Thursday, April 28, 2016

Arcadia by Iain Pears

From library patron Norm:

Arcadia follows characters in three different worlds. The author is well known for running different narrative streams in his novels, whether it’s seeing the same events or small period of time from the point of view of several different characters or telling stories from different time periods centuries apart, so he knows how to move effectively from one place, time, and character to another, and he creates interesting characters and situations in each. One of them is as far as we know the world we are familiar with, its setting the Oxford of the 1950’s, and while one character finds a gate to a different world, another is charged with finding a mole in the British Secret Service. The second is apparently a highly technological and overcrowded world in the future run by scientists (not the enlightened rulers one would wish) where there is tension with green back-to-nature enclaves, and a brilliant scientist who warns that a scheme to travel to parallel universes will bring disaster vanishes with vital resources and becomes the subject of a manhunt. The third is the delightful rural world of the title, with scholars who interpret the sacred “story,” idyllic celebrations, romantic love, and wronged noblemen.

There are engaging characters in each world, and the plots play out well in all of them. It wouldn’t be any fun, though, if the characters from one world didn’t find their way to the others, and if we didn’t eventually realize that characters we meet in one world were originally from another. How all this happens and the mystery of how these three worlds are connected is a mystery, the solution to which makes an interesting if grim variation on the familiar science fiction parallel universes convention. As far as the characters we focus on are concerned the ending is happy, but how happy on the large scale it is would make a very interesting discussion.

In case I didn’t make it clear, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly. 

 - Norm

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The House Between Tides by Sarah Maine

From the publisher: Kate Morton meets Daphne du Maurier in this atmospheric debut novel about a woman who discovers the century-old remains of a murder victim on her family’s Scottish estate, plunging her into an investigation of its mysterious former occupants.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sarah Maine’s debut novel The House Between Tides. In 2010, Hetty Deveraux contemplates turning the massive house that she has inherited on a remote Scottish island into an upscale hotel. She meets resistance from the cordial but cool locals, who have just found the remains of a body in the decaying home as Hetty arrives to examine the property. Her pushy boyfriend Giles and the two shallow agents he has employed consider the hotel a done deal, but Hetty is not so sure.

The narrative flashes back and forth between 2010 and 1910, when young Beatrice arrives on the island as a new bride with her much older husband, artist Theo Blake. Woven throughout the story are works of art, loves lost, family mysteries, and wild birds.

The descriptions of the island in the Hebrides are very evocative. The author also captures the mansion in its glory in 1910 and in its moldering state in 2010. As a bird lover, I was interested in the thread about the irony of birdwatchers of the past shooting birds and collecting their eggs, no matter how rare or endangered. I was reminded of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black because the house can only be reached when the tide is out, but otherwise they are quite different books. (However, if you liked The Woman in Black you will probably enjoy this book also.)

The House Between Tides is not a perfect book. It takes Hetty too long to grow a spine, and the “bad guy” boyfriend and agents are stereotypical with no depth. Some of the family mysteries are obvious from the start, and I guessed the identification of the body long before the end. Still, I stayed up late finishing The House Between Tides, something I don’t do that often anymore. I also love the cover!

I recommend The House Between Tides to lovers of romantic gothic fiction and mysteries. I read an advance reader copy. It will be published in August 2016 and will be available for checkout at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an ebook.  

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Tale of Shikanoko: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

From the publisher: In the first book of the four-volume Tale of Shikanoko, an epic adventure begins in the mythical, medieval Japan of Lian Hearn's imagination: a world of warriors and warlords, of fallen emperors, lost princesses, and demonic assassins; a world bound by tradition and colored by unpredictable magic. All four volumes of the Tale of Shikanoko will be published in 2016. 

Emperor of the Eight Islands is an amazing story. I felt fully immersed in the author's mythical Japan of the past. Shikanoko's father is killed in a game of Go with clever and cruel mountain goblins. His uncle promises to bring him up as his own child, but soon the uncle wants his nephew's title and estates. Shikanoko accompanies his uncle on a hunting trip and knows he is not expected to survive the trip and return. When his uncle aims an arrow at him, the uncle hits a stag instead. Shikanoko tumbles down a cliff with the dying animal and is presumed killed. He takes the deer's antlers and assumes a new identity, the deer's child, under the influence of a sorcerer.

