Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When The End Isn't The End But It Isn't A Great Sequel Either


I am a hater you know that. Want to know one of the things I hate the most? Reader's Guides in books.
Pa-Leese! I would like them gone. I find them idiotic and sad. Idiotic because of their juvenile observations and  boring discussion points and sad because they used my recylced  pizza boxes for this?. But don't listen to me.  Go over to The Guardian and read Imogen's blog. She and I have much in common.

Happy to share

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rebecca Stott Hurry Up And Write Faster, OK?

Hello Flower!

As someone who does judge a book by it's cover let me say that I love this cover. The palatte is lovely. The perspective is perfect. It's as though you are trying to see around something but you aren't quite able to.  There is a slightly femine or romantic feel to the cover that you could argue might discourage some sales (from men) and that is not good but I still love it.

The Ghostwalk also gets an A+. It made me read that book. It's a first rate example of a mystery cover that can appeal to both sexes. It also sets the book up very well. No question with that cover that you are in for suspence, intrigue and danger.

The book of the day today--another snowy day by the way-- is The Coral Thief . It's book number 2 from Rebecca Stott. Her first book, Ghostwalk came out a couple years ago and did very well. Ghostwalk is a back and forth in time mystery surrounding Issac Newton's real life ventures in alchemy. It was very interesting and had fabulous atmosphere. Do you remember it?

I finished The Coral Thief over the weekend and I must say Ms Stott can write. I was glued to Coral. It's 1815 and Danial's mysterious adventure in Paris as Napoleon is being shipped to Saint Helena is beginning. Danial is an anatomy student looking to buck the family plan and become a naturalist. He's traveling to Paris with letters of introduction, rare coral specimens in trusted to him by his professor and a priceless manuscript in hopes of capturing the attention of a famous naturalist. Unfortunately he has discovered that the beautiful woman who shared his stagecoach, Lucienne, has stolen his treasures.

And so the cat and mouse of it all begins.

Daniel's chase after his missing valuables and credentials takes him from the highest to the lowest in Paris and here is where Stott really shines. The intricate plot and the pace of the novel is dead on, but it is the sense of place that the author creates that is completely outstanding. You are there. 1815 Paris is real. You feel the weight of every locked door, smell every dank place and tense up with each pounding foot step.

This is an entirely successful historical mystery. I think you'd like it, Lily. It is thrilling, engaging, surprising and educational. But don't worry about the educational part you won't even know that it's happening.


P.S. In case you don't remember these 2 bokks and many thousands of others are available at your fabo local independent bookstore.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Snow and Movies and Books and my Mom


Today was our first snow. The snow wasn't just a couple flakes. It snowed most of the day and evening but with almost no accumulation. It was chubby, wet snow falling onto not yet frozen ground. It was beautiful. I spent most of the day watching it fall, drinking tea and reading in a very comfy seat. It was a not my real life kind of day, but it was so delightful and something everyone should get a chance to do.

The day made me think a lot about my Mom. First snow was one of the random things she insisted be wished upon. Others included: the first bale of hay you see in the fall, brightly colored sunsets, the first day of the month, etc. The list is long and I am sure I don't remember them all. She did also include all the regular things like birthday candles and stars. I never asked her about the wish-ability of all these things. I accepted that the wishing was to be done and that was that.

It's a perfect cap to the day that her favorite movie is on tv right now. It's Random Harvest made in 1942 starring Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It is a wonderful movie. It's romantic and gorgeous looking and sounding. Of course it's one my favs too. If you have never seen it, it is worth your going out of your way to see. It's the kind of fantastic movie that transports you and reminds you how unappealing most movies made today are.

I love my Mom,

P.S.  The movie Random Harvest is based on the novel of the same name by James Hilton. It's is a very good novel and different from the movie in unusual and interesting ways. Too sad though it is out of print. ~~~sigh~~~ Another good book for publishers to revive. Oh well.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Thanks Magoo!

Good Afternoon Flower!  

You know I think it was the year after year delight of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol throughout my childhood that first brought Charles Dickens to my attention. It wasn't until years later that I read any Dickens but it was certainly the charming Magoo that paved the way, planted the spark and whetted the appetite.

Who can forget or surpass Quincey Magoo's Scrooge? No actor I've ever seen. It is a dynamic play within a play musical version of the most famous Christmas story since The Nativity. Razzelberry Dressing anyone? It makes one weep.

Charles Dickens is my favorite, favorite writer. I have other favorite writers, but Charles is my only favorite, favorite writer. I heart him. I fell into full Dickens worship at 13 with Bleak House. As usual I picked it for the cover. It was the old NAL mass market edition with a black boarder around a painting of a waiting room. They still use the same painting in the currently available, but the boarder color has changed to a much brighter hue.

What was unusual for me was that I also choose it for the title. Bleak House. I had no idea at the time what Dickens meant by that title but to me it was catnip. I had it in my head that this was going to be a novel about a prison. Not psychological prisons I was too young for that but real bars on the windows prisons. And why was that interesting to me? No clue. At 13 it was probably the exotic-ness of it all.

When the reading started I forgot my expectations and succomed to the power of the Dicken's pen. Here was the best storytelling ever, unforgettable characters with names that have become common parlance for all sorts of things and writing that made me devour the books. I couldn't read Dickens fast enough.

Thanks to you Mr. Magoo!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Whither Thou Taylor Caldwell?

Flower, my little friend!  

Did you read Taylor Caldwell back in the day? I am a touch too young to have enjoyed her heyday, but hers were some of the books that floated around the house when I was growing up. Great big, chubby mass markets with floating head covers of people in emotional disarray and titles done in curvy typography. They had a lot of allure for me.

The books also belong to that era when publishers used color or the page edges. Do you remember that? Do you know what that was called? I liked it then and I like it now. I wonder why publishers don't do that anymore. You would think that in the last 25 years some popular enough author would have requested colored page edges.

I remember reading The Captains and The Kings (and seeing the mini-series), Pillar of Iron, This Side of Innocence and probably others I cannot put a title to. I loved them. They were juicy page turners jammed to the tip top with generations of back stabbers, the righteous, takeovers, adulterers, all sorts of out of wedlock shenanigans, and closets filled with secrets. ~~~sigh~~~ Heaven.

When you work in a bookstore you sometimes get asked for books that turn out to be out of print. In my bookstore the most consistently asked for author whose books turn out to be out of print is Taylor Caldwell. Caldwell wrote bestselling novels from 1938 to 1980. Real bestsellers. I do not use the word bestselling lightly. Caldwell's books were genuine, actual on best selling lists, people plucking done hard earned money for bestsellers. So why aren't they in print?  

Well, her most famous family saga novel The Captains and The Kings is available from a major publishers and one of her religious novels, Dear and Glorious Physician, is available from Ignatius Press the country's leading Catholic press. And? That's it. After 42 years of books clamored for and beloved, two are still in print and available as new. I haven't investigated what the second hand market for Caldwell is like.

Why the fall from publisher's grace? I don't really know. It's been my experience that publishers are delighted to be reminded of past successes that can be repackaged and reintroduced into the retail world. I have often told sales reps that customers ask for Caldwell and I have no doubt that those messages are passed on. Maybe it's an estate/rights issue? Maybe publishers don't believe there is an audience for Caldwell books? If that's the reason I think it's a bad call.


Monday, November 30, 2009

What's a Monster to do?

Hey Flower!

How do you feel about things that go bump in the night? Me, not so good. I am a coward. I am Chief Coward from Cowardville. I avoid scary movies and scary books and scary people too. So...as much I was looking forward to reading Peter Ackroyd's new book  The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein the F-word frightened me off a bit. But then the lure was too strong and I caved.

