The Summer I Wasn’t Me by Jessica Verdi

SummerIWasntMeThe Summer I Wasn’t Me by Jessica Verdi

Published in 2014 by Sourcebooks
ISBN: 978-1-4022-7788-7

Rating: 3 Stars

Lexi is losing her family.  After her father passed away from cancer, she started losing her mother, first to tears, then to the distant look that would come into her mother’s eyes.

So when her mother discovers of Lexi’s like of girls, and reacts very badly, Lexi feels she has no choice but to take the opportunity arranged for her, to attend a summer at New Horizons, a “reparative therapy” camp.  Lexi hopes that if she can just fix herself, she can not only get her mother back, but she can also get over what happened with Zoë.

I grew up in a small town a lot like Lexi’s, where “gay” and “fag” were used as causal insults and no one seemed to think there was anything wrong with it.  I sometimes wonder if things have changed since I left, and that wondering is exactly the reason books like this need to exist.  If one child (or adult) reads this and is comforted, encouraged, bolstered, I would call the book an unqualified success.

Verdi concentrates the narrative on four of the campers, two boys and two girls, and through them shows a spectrum of way the pressures on LGBTQ kids to be “normal” can manifest themselves.  The foursome are a delight both individually and collectively.  Outside of those four, however, I did find the characters stuck a little too close to archetypes rather than being fleshed out as full characters.

On a personal note, I was slightly disappointed that Verdi didn’t find a way to include an adult Christian character that was also an ally of the LGBTQ community (or better yet, a member).  Though I’m myself an atheist, many of my friends are able to imagine their God’s love is large enough to encompass all God’s children.  I wish that perspective had found a larger part in the book, though I understand how the structure of the story made that difficult.

The Summer I Wasn’t Me combines the horror of reparative therapy with the headiness of first love to create a sweet and satisfying book that nevertheless draws questions out of the reader.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: I feel like I’m missing something, as I don’t understand what the objects on the cover are, let alone their significance.  Though it’s well laid out, the title is what made me pick up this book, not the cover.

What to read next: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue (for older readers)

Other bookselling notes: Great for anyone looking to reinvent themselves.  Sometimes there no reinvention necessary.

Phantom by Susan Kay

PhantomPhantom: A Novel of His Life by Susan Kay

Published in 1990 by Random House
ISBN: 978-0-394-22185-4

Rating: 4 Stars

In my perfect world, every reader will have a book to which they can return again and again.  For me, that book is Phantom.  My friends and I entered our rebellious-teenager phase just at the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was surging in popularity.  Unlike a the majority of our peers, we had no interest in becoming Christine.  No, we wanted to be Erik.

Living in the Palais Garnier, constantly surrounded by opera?  What’s not to love?  Also, as a gawky teenage girl, I felt as ugly and misanthropic as Erik.

Kay’s novel came across my path before Leroux’s, and relegated my reading the latter to the category of major disappointments in my life.  Where Leroux wrote his novel as a mystery, Kay gave the story space to examine so much more about attitudes to beauty, goodness, virtue, and what it means to be human.

Thanks to books like The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon and Snakes in Suits by Babiak and Hare, the idea of psychopathy as a result of brain function is gaining ground in the average reader’s awareness.  Because I this, I found myself reading Phantom very differently, perhaps more deeply, than I did on previous occasions.  Was Erik destined to be the monster he became, or could he, like Fallon, have a functional role in society, if it had not been for the world’s revulsion, which began with his own mother, and which so often saw him dismissed as non-human on first sight.

And speaking of sight, Erik’s story shows society’s preoccupation and predilection for not only a person’s looks, but the sense of sight.  The one character who is able to love Erik unconditionally is Reza, a blind boy*.  Erik’s deformity is counterbalance by his voice, but until Christine, there is no relationship where the latter overwhelms the former.  Because Erik’s face is not recognizably human, even when he is not wearing the romanticizing mask, he remains removed from the human race for all but Reza despite the beauty he possesses for other senses.

* Giovanni does come close, but considering the tragic end of his chapter of Erik’s story, I don’t think he can be counted.

I did find myself with one disappointment in this, my umpteenth reading of the novel.  The last section, which covers the events of the original novel, and which is told in counterpoint narration between Christine and Erik, seems much less polished than the rest of the book.  Kay attempts to change Erik’s narration to present tense, but keeps slipping back into past.  Also, much of the depth of his character is lost and his motivations because much less nuanced.  The difference is striking enough to my more experienced reading eye that I now wonder if this last section was actually written first, but then not sufficiently edited to bring it on par with the rest of the novel.

Also, now that I’m so much older than Christine, her naiveté is drifting from endearing to annoying. But then, as I said above, I was never much interested in her part of the story.

Despite these newly apparent flaws, I still love this book with all my heart.  The scars are part of it, and make me love it even more.  I’ll certainly be back to read it again in a few years.

Cate

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

NeverFallDownNever Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

Published in 2012 by HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN: 978-0-6-173095-5

Rating: 5 Stars

Some stories are so horrific they have to be retold.  If they’re not, we run too much risk of repeating them.

A fictionalized account of the childhood and adolescence of Arn Chorn-PondNever Fall Down takes the reader to Cambodia in 1975 and the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

Arn lives for catching frogs and dancing to American music.  His biggest dream is to be a “little bit famous”, like his parents who ran the local opera house before his father died.  That’s all forgotten the day the Khmer Rouge come.

Arn is separated from his family and set to work in the rice fields, the backbreaking work is too much for many children, but somehow Arn manages to survive.  Then one day, the soldiers ask if anyone can play an instrument.  Though Arn has never played a note, he volunteers, and again he survives.  When he is force to play to cover up the sound of others dying, he survives.  Just when Cambodia is about to be liberated, the Khmer Rouge put a gun in Arn’s hands and send him into the jungle.  He survives.

“Over and over I tell myself one thing, never fall down.”

There are some people who are survivors, whose bodies simply won’t let them give up.  Countless times, Arn thinks he’s about the die, but he doesn’t.  He has a “tiger in his heart” that won’t let him.

McCormick tells the story in the grammatically loose phrasing of someone who’s learned English late in life.  As she mentions in her author’s note, she found that when she imposed proper grammar onto the voice of the man with who she’s spent countless hours reliving his ordeal, the light went out of the book.  It was the right decision, as it’s the innocent, unstructured voice that pulls the reader into Arn’s life and story.

Stories like Arn’s are difficult to hear, and even more difficult to tell.  But they are important stories that must be told, heard, remembered.  For those of us in developed countries it is often too easy to shut ourselves off from stories like Arn Chorn-Pond’s.  We mustn’t do it.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Beautifully done. The eye is drawn though the title, down to the frightened figure of the young boy.

What to read next: Annexed by Sharon Dogar.  The story of Peter Van Pels, the young man in the attic with Anne Frank and their two families.

Other bookselling notes: This is a difficult book to sell, and in fact we’ve had customers get upset that it’s even on the shelf of our teen section.  But it’s stories like this that build empathy, something our society needs more than ever.

Chasing Shakespeares by Sarah Smith

Chasing Shakespeare by Sarah Smith

Published in 2003 by Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-0-7434-6483-3

Rating: 3 Stars

Chasing Shakespeares is an interesting read, as it deals with “the authorship question” of Shakespeare’s plays.

Joe Roper, working-class kid turned graduate student in Shakespearean studies, has been charged with cataloguing the Kellogg collection of Elizabethan papers and curiosities, obtained at great trouble by Northwestern University.  However, to everyone’s dismay, the collection turns out to be comprised of fake after fake.  When he discovers a letter from one W. Shakespeare, with evidence that the glovemaker’s son did not in fact write the famed plays, Joe assumed he’s found yet another fake.  The trouble is, as a dedicated Stratfordian, he has to prove it.

While the premise is interesting, Smith’s working of the plot contains some moments that strain the suspension of disbelief.  Joe is able to remove the letter from the library by simply leaving a note for his supervisor, then able fly with it, in a plastic file folder, to England, where he turns to over to a friend-of-a-friend with no more guarantee than a handwritten receipt.

Additionally, the characters that populate Chasing Shakespeares are often two-dimensional, including the supposed love interests, and the author is prone to both lengthy quotations and info-dumps.

Even with its faults, Chasing Shakespeares is an interesting introduction to the authorship question of Shakespeare’s plays.  As a layperson, I would venture to suggest a list of dramatis personae might be in order.  Even with Smith’s simplification of the various titles and forms of address, the relationships between the various contenders for “Shakespeare” were not always clear.  

Cate

Notes:

The cover: A little too busy — leaving it hard to form a quick impression, which is essential for catching a book browser’s attention.

What to read next: The Berkeley Square Affair by Teresa Grant — another case of a newly discovered manuscript by Shakespeare.  (Reading this now, review coming soon.)

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

Published in 2013 by Random House
ISBN: 978-0-307-93048-4

Rating: 4 Stars

When Duncan arrives for his senior year at Irving, he’s disappointed to find that he’s been assigned Tim Macbeth’s old room.  Tim is the last person Duncan wants to remember from last year.  To make matters worse, the traditional “treasure” left in the room is a collection of CDs Tim has made, recording his experience the previous year, an experience that culminated in “that night” — the last thing Duncan wants to relive.

But Tim also talks of a promise.  If Duncan listens, he will have the meat he needs for the most important assignment at Irving — his senior thesis, otherwise known as the Tragedy Paper.

Told in alternating viewpoints, Duncan’s and Tim’s, what impresses most about The Tragedy Paper is that LaBan shows readers boys that being vulnerable is not the same thing as being weak.  Too often, we tell boys, young and old, to “man up” any time they show vulnerability.

An examination of tragedy in both the everyday and the literary sense, The Tragedy Paper is a book one reads with dread, knowing that this book’s contract has promised that things are going to go very, very badly.  As with Hamlet, or with Tim’s namesake, ever mistake on the part of the characters, so obvious to us, takes them blindly along their trajectory.  Rail against the pages all we can, The Tragedy Paper keeps us turning them.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: I’m much more fond of the hardback edition’s cover.  The paperback (pictured above) seems to speak more of romance than I would prefer.

What to read next: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak — another book where knowing the ending is only a perfunctory part of the experience.

The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Niesen

The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Niesen

Published in 2013 by Scholastic Books
ISBN: 978-0-545-28417-2

Rating: 4 Stars

There are certain authors in whom I have a lack of trust.  And I mean that as a compliment.  Jennifer Nielsen is one of those authors.  You’re never quite sure of where she’s going to take you.

Some of her plot twists seem predictable on the surface (especially to experienced readers), but she walks just far enough off the line that you are never quite certain if she’s going to pull things off the way you think she’s going to.  And often she decides to take you in a completely different direction.

The culmination of the Ascendance Trilogy, The Shadow Throne opens with what King Jaron has been dreading since the first page of the first book.  War is coming to his kingdom from multiple directions.  His troops are outnumbered and his own body is failing him.  When one of his closest friends is killed in one of the earliest battles, and Jaron is himself captured and kept under torture, it nearly breaks the young ruler.

But then, this is Jaron.

