The Book Adept

More bookstores…

Here are two more in the “books about books and readers” category.

yesterdaysIn The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, 28-year-old Miranda is teaching history to middle schoolers in Philadelphia, having just moved in with her boyfriend Jay, the school’s soccer coach. Then she gets the news that her Uncle Billy has died. She hasn’t seen nor heard from him in 16 years, but she remembers him from her childhood as that glamorous uncle who always showed up with gifts from his travels (he was a seismologist). Billy also owned a bookstore in Silverlake (Los Angeles), and Miranda is surprised to discover that he has left her the bookstore. This despite the fact that Miranda’s parents live in Los Angeles, and his sister might have been the more logical beneficiary?

Thus begins her trek back into the past: What was the falling out between Billy and Miranda’s mom that caused him to abandon the family so long ago, and why has he reached out now, when it can’t make a difference, with hints and clues to tantalize Miranda? Her parents aren’t talking, so Miranda has no choice, if she wants to figure out the family dynamic, but to follow Billy’s clues. She also has to decide what to do about the bookstore…

The Bookshop of Yesterdays was a well plotted and skillfully written debut. I enjoyed the parts about the bookstore most of all. It made me, as always, want to have one of my own…even though the financial risk (as portrayed here) is daunting and undeniable. The author was clever with literary references, and with the portrayal of all the bookstore personalities, as well as the pasts and quirks of Miranda’s family.

printedletterThe title of The Printed Letter Bookshop, by Katherine Reay, came up as “you might also like” in a search on Amazon, and it sounded appealing, so I bought it.

Madeline has been doing her due diligence in a law firm for several years, in competition with her former boyfriend for a partnership. When the news of the partnership doesn’t go her way, she uses her recent rather bewildering inheritance of a bookshop from her Aunt Maddie as a distraction from her derailed career. Although she initially intends to rid herself of the property, Aunt Maddie’s two remaining employees attempt to convince her otherwise…and a surprising romantic entanglement makes her consider other options as well.

As I read this book, various themes kept nagging at me, making me think I had read it before. Then I realized its similarities to The Bookshop of Yesterdays, which I read last year. In that one an uncle owns a bookstore, in this one it’s an aunt. In that one, the uncle has a falling-out with the parents when the protagonist is 12 years old. In this one, the protagonist is eight, and the supposed reason for the falling-out is bad financial advice from the protagonist’s father to his sister (the aunt), causing her to lose her savings. (None of the parents in either book will talk about the fight.) In both books, the bookshop owner dies and leaves the store to the niece in the will, hoping his or her legacy will be continued. And in both books, the back stories of the other people whose lives are tied up in the store prove to be the icing that holds the layers together and turns them into a tasty cake.

I think I liked this one a bit more, perhaps because I identified more closely with the back stories of the two women clerks, Claire and Janet, and also liked Aunt Maddie more than Uncle Billy, and Madeline more than Miranda!

If you like Jenny Colgan’s books about young women who realize their lives and careers are not “all that” and decide to make a radical change, you will like these. And of course there is the added enticement of being set in a bookstore. But in retrospect, I would probably just pick one, the stories being so similar.

 

Ch-ch-changes…

I had forgotten how vivid are the characters in a Barbara Kingsolver novel. It’s mostly because she doesn’t write her novels vaguely; she sets them solidly in the events of the present-day, whatever that time period may be, and allows (or forces) her protagonists to confront the facts of their lives and of life, without filters.

unshelteredKingsolver is the founder of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. There is a reason for that—Kingsolver does not write fiction that isn’t political. Unsheltered, her newest novel, is no exception, but it is political in such a simultaneously personal and universal way that it fastens onto the mind of her reader with a compelling message it’s hard not to understand.

Unsheltered is the parallel stories of two people—and two families—living at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, an unlikely setting for revelation, one would think. The contemporary family is narrated by Willa Knox, wife of Iano Tavoularis, daughter-in-law of the irascible Greek Nick, mother of Zeke and Antigone (Tig), grandmother of Aldus (Dusty). Circumstances of life (loss of tenure at a previous job, the disappearance of a profession, the death of an aunt, the death of a daughter-in-law, the end of a romance) have brought them all together to live in an inherited, falling-down house in this small town, each of them trying (though no one harder than Willa) to figure out how to get back on their feet in the face of tragedy after disaster after unfortunate circumstance.

