Great first lines: Another Louise Penny Edition

Cruelest MonthFrom The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny:

“Kneeling in the fragrant moist grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper.”

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Review: The Land of Love & Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique
Riverhead Books, 2014

LandofLove

Tiphanie Yanique’s debut novel, The Land of Love and Drowning, is set on the island of St. Thomas in the wake of the transfer of the Virgin Islands from Danish to American rule. The novel is as much about the island of St. Thomas itself as it is about the various generations of the Bradshaw family who inhabit it.

When the novel opens, the wealthy Captain Bradshaw is married to the unruly but beautiful Antoinette. Although the Bradshaws rank among the elite of the Virgin Islands, Antoinette herself hails from a wilder set. Bradshaw plucked her from Anegada, an atoll barely above sea level.

At the time of their marriage, Antoinette was already pregnant by another man, but that problem, the narrator assures us, was no real problem at all. “Swift as anything, captain and girl wash that other man baby away.”

Antoinette gets in the habit of “washing her babies” away, but two manage to survive. The astoundingly beautiful Eeona was born in the early part of Antoinette’s marriage, when the Bradshaws were still counted among the wealthy elite of the island. Anette, who was too stubborn to succumb to abortion, was born just before a shipwreck plunges the Bradshaws into poverty.

It is through Anette and Eeona that we see the class distinctions on St. Thomas play out. At the beginning of the book, as St. Thomas is transitioning from Danish to American rule, the class distinctions on the island are not so much a matter of race as of economics. Eeona, born to a family with ample wealth and gentility, receives an education suitable for a gentleman’s daughter. She dresses carefully and speaks perfect English. Anette, raised in a newly impoverished family, was left to scramble for whatever education was available to the general island populace. She has a rougher outlook and a bawdy way of speaking about things Eeona would rather leave unsaid. It is Anette who tells us how her mother got in the habit of washing her unwanted babies away.

The tough thing about this book is that every character in it is mildly appalling. Incest is treated as part of the fabric of life, as are curses and a dense web of family secrets.  This book has a great story woven into a compelling setting, but the unrelenting horror embedded in the characters’ lives made at least half my book club bail on reading it halfway through.

 

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Memorable quotes from somewhere in the middle of a book: The Anthony Trollope edition

WardenFrom The Warden (1855), the first of the Barchester Chronicles by Anthony Trollope:

“Scandal at Barchester affirmed that had it not been for the beauty of his daughter, Mr. Harding would have remained a minor canon; but here probably Scandal lied, as she so often does; for even as a minor canon no one had been more popular among his reverend brethren in the close than Mr. Harding; and Scandal, before she had reprobated Mr. Harding for being made precentor by his friend the bishop, had loudly blamed the bishop for having so long omitted to do something for his friend Mr. Harding.”

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July’s To-Read Pile

Ah, summer. Time to catch up on some of those books I’ve been neglecting. Here’s are a few of the books in my To-Read Pile.

Lucifer: Children & Monsters
LuciferVol2Author: Mike Carey
Art: Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly
Publisher: Vertigo, 2002
Genre: Graphic Novel

What the book’s about: The character of Lucifer Morningstar first appears in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but Gaiman authorized Mike Carey to write a series of comics telling Lucifer’s story in depth. Those comics have been compiled in Vertigo’s five-book Lucifer series. Lucifer: Children & Monsters is the second volume in the set. I’m told Lucifer will get his wings in this volume, although I still don’t quite know how. (No spoilers, please.)

All Clear
AllClearAuthor: Connie Willis
Publisher: Spectra, 2011
Genre: Science Fiction/Time Travel

What the book’s about: In this sequel to Blackout, time-traveling historians Michael Davies, Merope Ward, and Polly Churchill have been marooned in World War II London during the Blitz. Worse, they are starting to suspect that their fundamental assumptions about time travel are wrong – their actions do affect history after all. As they work frantically to survive Hitler’s onslaught and find a way back to Oxford in 2060, little discrepancies in the historical timeline begin to pile up, making the outcome of the war increasingly uncertain.

