite people in their 50s and 60s? If we could jump start this a little earlier than perhaps we could learn more, get the answers, even get answers to questions we never thought to ask! This is how we lose our ancestral identity, through laxity. Yes this book takes place in a different time, in fact several different times, when openness wasn't the order of the day. But still, there is silence because people were willing to accept it as the status quo. We need to be willing to ask the hard questions of our parents before it's too late, learn of their life and loves, and even their frustrations and sins. A few too many deathbed utterances could easily be replaced with truth. But then, from a fictional standpoint, where's the mystery?

Another product of the times is the pervasive sexual harassment within this story. In fact at times it's so prevalent you feel drawn out of the story. Yes, I know it's not historically inaccurate, it's a sad truth, but making it such a theme takes something away from the book. It leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste in your mouth. If it was important to the narrative I would understand it's presence, but it just seems to be used as a signifier of the times. The worst is Kate's fellow Doctor, Dr. Greeley. He is a worm. A slimy, slippery, creep. I just don't understand why with him. Not the why he behaves the way he does, but why Kate lets him. Yes, she's a female in a male dominated profession. Yes, he could make life uncomfortable for her. But no, that doesn't mean she should acquiesce to dinner dates and gropings in cupboards. In fact her unwillingness to stick up to this creep is probably the number one reason I like her least of the female trio. She has the ability to stand up to him, she just won't. And that's the problem with sexual harassment. Too many women not willing to raise their voices up. Kate is a woman ahead of her times, not a product of her times, and she accepts something that is unacceptable. Ugh. No.

But among all the characters there's one character that I just couldn't connect with, and that's the Pratt mansion. Because the mansion is just as much a character as any of those of flesh and bone. I just didn't buy the building as an actual location. It doesn't work. There seems to be no real handle on the building. The structure seems to shift and morph. In fact this would be the only time where the three authors I think are most obvious, because it seems they all have slightly different interpretations of this one place and they don't quite jive. I think they needed a real life counterpart to actually walk around in to get the architecture right. For the longest time I thought Lucy was actually rooming in "the forgotten room" only to be shocked in her last section to find out she was living in the servants quarters the floor below. In fact "the forgotten room" seems to be able to be accessed several different ways, at one point the stairs go all the way there, later there's only the secret stairs in a hidden cupboard. Also, was this room even really forgotten? It's seems to have fairly regular usage, and therefore the moniker of "forgotten" seems to be just desperate to add mystique. The reason I'm harping on about this is because a story needs to be grounded. This house was to be that. Instead it's like building your story on shifting sand. It works for awhile, but sometimes something is lost to the sea.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig
Published by: NAL
Publication Date: January 19th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"New York Times bestselling authors Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig present a masterful collaboration—a rich, multigenerational novel of love and loss that spans half a century....

1945: When the critically wounded Captain Cooper Ravenal is brought to a private hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, young Dr. Kate Schuyler is drawn into a complex mystery that connects three generations of women in her family to a single extraordinary room in a Gilded Age mansion.

Who is the woman in Captain Ravenel's portrait miniature who looks so much like Kate? And why is she wearing the ruby pendant handed down to Kate by her mother? In their pursuit of answers, they find themselves drawn into the turbulent stories of Gilded Age Olive Van Alen, driven from riches to rags, who hired out as a servant in the very house her father designed, and Jazz Age Lucy Young, who came from Brooklyn to Manhattan in pursuit of the father she had never known. But are Kate and Cooper ready for the secrets that will be revealed in the Forgotten Room?

The Forgotten Room, set in alternating time periods, is a sumptuous feast of a novel brought to vivid life by three brilliant storytellers."

The Lauren Willig fix I KNOW you've been needing in your life.

Midnight in St. Petersburg by Vanora Bennett
Published by: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: January 19th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Faberge jewels, the mysterious Rasputin, and a priceless violin: Each play a part in one young woman’s fight for survival, and for love, in revolutionary Russia.

St. Petersburg, 1911: Inna Feldman has fled the pogroms of the south to take refuge with distant relatives in Russia’s capital. Welcomed by the flamboyant Leman family, she is apprenticed into their violin-making workshop. She feels instantly at home in their bohemian circle, but revolution is in the air, and as society begins to fracture, she is forced to choose between her heart and her head.

She loves her brooding cousin, Yasha, but he is wild, destructive, and devoted to revolution; Horace Wallick, an Englishman who makes precious Faberge creations, is older and promises security and respectability. And, like many others, she is drawn to the mysterious, charismatic figure beginning to make a name for himself in the city: Rasputin.

