Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review 2013 #1 - Deanna Raybourn's A Spear of Summer Grass

A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Harlequin MIRA
Publication Date: April 23rd, 2013
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."

- Walt Whitman

With her latest scandal, another husband dead, this time via suicide, and a fight for the his inheritance of the Volkonsky jewels arising, Delilah Drummond's family has come together in Paris to discuss her exile. She must remove herself from public scrutiny or face being cut off forever by her Grandfather back in New Orleans. The imperial "they" have decided that she will hide herself away at her ex step father's house Fairlight, in Kenya. Delilah doesn't have much of a say and agrees to the arranged banishment, knowing full well that as soon as the allotted time is over she will be back in Paris, or New York, or whatever city will have her, probably not New York... that pesky Volstead act kind of puts a kink in ones cocktails.

Arriving in Africa with her "devoted" cousin Dodo as her chaperon, Delilah doesn't quite know what to make of her situation. Firstly, Fairlight is in far worse shape then she was led to believe. Secondly, she is now a part of Kenyan society. A society made up of the outcasts of respectable civilization, meaning mainly people Delilah already knows. It's quite a shock to be relocated but still surrounded by those who were a little too outre for everyone else. There is a part of Delilah that feels at home picking back up where she left off before getting married to husband number two with the artist Kit Parrymore, located near at hand on the Fairlight property. Also the dinner parties hosted by Rex and Helen Farrady, as the reigning King and Queen of Kenya, are just the kind of social occasions Delilah is used to with booze flowing and witty conversation larded with innuendo. Though Helen's private parties are another story...

Soon Delilah is fighting not just her new found love for Africa and the new world and experiences she has reluctantly embraced, but she's also fighting her attraction to Ryder White. Ryder, that great white hunter. The man of contradictions, who believes in the preservation of Africa and it's animals, while also leading Safaris for those who are willing to overpay him. For the first time Delilah isn't giving in immediately to her fleeting fancies... but that could be because Ryder rankled her with placing a bet that he would be the first to bed her. Is it wrong that she took delight in sleeping with Kit so fast just to make him lose? Yet, how long can she deny that she has stumbled into everything she's ever needed?

Like the Whitman poem the book takes it's title from, there's a freshness, a freeness to Deanna's Africa with its overt sexuality that makes this book an addictive and delicious read. While I feel that this is the best Raybourn book I have read I have a feeling that the rawness and sexuality might deter other readers, whereas I felt that it perfectly captured the time and the place that was epitomized in Delilah. Raybourn is able to take old tales and stories from the Happy Valley Days and inject a new life to them. Helen's bathtub, and in fact Helen herself, with nods to Idina Sackville, doesn't feel heavy with the baggage of multiple retellings. Deanna was able to incorporate aspects and anecdotes of the time without making it feel like you've heard it all before, which is a true gift after all the books on Africa I have recently read. Deanna made Africa feel new to me, and I don't think there are many authors or books I can say that about. Delilah had so much life that, while we do get a mystery buried deep down, A Spear of Summer Grass is more a character study then a whodunit, and I didn't regret that for a minute.

The most refreshing aspect though was that while Delilah had the Great War baggage and the night terrors and all the typical signs of PTSD, we are not forced to dwell on this. As I have ranted before, so many modern books belabour this point and make more of it then what it is, not a part of the character, but something that is bigger then the character and becomes a separate entity weighing down the whole book. Delilah is damaged, but everyone in Africa is damaged in some way according to Ryder. Blessedly Deanna handles this balance just perfectly and I didn't have to read about guns in the distance causing flashbacks, yet again.

Being a book that is more a character study, it was the originality and the connection between these characters that made this book get devoured by my eyes. While I do really really like Ryder as the hero and his luscious Han Solo Harrison Fordness which was tailor made for the fair Princesses among us, he wasn't the big draw for me. The two characters I connected with most are Ryder's best friend Gideon and his little lame brother Moses, who are native Masai. The way Gideon becomes Delilah's best friend and how they bond over just talking about the simplest of things, like the Masai words for plants, made him far and away my favorite character in the book. He was so real that he walked right out of the pages and into my heart. Likewise his younger brother Moses. To not only have a connection because of his being a sweet boy with a lame leg who doesn't speak, I mean, how could you not love the little Tiny Timness of him? But to then have that couched in the language of what these things really mean within Masai culture, and how his disability means that he is not only different, but that because of this he can't get cattle to raise and if he doesn't get the cattle then there is no way he can afford a dowry and without that he will never marry and have a fulfilled life. The fact that Delilah hires him, that this simple gesture means that Moses could have a real and full life because he is now able to contribute, makes you have the feels all the more. I would even go so far as to say that because of Deanna's integration of characters and culture, that you get to read a deeper book them most of the books on Africa out there.

But if you really want more Ryder, and I can't really blame you, you should check out his little prequel novella, Far in the Wilds. Now I must go listen to some music, because if there is only one flaw in the book, it's that now I can't get Tom Jones's Delilah out of my head...

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review 2013 #2 - M.M. Kaye's Death in Kenya

Death in Kenya by M.M. Kaye
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: 1958
Format: Paperback, 204 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

It isn't until Victoria gets off the train in Kenya that she realizes that it was a big mistake to even come. Yet she thought the offer from her Aunt Em to help with her estate, Flamingo, was a dream come true. After the death of Victoria's mother, it's not like she had anything left for her in England and she longed to return to the Rift Valley where she had spent her happiest days as a child. Though Em's son Eden is there. They were once engaged, but Eden ran off and married Alice... Alice was the reason the Victoria thought it was safe to take Em up on the offer. With Alice there, Victoria's feelings couldn't resurface, it wouldn't be right. But right and wrong have a way of being blurred when you live in this small knit community recovering for the bloody Mau Mau rebellion.

Victoria's error in judgement is compounded when Em's friend Drew Stratton picks her up at the station and she learns of Alice's murder just hours before. Victoria is now not only thrown into a family in turmoil, but her heart is in danger of falling for the grieving Eden all over again. While she is not a suspect, being en route at the time, she doesn't know who to trust... anyone in this community could be the killer. There is also every chance the killer could strike again.

Despite being told for years to read M.M. Kaye, I have been negligent in my reading, until now. The truth of the matter is, give me something with a bit of a mystery, with a little bit of the unexplained, and I'm a sucker, therefore this book appealed to me more then her doorstop of an epic, The Far Pavilions. While at times this book was a bit too history lesson combined with police procedural, Kaye was able to not only capture the era so well, but the lush rift valley was made alive for me in a way that other authors, Frances Osborne in particular, where unable to do. I felt like I was transported. The descriptions of the lush vegetation and the burnt charcoal cairns, the music drifting across the lawns and the clink of glasses as the inhabitants had just one more drink. I was there with Victoria, yet thankfully not able to become the next victim.

While I could fault the book's constant police presence, I just can't. The suspects being in constant contact with each other could have given this book a feel like Agatha Christie rounding up the suspects for Poirot, but for some reason, the more modern feeling of the setting with the Mau Mau Rebellion, made me think that this felt more like the movie Scream. Now, I know what you're thinking, this comparison couldn't possibly be flattering to the book... yet it is. Scream has a campy fun to it that I very much like and take into account that this movie is also about a close knit community, a group of friends and family who always have the cops on hand and are always in each others presence, usually in just the one house, but the danger and the death is always there. The fact that the killer also uses a disguise... well, I know it's not Ghostface... and other killers do use disguises... but the ending clinches the comparison for me, and if I said it here, well that would be telling. Just, when you read this book, which you will, when you get to the end, just come back and tell me I'm a little bit right with my comparison. And speaking of the ending... I really didn't see that coming, now did you? Yes, I'm assuming that you have now gone and read the book and returned.

Kaye must also be applauded with how she deals with love and lust. Many authors just don't get the romance right. Either it's over the top or unrealistic. While she does underplay the extremely romantic love interest that I feel is at the heart of this book and therefore makes it work more, she is also able to juggle all the star crossed lovers and inappropriate dalliances that happen among a small group. As Fabrice says to Fanny in Love in a Cold Climate, "She lives, as all those sort of women do, in one little tiny group or set, and sooner or later everybody in that set becomes the lover of everybody else, so that when they change their lovers it is more like a cabinet reshuffle than a new government. Always chosen out of the same old lot, you see." Here, cut off from any other society, the cabinet is reshuffled often. Though in the end... it ends on just the right note. I hate when after all the killing and death if the right people don't end up together, don't you?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Tuesday Tomorrow

Manor of Secrets by Katherine Longshire
Published by: Point
Publication Date: January 28th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The year is 1911. And at The Manor, nothing is as it seems . . .