The Hour-Glass Factory
Hourglass FactoryAuthor: Lucy Ribchester
Publisher: Pegasus, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mysteries

What the book’s about: Set in London 1912, The Hour-Glass Factory follows female reporter Frankie George. Frankie desperately wants to score an interview with notorious trapeze artist Ebony Diamond in the hopes of forcing her Fleet Street boss to let her write for something other than the Ladies section. When Ebony disappears in the middle of her trapeze act, Frankie investigates. Following Ebony’s trail inevitably sucks Frankie into the sinister world of the Hourglass Factory, a secret society that links the criminal class with some of London’s most prominent socialites.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
NaturalDragonsAuthor: Marie Brennan
Publisher: Tor Books, 2014
Genre: YA/Fantasy

What the book’s about: Isabella, Lady Trent is the world’s foremost dragon naturalist. Her scholarly efforts have been instrumental in freeing dragons from the prejudice and misunderstandings of myth, into the objective realm of modern science. Of course, Lady Trent wasn’t always a towering figure of modern science. When she was a girl, her father expected to meekly marry a man of means (preferably one willing to share his library) just like everyone else in her social circle. Needless to say, that didn’t really work out.

In A Natural History of Dragons Isabella tells us, in her own words how she exchanged the hunt for a husband for the far more satisfactory pursuit of dragons (and possibly smugglers).

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

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Summer Reading List: Great Books by Native Writers

I used to really hate Twitter, but I’ve warmed up to it now that I’ve realized what a wonderful source of book recommendations it is. (Coincidentally, my local bookstore recently posted an uptick in profits after years of disappointing sales. I’m not saying that’s *entirely* the result of my discovering how to find my next great read on Twitter, but I’m certain it didn’t hurt.)

This morning I came across an excellent rant by Debbie Reese (@debreese) bemoaning the fact that Sherman Alexie is the only Native writer most people have ever heard about, when in fact there are hundreds of great Native writers out there.

She conveniently included several books in her rant, many of which I’ve now added to my perilously tall To-Read pile. I thought I’d share a couple of them with you, in case you also would like to add them to yours.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

Marrow Thieves

Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves is set in a world devastated by global warming. The average person in Dimaline’s world has been so scarred by the harsh environment that they have lost the ability to dream. The dreamless ones are slowly, inexorably going mad.

Only North America’s Indigeneous People have retained the ability to dream. The key to their dreaming, and thus presumably the cure, lies in their bone marrow. Marrow factories have been set up around the country to extract the marrow and distill it into a cure that the world desperately needs. The catch is the extraction process kills the donor. Understandably, few donate their marrow willingly.

The Marrow Thieves tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy and his companions as they struggle for survival in a world conspiring to kill them. The Marrow Thieves will be available September 1, 2017.

While I wait, I think I’ll dip into Cherie Dimaline’s previous novel, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy.

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

PlagueofDoves

The first of three novels in an award-winning trilogy, The Plague of Doves describes how a set of unsolved murders have shaped life in Pluto, North Dakota. Generations have passed since a white family in Pluto was murdered and Native Americans from the nearby Ojibwe reservation were falsely accused and hung for it, yet the after shocks of that miscarriage of justice still ripple through this small town.

Over those generations, descendants of the innocent Native Americans and the whites who lynched them have intermarried, creating a complex blend of relationships that Erdrich uses to explore the “river of our existence.”

Of course, there’s hundreds more

Even @debreese’s twitter stream includes too many books for me to write up in this post. There are horror stories, contemporary short stories, historical fiction novels, graphic novels, and books for children of all ages by writers like Tim Tingle, Dawn Dumont, and Stephen Graham Jones.

While you’re browsing Twitter, be sure to stop by#HonouringIndigenousWriters, a hashtag established by Daniel Heath Justice (@justicedanielh) in 2016. Justice used the hashtag to tweet about a different author every day, starting January 1, 2016. By December 31, he had built a list of 366 writers across all genres.

What about you? Do you have a favorite Native writer you’d like to tell the world about?

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My Year in Books

I’ve been using Goodreads to track my reading for years now. I look forward to the year end statistics report every December. It’s fun to see how the numbers stack up. I also like to quickly scan the book covers to see which of the stories I devoured in a given year still resonate with me.

