Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Man In Uniform

Good Morning Flower!

It was a dark and stormy night, seriously. It followed what had been an already stormy day. We had a blizzard. In twenty hours we got sixteen inches of snow. Lovely to look except up close when shoveling it, but I get ahead of myself. When the clean up seems incalculable hours away having snow whipping by your window as you sit wrapped up in cuddly warmth reading is atmospheice not backbreaking work.

Lucky me, I had a book I had been looking forward to for my blizzard reading: A Man In Uniform by Kate Taylor. I read her first novel, Madame Proust's Kosher Kitchen and absolutely loved it. This new novel is based on The Dreyfus Affair. In 1894 a French court found Captain Alfred Dreyfus guilty of treason and he was sent to Devil's Island. The arrest and trial were widely criticized and became the most publicized civil rights outrage of it's day. It took about ten years for Dreyfus to be exonerated. This scandal was as much about the workings of the military in France, anti-semitism and the power of the press as it was about selling military secrets. Sounds like the bones of a terrific novel, right?

Taylor's book begins after Dreyfus is sentenced. A comfortably bored Paris lawyer, François Dubon is approached by a mysterious woman who is convinced of Dreyfus' innocence and is willing to pay Dubon to try to get an appeal for Dreyfus. Dubon is intrigued by the woman and thoughts of recapturing the excitement of his radical youth and takes the case. This begins the attorney's double life. His marriage and family, mistress, prosperous practice and social standing could all disappear when what began as a lark (with a little seduction thrown in) becomes a mission.

Sad to say but A Man In Uniform is mediocre at best. The characters are two dimensional and the connect the dots plot is as surprising and suspenseful as a Tic Tac Toe match. There is good writing in the scene setting and period details but Taylor does not capture the built in drama of the events or create her own drama. Madame Proust's Kosher Kitchen really is one of my favorite books so I was anticipating adoring A Man In Uniform as well. Oh well. On the plus side Kate Taylor is talented and will write other novels that I will want to read.


Monday, December 27, 2010

The Weird Sisters

Happy After Christmas Flower!

Is it a good idea to read a novel about three sisters with issues right before you are going to be spending the holidays with your own sisters with issues? The novel is The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. I have five weird sisters myself so this seems like a perfect match. In the book the sisters are grown women trying to outrun themselves and the usual family baggage we all have. Well maybe not quite so usual. I'm going to go out on a limb here by saying that very few of us were raised by a Shakespearean scholar so maybe our baggage is as big but a little less erudite.

Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia are soon to be all at home together for the first time in years. To say that the three of them have never been close is an understatement. In truth they have been at odds with one another their whole lives. The only thing they seem to have in common is their deep love for their parents. Rosalind is the daughter who has stayed local. She wears many hats: career girl, caretaker to her parents and adoring fiancee but all those hats disguise her own fear of leaving the safety of her parents. Bianca has been in the Big City living up to Cosmo's expectations and Cordelia has been primarily out of touch and indulging in finding herself. All three of the sisters is at a crossroads in her life and has come home to nurse bad decisions as much as to help their Mother. Dealing with their Mother's illness and Cordelia's unexpected pregnancy will physically unite them. Whether or not they will overcome their animosity and become real sisters....well, you'll read it and see.

The Bard manifests himself everywhere in this novel: the title (the witches in Macbeth), the daughters names (think As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear), the plot and there are quotes from the plays all over the place. Every family has their own language. The jokes that only they get, the shorthand concocted by childish mispronunciations, misconceptions and lore in the Andreas family the native tongue is Shakespearean. I came to The Weird Sisters with only the most cursory High School knowledge of Shakespeare and I was able to get it all and enjoy it all.

Is The Weird Sisters chicklit? Sure. So are books by Anita Shreve and Allegra Goodman. It's a novel that women are going to be drawn to, not men. Is it wonderful? Yes it is. This is author Eleanor Brown's first novel and she does a terrific job. She alternates the novel's action by giving each sister her own point of view in alternating chapters without using first person---YEA! Not every second of The Weird Sisters is new and different but Brown has added plenty of her own surprises to this sisterhood novel. The writing is assured, the storyline is compelling, the relationship between the sisters is believable, there is a lot of humor and the Shakespeare theme is fun. It unifies the novel in a different way while it stretches your brain a bit without beating you over the head.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Wizard and the Crow

Flower, hi.

The book The Wizard of the Crow by novelist and playwright Ngugi wa Thiong'o, is a kind of modern day Frank Capra film set in the imaginary African country of Aburiria. There is a delusional, hubristic ruler with a Yertle The Turtle complex, schemers with all kinds of official titles, a group of rebels plotting an overthrow, yes men devoted to their rulers glory, an greedy Global Bank, men who have plastic surgery to keep their ruler's enemies under surveillance, corruption, poverty and a reluctant everyman hero who happens to be an unemployed wizard that found his powers in a trash heap.

This fanciful, satirical novel is a heavily populated adventure through politics. The Ruler (we never learn his name) longs for the good old days of the Cold War when he could pit superpowers against one another to increase his personal coffers. Now no one seems to need him and a mysterious illness is making fatter and fatter. The novel gets started when the Ruler decides that what needs to happen to maintain his status and respect is to build the tallest building in Africa. Opportunists and government ministers fall out of the woodwork to make this happen. At the same time a young job seeker named Kamiti accidental joins a demonstration against the Global Bank's financing of the skyscraper by the rebels of The Movement of the People and ends up in hiding. In an attempt to confound and frighten the police Kamiti places a sign in front of his hideout proclaiming that a wizard lives inside. Little does he know how this new title will change his life.

Thiong'o has written an entertaining and worthwhile novel where the self interest of those in charge are pitted against the misery they create. The plot continually swings from absurd to biting then on over to ridiculous but it also hits on all the evils of any society not just those in the third world. There is a very let-me-tell-you-a-story feel to this book. That might come from the authors background as a playwright or the oral storytelling traditions of Kenya. The Wizard of the Crow could have used a little editing, but that said the story was never tedious. It had it's predictable moments but it had plenty of surprises as well.

P.S. I think this cover is great.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Hello My Friend.

I don't remember when my Read It Or Remove It policy started. Was it this year? Last year? Who can say. I can tell you that I have had some excellent luck with this program. Recently there has been
 A Very Long Engagement and The Observations, both terrific--and that trend continues!

The latest title in R.I.O.R.I. is sadly out of print but happily fantastic. It's Kalimantaan by C.S. Godshalk. As usual I do remember buying this novel and I remember being eager to read it. Alas...I have no memory of what took it's place in the reading queue. Whatever it was I hope it was worth it because as I've said Kalimantaan really is exceptional.

Kalimantaan is based on the true story of Sir James Brooke. Brooke was an adventurer who two hundred years ago acquired/seized a kingdom, Sarawak, roughly the size of England on the northern coast of Borneo. Borneo is an island in the Pacific that is part of the Malay Archipelago. Brooke and his followers ruled Sarawak for approximately one hundred years. Brooke's exploits have already been fictionalized at least once before that I am aware of in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim.