As the rebellion descends into anarchy and bloodshed, a commission to repair a priceless Stradivarius violin offers Inna a means of escape. But which man will she choose to take with her? And is it already too late? A magical and passionate story steeped in history and intrigue, Vanora Bennett's Midnight in St. Petersburg is an extraordinary novel of music, politics, and the toll that revolution exacts on the human heart."

Seriously, this sounds so awesome.

Yuki Chan in Bronte Country by Mick Jackson
Published by: Faber and Faber
Publication Date: January 19th, 2016
Format: Kindle, 256 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"'They both stop and stare for a moment. Yuki feels she's spent about half her adult life thinking about snow, but when it starts, even now, it always arresting, bewildering. Each snowflake skating along some invisible plane. Always circuitous, as if looking for the best place to land...'

Yukiko tragically lost her mother ten years ago. After visiting her sister in London, she goes on the run, and heads for Haworth, West Yorkshire, the last place her mother visited before her death.

Against a cold, winter, Yorkshire landscape, Yuki has to tackle the mystery of her mother's death, her burgeoning friendship with a local girl, the allure of the Brontes and her own sister's wrath.

Both a pilgrimage and an investigation into family secrets, Yuki's journey is the one she always knew she'd have to make, and one of the most charming and haunting in recent fiction."

Brontes. That is all.

The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof by Annie M.G. Schmidt
Published by: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 19th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 160 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In the tradition of The Cricket in Times Square comes this charming tale of courage, friendship, and what it really means to be human. This classic, which originated in Holland and has withstood the test of time worldwide, will appeal to readers young and old—and dog and cat lovers alike!

An act of kindness brings shy reporter Mr. Tibble into contact with the unusual Miss Minou. Tibble is close to losing his job because he only writes stories about cats. Fortunately, Minou provides him with real news. She gets the juicy inside information from her local feline friends, who are the eyes and ears of the neighborhood. Tibble is appreciative, but he wonders how she does it. He has noticed that Minou is terrified of dogs and can climb trees and rooftops with elegance and ease. . . . It’s almost as if she’s a cat herself. But how can that be?"

If it captures just a tiny bit of the magic in The Cricket in Times Square it will be worth it. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Book Review 2015 #5 - Terry Pratchett's I Shall Wear Midnight

I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld Book #38) by Terry Pratchett
Published by: Corgi
Publication Date: September 2nd, 2010
Format: Paperback, 419 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Need not want. That's the way of the witch. You are respected and well regarded, but not really liked. Who indeed would like the person who knows all your dirty little secrets and does what needs to be done? There is also a certain amount of fear underneath, because though a witch's job has little to do with magic, there's always the threat of it. Worn to the bone by the needs of the people of the Chalk, Tiffany doesn't have time for sleep, especially when the rough music starts. Mr. Petty has been singled out by the villagers, an abusive man; he has taken things too far this time with his daughter Amber. While Tiffany doesn't necessary support or condemn the villagers and their plan to oust Mr. Petty, she knows one thing, evil though he may be, Mr. Petty doesn't deserve to die. After dealing with Mr. Petty and having another sleepless night, Tiffany is called to the home of the Baron. Once everyone thought that one day she would be the mistress of the manner when Roland inherited. But being the two "different" people didn't mean they were the two "right" people for each other and Roland is deep in preparations for his wedding to Letitia while his father slips away. When Roland goes away to the great city of Ankh Morpork, his father, the Baron, finally dies peacefully.

The Baron's nurse, a vengeful and hateful woman, claims that Tiffany killed him for his wealth. Tiffany, being unable to deal with these absurd accusations leaves to find Roland and break the news to him. Telling Roland doesn't go as she had planned, instead she ends up in prison with her faithful Nac Mac Feegles. But there is one thing to say about prison, it's safe. There in Ankh Morpork she felt the rising fear and hatred she's been feeling for weeks. People are starting to believe the old stories of evil witches and gingerbread cottages, of the cacklers, of the theory that "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." But there was a stench of rotting and hatred and a man in black only she could see. A man with holes where his eyes should be. Tiffany soon learns that this Cunning Man must be stopped. Her own life could be in danger as Roland himself turns against her. But she soon learns she has unexpected allies, who, even if they did inadvertently release the Cunning Man, are willing to help watch him burn. Because if he doesn't, everyone else will.

