Monday, August 30, 2010

A Red Herring Without Mustard Is Like A Day Without Sunshine

Flower my fellow Flavia fan!

So. After wondering/complaining about YA's published as adult novels I am thrilled about the coming publication of one. Coming in February 2011 is the third Flavia de Luce mystery, A Red Herring Without Mustard. Can't wait!

This is the break down from the website:
Camped in her horse-drawn caravan at Buckshaw, a young Gypsy woman is charged with the abduction – and then the murder – of a local child, and Flavia must draw upon her encyclopaedic knowledge of poisons – and Gypsy lore – to prevent a grave miscarriage of justice.

Happy. Happy. Happy.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden


I have been wondering. Wondering why it sometimes happens that a novel will be published here as an adult novel and elsewhere as a young adult (YA for readers anywhere from 12 to 16 years old)) novel. The first time I noticed that was when the bookThe Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time came out. Here in the U.S. it was published as an adult novel and in the U.K. and Australia it was initially published as an YA novel. After it's well deserved huge success it was repacked in all 3 countries for both markets and why not? If there is a chance you can sell the book from two locations to separate audiences that's good business and I'm all for that but why the difference in the first place? Why wasn't it published for both age groups from the get go?

What has taken this issue from the archives of my brain file and put it back into my everyday thoughts area is the book The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant. Vanishing has recently been released here by Random House as an adult novel. Prior to this it came out in England and Australia as a YA novel. I was drawn to Vanishing because of it's absolutely stunningly beautiful cover. Upon reading the synopsis I wanted to read it because of my interest in fairy tales. I had no idea that was labeled a YA outside of the U.S. Would that knowledge have influenced my decision? Absolutely. I would have passed on it. I would not have bought it for me and I would not have looked for it in the library. I might however have purchased it for my 14 year old niece who is also a lover of fairy tales and retelling of fairy tales.

So? Is it a YA? It sure is. Did I enjoy it? I did. It was thin on plot but it had interesting characters and was well written and imaginative. Grant did a good job creating an atmosphere of darkness and menace that has been sanitized out of the traditional fairy tales we read these days. The book is about ten year old Pia Klovenbach the "potentially explosive schoolgirl". It's a cold, dank winter in Bad Munstereifel (umlauts would come in handy right now) and little girls of the town are disappearing. When the lovely Katharina Linden disappears after being Snow White in the parade, Pia and her only friend, the equally unpopular "StinkStefan", take the case. Pia has been brought up on a steady diet of haunted woods and evil spells stories and is convinced the solution to the mysteries lies in the supernatural.

There seem to be a lot of mystery solving teens around the bookshelves these days. You don't have to be Nancy Drew to know that's nothing new in YA literature, but adult books? There was Curious Incident and more recently: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, The Earth Hums in B Flat, etc. All three of which I thought very highly of at my current 14++ age and would have been wild about and treasured as a 14 year old. And. All three of which can be easily classified as YA books despite being identified by their publishers as adult novels.

Where the author is most successful with Vanishing is in writing about Pia's scary first steps into adulthood. Like the coming of age heroines of classic fairy tales, Pia's trials are courage testing, self sufficiency building and life changing. Grants uses these experiences not only to move the story forward but also to highlight the pettiness of Pia's school yard world and village life. Like most YA novels the adults in the book are for the larger part depicted as self absorbed, not too bright and lax in protecting their children.

My niece thought this book was great. She read it in a flash, talked about it for days afterward and wanted to pass it on to friends. Yea! I have to say that although I did like it while I was reading it, after I finished it I was left with nothing. Then when I discovered that Vanishing was selling as a YA across the oceans I felt duped. I'm not a part of that adult fraternity who are mad for YA books. I need more subtlety, more character development, more plot and writing that allows me to discover and interpret to be sated by a book.

So? Why did Random House decide to sell The Vanishing of Katharina Linden as a hardcover adult novel in the U.S.? I read it and I couldn't tell you. I'm looking forward to seeing how they sell it when it comes out in paper.


