Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Spinster by Kate Bolick

I was intrigued the first time I read a blurb about the new book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. As one of the 17% of American women who have never been married (as of 2012, according to the Pew Research Center), I cringe at the terms “spinster” and “old maid.” There does still seem to be more of a stigma attached to unmarried women of a certain age than to men in the same situation.

I’m not generally a big fan of memoirs but I had no trouble staying engaged by Spinster. And this is mostly a memoir, of her personal journey to adulthood. She spends a considerable amount of time giving historical details about five women she calls her “awakeners” – five women who have helped her make sense of herself. They are essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton, social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and poet Edna S. Vincent Millay. (I was a little surprised to find that none of her awakeners fits the classic definition of “spinster” – all married at least once.) Although the information on her awakeners was interesting, to me it was not particularly reflective on today’s unmarried woman.

Bolick is a good writer. Her mother died when she was 23, and she notes about her mother:

The literary critic in me resents her role in this book the way I would a sentimental plot twist in a movie. We all have had mothers; few among us want to lose them; I wish my experience had transcended such an obvious bid for your sympathy and I could have become a different writer. But I can’t erase the fact that the first day of my adult life was that morning in May that my mother took her last breath. (p. 42)

But Bolick can come across as a bit whiney (poor her, all those great guys who want to marry her when she just doesn’t want to get married). For the most part her experience as an unmarried woman did not resonate with me. Her sexual experiences – lots of sex with lots of men, often with no emotional commitment – are outside my experience and indeed my comfort zone. For the most part, I did not feel she was speaking to my life as an unmarried woman in the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The author is about 10 years younger than me, and I wonder if it’s the age difference. I’d be interested to know how single woman of her age respond to the book.

In the end, I did not feel I had much in common with Bolick. Instead, she reminded me of an old on-again, off-again boyfriend of 13 years, truly a “man who could not commit.” And maybe the author would find that satisfying – that in today’s U.S., she too has the right to be the one who can’t commit.

Although Spinster didn’t resonate with me as a fellow spinster, I did enjoy reading it and found it thought provoking. I recommend it to anyone (male or female) interested in life as a single adult, in feminist heroes, and in coming-of-age memoirs. I read a digital advance reading copy from netgalley.com. Spinster is scheduled to be published on April 21, 2015.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines

From the publisher:

It's the Fall of 1942 and Iris's world is rapidly changing. Her Pop is back from the war with a missing leg, limiting his ability to do the physically grueling part of his detective work. Iris is dying to help, especially when she discovers that one of Pop's cases involves a boy at her school. Now, instead of sitting at home watching Deanna Durbin movies, Iris is sneaking out of the house, double crossing her friends, and dancing at the Savoy till all hours of the night. There's certainly never a dull moment in the private eye business.

Galesburg Public Library's Chapter Chompers Teen Book Club read The Girl is Murder as its March selection. The book also served as the YA companion book for the library's 2015 Big Read selection The Maltese Falcon. The six teens who attended our discussion loved this book!  It is definitely our most popular choice to date. The group loved how the book combines mystery, surprising plot twists and turns, and mini history lessons.

The book club teens all agreed that Kathryn Miller Haines does an excellent job of writing well-developed and interesting characters. We talked a lot about how we enjoyed the book even though Iris is not a particularly likable character ("she lies ALL THE TIME," according to one group member). We also spent time coming up with pop culture parallels for what we imagine some of the characters to look like: for example, group members envision Grace's mom looking like a blond Delores Umbridge from Harry Potter and Iris's Dad looking like Detective Gumshoe from the game "Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney."

The group also spent some time thinking about the issue of discrimination as depicted in the book. We looked up some pictures of zoot suits, and tried to think of types of clothing that are used to judge or discriminate against people today.

The Chapter Chompers 5-point book rating system is as follows:
1 (lowest ranking) = 1 pizza
2 = 2 pizzas
3 = 3 pizzas
4 = breadsticks
5 = unitado

The Girl is Murder achieved an enthusiastic rating of Breadsticks. It is available now in libraries and bookstores.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Purely Primitive Dolls by Barb Moore

Purely Primitive Dolls is a great instructional tool for creating old-fashioned dolls. The instructions are clear and accompanied by crisp and plentiful photographs. The narrative is upbeat and encouraging. The author makes plenty of suggestions for putting your own touches on your creations.