The second family, living at the same address in the 1870s, is headed by Thatcher Greenwood, a young man who started out poor and made good, married to a girl who started out wealthy and fell from status when her father’s failures and her marriage to Thatcher reduced her circumstances. Rose and her mother, Artemisia, live lives of constant discontent, filled with complaints about their straitened circum-stances (one of which is the drafty house falling down around them), while Rose’s little sister Polly is Thatcher’s one bulwark and champion within the family nest. If it weren’t for his unexpected friendship with his eccentric neighbor, self-taught botanist and biologist Mary Treat, his curtailed life and thoughts would have no refuge.

The political story of this book is in the confrontation of its protagonists with a shift in the wind, a change in society so profound that only a few can acknowledge it properly and understand its significance. In Thatcher’s case, it is the emergence of the discoveries of Charles Darwin, which make complete sense of the natural world, and which are being stifled at every turn by religion, fear, and willful ignorance. In Willa’s case, the realizations are brought home to her by her daughter, Tig, a small but mighty whirlwind seemingly sent to blow away all the illusions from Willa’s eyes. Tig would make a fitting companion for the Alexandra Ocasio-Cortezes of this world, with her insistence that capitalism is dead, that the old white men still clinging to growth as a signal of good are deluding themselves in the face of the real possibility of human oblivion within decades of this current moment. The metaphor of the house in which each family is living, which is literally falling to pieces, leaky roof to collapsed ceiling to failing floor joists, brings the whole message home.

But there is light within all this darkness, there is new life both botanical and human, there are hopeful interactions and solutions and triumphs. Ultimately, Unsheltered calls for living in a more authentic way, and the reader, if he or she is in sympathy with this message, can only rise to the challenge.

redwoodOn Goodreads, one reader noted that “If there was such a prize this one might win The Most Polarizing Novel of 2018.” Being a fairly enthusiastic fan of Kingsolver’s (I disliked Poisonwood Bible but have loved everything else she has written), I found it hard to believe, when scrolling through the ratings, that some people gave this book a one- or two-star rating, in the face of my solid five. People’s reasons for these ratings varied, from “preachy” to “didactic and heavy-handed” to “too much dialogue.” My suspicion is that at least some of these readers were as at odds with the book’s message as were the general public in the novel with the realizations of both Thatcher Greenwood and Willa Knox, that the message made them uncomfortable, and they took it out on the book. As one who found it profoundly moving and distinctly eye-opening, I will have to say, read it for yourself and see where your vote falls.

“Unsheltered, I live in daylight.”

Heyer surprise

I was browsing in Overdrive and it did that thing where it suggests a book because of other books you have read, and surprise! it was a Georgette Heyer novel I had never read. So I promptly downloaded it to my Kindle, only to receive another surprise…

Talisman1Cousin Kate was certainly not standard Georgette Heyer fare. While presenting many of her books’ usual initial plot points (a penniless but plucky heroine, an unexpected suitor, some previously unknown relatives, a firmly supportive servant), this one turned gothic in the extreme. Rather than a frothy Regency England plot that takes place amongst the diverting events of the London Season, it could easily compete with any of the tomes with a slightly menacing air written by such authors as Victoria Holt, Anya Seton, or (latterly) Barbara Michaels. All the keynotes contained within those books are here too: the magnificent but slightly sterile and dark estate of Staplewood; the cold-hearted aunt with an ulterior motive; the strictly sequestered frail old lord of the manor; and the devastatingly handsome but equally strange and volatile son and heir.

I really liked certain elements of Cousin Kate. It was fascinating to try to figure out exactly why Kate’s Aunt Minerva was making so many kind gestures—inviting her to stay, giving her a new wardrobe—while patently not feeling anything for her (or anyone else). The servants and companions, the cousin, and the heir were all puzzles to be solved. And although the loyal servant—Kate’s former nurse Sarah Nidd—and her crusty but knowing old father-in-law were probably my favorite characters, their good-natured common sense didn’t prevent the slide into pure melodrama. The somewhat abrupt (and pat) ending was less than satisfactory, and left the reader with questions that wouldn’t be answered. I’m glad to have read it, as it was among the few Heyers I had missed; but from now on I’ll stick with rereads of my lighthearted favorites from among her novels.

TALISMAN2The above cover is the latest among many to convey the nature of this book; perhaps if it had had this older but much more accurate depiction, I would have known what to expect!

 

 

Fresh look: old books

A friend reminded me recently of the purportedly “best opening paragraph of all time,” which, according to LitHub author Emily Temple, is the one that opens We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson.

