Tuesday, June 29, 2010

ARCADIA FALLS by Carol Goodman

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman
Ballantine Books, 2010

"There once was a girl who liked to pretend she was lost until the day she really lost her way."

This book is a little bit women's fiction, a little bit historical fiction, a little bit horror, a little bit mystery... I honestly don't know how to categorize it. One thing that is clear, however, is that it mesmerized me from the first word to the last. I only put it down when I had no other choice. If possible, I would have read it all in one sitting, in one night.

The story is actually two stories interconnected by yet a third story, a tale of folklore called The Changeling (quoted above). We follow the lives of literature teacher Meg Rosenthal and her teenage daughter Sally in the present day, and the lives of artists Lily Eberhardt and her lesbian companion Vera Beecher in the past. The latter is told through the pages of Lily's journal as Meg reads it. All three stories are part of a gripping drama that focuses on a singular theme: the sacrifices of motherhood.

Goodman's clever presentation and beautiful prose had me reading into the wee hours of the morning, and sometimes afraid of what might be lurking in the dark room around the corner. It reminded me of stories I used to read when I was young, the kind that I read to purposely scare myself, that I was afraid to continue reading but at the same time I couldn't put down. But it also contains elements I would have never understood as a child. It is a story of love lost and found, of heartache, of deceit, of deaths both intentional and accidental, of painful sacrifice and tough choices.

The only thing I can fault is that everyone who dies (except for Meg's husband who had died before the start of the story) does so in the same manner. And the threat of that type of death was constant, to more than one character, so by midway through the story it had become stale. This lessened some of the intended impact at the end, in my opinion. Also, true to "mystery style" there was quite a bit of explanation of motives and revealing of clues all thrown out at the end, which left me a bit dazed. It was the only part of the book I had to reread.

Even so, I still highly recommend this book. The characters, setting, and plot all work together seamlessly to make this one of my favorite reads so far this year. It is the first work of Goodman's that I've had the pleasure of reading, and I will certainly be adding more of her novels to my reading pile.

~Lydia Sharp

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Àngels Anglada

Daniel is a luthier--a violin maker. In his Auschwitz sub-camp, he survives by working as a carpenter, spending his afternoons laboring in the I.G. Farben factory (those of you who read Gravity's Rainbow may remember that company's importance to the postwar knowledge scavengers). An impulsive--and insanely dangerous--remark brings him to the notice of the camp's commander, who orders him to produce a violin to the specifications of a Stradivarius. Daniel later finds that this task is the object of a macabre bet.

The Auschwitz Violin (or, possibly, The Violin of Auschwitz: the Amazon and ARC titles differ) will be released on August 31, 2010. Translated from Catalan by Martha Tennent, the original version has had considerable success in Europe, and film rights have been acquired. That doesn't surprise me one bit, as my first thought when I finished reading this short novel (at just over 100 pages, I'd call it a novella) was that it would make a beautiful film in the right hands. It has so many sensual elements: the music, the visual beauty of the violin, the contrast with the brutality of the camp. Give it to an outstanding director, and you've got an Oscar winner right there.

As for the book, I felt that the writing (or perhaps the translation?) could have flowed more smoothly at times, but the story is beautiful and poignant. It's like Night with a less depressing ending, and could become just as successful commercially. The message is one of hope: being able to exercise the profession he loves keeps Daniel alive in circumstances where men die of sheer hopelessness just as much as starvation and disease. Like Night, the story is told in a straightforward, unembellished way; if you've ever heard the survivors of horrors speaking, that's pretty much the way they tell it. The facts are so heartrending that they don't need elaboration.

The moment in the book that has stuck with me is the sheer terror that Daniel experiences in the presence of the camp's doctor, who selects prisoners for experiments, and the way he uses his work to disguise and control his fear. This is a book worth reading, and I'd unhesitatingly recommend it to almost anyone. It would make a good addition to a history or even music class, and middle or high school readers would probably also find it accessible. The extracts from genuine Nazi documents at the beginning of the chapters are very telling.

I'm really looking forward to that movie.