There are perhaps a few quibbles with the storytelling.  Nielsen is a little too fond of manipulating the first person narrative to keep information from the reader, i.e.: “I told them my plan, then we all went to bed because we would need rest for it to work.”  At other times, however, she uses the doublespeak of certain characters with diamond precision.

Though I’m still not sure what is the significance of its title (perhaps I missed something?), The Shadow Throne satisfyingly concludes an entertaining trilogy. I look forward to Nielsen’s next project.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: In keeping with the series look, which I’ve always loved.  Also, red for this particular volume, where war finally breaks out, was an excellent choice.

What to read next: It’s hard to find one for the same audience, but older readers (15+) who enjoyed this might like The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.

Other bookselling notes: It’s always nice when a series completes, as I can recommend the whole thing as a single story: “Three books, no waiting!”

The authors who are restoring my reading brain (includes gifs)

Those of you who have not abandoned me due to my lack of posting: you are in for some good news.

I think I finally have my reading brain back after the latter half of 2013 killed it.

I take the blame on myself.  After being semi-homeless for six weeks (sleeping in my own bed rocks!), I took on a ridonkulous 30-books-in-30-days project (wtf was I thinking?) right before I knew I would be surviving Christmas in an independent bookstore.

Result? I’ve only managed the mental concentration to finish two books since the beginning of 2014.

But my job is to read, and read a lot.

So, during most of the last two months, I’ve been all…

Data-Oh-Shit

That said, things, they are getting better.   And there are two particular authors to thank.

One of the books I read in my crazy-November-project was Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson, a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale in historical Mississippi.  When I finished it, I immediately looked for others by Nickerson.  I found out her next, The Mirk and Midnight Hour, would be a retelling of Tam Lin, also in Mississippi.

Tam Lin is a favourite of mine, so I immediately requested an ARC from our Random House rep.  I didn’t hear anything back, so I assumed he didn’t have any and was content to wait for the release.

Then, three days ago, the store gets a package addressed to me.  It has The Mirk and Midnight Hour in both hardcover and audio, plus a paperback of Strands of Bronze and Gold, (two weeks before their release).

I’m all…

emma-stone-this-is-the-best

But that was not all that fate had in store for me.  I also find out via Twitter that I was mistaken about the release date of The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen, the last in the Ascendance trilogy.  We had it as March 1st, but it was really the 25th of February.

At which point I was all…

Jon-Stewart-OMG

There was a wee delay in my store’s shipment, but considering I’m still getting back on the reading wagon, I’m not gonna complain about one day.

I’m already two-thirds through Nickerson, and Nielsen is burning a hole in my book bag.  Best of all, once I’m done those, I’m excited to finished all the half-read books I’ve begun so far this year.

Which means, if this trend continues, I’ll be all…

whew

Cate

Jane Nickerson’s Website | Jennifer Nielsen’s Website

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Little Bee by Chris Cleave
also published as The Other Hand

Published in 2009 by Random House
ISBN: 978-0-385-66531-5

Rating 4 Stars

If there’s one thing that will always catch my reading eye, it’s a strong narrative voice.  I’m especially fond of strong female voices written in the first person.  Little Bee’s voice is one of those.  It’s so strong, in fact, that I’ve sold dozens of copies of this book from the first fifty pages, which I read when the book was first released.  Unfortunately, due to the nature of bookselling, it was not until now that I sat down to read the rest of it.

Little Bee is a story that unfolds in two voices and two parts.  Years ago, Little Bee and her sister met an English couple, Sarah and Andrew, on a beach in Nigeria.  Now, more than two years later, Bee is in England (illegally) and seeks them out.  Not for revenge, not even really for help, but simply for an anchor.  But is it an anchor she can trust?  The things that brought the Sarah and Andrew to the beach, and Little Bee to America, connect in more ways than they know, more ways than many of us can see.

In addition to his obvious talent with prose, Chris Cleave touches on many uncomfortable topics in a manner that intrigues and shames.  The consumerism of the developed world plays a large hand in global economics.  We know this, but too often we decide to ignore it. In our literal and metaphorical gated communities, we live a very different life than the rest of the world, and in their eyes, we’re all as rich as Bill Gates.  From our position in the developed world, many North Americans will acknowledge our luck of being born where we were, but we also behave as if that acknowledgement is all that justice asks of us.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Intriguing.  I love the curlicues around the title, reminiscent of a bee’s flight.

What to read next: Escape from Camp 14 by Blain Harden

Other bookselling notes: I’m glad I finally made the time for this, but considering the strength of the opening, I’m wasn’t surprised by the story’s depth.  Will continue to handsell.

The Heart of a Duke by Victoria Morgan

The Heart of a Duke by Victoria Morgan

Published in 2013 by Berkley Sensation
ISBN: 978-0-425-26483-6

Rating: 3 Stars

In case my silence has not been sign enough, I must inform you that my crazy 30 Books in 30 Days project in November officially broke my reading brain.

However, I’m slowly coming back and Ms Morgan did help.  Her hero did have colour-changing eyes, and a scar that jumped from one finger to another.  The “twist” ending was badly telegraphed and the text was filled with the genre’s usual anachronisms and grammatical mistakes.**

But…

That said, she used the heroine falls-for-her-fiancé’s-twin trope, one of my favourites, and she created a hero who isn’t a dick and a heroine who isn’t either needlessly aggressive or a pushover.

Also, she wrote a book I was actually able to finish.  These days, that’s a major feat.  Thanks, Ms. Morgan!

Cate

Notes:

The cover: For some reason the dress doesn’t bother me as much as the shoes do.

What to read next: False Colours by Georgette Heyer

Other bookselling notes: **It’s impossible to expect an author to produce a perfect book, but it’s said to see editing quality pulled back this far. I shouldn’t be able to find as many content- and grammar-related errors when I’m reading as fast as I read romance.

Joseph of Nazareth: Worst Husband Ever?

Working in a bookstore does not always mean your knowledge is infallible.

My co-worker, “Elizabeth” was speaking on the phone with a customer who wanted a Bible for a christening gift.  She was describing one of the children’s Bible’s we had in stock and suddenly did a double take.  “Wait a minute.  Why is Joseph riding the donkey?”

I peered over her shoulder.  “That’s a picture of Easter.  It’s Jesus riding the donkey.”

Elizabeth burst out laughing.  “And I was raised Catholic!  Poor Joseph, taking the rap when he’s innocent.  ‘I don’t care if your pregnant; I’m tired!’”

At least we had something to laugh about for the rest of the day.

Cate

One for the Books by Joe Queenan

One for the Books by Joe Queenan

Published in 2012 by Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-312420-7

Rating: 4 Stars

I did not plan to make Queenan’s book my final book of 2013.  If I had planned it, it would not have been nearly so satisfying.

I started this book back in October.  I was the inspiration for my “NaNoReadMo” project in November, in which I tried to read 30 books in 30 days.  (I managed 26.)  That project meant that 2013 was my closest attempt at 100 books in a year.  (This book makes 96, if my count is accurate.)

Queenan, like me, is an unabashed physical-book lover.  In fact, he’s even more die-hard than I am, as has never owned as e-reader, where I do keep one for e-galleys and the manuscripts of friends.  (That said, the number of galleys and manuscripts languishing in my Kobo would make most authors weep.)  Queenan’s memoir presents a lovely, though scattered, argument for the physical book as a talisman for experience both inside and outside of reading said book.  A book is more than the words it contains: it’s a recommendation, a purchase, an object, a souvenir.

A faded ticked to the Eiffel Tower will never fall out of a Kindle.

One for the Books is not just a tribute to the physical book, it’s also an entertaining memoir from a better-read-than-you curmudgeon would likes to name drop obscure French authors as if they were American household names.  The insults to genre authors and lay readers are numerous and you will find yourself equally amused and annoyed in turn.  Proof of the entertainment-value: I borrowed this book from the store back in October and today, twenty pages from the end, I finally paid for it so I could keep it for potential re-reading.

And speaking of bookstore clerks’ privileges and the stores that provide them: Mr. Queenan, you lament that you have not had good experiences in bookstores, but I would point out that most of your examples are some variation of: “I visited once and when I came back two years later, they didn’t remember me.”  I apologize on behalf of my fellow booksellers, but…

Are you kidding me?

At my store, we have folks that come in twice a week; I try remember their reading history.  We have folks that come in twice a month; I try to remember their names.  We have folks that come in twice a year; I try remember their faces.  My apologies: the databank is full long before “guy wanders in every two to three years”.  I do understand that receiving a great recommendation is a wonderful, memorable experience, but I’ll confess a secret.

I’m recommending that book to other people.  Lots of other people.  Because I genuinely love that book.

Just like you love yours.  #BookLoverFistBump

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Very effective.  Looks like my condo — and I’m trying to only buy books I will reread.

What to read next: How to Talk About Books you Have(n’t) Read by Pierre Bayard

Other bookselling notes: I’m seriously considering this for our annual staff recommendation night.  This book will definitely make you examine your relationship with reading.

The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

Expected US publication: 8 April 2014 from Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0-385-53752-0

Rating: 3 Stars

Set in the same world, and yet a completely different world, The Shadow Queen could be seen as a kind of partner to Gulland’s previous novel, Mistress of the Sun.  Louise de la Vallière makes a minor appearance toward the centre of the book.  The title refers to Athénaïs de Montespan, who as the secret mistress of Louis XIV, secretly controls much of the French court.

The title is deceiving however.  The narrator of The Shadow Queen is Claude des Oeillets, daughter of players.  Herself too tall to play women onstage, Claudette must content herself with the occasional walk-on role in men’s attire.  Nevertheless, she adores the theatre and especially working under “Monsieur Pierre”, known to history as the Great Corneille.  And lest you think Athénaïs controls the reader’s attention in a similar faction to the French court, I must point out that Claudette is no Nick Harkaway.  The novel belongs to Claudette.

The danger with novels based on the lives of historical figures is that life does not roll itself out in events that create the perfect rising action of the plot.  Because of this The Shadow Queen seems more a wander through the seventeenth century than a journey with a firm destination.  Still Gulland’s ability with setting, description, and character create pleasure in the journey.  

Cate

Notes:

The cover: An excellent cover, but, like the title, it seems to be for a differently focussed story than the one contained within this novel.

What to read next: These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer

Other bookselling notes: I do wonder what the result would be should Gulland ever try her hand at biography.

A Slap in the Face by William B. Irvine

A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt — And Why They Shouldn’t by William B. Irvine

Published in 2013 by Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-993445-4

Rating: 3 Stars

Fair warning.  This book will make you hyper aware of insults: both those you give and those you perceive.  I say perceive because so much of what insults us come from our reactions to events, rather than the events themselves.  As Eleanor Roosevelt put it: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Insults, from the rare-but-dramatic public put-down to the playful teasing between friends and family, are ubiquitous in our society.  Your boss might berate you and you can’t talk back, but then you can berate the waitress (or your children) in your turn.  Your friend takes off from you party to meet up with some other friends, so you rib him about thinking himself too good for his present company.

