Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review 2014 #1 - Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Published by: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 1848
Format: Hardcover, 486 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Wildfell Hall has a new resident. A mysterious widow and her young son who want nothing to do with the outside world. The outside world disagrees. The nosey neighbors must know everything they can about the mysterious Mrs. Graham. Young Gilbert Markham wants to know everything but for a very different reason, he is inexorably drawn to the young widow and cannot understand why she remains aloof and detached, craving solitude over companionship and love. But soon Helen Graham realizes that her feelings for Gilbert mean that she must disclose her past so that he can move on and realize their love is doomed, and not just because her husband isn't dead.

Mrs. Helen Graham is really Mrs. Helen Huntington, the wife of a cruel man who has more vices then she could enumerate. She has fled her husband because he was trying to imprint their your son with his own dubious morals.  Helen could have suffered anything if it was just herself that was the target of Huntongton's malice, she stubbornly married him after all, but their son is another matter. After years of feeling trapped and hunted in her own home, can she remake her life, or will the old one haunt her?

Sometimes I am a very contrary person, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a case in point. Instead of reading the book before watching the miniseries I decided to watch the miniseries first which then put me off the book. For some reason I view the steadfast rule of reading the book first not applying to the Brontes. I had seen so many adaptations of their books prior to ever picking one up that they are grandfathered into my weird reading habits with this clause. Yet I still question how an adaptation with Toby Stephens and James Purefoy, not to mention Rupert Graves, Pam Ferris, and Paloma Baeza, could be so bad. It was dull and lifeless and I remember barely being able to finish it.

The miniseries turned me off the book and because of this the book has languished for years waiting for the time when I would pick it up and love it. I seriously can not think of any reasonable excuse why it took me this long to read it. I was under so many misconceptions about this book that I should have just trusted to my gut which tells me that Anne Bronte is awesome. I am serious when I say that I think Anne might just be my favorite Bronte. This isn't just me routing for the underdog, though she is the least embraced of the sisters, this is totally to do with how awesome her books are.

There's a part of me that knows Anne's desire for "truth" in this novel comes from a desire to counter the pro bad boy image her sisters had created in their works. But there's a deeper part of me that wonders if she's not just messing with Charlotte and Emily a little. Who, given the chance, wouldn't try to mess with their siblings a little? Her sisters did everything to make this bad boy redeemable by love trope and then in comes Anne and blasts them out of the water. Huntington is a bad boy to equal Heathcliff and Rochester, but love is unable to sway him. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an opus to the irredeemable. I can just picture the sisters sitting around their fireplace on a cold night in Haworth talking about their dream men and Anne just looking askance at them and plotting how to prove them wrong, preferably in three volumes, she was, after all, a silent plotter. I don't think anyone has ever summed this up better then Kate Beaton in her "Hark, a Vagrant" comic, "Dude Watchin' with The Brontes" so I won't attempt to and move onto other things.

So, other things! What I find amazing in this book, and in fact all the work by the Brontes, is how they were able to capture an entire world from outside their cloistered lives and put it on the page. It just goes to show that sometimes writing what you know isn't the only answer, but writing what you feel is. Over a hundred and fifty years later this book pulses with life. It was criticized at the time for being too repulsive and scandalous, but that is why it resonates till this day. It is the truth of human nature and fallibility that Anne sought out to capture and did. Infidelity, adultery, drugs, drink, games of chance, everything not written about in literature of it's day that still causes so much heartbreak.

The degraded life that Helen lives made me connect to her because, not only did I pity her, I worried that she wouldn't make it out of this situation, ironic because having watched the miniseries I knew the outcome, but still I worried. But as to the debauchery, one problem I have always had and mentioned repeatedly in literature set during this time is the overuse of the Hellfire Club. It seems if you are debauched during the Regency or early Victorian eras you therefore have to belong to some incarnation of said Hellfire Club. But here I make an exception. Usually the Hellfire Club is just a trope used by modern writers, as in those still currently writing. Think of the spunk it took for a little ex governess to allude to the Hellfire Club in a book written in 1848! You Anne Bronte are the exception that proves the rule! When you wrote those few lines alluding to fire and brimstone it was not yet hackneyed, it was controversial. I wish I could tell you how much you mean to me and literature, this poorly written review will have to suffice.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review 2014 #2 - Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Published by: Virago Press
Publication Date: 1938
Format: Paperback, 448 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate... Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me. The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done."

As she looks back on the twists and turns that brought her to Manderley, the second Mrs. de Winter can't help but wonder how her life ended up as it did. She had resigned herself to an existence as a paid companion trailing behind whomever had hired her, the reprehensible Mrs. Van Hoppper being her patron at the time. That all changed when Maxim de Winter entered her life in his fast car. He was in the south of France fleeing the memories of his dead wife Rebecca and the one thing that blotted her out was the young girl who would become his second wife. Yet perhaps their union was foolish, or Maxim's dream to return to Manderley was unwise. Because their life is haunted by the memories of his first wife, Rebecca. The spectre that is hallowed by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, and is a constant comparative presence for the new wife. Could Rebecca destroy their happiness from beyond the grave? Or will it need a little assistance from Mrs. Danvers?

When I was young my mother subscribed to The Franklin Library Mystery Masterpieces. Each month a new book would arrive and we'd set it in pride of place on our console bookshelf that housed our most prized possessions, this being the eighties it mainly housed records and our record player. The little nine year old that I was loved that each month another volume would come and expand the display on that orangey wood that just glowed with an inner light. Then one day The Franklin Library sent us the biggest box I had ever seen. They were discontinuing the Mystery Masterpieces and they sent us the remaining volumes all at once. At this time we probably had only ten volumes, so forty-two books showed up one day to our great astonishment and delight.

Until this past summer these books have been packed away as space was scare; all but a few choice volumes. But when I was young I loved to spend time reading the spines and looking at the pictures and wondering what the books were about and making up my own stories, especially about The Thirty-Nine Steps, which really disappointed me when I found out what it was really about. When they first arrived I was too young to read most of the titles, and when I was older I was too into movies to bother with books. That all changed. Obviously. But Rebecca, the movie, was like a gateway drug. I adored the film and then I looked on our shelf. There was Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, one of the first books we'd gotten in this series, after the obligatory Agatha Christie volume that is. This particular edition would make it's way into my library and my heart.

Rebecca is that rare book that cries out to be read and re-read over and over again. The opening line that transports you, like a dream, to Manderley. You can get lost in the happy valley among the flowers and never want to return from those magical pages. But I don't think that you truly get the book's greatness without knowing the context of Du Maurier's world, mainly her obsession with the Brontes. This is much in the vein of why people don't realize the genius of Northanger Abbey, which is a parody of the Gothic genre, not "serious" like Austen's other books! Du Maurier's first book, The Loving Spirit, takes it's name from a poem by Emily Bronte. More then twenty years after writing Rebecca her misguided biography on Branwell Bronte was published and forever secured her connection to them. Therefore the echoes of Jane Eyre that haunt Rebecca should not be thought a surprise or the least bit unintentional. Du Maurier was writing a new classic that would pay homage to and reflect Jane Eyre. A Jane Eyre for modern sensibilities, if you will.

Just look at the similarities. The naive young girl ready for love, the misanthropic hero, the crazy wife, the destructive fire. What amazes me is that if you look at just the building blocks of these books they should be eerily similar, yet they aren't. Each book is a classic in it's own right, but the ghost of Jane Eyre isn't the only ghost that Rebecca tackles, after all there is Rebecca herself. While there is that chilling line delivered by Mrs. Danvers "Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?" What we think of as ghosts can take many forms. There are no spectral apparitions here, no things that go bump in the night, but that doesn't mean Rebecca doesn't haunt Manderley.

Rebecca recurs persistently in the consciousness of the second Mrs. de Winter causing her distress and anxiety, but she is also the bosom friend of Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers, more then anyone, works to keep Rebecca alive and in doing so makes her spectre part of the foundation of Manderley itself. This is an interesting conceit on Du Maurier's part, because really, this is a ghost story without a ghost. The memory and emotion left behind is what haunts us, and if anyone could do this, it's Rebecca. As Captain Jack Harkness said on Torchwood, "Human emotion is energy. You can't always see it or hear it, but you can feel it. Ever had deja vu? Felt someone walk over your grave? Ever felt someone behind you in an empty room? Well there was. There always is."

