Sunday, January 6, 2019

Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna

From the publisher: When Prosecco‑loving Auntie Poldi retired to Sicily from Germany, she never dreamed her tranquil days would be interrupted by murder. But Sicily had other plans, and Poldi found herself honor‑bound to solve the disappearance of her beloved (and cute) handyman. Now she’s finally ready for some peace and quiet—interrupted by romantic encounters with handsome Chief Inspector Montana, of course—when the water supply to her neighborhood is cut off and a dear friend’s dog is poisoned, telltale signs that a certain familial organization is flexing its muscles. Poldi knows there will be no resolution without her help. She soon finds a body in a vineyard, tangles with the Mafia, and yet again makes herself unpopular in the pursuit of justice. But once wine and murder mix, how could she possibly stay away? 

The Auntie Poldi series appeals to me for a couple of reasons. First off, the story is narrated by her nephew, and as a childless aunt I’m always interested in stories about interesting aunts and their relationships with their nephews and nieces. Secondly, it is set in Italy, which I’ve visited twice and hope to visit again. I haven’t been to Sicily but I really want to go (and probably should have saved this book for that trip, but I couldn’t wait).

The author was born in Munich, Germany to Italian immigrants. It feels like he has done his research or has visited Italy often. I’m sure some of the stuff is stereotypical – there is a lot about the Mafia and organized crime – but I know firsthand some of the stuff is not. The sweetened espresso, the crazy driving. There are a lot of dogs in these books, including a scary pair of German shepherds named Hanz and Franz. The Italian love of dogs also seems very typical. A scene involving Poldi, her sisters, her brother-in-law, and the dog was amusingly madcap, as was a scene in which Poldi, her priest, and her sad Signora friend break into a house to search for a clue to a murder. I enjoyed the many references to the active volcano Mount Etna and its continual smoking.

The nephew is a good narrator but a terrible writer who comes to stay with Poldi and work on his terrible novel. (“Another week at my Auntie Poldi’s was over, and I was feeling proud of myself. That needs saying occasionally. I was in full flow. I was the adjective ace, the metaphor magician, the sorcerer of the subordinate clause, the expresser of emotions, the master of a host of startling but entirely plausible turns of events.” (p. 325 of the advance reader copy) His descriptions of his plot are just as bad and show the startling turns are anything but plausible.) Poldi tells him what happened as she investigates crimes, and he tells us, and they are both unreliable and entertaining.

Auntie Poldi reminds me a bit of the best of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, although Poldi is more interesting and the plots so far are more original and less formulaic. She is sixty years old and living her best life. Looking forward to a long-running series.

I read an advance reader copy of Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna. It is scheduled to be published in early March 2019 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library. The first book in the series, Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, is available now.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver is Naomi Novik's second retelling of a fairy tale. You do not need to read Uprooted before reading Spinning Silver (although I definitely recommend reading Uprooted).

It's hard to put in to words all the things I love about Spinning Silver. This is a slow moving tale with lots of characters. Novik expects you to pay attention; there are many first person narrators and you have to figure out who is speaking - she does not put their names at the start of each transition. The story begins and it builds. It builds and it builds and it builds, and characters are woven into the stories of the other characters and then into the main thread like an elaborate braid.

On  page 1 we are told what the story of Rumpelstiltskin is about: "getting out of paying your debts." I thought about this all through the 465 pages that followed. Although the story is predictable in many ways - it is a fairy tale, after all - I had no idea how things were going to happen or resolve.

Three young women of about the same age but different circumstances anchor the stories. Although each has strengths she does not know yet, the women are not strong at the expensive of male characters being weak. Although I like strong female characters, I get tired of the "girl power" narratives that are dismissive of boys and men that are also good and strong. Spinning Silver is not one of those girl power narratives, although there is a LOT of female power.

Fairy tale characters are often caricatures, but Novik goes to the trouble to give depth to her characters. They grow and change. For example, Wanda is a poor girl with an abusive father and two brothers. Their mother is dead, after giving birth to a number of babies who died. She and the babies are buried beneath the white tree. Wanda does not love her brothers: "Love was buried with my mother. Sergey and Stepon were only more of the babies who made my mother sick." (p. 28) "They had taken her from me, all of them: Sergey and Stepon and the rest of those dead boys in the dirt. They had taken my mother. I had never wanted to share her with them. What right did they have to her?" (p. 31)  But things begin to change when Wanda saves Sergey's life because Stepon loves Sergey, and eventually Wanda does love and respect her brothers.