Tiffany has grown up. She has seen the best and the worst of mankind and she takes care of them all. Just because a person appears beyond redemption doesn't mean they aren't worth fighting for, that way leads cackling. She takes everyone's pain away and leaves no comfort for herself. This is a far darker and more disturbing tale of Discworld then has been seen in the annals of Tiffany Aching. But then, the Cunning man is one of the most terrifying villains seen yet. Sure Tiffany kissed the Winter away and walked in the lands of fairies and DEATH, but those creatures were more creatures of myth and fairy tale than a man who through his own hatred and his own dark past is able to corrupt and despoil those who come in contact with him, though he is long dead. Because, deep down, I Shall Wear Midnight shows that the true danger isn't magic, it is man. The Cunning man was once a man like all others. And when Tiffany struggles to quickly save Mr. Petty she is not only saving him from himself, but from his fellow townsfolk. The people that Tiffany grew up around, those she cares for and trusts, when the rough music starts the true danger is your fellow man, and that is a terrifying truth. Even your best friend or neighbor could spell your end.

Yet Tiffany learns more than the cruelty of fellow man as she grows up. She has more responsibility on her shoulders than ever before. No longer a naive young girl she lives in a world of sleepless nights. Nights spent caring for those who probably don't give her a second thought. The truth of the world is open to her and it shows her that the world is made up of assumptions based solely on appearances. Her and Roland were to marry because that's how it looked to outsiders. Witches are evil old ladies who live alone in the woods. And girls like Letitia with their typical fairy-tale-princess looks and pretty gowns are destined for a happily ever after. Whereas the truth is Tiffany and Roland never were fated to marry, they were too different. The poor old lady killed in the woods years ago was nothing but a poor old lady, not an ounce of witch about her; unlike Letitia who dreams of being a witch and nothing would please her more than a wart or two. Truth can never be found on the surface. Appearances are deceiving. The genius of Pratchett is that he takes concepts that are so ingrained in our culture that they have reached the point of being a cliche, but then he shows it to us in a new light, in the vulnerability of an old lady and her cat, and we realize the importance of this truth that led to it being a cliche.

And while showing us the worst humanity has to offer, Pratchett also shows us those moments of grace. We have been raised to fear DEATH. That when the time comes it is always too soon and too painful. What should be a sad moment, when Roland's father dies, instead we are given a death with dignity. The pain is taken away and a happy memory brought forward. His death wasn't just a release, it was beautiful. That is what Pratchett does time and time again. He takes what we expect and gives it back to us in another way, turned and twisted about to get at the heart of the matter. He takes the concept of the wicked witch, turns it on its head and makes us see that these women of fairy tale who are feared are the ones who have it right. You must care for them that can't. You don't burn down old ladies' houses and kill their cats, you don't run people out of town, you show kindness, even if it must be said in a stern tone of voice. I can not say enough how Pratchett's writing shows such a unique thought process, a great mind that was willing to question everything and in that quest gave us a new way to look at the world. Life happens not as you expect because maybe that's what is needed.

Re-reading this book was bittersweet in the wake of Pratchett's own death. While this book turned out not to be the final Tiffany Aching book, Tiffany did end Discworld with The Shepherd's Crown. But to me, this should be the end of Tiffany's story. She might have other adventures, but here... here she is glorious. This story is so perfect that there was no way to capture that sense of completion by writing yet another tale, it was unnecessary. Though with the love and care Pratchett obviously felt for Tiffany, it is no wonder that he wanted his last book to be with the character he loved most. And despite all the characters he has created over his prolific career, I find it amazing that so many people have identified with Tiffany; a rather obstinate, forthright girl, who just happens to be a witch. She's a character the likes of which will be echoed in countless other characters for a long time to come. Yet in the end, she's uniquely herself and uniquely Pratchett. And of all her tales, this one is uniquely perfect. It's rare that a book ends on just the right note, but Pratchett has succeeded perfectly. The absolute right note which has a bite of a susurration to it.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book Review 2015 #6 - Angela Thirkell's High Rising

High Rising by Angela Thirkell
Published by: Virago Modern Classics
Publication Date: 1933
Format: Paperback, 276 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Laura Moreland is off to her cottage in High Rising with her son Tony for the winter holidays. Her three other boys are all grown up and flung to the far reaches of the earth after she ably raised them alone as a widowed author. In fact she ended up with quite a following for her fun and frivolous tales told in the world of high fashion staring Madame Koska. In fact many of her fans are right on her doorstep, with her assistant Anne Todd being a neighbor who nurses her ailing mother but has a penchant for couture. Fellow author, though of a historical and biographical bent, George Knox lives in nearby Low Rising with his daughter Sibyl. In fact the holiday season is bound to be interesting by a new arrival at the Knox's house, because it's sure not going to be enlivened by Tony's litany of train facts. George Knox has a new secretary, a Miss Una Grey. Miss Grey, while competent, seems to have her eye on her employer for a precipitous rise in her station. The locals aren't having any of this and soon the gossip over this "Incubus" has both High and Low Rising talking. But George Knox is an honorable man and he can't send a poor, defenseless orphan out into the world, no matter how ambitious and amorous her attentions. Though perhaps Miss Grey isn't as she has presented herself and that might just turn the tables and perhaps give Laura an idea for a new book.