Yet Rebecca isn't the only ghost. There's another person who haunts Manderley, she is always there, ever present, but in the shadow of Rebecca. I am of course talking about the second Mrs. de Winter. She is but mere shadow, a trace, a semblance of a person. She in fact has no name but that which Rebecca had, Mrs. de Winter. This is the most fascinating aspect of the book and many others have discused it's importance, that the heroine has no name. One result of this namlessness is that she is a ghost, a cipher, a way to tell Rebecca's story through new eyes but without complicating the matter by creating a character with backbone.

Of course this is a two edged sword, on the one hand Du Maurier is pushing the second Mrs. de Winter into the background, but on the other hand by creating a blank slate, a character who has no real "character" we are able to put ourselves more easily into her shoes. This literary trick, I mean, really, I want to stand and applaud Du Maurier. By giving use this conduit there are so many ramifications to the narrative. By being one with the second Mrs. de Winter you therefore embrace Maxim, her husband, and therefore not just identify but condone his actions. The genius of Rebecca is that Daphne Du Maurier has made you complicit in murder and you loved every second of it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review - Marissa Meyer's Fairest

Fairiest by Marrisa Meyer
Published by: Feiwel and Friends
Publication Date: January 27th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Life as a princess isn't all it's cracked up to be for Levana. Her sister, Channery, has just become Queen of Luna after their parents assassination. A job her sister isn't the least cut out for in Levana's opinion. Levana knows that even at fifteen she'd be a far better queen, yet she is relegated to a joke by her sister and others. Deformed as a young child she hides behind her glamour in a cold friendless world till one day a palace guard she has secretly cared for shows her a kindness. This small act by Evret changes everything. She sees a new life for her, a life where she is a loving mother and a beloved Queen. There's just some impediments to this dream. Impediments whose removal is for the good of Luna.

My first reaction to hearing about Fairest was a lack of interest bordering on complete indifference. The story seemed as if it held the same weight as a tie-in short story or e-book exclusive novella, to be read eventually but not now. Then I found out that it was being released when I thought Winter was going to be coming out and my opinion changed to begrudging it's existence. I didn't want a book about the wicked queen, I wanted the end to this saga I've grown to love. Yes, I might have stamped my foot a little, but who can blame me? I should have trusted Meyer more... though this book did make me want Winter even more, so, double edged sword there Marissa. Double edged sword.

To me Levana has always just been the annoying Big Bad in the Buffy sense. She seemed very one dimensional, "Destroy Earth!" "Marry Price Charming!" "Kill Cinder!" She had a one track mind and just pissed me off with all her meddling. Now, well, she's still pissing me off, but she's now something more, she's fascinating. Levana's story doesn't make her sympathetic, per se, and not even really relatable, I mean the things she does, well, yikes. But by living in her headspace for a few hundred pages you understood her and in the end pitied her. She's like a child who has never really grown up emotionally. The side of her that is cold and calculating and is a good leader to her people has thrived, but her heart stalled out long ago. The betrayal of her sister when they were still in the nursery emotionally broke her so that she equates love with control. Therefore she sees nothing wrong with how she manipulates her husband. How can we, as readers, blame her fully for what she's done? Yes, she is evil, but it comes from such a sad place that pity is the only feeling you are left with. Plus, there's no better way to piss off a megalomaniacal dictator then to pity them!

But the amazing thing that Meyer has done is to show us the similarities between Levana and Cinder. Before and even after we knew that Cinder was Lunar, we would never have guessed that her and Levana could be so similar. Cinder would recoil at the idea, much as she recoils at the Lunar blood in her veins, but the similarities highlight the differences all the more. We see the moments that shaped both their lvies. Both parentless and deformed at a young age, we see how two people can respond to the same set of circumstances. Levana became warped and power hungry, while Cinder, Cinder is kind. Just look at how the two took the death of their sisters from disease. Levana didn't try to help Channery, just waited till she died to assume the thrown. Whereas Cinder did everything in her power to save Peony. This book just wants you to hug Cinder and reassure her that in no way is she like Levana, she couldn't be even if she tried.

We also finally got to see Luna! For so long it's just been this empire in the sky, like a faceless Death Star. In Cress we got some tantalizing glimpses of what the moon colony is like, but no real time to come to grips with this other realm. We, quite literally, are the Earthens with no idea of the alien life above, just the fear. That light shining down on us at night is the enemy. Yet we need to understand it in order to fully get Cinder, she is, after all, their true Queen. In Fairest with Levana we get to see what palace life is like, but it's really through her husband Evret and his first wife, Solstice, that we get more a grasp on everyday life on the moon. Plus the little hints and snippets heard around the castle about unrest, all of this is giving us a clearer view of what Cinder will face in the final battle to come.

And that is where this book is most valuable. Fairest is background couched in a delicious story. We need to know about Cinder's mother and her claim to the throne. We need to know about Levana's reign. We need to know if there really is unrest on Luna. This is all valuable information that we need in order for us to fully get Winter and have a satisfying conclusion to this amazing series. So while, yes, I did initially have disdain for this book's existence, I now realize how much I needed it in my life. More then that, I realize I did need it before Winter. Of course, now that I've finished Fairiest I think it's only fair that Winter comes. Soon rather then later. Winter is coming!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Fairiest by Marrisa Meyer
Published by: Feiwel and Friends
Publication Date: January 27th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?

Fans of the Lunar Chronicles know Queen Levana as a ruler who uses her “glamour” to gain power. But long before she crossed paths with Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress, Levana lived a very different story – a story that has never been told . . . until now.

Marissa Meyer spins yet another unforgettable tale about love and war, deceit and death. This extraordinary book includes full-color art and an excerpt from Winter, the next book in the Lunar Chronicles series."

Yes, I know this isn't Winter and the finale, but at least she's giving us something to keep us going till Winter is out later this year.

Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: January 27th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"It is 1914, and Thomas Maggs, son of the local publican, lives with his parents and sister in a village on the Suffolk coast. He is the youngest child, and the only son surviving. Life is quiet-shaped by the seasons, fishing and farming, the summer visitors, and the girls who come from the Highlands every year to gut and pack the herring.

Then one day a mysterious Scotsman arrives. To Thomas he looks like a detective in his black cape and felted wool hat, puffing on his pipe like Sherlock Holmes. Mac is what the locals call him when they whisper about him. And whisper they do, for he sets off on his walks at unlikely hours and stops to examine the humblest flowers. He is seen on the beach, staring out across the waves as if he's searching for clues. But Mac isn't a detective, he's the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and together with his artist wife, they soon become a source of fascination and wonder to Thomas.

Yet just as Thomas and Mac's friendship begins to blossom, war with Germany is declared. The summer guests flee and are replaced by regiments of soldiers, and as the brutality of war weighs increasingly heavily on this coastal community, they become more suspicious of Mac and his curious ways.

In this story of an unlikely friendship, Esther Freud paints a vivid portrait of the home front during World War I, and of a man who was one of the most brilliant and misunderstood artists of his generation."

Um, what doesn't scream me about this book?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review 2014 #3 - Lauren Willig's That Summer

That Summer by Lauren Willig
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: June 3rd, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Julia Conley has inherited a house in England. A house on Herne Hill has been left to her by an unknown great-aunt. Julia and her father left England when she was six and her mother was killed in a car crash. Since her life in New York hasn't been going that well lately as one of the many unemployed, she decides to go to England and spend a few months sorting out the house and hopefully sorting out her life. For Julia who has viewed her family as just her and her father she finds it hard to come to gripes with the fact that this was where her mother came from and she still has family here with a few cousins, who of course feel slighted with great-aunt Regina's will. The more time Julia spends in the house the more she wishes she had been given the chance to know her great-aunt.