Purely Primitive Dolls can be found at the Galesburg Public Library at 745.592 MOO. It is currently in the New Nonfiction area.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Forgiveness 4 You by Ann Bauer

This is a unique book. Author Ann Bauer approaches to topic of forgiveness from a non-traditional approach. Her main character, Gabriel McKenna is an ex-Catholic priest. He works in a small bookstore. He listens well to people and is a very approachable person, to whom people open up even without knowing his background or former calling. One such person to whom he listens sees his skills as marketable. An advertising executive, she sees the possibilities of offering non-church related confessions and forgiveness. So begins a few intense weeks of exploring this idea and setting up the business.

While such a commercial approach might seem outrageous, Bauer handles the issue with subtle nuances through various characters, related issues and situations. The nuances sometimes are humorous and sometimes poignant. And then there's the good ex-Father himself. He is not without his own story and needs.

The book would make for a good discussion by church and non-church groups alike. Some might have to brace themselves for some passionate sex scenes. But the premise that many in the world are looking for reconciliation, confession, forgiveness, absolution and resolution is valid. The degree of this hunger is witnessed by the fact that the author received such a positive response to the idea of her book that she now has a Forgiveness 4 You website at which people can share their confessions. Check it out. And check out the book. I predict it will be made into a movie.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I loved Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It’s an original fairy tale populated with well-developed characters. The world building is fabulous. The author uses unfamiliar words, but not too many, and the story feels like a fairy tale told in a European country. The plot took turns I did not expect, and some elements of fairy tales were turned upside down. The first time the heroine, Agnieszka, meets the Prince, he assumes it is okay to bed her and she knocks him out with a breakfast tray. Only the wizard’s magic saves his life. The wizard teaches Agnieszka a spell that dresses her in beautiful ballgowns; she learns to mumble the word so it will dress her in something practical and comfortable instead.

Agnieszka lives in Dvernik, one of a few small towns near a scary Wood. The witches and wizards in this realm take on new names that reflect their magical personalities. The wizard who lives near her hometown is called the Dragon. He uses his magic to help the towns, and, most importantly, he protects them from the evil Wood. Every 10 years he takes one girl from the villages to live alone with him in his tower. No one really knows what life is like for those girls for those 10 years; when the girls are released, they leave the village.

He chooses a girl who is 17, and there are 11 girls to choose from when Agnieszka
 is 17. He always takes the most special girl, and everyone has always assumed he will take the intelligent, talented, beautiful Kasia, Agnieszka’s best friend. But when the day comes, he takes Agnieszka instead of Kasia. Although she doesn’t know it, Agnieszka has magic in her. So does this story.

The main character is presented as clumsy and often wearing stains of food and dirt. This seems like a tired characteristic, but it comes in to play in an unexpected way as the story moves on. The author delves into how people feel. How Kasia felt, knowing she was expected to be the one the Dragon took. How Agnieszka felt, fearing the loss of her best friend but relieved thinking it wouldn’t be her that was taken. How Kasia’s mother felt, pulling away from her daughter in anticipation of the loss.

But the story also has plenty of action as well – battles between armies, struggles against the Wood. The author has no qualms about developing characters and then killing them off. We are not left to wonder why the Wood is evil; there is a good explanation, and we hear all about it before the end of the book. The book straddles the line between young adult and adult fiction. It feels like the author didn’t care – she wrote her story and the readers can decide who wants to read it. That felt refreshing.

Uprooted has a strong female lead, but the male characters are not portrayed as weak in comparison. There is a romance, but it’s not the primary focus of the story. The Dragon is not as fleshed out as Agnieszka and Kasia, but I got a real sense of his personality. Hopefully there will be sequels, and we’ll get to know him better. (At this time, however, the author says the book is a standalone title.)

I am a fan of Novik’s Temeraire series (which the Galesburg Public Library owns in several formats), but this book is entirely different. I would not have guessed it was written by the same author. I highly recommend Uprooted to anyone in the least intrigued by its premise.

I read an advance reader copy from netgalley.com. Uprooted is scheduled to be published in May 2015. The cover is not great, if it's the final cover. I don't think it conveys the depth of the story.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Dead to Me by Mary McCoy

Genres: Noir, Mystery, Young Adult
Release Date: March 3rd, 2015
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Source: ARC from Publisher

Add on Goodreads
"Don't believe anything they say."