Scene Stealer by Elise Warner

A frightened young boy on the New York subway catches the eye of Miss Augusta Weidenmaier, a retired schoolteacher living in Greenwich Village. When she realizes that he is the abducted star of a series of fast-food commercials, she decides, Miss Marple style, to tackle the investigation into his disappearance herself--and plunges into the acting world with the determination to find the boy, bring about justice, and correct everyone's grammar.

Scene Stealer is a e-book due to be released on June 28, 2010. As such it's hard to give an exact page count, but it's under 200 which makes it a fast read. The writing lends itself to quick reading; it's fluid, stronger on dialog than on character and setting, with an engaging heroine who, like most lady sleuths, is nothing if not opinionated. I definitely detected a touch of the Amelia Peabodies in this character.

Like many books in the cozy mystery category, it has a slightly surreal timelessness. People still use pocket handkerchiefs--and even, at one point, a pocket watch!--and only swear in the mildest of terms. It was only when texting from a cellphone was mentioned towards the end of the book that I was 100% sure I wasn't in the New York of the 60s or 70s. The characters are somewhat stereotyped: failed actor, horrendous stage moms and spoiled teenage starlets, ruthless corporate types. I'd love to see a bit more nuance and depth of characterization, but I have the feeling we could see Miss Weidenmaier again so perhaps some secondary characters will be developed along the way.

Verdict: this is a nice beach read (if you can bring yourself to take a $200 e-reader to the beach) or entertainment for your morning commute. I began by finding Miss Weidenmaier irritating, but warmed to her in the course of the story, especially once she stopped trying to correct everyone's speech (a habit I find patronizing). I could read more of her.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Clay Jensen gets mail. Mail in the form of a series of audiotapes recorded by the enigmatic Hannah Baker. Hannah is Clay's long-time crush and fellow classmate, who commited suicide two weeks earlier. Clay spends one long sleepless night listening to the tapes, and what he hears changes his life forever.

I hope you're ready, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically; why my life ended. And if you're listening to these tapes, you're one of the reasons why.

Hannah's witty and sarcastic voice is the life and soul of the book, and at times the character of Clay Jensen can seem wooden and under developed in comparison. Nevertheless, this is an easy read with emotional impact which tackles issues such as date rape and suicide in a frank and intelligent way.

Occasionally the switching between Clay and Hannah's dialogues was frustrating, mainly because Clay's voice sometimes lacked authenticity. Their story was genuinely touching however, without being overly sentimental. The premise was concise and convincing, and while the ending felt like it had perhaps stopped too suddenly, for me this just added to the tragic nature of Hannah's story.

One of the novel's best qualities is its ability to open up debate around suicide, as well as causing the reader to question how each of our actions can affect those around us. Definitely one which stayed with me long after I put it down. Worth a read.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Laini Taylor, illustrated by Jim di Bartolo/LIPS TOUCH THREE TIMES

Usually, in the first paragraph of a book review, I try to describe the book--and I will do that here. But since this book is a multidimensional package, complete with art and a gorgeous typesetting job, don't let the injustice of my description be your only experience of the book. This book is literary YA fantasy, yes, but it also has a special appeal for a lot of different people--graphic novel enthusiasts, anyone who loved Gaiman's Stardust, anyone who loved Kostova's The Historian.

Lips Touch is a collection of three short stories. The first, "Goblin Fruit," is about a misfit high school girl who, after years of being ostracized and made fun of, suddenly catches the interest of the most beautiful boy in school--but the boy might really be a goblin trying to steal her soul. The second story, "Spicy Little Curses Such as These," is set during the British Raj in India, where a curse has been placed on a baby girl: she will have the most beautiful voice in the world, but anyone who hears it will drop dead. The third story, and in my opinion the richest, is called "Hatchling." It is the story of the Druj, a race of soulless immortals who thrill-seek by entering the bodies of humans, and of one human captive who manages to escape their realm. Each story features somewhere within it a kiss--a kiss that tears the characters' lives apart. (Hence the title of the book.)