In Kalimantaan, Brooke is Gideon Barr. As the self-styled "Raj of Sarawak", Barr imposes his brand of civilization on the natives whose land he's stolen and any immigrants, missionaries or businessmen who have found their way to his world. His wife, Amelia, views the colonial life and it's contradictions quite differently than her British East India Company admiring husband. In Barr's private country Victorian civilities, self-importance and hypocrisy cover all manner of savagery by the whites and the love of tradition and celebration hide native barbarism. This is an environment that breeds cholera, smallpox and infection as easily as it does tyrants, madness and doom. Godshalk has inhabited Sarawak with varied and fascinating characters. There are not any levels of this society that are not examined and made important to the story.

This is not a novel about pioneers trying to conquer a hostile environment through hard work and sacrifice. Kalimantaan is about colonialism and empire building on a grandiose scale. Damn the locals and full speed ahead. The rewards are great and little is allowed to get in the way of those prizes. Godshalk has triumphed in this magnificent undertaking. There is plot and color to spare. She has woven her many characters complex stories and motives through a long gone world all the while dissecting it's mysteries and cruelties and celebrating it's beauty and culture.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Novel Something


Are you familiar with the book A Novel Bookstore? The premise is that the bookstore of the title only stocks the best books. Umm...right.

Let me tell you that store would not be stocking this book.

That's all.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Three Bags Full


The world of detective fiction is a mental health half way house waiting to happen. It is a hotbed of psychological scars, neurosis, personality disorders, paranoia, grief, anger and all manner of antisocial behavior. Well the troubled gumshoes can all step aside. They need to make room for a new breed. A precinct made up of wool making, grass chewing, formerly lamb chop filled investigators created by Leonie Swann in Three Bags Full.

 Led by Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in the world, the flock of the late George Glenn are on the case. George, their beloved shepherd has been murdered. A shovel through his shoulder and a suspicious hoof print on his chest. George had taken very good care of them and they will not allow his murder to go unpunished.

However there are a few disadvantages to be a sheep/sleuth. The biggest of which is the language barrier. Luckily for us the sheep were able to learn English because George had sung and read aloud to them. George liked romantic fiction that always seemed to be about red-heads named Pamela but his limited tastes were enough for the sheep to get an understanding of English (Alas they can't speak the language) and human nature. Being bilingual and determined the flock turn their attention to solving George's murder.

How did  Leonie Swann come up with this wonderfully inventive book? I would never have in a million years thought that I who have zero interest in anything to do with animals (Yup. Puppies? I am untouched by the alleged cuteness.) would adore a squad of crime solving sheep. Other than the whole Sherlock sheep thing happening, Swann makes the whole affair realistic. There is an actual mystery, viable suspects and the crime is solved by solid police work, so to speak, but how to tell the humans who done it? The answer comes in a talent contest and amateur dramatics.

Swann packs Three Bags Full with clever literary illusions, dark humor and terrific characterizations--if that's the right word to describe a cast of sheep. You may not be aware of it but the word delightful was invented to describe this mystery novel. True. I have the lab work to prove it.


P.S. That cover? Perfection!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Northern Clemency

Hi Flower.

I have to warn you I'm going to need some extra adjectives here. I might be saying brilliant, wonderful, impressive and glorious so often that I have to resort to using multi-layered as well. Let me apologize in advance for that. I've read The Northern Clemency (picked up solely because it is so very extra chubby) by Philip Hensher and it is fantastic. You can stop reading my puny writing now and go get a copy of it if you want. I won't be insulted.

Clemency starts out in 1970's Sheffield and follows two families:the Glovers and the Sellers. Malcolm and Katherine Glover have three children and have been Sheffield staples forever. Bernie and Alice Sellers, parents of two, are recent arrivals having moved to Sheffield from London for Bernie's new job. The day the Sellers move in Malcolm accuses his wife of having an affair and disappears. The next twenty years bring other catastrophes and passing cruelties both personal and nation wide that have lasting effects on both families.

This a War and Peace type of novel only without all the war part. Clemency is not only concerned with the events of its characters lives but it also details the physical, social, economic and political world they inhabit. Nothing happens in a vacuum in The Northern Clemency. It's a big novel that charts the internal and external world of two generations in one community. A cross section. This is the book for someone who wants to be entertained and at the same time come away with a complete portrait of the times.

Hensher has a firm grip on this tremendous slice of life novel and yet he makes it all feel very organic and realistic. It's as if the neighborhood gossip were giving you the straight skinny over a drink while you perused the March 1973 edition of Ladies Home Journal (Speaking of which a little Can This Marriage Be Saved would not have gone amiss here.) rather than an extremely talented writing is behind it all plotting away, pulling strings and researching every visual element of 70's and 80's decor and food. Nothing occurs in The Northern Clemency that doesn't have repercussions. From the minutiae of day to day domestic life to the events of the time that were felt across the country everything is put into his microscope, inspected and then brought to our attention with magnificent writing.

I was totally impressed and after one quick phone call my local independent bookstore has ordered me an earlier novel written by Philip Hensher, The Mulberry Empire. Yippee!


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Another Thing I Want

Good Morning Flower.

It's the time of year when visions of top ten book lists dance in you head. I love those lists. I'm fascinated by how similar they can all be except for the one odd ball. The one title that separates the New York Times list from the L.A. Times list. Within the usual suspects: Freedom, Room, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks you can find a title that you were unaware of which is nice or a title you thought was crap which is fun. It also amuses me that nowhere in conjunction with these lists can you see a list of all that the list makers read. These are your top ten but compared to what? You didn't read everything published, who could? Maybe I would like a base line. A this-is-what-I-thought-was-excellent-out-of-what-I-read-this-year list.

I have never tried to do a top ten list myself. There are two reasons for that. First I don't keep a list of all the books I have read in a calendar year. Second I feel cowed by not reading enough new releases. I feel like if I make a top ten list it has to be culled from any books I read that were published in this calendar year. Looking back just at the blog that is only 40 titles. There were probably more that I read and didn't write about but even if that brought the title up to 100 (and I don't think it's anywhere near that high) it doesn't seem enough to base a top ten list on, does it?

What I would really, really like to see are lists of titles that you and critics wanted to read this year but for whatever reason didn't get to. What peaked your interest but not your time making capabilities? Lists like that would be different, interesting and potential shopping lists.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why She Married Him


The title Why She Married Him immediately conjures up memories of books that address you as 'Dear Reader' and involve the long hidden secret of the Duke's real heir. Things that are right up my alley. While those specific elements are not present in this novel by Myriam Chapman there are many of the other conventions of Victorian novels and contemporary historical fiction: immigration, lost wealth, struggles with poverty, racism and the struggle for intellectual and emotional freedom. Unfortunately there is little else.

Why She Married Him is the story of Nina Schavranski. Nina is a Russian Jewish immigrant in Belle Epoch Paris. She and her family had to leave their comfortable life in the Ukraine because of the pogroms. Their comfort and community were replaced by poverty and ghettos. When the novel opens it is 1912 and Nina has just married a man she doesn't love. Unhappiness and strife ensue.

Chapman does a magnificent job in recreating the place and time of Nina's life. You can feel the fabrics, taste the food, see your way around this world. What you don't find in this novel is any interior life in the characters. Their lives are the events on the page and no more. That's disappointing but what is good about this book has me intrigued enough that I will look for Chapman's next novel.


Monday, December 6, 2010

4 Reasons To Be excited About 2011

Hello Flower!