In this retelling of Frankenstein on that famous ghost story filled night when Mr and Mrs Shelley were staying with Byron and Mary thought up her monster, the monster was already there. Ackroyd places Victor Frankenstein among the guests. Frankenstein and Shelley are old friends having gone Oxford together. For all the visits the novel gets from the great men of the age, it's Victor's God playing life that is center stage.

Frankenstein's obsession to create a new man, a perfect man does and doesn't happen. He is of course able to give life to his corpse but it is a Monster he has created. Frankenstein isn't the only one in this new family who is disappointed. The Monster blames his creator for his unhappiness and cruelly destructive behavior. Not much new there. What Ackroyd does make new or at least brings back to the forefront is the tragedy of Mary Shelley's story.

While Casebook didn't have the appeal for me that other Ackroyd novels have like Chatterton and Dan Lemo and the Limehouse Golem or his amazing biographies of Charles Dickens and Thomas More, it is a very interesting book. It has Ackroyd's trade mark attention to research and literary references. Peter Ackroyd does make you smarter, but this time a little less fulfilled as well.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Twas The Day Before Anything

Oh Flower!

I know. Another Thanksgiving Eve has come and gone, right? Where does the  time go? I hear you. It's been a blur. Seems like only yesterday. The days flew by.

Holiday Eve's are great. I love them. There's all the illusion that you still have time to get things done plus the anticipation of tomorrow being a holiday. Eve's are all about what the future can bring. Eve's are hope. Eve's are the last of your alone time for 24 to 48 hours.

So I hope you had a fantastic Eve and that Thanksgiving Day is even better!! I'm thankful for you, Flower. Happy, happy Thanksgiving! And. Take notes on all that happens tomorrow so I can hear every story and I will do the same for you.

Thankful  for hundreds of things,

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Me Cleaning House

Hi Flower!

I was in the mood to clean, but not clean so that I had get up and move around. A more restfull clean. So I dug a book out of one of the many I-Want-To-Read-This-Someday stashes around my house and came up with  The English Passengers.

My favorite books have many beginnings. Desperate characters and stories that start out all over the place and then somehow through author magic come together. The English Passengers is like that. There are narrators a plenty, each telling their own and the group's story.

There's Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, whose once great family has been declining in fame and money with each successive generation, and his crew trying to get ahead by smuggling cheap French brandy and tobacco. The Reverend Wilson is expecting to find the Garden of Eden in Tasmania. Dr. Potter is working on a thesis explaining the superiority of the Saxon race over all other peoples. The most fully drawn and compelling character is Peevay, the child of a Aborigine and the white convict who raped her. His descriptions of the colonist's atrocities, and his innocent suffering as the settlers try to both 'civilize' and wipe out the Aborigines, juxtapose the unbridled arrogance of the colonists.

Author Matthew Kneale has handled the epic of this novel very well. He has strong control over the scope of the story, his characters and plot. The English Passengers was a terrific read. A page turning historical novel in which no princesses appear. A lovely change of pace. I think you would like it.


P.S.  And look it's another Booker finalist, who knew?

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Kiss On The Hand Might Be Quite Continental But Oprah Is a Book's Best Friend

What do you think, Flower? Could Oprah's talk show retirement and the success of electronic readers be the double whammy death knell that ends Independent Bookselling?

 It's no secret that for the past 25 years Oprah has sold tens of thousands of books. You and I both know that from personal experience. Does she sell as many as she used to? No. But. She is still a book's best friend. There is nothing on this planet like an Oprah book endorsement. Do not underestimate her retail powers. The Force is strong with this one.

There are books bought by Independents on the promises of sales reps that the author has been booked on Oprah or that there is Oprah interested. There are other media venues out there for books and they reach as many homes as she does. But. If the book buyer for a store is told that a first time author (who they might ordinarily have passed on) will be on Oprah they will buy a few cartons of that title. If the book buyer is told that the same author will be on the Today Show they will by a few copies of the title.

Digital books? I have had the use of the Sony E-Reader and Kindle and I am not impressed. I don't want to read a book that way. I love to read and I love books. Books. However, many, many other people are thrilled by those devices. Their sales and those of digital books are one of the few areas of publishing where sales are on the rise. Of course changes in technology will come and those changes will bring other format choices but digital reading is here to stay.

Neither of these events is going to help Independents or Publishers for that matter.

For the Independents the Holy Trinity of handselling, customer service and the customer being able to leave the store with thier purchase (instant gratification) have been the day to day mainstays of their survival since the Internet reared it's ugly head. Now that digital has it's foot firmly in the door there's another easy way to get books without going into a bookstore. This will definitely cost stores some sales but how many?

Can Independents come together in some cost sharing way and get digital book downloading stations in their stores and then be able to sell these books? I don't know. First of all I have no idea if the technology between the different devices is proprietary or compatible to downloads from anywhere. If that is the case then stores would not have to pick just one device to support. Second if cost is an issue who will help them pay for it? The companies who make the readers or the publishers themselves? Seemingly neither one of them need bookstores to sell their wares. It's all easy-peasy on the Internet. Unless Publishers want to grow their digital sales for backlist and midlist titles and first time authors. That's where the Independents handsell skills become necessary. These are the kinds of titles that publishers spend zero dollars supporting so who better than a bookseller to move them?

Barnes and Noble had the bucks and 'boldness' to go out and purchase an electronics company to build them their own digital book reader, the Nook. ~~~I'm calling a time out to say what a craptastic name that is. The Nook. It sounds like a bar your parents went to.~~~ Good for them. They are trying to keep the customers they already have by offering them what Amazon and Sony has been offering them for a couple years now. So a reactive decision and not a forward thinking one. They still get some points.

According to B&N press releases they are just about to sell out of all the Nooks they have for in time for Christmas gift giving. They do not say how many they had to sell in the first place. Selling 30,000 would be very different from selling 300,000. Amazon has used the same flirty ways. They also have not told us how many Kindles~~~I'm calling another time out to say that Kindle is also a stupid name. Nook wins the craptastic honors because along with being stupid it also makes you feel like Winnie the Pooh saying it.~~~they have sold. Why is that? Both of them will tell you how many copies of a book they sold at the drop of a hat. What is the mysterious strategy behind not revealing the numbers of digital readers sold?

So what do you think? I'm positive that an Oprah-less basic cable option will hurt book sales, but Independents will survive it. The digital book revolution? I believe that will come to hurt more than losing the Oprah effect. It's time once again to scramble my friends. I'll still be there exploring and shopping.

What about Publishers? Publisher's consistent inability to successfully sell what they manufacture is staggering and now that Oprah the Sales Goddess is exiting millions of homes what's a publisher to do? Time to put your thinking caps on kids. And then there's digital. OK it's sales without printing, shipping and returns but it isn't going to solve the bottom line problem--- you are not growing your consumer base.

Sorry to say,

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's Begining To Feel A Lot Like Bing


Have you (by choice) listened to any Christmas music yet? Is your car radio tuned in to the all Happy Holidays all the time station? No? Shocking. Me? Oh you know it baby! I have been harmonizing with Bing for at least a month now and the radios at home and in the car jingle all the way.

I have always adored Christmas music. What's not to love? It's jolly and made to sing along to, right? So all my little guys have heard more holiday tunes than your average bears--and never complained by the way. When O was little she would ask me to put the 'Bing Frosty' music on. Wrong, but so right. Of course that is what we have called Bing ever since. We don't have many conversations about him, but naturally he does come up.

Christmas books are a big deal for me and mine as well. We have many favs but one of our fav-i-est is The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. It's a less traditional Christmas tale because Christmas isn't the primary focus of the story. It takes place on the holiday and it touches on all the best emotions that Christmas offers. Do you know this book?

Stop me if you've heard this one. It's midnight and all the toys in the shop come to life. Sounds very familiar doesn't it? It's a favorite childhood fantasy and one that many stories have wrapped their plots around. The best version of it by far is The Mouse and His Child.It's Christmas time and a wind-up mouse and his son break the rules, are expelled from the toy shop and begin a quest to find a new family.