As well as examining these are various other types of insults, A Slap in the Face explores the psychology behind our urge to insult each other — an urge that was once very useful, but which in modern society, often keeps us from calmness or equanimity — even sometimes from feeling any happiness at all.

Irvine, a practitioner of stoic philosophy, does not present techniques for shooting down those that insult you, rather he advocates “insult passivism”, laughing off attempts to insults us and refraining from flinging any of our own.  Not just an outer calmness, Irvine strives to keep an inner equilibrium when the slings and arrows of other people’s bad opinions are flung in his face.

While A Slap in the Face is entertaining and informative, I would heartily suggest first reading Irvine’s general examination of stoicism, A Guide to the Good Life, also by Oxford University Press.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: I love the Victorian illustration, especially with the added flush on the cheek, which could be from either a literal or a metaphorical slap to the face.

What to read next: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

Other bookselling notes: Considering I sometimes get hit with the books I’ve not found the time to read, I’d heartily recommend this book to anyone who works with the public on a daily basis.  Especially in service industries.

Twelve Drummers Drumming by C. C. Benison

Twelve Drummers Drumming by C.C. Benison

Published in 2011 by Random House
ISBN: 978-0-385-67779-0

Rating: 4 Stars

Father Tom Christmas has only recently arrived in Thornford Regis, a replacement for the previous vicar, who up and vanished with no notice and without a trace.  A widower with a young daughter, Tom is glad to settle down in a small, safe community.

However, the community is not as safe as it seems.  When a young woman’s body is found hidden in a Japanese o-daiko drum, Tom reluctantly realizes that one of his parishioners must be the culprit.  And the suspects are more numerous than he would like.  Thornford Regis has more than one member with a dark past, a secretive one, or both.

The first in a proposed series (of guess-how-many books), Twelve Drummers Drumming does feature an usually large cast for the cosy-type mystery, but considering that the narrator, new to the village, is just as confused by the numerous faces as you are with the names, it’s actually enjoyable to be carried along in a slight fog.  Some of the clues are hidden-in-plain view — that is, we know where they are, but because Tom doesn’t investigate, we don’t know what they are — but the narration is strong enough that we can forgive a little clumsiness in the sleight of hand.

As with many mysteries, it’s the secondary characters who delight, almost more than the protagonist.  Tom’s French-spouting daughter Miranda with her Alice Roy (the French-language version of Nancy Drew) and housekeeper, Mrs. Prowse, who writes a daily letter to her deaf mother and who consistently over-caters the vicarage meals are some of the delights in store for the reader.

An entertaining and easy read for when you don’t want to be overly taxed by a book.   Great holiday read, even if it’s set in May.

Cate

Notes: 

The cover: So cute!  If a depiction of a murder can be cute.  Note the larger bludgeon-like drumstick in the last drummer’s hand.

Other bookselling notes: Fun, easy sell, especially now that Eleven Pipers Pipping and Ten Lords a-Leaping have been released.  Many people like having a few books already out before they start a series.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Published in 2005 by Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-375-84220-7

Rating: 5+ Stars

Years and years ago, back when I started at my current place of employment, The Book Thief was all the rage among the staff, so I’ve know the basic plot for years.  It’s always been a steadily selling title, but despite all my best intentions I did not pick it up.  Finally, I decided to try the audiobook on my commutes, but that also presented a problem, as my trip to work is only about ten minutes now, so most days I didn’t bother to cue it up.  

So, after slowly progressing to roughly halfway through the audiobook, I picked up the book and read the rest in print.  I’ll take a brief moment to mention the reader of the audio version, Allan Corduner.  The audio version is, perforce, missing the illustrations that occasionally crop up in the print version, but Corduner’s gentle narration adds its own beautiful dimension to the story.  

The story’s uniqueness begins with the narrator, who is Death.  But this is not the Grim Reaper.  This is a weary transporter of souls, who finds solace in the colours of of the sky, and who is overworked by the amount of deaths as WWII marches on in Germany.  

Death meets Liesel Meminger at the grave of her brother.  He witnesses her stealing The Gravedigger’s Handbook, fallen from an assistant’s pocket.  It’s the first of about half a dozen books Liesel will steal — from book burnings, from mayor’s libraries.  When her foster family hides Max, a young Jewish man, in their basement, the walls of the hiding place become a literal palimpsest of words to be learned by heart. 

Set as Hitler, arguably one of history’s greatest orators, is using words for destruction, The Book Thief is about the power of words to connect us, and sometimes, to heal us.  

So it’s only natural that the greatest strength of The Book Thief is the writing.  Perhaps because he is using the point of view of a supernatural being, Zusak is able to let his imagination fly when it comes to metaphors.  The descriptions in this book are often breathtakingly beautiful in the most literal sense.  

Cate

Notes:

The cover: At the time of writing, the cover above is the original, which is being replaced by the movie cover.  The new cover, while beautiful, and nicely laid out, is disappointing to me, as it’s now a very “girly” looking book, and I’m finding it difficult to sell for young male readers.  

What to read next: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

Other bookselling notes: Selling like hotcakes right now, due to the film.  I confess, I’m very interested to see Geoffrey Rush as Hans Huberman (Liesel’s foster father).  That’s a brilliant bit of casting.  

30 Books in 30 Days, #26: Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer

Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer

Published in 1923
My edition published in 1993 by Arrow Books (Random House)
ISBN: 978-0-7493-0517-8

Reading time: 2h35

Rating: 4 Stars

There’s nothing like a re-read of a Georgette Heyer to make you smile.  Unless it’s a first read of a Georgette Heyer.  But considering that the author is dead, you might parcel out your “new” Heyer’s very, very carefully, as I do.

The Jettans have always been rakes…that is until they fall in love, as by tradition they do, as which point they settle into gentility and monogamy.  Until Philip Jetta, who is disappointingly respectable from the start.  Both his father and his childhood sweetheart despair of him.  They are determined that be must acquire some polish before he be deemed an acceptable heir and husband.

Powder and Patch is one of Heyer’s earliest books, and so we see shades of her later, more developed characters.  There are bits of the Duck of Avon in Sir Maurice.  There are bits of Mr. Beaumaris in Philip Jettan.  But even with awareness of how her work with later improve Heyer’s earliest work sparkles with that wit that formed the regency romance genre.

Being a work from the 1920s, Powder and Patch has some troubling elements.  There are numerous inferences that women want to be “mastered,” that even a girl raised in a rural setting holds the urban man up as an ideal, that sexual assault is more a crime against the man to whom the woman belongs, than against the woman herself.  Perhaps looking back on this 1920s view of the 1810s, we can start to see ourselves through the future’s eyes.

Cate

Notes: 

The cover: I love this series of Heyer covers.  But then, when I started collecting Heyers, none of them were in print and I had to take what I could find at second hand book shops.

What to read next: More Georgette Heyer, or Tracy Grant, or Baroness Orczy

Other bookselling notes: This is where my version of over-protectiveness comes in.  Heyer is delightful and free of sex-and-violence (the objection of most parents), but I don’t know that I would recommend her for any young women of my acquaintance, unless I knew I could explain that the pre-feminist elements are not right.

At 26-in-30-days, I shall concede my technical failure, but my emotional success at NaNoReadMo.

30 Books in 30 Days, #25: The Emperor’s Handbook by Marcus Aurelius

The Emperor’s Handbook by Marcus Aurelius
A new translation of The Meditations by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks

Published in 2002 by Scribner
ISBN: 978-0-7432-3383-5

Reading time: 3h15

Rating: 4 Stars

When a book was never intended for publication, it’s strange to review is as we would a public declaration.  The Meditations were the guidelines, or reminders, or musings that the Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, wrote for himself.  They are, therefore, various, scattered and repetitious.

But by reading them all, we can catch a glimpse of the man who managed to be both an emperor and a philosopher.  He writes of overcoming the slights of others, of trying to live the best life he can, of going to his death without fear, and even the nature of the universe and his conviction in both destiny and free will.  Passages range from arguments with himself, to pep talks, to quotations from others, to many, many aphorisms.

Like many works with a similar title, The Mediations can be opened at any page and sampled.  In fact, I found that reading it all in one sitting probably wasn’t the best way to enjoy this book.  I did, however, see enough modem struggles in the live of the ancient emperor that I’ll be purchasing my own copy as soon as funds allow (though I may seek out a pocket version, as this is a book that you would do well to keep with you).

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Excellently simple.  We don’t know the format of the original manuscript, but considering its personal nature, I doubt it had a flashy cover.

What to read next: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

Other bookselling notes: It’ll probably never be a bestseller in my little bookshop, but it’s definitely a ‘must-read’.

Next book, #26: Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer

30 Books in 30 Days, #24: Blue Bloods, The Graphic Novel by Melissa de la Cruz

Blue Bloods, The Graphic Novel by Melissa de la Cruz
Adapted by Robert Venditti, Art by Alina Urusov

Published in 2013 by Hyperion/Disney
ISBN: 978-1-4231-3446-6

Reading time: 0h36

Rating: 2 Stars

The trend of vampires being more romantic than frightening continues.  I will concede that at least Blue Bloods tries for originality.  The vampires are also angels.  No, seriously.  Fallen angels, with names straight out of the Bible.  They drink human blood, but the humans apparently walk away unharmed.

Schuyler Van Alen has been having strange flashbacks, also there are a pattern of blue veins showing on her arms.  More interestingly, her grandmother does not seem at all perturbed by this.  Schuyler finds that she (and practically everyone she knows) are part of a secret society of reincarnating angel/vampires known as Blue Bloods.  But since Blue Bloods supposedly cannot die prematurely, its perhaps a little worrying when one of their friends is killed in a night club.

I mock the story, but in truth, I think I found it so ridiculous because it was not well suited for graphic adaptation, at least not a graphic novel as short at this one.  At twice or even three times the length, there would have been room for character development and suspense, which were sadly lacking.  I think the adaptation as it stands is best suited for fans of the original novel, who want to re-experience the story, and can fill in the gaps with their knowledge of what’s missing from this version.

Cate

The cover: The “love triangle where no one makes eye-contact” standard.  Add gothic window because vampires.  Not bad, but not fabulous either.

What to read next: Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

Other bookselling notes: The adaptation suitable for my bookstore, but we have been carrying the original novel, which is why I thought to try it.  At least now I can describe the plot (though admittedly, it will be with much less facetiousness than in this review.)

Next book, #25: The Emperor’s Handbook by Marcus Aurelius

30 Books in 30 Days, #23: The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart

The Trolley Problem or, Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge? by Thomas Cathcart

Published in 2013 by Workman Publishing Company
ISBN: 978-0-7611-7513-1

Reading time: 1h17

Rating: 4 Stars

I remember one of my former bosses once decrying “if you need to read a book on ethics, you obviously don’t have any”.  I don’t think his attitude is that unusual.  Many people think “ethical” behaviour is a) cut-and-dried and b) universally similar in all societies and minds.

Since I enjoyed Cathcart’s previous books, I was quite interested in his take on the famous “Trolley Problem”, a though experiment that has grown permutations and layers since it was first posited in 1967.  Would you throw a switch to divert a runaway trolley, and in doing so kill one person to save five?  What if, instead, that trolley were passing you under a bridge, and you could push someone off to fall in front of it and save five people?

