Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Kate Morton Fandom

People are creatures of habit and to some extent, at least in terms of entertainment, fandom. This is seen in how movies, television shows, actors, music, bands, etc… are inhaled and spit out by a clamoring public. How else could there be four Pirates of the Caribbean movies (please don’t tell me you actually thought they were good)? The same concept holds for books and their authors. Even if they are not “great” or “avid” readers, everyone seems to have their favorite authors. These are the writers whose books we immediately purchase no matter the subject or genre. Some people are hooked on Martin (George R.R., that is), some on Michael Chabon, others veer towards James Patterson, Danielle Steel (don’t worry, I’m not judging you…at least in this blog), while other still are hooked on writers from our past, like Steinbeck, Austen, Nabokov, Hemingway, or one of the Bronte’s—who may not be writing anymore, but as soon as a new annotated version of Lolita, or illustrated Wuthering Heights is released, watch out, those fans are there. I have both witnessed and participated in this phenomenon. My grandmother was a big Jane Austen fan, and upon her death I found multiple copies of each Austen book (we are talking 4 or 5 copies of just Pride and Prejudice alone), as well as just about any book about Austen, her style, her home life—even a décor book—that could be imagined. That’s dedication! Now, I have my authors too, working in the book world, how can I not. My book shelves pay homage to writers like Mary Stewart, Max Barry (all but Machine Man, which I read, but couldn’t bring myself to keep), Tana French, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and Carol O’Connell. Another author whose titles grace my shelves—and is really the topic of this blog—is Australian novelist Kate Morton.

Kate Morton is one of those novelists who create stories that sweep across time, weaving in and out of eras, switching between narrative voices and views with profound skill. Her four books The House at Riverton, The Forgotten Garden, The Distant Hours, and the newly released The Secret Keeper, all use the devise of flitting between a modern story and one from the past, by creating an intriguing mystery that leads its modern day heroine to delve into the past in order to unearth the truth. Morton’s pasts are tragic. The characters suffer—for love, for war, for sisterhood, motherhood—for life itself, creating an interesting bond between not only the “mystery-solver”, but also the reader, as both protagonist and reader have the past slowly unfurled for them. It is easy within this type of storytelling to run to the melodramatic, but Morton is adept at running on that knife edge, providing an emotional core to her plot without falling into the stereotype. Kate Morton is a magician with a pen (or, more accurately in this day and age, Word Processor). Her characters are flawed, three-dimensional beings and her settings are richly defined without dragging the reader into a dull description of the landscape that more often leads to skimming, than appreciation. While her mystery plotlines, or rather twists are a touch on the predictable side, it is easy to overlook when confronted with such a rich tapestry of character and place.

In her newest novel, The Secret Keeper, Morton excels at connecting the story of Laurel, a well-respected older actress, with that of a trio of young people living in London during the Blitz. The novel interlaces the lives of Vivian, Dolly and Jimmy, switching between their narratives with that of Laurel as she struggles to unravel the mystery surrounding her mother and the long ago death of a visiting stranger at her home. In a time where I have been struggling to find a book I really love, The Secret Keeper has been a welcome breath of fresh air. Along with another of Morton’s books, The Forgotten Garden, The Secret Keeper has created characters and storylines that have enthralled me. I really can’t do them justice in explaining how Morton’s characters ignite a spark of compassion, an emotional link really, that is difficult to find in other novels. Her books are much more than good stories, they are in a sense, epics; not so much in the sense of something like the Ken Follett books or Gone with the Wind, but in the sense that her creations, these beings developed in her imagination, are really brought to life in a way that leaves vestiges of them in your mind long after you’ve put the book back on the shelf.