For Regina might have held the key to a lovely Pre-Raphaelite painting in one of the rooms of the house, which has a matching painting hidden deep at the back of one of the cupboards. Why was the one painting displayed and the other hidden? Who is this artist Gavin Thorne? Going back to 1849 we learn about the painter Gavin Thorne and his muse, Imogen Grantham, who happened to be the mistress of the house on Herne Hill and married to a wealthy and significantly older collector who was occasionally visited by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who doted on his historical relics. Yet why hide the painting? What connection does this painter and this wife have to Julia? More importantly, after 160 years can Julia find out?

Sometimes life is staggering in it's synchronicity. The very day that I received That Summer in the mail my Great-Aunt Vicki died. My family got the call that she had passed in her sleep and that the rest of the family was to descend on Madison to take care of her estate. My Great-Aunt was the last of the older generation, being preceded in death by all my Grandparents and even an Uncle. While sadly I have never been bequeathed a mysterious house, because she was the last of that generation I have gotten quite used to clearing out ancestral homes, my Grandparents farm having accumulated over a hundred years worth of ephemera, with sadly not a rare painting or a secret stash of cash in sight, but a random piano being used as a tool bench and much mouse effluvia. As I spent the following weeks sifting through the rooms of her house, picking what to keep and what to give away, I couldn't help but think of all the things I don't know about my family and where I come from. There is a strong ancestry bug that my family has, but I have not yet been bitten, and there's a part of me that keeps thinking, better now before it's too late.

The detritus is all we have left of our family's history. Random paintings around the house, Aunt so and so painted this, Cousin so and so did that one; just what if the painting was something more? What if the painting was a closely guarded secret that would unlock some mystery about yourself? The search for your own identity is caught up in the past, in where you come from. While Julia's search for what happened in her own past with her mother as well as to her ancestor's is something that might be uncommon, the search is something we can all identify with. Lauren has tapped into something deep within everyone, a longing to know where they're from in order to find out where they belong. This gives us a strong connection to the characters, we are on their journey with them and I wouldn't want it any other way.

While the time slip genre is nothing new, Lauren is able to create a more accessible story then some authors who mire their books in overly flowery details and descriptions that go on for so many pages you lose the thread of the story. This isn't to say the writing is sparse, it's exactly what it needs to be to conjure this world, no more and no less. Though there is a part of me that wishes at some time in the future Lauren would go all out and write a doorstop of a novel. Yet in Lauren's time slip she is able to capture the best of all worlds, with a little Kate Morton, a little Somewhere in Time, a nod to Du Maurier's Rebecca, a Keats Bridget Jones call out with a wink to Nancy Mitford's silly season. There are also echoes of Victorian literature, from Imogen's marriage mirroring Dorthea's in Middlemarch, to Gavin bringing a little of the John Thornton vibe from North and South. Yet these homages aren't derivative, they give us a touchstone for the time period but then become so distinctly their own story that while you remember the connections at the back of your mind they are inconsequential as the story takes on a life of it's own.

As for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I will admit that this subject matter is what made me swoon when I heard over a year ago about Lauren's next planned stand alone. I think that I have adequately covered my love of them in previous posts and writings, but I will say that even in the BBC production of Desperate Romantics, they have always been a band apart. Outsiders who verged on Gods in their ways of self aggrandising each other and mythologizing their lives and works. They were Romantics in every sense of the word, demanding the capital letter "R". Yet Lauren brought them down off their pedestals. Packed into the snug sitting room on Herne Hill we see a human Rossetti with his schemes and ideas and his future spiraling out before him. The ways the Brotherhood sought out collectors of antiquities to give an authenticity to their paintings adds a realism to them and their works.

These men aren't Gods, no matter how many posters in English classrooms and dorm rooms might say otherwise, they are men. They have loved and lost and with Gavin we have a true romantic hero that is swoonworthy. And like all good writing, this one aspect of the book, the Brotherhood, it doesn't overpower the story, it compliments it, it strengthens and adds to it. You will fall into this book and even if you are just a fraction of a romantic the Pre-Raphaelite's were you will find yourself falling in love with both couples in the different time periods. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did, and if you're coming into this book from Lauren's Pink Carnation series, there are a few gems hidden in the book, but like these painters who would hide the Brotherhood's initials in their paintings, you might have to have a keen eye to spot them.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review 2014 #4 - Hannah Kent's Burial Rites

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Published by: Back Bay Books
Publication Date: August 29th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 338 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of killing her lover and employer, Natan Ketilsson. She has been scheduled to be executed. Agnes is sent to an isolated farm at Kornsa, near where she grew up, to await her execution. The family of four living in the croft at Kornsa must allow Agnes into their lives for the duration because of the will of the District Commissioner, Björn Blöndal. Divided by prejudices, most the family doesn't trust the murderess, but over time, slowly, they do get to know Agnes, and she is far from what they expected. With the counsel of a local Reverend, Tóti, Agnes tells her story, knowing that nothing can stop her impending death.

Books based on actual events are tricky. My main problem with them is you know what's going to happen. Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last execution in Iceland. Therefore Agnes is going to die. No matter how much you love or hate her this will not change the fact that the end of her story is a fixed point, she can not live. As for her imagined life, in some regards I was at an advantage and in some regards I was at a disadvantage. I knew nothing about Agnes and the legend that has grown up around her seeing as I'm not familiar with Icelandic history or urban legends or even Iceland when I started this book. This gave me a clean slate. I could view her story with no preconceptions. Yet Hannah Kent was obviously out to change these preconceptions. So how could I fully understand what she was trying to do without being fully aware?

What I felt this book lacked was a coda that showed how maligned Agnes was in her time. Some historical context after the fact that would have shown us exactly what the preconceptions were that Hannah was working against in writing this book. The national museum still has the axe and the chopping block used in Agnes's execution on display. Is this because of it being the last capital punishment, or the triumph over evil, or to remind them of a wrong they did as a country? The problem of trying to find out the folklore surrounding Agnes now, the wanton witch, is that the web is populated with Hannah's story of setting things to right, or at least giving us an unbiased view. So while we won't know the truth, I'd at least like a glimpse into the mindset of the times.

Burial Rites does suffer because Hannah is a first time author. The book lacks a polish that would smooth over the rough patches and the literary tricks she pulls out of her bag. I think that literary tricks are the bane of first time writers. They go to school, learn all these concepts and narrative techniques, and then decide to use them all in their first endeavor as a writer. The key to writing a good book is to let the story tell you what it needs, not to shoehorn in things just to show you can do it. I know at least one of my fellow book club members would agree with me that Hannah's annoying preference for "Head-Hopping" is something that needed to be worked on to avoid the disjointed nature it brings to the narrative.

For those of you who don't know the term, or have never experienced this technique in writing, "Head-Hopping" is when an author switches the point-of-view character in a single scene. One second you're in Agnes's head, the next you're in Tóti's head, and on and on. While it gives you a more direct connection to the characters then omniscient narration, it can be confusing at times and feel contrived. But then again, I've never been a fan of literary tricks. Nothing has or even will annoy me more then in John Scalzi's Redshirts that his first, second, and third coda were written in first, second, and third person respectively. That's just a writer being indulgent. Seriously, ask yourself does it benefit the story? If the answer is no, it benefits my ego, then cut it.

Yet I was able to look beyond these initial flaws because underneath there was a fascinating story that transported me to another place and time. Plus, seriously, if you're feeling bad about your life, it's not as bad as it could be, and this novel is here to prove it. Though it was looking from Iceland to the greater world view of the time that staggered me. Iceland is a country above the tree line, the use of wood in buildings at this time is rare and used only for the wealthy or places of importance. The country is bleak and dark and filled with mud, lots and lots of mud. Houses are sod with sheep bladders as the membranous windows through which the little light sneaks in. Summer days are spent preparing for the long winter days to come when all you do is stay indoors and knit.

If someone was to tell you that this was 1830 you might be in shock, I know I was. At this time Jane Austen had already come and gone. Queen Victoria would be on the throne of England in only seven more years. Napoleon had already stirred up France, bugged off to Egypt, been incarcerated, escaped, and died. The Revolutionary War in America was almost fifty years prior! If we think of these times do we think of an advanced country like Iceland, a country where one in ten people have written a book, and think, mud huts filled with knitters? NO! This just blows my mind. To think of this greater world view through the eyes of this story and this time just astonishes me. Sure, I could tell you you should read Burial Rites it because it's like Icelandic Brontës, but in truth it is so much more amazing.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: January 20th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From the New York Times bestselling author of GARDEN SPELLS comes a story of the Waverley family, in a novel as sparkling as the first dusting of frost on new-fallen leaves...