The Trolley Problem approaches “The Trolley Problem” as a series of documents leading from and discussing the implications of the trial of one “Daphne Jones” of San Francisco, who flipped a switch on the trolley tracks, saving five people, but killing “Chet Farley”, who was standing on the turning.

Cathcart’s bring his trademark approachability to the work, introducing readers to various philosophers (Betham, Kant, Hume) and treatises (The Catholic Church’s teaching on the Principle of Double Effect.

How finely can we parse ethics, or is all the effort simply an attempt to justify our gut reaction.  We “know” that scenario A is wrong but scenario B is right?  Or are thought experiments like this too far removed from reality to be of use in our everyday lives?

Cathcart’s book takes only an hour to read, but provides much opportunity for thought.

Cate

Notes: 

The cover: The die-cut dust jacket and wraparound illustration of some of the scenarios discussed reflects Cathcart’s light touch with the subject matter.

What to read next: Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Kline

Other bookselling notes: Definitely a great stocking stuffer.  Might also provoke some discussion at the Christmas dinner table.

Next book, #24: Blue Bloods: The Graphic Novel by Melissa de la Cruz

30 Books in 30 Days, #22: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen Year Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida
Translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell

Published in Japanese in 2007
Translation published in 2013 by Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-345-80780-9

Reading time: 1h10

Rating: 5 Stars

It seems unfair to put a rating on a book like this.  Written when the author was thirteen, this book is a look inside the mind of a person with autism.  Naoki wrote this book with the help of a letter board, pointing to each syllable.  He has used this same method to write other non-fiction and fiction.  One of his short stories “I’m Right Here” is included at the end of The Reason I Jump.  If we ever needed proof that people with autism and indeed capable of strong empathy with others, we only read read this story.

The Reason I Jump is a quick read, structured as a series of answers to common questions one might pose to a person with autism.  Naoki is not able to answer all of them completely, but even the explanations he can articulate illuminate the thought patterns that are obscured by autism, its symptoms and its consequences.  I repeat Naoki’s differentiation between symptoms and consequences; some of the “classic behaviours” of people with autism are not direct symptoms be rather consequences of how society deals with the condition.

Naoki’s book is an invaluable look into the mind of someone who still, as David Mitchell describes in his foreword, “still has one foot in childhood” and who is struggling to find a way to communicate despite being born in to a body over which he feels he has only limited control at best.

Definitely an enlightening and emotional read.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: This book is illustrated by Kai and Sunny, who drew inspiration from Naoki’s relationship with nature.  I wish budgets would have allowed their interior illustrations to incorporate the beautiful use of colour included in their cover illustration.

What to read next: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Sasha Baron-Cohen (Baron-Cohen tackles, among other fascinating topics, the myth that people with autism are without empathy

Other bookselling notes: Definitely one to mention to anyone I know with a friend of family member with autism.  I’ll likely also recommend this come next year’s staff recommendation night.

Next book, #23: The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart

30 Books in 30 Days, #21: Grace by Elizabeth Scott

Grace by Elizabeth Scott

Published in 2010 by Speak (Penguin Books)
ISBN: 978-0-14-241975-5

Rating: 4 Stars

Grace has been raised in the Hills, by the People, but her tainted blood has meant she will never truly be one of them, not even when her father gives her to the Angel House, where she will learn the ways and laws of the dictator Keran Berj, and be sent to assassinate, by way of her own death, someone he loves, along with as many bystanders as possible.  But when the moment comes, she steps away, saving herself, but only herself.

Now she’s on a train headed out of Keran Berj’s territory, but first she must survive soldiers and body searches and heat and thirst.  She is accompanied by Kerr, a mysterious young man who may or may not be trusted, and who has crimes of his own on his conscience.  On the journey, Grace must also confront just what she did, and who she did it for, when she walked away from that bomb.

As always, Elizabeth Scott doesn’t shy from asking her audience tough questions.  Who are the real dictators, the real terrorists, the real innocents?  Are there unforgivable sins.  Even if the world can forgive, can we forgive ourselves.  Even if we forgive ourselves, will the world ever forgive?  Can we ever escape the society into which we’ve been born?

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Excellent.

What to read next: Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

Other bookselling notes: Elizabeth Scott’s novels are slightly dark for the parents who shop at our store.  That said, we did read Living Dead Girl with our teen book club, so perhaps I can find a few teens for Grace.

Next book: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

30 Books in 30 Days, #20: Soulless, the Manga Vol. 2 by Gail Carriger and REM

Soulless, the Manga Vol. 2 by Gail Carriger
Adaptation and art by REM

Published in 2012 by Yen Press
ISBN: 978-0-316-18206-5

Rating: 4 Stars

It’s always strange to review a second volume; unless there is something drastically different from the first, it’s likely I’ve already said what I need to say.

I suppose I shall simply add that I adore REM’s rendering of Madame Lefoux and the cliffhanger ending just as entertaining as in the original.  (Perhaps even more so.)

Cate

Notes:

The cover: I love the skirt on the cover “model”.  If I recall correctly, Carriger’s novel makes much of the silliness of feminine “floating” attire.  Disappointing that the manga did not have time to include it.

What to read next: Vol. 3 has just been released!

Other bookselling notes: Another example of customers and markets dictating that I can’t stock something even though I love it.  Without a proper manga section, I don’t really have a place for this series.

Next book, #21: Grace by Elizabeth Scott

30 Books in 30 Days, #19: Making Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Making Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Published in 2012 by Scholastic
ISBN: 978-1-4431-0730-3

Reading time: 2h09

Rating: 3 Stars

This affecting WWII story follows Lida, who is separated from her sister in the opening pages.  Lida, just turning nine, is shuttled into a cattle car with dozens of other children and taken to a Nazi slave labour camp.  Lida only manages to survive because she receives the advice to lie about her age.  Young children aren’t useful, and the Nazis don’t keep anyone that isn’t useful.  Since Ukrainian Lida is Russian in the Nazi’s eyes, she is given even more meagre rations than German or Polish prisoners, but her skill with a needle at least allows her a position as assistant in the laundry, repairing clothing and sheets.  The trouble happens when her work is too good and gains her the grudging admiration of her supervisor.  Surely those delicate hands can be doing something more useful, like threading bombs.

It would be a cold reader indeed that would not want to weep at this story.  Though Lida is fictional, there were hundreds of children like her.  But taking a step back from the content, we find the execution of the book could have been improved.  Characters are not well delineated, especially the other children and their motivations are thinly sketched at best.  Having such a young narrator is a difficult task, and often the powers of description suffer with the limited experience and vocabulary of the narrator.

Though Lida’s story is fictional, children like her must to be forgotten, and better an imperfect telling of her tale than that one should not exist at all.

Cate

Notes: 

The cover: Really don’t like the cover or the title.  Both seem to scream “book I have to read for school” rather than “scary story I want to read”.

What to read next: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

Other bookselling notes: This will sell better though school book fairs (note that it’s a Scholastic title) than through the trade market.  The parents who shop for mid-grade in our store are too “protective” to chose this book.

Next book, #20: Soulless by Gail Carriger and REM

30 Books in 30 Days, #18: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Illustrations by Patricia Castelao

Published in 2012 by HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0-06-213579-7

Reading time: 1h18

Rating: 4 Stars

Ivan, is a silverback gorilla, but he doesn’t really remember the jungle.  That lack of memory is how he’s survived nearly thirty years at Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.  His companions are Stella the elephant and Bob the stray dog.  He passes the time drawing — Mack, the mall owner, sells the drawings for twenty dollars apiece, twenty-five with frame.

But Ivan’s life is turned upside down with the arrival of Ruby, a new baby elephant, who innocently brings Ivan a new perspective on his current life, his art, and the possibilities of a future outside of the Big Top Mall.

Inspired by the life of a real silverback, Katherine Applegate has created a brilliant and heart-wrenching book of cruelty, friendship, and rescue.  Applegate carefully draws her characters so that even those who perpetrate the cruelest actions also have moments that demonstrate great love.

A story that will definitely stay with the reader, The One and Only Ivan reminds us that how we treat those under our control is sometimes the most telling way to see into our hearts.  

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Nicely, subtly done. The faint flourishes bracketing the title connote the circus — if Mack’s penny-fathering, three-shows-a-day “act” can be called one.  Ivan’s face in shadow allows the reader to see a thousand emotions in his expression as they make their way through the book.

What to read next: The Metro Dogs of Moscow by Rachelle Delaney

Other bookselling notes: Definitely a wonderful book to handsell, especially to animal-loving kids, but I must mention that my one disappointment with this book is the author’s note, which implies (unintentionally, I’m sure) that Ivan’s is an isolated case. There are still so many animals suffering in roadside zoos and other improper facilities, cared for by people who lack the ability, knowledge and/or resources to care for them properly.

Next book, #19: Making Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

30 Books in 30 Days, #17: Dear Blue Sky by Mary Sullivan

Dear Blue Sky by Mary Sullivan

Published in 2012 by Penguin Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0-14-242667-8

Reading time: 2h19

Rating: 4 Stars

“No one is happy about a thing until it is lost.”
“You only lose what you cling to.”

Cassie’s older brother Sef was always the centre of the family, so when he enlists to fight in Iraq, a gaping hole is left behind in America.  Cass feels like no one in the family, sometimes no one in the world, is talking, really talking.  When a school assignment leads her to the blog of an Iraqi girl going by the name of Blue Sky, she finds the girl surprisingly easy to talk to and, in hearing a civilian perspective on the war at Blue Sky’s front doorstep, Cass begins to change her perspective, not only on the war, but on the meaning of a good life.

Authors are so often encouraged to avoid “dating” their books, in the fear that children years or decades later will no longer find them relevant.  Dear Blue Sky is a case where the opposite is true.  The more grounded this book becomes, the more powerful it will be in later years.

Sullivan’s novel is an easy read, but there is so much more bubbling under the surface.  She even carefully chooses the topic of social studies being covered: the ware of 1812 — another conflict that, even today, is often presented with a skewed perspective in American classrooms.

Cassie’s interior conflicts are specific to her character but connected to the similar worries in the hearts of kids everywhere.  It’s said over and over, kids need to feel safe.  In so many ways, in so many countries, we are failing them.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Very well done.  The strip containing the title show especially skill, making a blue-on-blue title readable.

What to read next: Annexed by Sharon Dogar; Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

Other bookselling notes: I really hate the self-fulfilling prophecy that boys-won’t-read-about-girls.  This is a great book for children who are no doubt confused about all of the world’s global conflicts and it’s a shame that so many readers are being taught (purposefully or not) that its narrator’s story is not worth hearing because of her gender.

Next book, #18: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

30 Books in 30 Days, #16: Soulless, the Manga Vol. 1 by Gail Carriger and REM

Soulless, the Manga Vol. 1 by Gail Carriger
Art and adaptation by REM

Published in 2012 by Yen Press (Hachette)
ISBN: 978-0-316-18201-0

Reading time: 0h51

Rating: 4 Stars

First off, I loved the drawings of the golem (the automaton, for you steampunkers).  I hate to admit it, but I forget that there was one in Soulless.  