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

always

Whether or not you agree with Ms. Temple, you do have to acknowledge the brilliance of this book, in which two sisters live an exceedingly reclusive life sequestered in Blackwood House, caring for their ill and aged Uncle Julian. The narrative, which is carried by the younger sister, Mary Katherine (Merricat), gradually reveals that there is a sinister tragedy in their past, that the town holds a grudge against the family, and that in fact they are reclusive for good reason. All of Ms. Jackson’s trademark creepiness eventually prevails over the almost mundane initial tone.

Thinking about this book put me in mind of a different book with “castle” in its title. Dodie Smith wrote I Capture the Castle in the 1940s, and its opening paragraph is also beguiling, though with a completely different vibe:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring. I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry
is so bad that I mustn’t write any more
of it.”

captureThis book is also about two proud but poor girls who live a quiet life in a moldering castle, but that’s where the similarity ends. Rose and Cassandra Mortmain live in this ruin with their famously eccentric writer father, his statuesquely beautiful nature-worshipping second wife (who has the habit of wandering naked about the grounds), and their precocious little brother. The father has a massive case of writer’s block, and hasn’t published in years, and the family is all but destitute; the rundown property is all they can afford. When two handsome and wealthy young men move into the neighborhood, the entire household collaborates to change the family’s luck by ensnaring one of them as a spouse for the beautiful Rose. It’s obviously not a feminist tale on that account, but the younger, spunkier Cassandra has aspirations to be a writer, and the book is entertainingly narrated through her journals.

blandingsAnother old book with “castle” in the title that everyone should experience is Blandings Castle, by P. G. Wodehouse, a set of 12 short stories about the dotty Lord Emsworth and his bone-headed younger son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood; his long-suffering secretary, the Efficient Baxter; and Beach, the Blandings butler. The stories add to the main saga, which begins with Something Fresh and continues for 12 volumes. Although in my opinion they are not quite up to Wodehouse’s inimitable pairing of the clueless man-about-town Bertie Wooster with his enigmatic puppet master butler, Jeeves, they are similarly riotous in their mostly fond mockery of the British class system.

And there you have the results of poking about in my reader’s brain for books with little in common beyond a word in their title! Was this too thin a pretext for a book review?

Cormoran recap

This post is a bit of a cheat, because I indulged myself with a re-read this week, and so have nothing new to report. But the re-read was a really good one, standing up well to a second perusal, so I’m simply going to post the link here for my reaction to the last offering by Robert (J. K. Rowling) Galbraith in the Cormoran Strike murder mystery series; if you haven’t yet read this winner, please consider doing so! (But only as a part of the series, or you will be completely lost,
I hasten to add.)

lethalwhite

Snobs

It was such an interesting experience for me to pick up the book Snobs, by Julian Fellowes. I have to confess that I am one of the few people on the planet who has never watched a single episode of Downton Abbey; a couple of weeks ago, however, I was scrolling around Amazon Prime looking to be entertained, and encountered a four-part miniseries based on a book by Anthony Trollope, from his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. “Julian Fellowes presents Doctor Thorne” popped up after I had watched a few other BBC productions, and although it is based on a Trollope book and set far earlier than the events of Fellowes’s book Snobs, there was an eerie similarity to the satirical tone set by Fellowes.

Snobs

On the surface, this is a regular story about a woman who marries a man, regrets her choice, and looks around her for something else to alleviate the boredom. Edith Lavery, caught between eras, is the child of a socially ambitious middle class mother who hopes, through an advantageous marriage for Edith, to make it into the top echelon of British society. Edith, an attractive girl without any particular passions, life ambitions, or schooling, is drifting along, working in a low-paying clerical job and living in a frumpy apartment in the City. Despite being a young woman of 1980s and ’90s London, she wasn’t raised to believe she needed to be her own person or support herself indefinitely, and she cringes at the thought of a continued existence as a single woman of no means.

Then, a weekend stay in the country and a tourist’s visit to a “stately home” brings her to the attention of Charles, Earl Broughton, and suddenly she catches a whiff of what it would be like to step into the life of the future Marquess of Uckfield, with family estates in Sussex and Norfolk. To know all the “right” people and to be acknowledged by them, invited into their homes, accepted as one of them. Charles, while being a rather dull dog fixated on managing his estates and having his yearly shooting parties, is considered by society to be quite the eligible bachelor, and Edith carefully makes her play to ensnare this rather stodgy but not unappealing young aristocrat.

Four months later, having quickly exhausted all her inner resources (which were, admittedly, few) by playing Lady Bountiful to the surrounding tenants, running committees, and dutifully embracing the country life alongside her sharp-eyed mother-in-law, Lady Uckfield, and her kind but deeply stupid father-in-law, the Marquess, Edith’s eye is caught by a man completely different to her husband—handsome, flirtatious, sexually provocative, and flatteringly attentive—and she begins to consider whether she has made a disastrous mistake.