Lady Charlotte Edmonds: Beautiful, wealthy, and sheltered, Charlotte feels suffocated by the strictures of upper-crust society. She longs to see the world beyond The Manor, to seek out high adventure. And most of all, romance.

Janie Seward: Fiery, hardworking, and clever, Janie knows she can be more than just a kitchen maid. But she isn't sure she possesses the courage -- or the means -- to break free and follow her passions.

Both Charlotte and Janie are ready for change. As their paths overlap in the gilded hallways and dark corridors of The Manor, rules are broken and secrets are revealed. Secrets that will alter the course of their lives. . . forever."

Hmmm... sounds  very Downton-esque wouldn't you say?

The Paris Plot by Teresa Grant
Published by: Kensington Books
Publication Date: January 28th, 2014
Format: E-Book
To Buy

The official patter:
"In the fallout of one of history’s bloodiest battles, a personal war is waged…

Paris in 1816 is reeling from the Battle of Waterloo, and relations between the British and French are uneasy at best. So it’s hardly a surprise to British attaché and Intelligence Agent Malcolm Rannoch when he and his wife Suzanne, soon to give birth to their second child, become the target of violent threats. Malcolm is certain that the secrets of his past have caught up with him—but he’s unaware that Suzanne has more than a few secrets of her own…

The Rannochs both served as spies throughout the Napoleonic Wars, Malcolm for the British and Suzanne for the Bonapartist French—and both could have left any number of enemies in their wake. But even for two seasoned agents, finding a would-be killer in a country where allegiances are tested and no one can be trusted may prove as impossible as escaping their history…"

I love that authors are taking advantage more and more of e-books. I love a good old fashioned physical book, but when in a pinch, yeah for my Kindle!

The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson
Published by: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: January 28th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 272 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Elizabeth is a demure twenty-three-year-old wiling her life away at a dull museum job, living with her neurotic aunt, and subsisting off her dead mother’s inheritance. When Elizabeth begins to suffer terrible migraines and backaches, her aunt takes her to the doctor, then to a psychiatrist. But slowly, and with Jackson’s characteristic chill, we learn that Elizabeth is not just one girl—but four separate, self-destructive personalities. The Bird’s Nest, Jackson’s third novel, develops hallmarks of the horror master’s most unsettling work: tormented heroines, riveting familial mysteries, and a disquieting vision inside the human mind."

So did I preorder this months ago... yes I did.

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
Published by: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: January 28th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 240 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Before there was Hill House, there was the Halloran mansion of Jackson’s stunningly creepy fourth novel, The Sundial. When the Halloran clan gathers at the family home for a funeral, no one is surprised when the somewhat peculiar Aunt Fanny wanders off into the secret garden. But then she returns to report an astonishing vision of an apocalypse from which only the Hallorans and their hangers-on will be spared, and the family finds itself engulfed in growing madness, fear, and violence as they prepare for a terrible new world."

Ditto above!

Ravenscliffe by Jane Sanderson
Published by: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication Date: January 28th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 544 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Yorkshire, 1904. On Netherwood Common, Russian émigré Anna Rabinovich shows her dear friend Eve Williams a house: a Victorian villa, solidly built from local stone. This is Ravenscliffe, and it’s the house Anna wants them to live in. It’s their house, she says. It was meant to be.

As Anna transforms Ravenscliffe, an attraction grows between her and union man Amos. But when Eve’s long-lost brother Silas turns up in the closely-knit mining community of Netherwood, cracks begin to appear in even the strongest friendships.

Meanwhile, at Netherwood Hall, cherished traditions are being undermined by the whims of the feckless heir to the title, Tobias Hoyland, and his American bride Thea Stirling. Below stairs, the loyal servants strive to preserve the noble family’s dignity and reputation. But both inside the great house and in the world beyond, values and loyalties are rapidly changing."

Sequel to awesomeness and awesome too.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review 2013 #3 -Stephen King's The Shining

The Shining by Stephen King
Published by: Pocket Books
Publication Date: January28th, 1977
Format: Paperback, 683 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Jack Torrence has one last chance. Despite giving up on the drinking, his life has continued a downward spiral, sending him away from his prestigious job at a Vermont Prep school, to Colorado, where he is almost begging for a job as the winter caretaker of The Overlook Hotel. He has his wife and child to think of. Poor Wendy, who has stood by him through everything, even when he broke their Danny's arm, though he has a suspicion she will never forgive him for that. Then there's Danny. He's not like other children. He knows things before they happen. He claims that his friend Tony shows him things, which invariably lead to Danny passing out. Danny isn't the invisible friend they assume him to be. Danny has "the shine." He knows things he shouldn't, and that can be unnerving.

When the family arrive at The Overlook, they think it's just what they all need. Several months together to reunite them. Jack has no access to alcohol and has time to finish the play he always says he's working on. Yet the cook warns Danny that there are things in the hotel. Dick Hallorann also has "the shine." But he naively tells Danny that what he sees in the hotel is like a book, nasty images, but they can't hurt you... the day the snow traps them in, the hotel proves that Mr. Hallorann is very wrong. The hotel has a different plan for the Torrence family, and they will do whatever it takes to get Danny.

In this day and age there is no way that you have lived in this world without knowledge of The Shining. Of course this is more to do with the film's popularity then the phenomenal success of King as a writer. Which, seen from King's point of view, would be irksome. But still, the image of the two Grady girls at the end of the hallway, or more importantly, Jack Nicholson hacking down the bathroom door with an axe, have become part of our shared cultural experiences. As has "redrum." Therefore, going into the novel, much of the suspense as to the horrific future visions that Tony shows Danny are nullified by the fact that we know the monster with the roque mallet is his father and that the mysterious "redrum" is "murder" backwards. So, the question is, was I able to enjoy the book knowing so much about it in advance? Yes I was.

In mentioning his influences for the book King sighted Shirley Jackson, and right from the start, I could feel that vibe at work. The supernatural elements combined with the darker elements of human nature strongly remind me of Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Yet, at some point in the book, King takes a wrong turn and decides that to fully bring across the "haunting" that it is better to show then tell. This is where I think The Shining looses some of it's punch. While I will agree with King that there is distinctly a supernatural element, not Kubrick's take as a malignancy from within Jack creating the "ghosts," despite how fucked up I think Jack to be and how some of my feelings do align with Kubrick's interpretation, there is a point where it's better to leave things to the imagination. What we can create in our head is far more terrifying then ghosts in dog suits barking at you. Little things, like the elevator running on it's own in the night, a cat party mask appearing on the floor, sounds of a party... these things, if never fully explained would have scared me far more then having to endure Jack at a party talking to these long dead people. How about we see the party like we did later, only from Wendy and Danny's point of view? They just hear Jack talking to himself and some general party noises. This would be more disturbing, and leave the whole issue of what is happening to Jack up for debate. Take a cue from Shirley Jackson, the queen of ambiguity. The most horrific scene in The Shining, the mysterious evil presence in the cement tubes on the playground... never explained, deliciously evil.

There is also the issue of Wendy and Jack. Because the book delves into Jack's past and his violent tendencies, the eventual manifestation of his attacking his family seemed a foregone conclusion, even if Tony's "visions" didn't tip you off. All I kept thinking the entire book was how ineffectual Wendy is. Yes, she is also depicted as such in the movie, but in the book you realize how really stupid she is. I mean, the warning signs were all there, why didn't she just leave her husband? Why did it take a hotel trying to go after her son through her husband to realize his abusive tendencies could be fatal. I mean he breaks her back, literally!?! But before that there was the years of drinking, and the fact that his violent outbursts were worse after he gave up drinking... well, sorry Wendy honey, you should have left long ago, before the snow made it impossible. Also, if you're so worried about your son and his health that you use all your extra money to get a phone line installed in your apartment and then agree to be snowbound for six months, you are really a shitty parent, just fyi.

In the final analysis though, the one major flaw of the book was that it needed to be edited. Cull about half the book and you would have had a taut, terrifying, horrific book, and I would have loved every minute of it. As it is... well... there were peaks and troughs. Did Jack Torrence really need to wipe his mouth, oh, let's say fifty million times, because that's how it felt? No, he didn't. Did we need to hear about the Torrence's sex life, which I'm guessing is the only (and very selfish) reason Wendy stayed around? Again, a resounding no. Did we need to follow Dick Hallorann every single step along the way back to Colorado from Florida? Hell no. Finally, did we need chapters and chapters of Jack in the basement sifting though old magazines and newspapers? Another resounding no. Tighter, tauter, more effective. Though I think this is a flaw that we will never cure King of...