The stories are particularly special because of Taylor's brand of world-building. In not very many words, she manages to create three very rich and separate worlds: the first seems to be loosely based on Eastern European Romani tradition; the second story is rooted in the Hindu/Buddhist tradition of Yama's Hell (and a large part of it actually takes place in Hell); the third is loosely inspired by Zoroastrian traditions from ancient Persia. In many ways, the book is a string of completely original multinational fairy tales--very readable, very escapist. Taylor's writing is hypnotic, too, and you'll find it very difficult to put the book down. The stories each leave a very strong impression.

Laini Taylor and Jim di Bartolo are a wife/husband collaborative team, and although Taylor must get full credit for the exquisite and many-textured stories themselves, di Bartolo's contributions to the finished product (the book) are really quite special. This book is totally worth collecting.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Free Audiobooks

This isn't a book review, but I thought those of you who are struggling to complete your Project Fill in the Gaps might appreciate this site with free audiobooks that are in the public domain. Lots of the classics.

I don't really think all books should be free, though. My rule of thumb is that if the author is alive, I buy the book new. If the author is dead, well . . .

A word of caution: because the readings are done on a volunteer basis, some books are better than others. RAT CATCHER, for example, sounds as though the reader is actually a computer. The sentences run together and the inflections are in all the wrong places. But OUR MUTUAL FRIEND sounds wonderful so far. Pay attention to the starred books and you'll most likely find a keeper.

I'll take this down if it's inappropriate. Just say so in the comments.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey/THE ELVENBANE

Many hundreds of years ago, the human world was taken over by elvenkind, who succeeded in ripping portals from their own destroyed world into the fertile, still-intact human one. The elven lords with their powerful magic subdued the human race, enslaving humans by use of mind-controlling collars and whatever brutal force was necessary. The elves so thoroughly wiped away human civilization that the human slaves don't even remember the names of their own gods. What the elves discovered the hard way is that a child of mixed human and elven blood has a magic so powerful it can overwhelm that of the elvenlords. The elvenlords' greatest fear is the Elvenbane, the prophecied halfblood child who will wage the war that will bring down the elves and free human kind. And so the halfblood is outlawed, and any halfblood baby born destroyed on sight.

But accidents happen. When the favorite concubine of the most powerful elven lord escapes his harem nine months pregnant, she is chased into the desert, where she will surely die. There is no one in the desert who could or would rescue her mixed-blood infant, teach it its powerful magic, raise it to adulthood, and unleash it on the world...is there?

Advance warning: this is part book review, part love story.

Earlier this week, I blogged elsewhere about my recent return to the high fantasy I used to read and love as a kid. The Elvenbane was one I was a little afraid to touch, though. It was the first adult fantasy novel I ever read, when I was in sixth grade and had gotten bored of the book list my teacher had posted for the class. I found it sitting on a shelf in my house, guiltily hid it under my shirt, and crept off to my room with it.

My dad, who has always been an unapologetic science fiction and high fantasy reader (he read me The Lord of the Rings starting when I was four--I remember how disappointed he was when I kept falling asleep during his favorite scenes), had plenty of fat, juicy books with shiny embossed and foiled covers lying around the house. This one happened to have a dragon on it, and a deliciously relatable pre-teen girl. All systems were go.

I stole it and read it cover to cover, then cover to cover again. I wrote a book report for my dismayed English teacher, who tried to steer me back to the Newbery Award Winner route by saying I wasn't going to get any extra credit for reading really long books. I read it again anyway. That summer, I know I read it at least once more, because I went to visit my grandparents, who lived in a Tucson wash. I remember lying on a rock in the desert and reading about Shana's amazing desert upbringing, feeling the sun beating down on me the way it must have beat down on her. I tried to get my family to read it. I succeeded in making all my cousins take on code names for one another from the characters. I won't insult your intelligence by telling you which character name I chose for myself.