So, you readers with supreme author allegiance and a yen for good fiction, here’s my challenge—pick-up a Kate Morton book, read it, enjoy it and then move on to the next. Before you know it you will have a Kate Morton section of your book shelf too.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Classic Hollywood Revisited

Iconic Hollywood stars have frequently been the subjects of books. There is always a new bio or photo book featuring the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, or a new biographical look at Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, or Joan Crawford; even Hedy Lamarr got her intellectual due in Richard Roades’ Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. In Fiction, there too have been glimpses into the possible lives of these larger than life figures; from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ look at Errol Flynn in Glitter Baby, Marilyn Monroe in multiple books, including Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde and the current The Empty Glass by J.I. Baker, Louise Brooks in Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, to Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason in Don DeLillo’s Underworld. The point is, celebrities, particularly those from the halcyon days of yesteryear are frequent subjects of the written word. Many of these works are interesting and informative, some preposterous and maddening, but mainly they are a type of book that draws readers looking for sensationalism or a glimpse at an era that never ceases to fascinate. So, I was not too surprised to come across several books this summer that dealt with the classic Hollywood scene, but I was surprised by their quality, particularly that of two novels, Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. The books are incredibly different in context and presentation, deal with two different eras of Hollywood, but both are well-written snap shots of a time and people that continue to fascinate us.

While Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures does not feature a real-life celebrity, it does perfectly recreate the feeling of the studio-machine driven age of cinema. From the height of the studio system in the 30’s and 40’s to the revamped look of the late 70’s, this is a novel that brilliantly evokes the life and times of a studio-made star. Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures follows young Elsa Emerson, a girl raised within her parent’s Wisconsin theater company who plots her way to Hollywood and is remade for eventual stardom as the glamorous Laura Lamont. This is more than a novel, it plays out like a 1950’s film, or even one of those epic studio stories (some true, some fabricated) of how someone became a star. In fact, I had a hard time not picturing someone like Lana Turner in my mind while reading this novel. It unfolds like a brilliant melodrama—a suicide, teen marriage, divorce, marriage to a studio head, stardom, age—and yet, this novel is wonderfully written, not a dramatic soap opera, but a sort of love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood and its products, the movie stars. A deceptively simple story, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is surprisingly gripping in its honest humanity, and cleverly written characters. Straub’s obvious love of this time period within the movie-making world helps to round it out presenting a well-thought out, interesting novel with remarkable understanding of the era, Hollywood studio system, and what it meant to be an aging female film star during this time period. In all it’s a fresh and charming new novel, perfect for classic movie fans.

Beautiful Ruins is an entirely different beast. Unlike the linear third-person limited narrative of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Beautiful Ruins is told via a multiple third-person narrative that bounces not only between characters, but also through time, place, and at points leaves the primary story to show excerpts from fictionalized books and screenplays. From 1962 Italy and the filming of Cleopatra (the most expensive US movie), to current Hollywood, with sections in Scotland, London, Seattle, and Idaho thrown in; Walter’s unique style creates not only a touching story of a love that could have been, but also a deftly drawn portrait of the demise of the movie star as an untouchable god (pre extreme-paparazzi), and the transition from epic films to reality garbage, lacking any sense of prestige and glamour. It adroitly shows the inner workings of film publicists and producers looking to exploit everything and anything to sell their products, the turmoil created by the desire to be famous, post-traumatic stress, and the general narcissism and technological dependence of the current generation. On the Hollywood front, actor Richard Burton is takes a co-starring role—his actions literally spur the plot of the entire story—his drunken escapades, remarkable talent, and on-set affair with co-star Elizabeth Taylor (prior to their 2 marriages) are imaginatively recreated, using much of the lore and fact that fans have come to associate with the couple’s tumultuous relationship. The addition of an ill actress (a fictional character who is part of the Cleopatra cast), an alcoholic former solider/writer, a canny and amoral publicity grunt, and a young Italian trying to save his dying hotel, help to create a setting that is almost film-like itself in its capture of drama and occasional bouts of comedic flair. The sections taking place in current times are less thrilling, far more irritating in view of the younger characters’ self-absorption—one is looking to sell a ridiculous screenplay based on the Donner Party, the other is a production mogul’s development assistant/lackey with a dependence on data fixes and a porn addicted boyfriend—but Walters uses them effectively in bringing together the threads of the story as it bounces between decades and characters. In all, Beautiful Ruins is intriguing, very stylized in its presentation, and a wonderful look at Hollywood’s transition from its Golden Age.