P.S. Curious about the YA covers for Vanishing? England is on the left, Australia on the right.  Good, but the U.S. cover is far better this time around.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Stone's Fall


There have been so many occasions that I have seen or heard a novel described as Dickensian. Do you want to know how often that turns out to be true? Almost nev-ah. Less than almost never even. That's very disappointing. So sad. Charles Dickens is my favorite, favorite, favorite author. I heart all the Victorians but Charles is my desert island author. I try to be a big girl about it and move on but then --cue the angelic choir-- goodness gets its reward and suddenly there it is the truly Dickensian novel in your lap. It's Stone's Fall by Iain Pears.

Stone's Fall is exactly what the title alludes to and then much more. It's the story of John Stone's demise. Stone is a wildly successful financier, arms dealer and economy manipulator who dies in a fall from a London window. Murder? Suicide? Revenge? The story of Stone begins in the 1860's and continues through the early years of the twentieth century. Reading about that time frame alone is worth the price of admission because as The Instance of the Fingerpost proved there is not a better re-creator of place and time in historical fiction that Iain Pears.

The mystery surrounding Stone's death is the heart of the novel but it is by no means the only interesting element here. The complex and intricate plot encompasses countless, fluctuating in their importance characters and moves forward and backward in a Citizen Kane style with the many witnesses to Stone's life telling their stories and offering up their opinions. We get the glorious pleasure of sorting it all out. All of that is supported by Pears commanding ability to not only juggle this all but to keep the story accurate to the time and sublimely entertaining over all 608 pages.

Any Victorian writer would be proud to call Stone's Fall their own. There is wall to wall skulduggery, a serpentine plot fueled by characters that encompass all levels of society, cliffhangers galore and superior writing skills. Read Stone's Fall and wallow in the brilliance.

Happy to be in my Charles Dickens place

P.S. I do prefer this cover from the hardcover edition of Stone's Fall to the paperback. The paperback cover you have seen a thousand times and wasn't new when it was new. The hardcover conveys some of the basics of the story in a subtle and fresh way. And. I love the off kilter layout of the type.

All Hail Freedom


It's the talk of the town. You have been hearing about it everywhere, reading about it everywhere. The only thing more frequently in the press right now than praise for Freedom is horror stories about bed bugs. Well believe the praise and the horrors my friend. Freedom is every bit as GREAT as you have heard. It is magnificent. Far mightier pens than my have written wonderful critiques about the novel so if you need more than my opinion about Freedom in order to read it go goggle them.

Jonathan Franzen has done a fabulous job once again. Freedom is is a masterpiece. Read it and marvel.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bad Boy, Oh Boy!


You know you can't read better than Peter Robinson.

There are things that you can count on: the yumminess of any sandwich you don't make yourself, that the plows will push more snow onto your side of the road than your neighbors and that Peter Robinson will never let you down. He has what? 97-98 books out there and not a dud in the lot. Okay he has a mere 20 (!) mystery novels out there, but they are all exceptional. Who else can say that?

In the latest Robinson novel, Bad Boy, DCI Alan Banks is taking a vacation. Alas crime knows no holiday so Banks' team is still on the job and getting a lot of outstanding time on the page for the first half of the book. Soon Banks is back and trying to help the daughter of an old friend and find his own missing daughter. That's as much plot as we need to discuss. It's a mystery after all so let's keep it that way.

If you have never tried a DCI Banks mystery why should you? Well, we can go with the "because I said so" reason which while having a lovely retro quality lacks any real authority. How about because they are extremely well written gritty police procedurals with not only a flawed and interesting detective but the same goes for the supporting cast, they are awash in tension and suspense and the mystery part of the mysteries is always compelling and intriguing. If you have already experienced the pleasures of P.D. James, Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell, Anne Cleeves and Ian Rankin you will eat Robinson up with a spoon... or a dagger.