Last year I had some pretty impressive numbers.

 

yearinbooks2015

My 2015 year in books report from Goodreads.

I was determined to beat those numbers this year. So I set aside an hour each day to work on it. I call it “5 o’clock reading.” My cat loves it. He curls up on my lap (or my feet) and savors the quiet with me. If I forget to report to the Very Large Red Reading Couch in the afternoon, he seeks me out and meows at me until I get there.

So, did that dedicated reading time pay off?

 

yearinbooks2016shala

My 2016 Year in Books report

Hard to say. My page count is up, but my total number of books read is down. Still, I now have a pocket of peacefulness built into my daily schedule that includes cat-cuddling. I’m going to call that a win.

Of all the books I’ve read this year, the one book I wish more people would read is Helen Wacker’s The Golem and the Jinni. It’s hard to shelve it into one genre. It’s part fantasy, part mystery, and part love story. But it’s also a book about immigration, and how difficult it can be to find a place for yourself in your new homeland.

Here’s a sampling of the books I read this year.

samplingyear2016books

You can see my entire list here. (If you’re on Goodreads, let’s be friends. I’m always in the market for book recommendations.)

 

 

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Review: Lady Catherine’s Necklace by Joan Aiken

lady-catherines-necklaceLady Catherine’s Necklace
By Joan Aiken
Thorndike Press, 2000

This variation of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice, is set a few years after the events of Austen’s original. Lady Catherine and her daughter, Anne, are residing quietly at Rosings Park when a freak April snowstorm strands the elegant Ralph Delaval and his sister Priscilla in the neighborhood.

Lady Catherine allows these elegant unfortunates to stay at Rosings, despite Anne’s misgivings. The mystery deepens when Lady Catherine goes on a journey, one of her prize necklaces is declared to be a fake, and Lady Catherine herself is apparently kidnapped.

As a long-time reader of Jane Austen fan fiction, I’m used to authors taking liberties with the original storylines, but Aiken’s book begins with at least one impossibility, which nearly caused me to stop reading the book entirely.

Based on all of the events that were alluded to have happened since Pride and Prejudice ended and Aiken’s book began — Mr. Bingley has bought his own home, Mr. Bennett has passed away, Charlotte’s first child is several years old — Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne, who was a pale sickly creature of age to be out in company in Austen’s original, should have been in her early twenties (at least) at the start of this story. And yet there she was, a blooming girl of 17, out digging in the garden and chatting up painters.

Since Aiken’s story is presumably set several years after the end of Pride and Prejudice, that means Lady Catherine was furious with Mr. Darcy for not marrying a 12 year old girl.

Perhaps she was. But I have to say, I devoutly hope not.

Maria Lucas seemed quite a bit livelier in Aiken’s version too, but compared to the puzzle of Anne’s miracle cure and extreme youthfulness, this was easy for me to reconcile. Maria would have spent several years in society by this point. She probably would have attained a bit of polish.

As I read, I quickly realized that I had to make a choice — either stop reading altogether or stop looking for faithfulness to Pride and Prejudice and enjoy Aiken’s narrative as an only tangentially related tale loosely set in more or less the same world.

I had read other Austen variations by Joan Aiken before and enjoyed them, so I chose to continue reading this one. And in the end, I was repaid with a fun little Regency story set in a world and populated by characters that were just familiar enough to be comfortable companions for a stormy afternoon.

Who would enjoy this book
Jane Austen fans who don’t require their Pride & Prejudice fan fiction to be all that faithful to the original. Better yet, folks who haven’t necessarily read Jane Austen’s novels at all, and are just looking for a light-hearted and somewhat silly Regency novel with which to pass a lazy afternoon.

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Unforgettable First Lines–The Louise Penny edition

StillLifeFrom Still Life, the first of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries:

“Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all around.”

For the record, Penny has a pretty great final paragraph in her Acknowledgements section as well:

“I went through a period in my life when I had no friends, when the phone never rang, when I thought I would die from loneliness. I know that the real blessing here isn’t that I have a book published, but that I have so many people to thank.”