Alexia Tarabotti must deal not only with the Victorian shame of spinsterhood, but also with being a soulless spinster.  Literally.  She is a preternatural, a genetic counterbalance to the supernatural vampires and werewolves who have, in recent years, been accepted by society.  But when she encounters, and kills, a half-starved vampire, she realizes afterward that no respectable hive would allow one of it’s members to reach such a state — so where did he come from.  And why are other vampires disappearing?

I don’t read comics often, and manga-style comics even less, but I was reminded of this adaptation when I attended Pure Speculation this weekend for the sole purpose of meeting Ms. Carriger.  (I think I missed only one of her panels the whole weekend.)  I had planned to pick up the newest Finishing School novel, but I had forgotten the manga.  So, yes, I had her complete works for her to sign, which she did with perfect graciousness and immaculate gloves.

I read this volume on the ride home from Edmonton, in part to make up for all the reading time I missed at the con.  It was certainly a fun way to re-experience the story.  At just under an hour, it took much less time that rereading the textual novel, and had the bonus of experiencing the story through an artist’s eyes.  I really enjoyed REM’s interpretation, especially of Lord Maccon in wolf-form.  On the other hand, Maccon in human form was not at all like I pictured him (though the interpretation is growing on me).

A random bonus to reading on the way home from the con was identifying the drawing that replaced the one Carriger mentioned vetoing*.  

But I find must add that the nitpicker in me is annoyed that there are inconsistencies in Alexia’s powers.  On the cover, she has her arms around Maccon in full wolf form, albeit through gloves, but in various parts of the manga, it seems she can affect supernaturals with a touch through clothing.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Carriger revealed in a Pure Spec panel that circumstance has given her much more control over covers and (subsequently manga art) than most authors.  In this case, I think it only helped the book’s success, but not all authors have Carriger’s good taste and discretion.  *The pulled panel mentioned above involved Lord Maccon in at the head of a dinner table when he was not the host, rather than any objection of interpretation.

What to read next: The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker  (Golems FTW!)

Other bookselling notes: I probably won’t sell many (any) copies of this adaptation: my store’s graphic novel/comics/manga section is non-existent, hence my not remembering to buy them before the con.  I’ll just continue selling Carriger’s novels — stick with what you do best.

30 Books in 30 Days, #15: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Published in 2013 by Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
ISBN: 978-0-06-200614-1

Rating: 4 Stars

For Darkness Shows the Stars is a post-apocalyptic retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Elliot North’s world is slowly recovering from a devastating world war.  The memory of it is constantly present in the multitudes of the Reduced, an unfortunately biological backlash to genetic engineering.  The descendants of those who rejected the technology are called, rather appropriately, Luddites.  On the North estate, Elliot tries her best to keep her father’s thoughtlessness from destroying what little prosperity the estate has.  But Elliot has a secret.  She is pushing the boundaries of the Luddite protocols — she’s breeding a new strain of wheat.

Because of the source of the plot, this book naturally brings up questions of caste, inheritance and inter-class love.  Persuasion is, after all, primarily a love story.  But the new setting asks us to consider hereditary slavery, the voluntary abandonment of technology, and the consequences of scientific experimentation.

It’s interested that the author felt it necessary to borrow a plot for her novel (and the others in this series), for the world she has created is vivid and thought-provoking.  If she has only twisted the plot just a touch further, there would have been no need for a nod to anyone.  After all, we argue as to the precise number, but there are only so many plots in the world.  But retellings are hot right now, so perhaps the book and its companions would not attract so many readers without the call of the past and further combined.

Peterfreund writes an excellent tale, and if she’s a bit heavy-handed in her foreshadowing, it only makes us look forward to the final moment that gives such satisfaction to both Austen’s and Peterfreund’s.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Not crazy about the cover.  It’s well-executed, but it denotes nothing beyond the love story, which does an injustice to the novel and its author.

Who would like it: People who want post-apocalyptic fiction where the characters aren’t murdering each other on every page.

Other bookselling notes: I find it interesting that Peterfreund chose Persuasion and not Mansfield Park since the later does have a thread of slavery running underneath the plot.  That said, I’m pleased I discovered this book just at the time of its paperback release.  Definitely a great book to recommend, despite my dislike of the cover.

Next book, #16: Souless, the Manga Vol. 1 by Gail Carriger

30 Books in 30 Days, #14: The Espressologist by Kristina Springer

The Espressologist by Kristina Springer

Published in 2009 by Square Fish (Macmillan)
ISBN: 978-0-312-65923-3

Reading time: 1h55

Rating: 3 Stars

How many I use have been behind that guy ordering a decaf-grande-in-a-venti-non-fat-with-whip-mocha and judged him for it?  What would our favourite coffee drink say about us?

Jane works at Wired Joe’s (which is a Starbucks with the serial numbers filed off the merchandise) and has been keeping notes about what kinds of customers order which drinks.  When she stars hooking up her friends using their coffee orders, it seems to work — and when her boss gets wind of it, he makes it a seasonal promotion in the store: find a little love with your latte.

Of course, matching up others can get you down when you don’t have a match of your own.  But Jane has a plan, and if she has to fudge the drinks in question, well, it won’t do that much harm will it?

No characters that blow you away with their awesomeness, but they don’t drive you nuts with their stupidity either.  Some great descriptions of involuntary reactions, especially on Cam, one of Jane’s match-ups.

A silly-but-cute novel, great for pre- and early teens, so long as they don’t start to cut school as much as Jane.  I’m surprised that girl wasn’t kicked out long ago.

Cate

Notes: 

The cover: Very cute.  Script font on the title makes it a little hard to read at a glance — could be both good and bad.

Other bookselling notes: Harmless filler book — for those kids whose parents can’t keep up with all their reading.  

Next book, #15: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

30 Book in 30 Days, #13: Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child by Maria T. Lennon

Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child by Maria T. Lennon

Published in 2013 by HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0-06-229531-6

Reading time: 3h05

Rating: 3 Stars

Another book in the journal/diary/confession trend in middle grade fiction, this one stars Charlie C. Cooper, who is stuck between her do-gooder older sister, Pen, and her adorable younger brother, Felix.  When the new kid at Charlie’s old school managed to break up Charlie’s since-kindergarten friendship, Charlie’s scheme for revenge went totally wrong and saw Charlie expelled to the thunderous applause of her former classmates.

Over the summer, Charlie has been seeing a shrink, and the appointments will continue until Charlie completes one task — find the most friendless outcast in her class and befriend that person.  Terrified that her social capital will plummet, Charlie sets out to find a way to satisfy her shrink without actually becoming Marta the Farta’s friend.

Of course, it’s an obvious lesson in appearances-can-be-decieving, but I’m pleased to say that, thanks to Charlie’s great voice, and skilful mix of “real middle school” with the middle school parents wish existed, Lennon managed to keep her story from becoming preachy.  Kids are left to make up their own minds.  It’s also a great example of an unreliable narrator.

And if the parents are a little blasé when they hear repeated the hints that all is not well with a classmate/friend of their daughter, well, even the most caring parents can be blind to anything not directly relating to their own children, which is exactly how situations like this arise.

Cate

Notes: 

The cover: Interesting that the figure of the older sister seems nothing like the character in the book.  But they did get Charlie spot on.

Other bookselling notes: I don’t think it’ll be a book to change it’s typical reader’s life, but definitely recommendable.

Next book, #14: The Espressologist by Kristina Springer

Off to Edmonton for Pure Spec!

English: The Pure Speculation Festival Logo

Hello my freaky darlings!

Just a little note that I might be online even less than usual for the next few days.  I’m off to Pure Speculation in Edmonton for a chance to get my geek on.

I’m going to try to keep up on my NaNoReadMo project while I’m there.  Reviews will resume when I’m back (likely on Tuesday).

Love,
Cate

30 Books in 30 Days, #12: Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

Published in 2011 by Martin Lloyd Books
My edition published in 2013 by Abrams
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0798-8

Reading time: 1h50

Rating: 3 Stars

Mary’s grandmother, Emer, is dying.  Mary and her mother visit in the hospital as often as they can, but Mary really doesn’t like the place.

It’s about this time that Mary starts seeing and speaking to an odd woman who hangs around her street.  The woman looks young, but she’s dressing old-fashioned clothes.  The strangest part is that sometimes Mary can see right through her.

This woman turns out to be Emer’s mother, Tansey, who died when Emer was just a toddler, and who, even with her daughter’s good life nearly over, does not feel quite ready to move on.

Greyhound of a Girl is a lovely look into four generations of Irish women, but in the end the book feels more like a sketch than a story.  There are loose ends everywhere.  Character-traits are introduced and emphasized as problematic, but then are never mentioned again.  Several times credulity is stretched (and not just because of the ghost).  Still, Roddy Doyle’s writing style is sweet and his characterization of Ireland wistfully nostalgic.

All that said, characters who can pronounce grammatical marks will generally leave me confused.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: I did prefer the hardcover design, but I will happily admit that this one will be much more appealing to the target readers.

What to read next: Ingo by Helen Dunmore

Other bookselling notes: A co-worker of mine has been waiting for this book in paperback.  Not that it’s finally been released I made the time for it.  I’m rather disappointed that it wasn’t the moving tear-jerker for me that it was for her.  Perhaps because she is a mother?

Next book, #13: Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child by Maria T. Lennon

 

30 Books in 30 Days, #11: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Published in 2012 by Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-375-86902-0

Reading time:  3h27

Rating: 4 Stars

August “Auggie” Pullman has a face that’s one in a million.  Actually, the odds of his two conditions manifesting in the same person is about one in 4 million.  He refuses to describe himself to the reader “whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” but we do later glean a description via other characters

Due to the many surgeries necessary in his childhood, it’s only in the fifth grade that going to regular school is an option.  His parents choose Beecher Prep, in part because it’s so close to their Manhattan home.  Auggie is interested, but terrified.  His first days turn out to be both better and worse than he feared.

Narrated by himself and by several young people in Auggie’s life, though no adults, Wonder illustrates the downs and ups of being different, or of even having a different friend, how intention is not an essential ingredient to being mean, and how easily misunderstanding can come into the best relationships.

Wonder is an interesting book.  The characters are a little dependent on “types”, but in a mid grade novel, a technique like this is acceptable, especially with such touchy content.  The plot is predictable, especially as it approaches the end, but again, this is not meant to be a philosophical book, but an illustrative one.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: The cover illustration leads the reader into a few similar drawings inside, and does imply that none of us are any more or less “imperfect” than Auggie.

What to read next: Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Other bookselling notes: I’m always amused when it’s a book’s success that keeps me from selling it. We are long past the usually issue date for a paperback edition.  Not all kids can afford hardcovers.

Next book, #12: Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

30 Books in 30 Days. #10: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Bride to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

First published in 1977
My (current) edition published in 2008 by HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0-06-073401-5

Reading time: 2h13

Rating: 5 Stars

In a better world, we would all have a relationship like Jesse Aarons had with Leslie Burke.  Not necessarily a relationship with a peer, and definitely not necessarily with the tragedy of this particular storyline, but we all need someone to open up our souls.  For Jesse, Leslie took him “from the cow pasture and into Terabithia and made him a king”.