There are so many books published dealing with this theme that it can be daunting to take on the task, particularly for a fan of classic films, not looking to see their favorite star/era/movie diminished in stature, but taking up either of these novels, whether it be the stylized Beautiful Ruins, or the homage to the studio system of yesteryear within Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, readers are sure to find pleasure within their pages. Great reads for readers of varying styles and a love of interesting characters. Creative Commons License
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Friday, August 31, 2012

Nothing but Shadows

I read a lot of series. Not by design, but I get a book, I like it, and lo and behold I come to the end and, surprise-it’s a series. The past couple of months I’ve reached the end of a couple of fun series, The Parasol Protectorate being one, and have been lucky enough to also land the ARC’s of many sequels in my series repertoire. I love getting sequels, but as I have stated before there is a certain on edge feeling that goes with them. Namely, you ask yourself “is this book going to make or break my new favorite series?” (see Curse of the Sequel). That question has unfortunately been answered for one of my most touted new series of 2011.

Ashes by Ilsa Bick was a book I really stood behind in September of 2011. I blogged about it, I tried to put it into hands, both young and old, and with a cliffhanger ending, I genuinely could not wait for the next book. So, when a copy of Shadows, its sequel arrived on my desk I was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to dive in where I had left off. Which is exactly what I did, only it seemed as though I was diving into something wholly unfamiliar, and gruesomely unappealing.

What I loved about Ashes was Bick’s great twist on the post-apocalyptic zombie-esque thriller, her young characters were forced to survive in unimaginable conditions, but somehow they all managed. The addition of the elderly survivors, and a village straight of The Lottery only added to the appeal. The characters were interesting, and the concept of an EMP bombing aftermath was really ingenious. So, how could the sequel be so bad?

Shadows was a choppy mess—over-ambitious in its goal to cover so many narratives and horrifically violent. Basically, it’s like Rob Zombie took over the writing and tried to add as many bloody cannibalistic torture scenes as he could. Let me preface this upcoming rant with this—I am not a prude, or a wimp. I was a teenager who loved horror movies, wrote a twenty-page research paper about the evolution of the slasher film in college, and don’t typically shy away from watching, or reading about violence. That being said, even I have my limits and this book’s gratuitous use of torture, graphic cannibal scenes, and its villainization of, believe it or not, Vietnam Vets, has not only pushed me to the limit, but well past. There is no happiness in this book. I can deal with that. I can deal with bleak, if it’s delivered within the brilliantly written confines of a book like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but the lengths to which this author goes to instill upon the reader the horrors of this post-apocalyptic world, and the utter lack of humanity presented within these Vietnam Vets, who appear more like Nazi doctors experimenting on young survivors for “knowledge”, is just plain sickening. There is no other way to put it and when you add in an uneven narrative, and a flimsy attempt at creating an underlying mystery/suspense plot within the confines of a horror novel, you just get a ghastly mess of a book.

In some ways I could excuse the atrocities of this novel, and just shrug it off as a book that’s “not for me”, except for more thing—this is a book written for teenagers, with the words 14 & up printed on the back, and shelved in the teen/young adult section of your local bookstore. I’ve sold Ashes to teens—young teens, and there is no way I would put Shadows in a young person’s hands. I would even be reluctant to do so in an adult’s hands without a major disclaimer and a lot of working to persuade them not to buy it. I’ve also noticed that this book will be marketed with AMC’s Walking Dead—a brilliant series for fans of the genre, and filled with it’s own horrors, but here’s the difference—reading is highly personal, the images take place in your mind, the words in your voice, it’s all very insular in a way, making it far more real than when you watch something similar in the movies and television. I’m sure many people would argue with me, but what I read in this teen novel far more horrified me than anything I’ve seen in The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, or even Doomsday—in which there is a scene where someone is literally barbequed on a spit and fed to a roiling mass of punks. This is mostly because the intimacy of the images in my mind while reading far outweighs the actors scripted portrayals onscreen. I can shut the movie off, but it’s hard to do that with my own imagination.

