Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Drama Teacher by Koren Zailckas

"It's good to possess a sense of truth but you also need to have a sense of lies." - Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor's Work. This is the opening quote in this novel, and from this point on in the book it is hard to tell what is the truth, and what are lies. Skillfully written, this novel will keep you wondering what is real and what is made up. The main character Gracie is a seasoned con artist, and it is both fascinating and frightening to watch her work. Fascinating because she is quite clever, and frightening because it is then you realize that people in the world actually craft ways to cheat people, and we need to be way more careful about what information we are giving out. Gracie is a mother of two young children and it's interesting to watch how she uses the tricks and scams she'd been taught (by her father no less) to maintain a decent lifestyle for her little family, all while trying to keep people from knowing who she really is. This novel is a study in dysfunctional family dynamics and when things start to unravel, which they always do, we get to follow along, always wondering how it will end. This novel gives you great psychological insight into the mind of a true con artist! A great read!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

How have I not read this before? Lovely, lyrical writing that made me pause to admire turns of phrase. For example, in July, as the author waxes poetical about bird song, “We sally forth, the dog and I, at random. He has paid scant respect to all these vocal goings-on, for to him the evidence of tenancy is not song, but scent. Any illiterate bundle of feathers, he says, can make a noise in a tree.”

I loved the almanac structure and how it reflects the changing seasons. For example: “By September, the day breaks with little help from birds. A song sparrow may give a single half-hearted song, a woodcock may twitter overhead en route to his daytime thicket, a barred owl may terminate the night’s argument with one last wavering call, but few other birds have anything to say or sing about.”

“In June it is completely predictable that the robin will give voice when the light intensity reaches 0.01 candle power, and that the bedlam of other singers will follow in predictable sequence."

This is a very birdy book overall, which of course delighted me as a birder. “Distant crows are berating a hypothetical owl, just to tell the world how vigilant crows are”.

I was not enamored of all the hunting, but that’s a sign of the times, and at least even then Leopold showed restraint as a hunter and acknowledged the danger of over hunting. Leopold lamented our use of economic value to determine importance in 1949, and things have gotten much worse in that regard.

“The fallacy that economic determinists have tied around our collective neck, and which we now need to cast off, is the belief that economics determines all land use. That is simply not true.”

Reading A Sand County Almanac left me both awestruck at the beauty of the natural world and melancholy about the disappearance of wild places.

If you enjoy reading about nature and are worried about the future of our wild places, I recommend A Sand County Almanac.

The Galesburg Public Library has A Sand County Almanac in print and as an ebook. The Food for Thought book group will be discussing the book on August 23.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Matrimonial Advertisement by Mimi Matthews

From the publisher: Helena Reynolds will do anything to escape her life in London, even if that means traveling to a remote cliffside estate on the North Devon coast and marrying a complete stranger. Ex-army captain Justin Thornhill—though he may be tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome—is anything but a romantic hero. Justin has spent the last two decades making his fortune, settling scores, and suffering a prolonged period of torture in an Indian prison. Now, he needs someone to manage his household—and warm his bed on occasion. What he needs, in short, is a wife, and a matrimonial advertisement seems the perfect way to acquire one. Their marriage was meant to be a business arrangement and nothing more. But when Helena’s past threatens, will Justin’s burgeoning feelings for his new bride compel him to come to her rescue? Or will dark secrets of his own force him to let her go?

I’ve read two novellas by Mimi Matthews, but this is her first full-length novel, and it’s a lovely one. A true historical romance – not an excuse for wild sex and not a comedy of manners – from the author’s Perfectly Proper Press.

The main characters are complex and well developed. Their fears and insecurities are understandable and justified. The plot seems plausible, not filled with coincidences, misunderstandings, and unlikely decisions. (An event near the end was a bit predictable and clichéd, but otherwise the ending is rewarding.) I enjoyed listening in to the thoughts of both the hero and the heroine in turn.

The real threat in Victorian times of heirs being institutionalized in asylums so family members could take their fortunes plays a significant role in the book, as does the horrific Siege of Cawnpore in India. It is a pleasure to read a historical novel that also teaches me about history.

If you like clean historical romance with conflicted characters and happily ever afters, you may enjoy The Matrimonial Advertisement and other books by Mimi Matthews.

This seems to be the first book in a series, and I eagerly await sequels. I read an advance reader copy of The Matrimonial Advertisement from Netgalley. It is scheduled to be published on September 4 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Promises and Primroses by Josi S. Kilpack

Lord Elliott Mayfield aims to correct the very messy marital mistakes and scandals of his brothers and sisters by requiring his nieces and nephews to choose worthy companions.  If they choose wisely, they will receive their generous share of the family’s inheritance. Peter, Elliott’s eldest nephew, thinks the entire idea is ridiculous. A widower with two young daughters, he simply needs a governess, not a wife. Julia Hollingsworth certainly has the credentials and the experience, but is altogether too young and pretty for such a job. Julia loves working as a governess, despite the objections of her mother, Amelia. And as it turns out, Amelia has a lot to say about the Mayfield men—none of it good. Amelia, whose heart was broken thirty years ago by none other than Elliott Mayfield, is determined to prevent any relationship from blooming either between Peter and Julia—or between herself and Elliott. Hearts and history collide as both couples must face their pasts and decide if risking it all is worth the promise of new love and a new future.

Promises and Primroses is the charming first book in a new series by Josi. S. Kilpack. I enjoyed the book and how the author writes. There are believable obstacles to Happily Ever After for the two couples involved. I liked that after Elliott broke Amelia’s heart, she found a good man to love and share her life with. Peter and Julia’s relationship is proper for the times – no falling into bed before they’ve done much more than say hello (or, indeed, until they are married). When Julia accidentally reads a letter not intended for her eyes, it doesn’t lead to pages of misunderstanding – she confronts Peter with it and the misunderstandings are cleared up.

The plot involves no surprises, but the characters are real and flawed, and it was fun to watch the two couples travel from A to B. It was also nice to see middle-aged people pursuing romance and Happily Ever After. And the story features dogs! 

If you enjoy clean, well written romances with thoughtful storylines, I recommend Promises and Primroses. I read an advance reader copy from Netgalley. It will be published September 4 and will be available for checkout at the Galesburg Public Library

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, by Kiersten White

From the publisher: Elizabeth Lavenza hasn't had a proper 
meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her "caregiver," and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything--except a friend.

Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable--and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.

But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth's survival depends on managing Victor's dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness.

This Young Adult novel retells Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from the perspective of Elizabeth Lavenza, a fairly minor character from the original novel who is the fiancée of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who creates the infamous monster.  Although the novel may be best read as a companion to Frankenstein, it also works quite well as a standalone read for those who have not read the original.

Seventeen year-old Elizabeth is a ward of the Frankenstein family. She was adopted as a child to be a companion for their eldest son Victor, who (to put it mildly) is a little unusual and doesn't relate well to other people. Elizabeth, eager to escape her current "caretaker" who regularly abuses her, quickly figures out who she needs to be in order to become inseparable from Victor and sets about shaping herself into that person. It works - she grows more and more attached to him, holding onto him as a lifeline.  Despite her close attachment (or perhaps because of it), she copes with a constant fear of being rejected and abandoned, believing that Victor's father would toss her out onto the street at the slightest provocation.

As the story begins, Victor has been away at university for about two years, leaving Elizabeth behind with the family since as a woman in 19th-century Europe, she cannot attend university herself. Victor wrote to her regularly at first, but she has received no word in many months. Desperate to learn what has become of the young man she regards as her only hope for a future, Elizabeth sets out from the Frankenstein home to find Victor and bring him home. 

Anyone familiar with the story of Frankenstein should be able to figure out what she discovers, but even once the full horror of the situation becomes clear, things are not necessarily what they seem. This is where the novel really starts to put a twist on the original Frankenstein story.

Without getting into specifics, Elizabeth's tale suggests that the events Victor relates in the original novel might not be what really happened. Modern readers tend to see Dr. Frankenstein as the true villain already, rather than the monster he created, and this novel plays with those expectations in new and interesting ways.

Whether or not the reader finds Elizabeth relatable, it's easy to see why she believes and acts as she does. It's clear that Kiersten White did her research and is quite familiar with the source material, the time period, and the setting. Though Frankenstein turned 200 years old this year, this book feels like a believable companion to the original novel.  

This book should appeal to fans of the original, as well as horror readers in general and fans of compelling female protagonists.  I read an Advance Reader Copy of The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. The book comes out September 25th, and will be available in print at Galesburg Public Library.

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

From the publisher: Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle. But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims. 

“Any given innovation that empowers the individual will inevitably come to empower the powerful much, much more.” (p. 493)

Foundryside is engrossing, inventive, and fun. The characters have depth and much room to be explored in later books, and the plot caught me by surprise a number of times. Not everyone is what they seem, and there are many gray areas to their personalities.

Although set in a fantasy world, Foundryside has things to say about life in our world. I particularly liked this quote:
You have to understand, kid, that you’re wading into the depths of a war that has raged for time beyond memory – a war between those who make and that which is made, between those who own and those who are owned. (p. 484)

One of the things I liked is that the author has more original ways than using and overusing the F word to show that his characters often swear and can be coarse. I also liked that when he sets up a surprise twist, he doesn’t hide that something is happening. Although I didn’t guess what was coming the author made it possible for me to do so. (I hate it when authors keep knowledge from the reader just so they can create a surprise twist.) Also, at least so far, there aren’t any ancient texts or prophecies proclaiming Sancia to be a chosen one.

There is a bit of insta-love – meh – but at least there is no love triangle. Although the ending is wide open for sequels, this particular book also wraps up neatly. I’ll be looking forward to book 2.

Foundryside reminded me a little of the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix, although I found it easier to follow. If you enjoy thought-provoking fantasy with a lot of action and interesting characters, you might want to read Foundryside. I read an advance reader copy of Foundryside; it is due out on August 21 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as a book and an ebook.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer

From the publisher: Vice President Joe Biden is fresh out of the Obama White House and feeling adrift when his favorite railroad conductor dies in a suspicious accident, leaving behind an ailing wife and a trail of clues. To unravel the mystery, “Amtrak Joe” re-teams with the only man he’s ever fully trusted—the 44th president of the United States. Together they’ll plumb the darkest corners of Delaware, traveling from cheap motels to biker bars and beyond, as they uncover the sinister forces advancing America’s opioid epidemic.

A run of the mill mystery elevated by the fact that it's narrated by a (fictional) Joe Biden, kicking around with nothing to do and missing his BFF Barack Obama. When a friend from his days riding Amtrak is killed, Obama shows up at his house, secret service agent in tow (poor Biden no longer qualifies for secret service protection).

Biden and Obama (and the dour secret service agent) get pulled into solving the mystery and busting a drug running ring. Obama is cool but heroic; Biden is self reflective and self deprecating. Everything we loved about those Obama/Biden memes is captured in this book. Biden jokes with the clerk at a convenience store about the weather; when she responds with "global warming," Obama counters with a lecture on climate change. 

Hope Never Dies got a big draggy, but it's worth continuing for those golden Obama/Biden moments. Recommended for those who miss their presidential bromance.

I read an advance reader copy of Hope Never Dies; it will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as an ebook and in print in July,