Yet, despite all the flaws, this book holds up particularly well. It was a fun read to pick up on a hot summer night when snow actually sounded appealing. What helped was that it was a long time since I had watched the movie, so there was a nice fuzziness around the corners of my memory that helped me enjoy the book. As mentioned before, this book can not be taken out of context to the movie. So how do the two work together? I found it interesting how Kubrick hinted at the back story and how the Grady girls ghosts were added, which seemed like a natural inclusion that the book omitted. The two are interesting to compare side by side because there are things King did better and there are things Kubrick did better, and, there's a wish I have deep down that perhaps if Kubrick had been willing to take more of King's help that maybe the film would have benefited from it, in it's narrative not imagery, because, as King has said, the movie has very memorable imagery. Though, I think it may shock some, but in the end, if I had to chose between the two, well, I'd choose the book. Hands down.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Review 2013 #4 - Paul Magrs's From Wildthyme with Love

From Wildthyme with Love by Paul Magrs
ARC provided by the author (Thanks Paul!)
Published by: Snowbooks
Publication Date: April 1st, 2012
Format: Paperback, 431 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Iris and Panda are sadly separated, but despite the time and distance between them they are keeping in touch until the happy day when Panda is back aboard the Celestial Omnibus. While Iris has her bus and is in the far flung reaches of the galaxy, Panda has been more Earth bound going to parties with Ngaio Marsh and spending Christmas aboard an ill-fated star cruiser. Yet they both miss each other so much that Iris aligns herself with a robot version of Panda, Pand R, and Panda goes off exploring the galaxy with an older, sexier, but bleaker version of Iris. Sadly for us readers, once they do reunite we will never get to read anymore of their fabulous correspondence.

I have always been a sucker for the epistolary novel. The nature of reading someone else's correspondence is illuminating and also slightly thrilling, like it's something you're not supposed to read. Fact or fiction, this device gets me every time. I always wonder what it would have been like if Jane Austen had kept Sense and Sensibility in her original epistolary form... ah, what I wouldn't give to have read that version as well. The most famous and one of my most favorite examples is Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road. In her correspondence with Frank Doel she created an instant classic, a classic that Paul and I are very much a fan of. In fact Paul wrote an homage, if you will, to Helene in his book 666 Charing Cross Road. He perfectly captured her and her voice, though never actually writing in the epistolary form. It has to be said that his foray finally into this style is an unequivocal success. This is Paul's personal epistolary tribute to Doctor Who with Panda and Iris poking fun at and saying all the snide asides we have all voiced from time to time but in the end come from a place of love. From Wildthyme with Love is a snorting good time, literally.

Speaking of snorting... let's talk about the literal LOL, the laugh out loud. If you are lucky you have a good sense of humor. You know what's funny and what isn't and you take joy in sharing a joke and laughing. Yet there are many forms of laughter. There is of course the unexpected laughter where you're out in public and you try to contain it because you don't want to draw attention to yourself, here I will add a note that perhaps it's not best to watch How I Met Your Mother on a treadmill at the gym because, well, this will happen quite frequently. There's the slow build laughter the leads to painful clutching of sides and perhaps falling off furniture, this usually requires other people, usually close friends to help induce and sustain this state. There's just the quick bark or smile you get while watching television, which is probably the most common. But there is a rare laugh... the embarrassing kind that I find to be the truest form of laughter.

When reading I rarely laugh out loud, there's usually a small knowing smile that I get, but beyond that, no verbalization. So when I say that From Wildthyme with Love actually had be doing my most embarrassing snort laugh... you can be guaranteed of the humor. The snort laugh is so guttural and also mildly offensive, that it comes from deep within you and can not be contained. If others are present, you will be red with embarrassment. The fact that I did it more then once... yeah, this book's a keeper. Almost everything in this book is a laugh out loud joke and if I were to highlight all my favorites, well, the whole book would be highlighted if I did each one. In fact, because I just had the word doc that Paul sent me I had to order a copy for my shelves because I knew that without this book proudly displayed my shelves wouldn't be quite the library they would be otherwise.

So what was it that made me snort? Well, Panda and his rather disastrous Christmas back in 2007. In his letter to Iris he said:

"You've missed Christmas. I went off and spent it on a cruise liner. Turned out we were traveling through bloody space! I met a nice girl serving drinks who looked a bit like that one off 'Neighbors'... I wasn't quite sure what was going on at that point - something about angels chasing after us and I almost spilled my drink walking a tightrope over a bloody inferno."

This succinct and cynical take on the David Tennant/Kylie Minogue Doctor Who episode "Voyage of the Damned" captures everything odd and wrong about the episode but never goes so far as to condemn it. This whole book is an ode to The Doctor and his fifty years. There is real love from Iris. There is love for the camp and the crazy, the stunt casting and the multiple bickering Doctors. Having just recently watched "The Three Doctors" I was loving Panda's recap of his own personal "Three Pandas" experience: 

"There are two other Panda's here! One is much younger and far more frivolous than I, and the other seems to be terribly old and venerable. He didn't even make it through the Event Horizon or whatever, and we can only see him on Skype, thank goodness. Looks like he might smell of wee, TBH."

With loving jabs at everything from lost footage to negotiating with an over-sized scrotum (I call him penis face, but to each his own), to the "penultimate question," to a hilarious party where Panda messes with Ngaio Marsh saying that in the future nobody knows who Agatha Christie is but was later interrupted by a giant wasp, from the Hartnell years up to the present series, each and every joke and insight made me want to just embrace this slim volume and never let it go! Also, this book with a nod and a wink brings up the fact that, just perhaps, The Doctor has been taking all of Iris's best stories and claiming them as his own...

This book gave me faith in the show again. This past season with Matt Smith where I kept feeling that the material never lived up to the potential was nicely recapped as "I think she's got her knickers in a twist recently because of the convoluted story arc she's muddled up in. Feeling a bit mithered as a result." After reading and living life as a full time Whovian for the past few weeks I was feeling the same, I was flagging there, but this book brought me back. It refreshed me and made me so happy, which I have to say, some days that's a hard thing to do. If you aren't a Doctor Who fan... and I do know you're out there, will you be able to enjoy this book? Hell yes, even if you don't get all the context, the content is beyond a doubt hysterical. With Pand R being like an annoying Scrappy Doo and little jokes about Philippa Gregory, it does work outside the sphere of Doctor Who. From Wildthyme with Love is wonderfully funny, snarky, and just lovely.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book Review - Armistead Maupin's The Days of Anna Madrigal

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: January 21st, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 288 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Anna Madrigal senses her time is coming. She has lived a long and blessed life and has surrounded herself with her logical family, but it might be time to leave them soon. Though there is something in her past, out there in the shadows of the whorehouse where she grew up a he, out in Winnemucca that must be laid to rest before she is. The mass exodus of San Francisco to Nevada takes the disparate souls in different directions. Michael, Ben, Shawna, Jake, and a few surprising others are head to Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, while Brian, his new wife Wren, and Anna are headed to Winnemucca. Will their journeys be transformative? Anything might happen in a world where we just follow the road laid out before us to the life we're meant to lead.

Even though Barbary Lane is long gone, sold off by Anna Madrigal, returning to the Tales of the City books is like checking in with long lost friends. They might have moved, they might have aged, but they are still your family. While I didn't really discover these books till recent years, I feel like I have known the characters all my life... so it was hard to say goodbye. The truth is, I really don't want to let them go, but I will always admire an author who decides when to end a series properly versus having the decision forced on him by time or circumstances. That being said, I didn't really like the ending because it wasn't really an ending at all. I get that Maupin is trying to mirror life and life doesn't have neat little endings tied up with a bow. But despite the roman à clef nature of these books, they are books. I personally like a little bit of bow tying in my books. Just a little...

Anna Madrigal, that mysterious anagram, has always been the locus of this rag tag group. With her getting ready to go it makes sense that now is the time to let go gracefully, and thankfully for us she gets ready to go in style, unlike the medical crises that marred the endings of the previous two books. We learn more about Anna's past then we ever could have hoped for. She has always been an enigma, little bits and pieces of her life hinted at here and there. While the picture is not complete, there is a feeling that we know all the secrets that she is willing to part with. Also, I love how Maupin handled the infamous anagram. In a strange twist of fate "Anna Madrigal" can be rearranged to form "a man and a girl." This was unintentional on Maupin's part, and while I liked this little take on happenstance giving us an answer, I never thought that this was the real reason for Anna choosing this name. While it might have been felicitous, it never felt like the truth, just another half truth from Mrs. Madrigal's lips. Finding the truth out after all this time... it was satisfying. Perhaps that was my bow...