Although there are marriages in this book, there are way more kinds of love than romantic love. Love of a parent for a child, of a brother for a sister, of a neighbor for a neighbor, of a mistress for a servant, of a parent for someone else's child. Spinning Silver is filled with toil and trials, but also friendship and honor.

There are bad characters in the book, but there are also complex characters. Even the cruel fae king of winter is just trying to save his people. Even the demon-possessed tsar has reasons for being angry and indifferent.

There is a lot about being Jewish in this book, without being anti anything else. Jews are loathed, but people need the moneylender and the banker and the jeweler all the same. And even this old story is told with a hope for change.

Often in fantasy I either don't understand how the magic works or don't find it believable. Novik builds and layers the magic of her world in a way that I totally bought in to. If there were inconsistencies, I didn't notice them.

Wow, I've really said a lot about this book. If you like thoughtful, slow building, engrossing world building and interesting characters, you may enjoy Spinning Silver, and Uprooted as well. The Galesburg Public Library owns Spinning Silver in print and as an ebook.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

In the Shadow of Croft Towers by Abigail Wilson

From the publisher: from debut author Abigail Wilson comes a shadowy Regency tale of secrets and spies, love and treachery.

In the Shadow of Croft Towers is an atmospheric historical novel set in England in the early 1800s. Orphaned Sybil has been educated by an unknown benefactor and receives a mysterious letter that leads her to accept a position at the secluded manor known as Croft Towers. On the way there the coach is stopped by highwaymen, who seem less interested in the riches of the passengers than in the passengers themselves.

Upon arrival, Sybil meets the other inhabitants of Croft Towers and realizes one of them, her new employer's godson, was one  of the highwaymen. She keeps his secret and is slowly pulled into the intrigue that surrounds Croft Towers and those who live there.

In the Shadow of Croft Towers is predictable but a fun read, with secrets upon secrets and lies upon lies. If you are a fan of books like Rebecca and The Woman in White, you may enjoy this novel.

I read an advanced reader copy of this book from Netgalley. The book is scheduled to be published on January 15, 2019 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and as an ebook.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A Holiday by Gaslight by Mimi Matthews

From the publisher: Sophie Appersett is quite willing to marry outside of her class to ensure the survival of her family. But the darkly handsome Mr. Edward Sharpe is no run-of-the-mill London merchant. He’s grim and silent. A man of little emotion—or perhaps no emotion at all. After two months of courtship, she’s ready to put an end to things. But severing ties with her taciturn suitor isn’t as straightforward as she envisioned. Her parents are outraged. What’s a girl to do except invite Mr. Sharpe to Appersett House for Christmas and give him one last chance to win her? Only this time there’ll be no false formality. This time they’ll get to know each other for who they really are.

Mimi Matthews has fast become my favorite author of historical romance novels. She is an attorney as well as an author who researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. Her attention to historical facts and detail really shows in her novels. Her books are published by Perfectly Proper Press and the courtship behaviors are true to the times – no jumping into bed before marriage for her lovers.

A Holiday by Gaslight is short and sweet. According to the author’s note, it “was inspired by the social, scientific, and technological advances of the mid-19th century.” She works in plot points about gaslights, Charles Darwin, and Prince Albert. The main characters are flawed but sympathetic. Side characters like Ned’s parents and Sophie’s father and sister are frustrating but believable. I particularly enjoyed the differences between the rules of upper class courtship and courtship between members of the merchant class.

If you enjoy clean and accurate historical romances featuring likable characters and believable romantic obstacles, you may enjoy the works of Mimi Matthews. I read an advance reader copy of A Holiday By Gaslight, which will be published on November 13 and will be available for checkout at the Galesburg Public Library. We also own two previous works by the author, The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter and The Lost Letter.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a heartwarming yet melancholy tale narrated by Nana, a former stray cat now fortunate to live with a young man named Satoru. Nana used to sleep on the hood of Satoru’s silver van, until one day Nana was unlucky enough to be hit by a car. Satoru has had some rough times in his own life, including losing his parents at a young age, but he has a sweet and kind nature. Like most cats, Nana is independent and a bit irritable. They have five lovely years together before Satoru, for reasons he does not reveal immediately, sets out on a journey to find Nana a new home. They visit friends from Satoru’s childhood and college days, and we learn more about Satoru and Nana.
If you are a cat lover, this book will definitely give you all the feels. Nana’s voice as the narrator is amusing, and his relationship with the young man who saves him and takes him in is touching. It’s a short book you can read in a sitting or two. Be sure to have the box of tissues near by.
Recommended for fans of A Man Called Ove and The Charms of Arthur Pepper. I read an advance reader copy of The Travelling Cat Chronicles. It will be released in the U.S. on October 23 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library.

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.