Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Author Spotlight: Peter McArthur

I happened upon "The Red Cow and Her Friends" by Peter McArthur (March 10, 1866 – October 28, 1924) recently, and found it so cute. It is nicely written with great feeling, as if the author was truly a friend to the animals which are his subjects.

The item which really intrigued me, however, was one sentence in a review I read, "Mr. McArthur is no mere æsthete, no lackadaisical dilettante, but is alive to his finger tips; and all his writings fairly tingle with life." Isn't that the loveliest thing to say about an author??

McArthur was an educated Canuck, father of five, and slogged the journalist - asst editor - editor -in-chief route. He wrote poetry and essays, while working a farm.

Raised on a farm by Scottish-immigrant parents, he developed a love of all things farm-ing , but I think his true love was writing. It is reported that his favorite writing spot was a tent in his woodlot. If there were more published works from him, I would consider comparing him to Thoreau, with more of a penchant for the fauna rather than the flora. Perhaps a touch of Alf Wight (known by his pen name of James Herriot), but from the owner's perspective.

McArthur's writing feels more like a diary, never meant to be read and certainly never criticized, due to the personal nature of his musings and observations. Because of this relaxed style, he has been chastised for hasty and uneven writing. However, his columns were for newspapers, which had a penchant for schedules and little eye to quality of content. His themes were of the common man, and salt-of-the-earth living. Garrison Keillor probably owes much to Mr. McArthur.

Pick up a copy of his collected essays today, and let me know what you think!

Monday, March 30, 2015

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff


It all began with a letter inquiring about second-hand books, written by Helene Hanff in New York, and posted to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. As Helene's sarcastic and witty letters are responded to by the stodgy and proper Frank Doel of 84, Charing Cross Road, a relationship blossoms into a warm and charming long-distance friendship lasting many years.

My take: 5 looks
Delightful! Simply delightful!

A woman in post-WWII New York, with a penchant for non-fiction, becomes pen pals with a stoically formal British antiquarian bookseller in London.

Helene Hanff is a spitfire, to say the least. Her correspondence is shockingly glib, informal, and playful with Frank Doel of Marks & Co Booksellers in London.

She has very specific taste, and he is able to find and send what she requests. The entire bookshop comes to care for Helene and look forward to her correspondence. However, when she discovers that England is still under heavy post-war rationing, she ups the ante and begins to send boxes and boxes of items available only on the black market in London.

The first letter in the book is dated October 5, 1949, and continues through the years to the final letter, dated October of 1969. The correspondents are most often Helene and Frank, but others in the shop, as well as Frank's wife, also pen a few missives. The love affair that these two share is a deep and committed one, and keeps the flame of their relationship alive for 20 years. And no, not a love affair with one another, but with books. The love of books is a compelling force!

A few of my favorite passages:

"...anything he liked I'll like except if it's fiction. I never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived." hh

"I personally can't think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book." hh

"Have you got De Tocqueville's Journey to America? Somebody borrowed mine and never gave it back. Why is it that people who wouldn't dream of stealing anything else think it's perfectly all right to steal books?" hh

"I go through life watching the English language being raped before my face." hh

"I am going to bed. I will have hideous nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labelled Excerpt, Selection, Passage and Abridged." hh

Highly, highly recommended.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Stranger by Harlan Coben

The #1 New York Times bestselling master of suspense delivers a shocking thriller that proves that a well-placed lie can help build a comfortable life and a secret has the same explosive power to destroy it. In The Stranger, married parents Adam and Corrine confront the shocking secret on which their marriage is built leaving Adam wondering whether he ever truly knew Corrine at all.

My take: 5 looks
Any book that I cannot put down until I am finished automatically get 5 looks! This book will not change the world, will not bring about a soul change for the reader, and will not make you rethink the trajectory of your life. But, it will keep you on the edge of your seat and make you forget everything else for the hours that it takes you to read it.

Just released, I find that the summaries for this book (at the time of this review) are incorrect (they reference "Hannah" instead of the correct "Corrinne" as the wife's name, maybe a last minute edit before publishing). However, that small fact makes me think I am on the cutting edge of reading this one!

I could have used a little more background and family life of the periphery characters, as they factored in a little more as the story wore on, but it didn't detract from the rollercoaster ride that this book turned out to be. A nice, formulaic thriller, perfect for the beach, a rainy day, or a "palate cleanser" after a deep, dark read. It will grip you at the beginning and leave you satisfied at the end.

Highly recommended.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

From a prizewinning young writer, a brilliant and inventive story of love, lies, and inspiration. Fairy-tale romances end with a wedding, and the fairy tales don't get complicated. In this book, the celebrated writer Mr. Fox can't stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It's not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently.