The two best pieces of advice I ever got came from this book: "no one is ever completely self-winding" and "be happy."

Following Advice,

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

To Siberia and beyond!

Hello Flower!

Reading a book called To Siberia at this time of year in my barely heated home is an act of will, let me tell you, Flower. I won the book on a giveaway at Goodreads a couple of weeks ago. Excellent! Siberia has been sitting on my desk since it arrived like a shiny icicle beckoning to me.

One of the treasures of reading is the From Out of Nowhere Novelist of Distant Shores. It's a treasure because the 'sudden' success of the foreign author is usually only sudden in the English speaking world. In the native land of said author there has almost always already been a few books and success. In 2007 Per Petterson won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his excellent novel, Out Stealing Horses. Up to that book he had not been published in the U.S. The deserved success of that novel and the award lead his publisher to bring out one of his backlist (See! I told you that's how it works.) novels. To Siberia was originally published in in 1996 and here this past September.

Siberia is a dream destination in the novel. Our young, nameless narrator longs to go there on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She knows it will be very cold there but she will be warm because the people all wear furs. What draws her to Siberia is what she imagines to be Siberia's endless, clear plains. Her older brother Jesper, to who she is "Sistermine" the only name she has in the book, dreams of going to Morocco. Neither dream seems likely to come true at the start of the novel given that their family is living on a shoestring in the isolation of a small Danish seaside town in the years just before WWII.

The family is an extended, eccentric one. Grandpa is a roaring character with suicidal tendencies, Aunts and Uncles are variously prosperous, proper, grasping, fisherman's widows and factory workers. The parents of Sistermine and Jesper are the best but luckless hunchback carpenter for miles and a housewife hymn writer more married to her religion than her husband. With both of them distant and closed off, Jesper and Sistermine cling to each other for warmth and support. The relationship of brother and sister is the charm of the novel. They live in each others pockets. Together they have adventures, read and unite themselves to keep out their parents disappointments and expectations and the other children's happiness.

Time becomes the great intruder in To Siberia. The respite of childhood ends and Jesper and Sistermine come of age as WWII begins and the Nazi's take over their town and lives. Jesper and Sistermine both fight in their own ways. As the war escalates Jesper joins the Resistance and the separation of brother and sister begins. Jesper is forced to flee Denmark and the Gestapo and Sistermine is left to isolation and the realities of occupation. The rest of the novel details Sistermine's own flight from Denmark. As time passes and she moves from place to place always trying to save money to get further away from unhappiness and intolerance the thought of reuniting with Jesper is her only goal.

Petterson's writing is pristine. There is not a word out of place. As you read his novels you experience the lives he invents. His quiet but forceful prose demands your attention. He reminds me of Carol Shields in that way. When you open their novels you are going on a journey through their characters lives. That's good news. Better news? We will probably be seeing more of Petterson's older work over here.

Not chilly on the inside,

Friday, November 13, 2009

Happiness = Hilary Mantel

Flower, hi!

If you pick your favorite book of the year and it's November the 13th are you going out on a limb? Are you risking reputation and relevance by throwing December's releases to the wind? Years of bookselling tell me no. December is a month for sure fire bestselling authors who can rise above the Christmas crush, short run art books and hundreds more self improvement books than need to be published, shelved and ready for their few sales in January and return trip to the publishers come March. That still leaves the rest of November but too bad. I know what the best novel of 2009 is.

The best book of 2009? Can I have a drum roll please? It's Wolf Hall by my girl Hilary Mantel! Is anyone out there surprised? I doubt it. I have already detailed my love and ownership of Hilary Mantel and my excitement at her winning the 2009 Man Booker, right? Is there anything left for me to say?

The Tudors seem to be the Kennedys of England. There are countless books written about them and with a few exceptions they don't seem to be very bright. I was fearful that Wolf Hall was going to be yet another Tudor novel. After all this is the cradle to death of Thomas More story of Thomas Cromwell. The right hand man to both Cardinal Woolsey and Henry the VIII. What could be more Tudor than a novel that centers on Henry ridding himself of Katherine of Aragon and the Catholic Church?

Cromwell was a man without a past. He was an outsider of which almost nothing is known of his childhood. How does the son of a less than nobody rise to be in the privy chamber of a King of England? Mantle creates a beguiling anti hero out of what history warns us was an ugly back stabber. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is a realist. He has inched his way into position and notice in order to politically and monetarily raise the prospects of his extended family. Cromwell uses what skills he's learned, what his spies can tell him, the money his deals make and the greed of courtiers to rid himself and the crown of impediments. The heartlessness of his on the job plots juxtaposed against his love of his family, his apprentices and all of his staff makes him a rich, complex character.

How much of the life of Cromwell that Mantle gives us is fact? The early years are speculation. How he rose from suspect beginnings in Putney, England around 1485 to working for a substantial Florentine banking family in Italy in 1512 without having connections and a formal education no one is sure. Is this lack of knowledge any different from novels about other historical figures? No. Why bring it up? You have to in Wolf Hall. Mantel has done such an amazing job in creating a full realized Cromwell that every utterance, every thought passes as gospel pulled directly from the great man.

Part of the success of this novel lies in the peculiar way Mantel has worked out writing this book in the first person/third person. Although Cromwell is telling the story (which would be in the first person) he refers to himself as "he" thorough out the book. I have read more than one review of the book that labels this as an impediment. I can't say that I found that to be the case. From the start there is a rhythm to the writing (and all those pronouns) that keeps it all in check. Events from the past are turned over in Cromwell's mind as he watches a young lady in waiting play with the buttons on her dress and weighs the various efforts the Boleyn's are using to maintain their hold over the King while discussing hunting with the Duke of Norfolk. In the brilliance of Hilary Mantels gifts all this happens at once. Reading Cromwell's story is not this happened and then this and then we did that and on to chapter three. You follow the tapestry of Cromwell's life: the sad past he carries with him, his philosophy, his love of family, his sarcasm and his intense desire to bring about what his King wants. It's as though the reader can float above the events of Cromwell's life to see the full picture of the man and his times. The intimate history and the greater history are both within your comprehension. It's an understanding you are awarded with because Mantel writes so well.

The history of the period is so well documented that only way left to make it interesting any more is to come in through the side door as Mantel has done here. It's all from Cromwell's point of view but that's not to say that all the other major players aren't here as well. Some of the best writing in the book are the scenes between Cromwell and More. The Anything For A Shilling Nobody vs The Saint. The cast list in Wolf Hall is enormous and Mantel is able to control them and their history. No small feat. As you read through the entire 650 pages (And not 1 is to be missed!) Mantel fills you in an all you need to know about court life, the whims of a King, the economics of the cloth trade, etc. She is able in the most casual way to make you understand the personalities of all the characters: “Anne is brittle in their company, and as ruthless with their compliments as a housewife snapping the necks of larks for the table. If her precise smile fades for a moment, they all lean forward, anxious to know how to please her. A bigger set of fools you would go far to seek.”

To have a writer that you have introduced people to for years win a prestigious award is a thrill and I'd like to thank the Academy. What's more important than the statuette or the cash for the author in my gigantic retail heart are the sales the award will bring. There is lots O'publicity when you carry the day and the votes for the Man Booker. Wonderful. The better news is that every bookstore now wants copies, many copies of your award winning title and your backlist. Ka-ging! For years I had clenched my little hands together, squeezed my ears shut and wished that Hilary Mantle would move to a U.S. publisher that would spend a little do-re-mi publicizing her and now--MAYBE-- I don't have to do that anymore. Thank you Man Booker!

Thank you Hilary!

P.S. The cover? Blah. It has a very 1970's murder mystery feel. The British cover? Worse.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day!

Good Morning Flower!