Starting off your Alan Banks habit with Bad Boy would be fine. Super fine even. But. In the name of full disclosure honesty, the Inspector's life has changed over the years and starting with the first book in the series, Gallows View is going to make your Banks experience all the more enjoyable. If you don't want to miss a thing including tantalizing and satisfying mysteries start at the beginning. Anyway, in no time at all you will be up to and devouring Bad Boy and excitedly anticipating whatever Peter Robinson comes up with next!


Monday, August 16, 2010

Everything Is Going To Be Great, Promise

Hello Flower!

If Eat, Pray, Love were written by David Sedaris:

A. It would have been interesting.
B. It would have been 108% less annoying and  127% less preachy.
C. It would be Everything Is Going To Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour

Can you be under thirty and publish the second volume of your memoirs? You can if you're the super funny Rachel Shukert. In her first book Have You Know Shame and Other Regrettable Stories, Shukert took us as far as the start of her life at NYU. In her new book Everything Is Going To Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour, she has finished her degree, broken up with a boyfriend and gotten a job. The job is a part in a play. She has no lines in the play and will not get paid for not reciting any lines but the play and it's company are going to Vienna so she will get a great trip out of it.

Everything is a very modern coming of age biography. That is if you are going to age from 18 to 46 in a matter of weeks. There are lovers, threesomes, enough liquor to float the Titanic back to the surface, Nazi's, dentists, sociopaths, skinny Santas with black face wearing elves and even eating mustard from squeeze tubes. My, my, my. Rachel Shukert how do you face your Mom and Dad after this?

What will volume 3 of Shukert's autobiography bring? I hope more of the same. More of the same over the top, across the edge, over the river and through the woods wicked mayhem. Like all good humorists and memoirists, Shukert can have you giggling at her off color stories one minute and sighing over the poignancy the next. She's honest enough to show herself at her worst and writes well enough so that you care. This book is a crack up. Just go buy it already and busy loving the guilty pleasure of it all.


P.S. I heart the cover! It's all Pickwick Papers. Clever and fun.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Doctor and The Diva


What a pleasure it is when you get the triple threat historical novel. One that entertains, enlightens and surprises.

Opening at the turn of the 20th century in Boston, The Doctor and The Diva is the story of Erika von Kessler's search for herself. Opera singer wannabe Erika is happily married to successful botanist Peter. They would be a golden couple except for one thing, after years of marriage they have been unable to conceive a child. Erika is trying to reconcile herself to this but Peter still has hope and takes her to see yet another doctor. Dr. Ravell is a young, modern and up on the latest procedures obstetrician.

That is as much plot as you know by the end of the first chapter and that is as much of the plot as I am going to tell you. I will tell you though that the first surprise I had with D and D was in that first chapter. that it wasn't the last and it wasn't about the medical techniques Dr. Ravell uses---although who knew? This is definitely an unpredictable novel. Unpredictable and yet true to it's time. There is a wonderful accomplishment.

More than once The Doctor and the Diva made me think about Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark. Like Thea in Lark, Erika dreams of becoming an Opera singer. In each book the author writes eloquently about music, the time period, the struggles of the artist to pursue their art in the face of uncompromising circumstances, ambition and the desires for home and family. However where Thea has as many supporters as detractors along her journey, Erika's pursuit is a more solitary effort.

In the development of Erika, Peter and Dr. Ravell, author Adrienne McDonnell has built up three distinct, interesting and flawed individuals. You root for the happiness of all three of them. McDonnell has done an equally fine job with the settings and historical detail. The Doctor and The Diva is a fascinating read. It was better than I was prepared for and totally satisfying.


P.S.  The U.K. cover. Very different from the U.S. cover. Although each cover is attractive neither one of them does the book much service. The U.S. cover is ambiguously romantic but a little cheesey and this cover.... I'm not making the connection.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

One Day Her Prince May Come

Flower, hello.

If books were salads and you could have The Way We Were When Harry Met Sally The Same Time Next Year written by Anita Loos and Nick Hornby with a side of extra funny would you take it? Well let me make that happen for you my friend. Ta-Da! Here it is
One Day by David Nicholls. And. Because I am so super wonderful nice I will make sure that One Day is even better and unexpectedly original in so many facetious ways than if it was a We Were Harry And Sally The Same Loos Hornby mash-up. Amazing. I give and give.