The thing is, though, this book is not entirely or even mostly about the surface story. Although the elements of a marriage made for all the wrong reasons are its ostensible reason for existing, the tale is a much more compelling one; the events of Edith’s and Charles’s lives are used as a primer for an explanation of the minute yet deadly intricacies of the upper echelons of English society. The narrator, an anomaly himself as an actor who has emerged from the aristocratic upper class and thus moves freely amongst multiple cliques, does a masterful job of seeing and explaining the nuances of each move made by the pertinent characters, from Edith and Charles to each of the true aristocrats and desperate social climbers involved in the story.

The one thing that irritated me about “Julian Fellowes presents Doctor Thorne” when I watched it was the bracketing remarks made by Fellowes, which, although they followed in the footsteps of Masterpiece Theater’s introductions by the eminent Alastair Cooke, came across as pedantic rather than creating a pleasant framework for each episode. Surprisingly, however, although the unnamed narrator of Snobs serves much the same function in breaking down and analyzing the manners and motives of all its characters, I didn’t have the same reaction to him, and in fact enjoyed and looked forward to his digressions.

This book had much the same effect, although longer and far more complex, as did Alan Bennett’s commentary on the Queen’s new addiction in his novella, The Uncommon Reader. Fellowes’s witty, sometimes acerbic take on social protocols among the British elite was spot-on. Anyone who has rank has status, and with status comes singular mannerisms, language and social morés far too subtle for the commoner to comprehend. But as someone who springs from the bosom of this class, Fellowes (and his narrator) are completely capable of subtle but devastating mockery alongside good-natured kindness and empathy, and their revelations intrigued me.

 

Seduced by a pirate!

I can’t believe I almost missed “Talk Like A Pirate” Day! Arrrgh! But a friend clued me in and, as it happens, I have the perfect book to feature…

pirateAs part of the requirement for my romance readers advisory course
I took during August, I had to choose a book from among award-winners to read as my final assignment. I browsed the ALA best genre fiction lists, and my eye was caught by the word “pirate.” I’ve always loved pirate tales (romance or not), and an additional incentive (since I forgot that the assignment was due the very next day!) was that this was a novella of 100 pages, so I jumped onto Amazon and purchased Seduced by a Pirate, by Eloisa James, for my Kindle.

Griffin (Sir Griffin Barry) was wed to his bride, Phoebe, at the tender age of 17. Problem was, Phoebe was a beautiful and intimidating 20, and Griffin’s physical prowess didn’t live up to his titled consequence—he was a scrawny adolescent with no self confidence. So when it came to “doing the deed” on his wedding night, he cravenly jumped out the window and headed to the local pub with the objective of getting very drunk, rather than confronting his husbandly duties, which he doubted he could perform! The only problem with this scenario: As a highly intoxicated stripling, he presents the perfect temptation.  Press-gangers kidnap him and put him on a ship to the West Indies, and no one knows what has happened to him. Eventually Sir Griffin comes into his own as a pirate, er, privateer on board the Flying Poppy, his own ship, which he thinks he named after his wife (having misunderstood her Christian name at the wedding ceremony). Along the way, he encounters his cousin James, a duke who has similarly fled an unfortunate marriage, and the two of them team up to rule the seas and rid them of “real” pirates for a decade, until both are wounded in a battle. So they solicit and receive pardons from the Crown for their piratical ways, and decide to go home and see how the land lies.

But what happens when a pirate finally comes home to his wife—if she is, still, his wife—and discovers that a lot of unexpected events have taken place during his absence? Will there be a reunion and a consummation? or will the pirate head back out to sea, solitary and cheesed off?

I won’t say that romance will ever become my favorite genre (or even place in the top three), but if it were going to, books like this would definitely aid that progression. James writes with the same kind of esprit as my beloved Georgette Heyer (and this is a monumental statement for me to make!). Her characters, dress, manners, scene-setting, and plot are definitely “up to snuff,” pardon the old-fashioned but entirely appropriate saying. I found this novella to be an unalloyed delight, and the addition of “sizzle” to the basic romantic formula was just explicit enough while still remaining tasteful—and not clichéd, which is the thing most difficult to do in romance.

bukaneerThe only fault I had to find was the abbreviation of the cat-and-mouse aspect of this story. Griffin should have been a lot more disturbed by the changes he came home to find had been introduced by his wife; and Phoebe should have taken a little more time and exerted a little more willpower to resist his wiles. I mean, he didn’t even remember her name right! But, how much can you draw it out in just 100 pages? Probably the fault of the novella oeuvre. I will definitely read another (full-length) of James’s books to find out.