But what has always made these books appealing to me is that the characters feel like family that are giving you a glimpse of a different life to your own, a chance to connect with different people and experiences, and vicariously live through them, and yes, they do satisfy a deep seeded need of mine to go back to San Francisco. In particular regard to this newest book I'm actually not talking about San Francisco, I'm talking about Burning Man. Sometime when I was in college I first heard about Burning Man, mainly because my friend Orelia was going one year and I vaguely remembered a TA of mine talking about it as well. Seemed like an interesting concept, didn't really leave much impact on me other then I knew a few people who went and loved it. Years have gone by and even more people I know have gone, so, I'm a little more interested, but that's about all, I have a vague idea of what goes on, but other then that, it's peripheral to my life, I'm interested in blog posts about outfits people are making, but, whatever.

Enter The Days of Anna Madrigal. For the first time in my life I get it, I understand Burning Man. Maupin placed me there on the playa with the alkali flats and the dust swirling around me so that I can't even see. I can see why it would appeal to him and how the world created there has the same twists of fate and bizarre coincidences that his world in Tales of the City has always embodied. I also love that it is an event that celebrates creation and makers. Art that is made just to be made, it's the act that is important, not the finished product. This experience I was vicariously living showed me just how opposite this world is to my own. I try to live in a very organized, clean, structured world that relies more on the end result of my labors then the labor itself. I have tried to open myself up to other experiences, art forms, like letterpress, wherein the act of creating is just as important as what you create. But at the end of the day, I liked having this experience from a distance. This is an experience I realized I can do without in my life, much like Michael learned. But am I different from learning about it? Yes I am. But you can call me Couch Lady.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: January 21st, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 288 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The Days of Anna Madrigal, the suspenseful, comic, and touching ninth novel in Armistead Maupin’s bestselling “Tales of the City” series, follows one of modern literature’s most unforgettable and enduring characters—Anna Madrigal, the legendary transgender landlady of 28 Barbary Lane—as she embarks on a road trip that will take her deep into her past.

Now ninety-two, and committed to the notion of “leaving like a lady,” Mrs. Madrigal has seemingly found peace with her “logical family” in San Francisco: her devoted young caretaker Jake Greenleaf; her former tenant Brian Hawkins and his daughter Shawna; and Michael Tolliver and Mary Ann Singleton, who have known and loved Anna for nearly four decades.

Some members of Anna’s family are bound for the otherworldly landscape of Burning Man, the art community in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where 60,000 revelers gather to construct a city designed to last only one week. Anna herself has another destination in mind: a lonely stretch of road outside of Winnemucca where the 16-year-old boy she once was ran away from the whorehouse he called home. With Brian and his beat-up RV, she journeys into the dusty troubled heart of her Depression childhood to unearth a lifetime of secrets and dreams and attend to unfinished business she has long avoided."

CAN NOT WAIT! WANT NOW! This is a series I just love and I adore the fact that it keeps continuing, though I wish all the covers still slotted together to do one large panorama of the city. Loved that book design!

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: January 21st, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From the author of New York Times bestseller Garden Spells comes a beautiful, haunting story of old loves and new, and the power of the connections that bind us forever…

The first time Eby Pim saw Lost Lake, it was on a picture postcard. Just an old photo and a few words on a small square of heavy stock, but when she saw it, she knew she was seeing her future.

That was half a life ago. Now Lost Lake is about to slip into Eby’s past. Her husband George is long passed. Most of her demanding extended family are gone. All that’s left is a once-charming collection of lakeside cabins succumbing to the Southern Georgia heat and damp, and an assortment of faithful misfits drawn back to Lost Lake year after year by their own unspoken dreams and desires.

It’s a lot, but not enough to keep Eby from relinquishing Lost Lake to a developer with cash in hand, and calling this her final summer at the lake. Until one last chance at family knocks on her door.

Lost Lake is where Kate Pheris spent her last best summer at the age of twelve, before she learned of loneliness, and heartbreak, and loss. Now she’s all too familiar with those things, but she knows about hope too, thanks to her resilient daughter Devin, and her own willingness to start moving forward. Perhaps at Lost Lake her little girl can cling to her own childhood for just a little longer… and maybe Kate herself can rediscover something that slipped through her fingers so long ago.

One after another, people find their way to Lost Lake, looking for something that they weren’t sure they needed in the first place: love, closure, a second chance, peace, a mystery solved, a heart mended. Can they find what they need before it’s too late?

At once atmospheric and enchanting, Lost Lake shows Sarah Addison Allen at her finest, illuminating the secret longings and the everyday magic that wait to be discovered in the unlikeliest of places."

Anyone else want to just move into that cover and wonder around? Because I sure do!

Dirty Magic by Jaye Wells
Published by: Orbit
Publication Date: January 21st, 2014
Format: Paperback, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:

The Magical Enforcement Agency keeps dirty magic off the streets, but there's a new blend out there that's as deadly as it is elusive. When patrol cop Kate Prospero shoots the lead snitch in this crucial case, she's brought in to explain herself. But the more she learns about the investigation, the more she realizes she must secure a spot on the MEA task force.

Especially when she discovers that their lead suspect is the man she walked away from ten years earlier - on the same day she swore she'd given up dirty magic for good. Kate Prospero's about to learn the hard way that crossing a wizard will always get you burned, and that when it comes to magic, you should never say never."

Hopefully a fun new series by Jaye Wells. Does anyone else think Harry Dresden when looking at this cover?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review 2013 #5 - Jane Sanderson's Netherwood

Netherwood by Jane Sanderson
Published by: Sphere
Publication Date: September 29th, 2011
Format: Paperback, 455 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition then one reviewed)

Eve Williams and her husband Arthur live a hard but satisfying life. When Eve was growing up in Grangely never did she think that she would end up in Netherwood, married to a good man who worked hard in Lord Netherwood's mines, with three beautiful children, where a good meal on the table and a clean house would be her pride and joy. Though her life is about to be tested in many ways. The miners in Grangely have been trying to improve their conditions by unionizing and instead have been given the boot. Eve feels it's her duty to help those who haven't been given the opportunities she has. Eve and Arthur agree to take in a refuge, Anna, and her baby. Anna's husband has recently died and Anna is far from home, having fled disapproving parents in Eastern Europe. When Eve's world comes crashing down with the cave-in that kills Arthur, it is Anna who gives her the impetus to go on.

Anna tells Eve that she must do something. Eve must find a way to make money and save her family from penury, because there is no one else to do it. Buoyed by her family and friends, Eve opens up a pie shop in her front parlor, catering to simple Yorkshire fare. Drop scones, Yorkshire pudding, raised pork pies, the food of the common man cooked uncommonly well. And Anna and Eve do uncommonly well. They have a steady income and they are financially secure. But Anna, she has ambitions, she sees a bigger shop, a tea room, she has the entrepreneur in her bones and without Anna, Eve wouldn't be grabbing at life with both hands. Soon Eve's cooking comes to the attention of the great house and Lord Netherwood asks for Eve to cook for his son's coming of age party. This one job is the beginning of a life Eve could never have imagined. Cooking for the aristocracy and even the King! She might have lost everything when she lost Arthur, but if Arthur could only see her now, she hopes he'd be proud.

While, I won't disagree with the books claim to be "Perfect for fans of Downton Abbey," I am after all a fan of Downton and thought this book was perfect, but I will also say that it is a little misleading. This is like a gritter Yorkshire version of Upstairs, Downstairs, where the "downstairs" encompasses not just those physically in the grand estate, but those under the protection and sufferance of the grand family in the village, especially those working for the family under dangerous conditions mining their coal seam. It took me awhile to get into Netherwood because of my erroneous expectations, but once I started to expand my view beyond the grand house I kept expecting to take center stage I realized how much more interesting a book about all these interconnected lives surrounding the house was. This gulf between the haves and the have-nots is more prominent because of the lower classes being not just downstairs, but down the mines. It expanded the traditional narrative of this type of manor house book and gave me a broader and more interesting canvas then I would have expected. From labor disputes to unions to downstairs skirmishes, this book was willing to not shy away from unsavory topics, much like Upstairs, Downstairs did in it's time with addressing real issues while also being entertainment, unlike a show like Downton, which only seems to cover issues like suffrage because it's a "period detail" versus an important issue.

There was hardly a character in this book I disliked, even the villains are perfectly villainous and therefore beyond censure. Even the young lordling who will one day be Lord Netherwood was lovable in his own drunken misspent youthful way. While Eve is the cooking virtuoso, I think Anna is the real genius, she sees the opportunities that others don't. You'd expect her to be this meek little widow caring for a newborn, instead she is like a general on a battlefield issuing commands, more pies here, tea room here, expand there, move move move. Each and every character is so vibrant and alive they become your friends and you don't want to leave them, luckily for me there are already two more books in the series. All my fictional friends in this book lead me to worry about them. I fretted about the dynamic between the family and the workers, because you see that there isn't any malice between the two, just misunderstandings. The uniqueness of the characters and their complicated lives made this book just stand out amongst others of its ilk as the pinnacle to which you must strive. In layman's terms, read this book now!