Yeah. I need more books to read, right? Obviously I do because I am sooooooooooooooooo looking forward to these four novels. Will I be anxiously awaiting other novels? Sure I just haven't heard about them yet!

1. Doc by Mary Doria Russell on sale May 2011

Two of Russell's novels The Sparrow and Thread of Grace are among the titles that I gift to people on a regular basis. If you have never read I heartily recommend them. I've yet to talk to anyone who has ever read them that did not think they were wonderful.

The Publisher Says...
Nothing yet. Oh well. You can visit Russell's website and read and excerpt from this novel about Doc Holliday.

2. Elizabeth I By Margaret George on sale April 2011

I know. Isn't the world tired of Tudors yet? Not if it's coming from Margaret George! I am going to re-read her two earlier Tudor novels, The Autobiography of Henry the VIII and Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles in preparation of loving Elizabeth I

The Publisher Says...
One of today's premier historical novelists, Margaret George dazzles here as she tackles her most difficult subject yet: the legendary Elizabeth Tudor, queen of enigma-the Virgin Queen who had many suitors, the victor of the Armada who hated war; the gorgeously attired, jewel- bedecked woman who pinched pennies. England's greatest monarch has baffled and intrigued the world for centuries. But what was she really like?
In this novel, her flame-haired, lookalike cousin, Lettice Knollys, thinks she knows all too well. Elizabeth's rival for the love of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and mother to the Earl of Essex, the mercurial nobleman who challenged Elizabeth's throne, Lettice had been intertwined with Elizabeth since childhood. This is a story of two women of fierce intellect and desire, one trying to protect her country, and throne, the other trying to regain power and position for her family and each vying to convince the reader of her own private vision of the truth about Elizabeth's character. Their gripping drama is acted out at the height of the flowering of the Elizabethan age. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dudley, Raleigh, Drake-all of them swirl through these pages as they swirled through the court and on the high seas.
This is a magnificent, stay-up-all-night page-turner that is George's finest and most compelling novel and one that is sure to please readers of Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory, and Hilary Mantel.

3. Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks on sale May 2011

One of my successful handsells ever is Brooks novel A Year of Wonders and People of the Book isn't far behind. Her historical fiction is more introspective than most and doesn't rely on well known historical figures to capture your attention.

The Publisher Says...
Nothing at this point. The title is listed on their website but no other information yet. ~~sigh~~not even a cover. But not to worry the U.K. publisher has this to say...
Caleb Cheeshateaumauk was the first native American to graduate from Harvard College back in 1665. ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ gives voice to his little known story. Caleb, a Wampanoag from the island of Martha's Vineyard, seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts, comes of age just as the first generation of Indians come into contact with English settlers, who have fled there, desperate to escape the brutal and doctrinaire Puritanism of the Massachusetts Bay colony. The story is told through the eyes of Bethia, daughter of the English minister who educates Caleb in the Latin and Greek he needs in order to enter the college. As Caleb makes the crossing into white culture, Bethia, 14 years old at the novel's opening, finds herself pulled in the opposite direction. Trapped by the narrow strictures of her faith and her gender, she seeks connections with Caleb's world that will challenge her beliefs and set her at odds with her community

4. Winter Ghosts By Kate Mosse on sale February 2011

The novels of Mosse are big, engulfing mystery romances. Very satisfying. Once you start them they do not leave your sight until you sadly turn to that last page.

The Publisher Says...
In the winter of 1928, still seeking some kind of resolution to the horrors of World War I, Freddie is traveling through the beautiful but forbidding French Pyrenees. During a snowstorm, his car spins off the mountain road. Dazed, he stumbles through the woods, emerging in a tiny village, where he finds an inn to wait out the blizzard. There he meets Fabrissa, a lovely young woman also mourning a lost generation.
Over the course of one night, Fabrissa and Freddie share their stories. By the time dawn breaks, Freddie will have unearthed a tragic, centuries-old mystery, and discovered his own role in the life of this remote town.

Can't Wait!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Partisan's Daughter

Flower, my friend.

My very pleasant experiences with novelist Louis de Bernières' books have led me to expect engaging, well upholstered stories with unforgettable characters. Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Birds Without Wings, etc. are all novels that dissect a community's history using romance, comedy, tragedy, war and global politics. In A Partisan's Daughter his cast is much smaller, tiny even, but he uses the same emotional touchstones.

Roza is a wily twenty something Yugoslavian refugee living in London in the 1970's. Her life so far has been an almost entirely joyless struggle to survive both in her homeland and in an unwelcoming London. Chris is in his forties. He is bored with himself, his work and is mourning his years spent in a loveless marriage. After a meeting based on misconceptions and self-delusion, Roza becomes his Scheherazade. What truths there may or not be in her tales do not matter. To Chris she is Life. He devours her seemingly biographical stories. The veracity of both is suspect. As Chris becomes more enslaved he thinks Roza will be his great romance and that will save him. What Roza feels and wants, like her past, is more of a mystery.

It's an odd courtship that slowly simmers through A Partisan's Daughter. Neither Chris nor Roza is seemingly capable of being honest with themselves or each other. de Bernières uses this and the shifts in the narrative from Chris to Roza and back again to keep your loyalties in flux. It also makes it harder to pin down the characters expectations.

While I did miss the large populations and humor of de Bernières other novels I did like A Partisan's Daughter quite a bit. Roza's efforts to change life with her stories says a lot I think regarding what this novel is about. As with every storyteller within the life of each tale she tells there is an opportunity for a different path to be chosen and maybe for happiness, not so for the teller.


P.S. The U.S. Cover? I liked ok, but I like the U.K. edition much better

Friday, December 3, 2010

Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End

Hello Flower.

Before I read Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End I had been thinking of it as a book version of a Law and Order episode. It's the first of a planned trilogy of novels based on a true, unsolved crime, the 1986 assassination of Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme. The author, Leif GW Persson has been an adviser to the Swedish Ministry of Justice, is Sweden’s most renowned psychological profiler and is considered Sweden's foremost expert on crime. So maybe this was going to be the behind the headlines, what they know but can't tell kind of thing and after reading it I would know the real story.

Between starts out with the suicide of an American journalist in 1970's Stockholm. Apparent suicide because Good Cop Lars Johansson doesn't buy it. From this possible murder to the assassination takes more than just years. It takes a village: CIA operatives, code names, high ranking government officials, secret police, incompetent bureaucrats, the Cold War, bungling and the ever popular crime novel crew of social misfits. There is a lot going on in Between and there should be. Remember this is book one of three.

Is this a case of throw the spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks? Could be. The incredibly dense start and stop plot filled with complex back stories could all come together triumphantly in book two but what would keep you interested enough to find out? There is a great deal of amusing dark humor in Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End but the lack of any memorable characters among the thousands the authors offers up is the novels' downfall.

I had a lot of expectations for this novel. I loved the cover--it might be my favorite of 2010--and Persson won the 2010 prize for Best Swedish Crime Fiction a few weeks ago. That was for a different novel, The Dying Detective (yet to be published here) but it's the third time he's won this award so he can write. He does sell bobble-head dolls of himself on his website so there's a plus. Maybe I'll try another of his books but probably not the sequel to this one.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Is There Such A Thing As A Worst Fear?