To say I’m disappointed by Shadows would be an understatement. It is one of the most disappointing sequels I’ve ever come across, and definitely the most gratuitously and unapologetically grotesque in it’s display of violence, particularly torture and Veteran behavior. I not only would never recommend this to someone, but I feel as though I need to revoke my earlier approval of it’s predecessor Ashes, which sadly due to it’s cliffhanger style ending can’t stand on it’s own. I love sharing books, and am saddened to see such a promising series go to hell in a hand basket, but Shadows is a book that just needs to go away.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Seeing/Reading "The Iliad"

I love going to the theater. It’s my first love. I mean I love books and reading and everything that goes with that, but when push comes to shove theater will get my immediate attention. This might sound odd coming from someone who makes their living from books, someone who on a weekly basis writes on this blog about books and authors, but what many people don’t know is that my background is in theater, and having had the privilege to work, perform in, and study theater for many years I find myself feeling a little lonesome without it in my life on a daily basis. One might ask what a book blogger is doing speaking about theater when she should be discussing The Dog Stars by Peter Heller or some other newer title, but bear with me—I’ll get to the correlation.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see La Jolla Playhouse’s An Iliad, a re-imagining of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad (the Robert Fagles translation) at the Mandell Weiss Forum. The performance is done in one act (approx. 110 minutes) as a single, yet captivating monologue. The only addition to its storyteller, known simply as “the Poet”, is a musician who interacts musically using a double bass, the metal staircase, and a variety of other small instruments and tools. The musician never speaks, but the power of his music, particularly the double bass, interweaves perfectly with the storytelling, at times overwhelming the audience with its low, occasionally violent sounds that perfectly emulate the hardships of war as described by the Poet. For his turn, the Poet, as played by actor Henry Woronicz, is an intriguing figure, alternating from a hobo-like man pacing about a sparse utilitarian set speaking to the audience as though they were sitting beside him in a way station (there is no fourth wall in this production), to this eloquent poet with a visible and visceral connection to the men within this story that he is compelled to keep repeating to the world. Woronicz and musician Brian Ellingsen perform their material beautifully, bringing the right touches of humor, drama, and horror to this epic retelling. The only fault of the play is the text itself—not that great epic poem The Iliad, or even some of the modern comparisons used to create a better picture for the audience, but in the addition of dialogue that instead of adding to the underlying “horrors of war” theme, rather took audience members out of the tale and into a bit of clock watching. It seemed as though this dialogue, lists really, would just go on and on, destined to bore the audience, despite the excellent delivery by Woronicz. For example, at one point the Poet lists off every war since the Trojan War-every war. At first I was impressed at the research that was done to give the audience a chronological listing of so many wars, many I had no recollection of hearing about in my history classes, but after what felt like several minutes I found myself just waiting to hear the end so the play could go on already. I looked at my watch a couple of times here. Now maybe I’m missing the point, perhaps the director/writer wanted to desensitize the audience in much the same way our culture has become desensitized to war and violence—in which case they succeeded with me—but overall that and a few more stanzas like it, took me and those people around me right out of tale and into time tables and thoughts that perhaps 80 minutes would have been a more ideal time. Whatever my thoughts, this small criticism certainly does not detract from the fantastic performances of the actor and musician, and the brilliance of their natural and captivating storytelling skills.

 So, how do I possible connect a mini-theater review to make it relevant to a book blog? Let me try.

I don’t really remember much about reading The Iliad. I know it was in 7th grade and we followed it up with Beowulf. I remember more about the mythology; Paris, the apple, Helen, Achilles and his heel, but the nuts and bolts have left me. I’m far more familiar with its follow-up The Odyssey, both because I read it at an older age, and because a fellow student and I took key scenes and rewrote them in modern tongue for a performance back in college (see I can be a dramaturge too). But The Iliad, that was one I never did revisit. Having seen this production—hearing the parts of the epic poem as it was meant to be presented—orally, I couldn’t help, but be curious about the text itself. Enter the Fagles translation. This is a translation I have sold, ordered, and found for countless high school students. I haven’t read it, I haven’t really had an interest, but I know that it’s the preferred edition of teachers in La Jolla, Ca and after witnessing it in performance, I just might go back and peruse its depths, and then again, I might not. In some ways I’m hesitant to reread this work—I’m not shying away from the text itself, I’m not a 16 year old student any longer and certainly don’t balk at ancient texts, but after hearing and seeing Henry Woronicz’s performance I am reminded that much like Shakespeare, these works were not meant to be read to one’s self, like one would read Dickens, but they are meant to be performed, the words given life by an actor, poet, or musician; no longer merely a book, but a reenacting, a personal experience; which is far more cathartic that any words on print. Now I’ve gone and hurt myself by basically telling readers to watch, not read. Please don’t take this to mean that in the future you should see the movie (or in this case, the play), and just forgo the book! Instead what I recommend is to see this wonderful performance, and take all of the actor’s despair, anger, humor, humanity; tuck it into a small corner of your soul and then pick-up this epic poem, allowing yourself to resurrect those feelings when reading of the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus, the death of Hector, and the fall of Troy. I think you will find it will move you beyond a reading experience, into a whole new understanding of an ancient text that still bears so much weight in the affairs of today.