Though be warned, you will be hungry. And not just a little peckish, oh dear no, this book will make you so freakin' hungry you'll be wondering if you have a chance to find a place with pies nearby. Oddly enough I do have a sweet and savory pie shop less then a block away, but it is of dubious repute, so hungry I remained. You know, in some books, the talent or special quality that the hero or heroine has is so ill defined that you just aren't able to connect. That was so not the case here. Jane Sanderson described the cooking and Eve's abilities so well you just wanted to go to her house and eat. Plus, with all the food, this book certainly qualifies as a comfort read. There is something about comfort food and the safety of a kitchen that makes you feel safe and loved. Shows like Pushing Daisies or The Duchess of Duke Street knew this, as do Mrs. Bridges and Mrs. Patmore, by welcoming us into their kitchens, they welcome us into their hearts and they into ours. But the one thing in the entire book that entertained me more then anything else? The lovely idea of "Duchess sized servings!" The idea of basic pies and food but made as finger food so that it wouldn't be off-putting to those of delicate sensibilities and palettes. Too perfect, much like everything in this book. I gotta dash now, Ravenscliffe is calling me!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Book Review 2013 #6 - Lauren Willig's The Passion of the Purple Plumeria

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: NAL Trade
Publication Date: August 6th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 480 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Colonel William Reid is retiring to England to live out his life in leisure with his two daughters, Kat and Lizzy, leaving behind three very different, one very difficult, sons in India. Little does he know that the school in Bath that Lizzy has been attending, Miss Climpson's Academy, seems to be the epicenter of spies in the battle between the French and the English. For two years Miss Gwendolyn Meadows has been at the center of that fight, or slightly next to the center wielding a dangerous parasol as the second in command to Britain's chief operative, The Pink Carnation, aka, Jane Wooliston. She has ostensibly been the dragonish chaperone of Jane while they lived in France with Jane's cousin. Jane has received a missive from her family that finds Jane and Gwen on the steps of Miss Climpson's just as Colonel Reid arrives.

As fate would have it, these three must unit in their cause because Jane's sister, Agnes, has gone missing along with Colonel Reid's daughter Lizzy. William doesn't grasp the seriousness of this, thinking it's just girls being girls. Jane knows that this is probably not the case. Somehow Agnes and therefore Lizzy's disappearance has to do with Jane's subversive activities. When William and Gwen are attacked while inquiring after Lizzy with his other daughter Kat, he comes to see that his little girl is truly in danger. He might have not been the best parent so far, but he was going to fix that. Though the reason for the girls disappearance might just not be Jane's fault and might actually be tangled up with William's most dubious of children, Jack, and not Jane at all... or at least not directly. Rumors are that, besides playing for both the French and the English, Jack has also made off with the famous jewels of Berar... the jewels which are rumored to have been sent to his little sister. This means that they aren't the only ones looking for the girls. That most dangerous of French spies, The Gardener, is also on their trail.

Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series is like the ultimate comfort read, like watching The Princess Bride mixed with Bridget Jones's Diary. There's "fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles"... well, maybe not giants, monsters, or fencing per se, but there is Miss Gwen with a rapier parasol, and Lizzy Reid with a bow and arrow, and Lizzy alone is just as dangerous as those three things together. The release of yet another book in this series brings joy to my heart which was tripled when I realized that The Passion of the Purple Plumeria (an alliteration worthy of Gwen's lurid prose) was yet again raising the bar of this series. To have a long running series, ten books and counting, and to have each entry just as fresh and alive is a fete that Lauren needs a round of applause for. Yet in this installment we have a character we have loved since day one and who has been desperately demanding her own book, seriously, ask Lauren, Miss Gwen said her book was next and so it was.

Miss Gwen has always been a pillar of strength and fortitude. Ready to take down the French with an arch look or a well placed parasol to shin or other vulnerable body parts. We have seen this hilarious yet adept spy trailing behind The Pink Carnation, almost as an accessory to Jane. It is as if Gwen herself was Jane's multifunctional parasol weapon. In The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, we see that the reserve that Jane has always exhibited doesn't exclude Gwen. Gwen is just as in the dark as other agents, just hoping that in lying to herself, that she has found a place where she belongs, working beside Jane. Holding on to the dream that her life has purpose and that this work will continue. Lauren brings such depth to Gwen, showing that while she is strong and kicks ass at her job, there's a vulnerability. Gwen could lose Amy and therefore lose her calling. Beneath the gruff exterior Gwen really does have a gooey center. Yet in revealing Gwen's weaknesses, in showing us her painful history, Lauren doesn't take away anything, Gwen can be both vulnerable and strong. Like a parasol, something light and frilly, but with a hidden sword in the shaft. Gwen is just simply remarkable, "beneath that stern exterior was a lifetime's worth of adventure for the man brave enough to win her."

What we see in Gwen's past sins and also in the destitute life that William's daughter Kat is living, is a different world from the one we are used to in this series. Up until now, any people from lower classes, which weren't that numerous, were always seen in the setting of the world of prosperity. Laura Grey was a governess in a Parisian home, Arabella Dempsey is a teacher at the aforementioned Miss Climpson's Academy, and Letty Alsworthy's family is just a little hard up. Yet they are still in the sphere of influence. They are not in the gutter or in crummy little houses taking in laundry to just get by. Yet these people existed. The children out of wedlock, the family scraping by, these are incidents straight out of Jane Austen that are there, pushed into the corners but never talked about, not really. Here Lauren tackles that to some degree, and in doing so, she has made her world more whole. Every level of humanity makes up the world and in showing us something not quite pleasant there is a satisfying feeling of completion.

And in speaking of completion... how many more books till the end? Lauren has often said that this series would be ending soon with Jane's book, yet characters are always speaking up and demanding their own book, ie Sally Fitzhugh coming out next year I hope. I personally would be happy to see this go on for quite some time, as long as Lauren's writing the Pink Carnation series, I will read it. Yet, with her first stand alone, The Ashford Affair, you can see that Lauren has considerable talent and a lot more to offer and that to keep her churning out this series is unfair to her as a writer, I mean, the series does have it's limitations with time period and historical authenticity. But with her second stand alone coming next year, perhaps a happy medium will be reached. Yet one does feel that in the final pages of this book there is a big game changer at the hands of The Gardner. The Passion of the Purple Plumeria does lend itself to flipping the page to the final chapter of The Pink Carnation's story. A final chapter that will be bittersweet.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book Review 2013 #7 - Daisy Goodwin's The American Heiress

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: August 1st, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 468 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Cora Cash is the wealthiest heiress that Newport, New York, and possibly the world has ever seen. Not even the son of that historic family, the Van Der Leydens, is good enough for Cora, or so her mother keeps telling her. Mrs. Cash wants her daughter to rise up above the title the Americans have given her, the Golden Miller's Granddaughter. Mrs. Cash wants what only their new money can get overseas, a "new" title, and the prestige that comes with it. Taking Cora and her horses to England on the family's ship the SS Aspen, she is soon nestled in the bosom of the English Aristocracy. Her rumored equestrian skills secure her an invite to the home of Lord Bridport, Sutton Veney, where he is master of the famous Myddleton Hunt. The day of the hunt will change Cora's life forever. Her seat on her horse is impeccable, several people even comment that she could be mistaken for being English. Yet separated from the pack she falls off her horse in a copse of trees and is rescued by a young man.

The young man happens to be Ivo, the Duke of Wareham, whose estate, Lulworth, Cora happened to stumble into. Ivo has been shut away from the world since the passing of both his father and elder brother and the remarriage of his mother, making her a double duchess. Cora's mother couldn't have arranged a more felicitous meeting had she spent months plotting and scheming. The Duke is in desperate need of money, which her daughter Cora will be glad to give him in exchange for his hand. To Cora's mother it's all a business transaction, but to Cora, it's surprisingly an affair of the heart, which she realizes when Ivo proposes and she accepts out of love. But dreaming of being a Duchess and the reality are two separate things. The English way of life bears little resemblance to the life she has known. Secret codes of conduct, drafty houses, servants gossiping, Cora didn't know that this is what she was getting into. Add to that Ivo's ex, Charlotte Beauchamp. Charlotte seems to think of taking Cora down a peg in Ivo's eyes as her new favorite game. Can Cora figure out this new world she's thrust herself into, or will she do a flit.

