Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review - Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: April 28th, 2009
Format: Hardcover, 374 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

At Buckshaw, the ancestral home of the de Luce's, Flavia spends her time lovingly researching poisons and thinking up ways to exact revenge on her two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. What else can one do with a distant philatelist father interested only in his stamps, a dead mother, and sisters more concerned with reading and makeup then forging sisterly bonds? Add Mrs. Mullet, a cook who keeps plying them with her unwanted custard pies, and Dogger, the shell shocked comrade in arms who saved the Colonel in the war and is now the house's general dogsbody, and you can see why Flavia likes the uncomplicated world of chemistry to that of her fellow man. Lucky for Flavia the long dead Tarquin de Luce had a fervent love of chemistry equal to hers and she has inherited his envy inducing laboratory in Buckshaw, where even the china has a story to it. But their peace is soon to be disturbed, and not by the shrieks of Feely as her pearls are disintegrated by Flavia, or the muffled sounds of Flavia trying to extricate herself from the closest where her sisters imprisoned her. No. Murder is about to strike Buckshaw, foreshadowed by a dead jack snipe with a postage stamp skewered on it's beak. In the middle of the night Flavia is woken by her father arguing with a man in his study. She is taken back to bed by Dogger and she blasts music to lull herself to sleep rather than stewing in her habitual discontented and inquisitive mindset, but not before she heard her father say he had murdered a man by the name of Twining twenty years ago.

In the early dawn hours she awakens and goes out into the garden to find the intruder almost dead in the cucumber patch, his last words uttered into Flavia's face. The authorities are called and the investigation begins. But Flavia has her own investigations to conduct, starting at the public library and the death of this man named Twining. To her trusty steed, Gladys, her mother's old bicycle that Flavia uses to race off to the library. Which is closed... but soon a librarian approaches. The retired Miss Mountjoy, the bane of the village, has returned to help the current librarian. But her arrival is felicitous, she happens to be the niece of the murdered Twining, who was a teacher at Greyminster, the school Colonel de Luce attended. Twining committed suicide in front of all his students by jumping off the top of the school tower after a prize Penny Black stamp was taken from the headmaster and destroyed in front of his eyes. Flavia, intrigued, then goes to the local inn, assuming that the mystery man had to be staying there. In his room she finds the stamp that was supposedly destroyed... and it's twin! But back at Buckshaw it might be too late... her father has been arrested! Can Flavia save the day and her father before Inspector Hewitt and the other detectives? Or will she need saving herself?

When the dearly departed David Thompson from Murder by the Book casually mentioned a new and unique mystery that he thought I'd like I had little inkling that it would be the start of one of my favorite book series. Six years have passed since he sent me that email, five years since I first read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and David died. I can't believe it's been that long, but the sheer joy with which I've devoured the following six volumes attests to the fact that time hasn't stayed still. Flavia de Luce has worked her way into my heart. Part Addams Family, part Eloise, she's precocious but in a way that isn't cloying because it is balanced by her fondness for the macabre.  Bradley's world is populated with overtones of Christie and Du Maurier, which I'm sure he would gladly confirm. He has given us a wonderful mystery that reads like the best of the British whodunits but with a unique narrator in the guise of Flavia. Her family and their estate remind one of a dysfunctional Larkin family, they all have their little quirks and obsessions. Whether it's Flavia and her chemical compounds or Daffy and her books or the Colonel and his stamps, Bradley has created a myriad of interesting folk and their foibles who you can't help but love. But their bizarre personality quirks aren't just their for the sake of creating a semblance of depth in these people, they are integral to the plot and to the solving of the mystery. Only those with the experiences and backgrounds that the de Luce's possess would be able to see the greater picture.  

Though re-reading it all these years later with the sheer number of books I read per year details have become hazy and it was nice to refamiliarize myself with Flavia's origins. The truth is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is rough around the edges. Bradley has matured as a writer over the years to be more polished and to tell Flavia's story in a more assured and competent manner. With his development over the past few years he has definitely secured Flavia's place among the cannon of British whodunits, even if he's Canadian. But here this assurance is lacking and there are times when I was distinctly put out. Flavia waffles between being mature for her age and being very slow on the uptake. This results in her inner monologue occasionally becoming repetitive and simplistic in her deductions when the answer is actually right in front of her. While the mystery isn't really the driving force of Flavia's story, it is hard on the reader when they are so far ahead of Flavia that you start hoping that she'd get on with it already. But then again, this slow style is typical of the cozy genre and for a first outing, it's better than some writers achieve in their entire life. Yes, it might be a little clunky, yes, it's not perfect, but it does lay the groundwork magnificently for a solid series to come.

What really strikes me coming back to the beginning is just how British this series is. It's not just that this story could only happen to this family but also this could only happen in Britain. My love of Lark Rise to Candleford has made me more then a little obsessed with running a small rural post office in Victorian England, and the history of the postal service and the issuance of stamps and the Penny Black and it's connection to revolutionary forces and how it oddly ties into the climax of the movie The Young Victoria; well, the Anglophile in me was doing a happy dance. I find it interesting that in my original review, which I might have liberally borrowed from here, I found the reminisces of Colonel de Luce over long and unnecessary. But the truth is his unburdening in that little jail cell is the core of this book. Not only do we get this postal history but how much more British can a book get than long reminiscences of boys going to boarding school? The halcyon days of Greyminster and Colonel de Luce's mentor, Twining, are the stuff of Waugh and Powell, but here, here they take a deliciously dark twist. These settings, this time period, it just makes you long to dwell in the world, to walk the crumbling Buckshaw estate and wade out to the little folly. It is a world that is gone and we long to recapture, and here it is thanks to Bradley.    

And then there's Dogger. Dogger is a product of this time and this place and he is the heart of this book. Knowing, as I now know, Dogger's full past, seeing the clues, the little crumb trail that Bradley started here makes me realize what a long game he was playing. But it's not just Dogger, it's the way the de Luce's take care of him and even shelter him. They know Dogger is special and they treat him as such and let him do as he does in order to recover. Dogger is also the balancing force to Flavia. Flavia spends so much time talking about death and poisons and how she would eliminate her siblings, she's a bit out there. In fact, some people might be put off by her love of these deadly arts and that she solves the murder by rather gruesome knowledge. Inspector Hewitt doesn't even want her to finish her demonstration on her articulated skeleton Yorick because he's more than a little spooked. Therefore Flavia needs some way to humanize herself. While anyone who was a young girl would attest to the fact that young girls do spend much of their time planing the downfall of their enemies, it might not be so palatable for readers, and here is where Dogger comes in. Flavia helps Dogger however she can. She helps him through his attacks in whatever way he needs, whether it's a helping hand, a cup of tea, a lie down in his bed, or acting as if everything is OK, Flavia just knows what Dogger needs and does it. He humanizes her and she anchors him, they are the true dynamic duo of this book, sorry Gladys.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

A Certain Age by Beatriz Williams
Published by: William Morrow
Publication Date: June 28th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The bestselling author of A Hundred Summers brings the Roaring Twenties brilliantly to life in this enchanting and compulsively readable tale of intrigue, romance, and scandal in New York Society, brimming with lush atmosphere, striking characters, and irresistible charm.