It's Election Day. A great day. I walked over to my Town Hall about 30 minutes ago and voted. I like going first thing. It's quiet, the room has that early morning overpowering coffee smell and the volunteers aren't feeling so harried that they don't ask you how your Dad is and what you think about how slow the road work by the bridge is going.

In my district we aren't voting for Senators, Representatives or any town changing propositions. It's all the local positions that we decide on: town council, county clerk, town supervisor town judge, etc. The Biggie in our local elections for me are the 2 open positions on our School Board. That I think is huge.

In my opinion/observation people run for School Board when they have 1 ax to grind. When little Susie was nosed out of the county spelling bee finals it could not have been because she lost fair and square. Of course not. The rules were wrong, the judges were selected unfairly and the had the match on a Tuesday for goodness sake and how could Susie have been expected to do her best on a Tuesday???? I have to get elected to the Board and change that immediately! What? The district is facing a budget shortfall? The 4th graders at Chester A. Arthur Elementary School can't pass their state reading exam? Ummm....I wasn't aware of those problems.

  School Boards have a substantial amount of local power over the lives of  thousands of children. That is as important as a Senatorial election. It's crucial to choose who you think will do the best for these children. Do you want the candidate who will solve their child's issue and then rubber stamp whatever the Supervisor wants? Would you rather have the other person who will also solve their child's problem but then stay engaged in all the other hundreds of issues?

How lucky are we to have elections and then to have those elections stick? It ain't perfect but I'd rather have this than anything else. I will never understand why a large chunk of the citizens of this country don't vote and if you are one and I find out? Expect a stern talking to.

Thrilled to vote,

Saturday, October 31, 2009

It's The Mooooost Wonderful Time Of The Year!

True that Flower!

Today is my favorite holiday of the year! It's put your clock back an hour night. I love this! Thanksgiving? Nice. Christmas? Nice. Put the clock back night? Super-duper a la Peter T. Hooper nice!

Tonight we will gain an hour. I will go to sleep at midnight and before I wake up I'll have slept through a whole other midnight.  Yipee. It's magical. Magical and we-are-the-world-building. It's something we all do together. The people who don't like it (And to them I say, what in the Sam Hill??? Do you not love puppies too?) and people who do love it coming together to be the same time for another 6 months. It kind of warms your heart, doesn't it Flower? Mine too.

This holiday is all about that extra sleep for me. I feel those 60 minutes all day long like perfect strand of pearls around my neck. Maybe I'll vacuum today and actually move things to vacuum underneath? Sure. I have that free bonus hour coming up. I got the time. Rearrange the pots and pans cabinet so that it's easy to get the one I want? No way. Not if I had 8 extra hours. That is just too much damn work. Put away the dishes in the drain board? You betcha. I got that hour coming.

Plus no gifts to buy for this most perfect holiday my friend. Although if you did go that little blue box route I promise I'll love it. No cooking for hours to feed the whole family. Although... yeah I'm not promising that. I'm a little bit of a picky-pants eater and I probably don't want to hang out with your family. No offence.

It's an even happier than usual me today. This is my High Holy Day. My Mardi Gras. My Ever Loving Ground Hog Day.

Ready for bed,

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What the Frock?

Good Morning Flower!

I am so in love with my own mad skilz today. I have been basking in this love for the last 11+ hours and I don't know where it will end.

Last night I was watching Turner Classic Movies on my beloved TV. I was very eager to see the movie Dragonwyck . I had not seen in it in at least 21.6 years but I had retained fond memeories of that film. I remembered liking it a lot as a kid.

Dragonwick started out as a bestselling novel by popular novelist Anya Seton and became a hit movie in 1946 starring Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Anne Revere and Spring Byington. It's a gothic story set in the beautiful Hudson Valley in the mid 1800's. A young farmer's daughter goes to live with a married wealthy cousin, a Patroon , on his estate as a companion to his young daughter. Jane Eyre anyone? The Jane Eyre-ness of it combines with Rebecca and you are very entertained.

Was it as good as I remembered? Yes. It's not perfect. There are a couple moments in the movie that are disjointed and one character in the movie disappears and you wonder why. However it is well made, the actors are all excellent, the music is lovely, the settings are make-you-wish-you-were-thers-able and it is very entertaining.

The real reason I'm telling you about Dragonwyck, Flower? The tie-in between the movie and my skills? While I was watching the movie what to my wandering eyes should appear? Gene wearing the same dress that  Joan Fontaine wore in  Jane Eyre .

Here is a playing way against type as a creepy housekeeper, Spring Byington on the left and Gene on the right:

Here is Joan Fontaine being as 'poor, plain and obscure' as she possibly can.  See??? There is no denying that dress!

I've watched that 1944 version of Jane Eyre many, many times so if I didn't recognize that dress it would have been shocking. Still I am beside myself that I actually noticed it. I was deee-lighted with me. I was also surprised that the dress was used again after having been used less than 2 years before, but mostly I was impressed with me and my skilz. Too bad no one will care. True. I told A. and she said, "That's great Happy. Now if you can also make your bed today I'll be super proud of you."

Too late. I'm proud of me already!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Paragraph 3 "Tainted Love" Is Piped In

Flower, my friend.

~~sigh~~ I love TV. I've spent enough time around snobby people in my life to feel like this is a confession. Too bad. TV is awesome. If someone with surgical powers asked me if I'd rather have both kidneys or TV, I would be minus one kidney. Hells bells, I'd give up a sibling before I gave up cable.

I do like some things more than others on TV but I will watch almost anything. I cannot watch golf or award shows though. Life is too short for that. I also like TV as background. TV while I knit, cook, maybe even blog. What's more stress relieving than "Top Cat" meandering around the room while you, a non-cook, have to make dinner for 10? I'm not going to get that kind of emotional help from the radio or a friend.

So where is the criticism? You know there's going to be one, Flower.

Here it is. Why isn't the music staying in the background? You are watching a drama and at some special moment in comes music. Not only music but a song, a song sung. Sometimes the musical moment arrives during the build up, sometimes the climax, sometimes the denouement, but it's there. Dialog has ceased, a song begins and shots of doctors with their head in their hands or doctors next to a patient covered with tubes or doctors doing their work and looking at one another longingly. And. This devise isn't restricted to Dr Drama. No. Often times it's lawyers, parents, classmates or the guy who owns the pet shop who are having their important music moment.

Can I tell you honestly what I think of this? It's cheap. Write some dialog Scriptwriter that will express whatever poignant, sentimental, frustrating, loving emotion needed at that place in the plot. OK? And Director?? The same goes for you, Lazy. Stop using the indulgent overlay of overwrought pop noise to get your point across. It's been done to death. Drop the Drama 101 template and get an idea of your own.

Don't take my love away!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Victory Is Mine!


This is the day! I have scored a victory for all mankind. It's true. I found a sock previously thought to have been eaten by the washer. Before the adulation starts and product endorsements start to roll in let me tell you the whole fascinating story. Put your flashback shoes on... we're going in!

On a black day two years ago I lost a sock in the wash. It was a black sock. Winter weight. I liked that pair of socks. They were toasty. I had never lost a sock before. I just don't lose things. True. It doesn't happen. Maybe I took the loss harder than I should of for that reason, but I have to say the loss of that sock embittered me.

I kept the now pairless sock. It was a futile gesture to hope but I kept it anyway. I moved on, but I never forgot. Evey once in a while over the past two years I would come across the widow sock and sigh. Some times I would wonder if I should throw it away, but I never did. Thus the years whiled away.

Until!!! Yes until today! I found the missing sock. Oh happy day. That pair of socks is no longer lost to me. I was looking through dresser drawers for anything I hadn't worn lately and wasn't likely to wear to donate to charity. Well my goodness was rewarded. There underneath a gray turtleneck was...the sock! How I smiled. Delight washed over me like chocolate over the creamy mint of a York Peppermint Patty.