And thus we are pulled into a magical world. The flow of the plot, the character development, the mysticism, and the action is amazing. I've never read anything by the author before but am impressed.

I did have problems keeping the characters straight, as I am not knowledgeable about Japanese names and many of them sounded quite similar to me. It didn't help that many of the characters have nicknames, and the names of places often sounded similar to the names of people. I think anyone who enjoys mythology, especially lovers of Japanese mythology and culture, will be intrigued by Emperor of the Eight Islands.

I read an advance reader copy of Emperor of the Eight Islands. It will be published on April 16 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

From the publisher: The bestselling author of A Man Called Ove returns with an irresistible novel about finding love and second chances in the most unlikely of places. Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. A disorganized cutlery drawer ranks high on her list of unforgivable sins. And she is not passive-aggressive. Not in the least. It's just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention. But hidden inside the socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination,bigger dreams, and a warmer heart that anyone around her realizes. When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg she is more than a little unprepared. Employed as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center, the fastidious Britt-Marie has to cope with muddy floors, unruly children, and a (literal) rat for a roommate. In this small town of big-hearted misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs? Funny and moving, observant and humane, Britt-Marie Was Here celebrates the unexpected friendships that change us forever, and the power of even the gentlest of spirits to make the world a better place.

I loved A Man Called Ove. Although I don’t like comparing it to Britt-Marie Was Here, it’s hard not to as the stories are similar in many ways. (We even have a rat taking the place of the Cat Annoyance.) If I didn’t know they were written by the same author, I would have thought “I’ve read this story before but Backman did it much better.”

If I did not know otherwise, I would also think that Ove is the later novel and Britt-Marie the earlier. Britt-Marie feels like a first draft of Ove, and Ove reads like the work of a more seasoned writer. The character of Ove felt like a real person to me, and I found the changes he underwent and the relationships he built completely believable. Britt-Marie does not feel like a real person, and I felt that her changes happened too quickly and not very credibly. I also found her a much less sympathetic character.

Britt-Marie also felt much more like a translation to me than did A Man Called Ove. I wondered if some phrases used multiple times made more sense in Swedish. For example, Britt-Marie often says “Ha” or “Ha. Ha.” when she is not laughing or expressing humor and this didn’t quite work for me.

I’m still glad I read Britt-Marie Was Here, as Backman’s gentle warmth still comes through in passages I enjoyed, like this one:
All her words to him are like staying in a hotel, new and curious and tentatively fumbling for switches on the wall, repeatedly turning on different lights than those she wanted to turn on. (p. 243 of the ARC)
I liked the charming 60-something policeman Sven and his many many courses to learn something new. It's nice to see books about romance and middle-aged people. I will definitely read whatever Backman writes next and recommend Britt-Marie Was Here to his fans.

I read an advance reader copy of Britt-Marie Was Here. It will be published on May 3 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in regular and large print.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

From the publisher: At thirty-nine, Manon Bradshaw is a devoted and respected member of the Cambridgeshire police force, and though she loves her job, what she longs for is a personal life. Single and distant from her family, she wants a husband and children of her own. One night, after yet another disastrous Internet date, she turns on her police radio to help herself fall asleep—and receives an alert that sends her to a puzzling crime scene. Edith Hind—a beautiful graduate student at Cambridge University and daughter of the surgeon to the Royal Family—has been missing for nearly twenty-four hours. Her home offers few clues: a smattering of blood in the kitchen, her keys and phone left behind, the front door ajar but showing no signs of forced entry. Manon instantly knows that this case will be big—and that every second is crucial to finding Edith alive. … Suspenseful and keenly observed, Missing, Presumed is a brilliantly twisting novel of how we seek connection, grant forgiveness, and reveal the truth about who we are.

Things were off to a great start when Missing, Presumed opened with a quote from a T.S. Eliot poem. This police procedural is not really so much about the mystery of the missing girl but about how her friends, her family, and the police react to her disappearance. There is a lot of character development, and the characters are messy and imperfect.