As the freedom of the Jazz Age transforms New York City, the iridescent Mrs. Theresa Marshall of Fifth Avenue and Southampton, Long Island, has done the unthinkable: she’s fallen in love with her young paramour, Captain Octavian Rofrano, a handsome aviator and hero of the Great War. An intense and deeply honorable man, Octavian is devoted to the beautiful socialite of a certain age and wants to marry her. While times are changing and she does adore the Boy, divorce for a woman of Theresa’s wealth and social standing is out of the question, and there is no need; she has an understanding with Sylvo, her generous and well-respected philanderer husband.

But their relationship subtly shifts when her bachelor brother, Ox, decides to tie the knot with the sweet younger daughter of a newly wealthy inventor. Engaging a longstanding family tradition, Theresa enlists the Boy to act as her brother’s cavalier, presenting the family’s diamond rose ring to Ox’s intended, Miss Sophie Fortescue—and to check into the background of the little-known Fortescue family. When Octavian meets Sophie, he falls under the spell of the pretty ingénue, even as he uncovers a shocking family secret. As the love triangle of Theresa, Octavian, and Sophie progresses, it transforms into a saga of divided loyalties, dangerous revelations, and surprising twists that will lead to a shocking transgression . . . and eventually force Theresa to make a bittersweet choice.

Full of the glamour, wit and delicious twists that are the hallmarks of Beatriz Williams’ fiction and alternating between Sophie’s spirited voice and Theresa’s vibrant timbre, A Certain Age is a beguiling reinterpretation of Richard Strauss’s comic opera Der Rosenkavalier, set against the sweeping decadence of Gatsby’s New York."

The only thing I've read my Beatriz Williams is The Forgotten Room... perhaps seeing as how much I love the 20s this will be bumped up the tbr pile?

Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland
Published by: Crown Archetype
Publication Date: June 28th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 144 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Back in print for the first time in decades—and featuring a new interview with the author, in celebration of her forthcoming centennial birthday—the delectable escapades of Hollywood legend Olivia de Havilland, who fell in love with a Frenchman, and then became a Parisian

In 1953, Olivia de Havilland—already an Academy Award-winning actress for her roles in To Each His Own and The Heiress—became the heroine of her own real-life love affair. She married a Frenchman, moved to Paris, and planted her standard on the Left Bank of the River Seine. It has been fluttering on both Left and Right Banks with considerable joy and gaiety from that moment on.

Still, her transition from Hollywood celebrity to parisienne was anything but easy. And in Every Frenchman Has One, her skirmishes with French customs, French maids, French salesladies, French holidays, French law, French doctors, and above all, the French language, are here set forth in a delightful and amusing memoir of her early years in the “City of Light.”

Paraphrasing Caesar, Ms. de Havilland says, “I came. I saw. I was conquered.”"

This book seriously sounds kind of fun and raunchy, like Mitford sister goes Hollywood... with a vintage cover to die for.

Grace Sees Red by Julie Hyzy
Published by: Berkley
Publication Date: June 28th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The New York Times bestselling author of the Manor House Mysteries and the White House Chef Mysteries is back with another nail-biting murder mystery for curator Grace Wheaton.

Grace Wheaton, curator and manager of Marshfield Manor, and her benefactor, Bennett Marshfield, are discussing how to help her roommates Bruce and Scott with their wine shop troubles when Grace’s trusted—if testy—assistant, Frances, calls, saying she needs some assistance of her own. Arriving at the address Frances has given them, they find a coroner’s van and police cars parked outside an upscale assisted-living facility called Indwell.

One of the elderly residents has been found dead under suspicious circumstances, and Frances, seen arguing with the man earlier that day, is now a person of interest. It’s up to Grace to clear her assistant’s name and find the real killer—before another Indwell resident checks out early..."

No, I didn't add this book JUST because of the tuxedo cat on the cover... though that is VERY important. I actually added for my mom. Not the cat. Well, not all the cat.

Friday, June 24, 2016


To me a good mystery isn't just a genre, but the key building block to ALL stories. What better driving force for any narrative than a question that begs answering? It doesn't have to be a true "whodunit" with a murderer caught at the end of the day, but all books should have some "mystery" to them. So what makes a book labelled a "mystery" actually one? Especially considering my weird take on the need of all books to have this driving force? Well, personally, it's that there is a murder. The more complex, the more convoluted, the more devious, the better. If I was said to have any kind of weird superhuman abilities it would be that I'm really good at solving crimes, of the televisual and written variety. Therefore I really like my mysteries to try to trick me. But more than that, the crime shouldn't get in the way of good character development. There has to be a balance between finding the killer and wanting the detective to succeed. All while making the book stick to your hand so that you can't set it down until the very last page. I remember some of the first "adult" books I read were mysteries. Of course they happened to be Lilian Jackson Braun's "Cat Who" books, but they are still a staple of the mystery genre, if at the cozy end of the spectrum. But that's what is wonderful about mysteries! They have all these subgenres from cozy to true crime. From books for those who like the mystery but can't handle the darkness of humanity, to those who love it. Personally, I love it all!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review - Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: March 6th, 1991
Format: Paperback, 401 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Patrick Bateman and his friends are the epitome of yuppiedom. Young, highly successful investment bankers, they wear the right designer labels, they are seen at the right restaurants, and they drink the right bottled water. Bateman could be any one of them, only he harbors something darker behind the veneer that is the true depth of those around him. He satisfies a violent blood lust killing women and men. They might have offended him, they might have merely looked at him the wrong way, or they might have a better business card. As Bateman fuels this dark need his desire to kill comes sooner and sooner. But with everyone living in their own chemically aided hermetically sealed bubble who would even notice his crimes?

American Psycho is one of those books that everyone knows about. Like classics that people brag about reading, I'm not sure how many of those people have actually read this book. The bookseller at Barnes and Noble who checked me out and who has literally never said more then a few words to me ever (even more impressive when you think how often I go to the bookstore) got all gushy about this book and Bret Easton Ellis, but with the caveat that it is violent. He wasn't wrong. This book is not an easy read. The violence and culture of the time make it hard to swallow. Yet there's something about the underlying message lambasting our culture that calls to us and makes the book still relevant. Why else would there not only be a movie but a musical, which actually makes more sense then you'd think, and a contemporary television show about an older Bateman in the works? Because Patrick Bateman is the zeitgeist of the late 80s in New York, whose afterimage can sadly still be seen today.

There's a fine line between camp and horror that Ellis walks in this book. American Psycho succeeds when it's subtle. Before we witness Bateman kill firsthand it's scenes like the one at the laundromat when he's trying to explain through belligerence and a language barrier the importance of getting his sheets whiter than white. Of course the sheets bear the hallmarks of the previous night's killing, but having not seen the killing the interaction is laced with dark humor. Not to mention my favorite scene where he decides his colleague must be killed for having a nicer business card. Being suggestive works far more than being graphic, and it's not long before Ellis is graphic. This is when the book shifts, and in my mind, starts to fall apart. Our imagination can be pretty horrific with just implying what happened, but Ellis, he is one sick fellow for some of the imagery he conjures, especially what "happens" to Bateman's ex from college.

Yet one does wonder how deliberate this downward spiral is. It's clear that Bateman's killing spree is ramping up, and therefore it does make sense to go gorier and grosser as he unravels, but it makes for a less readable story. The unraveling also raises the question of how much of this is real? Was Bateman so sick that he hallucinated it all? How else would Paul Owen be seen after Bateman killed him? I have a theory about Paul, but that will hold for a minute. It's the questioning of Owen still being alive as well as Bateman's seeming ability to get away with it all that makes one think perhaps it didn't happen. With the amount of drugs Bateman takes and looking to scenes like the chase with the helicopter, one can see how the "it's all in his mind" theory is plausible. And is it any less horrific to know that these are just his thoughts? For my money, I think he was a murderer, but I do like the ambiguity.