Have I solved the riddle of the missing sock? The sock that so many of us assume the washer ate? Am I the sock Darwin of my age? I'd like to think that all of the missing socks of the world are really just relaxing with a T-shirt or chilling with the bottoms of your flannel jammies। They aren't lost. They are vacationing.

Ready to have an elementary school names after me,


P.S. the photo is from The Morgue File and was taken by gregparis

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Children's Book

Hello Flower!

I have finally read "The Children's Book". I think I told you that my friend S sent it to me months ago. I had decided to save it. I wanted to look at it for a while, walk by it now and again and enjoy the delight in having it before I read it. Doesn't it have a gorgeous cover?

"The Children's Book" is a thick, meaty, treasure trove of a novel. Every turn of a page involves the reader in ideas, plot, emotions, knowledge and sparkling writing. In blurb vernacular it's brilliant, a page turner, un-put-down-able, stunning, complex and my favorite--multi-layered.

The book takes place in England between 1895 and 1919. It criss-crosses Europe following the family fortunes of the Wellwoods, the Cains and the Fludds and a host of vibrant subsidiary characters. Olive Wellwood is the center of this world. She is a writer of fairy tales for children. Olive was a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who after a marriage above her station restyled her herself into a flowing, forward thinking, magazine layout ready Mother of 6 whose Bohemian glamour oozes out seduction and a nurturing spirit. She rules her world without maintaining any intimacy with it. Every moment is literary fodder for Olive. She plumbs the lives of her children for her fairy stories.

Olive and the other adults talk the talk of the Fabians, judge their intellectual superiority by their superficial associations with anarchists and performers and abuse their children in the name of art and free thinking all the while living in servant filled luxury or having the spinster sister schooling the children or waiting for the vicar and charity of others to clothe and feed their families. These Edwardian parents have left their familial responsibilities to others as they prattel on about the changing the world in a ceaseless effort to insure their self importance.

There are leagues of characters here whose lives are constantly intersecting and changing the landscape. As the children mature secret paternity's, horrors and how the world really works are reveled to them. They flee from the jails of their parents into the horror beyond measure of WWI. Although "The Children's Book" is a dark story overall, there is a feeling at the close of the novel when some of the surviving characters are mourning all that has been lost that here now is a substantial and committed group ready to try and remake their futures.

Throughout the book Byatt has wedged in as much historical information as the story will hold. There is an explanation of everything from the founding of the Victoria and Albert Museum to the preenings of the British and German monarchies to how to get a medical degree in 1904. This isn't the usual historical fiction nod to the price of nails in 1675 or a description of the style of dress in 1851 in order to quickly set time and place. The knowledge that Byatt spreads forth from beginning to end in this novel establishes the mindsets of the characters, the social background of their choices and the realities of the plot line. It is all completely integrated into the story and it is as much responsible for the success of the novel as the fictional attributes are.

"The Children's Book" is an outstanding novel of ideas and people. I honestly adored each and every page of it. This is a book that all aspiring writers should read so that they will know what they are aspiring to create. When I finished reading this book I was full.

Sated and Happy

I Couldn't Be More Proud!

Flower, the time has come!

The votes are counted and the announcement has been made. ~~~drum roll~~~~ The winner of this years Man Booker Prize, a great humanitarian and one heck of a great gal~~~ta da~~ Hilary Mantel!!!!

I could not be more pleased. I have deep unrequited love for Hilary. She is a brilliant writer, "Wolf Hall" could not be a better book and I discovered her. Well, I like to think I discovered her. I started reading her when "Flood" (still one of my favorite novels) came out in 1989 and I was able to hand sell tons of it in my bookstore. This of course lead to bringing in her backlist and much excitement whenever a new novel of her's appeared. I am sure that her publisher had no other stores that were ordering and reordering her books in carton quantities.

The lovely thing about prizes is that they bring new readers to authors all across the globe. They have a much further reach than my Recommends Cards ever will. Not that Hilary's only audience has been in my small universe. No, she has been a big seller in England for years. Now England and I can sit back, relax and watch readers flock to my girl Hilary. And her U.S. publisher, who has never promoted her, will congratulate themselves on having been behind her for years.

I had the good luck, great pleasure and honor to meet Hilary Mantel 4 years ago. She was speaking in London and a dear friend of mine, S, who lives over there sent me a plane ticket to come hear her. Her talk was as wonderful as her writings. After the lecture was over S took me to a wine and cheese chat to actually meet Hilary! I was so deliriously happy and so nervous. It was an unforgettable moment for me. She talked to me me while I babbled for about 5 minutes. What a treasured memory. Thanks again S!

You will not be disappointed no matter what book you pick to try first. All of her novels, historical and contemporary, deal with the isolation of the individual in some way. Hilary writes with an eye for detail and a compassion for her characters that sets her apart from other contemporary novelists. She has the amazing ability to let you discover for yourself the inner lives of her characters.

My favorites in no particular order:

Flood. A mysterious stranger brings odd choices to a Irish Catholic neighborhood. There is a scene in there where the spinster housekeeper is making wedding bands for her self out of snack food wrappers that has never left me.

A Place of Greater Safety. The best novel EVER about the French Revolution. It follows Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulins and their families from childhood through the early days of the revolution

An Experiment in Love. Hilary takes the hairy old plot of Sally, Irene and Mary and makes a terrific novel out of it. It's women's lives thwarted, successful, happy and unhappy in 1970's and 80's London.

Giving Up The Ghost. A fascinating and angering memoir of her early years. You aren't going to read trauma after trauma but rather a study of a dreams verses reality that is very moving.

Beyond Black. Popular medium Alison Hart travels from show to show with her dead friends always on the verge of somehow becoming one of them. The stealthy creepiness of Alison's life and life experiences are written about with a subtlety that will not cease to impress you.

Wolf Hall. Man Booker Winner!!!


Friday, September 11, 2009

A Pretty Penny For Her Thoughts

Bonjour Flower!

What is more comforting than a mystery series that you love? Sure, sure someone is going to die--maybe more than one someone --but then there's going to be your friend The Detective, his/her team, suspects galore, motives, lies, crime scene science, jealousy, unrequited love, hanky panky, maybe even madness. ~~sigh~~ All the things that just don't add up.

One of the series that I look forward to are the Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries by Louise Penny. The Chief Inspector is with the Sûreté du Québec so you get all sorts of interesting tidbits about Québec: history, life style, attitudes, police procedures all of which seem wordily and exotic. The mysteries take place in a tiny, semi-isolated village (think Cabot Cove gone France-tastic) just across the U.S. boarder. This location for the village of Three Pines also makes for interesting revelations in terms of history and prejudices.

Due out in October (in 1,ooo's of Independent Bookstores and already made an Indiepick by them), the fifth installment in the Gamache mysteries is "The Brutal Telling". Old fans and soon to be fans will be delighted. Since I firmly believe in not giving away plot, suffice to say there is a body found at Three Pines, the Chief Inspector is called in, some of our established locals and some new faces are suspected and crime solving and plot twists ensue. All very standard for a mystery, right?

What sets Penny's mysteries apart are all pretty standard as well. They are the same things that make any novel better than most of the others: excellent writing, 3 dimensional characterization, a thought-out plot that always stays ahead of the reader and smarts. I n "The Brutal Telling" the smarts were the on target views into the how-far-would-you-go of it's characters laid out for us to discovery by detection and sly manipulation and Penny's canny bringing into the plot one of literature's oldies but popular again goodies the apocalyptic tale.

You will enjoy "The Brutal Telling" regardless as to whether or not you've read the first 4 books in the series. Fans will devour and bemoan waiting another year for the next title by Penny. First timers are the lucky ones. They get to be engulfed in Brutal and then discover the previous four Gamache mysteries for the first time.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I'll Take The Short Stack.

Flower, my friend!