How would it feel to write all your books in a world created by another person? I guess a good author to ask would be Gregory Maguire whose "Wicked Years" are set in the world created by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Though Maguire expanded and parodied the world that Baum created making it very much his own. The reason I bring this up is that most of Angela Thirkell's books are set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire created by Anthony Trollope in his six book series that make up The Chronicles of Barsetshire. I'm of two minds with this. One is that it's an interesting experiment freeing the author in this case from onerous worldbuilding. The other mind is going: lazy, plagiaristic hack, and seeing as she often quoted from other authors without attribution, leaning towards plagiarist. But I knew I'd have to come to a conclusion on my own by reading the books, despite the enthusiastic recommendations of my many friends. And seeing as they are set in a world created by Trollope, I felt I'd have to read those first. It's not like I have anything against Trollope, in fact I quite love him, I just wasn't enamoured of his first Barsetshire book The Warden. But having at least nominally dipped my toe into the world created by Trollope I felt I could take a plunge into this world that Thirkell expanded on.

What struck me most about this book is why did she bother to set it in Barsetshire? This could have been any little small British town anywhere, so why did she frame it within someone else's work? Was it her desperate need for a map? Maps are easy to come by, you pick them up anywhere. Get them while you get your gas! It's not like there was a wicked witch with green skin that needed to be her antihero, so why do it? Because, in all seriousness, by co-opting the world of another author she is doing a great disservice to herself and her work. Going into the book I had prejudices against it's originality because of this. Yet it is so original, minus the county. There's a freshness to it, a world weary snark that spoke to me so deeply that I just wanted to be a part of this story. High Rising has an honesty that makes the misanthrope in me happy while at the same time creating a cast of characters that are in a happy place; which makes me wonder if it was maybe love versus laziness that made Angela Thirkell set her books in Barsetshire. Maybe she loved the world so much that deep down in her bones she didn't want to leave and set out to spend her life there? If this is the case then perhaps her books are some of the very first fan fic there is. Now that would be an interesting topic for a dissertation, "Angela Thirkell, the Origins of Fan Fiction."

The character of Laura Morland is now my literary heroine. I seriously adore her. In a time when parents are always PC in books and television shows like The Slap make headlines it's so refreshing to have a heroine who loves her children but knows that they are annoying brats. Laura will willingly hate on her child, but not vindictively. She points out that which aggravates one in the young but never is mean spirited about it. Ah, to have children in a book that aren't precious or precocious! Laura is just honest. She knows herself, she knows the world, she just seems to know everything, including the perfect put-down for an ill-advised yet ardent suitor and seriously, can I be her when I grow up? She is not deluded, she knows she's not the best writer in the world, she knows where she belongs. To read about a person who knows their place in the world so well is interesting. Because so often the world doesn't make the least sense and we can never quite fit, always feeling like the last puzzle piece that obviously doesn't go where it is supposed to. Yet here comes Laura, self assured, self deprecating, self reliant, and true to that self. So many books are about characters finding their place, trying to fit in, the struggle is all, to read a story with a heroine who is past all that is a luxury. To me, this is the ultimate comfort read. I, like Laura, will chose my bed and a gruesome book over King Lear any day.

Another aspect of Laura that I love that extends outwards to the whole of High Rising is this love of the literary, books within books. We have a handful of authors as our main characters and they run the gamut from poets to scholars to cozy mystery writers. I love how Thirkell is able to convey their personalities through their chosen mediums. Adrian Coates was a published teenage poet, and has therefore the right level of demureness coupled with a desire to forget his opus that you would expect of a languishing poetic soul. George Knox is verbose and preachy, which you would expect of a historian. Laura, well, Laura I think is the author in disguise, all honest about her work being their to pay the bills. Laura in fact shares a kindred spirit with another of my favorite literary character, Ariadne Oliver, who, as anyone knows, is Agatha Christie in disguise in her own Poirot mysteries. Perhaps there's just something about authors "secreting" themselves into their own stories that lends something extra, something jovial to the story that is addictive. The ability for anyone to laugh at themselves is key to a good personality, in my mind, so therefore an author who can do the same and then incorporate that into their work, well, that just tickles me. It is rare to find a book that so tailors with what I value in life and in literature, and High Rising is definitely a book written for me.