Upon revisiting the story as an adult, I noticed a couple interesting things. For one, I wonder if this book would have even been published today as an adult fantasy novel--the protagonist is a fourteen-year-old girl; there is absolutely no sex in it, and not much violence to speak of. Content-wise, there are allusions to the Elven overlords' abusive practices of keeping harems and brainwashing human slaves, but I don't think it's any darker or harder to read than a lot of YA fantasy out there today. Basically, this is an ideal young adult novel, particularly, perhaps, for a pre-teen girl. It's about a misfit girl who saves the world, against all rules and convention, by harnessing her own personal strength.

There were a couple other levels of story that emerged for me as an adult that I missed as a child. I don't want to fill up this editorial with book spoilers, so I will just say that as an adult, it became clear to me that two secondary characters were secretly in love with each other--something that had gone way over my head as a kid. Also, both the strengths and the weaknesses of Norton and Lackey's world-building were more apparent--the richness of the multi-layer history held up to my childish impression, on the one hand. On the other, the fact that everyone spoke the same language bothered me even more than it had bothered me as a kid. The premise is so richly developed that as a kid I didn't miss how rushed some aspects of the plot are. On the other hand, I don't really care.

There is a sad ending to the story of the halfblood, since Andre Norton passed away in 2005. I know this book was intended to be the first in a four-book series (it certainly stands alone, but does leave things open). I read the second and third books, but only once each--I found them lackluster by comparison, since the plot moved away from Shana and onto other things, like elven politics. But the fourth book was never even written. Perhaps that is actually best, since it means for me, the halfblood war ends the way I imagined it, back when I was 11.

So--against my expectations, I have decided that The Elvenbane is exactly as great as it was when I was a kid. Sure, some pieces have tarnished for me, but others have somehow become shinier. I know I'm not supposed to read YA this way, but I admire the morality the authors instilled in the book, the way they empower their reader by empowering their characters, the sensitive best friendships they bury at the heart of the story.

I wonder how many other people out there read and loved this book. Hope you'll happen upon this page and come forward.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Atlas of Middle-Earth: Karen Fornstad

This book is a painstaking, loving exploration into Arda, the fictional world which J. R. R. Tolkien created as a setting for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, the Silmarillion and other writings.
As such, this book is aimed at a subset of a subset of readers; not only must you be obsessed with the imaginarium of Tolkien, you must have a strange fascination with maps of arcane and obscure places. If you do not find yourself included in this exact set, I'd advise you to not waste your time on this review, and especially not on the book that it references.
For the two of you that are left: this Atlas is amazing. The author conducts an investigation of Middle-Earth and Tolkien's other created landscapes that is stunning; from the sheer volume of materials referenced and compared to each other, I don't think she could have done more research if she was writing a complete history of China.
The Lord of the Rings is full of frustrating hints at a large and complex backstory; every page begins a story, and then quickly moves on without ever finishing it. Karen Fornstad finishes all these stories, and probably manages to tell you how many people were involved, what language they spoke, the racial makeup of the group, and sometimes even the precise type of rock strata that their cities were built on (no, really.) The Atlas of Middle-Earth compounds and enhances the experience of reading the book it explores, and any Tolkien-o-phile has no right to call him/herself a fan unless they have a copy on their bookshelf.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Things are changing fast. Jessie needs new friends. And her quest is a hilarious tour through high school clique-dom, with a surprising stop along the way- the Dungeons and Dragons crowd, who out-nerd everyone! Will hanging out with them make her a nerd, too? And could she really be crushing on a guy with too-short pants and too-white gym shoes?

If you go into the wild nerd yonder, can you ever come back?

This book helped me understand exactly what agents mean when they say a book isn't "a good fit" for them. It took a while for me to connect with Jessie. This had nothing to do with Jessie or with Julie Halpern's writing. It's just that I was not that kid in high school. And my school was not that school. In fact, since we were at the top academic school on the island, we were all nerds!

Despite the differences, I did enjoy the book. I thought the characters were well-written and I appreciated the little pearls of wit interspersed throughout the narrative. (Does Hallmark make a card for that?)

I also found that the book avoided many of the current YA stereotypes. Jessie's parents are both present and accounted for, and neither of them are dimwitted enough to require their children to tie their shoelaces. Jessie crushes on a guy who's a jerk, but unlike the current trend, she realises he's a jerk. The children actually do something at school besides eat lunch and talk to members of the opposite sex. And sex comes up.

All in all, a good read. Especially if you're into Dungeon's and Dragons, or you are or were like Jessie.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Duchess of Death by Richard Hack

Could someone please write a definitive biography of Agatha Christie? Because I still haven't found one. I have her very good 1977 autobiography, but of course people rarely write the whole truth about themselves, and I thirst for a chunky, scholarly biog with scads of footnotes. And photos. I love lots of photos in a biography. Hey, just because she was a scrivener of popular fiction doesn't mean she can't have a scholarly tome written about her!

I bought Richard Hack's Duchess of Death in the hopes that this might be "it." Alas, no. I feel a little lukewarm about this book; it wasn't bad, it wasn't great. It's useful for the exhaustive-looking list of AC publications in the back. Do you know, she had 82 books published in her lifetime? And was still writing up to her 80s? And has sold more than TWO BILLION books? Holy moly. I guess I never paid enough attention to Agatha (who's not my favorite mystery writer: Dorothy L. Sayers did it better, but anything from the Golden Age is worth attention).

Anyway, wonderment aside, I feel a bit let down. The splash on the front cover that promises Hack is "drawing from over 5,000 unpublished letters, notes, and documents" made me hope that the famous "missing days" in 1926 would be, if not explained, at least theorized with backup from lots of these unpublished sources: but, alas, at this point the endnotes only refer to newspaper publications and earlier biographies. Although Hack's version of the events is quite plausible in its mundanity.

For an author with 14 books to his credit, I was quite surprised to come across quite a few clunky sentences, awkward phrases, downright mistakes and a couple of real howlers. Did the publisher rush things? Anyway, final verdict is sort of meh, but I'll go "beach read" because as biographies go, this is on the lighter side and might make a nice summer read to get you out of that fiction rut you're in.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Jasper Fforde/SHADES OF GREY

From its first sentence, you know that Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde's newest novel, will have nothing to do with his earlier ones -- nor with any novel by any other author you've read so far this year, or are likely to read in what remains: "It began," says Edward (Eddie) Russet, "with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant."

In another author's hands, a sentence like that might seem artificial, a gimmick -- a sentence to kick off a writing exercise, maybe. But Fforde is up to bigger stuff here.

Eddie Russet's world, his England, exists far in the future, separated from our own time by an event known only as The Something That Happened. (That's a typically Ffordeian bit there: funny, arch, and allusive, as though taking it on faith that of course the reader already knows all this.) We are known to them as simply the Previous. Whatever The Something That Happened was, it must have been cataclysmic: while the people of this future age are indeed people, civilized people at that, they're determinedly ambivalent about technology. Old Ford Model-T-era vehicles may be used, for instance, but nothing newer.

Other changes are present in the book's world as well. The most common causes of death are lightning, the plague known as the Mildew, and -- sit down for this one -- giant swans. The countryside beyond town limits is populated by megafauna and other exotic animals (giraffes, giant sloths, flamingos), Pookas, and the dangerous RiffRaff, uncouth and murderous folk with no respect for their civilized betters. The roadways of the Previous are constructed of a material known as Perpetulite, a sort of self-cleaning, self-renewing asphalt.

The most bizarrely radical change in humans, though, has been optical: people's eyesight has evolved in such a way that their vision is color-specific. Their surnames reflect the portion of the visible spectrum in which their family specializes; Eddie Russet's family, for example, is Red, while his nemeses the Gamboges are Yellow. (Per Wikipedia, gamboge is "a partially transparent dark mustard yellow pigment.") Within their color, individuals are rated by how strongly they see that hue: someone who can see a lot of different reds -- carmine, crimson, garnet, and so on -- falls higher on the social scale than someone who can see only one or two. Furthermore, the color families themselves are arranged hierarchically within the social order: Purples at the idle, nearly regal top, and at the bottom, occupying all the drab, manual-labor and service positions, the Greys.