It is my hope that those of you reading this will do two things—see the play and read the book. Not to sound too much like an advertisement, but I think it will change the way you see the text.

So, moral of the blog—do the opposite of what your teacher told you to do. See the play, read the poem, get a whole new outlook on Homer. And maybe I’ll pick-up that Fagles edition and give it another whorl.

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Friday, June 8, 2012

Lost in Persuasion

I’m about to say something that is sacrilegious to many readers. I am not a big Jane Austen fan. Go ahead and gasp, throw something, or think belittling thoughts about me and my reading preferences, but I’m just not. People who know me are probably shocked by this statement, most likely because I own every Jane Austen novel—sometimes multiple copies (Pride & Prejudice), but that’s mostly due to gifts, inheritance, and an odd feeling that every bibliophile is required to own them (also they tend to be pretty). The thing is, I like the stories, the characters, the witty banter, but I tend to tune out during the prose—you see, I prefer the movies. Go ahead and curse me again, I understand. I love the screen versions of Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, but I just can’t extend that love to their written forms. I’m not saying I hate the books, far from it; I just don’t love them as other readers do.

That being said, for some reason I have always been drawn to Persuasion and most particularly to the books that try to reimagine that narrative. For some reason I am utterly drawn to that tale. I don’t know if it’s the slight tang of melodrama that reels me in, the love-loss story of Ann Elliot and Captain Wentworth, or just a connection with Ann on some subconscious level, that draws me in every time. Whatever the reason, be it psychological on my part, or that it is entertaining for me on a level the other novels cannot attain to, I can’t get enough of Persuasion.

In that vein, I have, over the last several years, found some reimaginings of this novel that have brought me great enjoyment. One is The Family Fortune by Laurie Horowitz, a contemporary look at the tale that takes place in the literary world between the daughter of the founders of an impoverished, yet famous foundation established to help budding writers and an author, once spurned for his lowly station—who is now highly successful. The perfect mix of comic and tragic, this modern romance is a wonderful blend of “chick-lit” and Austen homage.

Another, a teen-aimed retelling with a post-apocalyptic style twist, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund (release date 6/12/12) is a fun reintroduction to Ann and Wentworth’s love story. Set in a distant future, where the destruction of scientists’ genetic engineering has rendered many of the population into “Reduced”—people with severe mental handicaps, “Luddites” now rule what is left of the world, living as though it were once again the 19th century. Elliot North, the daughter of an esteemed Luddite family falls in love with Kai, a “Post”—descendant of the “Reduced”—lacking any of the malformations of his ancestors, but refuses to run away with him for the sake of saving her ancestral estate and those people who are dependant upon it for life. When years later an impoverished Elliot is forced to take on Post borders, she finds herself once again in Kai’s presence, but now he is the prosperous and famous Captain Malakai Wentworth, filled with a heart-wrenching loathing for Elliot and her past decisions. Despite the post-apocalyptic theme, this book is remarkably true to Austen’s original narrative. She faithfully recreates Ann, her struggles, her narcissistic family, and her seemingly unreciprocated love for Wentworth in the characters of Elliot and Kai. Author Diana Peterfreund was able to evoke in me the same feelings of frustration with (Kai) Wentworth’s actions and his persecution of (Elliot) Ann’s actions. I cursed Kai, and wept for a despondent Elliot, wanted her family packed off to Timbuktu, and hoped for a dramatic reconciliation (although, it was never really in doubt). All the things that drew me to Persuasion I found alive within this book. The addition of futuristic science was also interesting and innovative, recreating the past within a new world, while holding onto the essence of Austen’s original plot. Despite the horrid title—I consistently mess up the title when talking about this book to people, because it is just too convoluted, regardless of it’s underlying meaning to the story—I found myself being drawn in just as much as I was with Austen.