The author is not afraid to show her main characters in an unattractive light. Manon gets conjunctivitis and doesn’t take care of it for several days, and her eye becomes more and more inflamed and ugly. She sleeps with men on first dates just to get rid of them, and she cries a lot. When she is in a relationship, she is needy and impatient. But I warmed to Manon right off when I learned she can only fall asleep to the sounds of her police radio.

I found most of the characters interesting – the missing girl is about the least interesting – and I enjoyed the author’s writing style. I felt immersed in the lives of the police officers and their investigation. Some plot twists surprised me and some did not. Missing, Presumed is a definite recommend from me for lovers of British police procedurals. I think readers will want to see more of Manon and crew. I know I do.

I read an advance reader copy of Missing, Presumed. It will be published in late June and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson

From the publisher: Full of lighthearted humor, sumptuous food, the wisdom of an Italian mother-in-law, and all the atmosphere of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, this warm and witty memoir follows American-born Katherine Wilson on her adventures abroad. Thanks to a surprising romance—and a spirited woman who teaches her to laugh, to seize joy, and to love—a three-month rite of passage in Naples turns into a permanent embrace of this boisterous city on the Mediterranean.

I'm not really a foodie or a big reader of memoirs, but I visited Naples last fall and was intrigued by this book. I had to read it when I received an advance reader copy.

I enjoyed the insight into Naples and Neapolitans. Although I think some of the customs have relaxed since the author first arrived in Naples - Halloween seems fully entrenched in Italy, for example - much is still valid. When I was packing for my trip and asked my Neapolitan friend for advice, she told me that no one in Italy wears capri pants, and indeed I saw none on my visit. (They do wear Daisy Duke shorts with nylons, however, go figure.) My hostess mamma, my friend's mother, is in her 70s and always had perfect makeup and hair. In fact, I imagined her when reading about the author's mother-in-law. And the TV shows! Oh, the TV shows! Those haven't changed.

The level of detail about the author's life in Italy, the making of Italian food, and the family relationships was a little too detailed for my tastes, but I imagine lovers of this kind of book will eat it all up, so to speak. I definitely recommend Only in Naples to lovers of foodie memoirs and books about colorful families and to Italians of all nationalities.

One thing Only in Naples definitely did was make me want to return to Naples! I read an advance reader copy of Only in Naples. It will be available for checkout at the Galesburg Public Library after April 19.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

I will be honest - I read this book because of the cover. I was intrigued by it from the first time I saw it. Realistic fictional YA novels, especially those narrated in the first person, are not high on my preferred reading list. But this is one of the best I've read lately.

I liked the book. It had a strong main character and good narrative flow. I think this could be a fine reading choice for any young woman feeling judged. There were many good secondary characters who helped Hermione through her trauma.  When Hermione tells her minister that she is scheduled for an abortion, for example, he says, “If someone starts throwing around stupid words like ‘It’s a gift,’ or ‘It’s in God’s plan,’ you come right here, and I’ll find you ten ways in which it isn’t.” (p. 129) 

The cover photo turned out to be a perfect choice for the book as well. It's an excellent representation of the story inside. The cheerleader on the cover is both at the top of her game and extremely vulnerable, partly in sunlight and partly in shadow.

The publisher description is misleading, I think. The thing I would emphasize most when describing this book is not the relationship between Hermione and Polly but how Hermione stays strong, grows into adulthood, and capably handles her traumatic experience.

A “reveal” about three fifths of the way in was hinted at from the first chapter and didn't come as a surprise, nor did I think it really added to the story. It's not enough to write an issue book these days, you must write an issues book. 

I originally thought it was too soon to have a teen heroine named Hermione, but that didn't end up bothering me at all. One thing I didn't feel was the connection to Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, aside from the character names. It’s cute that the team name is the Golden Bears, but some of the language trying to tie this book to the plot of The Winter’s Tale is quite belabored.

That aside, I recommend this to readers of realistic young adult fiction, especially readers looking for empowering messages for young women about rape and choice.