I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve read this book.  It’s starting to show its age only a very little.  The songs in Miss Edmunds music class are now all “classics” when some were “popular” at the time of writing.  Perhaps these days, even a poor family like Jesse’s might have arranged for him to have a cell phone for emergencies.  And, of course, the attitude toward corporeal punishment (“everyone’s dad beats them”) has hopefully changed as well.

Of course, the most powerful scene, even after multiple readings is the final scene with May Belle.  The most recent film version makes much of this scene, but the simplicity of it in the book is still it’s best form.

After all, imagination is evangelical.  One our eyes have been opened to it, we want to help others open theirs.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Other than the original, this is one of my favourite covers for this book.  I love the sunlight coming through the window of the fort, past the silhouette of Jesse and Leslie’s heads.

What to read next: Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington

Other bookselling notes: Sometimes tricky to sell.  This book was inspired by a tragedy and it’s purpose is to introduce, in a controlled way, the idea of loss as much as to introduce the power of imagination.  Try explaining that to an over-protective parent.

Next book, #11: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

30 Books in 30 Days, #9: Scarlet in the Snow by Sophie Masson

Scarlet in the Snow by Sophie Masson

Published in 2013 by Random House Australia
ISBN: 978-1-74275-815-2

Reading time:

Rating: 3 Stars

One of the most beautiful things about storytelling is how the same plot frameworks can be used to create so many different tales.  In interviews, Masson has named, among other sources, a Russian version of Beauty and the Beast as her inspiration.  Not knowing those tales, I was nevertheless able to connect her book through the French versions, through Jean Cocteau’s beautiful film La Belle et la Bête, and even through the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

I’m unfamiliar enough with Masson’s other work to know she must have many more sources that are not familiar to me, but again that seems one of the joys of creativity.  The reader brings as much history to the story as does the author.

Masson’s story begins in a familiar way, but with just enough differences to create interest.  There is no father to puck the rose from the Beast’s palace; indeed, the rose withers instead.  The beast has a faithful servant/protector, who both protects our Beauty from harm and bolsters her courage for risks.

We come to the end of that familiar tale with nearly half the book still to be read, and from there I, perforce, left behind my knowledge and let Masson fully guide me.  While the story that followed was not perfect, that could be as much my lack of seeing as Masson’s ability to lead me.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Not badly done, and it reflects the soft, old-fashioned style of storytelling, but the cover also misses quite a few of the more interesting elements of the story: I would have loved to have see a hint of magic vs. science in the artwork.

What to read next: Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay

Other bookselling notes: Because of how far it extends beyond the Beauty/Beast story (as least as I know it) it might be an odd thing to try to handsell.  Do I imply that it’s a simple retelling and let them discover the story as I did, or do I awkwardly try to explain how much more it is?

Next book, #10: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

30 Books in 30 Days, #8: Slated by Teri Terry

Slated by Teri Terry

Published in 2012 by Orchard Books (UK)
Published in 2013 by Speak (US)
ISBN: 978-0-14-242503-9

Reading time: 4h30

Rating: 3 Stars

In the enlightened society of the future, criminals and terrorists are given a clean slate.  Literally.

We meet sixteen-year-old Kyla as she is being released from the hospital after being Slated.  Her memories and personality has been wiped, and she has been assigned to a new family.  The Levo on her wrist will monitor her mood; if it drops lower than acceptable, it will sedate her; lower than is deemed “safe” and the result is seizures and likely death.

But from the start Kyla has difficulty with her levels, and slowly it begins to be clear that Slating did not find typical results in her.  Also, she must be careful of not only her moods, but her words; her more outspoken classmates have a tendency to disappear.

Slated has a spectacular concept, especially considering today’s hyper-awareness of “the terrorists”.  However, the pacing is painfully slowly, in part to set the plot around the requisite romantic relationship, but I think where this book is really betrayed is by the current fetish publishers have for trilogies.  Too many trilogies/series would be improved by condensing the story by the length of a book or two.  (I’m looking at you, Rowling!)

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Could be the photograph’s lighting, but the cover model does not seem to have Kyla’s blonde hair.  Also, 90% of the action takes place in town an hour from London, so what’s with the cityscape?

What to read next: When She Woke by Hilary Jordan

Other bookselling notes: I still like the concept enough that I wish I had the time to at least try the next book, but for booksellers, the reading of sequels is a luxury akin to champagne.

Next book, #9: Scarlet in the Snow by Sophie Masson

30 Books in 30 Days, #7: Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson

Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson

Published in 2012 by Knopf Books for Young People
ISBN: 978-0-307-97598-0

Reading time: 4h45

Rating: 5 Stars

Jane Nickerson has taken one of my favourite folk tales, Bluebeard, and turned it into a gem of a YA novel.  Her version, set in pre-Civil-war America, stars Sophia, who has just become an orphan.  Before her father’s death, he appointed Sophia to be the ward of one Bertrand de Cressey.  She travels from Massachusetts to Mississippi, surprised to arrive and find, instead of the proper married couple she expected, a lone widower who is at first affable and welcoming, but soon turns controlling and isolating.  It seems he has buried more than one wife…and all of theme were red-haired — like Sophia.

Nickerson’s characterization of all parts (perpetrator, victim, families) of a controlling-then-abusive relationship is so deftly turned, it would be hard to believe this a first novel without the knowledge that the author worked for years as a children’s librarian.  Add the layered themes of blackmail, revenge, debt and slavery and Nickerson has created a book that could spur vivid discussion as well as one that keeps the reader avidly turning the pages.

Highly, highly recommended. The chills at the end are worthy of the original.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Well-designed and quite eye-catching, but I wish there was more of the darkness inherent in the Bluebeard story.  The cover could be any historical teen romance.

What to read next: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Other bookselling notes: I was thrilled to discover that Nickerson’s next book (in March) will be based on the  Tam Lin ballad.  I’ve already put in a request with the store’s Random House rep to see if I can get my greedy paws on an advanced copy.  Definitely a new favourite author to handsell.

Next book, #8: Slated by Teri Terry

30 Books in 30 Days, #6: Remake by Connie Willis

Remake by Connie Willis

Published in 1995 by Spectra
ISBN: 978-0-553-37437-7

Reading time: 2h44

Rating: 3 Stars

Though Remake was written twenty years ago, its vision of Hollywood’s future does not seem far off.  No one want to take a risk on a new story or a new face, so it’s the world of the remake.  And the remake of the remake.  And with latest CG technology, the stars of yesterday can be in the films of tomorrow.  Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe in A Star is Born.  Actors are copyrighted: RKO-Warner and ILMGM are in limitation over who owns Fred Astaire.

No one films liveaction anymore, and hardly even use warmbodies (except perhaps propaganda films in China) so Alis’s dream of dancing in the movies is impossible, right?

An entertaining story, but I did find the invented slang Willis employs to be more distracting than evocative, and as often happens when I read science fiction, I find I have to just go along for the technological ride rather than trying to work out “the rules”.

An entertaining, if depressingly portentous, vision of the future of creativity.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: The cover definitely shows it’s age, but it’s not bad for the 90s.

What to read next: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Other bookselling notes: Definitely won’t work in our store, but great for Connie Willis fans.

Next book, #7: Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson

Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B Irvine

Published in 2009 by Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-537461-2

Rating: 5 Stars

Stoic joy?  It’s that kind of an oxymoron?

While the term stoicism has come to be equated with a lack of all emotion, the Stoic philosophers were concerned with controlling and minimizing the negative emotions: grief, anger, shame, etc..

Irvine’s volume presents a short history of Greek and Roman Stoicism along with biographical sketches of some of its remember writers, who have among their number no less than an Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.  Irivine then outlines some of the technique the Stoics employed in dealing with their negative emotions: employing negative visualization, understanding the dichotomy of control, developing a healthy fatalism, and practicing self-denial and employing meditation as a measure of one’s progress.

A series of examples follows, showing how these techniques can be employed when dealing with anger, insults, the lust for fame, the need to acquire more possessions, goal-setting and even with accepting the aging process.

Irvine does not present Stoicism as a one-size-fits-all philosophy of life.  He does however, find that the practice of stoicism has improved (improved, not perfected) his day-to-day life.  If Stoicism is not for you, there are other philosophies to try — but better an imperfect philosophy of life than none at all.

In a world where so many people reach the end of their life, only to wonder if it has all been wasted, maybe it would behoove more of us to find a method by which to measure whether our actions truly reflect our values.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Seems like a cross between a classics text and a self-improvement book, which accurately reflects the contents.

What to read next: I have a copy of Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays already on might nightstand.  Also, Irvine’s next book, A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt — And Why They Shouldn’t might also be of interest to potential Stoics.

Other bookselling notes: It would be fascinating to try to handsell this one.  I don’t know how I would start.

 

30 Books in 30 Days, #5: Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Published in 2005 by Farrar Straus Giroux
ISBN: 978-0-312-36746-6

Reading time: 2h48

Rating: 3 Stars

Am I Lao Tzu dreaming I am the butterfly or am I the butterfly dreaming I am Lao Tzu?

Elsewhere presents a very interesting premise.  The question is not unusual, it’s common, even: where do we go after we die?

Zevin’s answer is simple yet unexpected.  If we age until we die, we youthen until we are babies again, then we return to the world for another life.

Zevin’s protagonist is Liz, who is hit by a taxicab at fifteen.  Feeling cheated of the life she expected, she chaffs at life in Elsewhere, shunning all the efforts of her grandmother (who has returned to Liz’s mother’s age).  Liz will never get a driver’s license, never graduate high school, never fall in love.

Elsewhere is a fabulous book to open discussions about many topics: death, religion, vocations vs. jobs, love (all the various kinds), and I’m sure many others that have not yet occurred to me.

My problem, as a bookseller, is that Elsewhere seems confused in which audience it is trying to attract.  The will-I-ever-fall-in-love aspects, the early (fabulous) characterization of Lizzie’s reactions to death and ensuing depression, and brief moments of sexual content seem to be geared for older readers, but by providing superficial anthropomorphic concerns to her animal characters, she seems to wish to attract a less sophisticated reader.

Also, the logic of Elsewhere resembles a sieve.  They have a Department of Domestic Animals.  As a vegan, I have to ask, is there a Department of Agricultural Animals?  Of Wild Animals?  How does the timing of youthening in Elsewhere work with the current population explosion?  Where are the extra souls coming from?  If you don’t have a relative/friend waiting for you in Elsewhere, where do you live? And then there’s the dangerous, appearance-centric trope of “apparent age trumps actual age” in romantic relationships.

And what was with the mermaids? Why didn’t that go anywhere?

(Yes, yes, I’m being much too analytical/logical, but that’s who I am.)

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Layout is beautiful and reveals great symbolism after reading the book, but like the text, it doesn’t attract a specific audience.

What to read next: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Other bookselling notes: Definitely an interesting book, but because of the mix of teen and mid-grade elements, care must be taken in making recommendations.