One Day is the maybe love story of Emma and Dexter. It's a twenty year will they or won't they with an average of 2.3 laughs on every page. Believe me. I have the lab work to prove it. It is also sweet and memorable and as light as air. This is a carry it with you everywhere and bemoan finding yourself on the last page kind of book. ---This novel was so good I'm not even going to mention the boring Seventeen magazine short story cover.--- I don't have the time. I need to get Nicholls other books immediately.

Happy and laughing

How To Be An American Housewife


It's odd to read two books in a row that feature How To pamphlets and assimilation. This may be the only time in my life when that happens, don't you think? The first book was the disappointing Mr Rosenblum Dreams In English and the second was  How To Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway. Second time's the charm apparently since Housewife was heavenly.

Housewife is the story of a young Japanese bride who comes to America with her GI husband. Shoko comes of age during WWII and because of that, the atom bombs, her culture and her family's finances she must forgo her ambitions of a college education in favor of helping to put her brother Taro through school. At the suggestion of her Father, Shoko marries an American Naval officer. As a result of the marriage Shoko not only loses her homeland but her brother as well. Taro's bitter prejudices will not allow them to stay in contact. There is some happiness in Shoko's and Charlie's marriage but there are troubles for Shoko. She must face racism and loneliness. These are not things that the bible of her life, the pamphlet Charlie gave her, How To Be An American Housewife, can resolve for her.

Decades later, Shoko is done raising her children and has decided to return to Japan for a visit. She would like to try to reconnect with the brother she hasn't had any contact with in 40 years. Serious illness prevents her from going but she is able to convince her daughter Suiko – or Sue-- to go in her place. Sue's own experience as an American housewife has not been successful. She is divorced and raising her daughter Helena alone. Helena is the only positive touch point between the two women. Sue's own experiences with racism and loneliness (A military family, they moved every few years.) and her resentment of her Mother's treatment of her verses her brother have left her disgruntled and cynical.

The novel has two narrators: Shoko and Sue. Shoko's voice and story is the dominate one and also the more interesting of the two. Her chapters all begin with advice from the How To pamphlet. Some of the advice is funny and some horrifyingly depressing in it's straightforward honesty about the prejudices the wives can expect and have to accept. Even with all her hardships and loss, Shoko's life comes across as exotic. Sue's story is harder to soften towards because it is contemporary and not as uncommon. However both women are carefully drawn and fully realized characters--as are the other characters in the book.

Dilloway is a first time novelist and has used her own Mother's life as a starting point for How To Be An American Housewife. Her creation of such strong, individual voices is impressive. As is her ability to take the story back and forth and time and from narrator to narrator without losing any momentum in the storyline. This book was captivating.

There are a few similarities between Housewife and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. You can see that from just reading this small review with abreviated plot information. Mothers and daughters, Asia and America, daughters fulfulling their Mothers destiny, etc. Do not think that Housewife is even remotely a copy of Joy. The two books have many differences. House did make me want to re-read Joy which I have not read since it's initial publication so that's another good thing about Housewife.

And. Talk about a great reading group choice? Racism, mothers and daughters, assimilation, war, forgiveness, Japanese culture, American culture, marriage, biracial children---if I go on I'll be exhausted. Buy it, read it then discuss.


P.S. The cover? Gorgeous and so similar to some other novels from the same publisher, Penguin, that I have adored recently: The Piano Teacher and Girl In Translation. The turned away or cut off head is popular on covers. It creates an identity but doesn't identify.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Whose Fair Lady?


Emma Thompson doesn't like the movie My Fair Lady. I don't either.

 In fact I think it stinks. It's at least an hour too long, it's essentially a filmed play with no interesting camera work at all, Cecil Beaton's over  the top costumes reinforce the stagy look of the film, the performances are hammy and self indulgent and all of Shaw's wonderful, biting social commentary and humor have been completely sanitized out of the movie. It's a like a 1970's Disney movie: painfully bad and not worthy of any age group.