It's October in Bascom, North Carolina, and autumn will not go quietly. As temperatures drop and leaves begin to turn, the Waverley women are made restless by the whims of their mischievous apple tree... and all the magic that swirls around it. But this year, first frost has much more in store.

Claire Waverley has started a successful new venture, Waverley’s Candies. Though her handcrafted confections—rose to recall lost love, lavender to promote happiness and lemon verbena to soothe throats and minds—are singularly effective, the business of selling them is costing her the everyday joys of her family, and her belief in her own precious gifts.

Sydney Waverley, too, is losing her balance. With each passing day she longs more for a baby— a namesake for her wonderful Henry. Yet the longer she tries, the more her desire becomes an unquenchable thirst, stealing the pleasure out of the life she already has.

Sydney’s daughter, Bay, has lost her heart to the boy she knows it belongs to…if only he could see it, too. But how can he, when he is so far outside her grasp that he appears to her as little more than a puff of smoke?

When a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of their family, each of them must make choices they have never confronted before. And through it all, the Waverley sisters must search for a way to hold their family together through their troublesome season of change, waiting for that extraordinary event that is First Frost.

Lose yourself in Sarah Addison Allen's enchanting world and fall for her charmed characters in this captivating story that proves that a happily-ever-after is never the real ending to a story. It’s where the real story begins."

Oh, yes please!

Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: January 20th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In the second book in the New York Times bestselling mystery series, Veronica Mars is back with a case that will expose the hidden workings of one of Neptune’s most murderous locations.

The Neptune Grand has always been the seaside town’s ritziest hotel, despite the shady dealings and high-profile scandals that seem to follow its elite guests. When a woman claims that she was brutally assaulted in one of its rooms and left for dead by a staff member, the owners know that they have a potential powder keg on their hands. They turn to Veronica to disprove—or prove—the woman's story.

The case is a complicated mix of hard facts, mysterious occurrences, and uncooperative witnesses. The hotel refuses to turn over its reservation list and the victim won’t divulge who she was meeting that night. Add in the facts that the attack happened months ago, the victim’s memory is fuzzy, and there are holes in the hotel’s surveillance system, and Veronica has a convoluted mess on her hands. As she works to fill in the missing pieces, it becomes clear that someone is lying—but who? And why?"

The books are all well and good, but can't we bring back the series?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Book Review 2014 #5 - Terry Pratchett's The Last Hero

The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable by Terry Pratchett
Published by: Gollancz
Publication Date: October 18th, 2001
Format: Hardcover, 160 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

In Discworld, more then most places, what we take as myth is more literal. In the beginning, the great hero Mazda, maybe known elsewhere as Prometheus, stole fire from the Gods. Well, Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde have grown wealthy and old in the hero business themselves, but they don't like the old part, in fact, they have a beef to pick with the Gods about the whole "old" situation. So they've decided to return Mazda's ill gotten gains. With interest. The problem with most heroes though is they don't realize that sometimes their actions have consequences. The consequence of them going to the home of the Gods is that Discworld will cease to be. The Wizards bring this outcome to the attention of Lord Ventinari who quickly gets all the Disc's best minds, including Rincewind to his own dismay, to find a solution. Yet no one seems to be asking the obvious question. What if this is just another game the Gods are playing, and what if it's revenge for all those temples these so-called heroes sacked?

In Neil Gaiman's introduction to A Slip of the Keyboard he says that "Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry." This to me is the truest thing I've read about Pratchett. Some might place him in the jolly elf category, but to me he is in the cantankerous wizard one. When I met Terry Pratchett he reminded me of someone very close to me, my mother. Like Pratchett she is ill and old before her time. She survived two rounds of cancer in my childhood to have Parkinson's arrive early because of the chemo that saved her rapidly aging her body. Here are two people who know the truth that life isn't fair. You might have a good life, you might have a bad life, you might have an easy life, but in the end death comes for us all. The indignation of the Horde at this universal truth is both poignant and relatable.

While this book was written prior to Pratchett's diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's he understood how the world works so it seems even more of a cruel joke that this would happen to him. One wonders if he has railed against the Gods as his heroes did. Because what would you do if you could actually accuse the Gods of being unfair? Would you gather yourself a posse and head into Mordor with a keg of explosives? The anger just sparks off the page at the unfairness of life. This will to live, this rage, fuels the book and makes it more vital and alive then any book I have read in a long time. It might be about turtles and wizards and old men who were heroes in their day who want sagas written about them, but the human truth behind all that pageantry is what makes Pratchett's books so universally wonderful, if heartbreaking at the same time.

Though Pratchett isn't one to not let the Gods have a say. Sure they might be blind and think of people as pawns in their games, but all the Gods live together and therefore have similar vested interests. It would be like Jesus hanging out with some Egyptian Goddess like Isis, with a few Roman and Greek deities on the side. All Gods, while not necessarily equal, are aware of each other and take an interest in what they each do. So to look at the "heroes" from their point of view, they see a rag tag group of people who have spent their lives looting and pillaging their temples and places of worship. They might be heroes to us mere mortals, but to the Gods, they are a nuisance, and Pratchett is will to show us this in all his irascible splendor.

But in amongst the hard truths Pratchett peppers his story with little asides, little jokes, that if you get them they're wonderful. Besides the battle of Gods and man, here he takes aim at the space program, Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions, science, but my favorite of all was the discussion of Schrödinger's cat. This is a quantum-mechanical paradox wherein a cat is placed in a box with a substance that may or may not kill the animal. The cat being in the box and unable to be observed means that the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously. It is the observation of the cat when the box is opened that determines the cat's state of being. DEATH and his manservant Albert get into an argument about this theory. Albert is trying to point out the two states of simultaneous being while DEATH just thinks it's cruel to the cat, and anyway, he's DEATH so he'd be aware the instant the cat died, and therefore it makes no sense to him. This scene is worthy of a vaudeville stage and top billed act with the subtlety and wit. Priceless.

What sets apart The Last Hero from any of Pratchett's other books is that this is an outsized format with beautiful illustrations by Paul Kidby. While I actually have many issues with the layout of the book, text lines being set too long, sepia drawings not getting the attention they deserve being set behind type, drawings badly placed within the story (ok, the graphic designer in me will stop now), the illustrations add so much. Kidby has this way of channeling Pratchett so that his drawings sync up with the images that have always been in your head. You see this picture of DEATH with one of his beloved kittens and you think, yes, that's right. Carrot Ironfoundersson has proved difficult to dream cast, like I am wont to do, but there he is rendered flesh by Kidby's pen! I hope this symbiotic relationship lasts for many years, and above all I am grateful that the US Publishers have FINALLY started to release Pratchett's books with Kidby's covers stateside. Why would you do otherwise?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review 2014 #6 - Paul Magrs's The Story of Fester Cat

The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs
ARC Provided by the Publisher and the Author
Published by: Berkley Trade
Publication Date: November 4th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Fester Cat had spent twelve years on the streets of Manchester, twice contemplating domesticity, but the last lady didn't understand him, she thought he was a girl! The indignity! Then Paul and Jeremy enter his life. They're the new couple in Fester's territory, even though they've been there about a year. There's something alluring and different about them, but most magical of all they know Fester's name! The Spanish lady thought he was a she and here's two guys who not only know he's a distinguished gentleman but that he answers to Fester! Ungow!

After a little time coming and going Fester decides that he shall adopt Paul and Jeremy and their lives together begin. Fester isn't just a furry family member but he helps the three of them become a family. Through rituals of turkey at Christmas and long summer days reading in the "Beach House" to singing and talking, they bond into a cohesive unit that is campy and cuddly and most of all filled with joyous everlasting love.