Next book, #6; Remake by Connie Willis

30 Books in 30 Days, #4: Cain by José Saramago

Cain by José Saramago
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

Published in English in 2011 by Mariner Books
ISBN: 978-0-547-84017-8

Reading time: 2h43

Rating: 2 Stars

Whatever did happen to Cain after the murder and Abel and his banishment.  In Saramago’s novella the man’s wanderings take a decidedly metaphorical turn, and Cain finds himself wandering through time, from the -near-sacrifice of Isaac, to the fall of the Tower of Babel to Noah’s building of the ark and it’s journey, where Cain’s new knowledge beings to show its effects.

Writing tongue-in-cheek, Saramago delights in poking fun at the Biblical tradition and pointing out over and over again that “the god of the Israelites” is a rather nasty sumbitch.

While I was entertained by Saramago’s storytelling, I found his style of writing dialogue extremely disorienting: almost no dialogue tags, with conversations running in a single paragraph.

An entertaining, but hardly earth-shattering read.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Rather an obvious choice and, at least on my copy, the result has so little contrast one has to squint to make it out.

What to read next: Perhaps Christopher Moore’s Lamb?  (I offer this on my experience of Moore’s Sacré Bleu and the opinions of coworkers — it’s still on my unread list.)

Other bookselling notes: I’ve been wanting to read Blindness for a very long time, but I don’t think I could endure a full-length book with that dialogue style.

Next book, #5: Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

30 Books in 30 Days, #3: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Published in 2005 by Penguin Group
ISBN: 978-0-14-240251-1

Reading time: 4h53

Rating: 4 Stars

It’s a common saying in my place of work that sometimes you just come across a book at the wrong time.  My first reading of Harper Lee, for example, did not lead to a meeting of souls, but rereading it more than twenty years later let me to see the book with different eyes.

What aren’t as often mentioned are those occasions when you know you’ve read a book at just the right time.  Perhaps it’s the literary equivalent of the squeaky wheel getting the grease, but often we don’t realize we love a book because of the ones that have come just before.

I bring this up because my recent reading both detracted from and contributed to my enjoyment of Looking for Alaska.

I was pre-disposed to like Looking for Alaska, because I’m a fan of John Green and his brother Hank.  When I started it, I thought it well-written, but I enough similarities with The Perks of Being a Wallflower that I was more than a little disappointed.  Awkward, solitary boy (Miles, in this case) starts first year at new school, meets a group of loveable misfits, including one beautiful-but-self-destructive girl, who instruct him on life and joining in.

In short, it felt like a book I had read before.  That said, it is a John Green novel so I trusted the author enough to finish it.  Even more luckily, this 30-in-30 project did not allow me time to set it down, even temporarily, and pick up a different book.

I found the second half of the book much more interesting.  Considering the book is sprinkled with a countdown of “X days before”, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that a crisis occurs in the middle of the book.  The kind of event that very much splits a life into “before” and “after”.

The second part of the novel has a much more philosophical bent, implying questions on the subjects of guilt, fatalism, death, religion, immortality and how to, as Green-quoting-Marquez-quoting-Bolívar puts it, how to escape this labyrinth of suffering.

I read this half of the novel under the influence of my recent discovery of the Stoic philosophers’* answers to some of these questions and how they match some of the coping strategies I’ve found useful in my own life.  I don’t know if Green was aware of the Stoics when we wrote Looking for Alaska, and in truth it doesn’t matter, but I was pleased to find bits and pieces of stoicism hidden in the book, like diamonds for me to find.

Cate

*The Stoics are a very recent discovery of mine, so please no quizzes yet, but I’m nearly finished with A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine and my copy of Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays arrived in the store today.  I look forward to reviewing both very soon.

Notes: 

The cover: Deceptively simply cover with layers of meaning.  Excellently done.

What to read next: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Other bookselling notes: Despite my stoic raptures, I still think TFioS is the better novel, but since the publishers are unlikely to release the paperback until the film comes out, Alaska will be my follow-up suggestion.  Also, more authors need to write good books with male protagonists that aren’t fantasy or about sports.

Next book, #4: Cain by José Saramago

30 Books in 30 Days, #2: Coventry by Helen Humphreys

Coventry by Helen Humphreys

Published in 2008 by HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0-00-200726-9

Reading time: 2h15

Rating: 3 Stars

On 14 November 1940, the German army performed an extended bombing raid on the city of Coventry in England.  Humphreys’s novella takes place almost exclusively on that night.  The characters are three, Harriet, Maeve and Jeremy.  Harriet and Maeve met in the early days of the First World War and might have become fast friends, but circumstances kept them apart.  Jeremy, Maeve’s son, and Harriet, taking a neighbour’s place, are fire-watching at Coventry cathedral when the first incendiaries come down.  What follows is a race for safety and for reunion.

While I’m certain that Humphreys descriptions of the Coventry Blitz are accurate, the characters seem removed from them.  The danger of a novella set on one date is that it takes a great deal of skill to flesh out those characters in such a short time (and by that I been both the timeline of the story and the words in the text).

There are some brilliant elements of subtext in the novel, such as a comparison of the British to the character of Beatrix Potter’s Jeremy Fisher, who sits in his world believing himself a predator, but who in truth can turn to prey in very few moments.

A small picture in a greater one, Humphreys’s characters are a microcosm of Coventry, and in some ways, of the English experience of the Second World War.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Love the drawings of birds, reminiscent of diagrams of aircraft.  Especially deft touch is the single red bird by the author’s name.

What to read next: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (Time travellers must correct a timeline that skewed during the Coventry Blitz.)

Other bookselling notes: Helen Humphreys is the mentor of an ex-coworker of mine. I have waited much too long to read her work.

Next book, #3: Looking for Alaska by John Green

30 Books in 30 Days, #1: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Published in 2013 by William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-225565-5

Reading time: 2h38

Rating: 3 Stars

How much can we trust our memories?  In fact, can we trust our eyes and ears to even tell our memories the truth in the first place?

As he sits by a pond at the Hempstock farm, a middle-aged man finds himself engulfed by memories, forgotten and frightening, from his childhood.  A suicide unleashes an evil into our world, an evil that would be bewildering to any adult, let alone a small boy.  But Lettie, older than him by four years and older than many more in spirit, and the other Hempstock women are more than prepared to fight it.

Filled with Gaiman’s extraordinary imagination, The Ocean at the End of the Lane leaves us wondering why we really have the hubris to think our lives, or even our reality is anything but fleeting and insignificant.  Despite this, we finish this novella with a sense of our own resiliency and wonder what things we might find possible if we only opened our eyes to them.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: Love it, right down to the bubbles breathing their way to the surface.

What to read next: Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt

Other bookselling notes: Once again, I’m disappointed how many of our customers are anti-fantasy.

Next book, #2: Coventry by Helen Humphreys

Book Review: Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen by Glen Huser

Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen by Glen Huser

Published in 2006 by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 978-0-88899-7333-3

Rating: 4 Stars

I had the pleasure of meeting Glen Huser at a recent literary festival in my town.  We were selling author’s books at some of the events, and I was able to sit in on two of Glen’s presentations to schools.  Among the books he presented and read from was Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen.

He had me at “Wagner-obsessed crank at the local senior’s home”.  How did this man know my future? If I’m not cast as the crank, I pray I’m never sent to a nursing home.

Miss Barclay is bored in her new home.  Due to a knee reconstruction, she can no longer drive her car, and her nephew is pressuring her to sell it.  Remembering her old trips to see the Ring Cycle operas in Seattle, she wonders if she will ever see an opera again.

Tamara knows how to game the system.  She skips just enough classes to avoid suspicion, slipping home to watch fashion programs on television.  When she hears about a modelling course in Vancouver, she’s desperate to come up with the money to attend.  This could be her big break.

Through their first meetings, where they mentally refer to each other by the names of the title, Tamara and Miss Barclay, find that if they can’t be friends, they can at least be of use to each other.

What results is an unusual and entertaining illicit road trip.  But can a senior and a teen really survive being trapped in a car together?

Great characterization and fun plot, but the end wrap up was much too efficient.  The book could have done with about five or ten more pages.

The Wagner fan in me has one other small critique: there is much made of the picnic basket brought to Das Rheingold, the contents of which they are to consume in the intermission. The trouble is there is no intermission in Das Rheingold.  Any Wagner fan knows that.  :P

Cate

Notes: 

The cover: Simple, but fun.

Who would like it: This is a great book for young advanced readers.  Lots of cultural references to intrigue and challenge them, but no content that’s above their maturity.

Other bookselling notes: Won a GG Silver Medal.

30 Books in 30 Days: Cate’s Crazy NaNoReadMo Project

Hello my freaky darlings!

Today marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo.  I wish the best of luck to all of those participating.

I’ve decided I want my own November project.  I’m calling it “NaNoReadMo”: in November, I’m going read mo’ than I usually do.

My goal, inspired by my current read, One for the Books by Joe Queenan, is to read and review 30 books in 30 days.

In his book, Queenan describes an uncompleted goal to read one book per day for a year. The idea of trolling the library shelves, as he did, looking for those tiny volumes that are so often overlooked, strikes me as a delightful experience.  Queenan lasted about four months, so I think, despite the November-retail-life, I can manage one month.

I admit, my visit tonight to my local branch frightened me a bit, as the number of thinnish books was very small indeed, but my branch is the smallest in the city.  I hope to visit the main branch tomorrow and stock up.

The rules:

  • books must be 100 pages to count (to keep the project from becoming primarily picture books)
  • books must be narrative in form, but fiction and non-fiction both qualify (i.e. no joke books, etc.)
  • with each review, I will announce what I will read next
  • it’s okay if I don’t complete a book in one day; I expect I might drift during work days and catch up on my days off; it’s “30 books in 30 days”, not “one book a day”

I expect to read for at least 3-4 hours each day to complete this project.  I will note that I’m in the middle of not only Queenan’s book, but several others.  I will try to finish these between the qualifying books, but my focus will be on the 30 books in 30 days.

Book #1: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

Cate

The border-between is thin tonight: A Top Ten Tuesday List

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic (how’s that for alliteration?) gives the choice of “Scary Book Covers” and “Books to read for Halloween”.

I have to admit I was tempted to post a facetious gallery of horrific book covers by self-published authors, but I found I could not be that mean-spirited and still live with myself.

Also, the scariest book cover of the season for me is The Flood of 2013; I say this knowing I got off so much **** easier than many people.  Trust me, it was scary.


Instead, I give you my partially complete list of great books to read around Halloween.

They say the border between worlds is thinnest on All Hallows Eve.  These books all involve crossing a supernatural border.

Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni – You only need to include the word “golem” and I’m intrigued.  Wecker takes that word and weaves the world into the wills of immortals.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book – The Jungle Book with ghosts. Awesome!

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust – A book of literal borders between our world and another.

(Also, Neil is coming to my town in Feb and I has tix!  Boo—-wait-for-it—-yah!)

Julie Kagawa’s The Iron King – Scariest Changeling Ever!