The most interesting fact of this entire book is even the character I hated, aka Miss Una Grey, aka the Incubus, I loved to hate, and rarely have I hated a character more. I totally disagree with Alexander McCall Smith's statement in the introduction that Miss Grey should have our sympathy. Doesn't he see that she is a total sociopath? She's not a poor lonely girl who is misunderstood, she is a lying, manipulative, she-devil. Yes, sure, occasionally working with someone you might develop feelings, but she takes it to stalker levels. In fact she takes everything too far. She does her job flawlessly, but this is balanced by her doing her crazy flawlessly too. Everything is done to the perfect extreme. When I tried to think of other characters that you are meant to love to hate, Caroline Bingley, Blanche Ingram, Loki, yes, I had to work Tom Hiddleston in somehow, never have I had such a visceral reaction where I longed for the moment everyone would have the definitive proof of her wrong doing and she would be sent packing. This was up there with the childish glee I got when watching The Parent Trap for the first time and the upstart Vicky was sent packing, bear cubs and all! I almost want to re-read the whole book again just to see Miss Grey get what's coming to her.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Review 2015 #7 - Maryrose Wood's The Mysterious Howling

The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book 1) by Leigh Bardugo
Published by: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: March 1st, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Miss Penelope Lumley is eager to embrace her first job as a governess. She has just graduated from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females and is ready to put the sayings of the school's founder, the redoubtable Agatha Swanburne, into action. Though her plans to teach her pupils Latin declensions might have to be put on hold for awhile at least. The thing is, when she arrives at Ashton Place she learns the truth, her three charges were found in the woods where it is presumed they were raised by wolves. Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia Incorrigible were discovered by Lord Fredrick Ashton when he was out hunting, and as everyone knows, finders keepers! Miss Lumley first encounters her charges out in the barn quite literally howling. Now she sees why the advertisement for the job requested "experience with animals." But growing up at the Swanburne Academy Penelope's favorite books were the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! books about the adventures of a pony named Rainbow and her young mistress, Edith-Anne Pevington. The volume Silky Mischief, wherein Rainbow saved an ill-tempered pony, left an indelible mark on Penelope and she knows that if Rainbow could save Silky she can save these three young children. It isn't long before she has them indoors and properly attired, though squirrels continue to be a problem. Miss Lumley is confident and bold with her unique lessons, but she worries about an ultimatum laid down that the children be ready to be presented at Lord Fredrick's new wife's holiday soiree. Could it undo all the progress she has made? And what if a squirrel were to appear?

While a series of books written about a group of children raised by wolves sounds almost too gimmicky to be enjoyable, there is something so endearing about the Incorrigibles that you can't help but fall in love with them. In fact there's many things about this book that in any other book I would have been annoyed and aggravated with, but somehow I just found it all so charming. For example, anachronisms usually drive me batty, yet for a book set around 1850, these interruptions from a modern narrator which introduce the anachronisms somehow work. Like Lemony Snicket explaining words within his narrative, this gimmick becomes stylistically part of the story and just works. And yes, I know saying something "just works" is a very imprecise way of describing something and seems as if I'm trying to get out of more explanation, but knowing when something works and when something doesn't work is an ineffable quality. It's easier to describe something when it doesn't work. You can point to a specific passage or event and go, there it is, that's where it failed. To point at something and go, now that's where it works, well, that's harder. The book is a cohesive whole, it flows and doesn't jar or annoy. Everything follows in a logical and well written pattern and at the end there's nothing that displeased you except coming to the end. I had an ineffably good time with a smile on my face the entire time I read this book, and if you need more convincing, I'm not sure how I could convince you. But let me give it a good old Swanburne try!

One aspect of the book that would normally be a stumbling block for me was Miss Lumely's love of the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! books. See, the thing is, I'm not a horse girl. I wasn't the girl at school longing for the weekend when they could go visit their pony or go ride somewhere for lessons, and yes, I did know a few. I think the fact that I was never the girl screaming for a pony for her birthday pleased my mother, who grew up on a farm surrounded by horse girls. Yet, unlike other authors who would play to this horse loving crowd, Wood doesn't write just for them, thus alienating her non-horse readers. Yes, the horse lovers might get something more out of The Mysterious Howling, but the book lovers who can't pass up a good series, and the animal lovers are also part of this book's audience. In fact, the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! books reminded me of the Serendipity book series by Stephen Cosgrove and Robin James. When I was growing up these kitschy illustrated books about all kids of animals from cats to unicorns were all the rage. Sure there was a moral to the tale, but it was the love of animals and the illustrations that drew me to these books. So while I can't relate to the horse aspect here, I can relate to the animal aspect and in extension the animal book series aspect. I can relate to the love and care that animals show humans and vice-versa and how this love for all living creatures helped Miss Lumley forge a bond with her charges that other governesses wouldn't have been able to do.