Mary challenges Mr. Fox to join her in stories of their own devising; and in different times and places, the two of them seek each other, find each other, thwart each other, and try to stay together, even when the roles they inhabit seem to forbid it. Their adventures twist the fairy tale into nine variations, exploding and teasing conventions of genre and romance, and each iteration explores the fears that come with accepting a lifelong bond.

Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox's game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?

My take: 2.5 looks
Helen Oyeyemi is gaining a reputation for spinning old fables into new and exciting literary works. The idea that these tales are relevant today is enough to draw me into the web that is this book.

The book starts with a quick introduction of the three main characters: St. John, Mary and Daphne. As the book progresses, it morphs from reality to imagination to hallucination. If this was being filmed, I could imagine the camera angles askew and sometimes a little out of focus. It is a feeling of being disconnected from any real relevant storyline thread, as chapter-after-chapter moves in and out of realities, making the reader ask if it's really happening, or not.

And therein lies the issue for me: the disconnect. Perhaps it's what Oyeyemi intended: for the reader to question reality, and look at it in a new light. To see it as temporary, transient and transparent. The stories were nicely written, and I found myself highlighting more than a few passages. However, I was left very wanting at the end of the novel. There were too many loose threads, and questions. There were too many "how did they pull that off" moments in the book to be feasible for me. I straddled the fence between wanting a concrete story, and the filmy gauze of imagery; but, not both.

However, back to the fables on which this is based. Bluebeard is a very straightforward and clear story. As is the original English fairy tale Mr. Fox. While both stories are a little off-putting, they are not ambiguous in their telling, their action, their characters, or their conclusions. When I read the last line in Oyeyemi's rendition, I was simply glad it was over.

Not recommended.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Book Club Retrospect

That position cannot be comfortable.

However, it is the perfect picture of what I was starting to feel about my book clubs.

Did you note the "s" on the end of "clubs"? Yes, I had very definitely overextended myself.

Seems impossible, right? That a lover of books could read too much. That's not really the issue, and I didn't even know it.

There as an incident, my 49th birthday, which made me decide that I was going to be the genuine me. I am outgoing, laugh inappropriately loud very often, speak my mind, and am unapologetically opinionated. While all of that seems very fun to me, it can be a bit much for some. Especially if you life in a very small, Mayberry-esque town, as I do.

Long, personal, and probably boring story made short: I quit most of my group activities for a hearty evaluation of what my goals are in terms of group settings. My book clubs, of course, fall into that category.

One book club meets weekly, and we read a book-per-week. One club meets every other month, to discuss a common book. I also like to participate in an online book club which schedules a new book each week.

Taking a little break from these has been very easy, much to my surprise. Last week, when I finished a book, I opened my library to choose the next one and realized that I could choose any book I wanted. My choice was not dictated by what one of my various reading groups had scheduled. You can't imagine the feeling of relief I had. It was shocking to me that I was so relieved to be able to choose my own book.

Needless to say, this was quite a revelation. So, instead of the reader in the chair at the top, doing what she loves, but not quite how she wants to do it, I am doing like I like it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Best and Worst States for Readers

BookRiot has an awesome article today about the best and worst states for readers. You can read it here. The map:

Best and worst states for book lovers

That bottom yellow state? Yes! Alabama! Finally, Alabama hits the top of a list that doesn't have to do with obesity, low school performance, or making meth.

I love bookstores. I love to go in, sit on the floor and page through books. I love the smell of a bookstore, especially a used bookstore. It is the smell of paper and ink, maybe a little stale smoke, perhaps a touch of mildew, and the hint of vanilla.

The Telegraph in the UK had an article in 2009 about the smell of books as they age. Very interesting, and you can read it here.

Libraries are another wonderful scent-sensation! In a library you have the mixing of human muskiness with the pages. All of those teens studying for a test, senior citizens going to read magazines and newspapers, children attending a regular story hour. Sweat, perfume, bath soap, and hair products waft through the air, mixing with the books' volatile organic compounds...it makes one fairly swoon!!

It makes me want to grab a book!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Author Spotlight: Hanya Yanagihara

I am not sure if this is an author spotlight as much as a book spotlight, but I feel that I have to write about this book that I have not even read.

The book is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and I am intrigued, to say the least. Here is the summary:

Brace yourself for the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season. An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light.

See what I mean??

A Little LifeI downloaded it last night based on a review by Ann Kingman of podcast Books on the Nightstand.
THEN, I ran across this blogger review by ShortBookReviews on Instagram. You can see it here.