Going back to the zeitgeist and Bateman's mindset, I think American Psycho is a scathing attack on our culture during the late 80s. It's a flawed attack, but it gets it's point across admirably. One of the reasons it's hard to get into this book is the sheer number of designer brands Bateman lists. Every article of clothing in the whole book from Bateman's own wardrobe to everyone else he encounters is stripped down to their socks and shoes. After awhile you think that perhaps Ellis could lighten it up because he's gotten the point across, but he doesn't. I think that the fact that he doesn't give it up shows even stronger the relentless consumerism in our society. But it's not just the buying of more and more designer labels, it's also the lifestyle that goes with the designer labels, the physique that must be maintained, the music you listen to, everything is detailed to the nth degree and it shows how vapid and shallow our culture can be at it's very worse.

But not only does American Psycho attack our habits, it attacks what these habits make of us. Throughout the book Bateman is again and again mistaken for other investment bankers. He is interchangeable with his colleagues. Indistinguishable. Hence Paul Owen also being interchangeable and being able to be seen from beyond the grave.  The only thing that really separates Bateman is his blood lust. He is just a cog in the machine that is our culture. When he finally confesses his crimes they are viewed as a joke. Not only that, but the man he confesses to doesn't even realize he is Bateman! Once again he could be anyone. Everyone is only concerned about themselves and their problems, nothing else is relevant or even absorbed into their consciousness. This anonymity gives Bateman great freedom in being able to commit his crimes, but reflected back on us, this interchangeability means that Bateman might not be the "American Psycho" of the title. What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond
Published by: Scribner
Publication Date: June 21st, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"An unforgettable debut with an irresistible love story, My Last Continent is a big-hearted, propulsive novel set against the dramatic Antarctic landscape—“original and entirely authentic love story” (Graeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project).

It is only at the end of the world—among the glacial mountains, cleaving icebergs, and frigid waters of Antarctica—where Deb Gardner and Keller Sullivan feel at home. For the few blissful weeks they spend each year studying the habits of emperor and Adélie penguins, Deb and Keller can escape the frustrations and sorrows of their separate lives and find solace in their work and in each other. But Antarctica, like their fleeting romance, is tenuous, imperiled by the world to the north.

A new travel and research season has just begun, and Deb and Keller are ready to play tour guide to the passengers on the small expedition ship that ferries them to their research destination. But this year, Keller fails to appear on board. Then, shortly into the journey, Deb’s ship receives an emergency signal from the Australis, a cruise liner that has hit desperate trouble in the ice-choked waters of the Southern Ocean. Soon Deb’s role will change from researcher to rescuer; among the crew of that sinking ship, Deb learns, is Keller.

As Deb and Keller’s troubled histories collide with this catastrophic present, Midge Raymond’s phenomenal novel takes us on a voyage deep into the wonders of the Antarctic and the mysteries of the human heart. My Last Continent is packed with emotional intelligence and high stakes—a harrowing, searching novel of love and loss in one of the most remote places on earth, a land of harsh beauty where even the smallest missteps have tragic consequences—“Half adventure, half elegy, and wholly recommended” (Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves)."

Something about the Arctic and human turmoil just has me sold on this book.

Man from Atlantis by Patrick Duffy
Published by: Permuted Platinum
Publication Date: June 21st, 2016
Format: Paperback, 240 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Dive deeper than ever before and discover the origins of The Man from Atlantis.

When TV unveiled the series Man from Atlantis no one knew the how, where and why of Mark Harris. Over time the show’s star Patrick Duffy formulated his own version of the history of Mark and his people. Here at last is the book that gives every reader and fan of the show the life and mythology of Atlantis, who they were and where they came from. Patrick Duffy’s close connection to his fictional character gives us a special look "behind the scenes" of this amazing fantasy story.

Mark Harris, the Man from Atlantis, has been quietly living under the protection of Dr. Elizabeth Merrill who saved his life in 1976. By studying his abilities the two have contributed countless advances for mankind’s development. Only a select few know his true identity:

Jason the whiz kid of the science lab.

Stacy the bright young intern–who is constantly flustered by Mark’s presence.

Dr. Nagashima, a master of oceanic knowledge who Elizabeth lured from Japan to join her inner circle.

Then their California ocean side laboratory is shaken when several attempts are made upon Mark’s life. He discovers the assailants have powers similar to his and he is lead into the uncharted depths of the oceans. As he discovers his past Mark’s origins and genealogy finally come to the surface.

Includes photos from the author's personal collection."

Seriously, it's all about the fact that it's written by Patrick "Bobby Ewing" Duffy! 

Behind the Mask by Matthew Dennison
Published by: St. Martin's Griffin
Publication Date: June 21st, 2016
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A dazzling new biography of Vita Sackville-West, the 20th century aristocrat, literary celebrity, devoted wife, famous lover of Virginia Woolf, recluse, and iconoclast who defied categorization.

In this stunning new biography of Vita Sackville-West, Matthew Dennison's Behind the Mask traces the triumph and contradictions of Vita's extraordinary life. His narrative charts a fascinating course from Vita's lonely childhood at Knole, through her affectionate but ‘open' marriage to Harold Nicolson (during which both husband and wife energetically pursued homosexual affairs, Vita most famously with Virginia Woolf), and through Vita's literary successes and disappointments, to the famous gardens the couple created at Sissinghurst. The book tells how, from her privileged world of the aristocracy, Sackville-West brought her penchant for costume, play-acting and rebellion to the artistic vanguard of modern Britain. Dennison is the acclaimed author of many books including a biography of Queen Victoria.

Here, in the first biography to be written of Vita for thirty years, he reveals the whole story and gets behind ‘the beautiful mask' of Vita's public achievements to reveal an often troubled persona which heroically resisted compromise on every level. Drawing on wideranging sources and the extensive letters that sustained her marriage, this is a compelling story of love, loss and jealousy, of high-life and low points, of binding affection and illicit passion – a portrait of an extraordinary, 20th-century life."

I usually don't have paperbacks on this post if it's already out in hardcover, but seeing as I've never  heard of this book and if you're a true anglophile you NEED to know about Vita Sackville-West, viola, I doth recommend it!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review - Albert Camus's The Stranger

The Stranger by Albert Camus
Published by: Vintage International
Publication Date: 1942
Format: Paperback, 123 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Meursault's mother has died. He makes the long trek to her funeral, it was cost prohibitive to keep her with him and they had nothing more to say to each other. He feels that he should feel something, but there is nothing but the heat of the day and the inconvenience to his daily routine. The day after his mother's funeral he begins a long desired affair with Marie, a co-worker, going to a silly movie and having sex. Things are going along swimmingly with Marie, though she presses for marriage. Meursault says if she wants to get married they should get married, it makes no difference to him. He is passivity personified. He even helps his neighbor Raymond pen a missive to his mistress, seeing that there's no harm in it. Meursault's naivety as to his situation with Raymond will be his undoing. One day at the beach Meursault shoots and kills the brother of Raymond's mistress. The day was hot and the gang of men were following Raymond and Meursault and Marie to the beach. They had an altercation but everything seemed to be over. Then Meursault wandered back to the cool little cove where they first encountered the men, hoping to rest. The Arab was there and then he was dead. Killed by the gun Raymond gave to Meursault. Meursault confesses to his crime. He puts up no protest. The trial is tiring, but he is sure that he will get off. The sentence passed down is a shock to him.