Going further into the "animal" nature of the children, I think what makes this series stand out is the children's use of language. Everyone who has ever loved or cared for animals knows that they speak in their own language. Cats have a certain way of speaking, as do dogs, and as do the aforementioned horses. Therefore it makes sense that these three Incorrigibles being raised as they were would have their own language as well. Now this is a very fine line that Wood is walking. Like books that use vernacular there's the danger of being incomprehensible on one end of the spectrum, and on the other is the danger of being too cutesy. But the truth is, their language usage isn't precocious or twee, it's simply enchanting and addictive. From Lumawoo, their affectionate name for Miss Lumley, to various ahwoos punctuated with barks and growls, their language is adorable and you instantly want to adopt it as your own. Much like how little children sometimes can't quite say certain words or letters growing up and nicknames for people and things develop, so does the Incorrigible language form. Yet you aren't on the outside looking in like someone mildly revolted by a couples overly cutesy nicknames for each other, you're on the inside, instantly seeing how cute it all is. You're in on the joke, so that makes all the difference. Your perspective is key.

Where I took the greatest joy though was in all the literary allusions and references that add a level for the adult readers. There is no doubt that Miss Lumley is of the Jane Eyre type, a sensible governess in early Victorian times. Therefore there is all that Gothic goodness to sink your teeth into. But what I took most fun with was trying to pinpoint the year the book takes place. With all the modern references peaking in, you'd think the book might be slightly timeless, but you'd be wrong. I mentioned earlier 1850, and that wasn't arbitrary, in fact, to be more specific, let's say 1851. Leaving aside the fact that at the author talk I went to Maryrose Wood also said 1851. Because while in the audience I did a little hope of joy because I had already reached that conclusion by the allusions in the text. The two key pieces of evidence for the literary sleuths are the publication of Moby Dick, and the reference to the new fashion of "the cage" which Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a short story about. These two mentions place the book firmly in 1851. I love to think of kids years from now going back to these books, which have hopefully become favorites, and seeing all that they missed before. Not the cutesy Rainbow books, that are the type of books we love as children, but other, more adult things, like the tableaux of Longfellow's work. These are books that you can read on many levels and grow into, and that makes them so good.

But the literary allusions, while all well and good, bring me to the fact that, for me, it's the time period that makes The Mysterious Howling. Yes, because of the time period, the literary allusions add to it, but it's the time period itself that I love. I love the mid 19th century. Dickens, the Brontes, Gaskell, Eliot, all these amazing writers creating a sense of place. If I had to describe this book in one sentence it would be Victorian Addams Family with a Lemony Snicket vibe. And really, there couldn't be higher praise from me than this. I devoured the A Series of Unfortunate Event books, and as for the Addams Family, they are a way of life for me. Combining the two around a Gothic center, well, I felt like these books were written just for me. In fact the second I finished The Mysterious Howling I wanted to dive right into The Hidden Gallery. But I didn't. I didn't because I knew that I'd then have to read them all right away and there's nothing that hurts a review more than getting muddled in a series and not being able to do each individual book justice. Plus I had some Sherlock Holmes to read... But you can be confident that now that I have finally written this review that the next volume by Maryrose Wood will quickly be making it's way to the top of my to be read pile, because I literally can't wait.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Published by: Counterpoint
Publication Date: January 12th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 340 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In The Lightkeepers, we follow Miranda, a nature photographer who travels to the Farallon Islands, an exotic and dangerous archipelago off the coast of California, for a one-year residency capturing the landscape. Her only companions are the scientists studying there, odd and quirky refugees from the mainland living in rustic conditions; they document the fish populations around the island, the bold trio of sharks called the Sisters that hunt the surrounding waters, and the overwhelming bird population who, at times, create the need to wear hard hats as protection from their attacks.

Shortly after her arrival, Miranda is assaulted by one of the inhabitants of the islands. A few days later, her assailant is found dead, perhaps the result of an accident. As the novel unfolds, Miranda gives witness to the natural wonders of this special place as she grapples with what has happened to her and deepens her connection (and her suspicions) to her companions, while falling under the thrall of the legends of the place nicknamed “the Islands of the Dead.” And when more violence occurs, each member of this strange community falls under suspicion.

The Lightkeepers upends the traditional structure of a mystery novel —an isolated environment, a limited group of characters who might not be trustworthy, a death that may or may not have been accidental, a balance of discovery and action —while also exploring wider themes of the natural world, the power of loss, and the nature of recovery. It is a luminous debut novel from a talented and provocative new writer."