Charlie Fletcher’s Stoneheart – The statues of London are not merely there for decoration.

Cornelia Funke’s Reckless – Reminded me a little too much of The Tenth Kingdom, but still a delightful book that I recommend often, because not every has had the advantage of seeing The Tenth Kingdom.

Janet McNaughton’s An Earthly Knight – My favourite retelling of Tam Lin, a story I’ve loved almost since before I could read.  Bonus: the Halloween-thin border figures in the story.

Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls – The border is time, and it shields a serial killer.

Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin – Obviously another Tam Lin retelling.  The first time I read it, I threw it across the room. The second time, I begrudgingly liked it.  I plan to read it at least one more time.  Will I adore it?

Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death – “Gorgeous” is the only proper word.  Made me desperate to get into Vermont College’s MFA program because ML is on the faculty.  Alas, even if I dared try and was accepted, US tuition is scary-expensive when you have a bookseller’s salary.

Cate

Guest Post, Review and Giveaway!: Caro Feely and Grape Expectations!

Win a copy of this informative and entertaining memoir! Check out the Rafflecopter!

Grape ExpectationsGrape Expectations by Caro Feely

Published in the UK in June 2012 by Summersdale
Published in USA/Canada October 2013
ISBN: 978-1-84953-257-0

Rating: 3 Stars

When Caro Feely and her husband Sean stumble on a run-down vineyard in the Dordogne, they think it’s their dream come true: Finally! A chance to leave the rat race behind and fulfill their dream.

Unfortunately, they find they have traded proverbial rats for actual mice. Add to that archaic plumbing, unreliable equipment and the kilometres of red tape that is the French vineyard system. Still, they are determined to make a success of it, not matter how much cherry chocolate Caro has to eat to maintain her endorphin levels.

Grape Expectations is part memoir, part treatise on winemaking, part cautionary tale. Be careful when you follow your dreams. They might just come true, even if you haven’t quote realized it.


When offered a chance to host a guest post from Caro, I immediately wanted to know her favourite books on wine and winemaking. She was kind enough to oblige.
Caro Feely

Caro Feely is author of ‘Grape Expectations’, a book launching in the USA and Canada on 1 October 2013 described as a ‘beautifully written tale of passion, caution, guts’ by Alice Fearing, a New York wine writer and author. Caro is a certified wine educator and professional with many years of experience with multinational companies and now winemaker with eight years hands-on experience on the organic vineyard owned jointly with her husband Sean. She offers wine tours in the Bordeaux region and wine courses at the certified wine school on their organic farm. Caro offers us a peek into some of the books she recommends on her wine school book shelf.

These four books offer an entertaining read with depth. You’ll learn about wine without realising it.

The Battle for Wine and Love: Alice Fearing (Author) . A mix of anecdotes and interesting people in the wine world with a good dose of why natural wine is good by sometime New York Times Wine Writer Alice Fearing.

Red, White, and Drunk All Over: Nathalie MacLean (Author). A voyage of stories about wine both old and new; some very amusing. I loved it, Sean didn’t enjoy it so much: perhaps more of a ‘chick book’.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar: Benjamin Wallace (Author). An investigative journalist delves into the world of auctions for fine wines… a page-turning and well written exposé.

Wine and War :The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure : Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup (Authors). A fascinating journey into wartime France and the characters that helped to save some of France’s treasure.

Two books that provided me with great insight into the rise of wine in the US over the last 50 years and a very interesting look into two larger than life wine personalities.

The Emperor of Wine; The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jnr: Elin McCoy (Author). This is a fascinating picture of how Robert Parker rose to become the most powerful wine critic in the world and the effect that he has had on the wine world.

The House of Mondavi: Julia Flynn Siler (Author). This book includes family feuds that make ‘Dallas’ look tame but makes for intriguing reading into how Robert Mondavi built his winery and how he eventually lost it.

Another wine personality biography I enjoyed was The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It : Tilar J. Mazzeo (Author)‘. This is a gripping story that takes you through important eras of France’s history like the revolution via the story of a great woman who turned the female norms of the day on their head.

In the genre of Grape Expectations one of my favourite books is Ferenc Maté’s A Vineyard in Tuscany: A Wine Lover’s Dream. I laughed out loud and thoroughly enjoyed this book about Ferenc and his wife Candace taking on their Tuscan dream.

Off the vineyard and wine theme but offering similar enjoyment for Francophiles is Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard (published in the UK by Summersdale also my publisher).

I regularly review wine related books and films in our quarterly newsletter. If this is of interest I invite you to sign up at www.feelywines.com (enter your email on the left hand bar).


Synopsis of Grape Expectations:
Filled with vivid descriptions of delicious wines, great food, and stunning views, this is a unique insight into the world of the winemaker, and a story of passion, dedication, and love

When Caro and Sean find the perfect 10-hectare vineyard in Saussignac, it seems like their dreams of becoming winemakers in the south of France are about to come true. But they arrive in France with their young family (a toddler and a newborn) to be faced with a dilapidated 18th-century farmhouse and an enterprise that may never, ever make them a living. Undeterred by mouse infestations, a leaking roof, treacherous hordes of insects, visits from the local farm “police,” and a nasty accident with an agricultural trimmer, Caro and Sean set about transforming their “beyond eccentric” winery into a successful business as they embark on the biggest adventure of their lives—learning to make wine from the roots up.

Release Date: October 1, 2013
288 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-84953-257-0
Publisher Link: http://www.ipgbook.com/grape-expectations-products-9781849532570.php?page_id=21

Purchasing Information:
Available in bookstores across the country as well as at online retailers.

Author’s bio:
“Apart from smoking on the fire escape at school – don’t tell my parents – I was a co-founder of the first magazine published by students which covered chocolate obsessions, and the funny, eccentric and bizarre things that happen at girls only boarding schools.

After university I wrote intermittent articles for newspapers and magazines related to my career in IT consulting. I started writing books in earnest Dublin in 2003 while on maternity leave but it took a gift of Maeve Binchy’s ‘writers club’ from my husband Sean to get my first published book Grape Expectations into good enough shape to attract a publisher – Summersdale – to whom I am eternally grateful for lifting me from the slush pile.” [from the author's website]

Get in touch with the author:
Books: ‘Grape Expectations’ at http://www.carofeely.com/books.html
Certified organic biodynamic wines: http://www.terroirfeely.com | http://www.feelywines.com
Award winning tours: http://www.frenchwineadventures.com
Luxury eco gites: http://www.luxurydordognegites.com

Twitter: @carofeely | http://www.facebook.com/terroirfeely


Win a copy of Grape Expectations!

(USA/Canada only, sorry international folks.)

Top Ten Tuesday: Favourite Character Names

Any writer with any experience will tell you that a character’s name is key.  Here are some of my favourites I’ve come across as a reader.

Ishmael from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
I always love an implication that a character is using a pseudonym, especially a brilliantly controversial one.

Anne Shirley from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables
She might prefer Cordelia, but I don’t.  It helps that I have gone on to know several wonderful Annes in my life.

Marion Halcombe from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White
It’s hard to find a stronger female character from the time; I would love Marion’s name no matter what it was.

Rebecca de Winter from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca
Perfectly chosen for the mysterious, ghostly presence of Maxim’s first wife.

Margaret Hale from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South
Another name I love as much for the character as for itself.

Keturah from Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death
This name comes off the tongue in a way that is so pleasurable.  The unusual story she inhabits also helps.

Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and sequels
Another name that’s a pleasure to say; I’m so glad it’s part of the title.  Also, another name that (we find later) is a pseudonym.

Jesse Aarons & Leslie Burke from Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia
Perfectly suited for two characters that were a large part of the formation of my own.

Erik from Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera
I always thought it tragic that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical stole his beautiful name from him

Baraka from Eric Walter’s My Name is Blessing
Baraka’s change of name heralded a new life not only for himself, but his family.  This real child in Kenya is an inspiration.

How to charm a bookseller, starring Eric Walters

Our city is wrapping up its biggest literary festival of the year.  Our store had the opportunity to sell books at kids events.

I was happy to be assigned to an event with Eric Walters, who co-wrote The Taming, a book that impressed me a lot.

But, as always, loving an author’s books does not mean they will be lovely in person, so I was still nervous that I would encounter a prima donna. (Oh me of little faith.)

My coworker and I met Mr. Walters when he came over to our book table as we were setting up, not only to introduce himself, but to see which of his books we had in quantity, so he could build his presentation around those titles.

This made me like him.  Such a relief compared to authors who whine when we don’t have twenty copies of each of their 37 titles.

He saw that we were looking at one of his newer picture books, My Name is Blessing, about a real boy in Kenya, who was born with no fingers on one hand and only two on the other and who became a part of Walters’s organization Creation of Hope.  He told us how this boy is sponsored by his daughter, which makes him the grandfather and brother to the boy’s grandmother.  He has personally seen to helping Baraka’s grandmother maintain her home and support her other grandchildren.  You could tell he was tell us this not to brag, but to show us why he started Creation of Hope and why he wrote about Baraka.

So this made me love him, just a little.  He’s obviously passionate about the change he can make with his writing, rather than the money he can make.

We then watched his presentation.  Here’s a TED talk by Mr. Walters, to give you an idea of what we heard from him. I would advise any children’s authors, from picture books to teens, who are billed for a presentation with Eric Walters to bring their “A” game, because he will steal the show from all but the very best.

By the end, we were in love with Mr. Walters, not only as an author, but as a human being.  Please find his books, please check out Creation of Hope. You’re bound to love both as much as I do.

Cate

The Arrangement by Mary Balogh

The Arrangement by Mary Balogh

Published in 2013 by Dell Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-345-53587-0

Rating: 1 Star

I think I’m officially too cynical for the romance genre.

I was hoping to dip back in and I though by selecting a novel by Mary Balogh (whose books I’ve previously enjoyed), I was wading back in safely.

The trouble is, I found hero and heroine…well, a bit boring.  The plot was one I’d read a dozen times before.

- Though some action/inaction of the hero, the heroine is placed in an untenable position, the only escape from which is to marry the hero.  Being our heroine, she nevertheless take some persuading.

- They enter the marriage with the understanding that it will be a marriage in name only after the hero has his heir-and-spare.  They engage in SRF (standard romance foreplay) and consummate the marriage in a one-page scene.

- They each discover that *gaps* they actually love the other but are criminally unable to say it until 150 pages later.

That’s it.  No subplots and very little backstory.

Balogh tries to provide a “twist” with a blind hero and a heroine convinced of her ugliness (so of course he cannot reassure her easily), but because the text was riddled with cliched phrases, repetitive information, and horridly stilted conversations as the heroine describes all and sundry for her new husband, I just couldn’t enjoy the book.

Cate

Notes:

The cover: I’ll give the cover designer credit.  Before I picked up the book, I thought the slightly blank look in the model’s eyes was an accident, but it does work well for the concept.

What to read next: I have no idea.  I’m still officially off the romance genre.

Other notes: For those interested in the lives of the blind, Tommy Edison (blind from birth) explains to the sighted with candor and humour though his YouTube videos.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 544 other followers

%d bloggers like this: