Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Library Game

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein is a fun new children’s book that has been on my reading list since its release. Not only is it about a library, but it also sounded like a fun mystery. Oh and on top of all that, it takes place in Ohio!

The town Kyle Keeley lives in has been without a library for twelve years. However, Mr. Lemoncello, a world famous eccentric game maker, provided the funds for a new library. This isn't a regular library, however. Mr. Lemoncello’s library has all sorts of tricks and treats up its sleeve. There are hologram statues, virtual librarians, game rooms, and shelves of books you have to use a conveyor to reach. For twelve lucky twelve year olds, they get the chance of a lifetime: to spend the night in the new library before anyone else. Kyle is picked as one of the lucky twelve and couldn't be more excited. He loves Mr. Lemoncello and has played his board games and video games all his life. So what could be more amazing than a night in the famous game maker’s library? Well what about a prize within a prize? When the lock in turns into a life sized game, Kyle and his friends must figure out how to escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s library in order to win a fabulous prize.

The best way I can describe this to you is as a mix between Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Westing Game. Mr. Lemoncello is indeed an eccentric character much like Willy Wonka. He’s a lovable man and throughout the book he continues using classic and popular children’s book titles in his speech, which I just loved. The references to classic books, is a great way to make children aware of old favorites while they’re reading this book. The novel really felt like promotional material for libraries, which I don’t have a problem with, but the ending lines of the book were a bit cheesy. If I recall correctly it was basically, you already won your prize because now you have access to the library. Even I, a proud librarian, was rolling her eyes. The mysteries that the kids had to solve were tough, but the reader could also play along on some of them and try to solve the riddles. The characters, as in most children’s books were relatively two dimensional. There was the bratty girl and the rich kid along with the regular kids, like Kyle.

This book could be great. I think the premise is wonderful and the plot moves you along, but there is a large problem I see with this book; there’s too much reference to modern technology. There’s no better way to date yourself than putting in a bunch of technology that is sure to be out of style in a year’s time. The author could easily have left out these references and the book wouldn't have lost any of its value. I would still suggest you read this if you enjoy children’s literature, just do so within the next few years.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

An Anglo-Saxon Queen

There’s a trend that has been en vogue for the last few years and I’m just going to say it, it’s really annoying. What is this trend, you ask yourself? It’s the objectification of women! Yay! Alright, that’s a bit melodramatic, but I’m tired of front covers with beautiful women in gowns.  Every YA, historical fiction, and inspirational fiction book aimed at women features some billowing skirt and a tasseled hairdo. I miss artistic covers instead of overly sexed women. Save it for romance covers.

Where did that come from?! Well, the book Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell features a blonde woman walking towards a gate. Typically, I’d avoid this kind of a book because of the reasons listed above, but it intrigued me (damn marketing). So my quest into 11th century England began!

Emma is the daughter of the late Duke Richard of Normandy. She is an intelligent, lovely, moral young woman who must wait on her brother, the current Duke’s, leisure as to when and whom to marry. To Emma’s surprise, her brother makes a very fortuitous marriage arrangement between her and the widowed King of England, Ethelred. This marriage will bring Richard money and stature, and Ethelred a union with Normandy and the promise that the Normans will stop allowing Danish, Viking, ships to shelter their boats in Norman harbors. Emma is coroneted and becomes Queen of a land whose people she doesn't know and who mistrust her because of her foreign allegiances. The story unfolds as Emma discovers the hardships of a loveless marriage, gaining and losing power and influence, and caring for her people and her newly inherited lands. But the Danish threat always lingers.

Sometimes historical fiction delves too much into detail and I find myself pushing to get through a book. However, Shadow was a compelling novel. With what little detail there is about Queen Emma and this period in time, Bracewell created a stunning array of characters that catch the attention and a plot worth sinking your teeth into. The major characters all get first person time in the novel, so the reader gets some one on one time with Emma, Ethelred, the King’s son, and Emma’s rival. It can be messy to write in this fashion, but Bracewell made it enjoyable to get in the head of major characters, see their perspectives, motivations, and feelings. It makes it harder to hate the bad ones. Emma is the anchor of this novel. She is a compassionate, strong woman who knows what she must do and takes steps to gain power and influence in her new kingdom. This novel really struck home with how abhorrent the gender roles were in the 11th century. Women were truly looked at as baby makers and servants. They had to shut up and put up. Although her main role is to have a male heir, Emma wants to be influential. She wants to be a Queen worthy of her crown.

This is, I believe, the first book in what is to be a trilogy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record of the Anglo-Saxon rule prior to the Norma Invasion, outlines some of Emma’s life, but almost nothing about Emma’s marriage to Ethelred is stated in the chronicle, so Bracewell could get creative. I truly enjoyed getting to know an era that has very little written about it in fiction. Although the novel could be dark because of the way people were treated, especially women, the warring, and the mores, it was a compelling read. Emma is an intriguing and admirable Queen, and I look forward to the remaining books in this series. If you are a historical fiction reader, I highly suggest you give this one a gander.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Zoo on the Ocean

There are some books that were just meant to be movies.  Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one such novel. Now I read this book for a book club I run at the library, but prior to having read it, I watched the movie. I know! Shock and awe! Luckily, there was enough space between seeing the movie and reading the book that I didn't do the whole “well that was nothing like what I saw in the movie”. This is such a vibrant and visual book that it made a stunning and accurate movie.

Life of Pi is the extraordinary story of Pi. It begins with his childhood in India, where his father owns a zoo. Pi is an eccentric, wise, and vivacious young boy who takes a keen interest in religion. He is born Hindu, but picks up Islam and Christianity along the way, finding faith and comfort in all three. The real adventure starts when Pi and his family decide to sell the zoo and move to Canada. On the trip across the ocean, the ship sinks leaving Pi on a life boat with a chimp, hyena, zebra, and Bengali tiger. What follows is the story of Pi’s survival at sea with a wild tiger and how he carries on.

Many have found this book to be a survival story, a great book of storytelling, and a book about faith. I found it unique in that it combines all three. It has elements of a Biblical tale in the extraordinary circumstances that take place, yet even when Pi questions his beliefs, he remains faithful. Of course, the most obvious element of the story is that of survival on the Pacific Ocean with a wild animal. Pi’s ability to tame Richard Parker, the tiger, and find hope in his presence is the story that makes for good Hollywood filming. There were times during this second section that I skimmed through  because you can only read about fishing so much before it gets repetitive.

I enjoyed this story. I thought the framing of it was interesting with a young man relating his encounter with the older Pi as he tells his story. Most people can find something they like about this book, whether it be the adventure story, faith in the face of adversity, animals and nature, or a storyteller’s tale. If you've seen the movie, the book is quite similar, but I suppose I should say the book is always better…

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Pubescent Mythological/Historical Figures

Helen of Troy is a character who has a lot of drama behind her name. Some see her as a romantic figure, others as selfish. I’ll hold my opinions on that subject. While searching for good books to book talk for 6th graders, I came across Nobody’s Princess by Esther Friesner. This is a young adult story about a young Helen of Sparta, the future Queen of Sparta, and the cause of ever so much trouble.

Helen grows up as a pretty girl. Everyone says so and although she does not know what pretty is she accepts it. However, when Helen turns 12/13 she starts changing. Her hormones kick in and she becomes awkward (I don’t miss those times). She is no longer sure of herself and she certainly does not want to practice the womanly arts of weaving and sewing. Helen wants to redefine herself and become her own person. She wants to learn to fight, ride, and run like her brothers, but a girl isn't supposed to do those things! But Helen is crafty and determined. Surely she can find a way to learn what she wants and have the adventures she’s always dreamed of!

This was a fast paced story. The action kept moving and I wanted to continue reading. Helen is a spirited young woman and I enjoyed her as a character for the most part. She is determined and knows what she wants. She always finds a way to get what she’s after, perhaps a foreshadowing of the woman she will become.

The other characters played minor roles throughout the tale and it was nice to see some variance. I didn’t like that every character who seemed to enjoy or practice the womanly arts was kind of a bitch, but women who hunted or adventure like men are totally awesome. I mean I get what the author is going for with “not being your average girl”, but it annoys me that every time a girl is “different” she’s masculine or enjoys something only men are supposed to do.

An aspect of the story I truly enjoyed was seeing how the gods and goddesses were worshiped. The author had her characters making sacrifices, praying, and worshiping different gods/goddesses throughout the text. It was great to get to see this in context. It was interesting to see what the characters actually thought about their deities and who would be prayed to/worshiped depending on the task/season.

I got through this book quickly and enjoyed it. It was a fun read, but it wasn't spectacular. If you like mythology and historical fiction this is right up your alley. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy: Sleuths

October is a great month for mysteries and magic. Halloween is around the corner, so I want something a little devilish. This month for the Pride and Prejudice Bicentennial Challenge I read Carrie Bebris’s The Intrigue at Highbury, which is actually the fifth book in the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery series. Although the Darcys allude to other mysteries and happenings in other books, I was not lost while making my way through this one. I wonder if someone who does not know Jane Austen’s original novels would be lost reading these books. Anywho, judgmental me was happily surprised to truly enjoy this mystery.

Elizabeth and Darcy are travelling though Highbury, home of the Knightley’s, when a young girl waves them down on the highway. As Fitzwilliam Darcy is nothing if not a gentleman, he stops to help the lady. While their attention is diverted, however, the Darcy’s belongings are stolen from their carriage. In order to report the crime, they must find the village magistrate, none other than Emma’s Mr. Knightley. Emma and Mr. Knightley are having a terrible night already. Frank Churchill’s uncle died at the Knightley’s dinner party celebrating the newly wed Frank and Jane Churchill. The Knightleys invite the Darcys to stay while matters are taken care of. Soon the clues start blurring between the robbery and the murder and when riddles begin arriving for Mr. Knightley, Darcy and Elizabeth step in to help solve this mystery.

I’m going to have to stop saying I don’t like mysteries because lately the mysteries I’ve read have made me want to keep reading this genre. The action kept moving forward in this book. We met new characters and had to rehash the past, but for the most part, new evidence and clues propelled the reader to continue reading. Also, to continue Emma’s obsession with match making, Miss Bates becomes Emma’s newest target after Mrs. Elton begins trying to set Miss Bates up with an ancient farmer. This plot line was an added bonus to the mystery story and I enjoyed hearing about Emma and her post-marriage habits.

I enjoyed the characters from Emma and Pride and Prejudice mixing together. Emma is an Austen character that gets a bad rap. Although she is snobbish, jealous, and sometimes mean, she has a good heart and means well. In Highbury the audience sees a happily married Emma who is still sharp and wants to help those around her, even if it is obtrusive. I did not feel I got as much out of Elizabeth’s character in this book. She seemed to be in the background throughout the novel, but I did get a better glimpse of Darcy. Darcy is an intelligent, trustworthy investigator whose expertise helps Knightley in solving the crime. Darcy and Knightley also become fast friends, which made me happy. Darcy and Knightley are two of my favorite Austen characters.

Bebris did a marvelous job using information from Emma and adding on to the back story of the Churchills. Although I was pretty sure I knew who the murderer was I still kept second guessing myself and wanting to read more. The mystery made me want to keep reading, but it was not my sole fascination with the novel. Bebris’s character development and the interactions between characters was what really drove me to read. I look forward to reading her other books in the Mr. & Mrs. Darcy series.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Growing up with Ghosts

Neil Gaiman is a master. I feel I should just end this post here, but then I’d be depriving you of my eloquent, inspiring words *sarcasm*. Gaiman is an author who knows how to tell a story, create a world, and leave the audience wanting more. In his children’s book The Graveyard Book, he does not disappoint and the critics agreed, giving the book four awards.

Nobody Owens is not a normal boy. After the death of his family when he was only a baby, Nobody was adopted by ghosts from the graveyard he crawled to on that horrible night. As part of the graveyard family, Nobody, nicknamed Bod, is given asylum and thus supernatural abilities. He can Fade, Dream Walk, and walk through walls along with a number of other abilities. Mr. and Mrs. Owens adopt Bod, but it is Silas who provides for Bod and becomes his mentor. As Bod continues to grow, he learns from the other ghosts, gets into mishaps with ghouls, and begins to integrate with the living. Hanging over his head, however, is the murder of his family and the man Jack who still seeks the boy who got away.

So what’s so special about a boy living in a graveyard, you ask? Ahhh how do I put this? It’s a brilliant reinvention of The Jungle Book with the quarks, twists, and dark humor only Gaiman can produce. Although it is a children’s/ young adult novel, it isn’t a cutesy tryst with ghosts. This is a beautiful coming of age story set in a morbid and fascinating setting. Bod, our main character, is curious, intelligent, and well mannered. Each chapter is a new adventure as Bod continues to grow. He discovers new sections of the graveyard, new friends, and the outside world.

I highly suggest this book to those of you who want a good read with fantasy. Neil Gaiman is wonderful! Give him a read if you haven't already.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Legend of the Hempstocks

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is the author’s most recent book and another brilliant escape into magical realism. After returning to his home town, a man finds his way down to the old farmhouse and pond that he had forgotten existed. Once he gets onto the property, a flood of memories returns, nightmares and miracles that were long forgotten. The Hempstock women live on this farm. When the boy was seven he became friends with Lettie Hempstock, a girl who looks eleven, but is wise and capable beyond her years. One day she took him to the other side of the farm with the orange skies. What was supposed to be a quick trip to quell a problem turned into a nightmare that left the boy marked and unleashed a terrible force on this world and especially the boy’s family.

Gaiman did a marvelous job creating a beautiful story and legend in under 150 pages. The man is a marvel. The Hempstocks, especially Lettie and Old Mrs. Hempstock, are extraordinary characters that made me feel safe within the covers of the book. They’re comforting, friendly, wise, and trustworthy. I wanted to walk into their kitchen and sit down for a meal. The story is rich, but contained. Gaiman didn’t try to overdo the details or explain everything about who or what the Hempstocks are. This left me both satisfied and craving more. I wanted more about the women who police unknown creatures, yet lead an unassuming life. Although I’m happy it wasn’t a Tolkein-esque novel, Gaiman certainly has a story worthy of many more tales.

The author does a beautiful job of representing childhood in his character and throughout the novel. The boy keeps to himself and is a book fiend. Gaiman is a lover of stories and he always has superb portrayals of the impact of books. In this novel, it’s no different. The boy finds his escape, bravery, and ideas about how to be adventurous in his stories. All of the reading the boy does, along with being a child, helps him understand and deal with the world of the Hempstocks and the frightening world beyond the farmhouse.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book that will stay with you. I enjoyed reading it and hope that Gaiman will write more about the Hempstocks.
[Currently, I’m reading Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and one of the ghosts is a witch with the last name Hempstock…]

If you enjoyed this novel try these others:
  • The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. A boy finds refuge in his books after the loss of his mother, but soon his fairy tale world starts becoming real and mirroring his real life.
  • Touch by Alexi Zentner. Sawgamet is a town filled with legend and superstition. A man reflects on his childhood and the stories his grandfather told him about the magical and mysterious logging town he built.
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Two boys must save the souls of the townspeople, when a mysterious man comes to town. Suddenly dark secrets and wishes come to the surface and the boys learn you must be careful what you wish for.  

Monday, September 30, 2013

Modern Romance, Email Style

Lately, my coworkers and I have been on a Rainbow Rowell kick. Mainly they hand me books and I read them. Well Attachments by Rainbow Rowell was a charming modern quirky romance. It’s the kind of book that is a perfect chick flick romance. You can picture the characters in your mind’s eye, and they kind of seem like your best friends that you've never actually met.

Lincoln is a 28 year old IT guy at a newspaper. Actually, his main job description is email security. He’s the guy who has to monitor company emails when certain words or phrases are detected. Think of him as big brother. Lincoln hates that he’s an email rat, spying on his coworkers, but it pays the bills. One night while he’s working, he runs across an email chain between Beth and Jennifer and everything changes. Instead of sending them a warning email, he continues reading their flagged emails. Beth and Jennifer are hilarious and help Lincoln feel a connection. Soon, however, he wants not just to spy on them, but to know them. One of them in particular.

I enjoyed this book. I felt for the characters, wanted them to meet and laughed at their exchanges. Lincoln, Beth, and Jennifer are all wondering about the next step in their lives. They’re all in their late 20s, college educated, missing something, and unsure of what to do next. Now maybe this is a theme that resonates with all age groups, but as a twenty something this story held water with me. After college, we all think life will be sweet, we’ll roll in the dough, our significant other will show up and marry us, and all those amazing plans we have will actually happen. Then things don’t go as planned or our plans aren't what we imagined. It feels like you have no idea what you’re doing. This is where Lincoln's life has ended up. Jennifer and Beth are questioning their lives and plans too. These characters are imperfect and lovely.

An interesting aspect of the book is the relationship Lincoln forms with Jennifer and Beth before ever meeting them. Isn't this the same relationship we form with characters in books? The major difference being that characters in books don’t actually exist whereas, Lincoln’s email delinquents do in his world. Just like Lincoln, we fall in love with overheard conversations, we want to meet and be a part of the lives of our favorite characters and yet there’s a barrier between our world and theirs.

I enjoyed the anticipation in this book. The audience waits for Lincoln to meet Beth and Jennifer. We look forward to him figuring out his social life, career choices, and living situation. It was an easy read. I looked forward to curling up with it and wishing that I had a guy as adorable as Lincoln to stalk my emails.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cuckoo's Calling

J.K. Rowling. That sneaky Brit. She went all covert on us and published as Robert Galbraith, and I get it Miss Rowling. Sometimes you want people to assess your work, not based on what you’ve already done. The Cuckoo’s Calling was getting great reviews before the world knew J.K. Rowling was the writer, and for good reason. Now I could make some references to Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but I’m going to respect her new book, which could turn into a series for what it is: different than her other writing.

Cormoran Strike is a down on his luck ex-military private investigator. He is struggling with debt, just got out of a relationship, living in his office, and his amputated leg is causing him pain. At the moment his sole client is a woman spying on her husband, not exactly riveting or well-paid work. Then Robin, the new secretary sent by a temp agency, shows up along with an old friend’s brother, John. Robin turns out to be an expensive blessing in disguise and soon becomes Strike’s daily human contact and a fantastic secretary. Then there’s John, a wealthy lawyer, who shows up at Strike’s office with a new case and a pocket full of money. Lula Landry, the famous super model, committed suicide not too long ago, and John, her brother, thinks there’s foul play and insists on having Strike re-investigate. What follows is a who’s who of London. Strike maneuvers his way through the bold and beautiful seeking the truth to who pushed Lula Landry over her balcony.

Rowling wrote a number of compelling characters with great back stories. Strike was a likable character with some skeletons in his closet, a messy family, and a strong work ethic. Robin is one of the first characters introduced to us. She is newly engaged, peppy, smart, and clever. Although working for Strike is supposed to be temporary, she finds herself yearning to stay on and learn the PI trade. Strike and Robin are characters I look forward to reading more about in the future.

A lot of suspects are put on the chopping block throughout the investigation. Strike keeps his cards close, so I was never sure who the killer was. Rowling kept her audience guessing by presenting new evidence, rehashing old evidence, and interviewing witnesses and friends. I enjoyed hearing about Strike stalking around London to seek out testimony. The book deals a lot with the idea of celebrity and the problems Lula had to deal with as a super model. Trusting people was hard because even her “friends” sold her secrets. Then there is the paparazzi who stalk her, fans who think they know her, and a dysfunctional family. Rowling must know a lot about this world and it was interesting to get a small peak inside a life of luxury and the costs it comes at.

I’m not a detective mystery reader, but I enjoyed this novel. The two things I have to say against it are too much detail, and too stuck in the past. The author had paragraphs that made me think “I would just cut this out if I were her editor. That’s completely unnecessary”. I’d skip over sentences and just keep moving. Now since I don’t usually read detective mysteries like this, I don’t know what is typical. This novel was stuck in the past a lot. Strike’s investigating a potential murder meaning he dredges up the past through people’s evidence as to what happened when Lula Landry died. On top of that, however, he reminisced about his newly ended relationship, he thought about the war and his time in the military. Although it was making progress forward, I kept hoping for new events to keep the book from back sliding.

Altogether, I found the book engaging and I very much wanted to hear more about Strike and figure out who the killer was. If you’re a fan of this book or want more like it, try these novels:
  • Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. A British PI investigates three separate cold cases and discovers tangled family histories and startling connections.
  • The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe’s beautiful new client gets him caught up in the dangerous world of Hollywood.
  • Tonight I Said Goodbye by  Michael Koryta. The wife and daughter of an alleged suicide victim go missing. Now PI Lincoln Perry and Joe Pritchard must pursue the truth and hope to find the family.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Monster Calls

 “’You do not write your life with words, the monster said. You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.´” A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is a story about truth, power, and life. Conor begins getting nightly visits from a monster who insists on telling him three tales. Where regular children might be afraid of a giant monster at their window, Conor has another nightmare that haunts him. A nightmare he fears more than anything else, because it speaks the truth. During the day, Conor must face a reality he hates. His mother has cancer and everyone treats him differently. His teachers pity him, his classmates can’t look at him, and the only person treating Conor like a real kid is his bully. His nightly visitor becomes normal, but this monster is demanding from him something he’s not willing to face. The truth.

Patrick Ness wrote a beautiful book. A book that speaks the truth: the ugly, wicked, honest truth. This is a children’s book and addresses life and illness unlike any children’s book I’ve encountered. It isn’t smiles and pats on the back, it’s real life. Fear, anxiety, anger. Real feelings. One message of the book, speaking truth, applies to all of us. Speak the truth to children and this book does that. Illness is a part of life and it’s good that there is a book that kids who may be surrounded by it can turn to.

Conor is a great character. He is not a polished boy who finds a way to be good, but a kid who is going through a tough situation and acting out because of it. He does some terrible things, he feels hurt, angry, and sad and takes it out on those around him. Haven’t we all done that? I didn't particularly like him, but i
t was nice to read a fictional character who acts like a real person.

My favorite part of the book was the ink drawings. They are creepy and sinister looking and paired so perfectly with the text. It added a different element to the story. The drawings also make this a more appealing book to reluctant readers.

I highly suggest this to adults and kids alike. It’s a beautiful story that encompasses storytelling elements and difficult subjects in an accessible way.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Top Picks for Fall

There's a lot of good stuff coming out this fall. Once the weather starts getting crisp and the temperature drops, I get excited to snuggle up with a book and some hot apple cider. Here are my top ten picks for books to read that are coming out this fall.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa, oh Jhumpa. You write lovely modern classics from The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies. I can’t wait to read your next novel.

After Dead by Charlaine Harris
You thought she was dead with the Sookie Stackhouse series, eh? Well technically she is, but in Harris’s new book, she outlines what happens to the characters we loved, hated, and need to hear more about.

Dark Witch by Nora Roberts
Now I’m not a Nora Roberts person, though I’ve never read anything by her, but I was excited when I saw this title. It’s about a girl going home to her ancestral roots in Ireland, where the ground she lives on is full of magic and legend.
Curtsies and Conspiracies by Gail Garriger
The second book in the Finishing School series about a young woman sent away to be made into a lady. Little did her parents know this was a finishing school and a school to train spies. We’re excited for the second part of this humorous, adventurous YA novel.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
This has a great cover and Black, The Spiderwick Chronicles, creates a bleak world in which monsters and humans intermingle within the walls of Coldtowns. Then something goes wrong…

Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle
A little royal intrigue! Here’s another historical fiction about the Tudor’s, this one from the perspective of the queen who outlived Henry VIII. This is an intriguing court drama in the vein of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne Valente
This is the third book in Valente’s series, and these books are witty, fantastical, clever, and so fun to read! Imagine Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz having a baby and this series is what you get. Although it’s meant for children/young adults, this is a series that is easily transferable to adults.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Rowell wrote Eleanor and Park, a YA novel that was excellent, so I can’t wait to read the next work she has coming out.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Longbourn is from the perspective of the maids, during the circumstances of Pride and Prejudice, and is not only a fascinating look at the behind the scenes life of the Bennets, but a captivating look at the life of servants in the Regency era, especially that of young Sarah, who dreams of a different life.

Canary by Rachele Alpine
Alpine is a local author and her book has received advanced praise. It’s about a young woman trying to find herself and then dealing with being assaulted. There’s a lot of poetry and creativity in these pages and I can’t wait for it to hit shelves.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Traveling with Jane

I love travel. It makes me nervous and anxious, but then you get someplace new and get to be lost, deliciously lost. Now I don’t mean directionally, though that often happens. There’s just something lovely about not knowing a place, being new, and trying different things. All of a sudden I become outgoing and ready to try anything, I’ll talk to strangers (yes mother I disobeyed that age old rule), go out on my own, and have an unrestrained good time. What is usually frightening in my everyday life becomes part of the adventure. Amy Elizabeth Smith’s book All Roads Lead to Austen was a reminder of the thrills of travel, but with a twist.

Smith set off to spend a year in six Latin American countries (Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina). Her quest? To see how Jane Austen’s characters, writing, and stories translated to the natives of said cultures. Her findings? Love, friendship, bookstores, discussion, and a fabulous story.

I adored this story. I wanted to jet off to South America and stay for a year just like Smith. This was mainly what I loved about the story, Amy’s life in Spanish and her struggles and triumphs making friends and living in another country. She was easy to read and I enjoyed reading about the people she met and the book clubs she formed. In each country, Smith put together a small book club to read either Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, or Emma. One of the traits she wanted to see was whether her Latin American friends would think of Austen’s books in terms of their own lives and experiences. Would they identify with characters the way Austen cults in the US do? Could they see these stories happening in their country? It was fascinating to read about the different perspectives and topics each group brought to the floor. I found the later chapters’ discussions of the books more fulfilling than early chapters.

Travel fiction and Jane Austen make me quite content. Smith’s writing was comfortable and welcoming. I easily seeped into the pages and was lost in the story of one woman bringing her assumptions and trepidation to six other cultures while also bringing those cultures a beloved part of her own world.

Give this a read if you are a fan of Jane Austen and travel nonfiction. If you aren't familiar with the three Austen works listed above, you may be a little lost, nothing a sit down with the movies can’t cure, however!

Here are some read alikes for All Roads Lead to Austen:
  • A Jane Austen Education: How six novels taught me about love, friendship, and the things that really matter by William Deresiewicz
  • Have Mother Will Travel by Claire Fontaine and Mia Fontaine
  • A Walk with Jane Austen: a journey into adventure, love, and faith by Lori Smith

Thursday, August 29, 2013

More than your "Bunny Rabbit"

The summer before sophomore year at her elite boarding school, Frankie Landau-Banks blossomed. She went from being an awkward girl to a fully-fledged beautiful woman. Her transformation turns the head of Matthew Livingston, a popular and good-looking senior, who she soon starts dating. Frankie, however, is much more than a pretty face and the little girl her family nicknamed "Bunny Rabbit". Behind those beautiful eyes lives a clever, devious, and underestimated intelligence, one that will one day make her head of the CIA, Secretary of State, or the next great American writer. When Matthew keeps secrets from Frankie about a secret society, Frankie decides to show him and his friends that she is more than worthy to be a part of their club and their world. What follows is a story of pranks, deception, and longing to be recognized in E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

Recently my friend and I discussed an article about strong female characters. This is a bit off topic, but the article basically talks about how a strong female character is annoying and too boxed in. Male characters are never called strong male characters, but a strong female character puts an exact picture in your head of a bad ass, emotionless (other than anger), beautiful woman. We want 3D women who can be realistic. Back to Frankie, Frankie is a great example of a multi-dimensional character. She’s insecure, massively intelligent, inventive, beautiful, athletic, worried, brave, unsure, and still figuring herself out. I truly enjoyed her even when she thought about impressing her boyfriend a bit too much. This is what we do. We want someone we really like to think we’re astonishingly wonderful, and in Frankie’s case, what she did sure was astonishing.

From the dust jacket, I expected Frankie to be a confidant and already snarky, devious minded lady, but this is her story of becoming that girl. I looked forward to snuggling up with this book and reading about Frankie’s plotting. My biggest complaint is that there isn't a sequel. I enjoyed the novel. It was easy to read, thought provoking, and introduced a fresh character.

Here’s some other titles you might enjoy:
  • Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern. Jessie is trying to figure out which group she belongs in. Everyone seems to be changing ship, so where does she belong?
  • Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. Marcelo is autistic and always attended a special school where he was understood. This summer, however, he must work at his dad’s law firm meets several new friends and experiences what the “real world” is like.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Servants' Perspective

The Bicentenary Challenge has led me to read more Jane Austen fan fiction than I ever thought I’d be reading. Although most of it is quite lovely, a lot of it is just copies of Jane Austen. However, Longbourn by Jo Baker is standalone literature.

Jo Baker takes on the behind the scenes aspect of Pride and Prejudice to show what life is like below stairs in the Bennet household. The book is about a young servant, Sarah, and her desire to have a bigger life, while also following Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, and James, the new manservant. The book is not just another fan fiction, this is literature that just happens to encapsulate Miss Austen's masterpiece.

Sarah talks about events around the house and we hear off hand, what is happening in the story of Pride and Prejudice in so far as how it affects the servants. The Gardeners have come to stay, meaning more laundry. The ladies want to go visiting, thus James must be dispatched to take them in the carriage. It is realistic and although the tasks may be mundane, the audience never feels lacking for material.

Every time I picked this novel up, I got wrapped up in the characters and setting. Baker is thorough, but not overly detailed, so the book continues to arrest your attention. Baker truly has a talent for storytelling. She twists her words into alluring sentences and, as is the way with a good storyteller, you forget you’re reading, but are instead locked in the narrative.

 If you enjoyed Downton Abbey, this book is for you. Here are some other stories you may enjoy:
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. About an elderly butler who wants to be the best at what he does. This was also made into a movie.
  • A Spoonful of Sugar by Brenda Ashford is the autobiography of an English nanny who has  cared for children for over 60 years.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Angsty '80s First Love

My coworkers sung the praises of the book Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. It took each of them a night to finish it and they kept talking about all the cute and memorable things that happen throughout the book. Since I trust their opinions, I decided I needed to see what all the hype was about. Eleanor and Park was worth reading and I must say, my coworkers picked a good one.

1986, Omaha. Eleanor is the new girl at her high school and nothing is worse than trying to find a seat on the bus. She ends up next to Park, a cute, nerdy guy and this is where our tale begins. Through day after day of terrible bus rides, Eleanor and Park begin an awkward, angst filled teenage relationship. Eleanor finds solace in reading Park’s comic books over his shoulder and slowly they begin sharing comic books and music. This is the story of first love, a girl with a broken family, and a relationship that will change both characters forever.

I started this book and couldn't put it down. It’s an addicting and fresh young adult novel. It felt like you were back in a high school relationship where you weren't sure what to do, if you were dating, or how to communicate. Rowell was spot on with her descriptions of those awkward teenage years and you couldn't help but get addicted, cringe, and giggle uncontrollably. Eleanor is this young woman who has a terrible home life, is insecure, but brave and fierce. Park is a good guy who is seeking approval. The story goes back and forth between Eleanor and Park seamlessly. I will warn you that there are some cuss words, so if you’re choosing this for a young teen/tween, just be aware.

Although the ending was not as fulfilling as I hoped, this was still an excellent novel that will have you thinking of classic teenage ‘80s films and remembering your own insecure, unsure first love.

If you are a fan of John Green, I would certainly say that Eleanor and Park is right up your alley.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie is the mama of mystery. She created the “closed door” mystery and wrote memorable characters like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Her mysteries are complex, but “cozy” in the sense that the audience does not read about the death as it is happening and most of her mysteries take place with middle class society in quaint locations. Christie is also known for stories that are solvable by the reader prior to getting to the end. On top of all this, she is the most translated author, outside of religious texts.

Although I know about her celebrated novels and my parents quite enjoy watching Poirot mysteries on Masterpiece Theatre, I've never read an Agatha Christie novel. Feeling it my duty to read the classics and expand my knowledge, I picked up perhaps her most famous work, And Then There Were None (or Ten Little Indians if you’re not worried about being politically correct).

Christie sets up her story with ten characters all traveling to an island off of England. None of them know one another, but all are connected in what will become a deathly visit. All of the men and women on the island are accused of a crime and from here, they begin to die off. With each death, a little soldier figurine goes missing and the guests get more and more frantic. Is there some lunatic on the island exacting revenge, or is it one of their own?

Christie’s characters all have a back story. Some of them are somewhat one dimensional, but then again, they don’t last long enough to become fully formed. The characters that last until the near end have stories and personalities that leave you wondering…could he/she be a criminal and killer. The setting was perfect: a mansion on a lonely rock in the middle of nothing. While reading, I could see the ocean and smell the salt air. I felt the anxiety the characters felt and mentally told them not to go off alone. Although, as in most mysteries, I just wanted to know who the damn killer was along with the why and how, I found myself eagerly anticipating the next action and trying to deduce who it might be. I thought I knew, then it couldn't be that character, and I would reformulate. That is half the fun with Christie’s novel. On top of that the explanation at the end was complex and rewarding.

I don’t always read mysteries, because instead of concentrating on the journey, I find myself concentrating on the ending. Miss Christie was a truly enjoyable author to read, however. Although she wrote her books in the 1920s and ‘30s, they still remain fun reads today. If you haven’t tried her works yet, give them a shot! They’re not terribly long and they are diverting. In my opinion, this is a classic worth reading.

Since she has been around for a while, a lot of people have imitated her style. Here are some authors who write stories like Agatha Christie.

  • M.C. Beaton. Much like Christie, Beaton has created memorable characters in the form of Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth. These are also puzzle mysteries, so the reader can try to solve it before the detectives.
  • Louise Penny. This Canadian mystery writer focuses on Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who has high morals and a big appetite. These are more leisurely paced mysteries and feature quirky secondary characters on top of intriguing crimes.
  • Ngaio Mars. Cozy mysteries set during “the Golden Age of Crime” are also like Christie in the sense that they don’t contain graphic violence and follow one inspector around.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Though She Be Small...

Jeannette Walls is known for Half-Broke Horses and The Glass Castle, two books about the author and her family. In Walls new book, the audience meets Bean and Liz, two girls with a neglectful mother, who make their way across the country to find family.

In 1970, Bean, the youngest, and Liz, the eldest daughter of Charlotte, an aspiring singer/actress, leave their house when police arrive to check in on them. Their mother isn't around much and often leaves them at home to go to L.A. The girls don’t want to end up in the system, so they hop a bus to Virginia, their mother’s original home, and meet their uncle. The mansion that the family lived in is now decaying and neglected, and Uncle Tinsley does not have the time or resources to fix it up. Although he is a good and loving man, the girls feel they need to help out financially, so they get jobs with Jerry Maddox, the foreman at the local mill. The girls don’t know about the history between this man and their uncle along with the problems that Maddox creates in town. Unfortunately, Liz is embroiled in an incident that turns her life upside down and Bean, the optimist, will do anything to get her sister justice. This is a story of courage and family.

Bean is a fierce, funny, sweet girl who wants to protect her family. Although she is younger than Liz, she is wise beyond her years and loyal. Liz is a brilliant girl. She is talented and witty, but becomes withdrawn in her new setting. They make a good team and Walls does a wonderful job of illustrating the sisterly bond. Charlotte, their mother, is a frustrating, pathetic character. Throughout the book, I just wanted to slap her. She claims that her girls are her world, but will abandon them and her responsibility for weeks at a time because she either has a “job” or needs space. Her behavior when she is around is manic and insecure. It seems she is the child in their trifecta, rather than Bean and Liz. Some people aren't meant to have children and Charlotte is a one of them. Then we have Uncle Tinsley, a loving man who hasn't done much since the mill his family owned was sold. Most of the adults in this novel all have some sort of deficit, which seems to be a theme in Walls writing. The one adult who seems to be without fault is Bean's aunt who works hard to provide for her family on a meager income and loves them fiercely. 

I enjoyed this story, but I didn't feel satisfied in the end. The big plot point wrapped up, but we’re still left questioning what will happen with the family and the girls down the road. I wanted the story to dig deeper and although it hit on some hard points, I wish Walls would keep going. School integration, neglect, and misuse of the law are some of the mentioned themes that could be further explored. There was a lot to be examined in these pages and I felt it was not satisfyingly done. The characters were fleshed out beautifully, but the plot needed more exploration.

If you are a fan of Jeannette Walls and The Silver Star then here are some other titles that may interest you.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Walls mentions Lee’s novel in The Silver Star and there are similar themes of injustice, racism, and creative, sharp young girls.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a coming of age story about a young girl growing up with a poor, but tight knit family in the slums of Brooklyn.
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Like The Silver Star, this is a coming of age story and a book marketed to adults, but easily transferable to young adults. It’s about a young girl who recently lost her uncle, the only person she could relate to, and how she deals with that. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pride and Prejudice Reread

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is my go to favorite book. How many times are you asked “what’s your favorite book?” as soon as you pronounce that reading is one of your favorite hobbies? Probably a lot. Well over the years I've adopted P&P as my favorite, whether out of convenience, true love, or literary popularity, I've never been quite sure. Although I absolutely love Jane Austen, it was about time for a rereading of my favorite on top of it being my pick for the Bicentenary Challenge!

First let me go through what I get when I tell people Pride and Prejudice is my favorite:
  • “Ugh that’s boring”
  • “Huh. So what do you want for an appetizer?”
  • “God I hated that book. It’s so boring and the language is so old.”
  • “I've never read it.”
  • “That is such a good book. Now let’s talk about it and all its merits!”
  • “I hated it because it was hard for me to write a paper about.” (this actually was a reaction I got)

Am I a snob? Yeah a little. Maybe by saying P&P is one of my favorites reflects my snobbery. For those who did not enjoy Jane Austen or thought Pride and Prejudice was boring, I understand! If you have reasons for backing up your dislike, awesome! That’s fine. Not everyone needs to like what I like and yes, Austen’s writing is 200 years old, and so it’s dated. Love stories are not everyone’s cup of tea, but what I truly adore about Austen is that the novel is so much more than a quaint story of a beloved character getting what and who she deserves. There’s a reason we still read it.

Well hopefully, my dear reader, you know the story of Jane Austen’s most popular work Pride and Prejudice, but let me refresh you. Elizabeth Bennet is the daughter of a gentleman with a silly mother and three silly younger sisters. Luckily, she has an older sister who is sweet as pie and a beloved confidant, Jane. Jane falls for the new rich guy, Mr. Bingley, who moves in next door. Bingley has a very rich friend, Mr. Darcy, who is snobby and condescending. Bingley goes away leaving Jane heartbroken and not too long after, Elizabeth runs into Darcy. Darcy proposes and is refused, because of misunderstood intentions and bad information.  However, through explanation and time, Elizabeth begins to favor him. In the end, Darcy reforms as does Elizabeth and he ends up proposing again. Bingley comes back and marries Jane. La di da, almost everyone is happy!

My rereading of my favorite book reasserted that I adore this novel. I read a list about books that are red flags if people claim them as a favorite and women who say P&P is their favorite are overly romantic and just want to turn the rich snobby guy into their white knight. Maybe, but there’s so much more to it than that very shallow reading. Here’s my list of reasons to love Austen or at least appreciate her.
  • Jane Austen is a sociologist/psychologist. She writes characters better than any other author I've encountered. There’s a seamless quality to her description of who a character is, what their motivations are, where they come from, and how they mingle in society.
  • As historical fodder, Austen is remarkable. While reading, you understand how society, class, and money played a role in the lives of Regency era people. These books give an understanding of a different time period.
  • And yet, Austen did not pigeon hole herself by only being relevant to one era. She didn't give much detail about politics, war, or happenings during the era, so the stories are easily transferable to modern culture.
  • Her stories are timeless with themes that are still relevant today such as forgiveness, prejudice, love, duty, honor, slacking morals, and reputation.

This time around, I was more aware of the growing affection Elizabeth felt for Darcy. My one complaint in the past was that in the end it just seems like Lizzy and Darcy are thrown together and she suddenly forgives him. In my rereading, I saw as her feelings developed and how her prejudice against him dropped. Their coupling then did not feel abrupt, instead I longed for him to go to her sooner and for her to say something. Also this time, it took me a number of chapters to be completely absorbed in the book. I understand it starts off as dry reading, but once you get past the first few chapters, and the foolish Mr. Collins shows up, you get sucked in.

Sorry for the length of this post, but my favorite book deserves some recognition. If you’ve never read it, well you should, but it’s not necessary, unless you want to be my friend (friendship with me is very rigorous). If you've read it, awesome! Let’s talk sometime. If you didn’t like it, well your opinion is invalid and you’re an imbecile. I’m kidding! You probably just have no tasteJ

Happy reading, dear reader! 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Fabulous Life of Old New Yorkers

Upon looking at the cover of this book, and yes I judge books by their covers as do you (you’re a liar if you say you don’t!), all I could think of was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In all honesty, that’s not a bad assumption. The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles is about Katey, a young New Yorker, and her life in the year 1938 navigating the upper echelons of the rich.

The Depression hit and slowly the Manhattan economy is coming back, but for some people, the money never ran out. Welcome to the world that Katey and her friend Eve find themselves thrown into after by chance meeting a rich young banker, Tinker. Katey may be a secretary, but suddenly new opportunities, fabulous parties, and the crème de la crème of New York are waiting to discover her. In this year long journey, we meet a number of characters who introduce the reader to the upper crust of late 1930s society and we watch as Katey ascends the ladder.

As I read this book, I saw visions of fabulously dressed people dancing the Charleston across the page. Very Gatbsy-ish indeed! There were numerous reminders of Fitzgerald, the first being the subject matter and the second being the characters. It’s about the rich and those who are lucky enough not only to look in on them, but actually become a part of their elite society. Katey is a young woman who can hold her own and is not intimidated or in awe of those above her in station. She has no problem fitting in with her new found friends. Katey is a character reminiscent of Nick from The Great Gatsby. She isn’t rich, she isn’t from an age old society family, but she happens to meet the right people. She sees the ups and downs of how the other half lives and then is able to make her way out nearly unscathed. I enjoyed the vivid images of old New York, the stores, bars, and apartments. Towles made it easy to imagine the glamor of the time period, while simultaneously showing the regular working class side of the city.

The other characters in this book have strong voices. It isn’t often that you find a book where the secondary characters can stand on their own, and Towles wrote his characters so they were rounded. People are complicated and he had no problem with exploring their flaws. There were times when he suddenly went on winding monologues about different sports, places, or activities. They added to an understanding of the period and the people, but I’d think to myself, “Is the author just trying to be stylish?”. If he was, he did it damn well and I applaud his first novel.

If you enjoy literary fiction, the life of the rich and fabulous, and this novel, here are some suggestions:

Eve in Hollywood by Amor Towles
The follow up to The Rules of Civility, this novel follows Eve, after she heads to California and looks at her life amongst the heart of Old Hollywood.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
Much like Rules this novel takes place in New York City in the 1920s/30s. It’s about a young Louise Brooks, the soon to be silent movie star, and her chaperone, Cora, who travel to New York where they discover  the rapidly changing city and society.

Doc by Mary Doria Russell
Although still historical fiction, this novel is a bit of a flight from Rules, but still has well developed characters and a strong sense of place. In the Old West, the reader gets to meet a young Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp before they were famous.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Heartwarming Summer Reading

After finishing Saving Ceecee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman, I wanted another sweet, easy to read book. Luckily for me, Hoffman just released a new book called Looking for Me. Like Ceecee, this novel takes place in the South and is about family.