So, while I still stumble through the works of Austen, hoping to someday catch the fever that enthralls so many, I will remain on the outside looking in on enthusiastic readers. Who knows, maybe there is hope for Jane and me in forthcoming years, but for the time being I will hold tightly to my enjoyment of Persuasion and it’s many reincarnations. For now, I will be happy with the newest, For Darkness Shows the Stars, will revisit The Family Fortune, and await whatever the literary world throws at me in the future.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review of Katherine Howe's "The House of Velvet and Glass"

As 2012 is the centennial anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking one would be hard pressed to not come across a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, regarding the ill-fated luxury liner. Such is the case with Katherine Howe’s sophomore effort The House of Velvet and Glass, which begins its narrative just outside of the Titanic’s grand dining room on the evening of April 14, 1912. What could quickly become yet another over dramatized, maudlin look at the sinking of the ship, smoothly transitions to Boston, 1915 where a group of survivors and family members of the deceased are together in a spiritualist’s parlor attempting to ease their grief in any way possible. It is here that readers meet Sybil Allston, a 27-year-old woman whose family was devastated by the loss of her mother and younger sister. As the novel unfolds, it delves into Sybil’s life as she struggles to deal with her excruciating loss, her father’s dark moods, and her ne'er-do-well younger brother’s destructive tendencies. As Sybil tussles with the mounting issues at home and the increasingly erratic behavior of her brother she is thrown into a series of events that will dramatically change her life, and forever alter her view of the past.

Much like Howe kept this novel from being an exercise on sinking ships, she also avoids a novel full of survivor’s grief. Instead, readers follow Sybil as she grapples with the staid path her life has taken, and with a deft little twist, Howe uses chapter breaks to flit between Sybil’s father’s past as a sailor in Shanghai, and her mother and sister’s last night aboard the Titanic. The changing narratives help to weave an intriguing story, bringing in the same hint of the occult that made her first book The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane such an entertaining and unexpected marvel. For the sake of the revelation, I won’t go into these supernatural elements--I enjoyed how they so unexpectedly unfolded far too much to divulge them to readers, but I will say Howe uses her scholarly grasp of history in unique and wonderful ways.

The House of Velvet and Glass’s multiple narratives present a rich look at the lives of one family as they deal with love, loss, self-discovery, war, and a touch of the supernatural. The characters are full-bodied, rushing through the pages with remarkable realism, and at times gut-clenching decision-making and the prose is intricate, without being boring in it’s historical accuracy. This is a well-written multi-layered novel that perfectly displays the writing talents of author Howe--a wonderful and engrossing novel to read.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

"If You Like This..."

Booksellers are extraordinary. They know what book it is when you ask for “Fifty Grey’s of Something”, they know that the book with the purple cover that someone spoke about at some time in the store is Richard Harvell’s The Bells, and they know the New York Times reviewed Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds. Are booksellers psychic? No, of course not, but they know their books. One question that never fails to get an enthusiastic response from a bookseller at an independant store is the “I like ---- can you find me something similar”. It’s the classic “If you like this” question and booksellers are always eager to introduce readers to new authors. So, in honor of the question I hear everyday outside of my office here is a little list of suggestions.

If you like Kate Morton (The Forgotten Garden, The Distant Hours)…

Try Katherine Howe author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and The House of Velvet and Glass. Like Morton, Howe’s narratives weave back and forth through time, alternating between character point of view, to create a rich and wonderful novel. Her writing style is smooth and entertaining and the combination of the prose with her thorough knowledge of history (Howe is a historian) grabs the reader in a way few novels of this ilk can. Either novel is a perfect pick-up for fans of Kate Morton’s writing.

If you like Tana French (The Likeness, Faithful Place)…

French’s brilliant thrillers are a perfect blend of edge of your seat psychological suspense and literary skill. The writing is unusually rich and complex, not run-of-the-mill mystery text. Similar writers who are more than capable of hitting that literary suspense vein are Erin Kelly (The Poison Tree) and Rosamund Lupton (Sister and Afterwards). Also notable is Nicci French, whose recently released Blue Monday evokes the same police dynamic of the other French, but with the added aspect of a lead character who is a psychotherapist, and deeply troubled in her own right.