This sounds very fascinating, might be a selection for my book club...

The Bitter Season by Tami Hoag
Published by: Dutton
Publication Date: January 12th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Kovac and Liska take on multiple twisted cases as #1 New York Times bestselling author Tami Hoag explores a murder from the past, a murder from the present, and a life that was never meant to be.

As the dreary, bitter weather of late fall descends on Minneapolis, Detective Nikki Liska is restless, already bored with her new assignment to the cold case squad. She misses the rush of pulling an all-nighter and the sense of urgency of hunting a desperate killer on the loose. Most of all she misses her old partner, Sam Kovac.

Kovac is having an even harder time adjusting to Liska’s absence, saddled with a green new partner younger than most of Sam's wardrobe. But Kovac is distracted from his troubles by an especially brutal double homicide: a prominent university professor and his wife, bludgeoned and hacked to death in their home with a ceremonial Japanese samurai sword. Liska’s case-the unsolved murder of a decorated sex crimes detective-is less of a distraction: Twenty five years later, there is little hope for finding the killer who got away.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis resident Evi Burke has a life she only dreamed of as a kid in and out of foster homes: a beautiful home, a family, people who love her, a fulfilling job. But a danger from her past is stalking her idyllic present. A danger bent on destroying the perfect life she was never meant to have.

As the trails of two crimes a quarter of century apart twist and cross, Kovac and Liska race to find answers before a killer strikes again."

Mystery time for my mom!

Six Feel Over It by Jennifer Longo
Published by: Ember
Publication Date: January 12th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"This unforgettable new voice in contemporary YA is perfect for fans of John Green, Libba Bray, and Jennifer Niven.

“Like nothing you’ve read before.” —Bustle.com

No one is more surprised than Leigh when her father buys a graveyard. Less shocking is the fact that he’s too lazy to look farther than the dinner table for employees. Working the literal graveyard shift, she becomes great at predicting headstone choice (mostly granite) and taking notes with one hand while offering Kleenex with the other.

Sarcastic and smart, Leigh should be able to quit this stupid after-school job. But her world’s been turned upside down by the sudden loss of her best friend and the appearance of Dario, the slightly-too-old-for-her gravedigger. Can Leigh move on, if moving on means it’s time to get a life?

Funny and heart-wrenchingly beautiful, Jennifer Longo’s YA debut about a girl surrounded by death will change the way you look at friendship, love, and life."

Technically a re-release, but look at the awesome new cover!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Book Review 2015 #8 - Noelle Stevenson's Nimona

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Published by: HarperTeen
Publication Date: September 1st, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Lord Ballister Blackheart has always felt he's doing his best as a villain considering he never intended to be one. Back when he was training with the kingdom's fated hero and his dearest friend, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, everything seemed so simple. But the loss of his arm changed his destiny. His destiny is about to change again when a shapeshifter, Nimona, shows up on his doorstep and informs him that she is to be his new sidekick; and yes he doesn't have a say in the matter. Nimona has radical ideas about what a villain should do, all of which seem drastic to Blackheart. Who even heard of a villain succeeding in their plots? Or leaving death and destruction in their wake? His name could actually be feared! But as Ambrosius points out to Blackheart, is this what he really wants? Nimona is changing everything. She's impulsive and her powers defy explanation, yet as she's breaking down doors in Blackheart's home, sigh, she's breaking down walls around his heart; and for the first time, in a very long time, he has someone to care for. Though it's information that Blackheart and Nimona uncover on one of their raids against the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics that really changes the game. The Institute, the upholders of good and the banishers of evil are up to no good! They are experimenting with the dangerous jaderoot and putting the entire kingdom in danger. It is up to Blackheart and Nimona to bring this deceit to light! Using plans with phases and science!  

We all grow up listening to fairy tales. They are the first stories we hear. Told over and over again when we are little they become a part of our DNA. We learn valuable lessons about listening to our parents and never taking candy from strangers, especially if they look like they might be a witch in disguise with a suspiciously large oven. We grow up believing that the line between good and evil is clear-cut. That the knight will always save the maiden fair from the evil dragon and win her hand. We grow up expecting to get out happily ever after. And as we get older we still love these tales, we read re-interpretations and re-tellings. We devour YA books that are just repackaging the old stories in new ways, all the while waiting for the prince to come for us, because someday he will come. Yet deep down the message hasn't really changed. We are just getting the same lesson in a different way. And you know what? For the most part what fairy tales teach us is wrong. They were written to keep children in line and teach women to know their place, which is mainly in the kitchen. I'm sorry, but my happily ever after doesn't involve a sink, thank you very much. This is where Nimona comes in. This book might be fairy tales turned upside down and inside out, but this inversion is closer to the truth than you get in the traditional tales.