It's important to know that I am a coward. I have an extremely low threshold of fear. This is no exaggeration. Scooby Doo cartoons make me anxious. True. Five minutes in when the mysterious phantom of The Old Mill first appears I have already thought about changing the channel three times. Then by the time those pesky kids are about to pull the mask off of the mysterious phantom and reveal that it is really Innkeeper Jones and that he was able to walk through walls using an overhead projector, paint cans and soft cheeses I am whimpering in terror and distress.

There is a solution to my Scooby scares and I didn't need a woman's magazine to discover it. Yea me! I simply do not watch Scooby Doo any more. Gave it up. Cold turkey. I do still miss Freddie and his ascot from time to time but this was all for the greater good, right?

Sometimes I have to risk the scare because I cannot resist the lure of a movie or television show. Two good examples are The Two Towers and The Return of the King movies from The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. I had to see them because the previews looked too wonderful. What's frightening there you might ask. Golem. I had never read the books and knew nothing about them other than that we sold a lot of them and that they were kept in the fantasy section in the store. When I went to see The Fellowship of the Ring I was completely unprepared. After we saw our first glimpse of Golem I remember grabbing friend A's hand and asking her what the hell was that. She laughed and told me that there would be more of that later. She of course was right and I kept sleeping with the lights on.

About two years ago I miraculously found the courage to sleep with my bedroom light off. I know. Setting aside my advanced age in terms of night lights (This by the way was no nightlight. It was the lamp on my nightstand.) I was sort of proud of myself for being able to turn the switch. To lie down and close my eyes in total darkness. How did this happen? I have no idea. Maybe I turned more green than yellow. Anyway this happy to be me time was short lived because now the light is back on and this time it's my own damn fault.

I have been watching AMC's The Walking Dead. Oh in God's name why did I do this???? I knew what it would do to me. I knew that this would mean the end of self-esteem and smaller electric bills. I knew that by tuning in to a TV show centered around zombies that any courage I had found would be gone. I had to see it. Their other original programs have been so good and I do have a predisposition to post apocalyptic storylines---I was a goner. The Walking Dead has been excellent. Once again I know nothing of the original source material so I can't compare it to that and I have no idea where it's all going to end up.

In the name of self preservation I do not watch it when the new episodes air on Sunday nights at ten o'clock. That would be total sleep suicide and not an option. So I tape it (I know. I still use a VCR. How quaint.) and watch it later during the daytime. As any coward knows when you expose yourself to scary material between the times of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. the sun acts as a dismay disinfectant and your ability to frighten yourself during daylight hours disappears. True. There are studies I could site. However the sun's awesome powers fade away after dark.

The episode two weeks ago when part of the survivors go back to Atlanta to get the guns and find Merle was when I experienced my single most embarrassing moment of cowardice to date---and that is saying a lot my friend. As Glenn is working his way toward the bag of guns in the street and a seemingly dead zombie in a car suddenly opens his eyes and sees him I had to turn the television off immediately and turn on the Christmas music station on the radio. I did eventually finish watching that episode but not until the next day.

~~Sigh~~ And so I sleep once again with the light on. Will I be able to turn the light off after this season's final episode of The Walking Dead next week? No. Will that light still be on when season number two rolls around? Yes. Will I still watch? Yes.

Oh well.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Observations

Flower, Good News!

I have had a perfect storm of reading. I had nothing I had to do, the day was cold and overcast, there was the cozy chair, the blanket, and the book. A fantastic book. Why had I not read this book before? This was a Read It Or Remove It title I pulled out from stack 437B. I remember getting it. I remember looking forward to reading it. I do not remember what prevented me from reading it. Oh well. Water under an important bridge. The book is a debut novel by Jane Harris, The Observations.

The Observations is the story of a footloose and one step ahead of the law young woman named Bessy Buckley, formerly Daisy O'Toole. It's 1863 and Bessy is eager to improve her station and maybe to lay low for a bit as well. On her way to Edinburgh she comes across the once grand Castle Haivers. The mistress, Arabella Reid, hires Bessy as a scullery maid. Bessy thinks she has charmed Arabella into employment but maybe Arabella has an agenda of her own? Arabella spends her time secretly working on her opus, Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time (I love that!) and demands that Bessy keep a diary of her servitude. It isn't long before there is as much to worry about at the Castle as there was in any of Bessy's other more licentious occupations.

The Observations is Victorian Gothic with a devious twist of delicious humor. Jane Harris has provided me (And you all too!) with glorious storytelling and my new favorite fictional character, Bessy Buckley. To be honest I can't remember if I had a fave before I met Bessy but if I did they have been supplanted. My Mother would have described Bessy as "no better than she should have been". She is a streetwise, cynical, uneducated, brilliant and kind hearted survivor.

The book within a book conciet has been done and done but when it's done well as it was in The Observations it is a joy. Congrats to first time novelist Harris for pulling it off so well. Now where is book #2 Ms. Harris?

What did not I adore about this book? hmmm....nothing except that it ended.

P.S. The cover? All wrong. Not attractive and not right for this novel.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

I could have picked up The Last Prince of Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo because of the lovely cover but I didn't. It was the title. It has a magical quality. I took it to be a metaphor for something because I was unaware of Mexico ever having had a prince. Chalk that up to my weak education and the Prince not being mentioned in the movie Juarez. The sum total of my knowledge of Mexican history comes from that movie so I was all over the Prince's parents: Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota having seen them portrayed by Brian Aherne and Bette Davis but the powers that be or rather were in 1939 chose not to mention any princes in that flick.

In 1864 His Imperial and Royal Highness Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, Prince Imperial and Archduke of Austria, Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia and his wife, Princess Marie Charlotte Amélie Augustine Victoire Clémentine Léopoldine of Belgium, became Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Carlota of Mexico. Prior to this they had not ruled a nation so this was a bit of a career change for them. From what I understand installing a royal family in Mexico was a plot cooked up by Napoleon the III of France with the support of Great Britain and Spain in order to make Mexico pay off loans on which it's President, Benito Juarez, had suspended payments. Maximilian, Carlota and some French troops were sent off to replace President Juarez and resume the payments but all under the guise of liberty. There was a small group of supporters of Maximilian within Mexico made up of conservatives and members of the clergy but this was really an invasion.

Those are amazing bones for a historical novel aren't they? You can add to them Carlota's madness, Maximilian's righteous beliefs in his own liberality and entitlement and we haven't even mentioned the Prince yet. What riches.

The Prince is two year old, half American Agustín de Iturbide y Green. A year into his reign the childless Emperor Maximilian adopts and/or buys Agustín and makes the boy his heir presumptive. Agustín's parents are at first somewhat enamored by the new royal court but soon after signing away their son they are desperate to get him back. Maximilian has them exiled. This on top of everything else going wrong in their kingdom have Maximilian and Carlota in the middle of an international scandal.

Have you thought "you can't make this stuff up" yet? There is obviously no shortage of plot to stuff into The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. Mayo manipulates all of these elements like a professional juggler. She alternates the narrative between Maximilian, Carlota, and Agustín's parents always keeping them believable. We see all sides of the custody battle, the coming revolution in Mexico and the geopolitics that have set this epic debacle in motion. It's very impressive that Mayo can present all this material and infuse it with immediacy and color without it either spiraling out of her control or becoming a laundry list of events.