Those were the last words that Annie spoke to Alice before turning her back on their family and vanishing without a trace. Alice spent four years waiting and wondering when the impossibly glamorous sister she idolized would return to her--and what their Hollywood-insider parents had done to drive her away.

When Annie does turn up, the blond, broken stranger lying in a coma has no answers for her. But Alice isn't a kid anymore, and this time she won't let anything stand between her and the truth, no matter how ugly. The search for those who beat Annie and left her for dead leads Alice into a treacherous world of tough-talking private eyes, psychopathic movie stars, and troubled starlets--and onto the trail of a young runaway who is the sole witness to an unspeakable crime. What this girl knows could shut down a criminal syndicate and put Annie's attacker behind bars--if Alice can find her first. And she isn't the only one looking

Evoking classic film noir, debut novelist Mary McCoy brings the dangerous glamour of Hollywood's Golden Age to life, where the most decadent parties can be the deadliest, and no drive into the sunset can erase the crimes of past.

Dead to Me is a book as pretty as its cover (although I really shouldn’t be using the word pretty).

As someone who has always been a noir mystery fan, I had a lot of fun reading this book and thought it was the perfect brain candy! It might not have been as noir as it could have been but it was still noir enough to satisfy me and keep me on the edge of my seat, flipping through the pages and trying to figure out what exactly was at play here.

Before I talk about all the good stuff, I wanted to talk a little about the setting of the novel. Dead To Me is set in the late 1940’s. There is so much that could have been done with that and even in the blurb, 'the golden Hollywood age' is mentioned, but the potential for this wasn't realized, at least I never felt it was. Their are so many things specific to that time period but they weren't as played up as they could have been. If it weren’t for little things here and there, I would have had no idea that this book was set almost 60 years in the past. I am not saying that the author doesn't go into incredibly awesome details regarding Hollywood and all the secrets that come with it but the problem is that I never felt as though it was enough and I wanted more than just Hollywood in that time period. 

My issues regarding the setting aside, Alice was fantastic female lead. Her determination, her need to find out what actually happened, kept me turning the pages. It’s hard to not want to know how this all turns out. Where is everything going? Every corner Alice looks in, some deep hidden secret comes crawling out and she is forced to question the world as she knows it. She is so determined and while it did seem a tad unrealistic that this young girl managed to do all of these things all on her own, I decided to roll with it for the sake of the story. Alice was so believable as a female lead because not all of her decisions were on point but she did manage to make a lot of smart decisions over the course of the book. The way she solved the mystery and put together the puzzle pieces made sense to me as a reader. She is not a perfect character but she isn't that imperfectly perfect kind of character either. She makes mistakes that will make you shake your head but she also makes other decisions that make you want to high five her.

There is an entire entourage of secondary character who are all as interestingly developed as Alice and I liked getting to know them. One of the things McCoy did very well was making sure none of the characters were flat. Bad guys aside, the secondary characters walked a thin line between black and white. They all had their faults and it just made them so much more interesting to read about.
It added to this idea of black vs. white in the story because there are so many lines being crossed that you no longer know what is more shocking. Is it okay for someone to do something terrible because it was a choice between their lives and the thing they were being asked to do? 

This book is incredibly atmospheric and McCoy does a great job in building the deceit, lies and the secrets. It’s a book that is well plotted. Nothing about it screams predictable and yet you won’t find yourself being surprised. I make it sound like a bad thing but it isn’t. It works incredibly well for this book and adds in a realistic layer. If there had been more red herrings and more ‘surprises’, I know it would have been harder for me to take this book seriously but as it is, my eyes were glued to the pages.

One of the best parts of this book is that there was no romance, there was a moment or two that made me question if the author would decide to throw one in but there were wayyyyy too many other things on Alice’s mind to think about any boys in any sort of way. She is being beaten up by bad guys, she is chasing bad guys! None of this actually leaves room for some ladi-da romance. SERIOUS STUFF IS GOING DOWN.

What made this book so fantastic was the way the author wrapped everything up. The book really picked up pace toward the end and I was so worried about how the author would resolve everything. I was worried she would decide to give this mystery a clean cut ending but that isn't what happened. Not everything is perfect in the real world and the book didn’t end on a  ‘everything is solved and we can go back to our normal life now’ note. It was more realistic than that and it did justice to the book.

This is a fun noir mystery and while it may not be perfect, I definitely enjoyed reading it and would definitely recommend it to noir mystery fans or anything just looking for something exciting to pick up!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Heart Revealed by Josi S. Kilpack

A Heart Revealed by Josi S. Kilpack is a lovely novel that caught me off guard. It’s the latest “proper romance” from Shadow Mountain publishing.  “This new brand of ‘proper’ romance allows readers to enjoy romance at its very best—and at its cleanest—portraying everything they love about a passionate, romantic novel, without busting corsets or bed scenes,” according to www.shadowmountain.com.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Heart Revealed. Although it is a romance, even more it is a coming-of-age story. Amber Sterlington is the Rage of the Season in Regency London. When Thomas Richards first sees her, he is physically attracted to her. There is nothing about Amber that is attractive except her physical beauty. She is shallow, haughty, dismissive, and thoroughly unlikeable. Thomas is not only a third son, he is from the country, so while he is of Amber’s class, she would never give him a second look. Indeed, the second time she meets him, she doesn’t recall having been introduced and snubs him mercilessly and publicly.

But Amber is about to get her comeuppance in thorough fashion. She has a rare disorder that causes her to lose her hair. Her family banishes her to a rustic cottage in the country with only a maid for company and assistance. Fortunately for Amber, Thomas lives nearby, and while Amber lives in isolation under a false name, a chance errand brings Amber to his attention.

This book is mostly about Amber becoming a better person while dealing with a disability and personal challenges. There is very little interaction between Amber and Thomas until the second half of the novel. I would have liked more scenes with the two of them and more of Thomas by himself. Thomas is a fine, admirable gentleman who does not let society dictate his behavior. Once love comes between them, it happens very quickly, but that’s not unusual in romance novels. And I thoroughly enjoyed Amber’s changing relationship with her maid Suzanne and growing awareness of her own flawed character.

There were some parts of the book that struck me as not true to the times, but I’m not a Regency purist so they didn’t bother me too much. The book did get a little draggy about one third of the way in, but once it picked up I really flew through to the end.  So often a romance heroine is so beautiful and perfect it’s hard to relate to her. This book features a main character who struggles with a disorder 200 years ago that would be difficult to deal with even today.

This book is a stellar example of its type. If you enjoy a well-written coming-of-age story with good character development and a little romance thrown in, I strongly recommend it. If your focus is on the romance and lots of it, this book may not be your cup of tea.

I read an advance reader copy from netgalley.com. A Heart Revealed will be published on April 7. If you looking for a book to read while you are waiting, the Galesburg Public Library owns two other “proper romance” novels, Edenbrooke and Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith is a “modern retelling” of Jane Austen’s classic novel. It is part of the Austen Project, which pairs six contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works. Joanna Trollope reimagined Sense & Sensibility, and Val McDermid reworked Northanger Abbey. Emma is the third project book to be finished. 

Emma is my fourth favorite novel by Jane Austen but the first Austen Project book I’ve read. Emma is fairly unlikeable for most of the original novel, and she is in McCall Smith’s version as well. McCall Smith captures the overall feel of the original quite well. It is set in today’s England but retains Austen’s gentle and refined tone from 1815 Regency England. Emma interferes, matchmaking with abandon, creating one successful pairing but upsetting others. The characters from Emma are all here – fretful Mr. Woodhouse, wise Miss Taylor, secretive Frank Churchill, talkative Miss Bates. And of course, Mr. Knightley – the perfect gentleman.

Reading this version of Emma felt both familiar and unfamiliar. I disagreed with a few of McCall Smith’s modern plot points (like Emma wanting to paint Harriet Smith in the nude), but spending time with his version was definitely like visiting with an old friend. If you are looking for a novel that fondly reminds you of how much you love Jane Austen, I recommend McCall Smith’s Emma. If you are purist who can’t imagine her characters in modern times or the hands of another writer, I recommend rereading Austen instead.