I blame the director, George Cukor. Emma seems to blame Audrey Hepburn.

My Fair Lady should have been excellent. Shaw's play is perfection and the Lerner and Loewe score is witty and hum-able. It's a perfect candidate for a remake.

Thompson has also publically declared her dislike for Audrey Hepburn's acting. Bold move Emma. Criticizing Saint Audrey is not going to go over well. Hepburn had a childhood traumatized by WWII, was a very popular actress, raised children that have stayed out of the tabloids and spent years of her life doing good works for children's' charities. Personally I think Audrey Hepburn was a wonderful actress/comedienne with a limited range, amazing personal style, a fantastic eye for picking material she could shine in and a boat load of charisma.

I like Emma too, but Hepburn movie? Thompson movie? I'd pick the Hepburn.


Dream A Little Dream Mr. Rosenblum


Everyone has their favorite place to read about. The place you secretly wish to live or at least vacation several times a year. As much as I am drawn to stories set in Asia thanks to early exposure to master storyteller James Clavell, novels set in England are still my pets. Thank you Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, George Eliott, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor. England is one of those key words like: historical, colonial and Hilary Mantel that will make me interested before I even pick up a book. Therefore Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons is a natural for me, right? Yeah, well like the kids say these days, "Not so much".

Mr Jack Rosenblum brings his family from Germany to England just as WWII is starting. Jack is ready to follow the pamphlet they have been given “Helpful Information and Friendly Guidance for Every Refugee” on living English, to the letter. The main advice seems to be fit in and keep quiet. Jack knows that England will be safe, welcoming and persecution free to his Jewish family. His wife Sadie is not so sure. Over the years in fairy tale style Jack builds up a wildly successful carpet business but as you can guess because you see it coming a mile off every time Jack isn't accepted by the towns folk. Can't we all just get along? It becomes Jack's mission in life, the thing that will prove his place in this new homeland, to get membership at a golf club. Finally he has to build his own and, wait for it, if you build it they will come.

Oh well. I wanted to like Mr Rosenblum. I am certainly the target audience for this novel but for me it missed the mark. There are some nice post war details and the characters can be ingratiating but the pace is far too slow and the writing too inconsistent to support the slim, already well trodden plot. The author's desire here is lighthearted poignancy but it all ends up being soapy and endless.

Happy Anyway

P.S. I do like Mr. Rosenblum's cover very much. It perfectly acknowledges the period in design and palette.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Crack Me Up


Get to Gnome...get it? Know me? I am a crack up. Seriously. I'm killing me here.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Clouds Beneath The Sun


What I enjoyed the most about Mackenzie Ford's novel Gifts of War was the moral question that was at the heart of the novel. In his new to us but published in the U.K. prior to Gifts novel, The Clouds Beneath The Sun there is also a morality issue at the center of the story. This isn't a simple choice of do the right thing or profit by the evil path. Ford has made everything more complex and dangerous. There is a clear right and a wrong but the potential aftermath of either choice and how the characters got to where a choice was needed is all carefully mapped out in beguiling grays.

The Clouds Beneath The Sun is set at an archaeological dig in early 1960's Kenya. It's the end of colonial rule, the continuation of tension filled race relations, tribal war, the discovery of "The Cradle of Mankind" all mixed together in this novel with characters who have hidden agendas and secret pasts. It's a very interesting stew and into it comes young Natalie Nelson from Cambridge on her first dig. Through Natalie we see not only the plot unfold but she is also our guide to the beauty and desperation of the country and the wholly absorbing elements of the dig.

This is no marriage of Out of Africa and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Clouds  actually reads more like a classic American western. The lone female pursued by the men of the town determined to make her own way despite threats from the Native Americans, powerful landowners and a hostile environment. Will she do the right thing and save the souls of the town or the water rights from the greedy cattle baron or will she choose to do the easy road, avoid the High Noon moment and preserve the status quo? You'll have to read The Clouds Beneath The Sun in order to find out but not to worry you'll enjoy doing that.