The Man Booker Long List is now the Man Booker Short List! And the nominees are:
A S Byatt, The Children's Book (Random House) due out in October
J M Coetzee, Summertime (Penguin) due out in December
Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze no date set for U.S. release
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Macmillan) due out in October
Simon Mawer, The Glass Room no date set for U.S. release
Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (Penguin) available

If you would like to see a break down of plots and author info all in one place go here. The winner will announced October sixth and within hours all copies of that title available in the U.S. will be sold. How wonderful is that? Do you have a fav? Do I have a fav?

Choices are difficult, Flower

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

High Water Mark?

Book Cover Smack Down From The Future!

Which do you like better? The biblical Brit cover or the US cover?

Flower, a new Margaret Atwood novel will be available in independent bookstores in about 2 weeks. In fact it goes on sale a couple of days after the new Dan Brown novel, "The Lost Symbol". Margaret might be one of the first of this falls Big League Authors to go on sale after the saviour of Random House's bottom line. Will Margaret be the test case for whether or not the destined to be mega-seller Dan kills the fall list?

I don't buy into the theory that Dan's popularity will hurt every other Big Name Author (and there are so many of them) with books releasing this autumn. How much cross over is there between Dan's readers and other readers? I was working in an independent bookstore when "The Da Vinci Code" first came out. It truly was a sales phenomenon. But. A sizable chunk of it's readership in our store were people who didn't read books. Nonreaders who were drawn to the book by it's subject matter or the amount of publicity it was receiving. I would love to think that those nonreaders had been transformed into readers by Da Vinci and no doubt a couple of them have, but the bulk of them? Come on, can't we all answer that? If every nonreader who loved Da Vinci was still out there plunking down their hard earned for books Publishers would be the happiest manufacturer's on the planet and that is not the case.

Then there is the never to be underestimated Snob Factor. There is a whole demographic out there of people determined to ignore "The Lost Symbol". These book buyers will be purchasing all the other more literary works that will be available. New books by A.S. Byatt, Hilary Mantel,
E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, Barbara Kingsolver, Orhan Pamuk,etc.

So, what about the Flood? This is one of Atwood's science fiction novels and there we have to stop for a minute. Quite disingenuously Margaret Atwood disavows that any of her work is sci fic. She claims that because what she's written is possible today it cannot be classified as science fiction. Please. You show me what evil conglomerate has been able to create partly rational pigs and I'll side with Ms Atwood. In the meantime let us all accept that "The Year of the Flood" is a sci fic novel. OK? OK.

The Flood is a of continuation of "Oryx and Crake". There are a few of the same characters and God's Gardeners and the Corporations are there as well. We learn through flashbacks and the histories of the two main characters, Toby and Ren, that the Flood was a dry one. Something made people cough and then they died and now it's Year 25 of the The Flood. The lack of information about what happened creates a distance between the reader and the novel that I don't think the novel ever recovers from. You're here today in a post apocalyptic world and no one can tell you how it happened or they just don't want to talk about it.

There are powerful moments in the Flood. These characters have endured horrific experiences and you can be outraged and sympathetic towards them, but there is no engagement with them. The book is a long litany of ugly event after event with a mysterious ending. Year 25 is a horrible time to be alive. Men are awful (and one dimensional), a few women are the only hope but have no authority, government is gone but Corporations thrive---are you feeling the 70's vibe? There is nothing new here. At any moment I expected one of the God's Gardeners to scream, "Soylent Green is people!".

Margaret Atwood is a much, much better, inventive and smarter writer of contemporary novels, historical novels and science fiction than this book would lead you to believe. I will patiently await her next book and forget all about "The Year of the Flood".


The covers? I don't think that either one is doing Atwood any favors. The U.S. version with that giant poppy leads you to believe that what you have here is a WWI novel. The British edition while looking all the world like a cover from 1973, at least ties in this Flood with the other one that re-made the world, Noah's. Still not so great.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Where Have You Been Korea?

To make this review all about me right from the start, Flower, I want to tell you about the startling revelation that came to me after reading "The Calligrapher's Daughter". I realized that in all my many years of reading novels set in Asia that this was the first one with a Korean setting that I had ever read. It's true. I can hardly believe it. I was as shocked as you are right now.

Ever since I discovered the satisfyingly chubby books of James Clavell (no relation to Miss Clavel as far as I know) the summer between high school and college I have hungered after novels set in Asia. So how did I miss Korea? There must be wonderful books out there set in Korea, right? Why are they unknown to me? As a buyer for an independent bookstore and wholesaler for 20 years I read every catalog every season from every publisher in order to do my buys and I cannot recall any Korean historical novels.

About 2 years ago an excellent contemporary novel about the daughter of Korean immigrants was published by Grand Central Publishing. It was "Free Food For Millionaires" by Min Jin Lee. You read it too didn't you Flower? I thought it was terrific. After I read it I wrote about it for our company newsletter and I was able to handsell it quite well. It's the classic second generation torn between duty to parents and the desire to attain what's perceived as All-American Success tale. The characters however were unique and intriguing, there was lots of humor in the book and the writing was first rate. I will definitely read what comes next from Min Jin Lee and I hope that good news makes her hurry up and finish whatever she's working on.

So? Back to no Korean historical novels. Where are they? If you know of any I'd love to hear.

In the broad strokes, "The Calligrapher's Daughter" is about the Japanese forcible annexation of Korea in 1910 that lasted until 1945 and Korea's entrance into the modern world after the horrors of the Japanese occupation ended. Up until 1910 the (united) Korea had been peacefully ruled for over 500 years by the Joseon Dynasty.

The intimate story of the novel is the life of the unnamed daughter of a successful calligrapher. Coming as she did with the Japanese so to speak the daughter is viewed by her father Han as a shame brought on the family and Han refuses to name the girl. As the Japanese take over more and more of the government, police and culture in Korea, Han becomes bitter and resentful. He is an artist and activist, a scholar who struggles to recapture Korea's glory and independence.

Najin's life, as the daughter is nicknamed at age 8, parallels her country's subjugation and modernization. She longs to fulfill both her Father's ideal of womanhood (essentially seen, not heard and make me another baby) and to get an education. When at 14 she gets unexpected help from her Mother to escape a marriage arranged by her Father and go and live in the King's court, it is her ticket to an education and to creating her own destiny. Of course it is not smooth sailing from then on in, but to know more about the plot you'll have to read the book.

The author, Eugenia Kim, based this novel on the life of her Mother. Kim's family story, detailed research and gentle writing style make Calligrapher's well worth reading. She does an excellent job capturing the desires for a lost world and the longing to have a future of your own.

"The Calligrapher's Daughter" is not without flaws. The religious aspects of the story, although important to the storyline, sometimes come across as preachy and the novel is written in such a completely straight forward and secondary plot-less manner that it does occasionally feel as though you are reading an upper level young adult novel. However. I have thoroughly enjoyed the book and I have learned an immense amount about Korean history and culture.--That has been fascinating and it's left me wanting more.

So where are those Korean novels?


P.S. I think the cover is beautiful and it did make me pick the book up to look at. Congrats to the designer!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

It's An Honor Just To Be Nominated

Flower, Flower, Flower.

I know that you love award shows but how do you feel about awards? I'm all for them. The more the better.

My fav award is the Man Booker Prize. I know. There's no red carpet, but if there was guarantee everyone would be badly dressed, don't you think? Hilariously so. The bad-ness might be Grammy level only with more florals and boiled wool. Oh and picture if you will the hair! Is my fancy for Man a mere sideline of my supreme attachment to books? Oh no my friend!

It's the whole Long List /Short List thing. It builds anticipation. I love that first you get the 13 books that the judges have selected from out of every novel published by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. There's some reading for you. How many titles do you think that is? 40,000? 60,000? Are they all read by the judges? Let's just say, no. Then about a month later the Short List comes along. The 13 get shaved down to 5. Then a month after that comes the winner.