If this keeps up I may just have found my latest candidate for my next Pick-An-Author-and-Read-All-Their-Books-In-Order project.

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What I learned about writing from reading The White City by Alec Michod

WhiteCityThe White City
By Alec Michod
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004

I’ll start off by saying that I didn’t actually like this book. I finished it not because I needed to know how it ended, or because I cared about the characters, but because I am revising a book of my own right now and I do care deeply about what breaks an otherwise promising novel.

What works about The White City

In this case, the location is excellent, and the premise is solid — one of America’s first female forensic detectives investigating one of America’s first serial killers. I enjoyed Michod’s descriptions of life in Chicago during the World’s Fair of 1893 and Michod’s descriptions of the White City which Chicago built to house the fair. The subplots with the boy and his kidnapper were also interesting, as were the descriptions of the impact the boy’s disappearance had upon his family.

The rest of the book was just one teachable moment after another in how to ruin a story’s potential.

Teachable Moment #1: If you limit your main character’s emotional arc, your readers’ interest in the story will be limited as well. 

In my opinion, the main character’s storyline is the most problematic thing about the entire book.

Michod’s protagonist, Elizabeth Handley, starts the book exhausted and hungry and proceeds to spend the rest of the book becoming more exhausted and more hungry, all the while telling herself that what she really needs to do is stop and rest and maybe eat something because walking up and down the streets of Chicago is no way to hunt for a serial killer.

But here’s the thing — she walks aimlessly for hours anyway because she’s too tired to think of anything better to do. The mystery is only solved because Handley stops stumbling around the city long enough for the deus ex machina (in the form of a survivor of the serial killer) to appear to tell Handley who the serial killer is.

Handley never evolves beyond the exhausted, hungry, restless, insecure, self-involved woman she was at the start of the story. That’s a pretty limited emotional arc. It prevented me from making any sort of emotional investment in Handley as a character, and by extension in this book.

Teachable Moment #2: If you are going to include a tidbit from your research, make sure you get the details right. Also, only use details that actually support the story.

For the most part, I enjoyed Michod’s descriptions of 1893 Chicago. But there were a few distracting flaws in his research. Some are super picky, like the fact that he calls the asylum outside of Boston McClean instead of McLean.

One though, really bugged me. At the tail end of the book, it suddenly becomes important to Michod to describe Handley’s clothing. He dresses her in a hoop skirt and uses the skirt to great effect to emphasize the cramped spooky monster’s lair she’s found herself in at the end of the novel. This would have been awesome if it had been at all believable that Handley would have worn a hoop skirt.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility, mind you. The hoop skirt made a brief comeback in the Midwest in the 1890s, however, nothing about Handley’s character led me to believe that she cared at all about fashion. She can hardly be troubled to stop walking long enough to take the most basic care of herself. Frankly, it’s impossible for me to believe that this woman would sacrifice her beloved freedom of movement in the interest of fashion.

If Handley must wear a skirt and not pants, it seems more credible that she’d wear the slimmer tailored skirts prevalent at the time, perhaps hemmed a few inches higher than was strictly proper so that they wouldn’t drag in the streets on her ramblings or interfere unduly with the toting of tripods to crime scenes. By all means, have her trip on her skirts on the stairs in the monster’s lair, but don’t distract me with talk of hoop skirts scraping against walls. I just can’t believe this woman would wear them.

Teachable Moment #3: Mysteries are not enhanced by shortcuts. 

Finally, it bugs me a bit that the serial killer himself doesn’t actually appear as a character in the story until the Survivor tells us about him, relatively late in the game.

It bugs me more, however, that Handley is simply told outright who the killer was. That undercuts the entire point of telling a story about one of America’s first female forensic detectives. In the end, her forensic skills (if in fact she had any) don’t matter at all. If she just wanders around the city long enough, she’ll stumble across someone who’ll tell her the answer. And if you’re just going to tell a story about a case like that, why bother?

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Happy Fourth of July!

Photo by Michael Howell, of a long-ago July day somewhere on Cape Cod.

Photo by Michael Howell, of a long-ago July day somewhere on Cape Cod.

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