Here is what As the Crowe Flies says: This book simply undid me.

From Books Speak Volumes: Bottom line: If you’re looking for a gut-wrenching read that will stick with you for months, look no further.

Kirkus Reviews: intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling.

Ugh! I am not sure that I can read a tome (it's over 700 pages) that is going to wreck me emotionally.

WHY do we read books that wreck us emotionally, then love them?

Please! Give me your thoughts.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Magyk by Angie Sage

The seventh son of the Seventh son, aptly named Septimus Heap, is stolen the night he is born by a midwife who pronounces him dead. That same night, the baby's father, Silas Heap, comes across a bundle in the snow containing a new-born girl with violet eyes. The Heaps take this helpless newborn into their home, name her Jenna, and raise her as their own. But who is this mysterious baby girl, and what really happened to their beloved son Septimus?

The first book in this enthralling new series by Angie Sage leads readers on a fantastic journey filled with quirky characters and magykal charms, potions, and spells. Magyk is an original story of lost and rediscovered identities, rich with humor and heart.

Evil necromancer DomDaniel is plotting his comeback. Having 'executed' the most daring ruthless part of his plan, one obstacle remains. But this obstacle, although small, is proving to be a challenge, and DomDaniel is not fond of challenges he hasn't created personally. They tend not to live for long ... unless, that is, they happen to be a member of the Heap family...

My take: 4 looks
This was a very fun read! The characters were enjoyable, the action was fast, and the pace was perfect for a book in the YA genre.

I read some of the other reviews and saw many negative comments about the reading level and pandering style of the author. I don't agree with that at all, and think this is the perfect book to engage the more hesitant readers in middle school grades. At a hefty 500+ pages, this type of book is needed to encourage and hook young readers, making them readers for life.

I am also loathe to read reviews where this is compared to the Harry Potter series. While it is a fantasy book, with wizards and such, this is a totally different story. It cannot be compared, and suffers from the expectation that a comparison with the best-selling series in history invites. This is its own story, with simple and straightforward characters, clear action, and an intriguing storyline.

Buy this for your middle schooler and get ready for a love affair with Septimus Heap!

Highly recommended.

Author Spotlight: Robert Bailey

Amazon #1 Mystery author Robert Bailey, along with his wife Dixie, visited my book club recently to discuss his book "The Professor".

What a delightful couple! Here is his official biography:

Robert Bailey was born in Huntsville, Alabama, the son of a builder and a schoolteacher. From the time he could walk, he’s loved stories, especially those about Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide football team.

Robert obtained a Bachelor of Arts in History from Davidson College in North Carolina. Law School at the University of Alabama followed, where Robert made Law Review, competed on the school’s trial team and managed to watch every home football game.
For the past thirteen years, he’s been a civil defense trial lawyer in his hometown of Huntsville. He’s married to the incomparable Dixie Bailey and they have two boys and a little girl.

When Robert’s not writing, practicing law or being a parent, he enjoys playing golf, watching Alabama football and coaching his sons’ little league baseball teams.

The Professor is his first novel.

Mr. Bailey was thoroughly engaging and altogether approachable. He was forthcoming while talking about the writing process, the intensity of editing, and gave his wife much credit in the process to get this book published.

I loved that he told the group that being a lawyer made him a better writer, and being a writer made him a better lawyer. The evening was full of little nuggets like that, including one where he said that he felt as if writing was like dreaming with your eyes open. How can you not love this?! He has just finished the first draft of the sequel to The Professor, titled "Between Black and White".

It was my first foray into becoming a FanGirl, and I must say that it suits me! Please see my review of "The Professor".

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

A debut psychological thriller that will forever change the way you look at other people's lives.

My take: 4 looks

Wowza!! Paula Hawkins is not new to writing thanks to a career in journalism, but this is her first novel. And it is a beaut. Honest and gritty in its portrayal of a Rachel, lonely, alcoholic divorced and unemployed, it brought to mind the classic "The Lost Weekend" by Charles R. Jackson. Some parts will make you cringe, she is so pitiful in her state.

Riding back and forth on the train each day not only supports the ruse for her roommate of a steady job, but it also adds a little light to her days and nights. Taking the same trains, she passes by the home she shared with her ex-husband, now occupied by his new family.

Down the way a bit is another couple that Paula keeps her eye on, making up names for them, as well as their story. When the view is not all as it should be one day, her already untidy world gets even messier.