Teddi is a middle aged woman who has the fortune of not only pursuing her passion, but making money off of it. Teddi is the owner of an antiques shop in Charleston. She has a knack for finding beauty and life in the most abused of furniture and bringing it back from the brink of the garbage lot. Although originally from Kentucky, Teddi has found a place, good friends, and customers in Charleston and even a surprising new romance. However, Teddi is still dealing with the loss of her brother who ran away decades ago and hasn’t been heard from since. She still carries the hope of one day finding him. Teddi weaves her story through the ups and downs of her family history in Kentucky, and her present life in Charleston.

Charleston and Kentucky play vital roles in Looking. The reader gets the sense of the woods and farm land in Kentucky, but I found that Charleston was not as well highlighted. Compared to Hoffman’s first novel, Saving Ceecee Honeycutt, where the setting was described and the reader truly got the sense of the surroundings; Charleston’s descriptions missed the mark. Not to say it wasn't a perfectly lovely novel. For those looking for something a bit nostalgic, comforting, and moving, this is a good pick.

Here are a few similar novels:

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
A character driven story about a young woman and the three women who take her in. This is a novel with a strong sense of place and memorable characters.

Tapestry of Fortunes by Elizabeth Berg
An engaging and heartwarming read, Berg writes about women’s lives. Cecelia decides to sell her home and road trip with three other women in search of things and people they are seeking.

The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs
The main character also works with antiques and it is about discovering your roots and making your way in the world. Tess finds out she is to inherit an apple orchard and be part owner with a half-sister she didn’t know existed.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

World War Z

After the Zombie Apocalypse, a series of interviews take place with people from all over the world about what happened. The interviews encapsulate a number of different voices from the doctor who was brought in to treat the first infected patient, American soldiers who fought against the zombies, a blind monk who fought off zombies in the wilds of Asia, and many more hopeful, heartbreaking, and disturbing stories.  Max Brooks brings a sense of reality to an unthinkable event. What was once an urban legend suddenly starts rising from the grave and attacking the human race, bringing humanity to the edge of extinction. What is achieved is a sense of anxiety, reality, morals (or lack thereof), and duty that leave the reader wondering what they would do if World War Z were actually to occur.

Brooks sweeps from continent to continent and subject to subject with ease. The writing is engaging with easy to read language. Fair warning, dear reader, this is not for the faint hearted. Though I did not find it disgusting or the descriptions overly grotesque, if you don’t like violence, this is not for you.

Personally, I did not expect to enjoy this novel. Zombies are not my thing, but I couldn't put this down. It was creepy, but not written as an over the top, slasher book. Brooks explored the nuances and catastrophes of such a devastating event. It was more about the people involved and less about the brain eating ghouls.

Here are a few more books you may enjoy if you like World War Z.
  • The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks. For all the know how you’ll need for getting through your own Zombie Apocalypse.
  • The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman. Kirkman prides himself on his look at what happened to people after the zombies invaded.

  • Dying to Live (#1) by Kim Paffenroth. A group of survivors of the zombie apocalypse band together to survive and try and make sense of the horrors that are occurring. They’re not the only ones out there though and there are some things worse than zombies…

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pre-Revolutionary America mixed with Ye Old American Folktale

My dear reader,

I have not been in a writing mood of late, and life has been crazy, so not a terrible lot of reading has gotten done either. Before I go on vacation, where I will most certainly read quite a bit, I will review the latest book I read.

How does life unfold before you? Christine Wade’s book Seven Locks says that we unlock our lives. Our life is a great book lying before us. We can turn pages, but in order to jump chapters we need to open the locks. These are great events or experiences that change us. Turning points that shape us into who we are, so we can read on. The nameless narrator in Seven Locks is a mother of two with a lazy and self-indulgent husband. Our narrator is said to be a shrew for scolding her husband to do work. One day, after a fearsome fight between the two, the husband wanders off with his gun and his dog, never to return.

Set in pre-Revolutionary America, this tale is about a woman trying to run a farm, raise children, and deal with the humiliation of being left by her husband. It is historical fiction about domestic life. Although the main character can be a bit harsh, it is understandable given that she has had to run a farm and maintain her children’s well-being without help. That’s hard enough in today’s society, let alone in the 1700s when women didn’t live by themselves. Her life and tragedy become an urban legend. Her children disrespect her.

I found the atmosphere and setting captivating. I love hearing about how people ran their homes and how everyday life was conducted in past centuries. The narrator is very capable with her animals and the garden. Her children, however, are a difficulty. How does a woman reign in children who do not trust her and stop listening? The second part of the novel gets into the American Revolution and talks about common thoughts about the war along with how normal people dealt with the onslaught.  Our narrator must deal with even more tragedy due to the war.  

The novel was at times captivating, but I was looking for it to end after a while. There were small breaks in the main character’s narrative for her daughter, Judith, to talk about what she was doing. I enjoyed hearing from the child and then from her as a young woman. As a naive girl, her thoughts are selfish and naive  but her spirit is ignited with the Revolution. The third part of the novel dealt almost exclusively with Judith after the war, when she herself was a wife and mother.  

For the most part I enjoyed the novel. It isn’t terribly memorable, but it was a relatively quick read and gave some insight into pre-Revolution life. The story was inspired by an American folktale and I think most of you will guess what said folktale is rather quickly.

Here are some readalikes for Seven Locks by Christine Wade:

If you want something based on a Folktale, try The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

If you want something that explores the historical and cultural aspects of Colonial America try Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent is about a young girl in Salem, Massachusetts whose mother is accused of witchcraft and how they deal with being outcast. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Home on the Range with "Pride and Prejudice"

After reading Jack Caldwell’s other book, The ThreeColonels, I found he wrote the book Pemberley Ranch. Seeing as it’s the Bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice I decided that this should be my next challenge book (even though I said I’d read something else for June's challenge). Who can pass up Mr. Darcy, cowboy?

It’s about five years after the Civil War ended and the Bennet family is moving from Meryton, Ohio to Rosings, Texas. Beth Bennet is not excited for the move because of her unbridled hate of Southerners due to the death of her brother in the war. But Texas holds some surprises. Not only is it beautiful country, but the people aren't half bad either, including the one northerner, George Whitehead. Jane marries Dr. Bingley, and the Bennets are close friends with many of the southern folk. Will Darcy is another story, however. He may own half the land and be a dashing man, but who can like such a snob? Certainly not Beth! When things at the bank, and scoundrels in town start becoming more menacing, perhaps Will Darcy can be of use.

With the emergence of many well-known characters from a slew of Jane Austen books, including Henry Tilney, the town’s pastor and Mary Bennet’s beau, the story keeps your interest. Pride and Prejudice in antebellum Texas actually works… Not only do we hear from Beth, but we also hear Darcy’s point of view as well. It was refreshing to hear from the man himself. This Darcy is not the snob he is in the original. I actually found that he was a fine character, but Beth was a little overbearing and judgmental. Instead of hearing mainly from her, I felt the focus was more on Darcy, which wasn't a bad thing. It was refreshing to hear more about Mary as well. I loved that she and Tilney were sweet on each other. Their relationship made Mary a focus and not just a satire in the novel. Charlotte Lucas and Fitz are also an item in this novel and get a little more time on the page, which was fun to read about. While playing up some characters/relationships, as mentioned before, others were not really mentioned. Jane and Bingley were married right off the bat and were pretty much left alone. The villains  George Whitehead, Billy Collins, and Denny “the Kid”, were all played WAY up. They went from being annoying or morally corrupt, to being the worst of the worst. It was a bit much. I found that Caldwell may have tried a little too hard on some characters while not focusing enough on the nuance of others, like Beth.