Here is this year's Long List with U.S. availability noted:

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt---due out in September, hardcover
Summertime by J. M. Coetzee--- due out in October, hardcover
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds ---no date yet for U.S. release
How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall ---due in September, paperback
The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey ---available, hardcover
Me Cheeta by James Lever ---available, hardcover
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel ---due out in October, hardcover
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer--- no date yet for U.S. release
Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin--- no date yet for U.S. release
Heliopolis by James Scudamore --- no date yet for U.S. release
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin ---available, hardcover
Love and Summer by William Trevor ---due out in September, hardcover
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters ---available, hardcover

The Man Booker judicial chair, James Naughtie, says:

"The five Man Booker judges have settled on thirteen novels as the longlist for this year's prize. We believe it to be one of the strongest lists in recent memory, with two former winners, four past-shortlisted writers, three first-time novelists and a span of styles and themes that make this an outstandingly rich fictional mix."

I'll not argue.

I have done fairly well with the Long List. The really long list of all novels published in the Commonwealth this year, no so much. I have read: "The Little Stranger", "Me Cheeta", "Brooklyn" and "The Wilderness". Waiting to be read are "Wolf Hall" and "The Children's Book". I adored Stranger, found Cheeta to be old Hollywood gossip sewn together with a clever hook but ultimately a bit dull and sad, Brooklyn is a gorgeous, clear-eyed love story, and Wilderness is a heartbreaker about a novelist with Alzheimer’s.

Any books that I think should have made the Long List? hmmmmm... "Winter Vault" by Anne Michaels. A beautiful novel about a young couple in Egypt in 1964. The husband is there as an engineer working on the move of Abu Simbel. The wife is a botanist with a passion for anything that comes out of the Earth. The intensity of the temple move, the ethics involved, childhood memories and a tragic loss forces the couple to circle around love and grief, destruction and rebirth. The fluidity of Michael's writing is flawless. She has the precision of a master short story writer and the understanding of human psyche of Jung.

Any others? Not that come to mind immediately, but I'll think about it.


P.S. If judge James Naughtie's name is really pronounced naughty---I'm dying just like any other 12 would be.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Nuns & Charles Dickens & Warm Woollen Mittens

Hi Flower!

Nuns and Charles Dickens and warm woollen mittens. These are a few of my favorite things. Whiskers on kittens? Not so much. But that's okay because there are some new books that will fulfill my nuns and Dickens needs. The mittens? I am currently knitting a pair seeing as it's going to be a cold summer.

This is a nice on sale week for Random House. They have one of their established bestselling authors, Sarah Dunant's new novel, "Sacred Hearts" going on sale as well as a first time author's debut novel, "Girl in a Blue Dress" which was long listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and got a lot of publicity in the UK. And... I imagine they have a lot of other nice things happening this week as well, but those I don't know about.

Just as Phillipa Gregory has a lock on the backstairs lives of English royalty so Sarah Dunant has with Renaissance Italy. Dunant is your go to girl for the annuls of antipasto. She's got the research done, gotten all the facts and we get to enjoy. In "Sacred Hearts" we are enjoying the many mysteries and rites of convent life in 1570 Ferrara, Italy. Sound a little tame? Not at all. This is a strong, engaging book about very interesting individuals.

The lives and history of nuns has always held interest for me. I'm not entirely sure why. I have no personal religious background. Until I was in college all I knew about the Bible or any religion really was what I had learned from watching Cecil B. de Mille movies and to the best of my recollection Cecil B. never made a movie about nuns. Maybe it's the disappearance of the individual into a communal life whose goal is to serve a common good. Maybe it's Belief which I've never had. Maybe it's the outfits. I envy women who can wear a hat and black is so New York and hip. Maybe it's that their regimented, shut in lives under the rule of men is a microcosm of the history of women for the last few thousand years. Maybe it's just that they exist. I don't know.

In "Sacred Hearts" the convent of Santa Caterina is a repository for the unmarriable of Ferrara's wealthiest families. Some know from childhood that the Church will be their lives, some are what's left when dowries have been stretched to nothing for a sibling's advantageous marriage and some are the end of their families and it's either the nunnery or... what? Once under God's protection at Santa Caterina each woman must come to terms with what they have lost and the life they will live from the moment of entrance until death.

The politics and complex relationships of "Sacred Hearts" are not wholly confined to the convent itself. There are pressures for change within the Church that cannot be ignored. These changes could turn the relatively liberal Santa Caterina into a completely isolated and devotional house. Also, the noble and wealthy families of the nuns and Ferrara must be kept happy to keep their patronage and thereby protect the convent. Into this cloistered but not unworldly community Dunant brings character, intense period and religious detail and good, strong storytelling.

When the novel started out I immediately fell into deep fascination with the details of life and religion in 1570, but I felt as though the plot was going to be as new and intricate as a communion wafer. I was wrong. The plot unfolded in surprising ways and is exceptionally well served by the fully drawn secondary characters in the book. The women in the book are of all ages and at all levels of devotion. In fact one of the strongest elements of the book was how accurate and true all of the characters felt. No small achievement in historical fiction where passionate and powerful women characters too often come across as contemporary.

Flower, how much do I love Charles Dickens? A lot. He's my all time favorite writer. He's my desert island choice. I fell in love with his books at 12 for three reasons: I loved all the words, the books are chubby and here were books that had more main characters than I had siblings--a first! But. Can I accept that he was human and a far from perfect one? Sometimes a far from nice one? I couldn't have at 12 but at 12+ I can.

Good thing or I would have missed an excellent novel.

"The Girl in the Blue Dress" is a fictionalized account of the life of Charles Dickens from the viewpoint of his wife Catherine. For years Catherine was viewed as sort of a 'Shakespeare's Wife'. A shadow of no real interest except for the number of children she gave birth to. A dull footnote in a brilliant man's career. In "Girl" Dickens is Alfred Gibson and Catherine is his wife Dorothea. In this Alfred is the It Boy of Victorian letters, magnetic, representing the values of home and hearth, popularly viewed as a social reformer and successful beyond belief. Dorothea is the quiet wife once loved and pursued now humiliated and left behind.

When "Girl" opens, Alfred is dead. The world is mourning his passing. He is being remembered as 'The Great One' and 'The One and Only'. He and Catherine have been separated for 10 years. Alfred had grown tired of his dutiful, ever pregnant wife. He cast her out, publicly painted her as mad, installed her in a barely decent apartment and kept all but one of their eight children from seeing her--just as Dickens did to Catherine. Dorothea humbled by the estrangement, did as she was told and moved on to a nun-like life. Spending her days reading and re-reading Alfred's novels and brooding over what had been and what it had become. An invitation from another widow, Queen Victoria pulls Dorothea back into the world and compels her to try and reclaim her life.

The events of Alfred and Dorothea's lives so faithfully follow those of Charles and Catherine that you might wonder why write a novel? Why not write a biography of the Dickens' marriage? A novel gives Catherine/Dorothea a voice that history can not. The subject matter is at the level of you-can't-make-up-this-stuff but the author's insights and handling of it all is made credible and consistent with the time period and her descriptions of Victorian life would have made Dickens jealous. The research is impeccable.

There never seems to be any middle ground with first novels. They fall into one of two categories: better luck next time or wham, a homer. First timer Gaynor Arnold has put this one out of the park and I'm thrilled. A new author to look forward to! Because after all it really is all about me.

Now I worry that I won't have a new nun or Dickens book for years to come. I'll find other lovely reads to fill the time but I'll always have one eye open for my favorite things.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Little Stranger Than Us

Book Jacket Smack Down!
Which cover is more likely to make you pick up "The Little Stranger"?
The Brit version on the left? Or the Yank take on the right?

Hello Flower!