Happy “Talk Like A Pirate” Day!

 

Fresh look: old book

Another entry for this occasional feature, looking back to favorite reads…

Louise Marley has written historical fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. I have two favorites:

glassharmThe Glass Harmonica has two protagonists in two different time periods, both of whom play the instrument (based on glass cups) invented by Benjamin Franklin (one in 1761 right after Franklin invented it, and one who is a classical musician in 2018), and it is a lovely combination of historical fiction and ghost story.

 

irustanThe Terrorists of Irustan is set in the future on another planet, giving it a science fiction classification, but the society on Irustan mirrors the claustrophobic restrictions imposed on women in conservative religious middle eastern countries today. The main character, Zahra, is a medicant and a subversive, hiding feminist heroism behind her silk veil, and her co-conspirator, Jing-Li, is perpetuating a fraud that could mean death were it discovered. The story is gripping, real, and relevant, a Handmaid’s Tale sort of dystopia.

 

Young Numair

Tamora Pierce has begun a new miniseries within her larger panoply of books about the fantasy kingdom of Tortall. The three books will be based on the life of the great sorcerer Numair Salmalín, one of the most powerful mages in that world, and chronicle his beginnings as a young lad studying his craft at the University of Carthak.

Arram Draper, which was his given name, showed his gift early when he set a series of accidental fires in his family’s home in Tyra. Since his parents were cloth merchants, their wares were particularly vulnerable to conflagration, so they rapidly took counsel and sent him to the Imperial university, where he would study all aspects of magery, from animal husbandry to healing to water magic, as well as simply learning to control, channel, and use his formidable gift of power.

tempestsIn the first of the expected trilogy, Tempests and Slaughter, Arram is the youngest student at the university, and comes in for a fair amount of hazing until he is taken up by his future two best friends, Ozorne (who is seventh in line to inherit the Emperor’s throne), and Varice, who struggles with her affinity for food magic and hedge witchery, since women who practice in these areas tend to be underestimated or even overlooked. The three are among the most advanced students at the university, and move up swiftly, independent of the regular students, which further bonds them together. Arram’s tendency to accidents while using his power, Ozorne’s proximity to the throne, and Varice’s magnetic personality draw attention both wanted and unwanted from professors, jealous fellow students, and more pernicious enemies. As they progress through their years of schooling, each of them draws fire, individually and as a group, adding to their chronicle of adventures.

I had looked forward to this trilogy, since I enjoyed the adult character of Numair as encountered in multiple volumes of the Tortall books, but I ended up giving this three stars out of five on Goodreads. I liked it, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a rave-type book.

While I appreciated the immediate and total immersion into the Pierce universe, this time in Carthak, and enjoyed the scene setting, the background, and the atmosphere, that was a large percentage of what this book had going for it. The characters were great—Arram, Varice, and Ozorne really stood out as individuals, as did most of the Masters (mage teachers); and even the incidental side characters like the gladiator Musenda, and the magical bird, Preet, were compelling and individual. I also enjoyed the depictions of the magic itself, the interaction with various gods, the animals, and the other students.

So…why did I give it three stars? Because it’s a background book. It’s true that it’s all about how Arram Draper became Numair, but there’s no real story arc. It’s an accounting of his days in school, of what he learned and how he learned it. (It’s actually quite Harry Potterish, now that I think about it.) It is occasionally enlivened by isolated incidents that show he is growing older and more skilled, that he is expanding his horizons and his knowledge of the world and the magic in it, but there is no beginning, middle or end. It’s a narrative, a record. And honestly, that was mostly fine with me. I enjoy pretty much everything about Pierce’s storytelling, because she is so surefooted in this world she has created and so able to convey its every nuance to the reader…but because there is no arc, there are no big feelings to go with this book. It’s back story. It allows the reader to develop a fondness for the characters, to wonder what will happen next, but there are only the hints of trajectories in their future. As I read through it, I kept wondering why this book merited such a dramatic title (tempests and slaughter?) and while there are storms and deaths aplenty, they come across as an almost ordinary part of the chronicling of Arram’s life.

I definitely plan to read the other two books when they come out, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this one, because it does set things up nicely for a book with some action in it…I would merely caution those who have embraced her other stories from this universe not to have big expectations beyond the familiarity of being at home again in Tortall.

 

EscapetoLife