Heralded as the new "Gone Girl" by many, this is a fast and satisfying read. Coming on the scene with a vengeance, it has created immediate buzz in literary circles. DreamWorks has already optioned the rights to a movie. It is a page-turner and highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Professor by Robert Bailey

"The Professor" introduces Thomas Jackson McMurtrie, a longtime law professor at the University of Alabama, who, 40 years after giving up a promising career as a trial lawyer to teach law students at the request of his mentor, Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, retires to his farm an angry and bitter man, betrayed by both a Board member he mistook for a friend and his own failing health.

Meanwhile, the young family of one of Tom’s oldest friends is killed in a tragic collision with an 18-wheeler.  Believing his career is over, Tom refers his friend to a brilliant, yet beleaguered, former student, Rick Drake, who begins to uncover that the truth behind the tragedy is buried in a tangled web of arson, bribery and greed.

When a key witness is murdered on the eve of trial, the young attorney, in over his head and at the end of his rope, knows he needs help…and there’s only one man who can help him.

My take: 4 looks
Usually first novels are not impressive. They are rambling, full of clichés and one-dimensional characters. This first novel from Robert Bailey is the exception to all of these. Gripping from the beginning, the story is a fast-paced legal thriller full of good guys, bad guys, and victims.

The characters bring real life onto the pages, from the moment you find out Tom has bladder cancer to the end when you discover what happens to a beloved character. There are no shiny characters here, as is often the case when you have a clear good vs. evil stance. Tom and Rick are both flawed men who are living down a past while they work to build a case, friendship, and business. The bad guys are mean to the core, and you will find yourself rooting for their comeuppance. The story became so stressful for me at times that I had to put it down for a few hours. That is the mark of a good one!! I am happy to say that I found the ending to be very satisfying.

Written by a local lawyer, this definitely has the feeling of early Grisham books, but there is something more pure in this one. Perhaps it is the local flavor that appeals so to me. Perhaps the characters are a bit more mature than Grisham's Mitch McDeere. Whatever the case, I am pleased that Bailey just finished his first draft of the sequel, "Between Black and White." I will definitely be one of the first in line for that one.

Highly recommended.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas

Josephine Hurst has her family under control. With two beautiful daughters, a brilliantly intelligent son, a tech-guru of a husband, and a historical landmark home, her life is picture perfect. But living in this matriarch’s determinedly cheerful, yet subtly controlling domain hasn’t been easy for her family, and when her oldest daughter, Rose, runs off with a mysterious boyfriend, Josephine tightens her grip, gradually turning her flawless home into a darker sort of prison.

Resentful of her sister’s newfound freedom, Violet turns to eastern philosophy, hallucinogenic drugs, and extreme fasting, eventually landing herself in a psych ward. Meanwhile, her brother, Will, recently diagnosed with Asperger's, shrinks further into a world of self-doubt. Their father, Douglas, finds resolve in the bottom of a bottle—an addict craving his own chance to escape.

Josephine struggles to maintain the family’s impeccable façade, but when a violent incident leads to a visit from child protective services, the truth about the Hursts might finally be revealed.

My take: 4 looks
A perfect family is very rarely as it seems, and the Hursts are no exception. Told in alternating voices of 16-year-old Violet and 11-year-old Will, the story slowly unfolds much like peeling layers off a rose. Big pieces with a sweet fragrance, until you get to the ugly core.

Violet and Will's voices are very different. Will is eager to please his mother, and sees the best in her. One of my favorite paragraphs describes Violet's perspective:

"Violet developed an almost pathological need to point out whatever the rest of the Hursts wanted to sweep under the rug and parade it around like a skull on a stick." p 26

She knows something is wrong, but because of her youth and immaturity, has trouble not only expressing it, but being taken seriously by others; especially when her mother's voice is the other one in the equation.

Masterful at manipulation, backhanded compliments and insinuations, Josephine is the perpetual victim. Zailckas writes this character to perfection. Unfortunately, she has first-hand experience from her own childhood, as told in the notes at the back of the book. Jo is cunning, understated in public and over-the-top in private. She is truly a character that you will love to hate.

I was cheering for Violet the entire time I wondered what became of Rose. An absent character in her own right, the revelation at the end of the book of how Rose finally did escape her mother's clutches was somewhat predictable, but that didn't take away from the impact. The highlight of the story for me was the end, where the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a freight train, headed right for me.

A very satisfying read and highly recommended.

Friday, March 6, 2015

March by Geraldine Brooks

From Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women, Geraldine Brooks has animated the character of the absent father, March. Brooks follows March as he leaves behind his family to aid the Union cause in the Civil War. His experiences will utterly change his marriage and challenge his most ardently held beliefs.