If you read for pleasure versus reading for a class you quickly realize that just because a book is defined as a classic doesn't mean it actually has to be good. In fact some of the most lauded and praised classics might be the most deathly and dull books you'll ever read. While I wouldn't classify The Stranger as the "worst" classic I've ever read, I will say that of all the members of my book club I liked it the least. Though my ambivalence to the book and how it influenced existentialism doesn't preclude it from being a good book to discuss. So while the book might not have met my expectations the discussion that arose from it was engaging, and I think that's why this book has stuck around. It's not perfect but it is perfect to get people talking. As to why The Stranger didn't blow me away, I've read similar books that are better written. D'entre les Mortes by Boileau and Narcejac, which was the basis for the movie Vertigo, captures existentialism and fatalism far better than The Stranger ever does. And it also has that very French vibe as well. But seeing as this book is written later, it was probably influenced by Camus. Therefore I suggest looking to a contemporary of Camus, mainly Daphne Du Maurier. Her short stories succinctly capture the feeling of The Stranger but with better writing. Just because she has been erroneously labelled as a "romance writer" it has lead to her being overlooked. Camus might be a good discussion topic, but for true existentialism go to Du Maurier.

Despite preferring Du Maurier, I am not going to argue the "classic" status of The Stranger. The truth is it is a classic. The reason this is is there is a timelessness to the book. Aside from the method of Meursault's execution and one mention of a movie star, I challenge you to pinpoint the time period of this piece. Not only could it have been set anytime during the past century, it could easily happen now. As my friend Mike pointed out, Meursault could just as easily have been going to a movie by Adam Sandler. Think of that. Could a man be condemned for enjoying an Adam Sandler movie? Now that would add an interesting modern take to the book without changing any of the underlying themes that Camus is trying to get across. Camus was all about the absurdity of life, that a man could be condemned for not showing what society thought as proper grief at his mother's death. If Camus were still alive I think the absurdity of being condemned for laughing at one of the worst comedians of all time would appeal to him. Plus, can you imagine the stir this modern take would create? It almost makes me want to make it into a film myself.

What is odd about The Stranger is despite having a first person narrator it almost feels like it was written in the third person. The reason for this is the passivity of Meursault. He outwardly has no emotions, no desires, he doesn't even really have a personality so to speak. He just follows the ebb and flow of life never really questioning anything until he is faced with his imminent death. One of my friends pointed out that this leads to a refreshing narrator because he does not have any ego. I personally would disagree. Yes he is passive, but being passive doesn't mean that at the bottom of all that there isn't an ego. The truth is he has a very well defined id. An id that is more animal than human. He only goes with the flow if it isn't an inconvenience to him. But look at his train of thought, it's all about food and sex and swimming. He only thinks about stuff that provides gratification to himself. He has an ego, but an animalistic ego that is all about his comfort. Sure he'll marry his girlfriend, what difference does it make to him, all he cares about is having someone around for sex. If marriage will secure this, then why not? The only incident in his entire life that isn't about his own pleasure was the murder he is accused of. He just did it because. Though you could argue that it was because of that nice cool cove.

But really, why kill this man? This is an action completely out of character. Meursault derived no apparent pleasure from it, and that was how he lived his entire life, so why do it? My theory is that there is something seriously wrong with him. Yes, you could look at the entire book as an emotionless man fighting against the inevitability of death and finally finding fire within, but I think that it is a study of a man who was seriously ill. I think that Meursault had a brain tumor. The book oddly backs this up. Firstly, people who have brain tumors often seem off, they don't understand how society works and are therefore often detached. Like people with aspergers they don't get social cues. They also don't understand dangerous situations, often having a childlike naivete. Therefore not crying at his mother's funeral doesn't seem odd to Meursault, while it's a "hanging" offense to the jury. His single-mindedness with devotion only to his own pleasure would also indicate that he has a tumor. But what I think is most significant is his reaction to the sun and heat. The sun is always too bright and overwhelms him. His brain can't process the light streaming through his eyes and he often complains of the sun and his head, much like someone with a migraine would. Only I don't think this is any migraine. I think that Meursault is a sick man because of something inside. This something doesn't see anything wrong with shooting a guy full of holes because it has no mechanism for censure of right and wrong. It lends an entirely different spin to the story but oddly backs up the futility of life. He is inevitably going to die so why fight? In fact he might not have had long to live even if he wasn't executed.

Obviously talking about life and death and this book being the epitome of existentialism, God will enter into it. The first half of the book leading to the murder followed by the second half of trial and condemnation, don't quite fit together. It's like Camus was trying to just show us this man's personality in part one but part two was where all the moral and philosophical reasoning reside. Which makes the second half far heavier. We only see Meursault lose his temper once and that is to the priest who visits him. Obviously this is the important part highlighted by English teachers the world over as the crux of the book. But by the time I reached this point I just didn't care. I didn't care if our antihero did or didn't accept Christ into his life. I didn't care if he was executed. I didn't care if he lived or died. That is the fault at the very center of this book. Yes we can discuss it, yes it might be a fascinating discussion, but a book comes down to the readers investment in the hero or antihero. I could not care less what happened to Meursault! But maybe that's the point? Maybe Camus is playing a double game? For those actually invested there's Meursault's struggle to come to terms with his death, and for the reader there's the struggle to actually care about the book. Or maybe I'm seriously just reading too much into things and applying meaning where there is none because so many people I know liked it and I thought it was just meh. Yep. Still meh.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review - Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: 1955
Format: Paperback, 453 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Yossarian is stationed on the small island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean west of Italy. He's on a bombing raid, he's on leave in Italy, he's in hospital, he's out of hospital, he's in the mess, he's not welcome in the mess, his friends are dying, he might die, he just wants to go home. He knows he's in real and immediate danger, which is the thought of a rational mind. If he asks to go home he's admitting that he knows he's in danger and therefore sane. If he wants to stay he is obviously insane and must be grounded. Yossarian is trapped in a frustrating situation by contradictory regulations because of a non-existent clause. But the genius is the simplicity of this clause that controls everyone's life, it is Catch-22.

Sometimes a book just isn't for you. You read it, you give it a try, and it's not that you hate it, you just don't like it. There are many books I love which some of my best friends dislike and a few they outright hate. I let them have that hate because it's an educated hate. They read the book or books and decided it wasn't for them. I'm not here to judge, it happens, and it is a two-way street. I just didn't like Catch-22. I tried. I really wanted to like it knowing how special a place it holds in some of my friend's hearts, but it just wasn't for me. Like Austen tends to alienate a good portion of the male population, I felt that Heller alienated a good portion of the female population. This book is a guy book, and that's the clearest way I have of saying it wasn't for me.

And I don't think it's the war aspect that makes it a guy book, but more that the depiction of the women alienates women readers. In fairness, not many of the characters are likable. They can be fascinating and compelling, but likable, not at all. The problem I had was that Heller depicted all women as whores who have a love of money or as wanton sluts. OK, this can be the starting point of a character, but you need to build beyond that. Don't make this a cookie cutter stereotype that applies to every single woman in your story. There's this misogynistic undertone that carries through the book and finds it's outlet in the rape and murder of the innocent Michaela, the one realistic woman. I can ascribe many what ifs to justify Heller's writing that he was parodying the way soldiers denigrate women or that he was trying to make women on a lower par with his men, but whatever I say or whatever is true, it still made me, as a woman reader, uncomfortable and not wanting to finish the book.