The story is essentially the same, but it puts a very different spin on the characters and setting. I wanted to keep reading even though I felt the story became over the top towards the end.  I enjoyed the placement of P&P in the south. This is a fun book. If you take it too seriously or are too staunch on your P&P fan fiction, you might hate it, but for my part, I found it was a fun, quick read.

Here are some other fun Pride and Prejudice fan fictions:

  • An Assembly Such as This by Pamela Aidan
  • Mr. Darcy’s Obsession by Abigail Reynolds
  • Pemberley Shades: A lightly gothic tale of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy by D.A. Bonavia-Hunt

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Reflecting on Jane in June

Jane in June. Goodbye my friend! After a year of planning, my Jane in June programs are finished. Now it’s time to reflect on what I learned and how excited I am to continue reading and learning about my favorite author.

I started working at my library a year ago, almost exactly. One of my first programming ideas was a tea and talk about Jane Austen. My director got a hold of the idea and told me to expand it, thus Jane in June was born. I had three programs.

The first was my amazing impersonator, Debra Miller, who is a learning theater actor. She wrote her one woman play of Jane Austen mainly from the letters Jane and Cassandra, Jane’s sister, wrote to one another. Not only did Debra look like Jane, but her performance was mesmerizing. She did a fabulous job of interpreting Jane into this performance. She started her performance as Jane after Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park were published and she started becoming a minor celebrity.  I learned a lot about Miss Austen’s life and inspiration, her struggles and triumphs. It was very inspirational and Debra did a great job of talking up books for people to check out, which they did. It always seems like pulling teeth to get people to check out the books we bring to programs.

The second program was a “Jane Austen Tea”. I bought three different kinds of tea and had 5 tea pots. I asked all the attendants to bring a dish to pair with tea. About 12 women came and everyone brought something delicious! Luckily, a coworker was available to make the tea and distribute it throughout the program. We ate, drank, and chatted about Jane Austen’s books, her life, her inspiration, fan fiction, the lasting impressions she has left, and a load of other topics. The women truly enjoyed the event and I was able to let everyone take a free book home. I loved this event. It was not too much work to set up and was low cost. What goes better together than beverages and books!? The best part was, since it was a rainy cooler day, all the women commented on how happy they were to have tea. Truly fun and fabulous. I will certainly do this again and highly suggest you to try it with friends, family, or patrons!

My third and final program was a presentation called “Austen in Our Time”. A local woman, Amy, who is a minor Jane Austen expert, JASNA member (Jane Austen Society of North America), writer, and blogger along with working at a Jane Austen bookstore, was my presenter. She discussed the rise of Austen’s fame through sequels, variations, plays, and finished works. Although people were writing nonfiction and fiction books about Jane Austen and her characters before the 1990s, it was after Colin Firth jumped into the lake that Austen fan fiction and nonfiction really took off. In fact, 1995, saw a slew of Jane Austen books turned into movies, which really launched her into our generation. Amy talked about why she believes Austen above all other authors has had such a strong reception and become such a booming force. She also brought books and other materials from the store to sell, which the patrons enjoyed.

Jane in June was a success. I wish more people would have attended the Jane Austen impersonator, but those who did truly adored it and learned a lot. This was my first solo set of programs and has gone on to inspire another author set of programs next year, Edgar Allen Poe. I’ll be going from satire and romance to angst and creepiness. Sounds like the decline of a lot of my romantic relationships.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Southern Charm

Sometimes you just need a book that’s a hug. Something comforting, lovely, and sweet that makes you feel happy without too much drama. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman was a perfect literary hug.

Cecelia, CeeCee, is a twelve year old girl living with her delusional mother. Mrs. Honeycutt has become less and less lucid over the years and continues to think of herself as the pageant queen she once was. While CeeCee’s mama is dressing up like the prom queen, her daddy is never home leaving her to be in charge of her crazy mother. Way leads unto way and Mrs. Honeycutt ends up dying. Ceecee is transported to her Great Aunt Tootie’s house in Savannah, where she meets a slew of eccentric women. Each one helps CeeCee come out of her shell, deal with her past, and move forward.

This is a character driven book. There isn’t a ton of drama to propel the story forward, and the drama that occurs is quickly solved or nothing becomes of it. You want to keep reading for the humorous, eccentric characters and the captivating setting. There’s something about Savannah and the South that is magical, comforting, and charming.  Savannah especially holds a certain amount of mystery and exotic allure. In CeeCee, the audience sees the exotic in the characters more than the setting and the magic is in the gardens and buildings.

Ceecee is a sweet character. You like her and relate with her and she certainly has her problems, making her a realistic figure. Aunt Tootie is a generous and caring woman. Oletta, the cook and housekeeper, is funny and loving. The almost entirely female cast of characters creates a sense of sisterhood and friendship among women without the competition and contempt that tends to happen when there is a large group of females.

Although I felt it lacked some rising action, it worked out. Some might find the lack of problem events annoying, but for me, there was just enough. Ceecee continues dealing with her Mom’s death throughout the book, so that gave enough groundwork to frame the story around. I just loved the comforting sweetness of the story and characters. I felt wrapped in a blanket of southern charm and reading euphoria.

If you’re looking for something a little gentler, with a southern twist, give Saving CeeCee Honeycutt a try. Here are some other titles to read if you’re into this.

  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • The Secret Life of Bees  by Sue Monk Kidd
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Into the Wild

For book club, it was my month to choose our reading material. I decided to read something I’ve been meaning to read for a while and just hadn’t gotten around to. On top of that, I wanted to give my co-readers a choice. I needed at least two books with similar plots or themes. That’s when I decided on Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Into the Wild. Both by the same author, on my ‘need to read’ shelf, and adventure writing, I thought they’d be different than other books we read.

Into the Wild is a book that stirs up opinions. God knows it did in book club. Chris McCandless just graduated from Emery and decided to go on his very own Odyssey out to the west of the United States. The year is 1992 and Chris didn’t tell anyone where he was going, opting to be like his favorite writers and spend time in the wild away from civilization. His ultimate goal: make it to Alaska, the last wilderness and live off the land. Along the way, he made friends, had near death experiences, and lived his idealized life. Unfortunately, there’s a reason it’s an idealized life. Chris was found outside of Fairbanks, Alaska dead. In Krakauer’s book, we follow Chris around the country and get to know him the best we can.

I hesitantly picked up this book. All I could think of was, this kid is a dumb ass. Who burns their money, deserts their family, and goes into Alaska with very little knowledge of how to live off the land? He deserved what he got for his arrogance. But then I started reading about McCandless. I started understanding his longing for nature, the unknown, testing his limits, and a life altering trip. I envied his ability to have a philosophy that he lived by, truly live by. His ideas were romantic, and as Krakauer points out, not always based on truth in the case of The Call of the Wild, but there was something innocent and beautiful in his ideals. I connected with McCandless. Although I’m not going to hike around the country, I understood the longing to get out of modern society with all its distractions and reconnect with the beauty and overwhelming power of nature.

The book brought up great discussion points from communing with nature, ideals, the power of fiction, youth and stupidity, and somehow sex (it always seems to creep in there, that’s what she said).

I highly recommend this book to the adventure seeker or nature lover. Maybe you will hate McCandless for being a selfish kid. Maybe you’ll love the idea of traveling without expectation or limits. It was surprising how much I enjoyed this book while still having reservations about the main character. If you’ve seen the movie, give the book a try. I’ve heard they paint two different pictures.
If you liked this book and want others like it here are my suggestions:

  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  • Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
  • A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins
  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London