My take: 3 looks; no, make that 2 looks
First let me say that I really struggled with giving this one three looks. After all, there are many, many better books, in my opinion, which have also received three looks from me. However, it wasn't really a stinker, so I didn't want to give it two looks.

With this review, I am going to go Clint Eastwood on you.

The Good
Brooks' writing is beautiful. Her way with words, sentence structure and vocabulary is stunning. The flow of the story, details in the action, insight into the characters ... it is all very satisfying. Here are two quotes I loved:

"A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world. But the world will not help me put back together what the war has broken apart."

"How easy it was to give out morsels of wise counsel, and yet how hard to act on them."

The Bad
This, in my mind, is not great story-telling. The premise of giving us a look at a character on the periphery of one of history's best-loved books is brilliant. Since the characters in Alcott's "Little Women" are patterned on real people, it makes sense that Brooks would use the Alcott patriarch as a guide. However, he was so irritating that I could not help but be disappointed. I will get to that in a moment.

I would like to talk about Grace. I appreciate that Grace was taught to read, but I hardly think Brooks' license to present this house slave as regal and educated was realistic. And not just educated by her mistress; Grace sounded matriculated!  I am sure she could have had some presence, but to say to Mrs. March, "He loves, perhaps, an idea of me: Africa, liberated. I represent certain things to him, a past he would reshape if he could, a hope of a future he yearns toward," almost made the laugh out loud. It was not in the least credible.

When an author loses credibility in one area, and to this extent, it starts to unravel in other places.

The Ugly
If Brooks' goal was to have her reader come to despise Mr. March, she was 100% successful with me. A yellow-bellied, loquacious, pretentious, selfish milquetoast is how I saw him. I became so disgusted with his whining about not doing anything important that I almost wished the fever would take him. He went to war on an impulse, the men with whom he served hated him, and he fled almost every time he had the chance. He was so high on his self-righteous horse that he couldn't see what a hindrance he was to almost everything. The fact that he was able to secure supplies for the "contraband" Negros on the plantation was of little saving grace. Especially when he was instrumental in getting most of them later killed.

His family was destitute because of him, his wife's heart was broken because of him, Beth probably inherited her weak constitution from him, and on and on.

This is the second Pulitzer Prize winning book that I have read and disliked (see my review of Jennifer Egan's The Goon Squad). As a matter of fact, the more I ruminate over March, the more apt I am to change my review to 2 looks. Yes, I think I will.

However, I will read others by Geraldine Brooks. Her "People of the Book" alone is reason to read more. And while I can't recommend "March", I highly recommend you read her other titles.

Not recommended.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Horns by Joe Hill

Ignatius Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke up the next morning with a thunderous hangover, a raging headache . . . and a pair of horns growing from his temples. At first Ig thought the horns were a hallucination, the product of a mind damaged by rage and grief. He had spent the last year in a lonely, private purgatory, following the death of his beloved, Merrin Williams, who was raped and murdered under inexplicable circumstances. A mental breakdown would have been the most natural thing in the world. But there was nothing natural about the horns, which were all too real. Once the righteous Ig had enjoyed the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renowned musician and younger brother of a rising late-night TV star, he had security, wealth, and a place in his community. Ig had it all , and more—he had Merrin and a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic. But Merrin's death damned all that. The only suspect in the crime, Ig was never charged or tried. And he was never cleared. In the court of public opinion in Gideon, New Hampshire, Ig is and always will be guilty because his rich and connected parents pulled strings to make the investigation go away. Nothing Ig can do, nothing he can say, matters. Everyone, it seems, including God, has abandoned him. Everyone, that is, but the devil inside. . . . Now Ig is possessed of a terrible new power to go with his terrible new look—a macabre talent he intends to use to find the monster who killed Merrin and destroyed his life. Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere. It's time for a little revenge. . . . It's time the devil had his due. . . .

My take: 2 looks
Maybe it's because I read Hill's "Heart Shaped Box" recently, and it scared the bejeebies out of me. Or it may be because I has just finished a few excellent thrillers before picking up this one. Or, maybe it's because I couldn't stop thinking of Harry Potter as Ig, because of the movie promotions. In any event, I didn't really care for this one. I thought the characters were pretty flat, the action was a little slow, and the secret thoughts presented out loud to Ig were sophomoric musings.

The premise is a smart one: Ig's girlfriend is murdered, everyone secretly thinks Ig did it (even his family), and he sprouts horns until he can solve the mystery.

However, once you read the summary above (found on Shelfari), you really have no need to read the book. I mean, you can read the last chapter to find out how it ends, but by the time you are halfway through, you already have a pretty good idea...

While this won't turn me off Joe Hill books, I can't recommend this one.