Though the content of the story bothered me far less then the literary techniques that Heller used. I didn't take issue with the non-linear narration, I only mention it because I have a feeling that this technique makes the book a better re-read then initial read, so I have that working against me. My main problem was that the book doesn't feel of it's time. How can I explain this? The book is about World War II but it was published in 1961. It feels like a book from the sixties instead of a book from the forties. The unattributed dialogue, the narrative structure, even the narrative tense felt more in line with writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and Kurt Vonnegut.

This disassociation between the time the book is set and this later writing style jarred my sensibilities and never meshed into a cohesive book for me. The best comparison I can give is between Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. I love the later book while disliking the former. The reason this newer writing style works for Vonnegut where it doesn't work for Heller is that Vonnegut's story goes forward and backward in time, it isn't just about World War II, so it is able to accept these new literary techniques, whereas Catch-22 is fighting against them every step of the way. A book needs to have harmony with itself to work. And a book really needs harmony to be an enjoyable reading experience.

The unattributed dialogue is on of the techniques that annoyed me the most. I know I'm not alone in being against this stylistic wordplay. I distinctly remember in one of my high school English classes that we had to read this short story that was all unattributed dialogue. Whomever had the book before me was obviously not a fan of this style either because they had gone through the entire story and written who was talking when, like in a screenplay. I was almost annoyed enough to do this here, but I really got to a why bother phase with this book rather fast. The writing would veer between being lugubrious to nonsensical, like an unsuccessful Lewis Carroll parody. At times it felt unoriginal and derivative of the worst and most repetitive of vaudeville sketches. Vaudeville can work, but think clearly, it works because there are actors delivering the lines and therefore keeping you away from the unattributed dialogue trap. This was like reading a vaudeville sketch; who's on first? Who knows, and really, do I care?

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Long Cosmos by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: June 14th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The thrilling conclusion to the internationally bestselling Long Earth series explores the greatest question of all: What is the meaning of life?

2070-71. Nearly six decades after Step Day, a new society continues to evolve in the Long Earth. Now, a message has been received: “Join us.”

The Next—the hyper-intelligent post-humans—realize that the missive contains instructions for kick-starting the development of an immense artificial intelligence known as The Machine. But to build this computer the size of an Earth continent, they must obtain help from the more populous and still industrious worlds of mankind.

Meanwhile, on a trek in the High Meggers, Joshua Valienté, now nearing seventy, is saved from death when a troll band discovers him. Living among the trolls as he recovers, Joshua develops a deeper understanding of this collective-intelligence species and its society. He discovers that some older trolls, with capacious memories, act as communal libraries, and live on a very strange Long Earth world, in caverns under the root systems of trees as tall as mountains.

Valienté also learns something much more profound . . . about life and its purpose in the Long Earth: We cultivate the cosmos to maximize the opportunities for life and joy in this universe, and to prepare for new universes to come."

So bittersweet. An intriguing series coming to an end all the sadder because of Terry Pratchett's passing. 

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Published by: Dial Books
Publication Date: June 14th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A riveting historical art mystery for fans of Chasing Vermeer and The Westing Game, set in the Roaring Twenties!

It's 1929, and twelve-year-old Martha has no choice but to work as a maid in the New York City mansion of the wealthy Sewell family. But, despite the Gatsby-like parties and trimmings of success, she suspects something might be deeply wrong in the household—specifically with Rose Sewell, the formerly vivacious lady of the house who now refuses to leave her room. The other servants say Rose is crazy, but scrappy, strong-willed Martha thinks there’s more to the story—and that the paintings in the Sewell’s gallery contain a hidden message detailing the truth. But in a house filled with secrets, nothing is quite what it seems, and no one is who they say. Can Martha follow the clues, decipher the code, and solve the mystery of what’s really going on with Rose Sewell?

Inspired by true events described in a fascinating author’s note, The Gallery is a 1920s caper told with humor and spunk that readers today will love."

Um, this does kind of scream me doesn't it? Plus that cover is divine!

Sidney Chambers and the Danger of Temptation by James Runcie
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: June 14th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"It's the summer of love in late 1960s England. Basil D'Oliveira has just been dropped from the English cricket team before for a test series in apartheid South Africa; the war in Biafra dominates the news; and the Apollo 11 astronauts are preparing to land on the moon. In the midst of all this change, Sidney Chambers, now Archdeacon of Ely Cathedral, is still up to his amateur sleuthing investigations.

A bewitching divorcee enlists Sidney's help in convincing her son to leave a hippie commune; at a soiree on Grantchester Meadows during May Week celebrations, a student is divested of a family heirloom; Amanda's marriage runs into trouble; Sidney and Hildegard holiday behind the Iron Curtain; Mrs Maguire's husband returns from the dead and an arson attack in Cambridge leads Sidney to uncover a cruel case of blackmail involving his former curate.

In the rare gaps between church and crime, Sidney struggles with a persistent case of toothache, has his first flutter at the Newmarket races and witnesses the creation of a classic rock song.

Charming, witty, intelligent, and filled with a strong sense of compassion, here are six new stories guaranteed to satisfy and delight this clerical detective's many fans."

If you're addicted to the show or the books, good news, a new book with a new series being filmed!

The Mistresses of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: June 14th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 512 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"For fans of Downton Abbey comes an immersive historical epic about a lavish English manor and a dynasty of rich and powerful women who ruled the estate over three centuries of misbehavior, scandal, intrigue, and passion.

Five miles from Windsor Castle, home of the royal family, sits the Cliveden estate. Overlooking the Thames, the mansion is flanked by two wings and surrounded by lavish gardens. Throughout its storied history, Cliveden has been a setting for misbehavior, intrigue, and passion—from its salacious, deadly beginnings in the seventeenth century to the 1960s Profumo Affair, the sex scandal that toppled the British government. Now, in this immersive chronicle, the manor’s current mistress, Natalie Livingstone, opens the doors to this prominent house and lets the walls do the talking.

Built during the reign of Charles II by the Duke of Buckingham, Cliveden attracted notoriety as a luxurious retreat in which the duke could conduct his scandalous affair with the ambitious courtesan Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury. In 1668, Anna Maria’s cuckolded husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, challenged Buckingham to a duel. Buckingham killed Shrewsbury and claimed Anna Maria as his prize, making her the first mistress of Cliveden.

Through the centuries, other enigmatic and indomitable women would assume stewardship over the estate, including Elizabeth, Countess of Orkney and illicit lover of William III, who became one of England’s wealthiest women; Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, the queen that Britain was promised and then denied; Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, confidante of Queen Victoria and a glittering society hostess turned political activist; and the American-born Nancy Astor, the first female member of Parliament, who described herself as an “ardent feminist” and welcomed controversy. Though their privileges were extraordinary, in Livingstone’s hands, their struggles and sacrifices are universal.

Cliveden weathered renovation and restoration, world conflicts and cold wars, societal shifts and technological advances. Rich in historical and architectural detail, The Mistresses of Cliveden is a tale of sex and power, and of the exceptional women who evaded, exploited, and confronted the expectations of their times."