The American Heiress isn't the most deep or philosophical of stories. The plot is pretty predictable, but somehow, the way the story is told and the ease of the storytelling rise it above the mundane and run of the mill and make it a wonderful read that I wanted to devour in one sitting. What makes the book so refreshing is that the story clips along at a great pace. We are never bogged down within the mire of effusive detail or unnecessary information, excepting the end house party which needed a little temporal help. Cora has her coming out ball and then the next chapter she's getting ready for her first hunt in England. Other authors might have documented the entire journey across the Atlantic and Cora's daily routine of walking her horses on the steamship, but thankfully not Daisy Goodwin. We also get the story from multiple characters, from Cora, then from her black ladies maid Bertha, occasionally Cora's mother, add to these multiple viewpoints from characters that aren't even integral parts of the narrative, insignificant characters like the millinery girl who helped Cora once and is now our conduit for Cora's wedding, from outside the church on a street in New York City, and there's a spark to the book that I can't really describe. Perhaps it is because we have more in common with that girl on the street corner and therefore connect with her voyeuristic interest in the story, but for whatever reason you want to give, it just seriously makes this book work.

As for Cora, the buccaneer who actually fell in love, it's almost like this is the promised Downton Abbey prequel, her name is even Cora!  You connect to Cora despite her being everything you're not and a little spoiled to boot. In my mind she's more then a little like Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl. You like her but you're not quite sure why. I was actually worried about her parties and hoping she wouldn't make a mistake or social faux pas and therefore show herself to be a gauche American. She tries so hard to fit and fails or stumbles time and time again I just wanted her to be picked up by Ivo and cherished. And on the downstairs side of the narrative, we have Bertha. Bertha is also like Cora in that she is not fully likable. She takes care of her spoiled mistress, but all the while looking out for her own future with thinking of the resale value of clothes and gloves, or how she can parlay an accidental windfall to her advantage. She's a schemer, but also devoutly loyal. By these two main characters having such diametrically apposing characteristics they become more human, more real, because people don't make sense in reality.

Yet beneath all these trappings of wealth and luxury, Daisy Goodwin is bringing up serious subjects within the confines of an upstairs, downstairs narrative. There is the most obvious, the us versus them mentality that comes between servants and masters, but there is also the us versus them of American versus English, black versus white. Poor Bertha is an outcast in many senses, being black, American, and a servant, she really doesn't fit in anywhere, and therefore those misanthropes among the readers, me included, connect to her plight. But there's also how different Cora and Ivo are. Ivo can not handle the celebrity of wealth that is second nature to Cora growing up in the states, while Cora can't grasp Ivo's reserve or his shame at how she will willingly thrown money at a situation. It's these opposing dynamics that make the book so much more then a love story. And in the end, was it really a love story? The ending was a little too open for my liking...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review - Alan Bradley's The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia De Luce Book 6) by Alan Bradley
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: January 14th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Harriet is returning to Buckshaw. Buckshaw, the home of the de Luce's for not much longer as it is to be sold. With Harriet comes all the other de Luce's. Cousins young and old that Flavia has never met. Considering Flavia doesn't get along with her own siblings, she doesn't hold out much hope for this lot either. But having the family returning and seeing each other for the first time in years means that things that have been buried, old family secrets, rivalries, bodies, including that new one under the train who whispered to Flavia before his demise, all of it could be unearthed by a skilled sleuth who has had a little practice, which she would easily say and even crow about if it didn't annoy the others so much. Flavia is sure something is afoot, and she will figure it out and play God if she is given half a chance.

Originally the Flavia de Luce series was to end with The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches. Luckily, we fans of the series won't have to result to weeping and wailing, pulling out hair and gnashing our teeth because Alan Bradley's contract was extended to include two more books. Sweet relief! Yet there is a nice sense of closure in The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches. We get the denouement he had originally planned to be the culmination of the series, which ends with just the right note and doesn't go in for unrealistic surprises, but we also get a glimpse into what Flavia's future will hold and where the books will go from here.

With the fate of Buckshaw decided and the mystery of Harriet resolved, we get the closure that both us as readers and Flavia as our favorite little precocious poisoner have needed since The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Yet just having all the strings tied together and handed to us in a neat little bow, while giving us closure, wouldn't have given us the depth and intrigue we have come to expect in Bradley's books. Bradley shows us this world of spies and secrets that has always been there, lurking beneath the surface, but never obvious enough to spoil the big reveal. A family as intelligent and as well connected as the de Luce's would be a perfect fit to become government agents, Flavia's governess was teaching her substitution cyphers at a rather young age as it happens. Why else would Winston Churchill show up at Buckshaw for Harriet's return and tell Flavia the cryptic phrases "Pheasant Sandwiches." The book was just delicious with secrets and spies and it made me feel like I was watching the perfection of the first season of The Hour, where you don't know where anyone stands and in a moment your whole world will be upset. In fact, Flavia's world is about to be turned upside down.

While The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches feels like we have reached some sort of endgame, by bringing in the spies and the fact that the Cold War is just beginning in 1951, it feels as if Bradley is securing the longevity of the series by switching gears. Old plots have been wrapped up in order to start anew. By showing the true history of the de Luce's Bradley is setting Flavia center stage for the Cold War. Her genius and her penchant for solving crimes is exactly the kind of genius needed to fight the fight that is to come. Because of all these revelations we see that Flavia herself has changed. She has grown and matured. She realizes that her sisters taunts and jabs were not because she wasn't one of them, but because she was the most like the rest. Daffy and Feely were really the odd ducks out all along. Flavia is the one to carry on the family legacy into this new era.

All this soul searching and revelations make The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches a more intimate novel then in past. While it is the world outside that is at risk, it is what happens within the family, within Flavia, that matters most. There is a shift in Flavia, she is growing up and being able to see herself and her actions from the point of view of others. This insight turns her world on it's head. The way Flavia is even written has changed subtly. For the first time I can remember she makes references to the future and speaks as if what is happening is not in the present but that she is looking back. I will be sad to see this old Flavia go, but I am excited to continue on this journey with her. Though for those who might miss her precocious ways, the introduction of Undine might be a palliative... that's if she doesn't turn into the cousin Oliver of the series.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia De Luce Book 6) by Alan Bradley
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: January 14th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"On a spring morning in 1951, eleven-year-old chemist and aspiring detective Flavia de Luce gathers with her family at the railway station, awaiting the return of her long-lost mother, Harriet. Yet upon the train’s arrival in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey, Flavia is approached by a tall stranger who whispers a cryptic message into her ear. Moments later, he is dead, mysteriously pushed under the train by someone in the crowd. Who was this man, what did his words mean, and why were they intended for Flavia? Back home at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ crumbling estate, Flavia puts her sleuthing skills to the test. Following a trail of clues sparked by the discovery of a reel of film stashed away in the attic, she unravels the deepest secrets of the de Luce clan, involving none other than Winston Churchill himself. Surrounded by family, friends, and a famous pathologist from the Home Office—and making spectacular use of Harriet’s beloved Gypsy Moth plane, Blithe Spirit—Flavia will do anything, even take to the skies, to land a killer."

SO GOOD! Just buy the whole series already won't you?

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
Published by:  Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: January 14th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Rebus and Malcolm Fox go head-to-head when a 30-year-old murder investigation resurfaces, forcing Rebus to confront crimes of the past.

Rebus is back on the force, albeit with a demotion and a chip on his shoulder. He is investigating a car accident when news arrives that a case from 30 years ago is being reopened. Rebus's team from those days is suspected of helping a murderer escape justice to further their own ends.

Malcolm Fox, in what will be his last case as an internal affairs cop, is tasked with finding out the truth. Past and present are about to collide in shocking and murderous fashion. What does Rebus have to hide? And whose side is he really on? His colleagues back then called themselves "The Saints," and swore a bond on something called the Shadow Bible. But times have changed and the crimes of the past may not stay hidden much longer -- and may also play a role in the present, as Scotland gears up for a referendum on independence.

Allegiances are being formed, enemies made, and huge questions asked. Who are the saints and who the sinners? And can the one ever become the other?"

New Rebus! Happy dance... now if only they'd bring back the tv series (but with John Hannah).

The Spledour Falls by Susanna Kearsley
Published by: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: January 14th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 384 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Emily Braden couldn't resist the invitation to join her charming but unreliable cousin, Harry, on a visit to the town of Chinon-where, according to legend, Queen Isabelle hid her treasured jewels during a seige in the 13th century. But when Harry vanishes and Emily begins to search for him, she uncovers the mystery of a different Isabelle. A mystery that dates back to the German occupation during the Second World War. As Emily explores the city, with its labyrinthine tunnels and ancient history, she's drawn ever closer to the mysterious Isabelles and their long-kept secrets."