Have you ever read Sarah Waters? She's one of a handful of authors that due to my bookstore employment I feel as though I discovered. Do you have authors like that? Authors who you have followed since their first quiet book? You read that first one and fell in love with the storytelling or writing style--- something-- and started putting it into friends and customer's hands while you impatiently waited for the next book? Sarah Waters is one of those writers for me. I feel very proprietary and protective towards her books. --I didn't mean that to come out so much like a warning, but I'm not unhappy that it did.

All of these titles have been enjoyed by me and lovingly forced onto others by me:
Tipping the Velvet 1998
Affinity 1999
Fingersmith 2002
The Night Watch 2006
And now in 2009 there is--TA-DA! The Little Stranger.

On the page turning surface "The Little Stranger" is a ghost story. I have to say seeing that description on the book jacket stopped me in my tracks. I'm no reader of scary tales, Flower. Scooby Doo cartoons make me nervous. I am a certified, sleep with the light on coward. I do not want creepy thoughts and scary images tucked away in my brain files ready to pop out at me at any time. But... Sarah Waters is one of my pets so onward I pressed.

"The Little Stranger" could be called a follow up to the wonderful "The Night Watch". In Night a group of desperate people struggle to survive WWII London. There the war was the main character. It drove all action and decisions. In Stranger the war has ended but it's power has not diminished and the ghosts it left behind are many.

The novel is set in a rural community in England. The national anxiety of waiting for bombs to drop or news of loved ones has been replaced with the death of hierarchies and the worries that massive social change brings. Those changes are especially strong in the Great Houses across England. In the book, Hundreds Hall is the former grand estate of it's neighborhood. It is now a shabby, barely hanging on wreck of a place. The great family is still living there: Mrs Ayres clinging to the past like grim death, her war damaged son, Roderick and her war missing daughter, Caroline. They have economized to the point of austerity. Half of the house is shut down, land has been sold off, they are attempting to keep the farm viable and have let all but 2 of the servants go but with the Labor Party ruling the day and the family's inability to adapt Hundreds Hall seems to be doomed to extinction.

Into this very contained world comes our narrator. The classic Victorian ghost story bachelor, Dr. Faraday. Set in his ways, slightly woman hating and socially unremarkable. Dr. Faraday isn't the sort who ever would have made it into the Ayres's circle in their glory days. He is the middle class on the doorstep of his betters. His Mother had been a maid at Hundreds Hall in her youth and his father a shopkeeper. Both of his parents sacrificed to raise him above his station. Faraday carries with him enough inbred British class system romanticization that his acceptance by the Ayres family into their world is the ultimate success for him. He is flattered, ready to worship and agonizes over each setback the family endures. This and his unshakable belief in science makes the veracity of his narration suspect and adds to the drama of the story.

Ghosts abound in "The Little Stranger". Each reader will decide whether or not there is an actual haunting at Hundreds Hall and as I have an aversion to giving away plot and will not go the spoiler alert route here is where my descriptions of the action and the characters ends. As for the other ghosts? The Ayers family is haunted by their past riches, snobbery, lost ambitions and the illusions they had about themselves. Dr Faraday is haunted by his own failures and the spector of the incoming National Health Service which could cost him his hard won rise in social standing.

Sarah Waters is always a great storyteller and always challenging herself. She has mastered the intricately plotted Victorian novel, the Merlin-esque ending to the beginning construction of "The Night Watch" and here the ghost story. Ghost stories follow a form. An innocent taken over by malevolence with an operatic finale. "The Little Stranger" does not marry itself completely to that template. Sarah Waters has not written a make you jump tale of terror. She has written a restrained, controlled, creepily suggestive novel about all kinds of hauntings. In fact the grand finale of the novel we are not even witness to. It takes place off stage with no witnesses and is all the more unsettling for that.

There are also touches of other classic things here like "Great Expectations" and "Rebecca" but don't think that this is not a unique work for all of the trappings. This is a sublime novel by a gifted writer that I discovered, sort of...


P.S. I prefer the Brit cover. The Yank cover I feel as though I've seen too often and it reads too English county house murder to me. The Brit cover successfully captures the 40's period and creates an intimacy that US cover lacks.

Monday, June 29, 2009

It wasn't my fault...

Flower, Flower, Flower.

I am doomed.

Sister A is going to be furious with me. I'm serious. This could be it. I've locked myself in and I am not answering the phone.

This morning A and hubby K took daughter O to swim camp. O was extremely excited! She couldn't wait to leave. In fact my little O was so distracted by her efforts to rush her parents into the car that I got 2 squeezey hugs and a kiss from her with out begging or bribery. Yea me!

With their departure I got the twins for the day. Yea me again!

We had a great morning. We went to the beach park where after kicking their tiny buttocks in badminton I sat and read for a while (NewFoundLand by Rebecca Ray and it is a dee-light! I think I'll have a lot more to say about it later.) H and S threw anything they could lift into the river. Then it was off to our local bookstore where H picked out Pinky Pye (having read and Ginger Pye and loving it) and S was thrilled to get the next book in The Little House series, By the Shores of Silver Lake. Then it was back to their house where we had lunch and rode our bikes for a while.

This is probably about where the decision making started going south. Don't get me wrong nothing ended in tears (unless you want to count mine which should be flowing in about 18 minutes) or a trip to the emergency room but well, I am hiding out right?

The weather was beautiful and surprisingly summery. Hey! Cue the Beach Boys music and let's go in the pool. The pool was terrific. There was splashing, there was floating, they was interpretive dance. Two hours later we exit the pool. Now we're all logy and brain tired. You know that feeling? You're comfortably cool and feeling lazy and weak?

I'm not quite sure how what happened next happened. I swear it really is a blur. I know that we were playing Who Can Cheat The Best At Candy Land --a family favorite-- and then suddenly I had Sharpies in my hand. And. There was H next to me still in his bathing suit and with a lot of exposed, unmarked flesh. The perfect canvas.

I'll admit it. I'm weak and I guess S is too because she had a handful of markers and I had a handful of markers and H now has some "tattoos". There's a Mom heart with wings on his left arm, a hula girl on his right arm, a battleship on his stomach that he can make roll with the waves if you know what I mean, a pink heart of his left cheek--lower case cheek, and he now has brown chest hair.

This was when the phone rang. It was A to say that she and K were at our local exit and would be home in about 15 minutes. All of a sudden my life was an 80's teen movie. Man oh man did I snap back to reality with a vengeance. I hustled H back into the pool and S and I tried to scrub the Sharpie off him. I know, I know. It's a permanent marker. I was paniced. I thought that the chlorine might help fade him a little. When that didn't work I got him out and dressed. Everything was covered that could lead to questions and sentencing as an adult.

By now H and S both knew the amount of trouble we were about to be in and that it was going to go much worse for me. Confessing and throwing ourselves onto A's mercy was not an option. Hey we weren't raised to give in. You don't confess if there's any kind of chance you can beat it. The three of us worked out a little scenario where in H keeps his clothes on and tubs and scrubs himself before bed everyday for the next 5 years.

Did it work? I don't have a clue. As soon as A and K walked in the door I bugged out. I'll tell you I now perfectly understand how the insanity defense works. I do have a history of "tattooing" children without parental knowledge. When O was a baby I put a temporary tattoo of a rose on her bottom and a dove on her shoulder and then took her to meet A at the pediatrician's for a check up. I cannot tell you how angry A was after the examination. As I recall "you idiot moron" and "it's on her permanent record" were both yelled at me numerous times. This time it was not premeditated. It all happened in a too-long-in-the-pool induced haze.

That's it. I shall use the Pool-Brain Defense and maybe someday I will have unsupervised visitation once again with my wonderful nieces and nephew . If there is any incarceration-ing involved will you promise to bake me a cake with a file in it? And a hamburger too, can there be a hamburger in there?

On the lam,