In March of 2013 my heart broke a little at the news that a certain tuxedo kitty was no longer in this world. Thirty-six days later I got a story in my inbox, The Story of Fester Cat. And I knew I couldn't read it. In a little over two weeks it would be four years since I had lost my tuxedo kitty, Spot. 1445 days and growing. This September Paul contacted me asking if I'd review the book for my blog. I said I was glad to, all the while wondering, but can I? I usually avoid reading books about animals like the plague. I can't take the fact that the book was written because their furry little story had come to an end.

I don't want excesses of unnecessary emotion and rainbow bridges, a sentiment that Fester himself would agree with I'm sure. I don't feel that it's cathartic or will help me heal, all I feel is the pain as fresh as the day I lost my little guy. But somehow this book was different. Yes, it did break my heart, I cried uncontrollably for awhile, but it also put my heart back together. In the two years I'd known Paul, Fester had become a part of my life, the daily pictures on Facebook of them working away at his computer or relaxing in the Beach House was a highlight of my day. The lose of a furry family member leaves a hole in your heart that you don't know what to do with, Paul filled his with Fester's song.

Fester's story is told in Fester's own unique voice, ungow! I'm not talking just about the conversational aspect, the vocal inflections that everyone who has known and loved a talkative cat knows about. The way they insinuate themselves into conversations with a mow here and a meep there. I'm talking about the inner voice made real in the narration of his story. All cat "owners" will tell you that their cat has a unique voice, I always imagined my Spot's voice as regal and somewhat sardonic, like Jeremy Irons.

Paul though has masterfully written this book in such a way that it feels he is channeling Fester. Fester is observant and witty and knows how to keep his humans in line and sticking to their routines. He is streetwise but also has a deeper understanding of life. His voice isn't just unique like some books have a unique narrator. Fester's voice attains a whole other level where it feels like it's destined to be classic, much like Eloise in the fabulous Kay Thompson series. You just read it and go, yes, this is Fester.

Reading The Story of Fester Cat you realize how important and personal a book this is. While in some regards as Paul says "It's like our little cat going out to meet the world!" But I think there's a whole deeper level, the level of Paul and Jeremy. If you have been lucky enough to read any of Paul's other books you will realize that Paul rather sneakily works himself into the stories. There's a bit of Paul in Robert in the Brenda and Effie series, then in Jack in 666 Charing Cross Road, and then there's Simon in the Iris Wildthyme series. You get this feeling that Paul has always wanted to be on an adventure and as a talented writer he has used these surrogates to insert himself into the narrative.

But for the first time he doesn't need a stand-in. This is Paul's life. There must be something so scary opening yourself up in such a way when for years you've had this separation. Not just showing a fictionalized version of yourself shown in the best light, but to show the good, the bad, the love, the heartbreak, the fights, the fusses, to show it all for everyone. This book is Paul laid bare. This is him, and Fester, and Jeremy. This is their song, full of love and heartbreak, but undeniably catchy. I can only hope that it will stick with you as the chorus and refrain play in your memory. Ungow!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 13th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they're destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil. She can believe she's found the thing she's been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries' seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, once.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointy as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking.

 Until one day, he does...

As the world turns upside down and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?"

Dark and fairy tale-esque? Yes please!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Book Review 2014 #7 - Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: July 15th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Four years ago Katie started a restaurant with her friends. Since then they have all moved on. Seconds feels like Katie's past now. Her future is a new restaurant, Katie's (she can live without the snarky commentary on the vanity of this name), that she will actually be part owner in versus just their culinary genius. Yet as the new restaurant is taking longer and longer to become a reality and she's still a presence at Seconds she feels frustrated being trapped between the life she's outgrown and the life she has yet to live. Then one night there's an accident at Seconds and one of the waitresses, Hazel, gets injured. Katie feels guilty and that night in a dreamlike state she finds a box with a mushroom, a notebook, and a card saying "A SECOND CHANCE AWAITS. 1. Write your mistake 2. Ingest one mushroom 3. Go to sleep 4. Wake anew."

Katie follows the instructions and awakes in the morning to find that Hazel's accident never happened. Confused Katie befriends Hazel and learns that perhaps Seconds has a House Spirit, a being protecting their restaurant and willing to help Katie fix Hazel's accident. This is well and good, as long as the house spirit is happy then Seconds is happy. Only Katie happens to find more mushrooms... what was to be a one time gift of the House Spirit is used by Katie to start fixing all the problems she feels are plaguing her life. The House Spirit tries to stop her, but things start to spiral out of control the more Katie tries to fix her life. Perhaps it would have been better if she had never started on this path, but it's too late to stop now.

Bryan Lee O'Malley has this surreal dreamlike quality to his stories that make you feel that you might be inhabiting the world of a video game or some other leftover hiding place from your childhood. He connects with my generation so well because he taps into our cultural zeitgeist of angst and nostalgia, where a heroine with the hair of Sonic the Hedgehog isn't just cool, but that we embrace her.  The meta narrative technique of having Katie snarkily comment on what the omniscient narrator is saying feeds into the my sarcastic and disillusioned generation that isn't quite generation X or Y, being forgotten by the roadside when they started having a need to generationally label us.

But what I connected to so much is this idea of seconds, of a do-over. People of my age are still in a time of flux, they are on a path but they aren't sure it's the right one, they don't know if this will be their life. They keep waiting for their life to start not realizing that while you're waiting it's actually happening, you are missing your life because of the illusory belief that someone will tell you when it's actually begun. I know I keep hoping that instead of being forced to grow up that there will miraculously appear an easy way out, a way to pave the path in front of me and save me blood, sweat, and tears. Their might be some truth in the thought that my generation feels entitled to a life of ease, a life that helps and doesn't hider your path, that we would be willing to take whatever might ease our journey, but I think this is more rooted in the fear we all have of growing up.

And isn't the childlike dream that still lives in us the idea that whatever goes wrong it will be fixed for us? Here it might be a magic mushroom, but in our past it was our parents. Who wouldn't want a chance at a do-over? A chance to tweak one thing in our lives? A chance to take a different path? It's not surprising that Katie falls into the bad habit of re-writing what she didn't want to happen. If you had a bucket full of mushrooms and no apparent consequences, wouldn't you jump at a second chance? It's the final realization that their is no easy way out, their is no shortcut, no warps, no way to get through life then by living it that is the final step in growing up. Katie might have needed a little more of a push to learn this, but haven't we all at some time?

What I feel elevates this book beyond the angst and eighties nostalgia of Bryan Lee O'Malley's previous works is the, not mystical, but the folkloric side to the story. The House Spirit, or Household Deity of Lis, grounds the story in the realm of fairy tales versus 8-bit console entertainment. This makes Seconds feel more of a fable, a coming of age tale then Bryan's previous ventures. Even the Brothers Grimm wrote about these family guardians, these protectors of home and hearth.

In fact, the more I think about it, growing up is not just about leaving childish ideas behind and knowing that their is no easy answer, but in finding your place in the word, finding where you belong, finding your home. While some might just write off a graphic novel as cartoons, which is the biggest mistake I think anyone could make, I at least implore you to look beyond the girl with the Sonic the Hedgehog hair on the cover and read between the covers to find a magical coming of age story full of wit, wonder, and life lessons that all of us could be reminded of.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Book Review 2014 #8 - George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan

Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann
Published by: PYR
Publication Date: February 2010
Format: Paperback, 237 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Gabriel Cross is leading a dual life. By outward appearances he is the playboy, always partying, always throwing around his cash, unconcerned by the world around him. But inside he is haunted by the war he fought in and almost died in. He will not let New York sink into a city on the brink with the cops being controlled by the mob. With the mob being controlled by the worst mobster of them all, the elusive Roman. Splitting his time between his lounge chair and the rooftops of the city, "The Ghost" as the newspapers have named Gabriel, will help his fellow citizens by getting to the bottom of who the Roman is. Yet his carefully constructed personas are about to crash around him when the songstress he loves, Celeste, gets embroiled in the Roman's dealings, and Gabriel himself exposes his identity to perhaps the only trustworthy cop in the city. What the cost of these risks are, only time will tell. But hopefully, with time, the Roman's reign will also fall.