If you like M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series…

Love quaint and entertaining mysteries like those so wonderfully produced by M.C. Beaton? Check out Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness Series that follows Lady Georgiana Rannoch, 34th in line to the throne in 1930’s England and decidedly without funds. Bowen’s series is utterly enchanting with greedy aristocrats, comedy of errors, occasional whimsy, a touch of romance, and of course murder. For an added bonus the audio versions of these books are probably the some of the best I’ve ever come across—truly worth a listen.

In the same genre, author Carola Dunn and her Daisy Dalrymple series, which follows the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple a writer who invariably walks into murders, is an enjoyable option. This is another fun series, clean, light, and perfect for fans of writers like Beaton.

If you like Jodi Picoult

Try Heather Gudenkauf (These Things Hidden, The Weight of Silence and One Breath Away (July ’12)). Gudenkauf writes compelling contemporary fiction, hitting on issues like school shootings, teen pregnancy, adoptions, and so forth, but in a less pointed way than Picoult. Her novels effortlessly weave hot button issues into gripping plots, without hitting readers over the head. Readers (and reading groups) who enjoy Picoult’s fiction will take pleasure in the intricate and moving novels of Heather Gudenkauf.

If you like…a quick guide…

Beth Hoffman’s Saving CeeCee Honeycutt: try author Sarah Addison Allen (Garden Spells, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, The Peach Keeper)

Dan Brown: pick up a book by Steve Berry

Christopher Moore, Chuck Palahniuk, and Christopher Buckley: read Max Barry (Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man)

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash: try Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Obviously this list could go on indefinitely, that’s where our booksellers come in, they are wells of book information waiting to be tapped, and eager to give you their own “If you like” recommendations. So, the next time you find yourself in need of a book, ask an in independant bookseller, and you will be introduced to some amazing new books and authors.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Mini Review of Veronica Roth's "Insurgent"

Last year around this time a wrote a piece called "Dystopic Tellings", where I spoke briefly about the dystopian domination in the book world. One of the books mentioned was Veronica Roth's Diveregent, a fantastic debut novel that followed unlikely hero Beatrice Pryor as she navigated through a new environment and ultimately war. This month, with the publication of Roth's follow-up, Insurgent, I will be shining a little light on what I think is a brilliant sequel. So, here's a mini-review of the must read book of May 2012.

This follow-up to Divergent is a high-paced, action filled, novel that engrosses readers from page one. Taking off exactly where its predecessor ended, Insurgent follows Tris and the other survivors of the Erudite/Dauntless attacks as they find themselves scouring the city for allies amongst the other factions, and the surprisingly organized Factionless. Alliances form, war is waged, and a shocking betrayal turns Tris’s world into an almost unrecognizable battlefield, as she must determine the course of the future. Highly engaging, author Veronica Roth proves the ability to deftly handle the intricacies of war and the need to survive when there is seemingly nothing left to survive for. Beware, like Divergent, the ending is a shocking cliffhanger that leaves readers frothing at the mouth for more. This is the sequel to read, a must for fans of The Hunger Games, Legend, or Matched,  absolutely guaranteed to glue you to the page.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

"The Selection"—read it before you see it.

Before it gets sucked into the land of CW and it’s array of paranormal dramas and general teen fodder, I wanted to mention The Selection, the first book in what looks to be a promising new series by relative newcomer Kiera Cass. Set in a distant future where many Wars have eliminated the United States as a high powered democracy turning it into a new country, broken into eight very specific casts and ruled by a monarchy, The Selection follows seventeen-year-old America Singer as she is thrown into an situation that will propel her from life as a lower middle class artist, to the tops of the aristocracy.

The Selection, for which the book is named, is essentially a “Bachelor-esque” contest in which 35 girls, one from each district (slightly reminiscent in concept to The Hunger Games) are brought to their ruler’s palace to compete for the hand of their Prince, Maxon. Selected, America must leave her family and love interest behind as she is thrown into a world of wealth, war, and cutthroat feminine sabotage—all for the sake of a royal marriage and cast climbing. Did I mention that this is all done as a mandatory-to-watch, nationally televised show?