Real live Downton Abbey? Yes please, I'm in withdrawal!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Book Review - Elizabeth Von Arnim's The Enchanted April

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim
Published by: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: 1922
Format: Paperback, 247 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Mrs. Wilkins sees an advertisement in The Times for a house rental in Italy for the entire month of April. The medieval castle of San Salvatore beckons to her. She sees herself there. But she couldn't possibly spend her money on something so frivolous, what would her husband Mellersh say? Anyway it's too expensive for one... but with two. Seeing Mrs. Arbutnot that day, looking at the same ad, something clicked in Mrs. Wilkins. She just knew that Mrs. Arbuthnot was just as dissatisfied with her life too. They could easily afford the place together. Mrs. Arbuthnot had the money that her husband sets aside for her, the ill gotten gains of his writing scandalous memoirs of famous mistresses, that she usually spends on God's work. It wouldn't be wrong, would it, to spend it on herself for once? Yet, to share this good fortune among only two seemed wrong. So soon they place an ad for two more people, and are joined by the elderly Mrs. Fisher, who just wants to be left alone in the Italian sun remembering her glory days, and Lady Caroline Dester, who just wants to escape her fame and infamy.

Once in Italy, they are all overcome with the beauty and the abundance of flowers. The burgeoning wisteria, the fragrance of the bushes. Mrs. Wilkins is the first to embrace the change the place has wrought in her, writing to her husband she was trying to escape from to join her. Her heart flowing over with goodwill and serenity that must be shared with all. Soon Mrs. Arbuthnot starts to unwind and see that perhaps she has been too hard on her husband and his writing. Mrs. Fisher remains obstinate and stoic, wanting everything her way, with her own space and her own memories, but she soon starts to flex, ever so slightly. Lady Caroline also begins to change, having all this time to just think and escape the pawing of everyone makes her come to some startling conclusions about herself. The house has a magic that changes all of them mysteriously and irrevocably.

One day I stumbled on an idyll movie. There were lots of British actors whom I recognized and this feeling of beauty and release and joy. That movie happened to be Enchanted April. While I only caught but a few moments of the film it stuck with me and one day when I stumbled on the book while browsing the shelves of a local bookstore I bought it immediately. I thought if the book had but a fraction of the charm that I saw distilled in those fleeting moments I watched on the screen it would be a luxurious escape. But as is often the case with me I had some very odd ideas about this book I had found. I was adamant that I would only read the book in April. Yes, a crazy thought, but I just had to do it. The book was called The Enchanted April after all! And I wanted my own April to be enchanted. So every April I would think, "This April, I'll read it." Yet life would invariably get in the way. Work, school, something always happened so that by the time I had the time to read it, it was no longer April and therefore I refused to read it. Then finally the stars aligned. I had the time and I was totally disenchanted. I don't know if it was the years of build up or just that I wasn't in the right frame of mind, but I not only disliked this book, I openly hated it.

The Enchanted April is supposed to be an escapist fantasy. The, wouldn't it be lovely to be there with them in Italy. Instead it made me feel bitter and angry towards all the characters. Oh, their boring lives of routine are so hard, let them luxuriate in Italian splendor that you can't take part in as you toil through a crappy Wisconsin April with tons and tons of work. Oh, it cost us nothing to live in this magical place and isn't that just wonderful, grumble, grumble. Very shortly I wanted to go and kill them all. Their lives aren't so hard that they needed this getaway! I need this getaway and guess what? I don't have the time or the money, so shut it ladies. Mrs. Wilkins' knowing and seeing were a tad too much, too affected for me. Mrs. Arbuthnot, besides having a stupid name, should get off her high horse and embrace the fact that she has money. Mrs. Fisher, well, I kind of liked that she was bitchy most of the book, but that kindness from a young man could turn it so, blurg. Then poor Lady Caroline, men and women all just love her so so much she can't get a moment alone. Poor darling. I can't help but wonder what the enchantments of April will bring to the rest of their lives... they thought they where dissatisfied before? I'm sure the honeymoon will soon be over and their lives will be even more unbearable, I can just see it... now why does that make me so happy?

Yet what irked me most wasn't this fairy tale fantasy that changed their lives but the idea that change can only be wrought by uprooting your life. That they couldn't have become contented in their lives without this experience. So what does that say to us mere mortal readers who don't have this opportunity? Your life will suck forever? This reminds me of the tripe spewed by those who think that only travel can expand your horizons. A friend who goes off to China or Vietnam and spends the next five years starting every conversation "when I was in..." Or even worse the "you'll understand when you travel." I have traveled some and want to travel more, but responsibilities and economies are realities that I face as most do. And the truth is you don't need to travel to effect change in your life. You don't need to go somewhere else to expand your horizons. People who tell you these lies are small-minded and don't have the depth to realize that just looking at the world around you and reading can be the biggest catalysts for change. Emily Dickinson was one of the greatest observers of the human condition and she barely left her house! It's change that comes from within that lasts. Yes, a journey or a story can change you, but you have to internalize it, have it become a part of you. Will this change of life stay in place for these characters once they return home? Because in truth it seems a superficial change that can not hope to last. 

But let's play devil's advocate. Say that these characters have changed, that their "internal growth" has fixed them. The truth is this isn't shown it's just told to us. They are just soothed by their surroundings and made whole. From the readers point of view nothing happened. They were miserable and now they're not. We don't see their internal struggle, we don't see how this seismic shift has happened, we are just observers, we aren't even along for the ride. That is the key. Most people label this book as boring but the truth behind this truth is that someone else's personal journey isn't interesting, it's annoying, unless you are taken along for the ride. Insight, commentary on the experience, anything to forge a connection with the characters so that their personal journey becomes your journey. So that you have internal growth at the same pace as the characters. A lot of people say that this book is the middle-aged A Room with a View. While I get the comparison, I would like fans of this book to go read the other. Because A Room with a View forges this connection that is forever lacking in The Enchanted April. You become so invested in Lucy Honeychurch's journey to find herself that at times you are in pain simply hoping that her life will work out. I never once felt that for any of Elizabeth Von Arnim's characters. Not even for a second.

On the other hand, Elizabeth Von Arnim herself sounds like a fascinating lady. She was a Countess (twice over!) with a husband in prison for fraud. They had a luxurious family estate in Pomerania where E.M. Forster and Hugh Walpole came as tutors. I would like to have the wherewithal to hire E. M. Forster as my children's tutor, wouldn't you? But now going back to the parallels with A Room with a View, which was published fourteen years prior to The Enchanted April I'm starting to question her morals. Like she was sitting around one day and thought I could do better than my children's tutor, and promptly failed. Oh, and she just happened to be the mistress to H.G Wells!?! Sister-in-law to Bertrand Russell! She fled her second marriage by going to America and taking up with a publisher thirty years her junior. I want to read a biography on her! In fact, with such a fascinating and full life, why is her writing so darn flat? I'd like to read more about Elizabeth... not necessarily more by Elizabeth.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Mordern Classics

Modern classics is an interesting categorization for books. We all know what Classics, with a capital "C" are. They're books that have endured. They have proven to stand the test of time. Think of the 1800s. Such a glut of authors writing yet we have but a handful of authors that are remembered; Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Wharton, Gaskell, Eliot, Trollope, and more. But comparatively small. They're like the 1% of authors. Now look to the 1900s. Just a hundred years or less isn't really enough time to know if a book will still be read and loved in another hundred years. As Stephen King himself says, he doesn't think his books will be remembered. They are loved and devoured by today's readers, but there's also something transitory about them. But there are books that people place favorable odds on enduring. The works of Hemingway are pretty much a shoo-in. Or so we think. And that's what makes, say A Farewell to Arms, a "modern" classic. We are pretty sure that a book with this moniker will go on. So much so that many of these books make up the curriculum of high school English classes. Vonnegut, Kesey, Slaughterhouse-Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, anyone of my generation will recognize these as standard reading. But will people a few generations from now recognize them? This is one instance in which I would love to peak into the future and see what endures. Of the books I've selected... it's a crapshoot.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Cavendon Luck by Barbara Taylor Bradford
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: June 7th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 512 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From the #1 New York Times bestselling author comes a captivating epic saga of courage and honor, following the aristocratic Inghams and the loyal Swann family who have served them for centuries.