Because the truth is the distinction between good and evil is never clear cut. People don't usually have the honorific "evil" placed before their name, because that would make things so much easier. Life is countless shades of grey, and there's no getting around this fact. Just look to politics or the police, they are supposed to be here for the good of us but can you think of a more concentrated source of corruption? The police in fact pose far more of a threat to citizens than murderers. But of course this again isn't a blanket statement, even within these groups supposed to protect us there are those who do their jobs just as there are those who don't. Shades of grey people. This muddying of the waters is where Nimona really forges a connection between the narrative and the reader. Despite being about shapeshifters and one-armed science loving villains, there is this relatable truth at the center. The villain doesn't want to be a villain, not really, and the hero really thinks that he is doing good while oblivious to what is going on around him. While the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, while they do enforce the laws, there experimentation isn't so much heroic and horrific. They aim to keep the peace through subjugation, something none of their citizens want. Is it therefore any surprise that slowly Blackheart becomes heroic to the oppressed? Shades of grey can lead to the most unlikely of heroes.

But are heroes made or born? Blackheart thought he would be a hero but one accident forever derailed his life. He defeated the golden boy, but with the loss of a limb he was typecast as the villain, despite the fact that it was the "hero" who took said limb. Nimona explores preconceptions on so many levels. Names and physiognomy and preconceptions and prejudice and fear make a hero or villain, more so than actions. The easiest way I can explain this is how it relates to me personally. I try to be upbeat and content as much as I can, but let's face it, I can be grumpy and grumbly. There is nothing that annoys me more than when I'm in this dour mood to have someone say "why are you angry?" They aren't asking IF I'm angry, they are stating that I AM, when I'm not! This in fact MAKES me angry. I wasn't angry before but being assumed to be makes it so. I become what people say I am. If I'm told this enough it becomes a part of me because I start to see myself through their eyes. I become an angry person when I never set out to be one. Now imagine if you are told you are a villain. Would you become one if you were constantly told you were? Or what about Nimona? How many times did she have to be told she was a monster before she decided to be one? Preconceptions and statements can turn you into something you never wanted to be. Words can hurt and make you do actions that you regret and trying to change back, to make people forget their preconceptions, can be the hardest thing ever.

The weighty topics aren't the only success of this book, though technically this could be a weighty topic too... What surprised me most was the successful combination of science and sorcery, or modern in the medieval if you would. Who would have ever thought that these two could cohabitate peacefully together? Yes, there's a certain amount of potions and herbalism that is associated with the days of yore and armor and King Arthur, but advanced science? Oh no. Look even to Harry Potter, electricity, computers, modern medicine like stitches are a world apart. These two disciplines are usually like oil and water, never the twain shall meet. But here they meet and clash and form something new and awesome. Robotic arms, special armor, experiments with deadly poisons to make super soldiers work with those robotic arms actually wielding swords! And then there's Nimona at the heart of it. If this wasn't a world that combined science and sorcery she would have been stoned as a witch and that would have been the end of her life and we would have missed out because we wouldn't have gotten to hear her story. Instead, because science exists, she is experimented on, she is a lab rat to further this science and therefore has hidden depths and emotions and reasons that Blackheart could never have ever guessed at. Seriously, science!

Though none of this awesomeness would have entered my life if not for Rainbow Rowell. The only reason I picked up Fangirl in the first place, prior to all the buzz, was because I loved the cover. A cover done by Noelle Stevenson. A few months back I was at my local comic store picking up my backlog of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and Faith comics when I spied Lumberjanes Volume 1: The Kitty Holy. I instantly recognized Noelle Stevenson's style and wanted to buy it. Being on a very tight budget I instead went home and reserved it through the library where I saw she had another book called Nimona, so I reserved that as well. After quite a long time, Noelle's books had some serious wait lists yo, I got my two books and got snugly in my reading chair and set to. Lumberjanes was a serious disappointment. I had all manner of dislike almost bordering on hate for that comic. Yes, I know I'm in the minority here, but I don't like it and nothing you can say will change my mind. At least the second volume was better with less typos and I'll leave it at that. Because of this setback I really didn't expect much from Nimona and it blew me away. How could these two books be done by the same author? Is it the coauthors fault? And it wasn't a case of "last worst book I read" wherein anything you read next will be awesome, because I re-read Nimona once I bought my own copy back to back with two other awesome books and it might actually have been even better. So just go out and buy it already, it will save you having a long wait to get it from the library and then having to buy your own copy anyway.

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