I read an advance reader copy of Emma. It is scheduled to be published in April 2015.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach

Buffy is an aging retired actor of some renown and success. He was formerly introduced by the author in her book Ex-Wives (2006). Vexed by the current pace and direction of life in his once beloved London, he unexpectedly inherits a run-down, aging B&B in Wales from a dear old friend.  The town in which the B&B is located is a slow-paced contrast to London. The town is also a bit run-down, suffering from economic downturn caused by investment banks, and has the feel of life from former decades.

Buffy, deciding to keep the B&B, moves in. How to keep it full with paying guests to cover his bills becomes Buffy's new challenge when his accountant daughter shows him the economic realities.

Author Deborah Moggach leisurely builds up to this through bits and pieces about Buffy's career, habits, children, former wives and liaisons. She also introduces some other characters who become more significant later in the book. At first the reader might wonder where this is all going and how do these people tie into the story. But Moggach crafts her story lines well.

With an idea of how to bring in guests, both the story and Buffy's life take a clearer direction. Ingeniously, Buffy comes up with the idea to offer week-long courses, lodging and meals to people who are at a loss after separating from a mate, through divorce or maybe even estrangement or death. His "Courses for Divorces" are intended to teach skills which the guests lack, but which their former mates provided. The courses, taught by hired tutors, would include car repair, cooking, gardening, finance management and Buffy's "How to Talk to Women." Since his own car, garden and kitchen would serve as the learning grounds, much needed auto maintenance, weeding and meal preparation would be accomplished at the same time.

Through these courses Moggach introduces new characters as well as the earlier mentioned ones. With them come their own stories, layers of relationships, past histories and current circumstances. Much as in her successful The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, she weaves all these elements with dry humor and a light touch even when dealing with weightier issues of failure, disappointment, change. Her characters, all adults, range from younger to older. Moggach is addressing the human condition but the reader doesn't feel burdened by it. Rather, the reader is warmed, nods, laughs and says, "Oh, yes, don't I know."

The reader also comes to realize that none of the elements of the story, the B&B, the town, the people, are fully past their prime. Ironically the B&B is not a "heartbreaking" but more of a "heart-mending" place, The final chapter made me think that if  Jon Stewart of The Daily Show read it he would smirk delightedly.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris is a random but amusing take on proofreading, commas, the use of the F word, pencils, and any number of other things that crossed the author’s mind while writing the book.

This is a book for people who love grammar and punctuation – who really love grammar and punctuation. There are long explanations of things like clauses and the accusative case. It also helps if you are a proofreader or ex-proofreader, even better if you proofread in the days of hot lead.

I did work as a proofreader in the days of hot lead, and enjoyed reminiscing about it as I read this book. In chapter 6, Who Put the Hyphen in Moby-Dick?, Norris talks about computers not knowing in the early days where to hyphenate words. One of my tasks when I worked for a publisher was to edit the online dictionary of hyphenated words. The author works at The New Yorker magazine, and it’s refreshing to know there are still publishers who pay proofreaders. I’ve seen many words with end-of-line hyphens in the wrong place in published works (not to mention typos).

The book does have chapters but doesn’t seem to have had an outline. The author muses on anything that pops into her head, following idle thoughts down whatever pathways they take her. This is a book that demands to be read slowly or not at all.

I agreed with her little rant about autocorrect and devices. I particularly liked this passage (p. 16 of the advance reading copy):

"Back in the twentieth century, we thought that robots would have taken over by this time, and, in a way, they have. But robots as a race have proved disappointing. Instead of getting to boss around underlings made of steel and plastic with circuitry and blinking lights and tank treads, like Rosie the maid on The Jetsons, we humans have outfitted ourselves with robotic external organs. Our iPods dictate what we listen to next, gadgets in our cars tell us which way to go, and smartphones finish our sentences for us. We have become our own robots."

Unfortunately, this book is more evidence that you cannot publish a book today without the F word in it. Seriously, why does this book need the F word? I always think the F word is for lazy people, and it makes me think this author is lazy. (I’m not talking about Chapter 9, F*ck This Sh*t, which muses on the casual use of profanity in English and has its place in the book, but “What the f* is a semicolon, anyway?” on page 140 of the advance reading copy. A semicolon doesn’t call for or deserve the F word.)

Between You & Me was not as much fun as Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss, but I did enjoy reading it. If you are looking for an amusing light read on the English language, I recommend it.

I read an advance reading copy of Between You & Me. It is scheduled to be published on April 6.