I never thought I'd say this, but there comes a time when there are too many superheroes. This overkill, especially by Marvel, makes me inwardly groan that there is yet another Green Arrow spin-off, yet another franchise being launched off the back of an already successful franchise, Black Panther anyone? Or worse yet, a reboot of a film series that is only a few years old, The Fantastic Four or Spiderman, take your pick! Obviously I'm in the minority here as the movies and television shows keep getting the viewers but I have personally reached my saturation point, so much so that I might not even keep watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. All this lead me to be a little leery of Ghosts of Manhattan. There was the part of me going, but it's not Victorian, but more important the part of me going, really, this book is "Introducing the World's First Steampunk Superhero," spare me.

So, despite my love of George's work I wasn't unbiased going into Ghosts of Manhattan, in fact George had a lot working against him with all my preconceived notions. And then I got a few chapters in and was hooked. The writing isn't as polished as George's other stories, but there's a rawness and immediacy that sinks it's claws in, much like a certain creature in this series second volume. The best way to describe this book is Batman meets The Great Gatsby with a little Bladerunner thrown in. Gabriel Cross has the vigilante stance as well as the violent past of Batman, but instead of emulating his "true" identity of Bruce Wayne, despite there being similarities; the 1920s lifestyle, the parties, the estate on Long Island, are all straight out of Jay Gatsby's biography. As for other comic book antecedents, there's a little Hell Boy thrown in as well. These twists and also just the demeanor of Gabriel give a story that could be full of tropes and cliches a spark of life that made a cold winter day just disappear.

The turning point for me was the introduction of the golems. I blame Terry Pratchett for my love of the golem myth, seriously, if you have not read Feet of Clay go do so now! There's just something so fascinating about golems. A figure made of clay and endowed with the spark of life but not intelligence, much like Frankenstein's monster it can be either good or evil depending on who gave it life and purpose. Not to mention the fact that they are indefatigable and nigh on undefeatable! Plus, if you think about it, they are basically automatons, which is a link back to George's other work and the scary creations in The Affinity Bridge. Which might be one reason I'm so fascinated by golems. There's something so modern about them, yet at the same time there is something so old, so historical, dating back to early Judisim. I just love that more authors are taking advantage of incorporating this myth into their narratives, golems were even used in an episode of Grimm recently.

The golems I think get at the crux of the matter as to why this book works. It's a fusing of the old and the new. Your run of the mill superhero is all about the present or the future, and of course the gadgets, with maybe the occasional need for and old relic, but that's a rare need. Here we have a superhero who is more Indiana Jones, more about the old and the new meeting and clashing and forging something no one thought possible. If the golems weren't enough to convince you of this then I bring into consideration the role The Metropolitan Museum of Art plays in the book. Not only is it the location of one of the most important scenes, as well as cringe worthy if you're in art lover, but the curator friend of Gabriel's, Arthur Wolfe, provides an entree into this older world. The relics and artwork The MET house create an important link between the here and now and the time when golems and Roman currency were more common occurrences.

This is the heart of the book, the way to make a superhero story that will actually engage me. Ghosts of Manhattan is something more. By not just being about a vigilante on a roof with his gadgets we get this other side, an old world past that hints at the supernatural and the dark arts. Before the modern era superstition and urban legends and fairy tales were so important. People didn't just listen to them as entertainment, there was truth in the tales. As time has progressed more and more people forget that perhaps, just maybe, even though we are ruled by technology and the microchip, that fairy tales can be true. The Ghost learns this the hard way and in doing so takes us on a ride that puts all other superheroes in the shade.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review 2014 #9 - Marissa Meyer's Cress

Cress (The Lunar Chronicles Book 3) by Marissa Meyer
Published by: Feiwel and Friends
Publication Date: February 4th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 560 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Cress has spent most of her life in a small satellite looking down on Earth. Gently circling the planet as a shell spying for the Lunars... that's the only apparent use she is, being a shell means she is devoid of magic and is repulsive to her own people. But all that time alone with all that computer equipment has made her into a wicked hacker with romantic tendencies. She dreams of one day being rescued by the people on the planet she has fallen in love with. In fact, lately there is one person in particular that she would really like to be rescued by, Captain Carswell Thorne, Cinder's accomplice in escaping the Commonwealth Prison.

Cinder. Cress has taken an interest in her. She helped Cinder to warn the Emperor Kai that the Lunar Queen Levana was planning on murdering him after they marry and she became Empress. Because of this help Cinder sees Cress as another ally in her fight against Luna and the Queen in order to get back the throne that is rightfully hers and stop Kai's wedding. Therefore Cress is to be rescued from her satellite prison by the dashing Thorne! Cress is living her fantasy for real. Only things don't go quite to plan when her Lunar handler Cybil arrives unexpectedly. The result is that Thorne and Cress are falling out of the heavens on a collision course with Earth, while Scarlet is captured by Cybil, and Cinder is left with Cybil's pilot as well as an injured Wolf. Cinder decides that the time has come to return to Earth and seek out Dr. Erland, who revealed so much of her own secret past to her. In one way or another everyone is headed to northern Africa... though for Cress and Thorne it will be a far more dangerous journey through the heart of the desert, that's if they survive making their way through Earth's atmosphere without burning up... but Cinder's plan of stopping Kai's wedding is still firmly in place... it's just changed a little.

One of my first memories of school relates to Rapunzel. I was in nursery school at Saint Andrew's about a block away from my house. I was four years old and my favorite television show was Shelley Duval's Faerie Tale Theatre. What I liked so much about the show was that it wasn't the sanitized Fairy Tales that the books I had at home depicted. These weren't all happily ever afters. The "Little Mermaid" episode which aired when I was much older is to me the epitome of how this show stuck to the original versions. Poor Pam Dawber from Mork and Mindy died because her love didn't love her.

But at this time I was obsessed with Rapunzel. It had so many things that fascinated me. I wanted Rapunzel's hair (this was around the time it was deemed that because I chewed my hair that it was going to be short till I could behave, these enforced haircuts lasted until about 4th grade and I was never to have that rope of hair). Then there was the tower in which she was trapped, I kind of wanted to live there, and then the prince, rather dubious in my opinion in that he never tried to rescue her but visited all the time (enough times to get her pregnant) but more realistic, because, well, it's a girlfriend you only have to deal with when you want to. But what I loved was the fact that the prince is then blinded and wanders alone in the desert, revenge for his behavior AND just the kind of macabre thing to capture the imagination of a young Wednesday Addams in the making. I always thought of how horrid it would be to not only be blinded, but to have the grains of sand working their way into your eyes and irritating them more. As you can see, I really thought a lot about this story. Rapunzel is just so weird and odd and yet, everything about it made it unforgettable.

Back to why this relates to school. I remember one day spending all this time drawing this picture of Rapunzel in her tower letting down her hair and I raised my hand to ask the teacher a question. My question was if she could spell Rapunzel for me so I could put it on my picture so that everyone would know what it was even if they hadn't heard the story. Firstly she didn't know the story, and secondly, she could obviously not spell it. She spelt it wrong on my drawing, something I can never forgive. I remember sitting there at the little table and I know I had an arched eyebrow on my face. I couldn't believe that someone didn't know this awesome story. This was my first experience with the ignorance of adults, and in particular, educators, wherein it felt like I had to explain everything to them. I've had many great teachers in my life, but I can easily say the ignorant far outweigh the awesome.

Of course you're now thinking, ok, she's a little too attached to a girl named for, basically, lettuce, and this relates to this new interpretation how? Because Marissa Meyer nailed it! That little four year old me that has never died was fist pumping the air. Marissa got it! She totally got the story, the twists, the turns, the dark, the funny, the everything! This was it! This was the story I loved brought into a new form but keeping ahold of me in the same way that that episode of Faerie Tale Theatre did all those years ago. I loved Thorne as the "prince" he has the right "ladies man" douche bag personality, that gets redeemed through his suffering. Oh, and Cress, Cress was so wonderful as the naive princess in the tower not wanting do die before experiencing her first kiss. When the book opened on her in that little satellite going around the earth, my breath was taken away with how perfect of a modernization of the tower this was. The isolation yet coupling that with intelligence and knowledge, gave me a heroine I could really route for.