It is 1938 in England, and Miles and Cecily Ingham have lead the family in bringing the Cavendon estate back from the brink of disaster. But now, with the arrival of World War II, Cavendon Hall will face its biggest challenge yet. It is a challenge that will push the Inghams and Swanns to protect each other and the villagers, and reveal their true capacity for survival and rebirth.

Told with Bradford’s deft, evocative prose and featuring a beloved cast of characters, The Cavendon Luck is a story of intrigue, romance, sorrow, and joy that readers won’t soon forget."

Why is this family always in crisis yet always sees it through with luck and pluck?

Tea Cups and Carnage by Lynn Cahoon
Published by: Lyrical Underground
Publication Date: June 7th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 192 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The quaint coastal town of South Cove, California, is all abuzz about the opening of a new specialty shop, Tea Hee. But as Coffee, Books, and More owner Jill Gardner is about to find out, there's nothing cozy about murder . . .

Shop owner Kathi Corbin says she came to South Cove to get away from her estranged family. But is she telling the truth? And did a sinister someone from her past follow her to South Cove? When a woman claiming to be Kathi's sister starts making waves and a dead body is found in a local motel, Jill must step in to clear Kathi's name--without getting herself in hot water."

Yes, I'm only interested in this book because of the title. Come one people? That title is HILARIOUS! 

A Golden Cage by Shelley Freydont
Published by: Berkley
Publication Date: June 7th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The author of A Gilded Grave returns to Newport, Rhode Island, at the close of the nineteenth century, where headstrong heiress Deanna Randolph must solve another murder among the social elite.

With her mother in Europe, Deanna is staying with the Ballard family, who agree to chaperone her through the summer season and guide her toward an advantageous marriage proposal—or so her mother hopes. Relishing her new freedom, Deanna is more interested in buying one of the fashionable new bathing costumes, joining a ladies’ bicycling club, and befriending an actress named Amabelle Deeks, all of which would scandalize her mother.

Far more scandalous is the discovery of a young man bludgeoned to death on the conservatory floor at Bonheur, the Ballards’ sumptuous “cottage.” Deanna recognizes him as an actor who performed at the birthday fete for a prominent judge the night before. But why was he at Bonheur? And where is Amabelle?

Concerned her new friend may be in danger—or worse—Deanna enlists the help of her intrepid maid, Elspeth, and her former beau, Joe Ballard, to find Amabelle before the villain of this drama demands an encore."

I was already interested in this book before I saw the little pull quote recommendation from Tasha Alexander. Yeah, it's going to be awesome!

A Study in Sable by Mercedes Lackey
Published by: DAW
Publication Date: June 7th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Latest in the Elemental Masters series where magic and fairy tales collide on an alternate Earth at the early 1900s."

OK, so I totally only requested this on Netgalley because the name and the cover make it look like some Sherlock Holmes pastiche... you wouldn't be able to tell from the description that's for sure!

Last Night, a Superhero Saved My Life by Neil Gaiman et al
Published by: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: June 7th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"As broad as our exponentially growing cultural fascination with caped crusaders is, it runs just as deep as this long awaited anthology underscores. Liesa Mignogna the VP, Editorial Director at Simon Pulse and editor of this anthology can expound on the virtues of Batman (her wedding was even Batman-themed) but it's her retelling of incredibly harrowing yet ultimately inspiring encounters with The Dark Knight over the years, as she struggled to coexist with the supervillains in her own family that birthed this collection.

Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life gives readers the chance to connect to their beloved authors, while those same authors connect to their beloved superheroes, and within that feedback loop of respect and admiration lies a stellar, and phenomenally accessible, anthology full of thrills, chills, and spills.

Contributors include New York Times bestsellers Christopher Golden, Leigh Bardugo, Brad Meltzer, Neil Gaiman, Carrie Vaughn, Jodi Picoult, and Jamie Ford, as well as award-winners and mainstays like Joe R. Lansdale, Karina Cooper, and Ron Currie, Jr among many others. Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life's authors share their most hilarious and most heart wrenching experiences with their chosen defender to explain why superheroes matter, what they tell us about who we are, and what they mean for our future."

Aside from the awesome title, look at the authors! Neil Gaiman, Leigh Bardugo, Christopher Golden, Karina Cooper!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Book Review - Zadie Smith's White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: March 19th, 1999
Format: Paperback, 448 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

On New Year's Eve 1974 Archie Jones sets out to kill himself but ends up being unsuccessful, yet like a butterfly leaving the cocoon, he leaves that gas filled car a new man. A new life and a new wife await him! His old army buddy Samad Iqbal has been saying to him for awhile that what he needs is a new young wife, like his own Alsana. That night Archie meets Clara Bowden and by Valentine's Day they are man and wife. Archie is escaping the life left in that car and Clara is escaping her mother, Hortense, whose religious beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness have stifled Clara's life. It isn't long before the middle aged men are fathers. Archie has a lovely daughter, Irie, and Samad has twins boys, Magid and Millat, who couldn't be more different.

It is 1984 and now Samad's life is about to change forever. He falls hard for his son's music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones. The lust stirred in Samad has him questioning everything. But the attraction is mutual, and soon he has a new outlet for his lust. Yet his religious beliefs and the sin he is committing because, as he claims, the lure of the Western world has seduced him, leads him to do something that his wife will never forgive him for. He feels that if he could be degraded in this way, his sons are in even worse danger. He wants to send them back to Bangladesh, but only has the financial resources to send one of them. Magid and Millat are separated and Alsana can never forgive him until Magid is returned to her.

The 90s have come and Irie is grown up and in love with Millat. Millat has indeed fallen prey to the lure of the West as his father feared. He sleeps around, does drugs, gets into fights, and is still somehow the object of Irie's affection, which he doesn't return. One day at school Irie is confronting Millat near resident nerd Josh Chalfen when there is a drugs bust. The three of them get brought before the principal for Millat's marijuana. In the hope that Josh and his illustrious family, his mother Joyce is an author while his father Marcus is a genetic engineer, will be a good influence on Irie and Millat they are to go to the Chalfens once a week and have Josh tutor them. Soon it's everyday. Joyce takes an extreme interest in Millat while Irie starts to work for Marcus as an assistant. Even Magid, back in Bangladesh, befriends Marcus and decides to return to England. But the life of Chalfenism is divisive, and soon Josh has joined an animal rights group, FATE, to protest his father's genetic engineering of FutureMouse, while Millat has joined a fundamentalist Islamic group, KEVIN, to turn his back on his old life and the fact that Marcus prefers Magid. On the eve of the new millennium, everyone gathers to herald the arrival of FutureMouse... most with differing ideas as to how the evening will go.