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is unbelievable fact wrapped up in grand storytelling. C.M. Mayo started with one hell of a of little known chapter in history and made it even more captivating.


P.S. The real Maximilian and Carlota

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

97 Orchard: An Edible History of 5 Immigrant Families in 1 New York Tenement


Oh Happy Day! It's an Eve which is my favorite part of any holiday and the most difficult part of my Christmas shopping is done. If you could see me at this moment you would know that I am dancing a little jig of happiness.


I love shopping. For me shopping is exploring. It makes me feel like Magellan. I tend to Christmas shop all year. This way I get to prolong my holiday shopping, find terrific deals and have plenty of time to stew over the eight people I find it hard to buy for. These special eight aren't the they have it all already types nor are they people who can go buy whatever they want themselves. They are hard to please people. None of them likes Stuff and they are all a bit frugal. Gifts for these beloveds have to be practical, stimulating and worth having. Nothing silly, trendy or that they will only get a years worth out of need apply.

Often I get books for my eight. OK. Often I get books for 98% of the people I give gifts too, but these guys especially. Books for my eight have to be well thought out books. No guessing and no fiction. Yikes. I'm great at fiction but nonfiction requires more work. However. This year on November 24th the deed is done. I have found the book and purchased eight copies of it from my local independent bookstore where I found the book in the first place. Oh yes. An independent to the rescue. I didn't find this book browsing at a chain or online where you can't browse anyway. This book was on display at my local!

The book is 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman. The title says it all. How interesting does this book sound? I know right! I read the first chapter in the bookstore but only because it was so interesting. Before I got to page three I already knew that this book was the one.

This is what the publisher, HarperCollins has to say about 97 Orchard:

In 97 Orchard, Jane Ziegelman explores the culinary life that was the heart and soul of New York's Lower East Side around the turn of the twentieth century—a city within a city, where Germans, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews attempted to forge a new life. Through the experiences of five families, all of them residents of 97 Orchard Street, she takes readers on a vivid and unforgettable tour, from impossibly cramped tenement apartments down dimly lit stairwells where children played and neighbors socialized, beyond the front stoops where immigrant housewives found respite and company, and out into the hubbub of the dirty, teeming streets.

Ziegelman shows how immigrant cooks brought their ingenuity to the daily task of feeding their families, preserving traditions from home but always ready to improvise. While health officials worried that pushcarts were unsanitary and that pickles made immigrants too excitable to be good citizens, a culinary revolution was taking place in the streets of what had been culturally an English city. Along the East River, German immigrants founded breweries, dispensing their beloved lager in the dozens of beer gardens that opened along the Bowery. Russian Jews opened tea parlors serving blintzes and strudel next door to Romanian nightclubs that specialized in goose pastrami. On the streets, Italian peddlers hawked the cheese-and-tomato pies known as pizzarelli, while Jews sold knishes and squares of halvah. Gradually, as Americans began to explore the immigrant ghetto, they uncovered the array of comestible enticements of their foreign-born neighbors. 97 Orchard charts this exciting process of discovery as it lays bare the roots of our collective culinary heritage.

97 Orchard will be doing me a world of good gift giving wise and it will be my go to recommendation for the hard to shop for, people interested in their family's past and the intellectually stimulated. H, stepmother R, aunt L, aunt A, friend K, friend R, friend P and neighbor E are all getting a copy. Which one will I borrow a copy from? Thank you Jane Ziegelman!

Happy. Happy. Happy.

Company of Liars

Almost Happy Thanksgiving Flower!

How about this Flower, Company of Liars. What a great title. That title tells you to be ready to trust no one. I like that. It might also be a bit of foreshadowing for Thanksgiving dinner.

This company is a marvelous mix of Canterbury Tales meets The Seventh Seal meets And Then There Were None---or Ten Little Indians. I never know what that book is really supposed to be called.

Anyway you get the idea. In 1348 a group of nine travelers brought together by chance and are trying to out run certain death. The Black Plague is everywhere. It will ultimately be responsible for 100,000,000 deaths between 1340 and 1400 across Europe and Asia. At each stop the group makes they are in just as much danger of getting sick as they are from the locals looking for someone to blame for the disease or for the over abundance of rain that is destroying the crops. The only good news is that the locals do not know the extent of the secrets, agendas and schemes that each member of the band harbors or they would have even more reasons to feel threatened by them. However it isn't only the threats from without that could destroy these travelers. They are not so united a unit that they might not just kill each other.

Author Karen Maitland has ratcheted up the creepy quotient in Company of Liars to an intense level. She has also done the research to back up what she writes about her characters day to day struggles and the historical events of the time. Maitland's characters are the disenfranchised of their day. Her pilgrim's (emphasis on the grim part) flight from death and superstition to at best an only slightly safer fugitive existence than they have at the book's start is historical macabre at it's best. Forget the plague, even healthy life in this middle age was no jaunt through silk skirts and pageantry. There are no amount of talismans or charms to keep you safe from devouring this entertaining novel.

P.S. I do like the U.S. cover but I like the U.K. cover better. It's more dangerous and has a more just pulled out of a manuscript from the Middle Ages feel.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Ice Road

Brrrrrrr Flower!

There is not a warm enough climate on the face of the Earth for you to read The Ice Road in my Friend.

Leningrad is in the grip of winter. Winter with a capitol W. In The Ice Road, by Gillain Slovo it is always winter. The winter of 1933 brings more than the usual grumblings about food and fuel shortages, politics in whats left of the revolution's aftermath and what your neighbor might possibly be up to. When the city's feared and respected leader, Kirov is assassinated, the already vicious and corrupt Stalin government spins out of control. Over the course of the next ten years, perpetual outsider Irina views this, a disastrous expedition to the Arctic and then still more winter, the Siege of Leningrad. She also watches the fate of the Aleksandrovich family. Upper middle class and as safe as anyone can be in this Russia the Aleksandrovich family and their friends have little choice but to do anything to survive.

Slovo's mastery of these historical events is striking. She has recreated a world where the weight of the cold is a feather compared to that of the oppressive government. The heartfelt rendering of the lives of the ordinary people that she constructs makes this novel powerful and harrowing. The everyday minutia of life, the struggle to survive in so inhospitable a season and regime is perfectly captured. Irina is a wonderfully fearsome character. It is her forceful voice in The Ice Road that Slovo uses most effectively to move through the lost souls of idealism to the brutal power grabbing kingpins who finally inherited the revolution.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Distant Hours

Flower, my buddy!

I was raised on mini-series and multi-generational novels. If it was a chubby saga that covered a minimum of forty years I was all over it. I am author Kate Morton's demographic. With The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden Morton established herself as the go to girl for Gothic adventure. She has set a new standard for the long suffering heroine. It's all very enthralling: long hidden secrets, lies, betrayals, misplaced loyalties, lovers torn apart, unwanted pregnancies, class structures and the letter that would have changed everything that never got there. Ah. It's the classics that keep you wanting more.

Morton's outstanding new novel, The Distant Hours follows daughter Edie as she pursues the dark secrets her mother, Meredith, has kept for most of her life. Meredith was evacuated as a child from the London Blitz to Millerhurst Castle. At that time the castle was home to Raymond Blythe the author of a classic children's novel and his three daughters. Sixty years later the tenants of the now decrepit Millerhurst Castle are still there and yet not all there... Edie has vague memories of being at that castle as a child and she know that is where she will uncover the truth.