Yet in a series it isn't how the one book succeeds, but in how it succeeds in connection with the whole arc. How Cress tied into the ongoing plot while adding depth to the story made me sqwee with joy. All these little things tying together, the realization that the louche Thorne introduced in the second book would turn out to be Cress's prince. I came to realize that Marissa has really been playing an amazing long game with an impeccably plotted series. All these weird little things are tying together in ways I couldn't have imagined. Scarlet left me cold, but coming into this installment, everything in Scarlet was important, I kind of view it now as the second book was just a glut of prologue to get us to this amazing next chapter.

Everything came together. All the characters were important and Marissa balanced them all perfectly so that unlike in Scarlet, I wasn't just wanting waiting for Cinder to reappear, but I was interested in all their fates and how they were able to work as a team to pull of an amazing heist. Plus there's just little gems that you wouldn't get unless you're a dork, like me, and obviously Marissa, are... for example, did you know that in some of the versions of the tale instead of rapunzel the father gets rampion from the witch's garden? Which happens to be the make of Thorne's ship! Ok, I have to stop my giddy gushing. I was just so pleasantly surprised that now I don't know how I shall be able to wait till the final volume comes out next year. The hint we had of the Princess Winter, like a crazy Cheshire Cat/Alice/Snow White mash up... now please.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review - Alan Bradley's As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: January 6th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 416 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Flavia can not believe that she has been forced to leave Buckshaw and go all the way to Canada! Sure she's getting the honor, however dubious, of attending her mother's Alma mater, and getting to study with a world famous chemist who may or may not have killed her husband, but it's so far from home and everything familiar. She's never had to experience homesickness before. It doesn't help matters that her voyage to the school is in the hands of Ryerson Rainsmith, the chairman of Miss Bodycote's Female Academy's board of guardians, and his wife Dorsey, two people destined to die in Flavia's fevered imagination. Poison is such a lovely thing to dwell on, especially during a long transatlantic crossing. This being Flavia, the first night she arrives at the school a desiccated body is found in her room's chimney. Unlike anyone else this at least gives Flavia something familiar in this unfamiliar new world. She knows murder and she knows how to solve them. So while some things change, other things will always remain the same.

As much as I love Buckshaw, and I mean, I really love Buckshaw, I would move there if I could in an instant love it, I was both thrilled and terrified at the idea that Flavia was heading off to boarding school in Canada. My feelings were probably pretty much on par with Flavia's own. Miss Bodycote's Female Academy owes much of it's origins to that hallowed fictional institute created by Ronald Searle, St Trinian's. In fact it was Alan Bradley who turned me onto that lovely female academy where it was more likely to find dead bodies and weapons of mass destruction then well behaved gentle ladies ready to make their debut in society. In fact, looking beyond the surface of Miss Bodycote's, I'd say the two are one par, what with Harriet having attended previously, and the curriculum of the students preparing them more for a life of espionage then that of a homemaker. The two schools are almost interchangeable, you have an equal chance of getting killed at each as Flavia soon discovers.

If I had one real complaint about As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust it's that Bradley doesn't properly exploit this new school setting. Instead we get Flavia once again investigating a murder but instead of interacting with her fellow students she quickly finds herself falling into her old habits of interacting with adults only. Previously Flavia didn't have much time for or with her peers, but I was sure that a boarding school environment would force this upon her and hilarity would ensue. Initially it did. The late night Ouija board session which she rigs for her own purposes is some of the most thrilling and hilarious writing to ever flow out of Bradley's books and then the momentum he created is squandered. Couldn't she have gone to classes and done some homework? Found a little happiness with people her own age? Apparently not. The classmates are brushed aside, the adults are questioned, and Flavia is expelled.

This last bit is the most annoying conclusion I could imagine happening. Here we finally have Flavia getting ready to take on the world, to move her story forward, and instead I fear it's going to stagnate because it took one step forward and then two steps back. I can't decide why Bradley did this. Because I don't think Flavia's homesickness warranted this result. Yes, the first six books were a solid arc and the length of Bradley's original contract, but the contract got extended. So now we have a further four books, well three now. By having Flavia leave home I thought, wow, now she can grow up a little. Can you just imagine how much fun Flavia will be as an adult when the Cold War is really starting to gear up? I expect hijinks on the level of Chuck Barris's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. This, of course, is all my wishful thinking. But by having Flavia return home, ug. Bad idea. I might have loved this book and Flavia but I did not love where we left her. I want these final four books to be something new, the "next chapter" not the same old same old.

As for the murder itself. I felt that this was easily the weakest of the murders in the whole series. Though the truth is the murder is never the most important aspect of Flavia's books to me, they are a major part of the story and need to hold my attention nonetheless. Yes, there isn't really any new way to kill someone under the sun. If you can think of it, well, in all likelihood it has been thought of before, and most likely by Agatha Christie. Ah, Agatha, you wily lady you, thinking up all the greatest plot twists so that even if someone isn't meaning to they emulate you in same way, shape, or form, they somehow do. In this case it's Dead Man's Folly and your wunderkind sleuth Poirot, and it was a case of really very bad timing.

I actually have a hard time remembering the whodunits of Agatha Christie, they all kind of blend together after awhile so they are eminently re-readable. But as fate would have it the adaptation of Dead Man's Folly filmed at Christie's own home Greenway Estate and staring David Suchet aired at the same time that I received the arc of As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust from NetGalley. While it's not exactly the same, it couldn't be identical having been written by two very different and talented writers, well, there was enough similarity that any surprise or suspense was lost because of my foreknowledge. Yes, I know that I am really really good at figuring things out and knowing what's going to happen, but gosh darnit, sometimes I just wish I could be surprised. And while I look forward to my next adventure with Flavia, I hope there's some surprises in store for me.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: January 6th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Flavia de Luce—“part Harriet the Spy, part Violet Baudelaire from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” (The New York Times Book Review)—takes her remarkable sleuthing prowess to the unexpectedly unsavory world of Canadian boarding schools in the captivating new mystery from New York Times bestselling author Alan Bradley.

Banished! is how twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce laments her predicament, when her father and Aunt Felicity ship her off to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, the boarding school that her mother, Harriet, once attended across the sea in Canada. The sun has not yet risen on Flavia’s first day in captivity when a gift lands at her feet. Flavia being Flavia, a budding chemist and sleuth, that gift is a charred and mummified body, which tumbles out of a bedroom chimney. Now, while attending classes, making friends (and enemies), and assessing the school’s stern headmistress and faculty (one of whom is an acquitted murderess), Flavia is on the hunt for the victim’s identity and time of death, as well as suspects, motives, and means. Rumors swirl that Miss Bodycote’s is haunted, and that several girls have disappeared without a trace. When it comes to solving multiple mysteries, Flavia is up to the task—but her true destiny has yet to be revealed."

New and awesome Flavia de Luce, be still my heart! But, you know, not still.

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: January 6th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Lady Montfort has been planning her annual summer costume ball for months with scrupulous care. Pulling together the food, flowers and a thousand other details for one of the most significant social occasions of the year is her happily accepted responsibility. But when her husband's degenerate nephew is found murdered, it's more than the ball that is ruined. In fact, Lady Montfort fears that the official police enquiry, driven by petty snobbery and class prejudice, is pointing towards her son as a potential suspect.

Taking matters into her own hands, the rather over-imaginative countess enlists the help of her pragmatic housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, to investigate the case, track down the women that vanished the night of the murder, and clear her son's name. As the two women search for a runaway housemaid and a headstrong young woman, they unearth the hidden lives of Lady Montfort's close friends, servants and family and discover the identity of a murderer hiding in plain sight.

In this enchanting debut sure to appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, Tessa Arlen draws readers into a world exclusively enjoyed by the rich, privileged classes and suffered by the men and women who serve them. Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman is an elegant mystery filled with intriguing characters and fascinating descriptions of Edwardian life--a superb treat for those who love British novels."

Murder mystery and Downtonesque? YES PLEASE!

The Body Snatchers Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
Published by: Forge Books
Publication Date: January 6th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 224 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The Body Snatchers Affair: The latest in the Carpenter and Quincannon historical mystery series from Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini.