From the little blurb I have assembled above you might be drawn to the false conclusion that this book actually has a plot. It doesn't. Well... it kind of does at the very end where Zadie Smith apparently realized she needed one and just threw in a handful of new characters and a whole bunch of organizations with stupid acronyms and built words into an unsatisfying conclusion with guns and Nazis and genetically engineered mice. That is right, she brought in Nazis. And I think that's the problem, she brought in whatever she wanted randomly and then just threw it aside when she got bored. Though she never seemed to get bored of slightly tweaking the reader with little asides in some random post modern moments of incomprehensibility. So the book actually feels like a bunch of interconnected short stories, some of which might have been good if they hadn't been thrown in with the morass of crap and depravity that makes up the majority of this book.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend and she asked me if I had read Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I replied that I had, mainly because it was a loosely, if failed, reimagining of Howards End, and was mentioned on The Vicar of Dibley. She was wondering if I was put off by the very detailed descriptions of one of the character's nipples. I honestly said that I had no recollection of this, most likely I had blocked it from my memory. I can honestly say though, after reading White Teeth, I will never forget Zadie Smith's obsession with nipples ever again. In fact, this book can be summed up as very boring with a veneer of eww. If I wasn't bored senseless I was quite literally wanting to throw up. Thirty pages of a 57 year old man masturbating (a different friend claims it might have been more, perhaps I'm preemptively blocking this out). Domestic abuse, where the children are placing bets on their parents. Teenagers marrying men in their 40s (proving Smith has daddy issues). A father of Irie's classmate calling her a big black goddess and ruminating about her breasts, when she's only what, fourteen! The aforementioned nipples, except for multiple characters, not just one. I wanted to wash my brain after reading this book.

Now, you're thinking that I missed the point, that the book wasn't about these accumulated repugnant and repulsive moments. I totally get that the book is about heritage and ancestry and genetics and what limitations we are burdened with, nature, nurture, fate. The second generation versus the first generation. You would have to be blind to miss this, especially once we get to FutureMouse. But the truth is, I can't, I couldn't, give a tinker's damn. It doesn't matter if you set out to write the most amazing, most profound story, if your characters are not only unlikeable, but reprehensible, then there is no way I will care. With all this ick as I will pejoratively call everything in this book, there wasn't a redeemable character or any reason to even finish reading this book except for the fact that I am incapable of leaving a book unfinished. So I finished. I read ever last work Smith wrote and I hated it. Mine is an educated hate, you can't say fairer than that!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Book Review - Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruin Zafon
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 2001
Format: Paperback, 487 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

There is a secret organization that lovingly cares for and protects rare and old books. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books has a tradition, that when you are first brought to the labyrinthine structure you must pick one book among the thousand of thousands and protect it for life. When young Daniel Sempere is taken there by his father he picks up a book by Julián Carax called The Shadow of the Wind. Daniel devours the book from cover to cover and has a fire burning inside him to know more about Julián Carax. But there are no other books by Julián Carax anymore. A man who has taken his moniker from the devil in Carax's book, Laín Coubert, has slowly been finding every copy of all Carax's titles and burning them. Daniel, along with his sidekick Fermín, start to unravel the mysterious life of Julián Carax and why anyone would want to remove his literary oeuvre from history. It is a journey that is dangerous and dark, with a twisted secret at the center of it.

Ever since I first watched The Neverending Story I thought how wonderful it would be to find a book that was truly magical. To wander into a shop filled with shelves and shelves of stories and have one call out to me and ask me to be the bearer of it's secrets. I think this is a dream that all bibliophiles hold deep in their hearts, that there is a story out there just for them and it will change the course of their lives. It seemed to me that Daniel Sempere, much like Bastian before him, had inadvertently stumbled into this dream. Devouring this book over the course of a few short days I realized that not every dream is satisfactory, and in the hands of the wrong author, can be dull, predictable, and at times insipid. And I would like it noted I devoured this book because I had a book club meeting fast approaching and it had nothing to do with the book itself. And to all those people who lauded this book I seriously want to ask you why!?!

Firstly, let's talk about incest. This has become, in recent years, the most overused trope I can possibly think of. I mean they even used it on a CW show! If a trope has trickled all the way down to be acceptable by the brainless teenagers who actually watch this station then it's time to get a new trope. From Flowers in the Attic to A Game of Thrones, seriously, is this supposed to shock us anymore? Sure, once it was a great taboo, and in actuality, it still is, but fictionally? Nope. To have the big reveal of what destroyed Julian Carax's life was his love of Penélope Aldaya, whom he didn't know was his sister, was laughable. All this build up, all these leads that Daniel Sempere searched and hunted through all the streets of Barcelona to come to this? Oh please. It's not like they knew they were siblings. Sigh, what some people find as a shocking reveal can be shockingly flat.

The predictability of The Shadow of the Wind might just be the biggest flaw. I saw the incest coming a mile off, just one scene with Penélope's father and Julian's mother and that was that. Of course it takes the characters hundreds of pages to get to this reveal which leads to my other main gripe, the lack of forward momentum. You'd think that a man hunting you down through the streets to destroy a book you are bound to protect all while trying to find out his reasoning would be a headlong rush with adrenaline pounding in your veins. You'd be wrong. It plods and limps through the streets of Barcelona occasionally even going back on its self to retell things that were boring the first time. Oh, and the stupidity of the characters! Just wow. The height of this is when Nuria Monfort tells her side of the story, which was basically her retelling the whole book from her point of view! Almost a hundred pages of her being repetitive. Also, what really annoyed me, she supposedly wrote this all out by hand when what was her job? A secretary who could type really fast! And what did Daniel mention seeing in her apartment the first time he was there? A typewriter! Oh, for fucks sack. They all deserved to die.

But let's move to the bigger picture now. At the time directly preceding the actions of Daniel Sempere the Spanish Civil War happened. Yeah, the war mentioned so subtly you could miss it wasn't World War II, because Spain remained neutral during that specific war. And despite what Wikipedia might try to convince you, the war is just the subtlest of afterthoughts and is in no way as important as it should have been to the narrative. I'm not sure if this omission to not discuss the Spanish Civil War was accidental or on purpose. The book was written by a Spanish author so maybe he just assumed that this backdrop was common knowledge. Well, it isn't. A good editor when bringing this book to market in the US should have asked for something more to be slipped in, but then again, I don't really think it was well translated and well, in the end, I really didn't care.

What was interesting though was the discussion this book brought about in my book club as to what defines a book as Gothic. Luckily The Guardian has recently come out with a nice infographic to help you decide, Gothic or Not it. The villain could have been scarier, but the fact that he destroyed things by fire, that could be considered Gothic. The hero had a family AND a sidekick, this is definitely NOT Gothic. Was there spooky locations that might just be haunted... not really. It takes place in slightly olden days in a foreign country, so it's got that. There's snow and some rain and fog, but overall the weather isn't as oppressive as it should be. Overall, it didn't feel Gothic. Because to me, Gothic is a feeling more then anything else. A spookiness you feel in your bones that makes you keep reading late into the night out of sheer terror for what will happen to the hero or heroine next as they are cut off from the world and facing the horrors on their own. In other words, if you actually want Gothic go read Rebecca or The Monk and stay clear of The Shadow of the Wind.

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