Morton had this reader gobbling up every revelation, every dastardly deed and every bittersweet victory. Don't think however that this novel is one long, over the top soap opera. It is unashamedly dramatic but it is grounded in Morton's ability to explore relationships believably. Mothers and daughters, siblings the dynamics are all dissected. The Distant Hours is enormously satisfying. It's a twisty ride up the mountain for 300 pages and a breathtaking plunge to the bottom at the end.

P.S. And you know the lovely covers don't hurt either.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Half Brother

Ah my Flower.

Just about the time when Scandinavian mystery novels were starting to set the world on fire, a regular old non-mystery and therefore under the radar Norwegian novel, The Half Brother was published here in the U.S. This wonderfully chubby (really it's uber chubby at almost 800 pages) novel, winner of the 2001 Nordic Prize, is the story of 4 generations of an extended Norwegian family. The Oslo's are a family of drunks, con-artists, mutes and charmers all able to stumble through life seemingly only because of their ability to lie and accept lies.

Author Lars Saabye Christensen excels at continually bringing both the family's and Norway's past into play in their present. Over the course of fifty years big events, odd coincidences, things that barely register to the reader at the time come back later to reek havoc on the various members of the bedeviled Oslo family. At the heart of this sprawling family saga is the relationship between brothers Fred and Barnum. These men are outsiders even within their family but they are wholly devoted to each other in their own ways.

The Half Brother is superbly constructed. It leads you eerily full circle showing how history runs in families. Author Christensen's picturesque characters and haunting narrative are a great mix of tragedy and black comedy. If you like your families odd in a good, twenty years ago John Irving kind of way, your novels fleshy and dexterous in a Henry James kind of way and your landscape Scandinavian then The Half Brother will bring you much happiness. However if you only like novels that are monstrously well written then The Half Brother will bring you much more happiness.

Happy am I

Sea of Poppies


Amitav Ghosh is one of those writers whose books I eagerly wait for. Usually, there is about a four year drought in between his books but then you have to add a few years to that if, like me, you are really waiting only for his novels. When Sea of Poppies was released in 2008 (and nominated for the Man Booker that year!) I was lucky enough to get an ARC of it! Thrilling! It's historical fiction! I'm practically panting! And then...the let down. Sea of Poppies is the first in a planned trilogy about the opium trade lead by the British through India and China in the 19th century. A trilogy? That is wonderfully exciting news but that means that in all probability part three wouldn't be in my hot little hands until 2019. 2019. What's a girl to do? I decided to exercise my patience and wait to read #1 until at least #2 came out.

Yeah. That was the plan. Now I have a new plan. The new plan is that I read Sea of Poppies last week and that I read #2 (no release date yet) when #3 is published. That is a much better plan. I am completely on board with the new plan.

Sea of Poppies is old fashioned historical fiction. There is a group of desperate characters: sailors, coolies, Princes, landlords, merchants, addicts, mothers, children, mistresses and working girls all coming together in a time of crisis and potential profiteering. This cast of thousands is also a bit of a United Nations jamboree as well with Indians, Chinese, British, American and French populating northern India in 1838 just prior to the start of the Opium Wars. The initial common thread for all of these characters is the schooner, the Ibis and her amusingly motley crew. The Ibis is a former slave ship that has come to India from America. It becomes the controlled environment in which Ghosh can let loose his magnificent creations as well as his endless research on this time period.

Ghosh freely uses the colloquial speech and the antique slang of his diverse group. This gives the novel immediate realism but it can also be difficult to get through. A dictionary in the back of the book would have been very nice but that said my lack of linguistic knowledge didn't diminish my intense enjoyment of this novel.

Amitav Ghosh is a consummate storyteller and with Sea of Poppies he has a lot of different stories to tell. He's married up Dickensian intricacies and eccentric characters, the adventure and intrigue of Dumas to the natural realism of R. K. Narayan in a magnificently addictive novel about colonialism, capitalism and culture. All the classical historical fiction adjectives apply to Sea of Poppies: epic, vast, visionary, breathtaking, dramatic, sweeping, panoramic, etc. but Ghosh doesn't sacrifice the intimacies of everyday life and struggles in order to paint a grand canvas.

It's quite restful reading a novel that you know won't end at the last page. No farewells to anticipate when you are 20 pages from the ending. Sea of Poppies works as a free-standing novel and that's terrific but I immensely happy that it's part one of three.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Lesson


There is an almost endless supply of novels about college friends: Brideshead Revisited, The Group, The Secret History, The Line of Beauty, The Emperor's Children and at last count 83,477 others. They all use the same basic formula: desperate people make intense friendships more by virtue environment than choice and are led by the most charismatic of the bunch into making bad decisions and the same basic characters: the snob, the innocent, the addict, the rich one, the charity case, Thelma and Daphne. In order to stand out within that huge pack a novel needs to be at the very least excellent. Enter The Lesson.

The sun of this group of collegiates is the flamboyant and impossibly rich Mark. The satellites are: James, Simon, Emmanuella, Jess and Franny. A lifetime of reading has already taught you that there will of be affairs, changing partners, tested loyalty, betrayal, financial success, financial ruin and tragedy. The author, Naomi Alderman brings nothing new to the plot of The Lesson but then the plotline for this kind of novel was established long before she was born. What Alderman does bring in spades is freshness. From the experience of going from high school graduation and being the master of your universe to being a little fish in a intimidating pond once you get to college to discovering that real life is less than exciting, Alderman makes this all new again.

The Lesson has all the readable delights of a richer than thou coming of age story and the intellectual grab of a documentary. You enjoy it all despite the train wreck you know is coming...or maybe it's because you know it's coming?


P.S. The Lesson is currently available in the U. K. I do not know if a U.S. edition is planned. If you're interested in this author you could try Alderman's excellent Disobedience.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Lambs of God

Hello Flower!

While I was reading The Convent I was reminded of a novel I read years ago, The Lambs of God. It is one of my favorite books. It's a novel about Nuns who tend sheep and knit. Seriously. They pray, they shear and they knit. How is that a novel you want to read?

In Lambs three leftover nuns on a remote island are suddenly confronted by the Church after decades of neglect. Sisters Iphigenia, Margarita and Carla have spent years in prayer and contemplation, tending their sheep and spending the endless nights knitting. Strangers are so rare that when a man arrives on the island, Sister Iphigenia can actually smell him before they ever see him. Father Ignatius has been dispatched to the island to--to what? He's going to shut 'em down. At least that is what the nuns think. These nuns made lead the simple life but they are far from simpletons. They are certainly capable to mounting their own campaign to take care of this intruder. The real reasons for Father Ignatius coming to the convent aren't very spiritual but then he didn't expect to find the convent still in use.

The Lambs of God was written by Marele Day. She does an excellent job giving Lambs a slightly fairy tale quality and at the same time keeping it realistic. The details of the Nun's daily tasks, religious lives, and inner lives are robustly drawn. She also creates a wonderful mix of humor and gravitas. The Sisters are her own version of Macbeth's witches. They know all, see all and maybe they control all.

I loved this novel! I was delighted reading it and it delights me still every time I think about it. I'm sorry to say that The Lambs of God is currently out of print. ~~sigh~~ Your local library might stock it or maybe a used bookstore. If you hunt it down it will be so very worth it!


Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Very Long Engagement

Bonjour Fleur!

I haven't done much in the last few months with my Read It Or Remove Program. Oh well. Let's face it I have bigger regrets than that so let's move on, OK?

Yesterday I needed a book to take with me to a swim meet. It had to be something easy to pull in and out of my bag (meaning not chubby) and most importantly grab my attention. I love going to the nieces and nephews activities and most of the time they are a couple hours of my day and that's that. The meets are different. They can last anywhere from 4 hours to all day. Having a book with me is a necessity. I didn't have a book already started and having to select a one with no chance of a do-over makes me a little nervous.

My choices were narrowed down to a few dozen by deciding to skip the waiting new releases and reader's copies. A Very Long Engagement popped out at me and looked as though it would fit the bill. I've had it here waiting to be read for at least ten years. I remember buying it. Years ago when the edition I have was going out of print to make room for the movie tie in edition we got some of that first edition in the store as remainders and I scooped one up.

When young, wheelchair bound Mathilde learns that the fiance, Jean, she has been mourning for five years may not have been killed in the trenches of World War I, she sets out to find him. Mathilde's obsession leads her to the court marshall for self-mutilation of Jean and five other soldiers. Undaunted and aided by a private detective, Mathilde is convinced that not only will she be able to find Jean alive but that he and his fellow soldiers are innocent. Discrepancies slowly pile up around deliberately misleading clues and despite Mathilde's fierce belief in Jean the Official Version seems incontrovertible.

Mathilde's quest is not the usual mystery novel stew of over the top violence, bad guys and damsels in distress. Mathilde, the mystery and the setting of a France still recoving from years as a battleground makes a haunting trifecta. The author, Sébastien Japrisot, has crafted a gorgeously taunt, psychologically suspenseful love story. The writing is precise, spare and packs a huge punch. You are anxious as Mathilde is as the evidence takes her on a one step forward and two steps back search. A Very Long Engagement is the best Alfred Hitchcock movie you will ever read.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Convent

Flower. Flower. Flower.

Convents, like colleges and country estates are perfect microcosms to play out Big Ideas in novels. Authors can full these snow globes up with characters and unleash the drama without a lot of real world constraints. These are controlled, understandable environments that are always knocked for a loop by the arrival of an outsider. We all bring a common knowledge of their workings so readers go in understanding that the outsider will threaten the status quo and in general bring out the best and worst in people. In The Convent by Panos Karnezis it is a baby left on the convent doorstep that is the catalyst for change.

Our Lady of Mercy is a crumbling convent hidden away in rural 1920's Spain. It's a six person land that time forgot. Mercy is a close-knit, self sufficient community. Sister Maria Ines is the Mother Superior. When a novice finds an abandoned baby outside of the convent Sister Maria is determined to keep the child. In that baby she sees a sign of forgiveness from God for her sins of long ago. Is this a miracle? Is it an offer of temptation? Her desire/vision is not shared by everyone else at the convent. It isn't long before the interloper has divided the Sisters.

Karnezis tells the story of the Sisters in a straightforward style. The old deceptively simple straightforward style in beautiful language. As the left behind worldly emotions of these women intrude on their cloistered lives and the unraveling begins, Karnezis creates a fascinating and moody page turner. There are some details left unexamined, the baby's mother for instance, that keep The Convent from being the novel it could be but on the whole I was impressed. Karnezis is a strong storyteller who is adept at masking the heroes and villains and keeping the reader engaged.

P.S. I like the cover of the American edition. It captures the location of the novel and informs us that there is someone there who doesn't belong. The image is neutral enough though that you don't immediatley know if the baby will bring good or bad. 
What do you think of the Canadian cover? It too is a lovely image but to me this cover says that The Convent takes place in a far different time period that it really does. Doesn't this look like a historical novel that will take place 200 or 300 years ago? Despite the bridge to a walled away building this doesn't say isolation to me either. It reads more like a Medieval town.
How about the U.K. covers? These are the hardcover and paperback editions. Both wildly miss the mark. The hardcover image is unreadable to me and not in a good way. It's a mish mash of shapes and colors that hold no interest. The paperback creates a mood of evil yet to come but in a Stephen King way which is not this novel.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Three Sisters

Hi Flower!

Village life anywhere has always been tough and China in 1971 is no different. The opportunities to get ahead are few and the collective judgment of the populace is swift and brutal. In The Three Sisters, the Wangs are The Family in their small Chinese village. Father Wang Lianfang is a Party Secretary and as a result the family's prominence is assured. At the novel's start the family has a new reason to celebrate. After seven daughters a son has finally been born. The satisfaction the Wangs have in this most fortunate occasion and their social status are both destroyed when Father is caught philandering. Within moments of the scandal breaking they go from being the local Kennedys to the Kettles. It is devastating in terms of their day to day lives and their future prospects.

Author Bi Feiyu concentrates his talents on three of the seven sisters: Yumi, Yuxiu and Yuyang. The novel is physically divided into their overlapping stories but as a reader it's also divided into ancient China, life in the village where their stories start and Cultural Revolution China, life in the city where their stories end. The events of the sisters survival, their meager victories and epic defeats are too real to be read as soap opera fodder. Their struggles to get ahead, to escape the devalued position the scandal and China has placed them in have an inspirational quality about them. So while the setting and culture have so much that seem exotic, the search for respect is universal.

The Three Sisters is not a sentimental novel about poetic loses and against the odds achievements. It has more in common with the honest brilliance of the memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China than the novels of  Lisa See.

Feiyu is completely successful in making Yumi, Yuxiu and Yuyang interesting and sympathetic. At times he piles on so much detail (As fascinating as they all are!) of the women's lives and China that it's work to keep the threads of the novel's plotline together. His reach for a sort of epic arch to the sisters experiences verses China's past and present is undermined by occasionally failing to grab a hold of their emotional lives. Flaws aside, I enjoyed reading Sisters. It was an enriching and involving novel.

P.S. One of the things that surprised me the most about Sisters ---and maybe this is a cultural thing---is that that it didn't follow the usual pattern of fiction about three women. The Sally, Irene and Mary scenario. That is where three woman all face difficult trials (often of a moral nature) and as a result there is a Good Girl who overcomes with purity intact and gets rewarded, a No Better Than She Should Have Been Girl who survives scathed having fallen prey temptation and is punished but there is a light at the end of the tunnel for her and the Bad Girl. The Bad Girl is the one who willingly chooses the lures offered her for gain and as a result receives the ultimate punishment.

Sally, Irene and Mary is considered one of the basic screenplay plots. It was originally a movie made in 1925 starring Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford and Sally O'Neil as chorus girls looking for love and fame. I don't know that even in 1925 this was a new idea but it has certainly been used time and time again since then.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Six Suspects

Hi Lily!

Six Suspects. Yet another book I picked up because I thought the cover was pretty. Oh well. We all have to make our decisions based on some type of criteria, right? So what if mine is a shallow one. It works for me. To prove it let me tell you that once again the pretty cover got the job done. Six Suspects is a fun, fun read.

Vikas Swarup's previous novel was the inventive and fascinating Q&A which was made into the movie Slumdog Millionaire. As with Q&A, Six Suspects takes place in India, combines horrific with humor and follows the old "life is like an onion" adage; as each layer peels away the story becomes more pungent, deliously out of control and strong. Oh yeah and in their own way they are both mysteries as well.