Two missing bodies and two separate investigations take Carpenter and Quincannon from the heights above San Francisco Bay to the depths of Chinatown’s opium dens.

For John Quincannon, this is a first: searching a Chinatown opium den for his client's husband, missing in the middle of a brewing tong war set to ignite over the stolen corpse of Bing Ah Kee.

Meanwhile, his partner, Sabina Carpenter, unsure of the dark secrets her suitor might be concealing, searches for the corpse of a millionaire, stolen from a sealed family crypt and currently being held for ransom.

With the threat of a tong war hanging over the city (a war perhaps being spurred on by corrupt officials), Carpenter and Quincannon have no time to lose in solving their cases. Is there a connection between the two body snatchers? Or is simple greed the answer to this one?

And why is the enigmatic Englishman who calls himself Sherlock Holmes watching so carefully from the shadows?"

The type of book I can't get enough of!

Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch
Published by: DAW
Publication Date: January 6th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"When two young girls go missing in rural Herefordshire, police constable and wizard-in-training Peter Grant is sent out of London to check that nothing supernatural is involved.

It’s purely routine—Nightingale, Peter’s superior, thinks he’ll be done in less than a day. But Peter’s never been one to walk away from someone in trouble, so when nothing overtly magical turns up he volunteers his services to the local police, who need all the help they can get. But because the universe likes a joke as much as the next sadistic megalomaniac, Peter soon comes to realize that dark secrets underlie the picturesque fields and villages of the countryside and there might just be work for Britain’s most junior wizard after all.

Soon Peter’s in a vicious race against time, in a world where the boundaries between reality and fairy have never been less clear...."

Such a fun series if I could only forgive the author for that horrid Doctor Who novel...

The Witches of Echo Park by Amber Benson
Published by: Ace Trade
Publication Date: January 6th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From beloved author, director, and actress, Amber Benson…

Unbeknownst to most of humankind, a powerful network of witches thrives within the shadows of society, using their magic to keep the world in balance. But they are being eliminated—and we will all pay if their power falls…

When Elyse MacAllister’s great-aunt Eleanora, the woman who raised her, becomes deathly ill, Lyse puts her comfortable life in Georgia on hold to rush back to Los Angeles. And once she returns to Echo Park, Lyse discovers her great-aunt has been keeping secrets—extraordinary secrets—from her.

Not only is Lyse heir to Eleanora’s Victorian estate; she is also expected to take her great-aunt’s place in the Echo Park coven of witches. But to accept her destiny means to place herself in deadly peril—for the world of magic is under siege, and the battle the witches now fight may be their last…"

What's not to love here?

Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt
Published by: Scribner
Publication Date: January 6th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 240 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"New York Times bestselling author, comedian, and actor Patton Oswalt shares his entertaining memoir about coming of age as a performer and writer in the late ’90s while obsessively watching classic films at the legendary New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.

Between 1995 and 1999, Patton Oswalt lived with an unshakeable addiction. It wasn’t drugs, alcohol, or sex. It was film. After moving to L.A., Oswalt became a huge film buff, absorbing classics and new releases at least three nights a week at the New Beverly Cinema. Silver screen celluloid became Patton’s life schoolbook, informing his notions of acting, writing, comedy, and relationships. Set in the nascent days of the alternative comedy scene, Oswalt’s memoir chronicles his journey from fledgling stand-up comedian to self-assured sitcom actor, with the colorful New Beverly collective supporting him all along the way.

Ideally timed for awards season, when everyone’s mind is on Hollywood, Silver Screen Fiend follows up on the terrific reception of Oswalt’s New York Times bestselling debut, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. Already a beloved fixture on the comedy stage, on television, and in film—not to mention his 1.87 million Twitter followers—Oswalt announces, with this second book, that he’s also here to stay on the page."

While I definitely have cover issues with this book, it's Patton Oswalt whom I love and am hopefully seeing in a few weeks!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Book Review 2014 #10 - Leigh Bardugo's Siege and Storm

Siege and Storm (The Grisha Book 2) by Leigh Bardugo
Published by: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: June 4th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 448 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Alina and Mal barely escaped the Darkling in the fold of nothingness that divides Ravka. Alina wrested back control of her power from the Darkling, but not before a deadly price was paid. Hiding out half way around the world Alina is haunted by what happened and the choices she has made. Sickening, she longs to use her powers and the ill gotten amplifier, but it is too risky. She has turned her back on Ravka, hoping for a new life with Mal and that the rumors of the Darkling's continued existence are a lie. But they can not hide forever. The Darkling finds them across the true sea. He has plans for Alina and disturbing new powers of his own.

Instead of taking his captives back to Ravka, the Darkling takes them far north on the hunt for another creature out of fairy tale and myth. A second forbidden amplifier for Alina's powers. Though little does the Darkling know that there are other people who also have plans for Alina. Plans that she can't ignore. Alina can no longer turn her back on her country's suffering as the Grisha are ostracized and the country is divided. She agrees to return and lead the second army in the place of the Darkling with the sole purpose of his downfall. Yet are her new powers and believed divinity a match for the Darkling? Or does she need more power in order to succeed? Does she in fact desire more power?

In the battle of good versus evil there always comes a time when the wiser action is to run. To regroup and come back hopefully stronger then before. While necessary, this can sometimes lead to boring storytelling. The suffering, the privations, the hardships, the hope of news that perhaps the luck of the enemy is running out. These stories are never my favorite. The driving force is fear and it can therefore lead to too many tropes. After the epic showdown in the fold between Alina and the Darkling, I was sure that this book would follow this tried and tested path and be the bridge book till the final showdown. I was happily surprised.

By having the Darkling force them out of hiding almost immediately, the story opened up new vistas. Alina and Mal could go on the offensive while preparing a strong defense. Yet what I most loved was that the forces of light regrouped in Os Alta. I really wasn't ready to part with this courtly life. It was a Russian Fairy Tale Palace that housed Hogwarts. I was despondent that I wouldn't get to walk the corridors of the Little Palace once more, thankfully I was saved from mopery. I not only got an a-typical middle book, but one that delivered all I could hope for and a little more (*cough* pirates *cough*).

For all her avoidance of tropes, Bardugo isn't immune to them. Seriously, I want to know why when girls are the protagonists of books that they always have two boys vying for their attention? I mean seriously. It's not like this is a new trope, it's been around as long as storytelling has been, and you know what, it kind of gets on my nerves. Yes, there's an element of wish fulfilment here. Who doesn't want an escape, to sink into a book and become one with the heroine and be loved and lusted after from one and all? But there's this other, darker side to me that's saying, but is that realistic? Maybe we've been fed these fairy tales too long and need to break free.

Can't a girl just have one guy? One person to be true to? Or none at all? Especially since this is YA, aren't we just giving young girls unrealistic expectations of not just finding mister right, but having a mister wrong there too wanting you? Or maybe the bitter little cat lady is showing through my carefully constructed veneer and I should just embrace that Alina gets Nathan Fillion and Blake Ritson fighting over her. Oh, I've cast Nathan Fillion as Mal and Blake Ritson as the Darkling in my version of Siege and Storm, just FYI. I know you all want Blake Ritson as a bizarre apparition showing up in your bed chamber no matter how you fall on this trope...

Far from the tropes of men and women, Bardugo has tapped into the vein of Russian folktales and brought out what modernization and progress mean to our shared past. In Siege and Storm the words of the Darkling that the time of the Grisha is coming to a close is not only explored by expanded on. There is this interesting dynamic of past versus future, with the old ways dying off. The future doesn't belong to Tsar's and magic and fairy tales, but to iron and steel and guns. Yes, we see glimpses that perhaps, just maybe, there could be a world where they could coexist, feeding each other, but that seems like the true fairy tale.

Yet what strikes me most is that while Ravka might possibly be saved by these modern military advancements, their only true hope lies with Alina. Alina isn't a creature of the modern world, she is of the old world. She is of the time when maps still bared legends that said beyond here there be monsters. She thinks in fairy stories of the too too clever fox. The third amplifier she seeks is that of the fire bird, a creature of myth that isn't just in one or two stories, but in every story of Ravka. A fairy tale holds the key to the future, and that is a world that I want to live in. A world where stories are real.

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