Yes please!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Book Review 2013 #8 - Margery Allingham's The White Cottage Mystery

The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Bloomsbury Reader
Publication Date: 1928
Format: Kindle, 168 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Jerry Challenor is driving slowly to London. Taking the sleepy back roads and obscure thoroughfares. He is in no hurry, so when he sees an attractive girl alight from a bus with a large burden, he offers her a ride home. She lives at the White Cottage, which is very close at hand. After he drops the girl off he notices that the weather is in for a change and he stops to put the roof up on his convertible and gets to chatting to the local policeman. While relaxing by the side of the road the two men hear the report of a gunshot. They rush to the White Cottage, but someone is dead.

As it happens, Jerry's father is the famous Detective Chief Inspector W.T. Challenor, and Jerry calls him in to handle this mysterious murder. The victim is one Eric Crowther who lived next to the White Cottage in the grey monstrosity, the Dene. No one morns his passing. Every single person who knew him wanted him dead and everyone in the house had means and motive. The shotgun that did the deed was in the corner of the dining room, so anyone could have wandered in and blown him away. For personal reasons Jerry hopes fervently that it is not Norah, the attractive girl he gave a lift to. W.T. is baffled. He could easily arrest anyone in the house with circumstantial evidence, but it's the truth he wants. With Jerry in tow, W.T. heads to the continent and tracks down every lead he can think of... but will he ever make an arrest?

Someone at the BBC needs to make this into a movie right now! This would make a wonderful adaptation, much in the vein of the recent retelling of The Lady Vanishes with Tuppence Middleton. I'm picturing Laurence Fox as the lovestruck son Jerry and his real life father, James Fox, for W.T. Challenor. Perhaps Jenna-Louise Coleman as Norah? I'm telling you, it would be awesome. There was just something so fresh and vital about this story that I can see it appealing to anyone with a love of British period dramas and murder mysteries.

After having rather a rocky go of it with Dorothy L. Sayers, I was starting to become a little leery of my "Golden Summer" scheme. What if all these other hallowed authors where of the same ilk? Great as precursors, as proto-mysteries, as a jumping off point for later authors, but lacking that something that made them timeless and a great read till this day (Agatha Christie is exempt from these thoughts because she is awesome). What if the "Golden Age" wasn't really that golden? Thankfully The White Cottage Mystery has changed my mind and just hardened my heart to Dorothy L. Sayers. Unlike Sayers who fills her books with nonsense and ramblings, there was something so clean and spare to Margery Allingham's book that I wanted to give her book a great big hug. Not literally, because I think that might shatter my Kindle. No nonsense, no fluff, just a great whodunit that reminded me on more then one occasion of the great short stories that Daphne Du Maurier is known for. The style and turn of phrase, not to mention the setting were reminiscent of Du Maurier. And trust me, this is a true compliment from me if I'm comparing Allingham to Du Maurier.

Like Du Maurier and her obsession with the Brontes, Margery Allingham has created in Eric Crowther a character with some very interesting Bronte overtones. It's almost as if Allingham wanted to create a character as psychologically manipulative, hostile, and threatening as Heathcliff and then gleefully kill him. The fact that Crowther, through his machinations and games, is able to keep not only good people in line, but evil degenerates, shows the force of his character. He is an evil man and I echo the sentiments of Jerry that perhaps his death was an "act of God." As for the murderer... well... wait till you get to the final chapter of this lean mean mystery. My faith has been restored by this "act of God" and I will now pick up the first Campion mystery, not with cringing hands, but with a joyful song in my heart.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Book Review 2013 #9 - Kate Morton's The Secret Keeper

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
Published by: Atria
Publication Date: October 16th, 2012
Format: Hardcover, 480 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

When Laurel was a young girl she witnessed her mother kill a man. After that night they never spoke of it ever again. The crime was hushed up by the local police and other then herself and her parents, the rest of the family never knew what happened, especially to the special knife used to cut all the birthday cakes. Now fifty years have passed and Laurel's mom Dorothy is dying. Laurel has spent most of her life not thinking about that day. Shortly after the incident she moved away and has rarely been home since. With time running out, Laurel realizes that she can not let her mother go without finding out why the crime happened.

The answer goes further back then that day Laurel hide in the tree house, it goes back to London during the Blitz. Dorothy was a young girl with big plans for her and her boyfriend Jimmy. She could just see them now, at all the glitzy parties with all the chosen people, all the bright young things. Dorothy wasn't going to be a domestic all her life. Wasn't the fact that she had become friends with the wonderful and glamorous Vivien a sign that she was destined for greater things? Though nothing is as it seems sometimes. Dorothy was desperate to get the life she wanted, so desperate that she might do something stupid. Something that might echo down the ages till a "stranger" wanders up a garden path and dies with a knife buried in his gut.

I remember picking up my first Kate Morton book at Borders one day, it was a copy of The Forgotten Garden. Years later I finally read it and while I wanted to love it, with so much potential as to where the plot could have gone, I was a bit disappointed. Yet there was a part of me dying to give Kate Morton another chance. On a dark and stormy night in October I drove to Oconomowoc to see Kate Morton give a talk on her newest book, The Secret Keeper. She was a delight talking in her melodious voice about peeling wallpaper and everything else she loves. I had actually not read anything about her new book and was delighted to find out that a large portion of it took place during the Blitz. While the Blitz must have been one of the most horrific things to live through, it has a romanticism that draws me. It was a time when life lost it's routine. The world was on hold till one side lost. During this time what life you had was intensified. You seized anything you could and didn't let go. I often wonder if we will ever see an event that could have the same impact, but I know it's unlikely. Thousands of people euthanized their pets because they knew of the danger they would be in and also because of rationing... which makes me question a bit why Kate's new book had a few too many pets... research error or food for later...

Sitting in the little armchair with her perfectly cut hair and lovely boots, Kate read the opening chapter. I have a tendency to not be good at public speaking events, after a few minutes I really start to zone out, but Kate had me just transfixed. While I wanted to listen to the rest of her talk and her question and answer session, there was a part of me that just wanted to sit there in that auditorium and keep reading. I wanted to blot out the rest of the world and make this book my everything. One reason I desired an escape from the world was I was in the midst of my worst semester ever and I longed to lose myself. Another reason was that the book I was reading by Mary Roach was non-fiction and not that much of an escape. Also, there are so many other books I want to read at a given time that sometimes picking my new book over an old book makes it feel like the new book is jumping the queue. So I waited. Then one day before spring break I couldn't take it anymore and just had to pick the book up. I devoured it in four days.

I was grateful that this book didn't have the ambition of The Forgotten Garden. Now, this isn't a slight on the book, it just had a simpler question at it's core. Therefore I had a clear through line to follow. I could see, if partially obscured, what followed what and I didn't go off in flights of fancy imagining killings like Jack the Ripper and dark abuse and murder... all of which happened in reading The Forgotten Garden. Instead I had a wonderful time with three characters. Laurel, I couldn't care less about, but Jimmy, Dorothy and Vivien were so alive and so distinct and fully formed they became my life for a few days. Yet what I loved the most is the twist, turn, secret, whatever you want to call it, was a wonderful surprise that could only be done in a book. The contrivance would never work in any other medium, and it's the characters and their behavior that make the twist not only possible, but fully believable. Now, while I will say that I saw the twist coming, it was because of Kate's writing that, although the end was in view, I couldn't tear myself away from the book. I was glad I gave Kate another chance, and I have a feeling I'll be picking up another one of her books in the near future.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review 2013 #10 - Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery by Anthony Berkley
Published by: The Langtail Press
Publication Date: 1927
Format: Kindle, 214 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Roger Sheringham is about to go off on holiday with his cousin Anthony when his editor calls. The Daily Courier has gotten wind that the accidental death of a Mrs. Vane in Ludmouth might not be quite so accidental, as Inspector Moresby has been seen poking around after the inquest. Roger bullies Anthony into accompanying him, because a holiday is one thing, a holiday that doubles as a murder mystery is quite another.  Upon arriving in Ludmouth, Roger quickly runs into Inspector Moresby, whom he knows from the Wychford Poisoning Case, and the two discuss the fact that it is obvious that Mrs. Vane had to have been pushed from the cliffs in order to die. This wasn't an accident, and it certainly wasn't suicide.

The prime suspect is the comely cousin of Mrs. Vane, Miss Cross. Anthony soon makes her acquaintance and comes to the conclusion that such a pretty face is a harassed innocent, and Anthony and Roger soon go to great lengths to protect her and find another suspect, because the evidence very strongly points to her. Though the only other suspects would be the late Mrs. Vane's husband, Doctor Vane, or his lovestruck yet efficient secretary... or perhaps the oddly talkative Reverand Meadows, who reminds Roger of a goat. Roger has a new theory every day, and a new article for the Courier every night... but another murder throws all his what-ifs into question and he realizes that maybe he is wrong or maybe a careless word has led to another death... or maybe crime solving should be left to the professionals... no, Roger would never admit that.