Suspects is about solving the murder of Vivek Raiwho. Should anyone care that Vivek is dead? Sleazy Vivek is the playboy son of a government official who among other things was himself acquitted of murder despite a multitude of witness to his crime. The six suspects in Vivek's murder are taken directly from Central Casting: the Actress, the idiot American looking for a mail order bride, the Bureaucrat, the Tribal native, the Thief and the Politician. The setting is as satisfyingly well contained and populated as any Ms. Christie could devise. So far mystery traditionalists will be happy. What next? Flashbacks from the suspects and multiple false endings. It's a Bollywood version of Clue complete with plenty of witty and biting satire on Indian politics and culture.

Six Suspects is no subtle puzzler. This mystery novel is loud and brash, Dehli noir. At the start of Suspects we're told that there is a caste system even in murders. There is one in books too and I would say that this one is somewhere up around Brahmin.


Friday, October 29, 2010

The So-So House

Lily, one of these things is too much like the other.

When I was 9 my favorite book was Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field.  Did you ever read that? When Hitty was first published in 1930 it won the Newbery Award that year for the best children's book. Hitty is a doll. She was made in the early 1800s in Maine for Phoebe Preble. Hitty's adventures (and all she learned) with Phoebe and her subsequent owners enthralled me as a little girl and has recently had the same effect on my 10 year old niece. There was lots of action, history, humor and life lessons in Field's book.

My favorite novel from 2008 was People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. In that novel the travels of a rare, illuminated manuscript are traced through the experiences of several of the owners of the book. Once again lots of action, history and life lessons in a more adult way of course. At the center of this novel is a young woman who is working to restore the priceless text and gets caught up in it's history. People is an exceptional novel that I was able to put/force into a lot of eager hands.

Fast forward to October 2010 and The Great House by Nichole Krauss. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read this novel because I thought The History of Love was a wonderful book. Love is a book within a book about great loves, lost loves and finding love all wrapped around a fifty year old lost novel. Krauss's new book uses the provenance of a 19 drawer desk in order for her to string together some good short stories and call it a novel. The past and present owners of this huge desk are diverse only in the events that cause their sufferings. They are at times a blur of tragedies and isolation that stagnates any interest you have in their lives, losses and the ideas of permanence and memory that Krauss brings to House.

What made me press on and finish The Great House? The writing!Nichole Krauss is an enormously gifted and powerful writer. She is someone who truly can paint a picture with words. There were many times while I was reading House that I had to stop and reread a sentence or a passage so that I could marvel a little longer at her vision and skills. Reading her is like discovering a language you never knew existed. It's all new. I look forward to her next novel, not to another short story collection.


P.S. If you took a look at other new titles in the bookstore in 1930 you would have found: The Maltese Falcon, As I Lay Dying, The Greek Way and Civilization and Its Discontents. Not a bad year, right?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Wake of Forgiveness

Hello Flower.

What do you get when you mix Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Shakespearean tragedy and an exceptional cover with homesteaders? Wait, wait, wait we'll be adding in strong, evocative writing too. No need to guess my friend. It's The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart.

Take a look at that cover. Isn't it beautiful? It's smart too. Everyone loves a horse. It is not a gender specific symbol. The photo is powerful so the consumer/reader can expect drama but it isn't overwhelmingly masculine of threatening. You don't immediately think "Oh this is about male characters and that's not what I read" and stroll on. You pick it up to see what it's about and that alone is a win.

In Lavaca County, Texas 1895 Czech immigrant Vaclav Skala is left alone to raise his four sons and work his land. His wife has died giving birth to their son Kaval. We don't know what Vaclav was like prior to his wife's death but afterward he is a heartless man obsessed with success. His sons are worked so hard their necks are permanently bent from plowing. He is a brutal man with one Achilles heel, horses. When his son Kaval displays an aptitude for horse racing, Vaclav tries to use it to increase his wealth. This is fathers verses sons and brother verses brother on an operatic scale but never unbelievable.

The writing in Wake is gorgeous. It's the great strength of this novel that these emotionally harsh lives are described in wonderful language. You can feel the texture of the wind, smell the tobacco and wrap yourself up in the bitter complexity of the family relationships. Machart doesn't allow the poetry of his writing to interferer with the action. Wake has the prerequisite amount of hustle and bustle for a western it just describes all that activity with juicy vigor.

All of the westerns I read are judged up against Lonesome Dove--a perfect novel. How did The Wake of Forgiveness match up? They are very different books despite the commonality of setting. Lonesome is a celebration of people. Wake is a study of Fate. For better or worse Lonesome Dove is my benchmark--oh well. The Wake of Forgiveness is no Lonesome Dove but it is very good and holds the promise of a writer capable of a Lonesome Dove of his own.

Happy Trails

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I Heart x 400 Jo Nesbo!


So... recently I learned two things on

1. Jo Nesbo will have a new book out in Spring 2011

2. The screen rights to the new book, The Snowman, have been sold

That is good news married to more good news. While a huge chunk of the planet has made Stieg Larrsson the new J.K. Rowling I have been attending a different church, The House of Jo Nesbo.

Harry Hole is Nesbo's man. He's a loner, he drinks, he's prickly, he doesn't like authority and cannot successfully sustain a romantic relationship. In other words he has all the attributes of the cliche copper according to detective fiction. What makes him different? Jo Nesbo. In another writer's hands Harry would be the any one of a thousand detectives but Nesbo brings a hundred tiny details to Harry personality, full developed supporting casts and magnificent plotting to his mysteries. There is no room to relax when reading a Nesbo novel. He keeps the tension coming not just by superbly crafted stories and interesting villains but also by the relationships between his main characters, the victims, the witnesses and the suspects.

Harry Hole, like all the best anti-heroes, lives and works in a gritty world. Jo Nesbo is as good at creating atmosphere as he is storylines and characters. He uses locations and settings that enhance the underlying suspense in his stories and bring clarity to circumstance. Nesbo has recreated Oslo with all the detail of a travel writer but this Olso is not for tourists.

Coming to Harry recently delayed my love~~sob~~but did give me the opportunity to read a fist full of these addictive like crack novels in one long juggernaut of thrills. First up in the Harry Hole to read list is Redbreast, then Nemesis, The Devil's Star and coming in May 2011 will be The Snowman, but I was lucky enough to have the Brit edition where it is already available. There are other Hole mysteries: The Batman, The Cockroaches, The Redeemer and The Leopard that are available outside of the U.S. Batman and Cockroaches are the first and second books in the series but when HarperCollins decided to publish Nesbo in the U.S. they opted to start with book three. It looks like The Leopard will be released sometime after The Snowman. I'm not sure what is going on with The Redeemer. It's in print in Canada but not here...why? Getting these books you have to solve your own mysteries.

You know though, there is a down side to this the-first-one-is-free ecstasy/slavery I have been living. I am now caught up with all of Nesbo's books that have been translated into English. Damn. I should have listened to my Mama and learned Norwegian.


P.S. Jo Nesbo has a terrific website--best designed author site I've seen. Definitely worth a look. Don't miss the video trailer for The Snowman either.Warning! It will make the waiting more difficult!