It's one of the Greys, in fact, whose story arc intersects with Eddie's in life- and perhaps world-changing ways: the enigmatic, tart-tongued, and fetchingly retroussé-nosed Jane, who both attracts and discomfits him. (Yes, Jane Grey. Unlike Fforde's previous books, Shades of Grey is not built upon a framework of literary play. But he manages to sneak in a few such references here, particularly among the Greys. There's also a Zane and a Dorian Grey.)

As the story opens, Eddie and his Dad are dispatched to East Carmine, a village on the outskirts of the populated world: Eddie, as punishment for challenging the accepted order of things, particularly regarding efficient queuing (he's required to conduct a chair census there); his father, as a temporary replacement for the village swatchman -- a sort of doctor, who heals sick and injured people through the careful application of color. There in East Carmine, they both encounter experiences far beyond the controlled mundanity they're used to: murder, exile, terror, adventure, and something which can only be called love. And it's all rendered in Fforde's characteristically light (sometimes hilarious) tone.

To the author's great credit, the strangeness of the post-Something That Happened world is rendered plausible without requiring the reader to look back for reminders or ahead for explanations. As ever, while Fforde clearly loves building his stories of contrivances, he does so without making them feel contrived. You never feel manipulated or played for a fool when reading a Fforde title. His plots are marvelously complex, following traditions of rising and falling action, denouement-before-climax, events and settings shown rather than told about, and all the rest...

And yet somehow, by the end, you always know that the story you've just encountered is anything but conventional.

If you have read Fforde's earlier books -- the Thursday Next literary-detective series, and/or the Nursery Crimes series of murder mysteries in the land of Mother Goose -- you should not hesitate to pick up Shades of Grey. It's different, but it's Fforde, and that's all you need to know.

If, on the other hand, you haven't read his earlier stuff… if you think all the above sounds rather labored, and not a little bit precious... do give it a try anyway. (Brief PDF samples are currently available at Fforde's Web site.) You may find you have more in common than you'd expect with the inhabitants of Shades of Grey's landscape. If nothing else, you'll have read a quirky adventure story -- and maybe been launched, without knowing it (even perhaps against your will!), into a planned trilogy, eager for the next installment.


Ellie Cooper is a 26-year-old American Iraq vet with a bum leg and just a shade of PTSD. She also is living basically alone in China, tending bar at an expat dive and spending most of her time eating dumplings and drinking beer with Lao Zhang, a charismatic painter at the heart of an artistic community. Basically, she minds her own business--which is why, when Lao Zhang disappears, she can't understand how she lands herself at the heart of a mysterious investigation into his whereabouts. Suddenly Ellie finds herself on an adventure far more interesting and perhaps even more dangerous than Iraq. As she is chased across China and bullied by an assortment of people--Chinese police, private American protection agents, wealthy Chinese art collectors, her soon-to-be-ex husband, her estranged mother, her own bad dreams, even (and perhaps most dangerously) animated avatars on an online game)--Ellie watches her friends disappear one by one. Not only does she not know who she can trust, she doesn't even know what she's running from. Was the missing Lao Zhang's art so dangerously subversive? Or is there something else entirely going on under her nose?

For enthusiasts of books about China, this is a must-read: Ellie's voice is that of an American living abroad, but she is edgy and unsarcastic, refreshingly without a trace of the condescending travelogue voice we so often expect from foreigner-abroad novels. Brackmann also has a lot to say about the unfortunate confluence of capitalism and political oppression--and her message does not just implicate China. The book is packed with young, creative people, some of whom are fighting for causes, others of whom are just trying to live their lives, but all of whom are at the mercy of the capricious, occasionally violent, and sometimes meaningless whims of the big guys with money.

Although yes, it is packed with adventure, ultimately, Rock Paper Tiger is the story of one girl who is trying to straighten out her life. Brackmann's critique of modern China and the mercilessness of global capitalism is really secondary to the hopeful narrative of a lost young woman who is forced to realize how meaningful a friendship can be, and how she can, in fact, make a difference in the world she's living in.

I'd recommend this especially to readers who seek out books on modern China, and readers who enjoy a little Quiet American-esque post war thriller/espionage.