Right about now you're looking at the disparate ratings between the first Anthony Berkeley book I read, The Layton Court Mystery, and this one, Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery, and probably thinking, oh my, what is going on, has she cracked? Though your surprise is nothing compared to my own. I was girding my loins as I reached for this book just imagining how atrocious it might be... and perhaps it's the fact that my expectations were so low, I mean, lower then the gutter low, that I really enjoyed it. I mean, sure, there was a bit of a rough start when I realized that there were quite a few similarities to the previous book, what with an accidental death/suicide not being as it appears and the murderer escaping justice, yet again, but somehow I had already come to grips with my gripes.

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is actually the third book in Berkeley's series staring that "keen-witted if slightly volatile Roger." For some unknown reason the second book, The Wychford Poisoning Case, which is referenced in this volume, has disappeared into the ether of time... perhaps it was for the best if it was on par with The Layton Court Mystery. So why have I done a 180 on this series? Well, I'm going with my fickleness as a reader as my defense. The problem I had with the first volume was all the flaws of Roger that just needled me till I wanted to slap that man silly... with some sort of cudgel that would result in pain and death. So going into reading another book with Roger I was well aware of his flaws. I now view Roger as that one friend you have, and don't say you don't have one, I know you do; everyone has a friend that says just the wrong thing at the wrong time, never censors what they say, and in most cases is just downright rude. The kind of friend that needs a disclaimer attached. Yet over time, you get used to their offensiveness. Sure, you've tried to curb it, but in the end, you just live with it. So Roger has become my friend whose flaws I know, but I put up with anyway.

As for the innumerable flaws, the belittling of his "idiot friend," his desire to hold important conversations in the middle of nowhere, his ludicrous theories coupled with the fact he is invariably wrong and blind to the obvious; they somehow work in this volume. His "stupid friend" in this instance is his cousin Anthony. And for some reason I feel the bickering and belittling between relatives more natural and tolerable then between friends. Also, instead of an underlying feeling of anger, their repartee has the feel of the long time association between family that let Anthony give as good as he got. Plus, the addition of Inspector Moresby can not be overlooked. Here is someone who Roger views as his "equal" so that he actually treats the Inspector mildly ok. They have a kind of Japp/Poirot relationship where Roger doesn't belittle his cohort... too much. Also, I have a niggling little feeling that Roger might be Moresby's "idiot friend" and that just tickles me to death that Roger doesn't realize it. Therefore it's more cohorts in crime solving, then the Roger Sheringham offends everyone show. And as for his weird desire to hold conversations in out of the way locals? For some reason perching on a rock looking at the cliffs seems more natural, like they're taking in the sights, then obviously going to a bench in a garden to conspire. Also, I love that his theories about the "weaker sex" come back to haunt him.

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery carried on the meta nature of the first book, with actual crime versus fictional crime in a crime novel, but by thankfully dropping the Holmes and Watson bit Berkeley used ad nauseum in The Layton Court Mystery. This meta nature was able to not only exploit the obvious plot twists that you could see coming a mile off, but was then able to give you a twist at the end that you didn't see coming. In fairness to Berkeley, he stayed true to his writerly code, and you could see the ending if you didn't view the case through Roger's eyes, and I found this a little bit brilliant. While the romantic reader in me would have preferred the interpretation of the facts as Roger and I saw them, I can't help but love that Moresby smacks Roger down and points out to the writer that there is the mentality of a police officer and the mentality of the writer. These two mentalities are at odds, and sometimes it's better to not have too much imagination.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Tuesday Tomorrow

Cemetery Girl Book 1: The Pretenders by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden
Published by: InkLit
Publication Date: January 7th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 128 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Charlaine Harris, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels and the Harper Connelly Mysteries, and New York Times bestselling author Christopher Golden present an original graphic novel illustrated by acclaimed comic book artist Don Kramer—first in a brand-new trilogy.

She calls herself Calexa Rose Dunhill—names taken from the grim surroundings where she awoke, bruised and bloody, with no memory of who she is, how she got there, or who left her for dead.

She has made the cemetery her home, living in a crypt and avoiding human contact. But Calexa can’t hide from the dead—and because she can see spirits, they can’t hide from her.

Then one night, Calexa spies a group of teenagers vandalizing a grave—and watches in horror as they commit murder. As the victim’s spirit rises from her body, it flows into Calexa, overwhelming her mind with visions and memories not her own.

Now Calexa must make a decision: continue to hide to protect herself—or come forward to bring justice to the sad spirit who has reached out to her for help..."

I remember years back, when Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book came out, Charlaine was saying how she had an idea about a girl growing up in a cemetery and now that Gaiman had written his book, she wasn't going to go ahead with her idea. To which he replied, oh please do write it, because no two people can write the same book. Plus, all book ideas are derivitive to an extent, so finally we get to see what Charlaine was thinking all those years ago. So excited, not to mention the Christopher Golden link!

The Ghoul Next Door by Victoria Laurie
Published by: Signet
Publication Date: January 7th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"On a well-deserved hiatus from the ghoulish grind of their TV show, Ghoul Getters, psychic medium M. J. Holliday, her boyfriend, Heath, and her best friend, Gilley, are back home in Boston. But there’s no rest for the weary ghost busters. M. J.’s ex comes to her for help—his fiancée’s brother Luke seems haunted by a sinister spirit.

The crew sets up surveillance cameras to watch for the possessive poltergeist while Luke is sleeping. But when he goes outside in the middle of the night and returns hours later covered in blood, they are all very concerned—especially when the news reports the murder of a young woman in the neighborhood.

Now M. J., Heath, and Gilley must remain self-possessed as they try to stop a wicked ghost whose behavior is anything but neighborly."

Do I tire of our lovable Ghost Hunter? No.

Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett
Published by: Berkley
Publication Date: January 7th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"It’s the roaring twenties, and San Francisco is a hotbed of illegal boozing, raw lust, and black magic. The fog-covered Bay Area can be an intoxicating scene, particularly when you specialize in spirits…

Aida Palmer performs a spirit medium show onstage at Chinatown’s illustrious Gris-Gris speakeasy. However, her ability to summon (and expel) the dead is more than just an act.

Winter Magnusson is a notorious bootlegger who’s more comfortable with guns than ghosts—unfortunately for him, he’s the recent target of a malevolent hex that renders him a magnet for hauntings. After Aida’s supernatural assistance is enlisted to banish the ghosts, her spirit-chilled aura heats up as the charming bootlegger casts a different sort of spell on her...

On the hunt for the curseworker responsible for the hex, Aida and Winter become drunk on passion. And the closer they become, the more they realize they have ghosts of their own to exorcise…"

Sold at San Francisco, but extra want because of time period!

Home of the Braised by Julie Hyzy
Published by: Berkley
Publication Date: January 7th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"With the pressure of an upcoming state dinner that could make or break the president’s foreign policy, White House executive chef Olivia Paras has precious little time to focus on her wedding plans—or to catch a murderer…

Tensions are running high as the White House staff adjusts to a new chief usher and prepares for a high-stakes state dinner, where everything must be perfect. But as the date for the event approaches, things go disastrously wrong when the secretary of defense is found dead in his home, seemingly killed during a break-in.

At the same time Olivia’s fiancé, Gav, is looking into the mysterious murder of an old friend. Is there a connection? Despite an increase in security following the secretary’s death, Ollie learns the president is in imminent danger at the dinner and must do everything in her power to get to him—before it’s too late…"

For my mom who's addicted to these books.

Hunting Ground by Patricia Briggs
Published by: Ace Hardcover
Publication Date: January 7th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The first Alpha and Omega novel, Cry Wolf, unlocked the doors to a unique urban landscape in “a great…new werewolf series” (Darque Reviews). In Hunting Ground, #1 New York Times bestselling author Patricia Briggs invites readers to follow her even deeper into that seductive realm of the unknown…

Anna Latham didn’t know how complicated life could be until she became a werewolf. And until she was mated to Charles Cornick, the son—and enforcer—of Bran, the leader of the North American werewolves, she didn’t know how dangerous it could be, either…

Anna and Charles have just been enlisted to attend a summit to present Bran’s controversial proposition: that the wolves should finally reveal themselves to humans. But the most feared Alpha in Europe is dead set against the plan—and it seems like someone else might be, too. When Anna is attacked by vampires using pack magic, the kind of power only werewolves should be able to draw on, Charles and Anna must combine their talents to hunt down whoever is behind it all—or risk losing everything…"

Easily love this series as much as Briggs's Mercy Thompson books, and now in a fabulous hardcover edition!

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