While I have never watched that ratings grabbing, mind numbing, piece of tripe, called The Bachelor (pardon my disdain), this book seemed to have all the same trappings. At first glance The Selection really just seems like the authors attempt to cash in on the popular dystopic trend, while adding a touch of reality television, another, albeit more obnoxious trend, but in actuality Kiera Cass manages to elevate the text above that nonsense, creating an interesting group of characters with much more at stake than receiving that (in Bachelor terms) final rose. America, Maxon, and the other teens thrown into this situation have depths and motivations beyond their 15 minutes of fame—they seek food and pay for their families who live paycheck to paycheck, they seek companionship, and in the case of Maxon—they seek someone to share the burdens of a country, and care about what happens beneath those glitzy false public images. Now, don’t get me wrong, this book is not a work of art, but there is more to it than meets the eye, and it’s entertaining without being mind numbing.

In the fall, we could very well be seeing a pilot episode of this new book on the CW, a station that has taken teen books such as Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries, and turned them into popular television shows with rabid followings. While, the studio has brought up book sales, and actually, in the case of The Vampire Diaries, turned a mediocre and unintelligent book into an entertaining show, it is always possible that what is great about The Selection could be destroyed in it’s translation to television. So, my suggestion is to read the book now, enjoy it for what it is, prepare for the next in the trilogy, and in the fall, take a peak at the pilot. If it’s good, great—if not, well at least you have a fun book under your belt with just the right amount of romance and intrigue.

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Friday, April 13, 2012

"Anatomy of Murder"-A Brief Review

Imogen Robertson’s sequel to 2011’s Instruments of Darkness reintroduces readers to anatomist/forensic specialist Gabriel Crowther and the seemingly indomitable Mrs. Harriet Westerman, as they are once again thrown into the midst of murder and intrigue. Anatomy of Murder is a more finely crafted work than it’s predecessor, with fuller character development and a smoother (yet still intricate) plot involving spies, opera, and murder. It’s gripping prologue, a Navy battle involving Harriet’s husband Captain Westerman, draws to mind scenes from a Patrick O’Brien novel, and instantly sucks readers into an era of intrigue and American rebellion.

It is in this sequel that Robertson delves a bit more into her main characters, particularly that of the appealing Harriet Westerman, giving readers a bit more insight into her thought process, showing kinks in her rather impenetrable armor, while also providing depth and understanding to her unusual partnership with the somewhat dower Crowther. This depth adds yet another layer to an interesting narrative, filled with more loops and turns, than one might expect at first glance. This is a series that gets remarkably better with each book (the third Island of Bones comes out 10/15/12 and is proving to be even more enjoyable). The characters are slowly gaining more dimensions, the mysteries and story development are stimulating, and Robertson’s overall writing seems to grow by leaps and bounds, almost as though she is honing her craft right before the readers eyes as we progress through her books.

This Georgian era suspense is a perfect fit for fans of such period mysteries as produced by Anne Perry, Jacqueline Winspear, and C.S. Harris. Its characters are appealing and the plot both interesting and entertaining. A great new mystery series to have on your bedside table.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Really, Another Dystopic? Okay, Maybe One More

As everyone knows, The Hunger Games comes to the theaters today (well, technically at 12:01 this morning) and it’s almost all anyone can talk about. I can’t blame the world, I’m right up there with everyone else and right after work I will in line with the masses to partake in this pop-culture phenomenon. As regular readers of Sifting through the Pile know, I have a slight penchant for dystopic stories. Well, maybe more than slight. I tend to devote a lot of blog and recommendation time to this genre, so recently I have made a concerted effort to specifically mention many of the non-genre books I read that are equally as fantastic and close to my heart. Because of this attempt to diversify my review writing I have mistakenly let a really captivating and rather innovative book go by the wayside. So, in honor of The Hunger Games movie release, I am courteously and briefly going to suck readers back into my obsession with post-apocalyptic/dystopic fiction.

Pure by Julianna Baggott has been available for the past couple of months, and thanks to my misguided attempts to diversify, has gone largely unnoticed amongst my readers. Pure is yet another of those post-apocalyptic books where society has been split apart by war (in this book, the Detonations), with some members of the population secluded within a rigidly controlled, sterile environment and others, outside, starving in what remains of a world that no longer really exists. While this is not an unfamiliar premise in the least, what sets apart Pure from the other novels of similar vein is fusing. Those who live on the outside under an autocratic rule, with little food, and much fear are fused; meaning that during the Detonations (nuclear strikes), some were horribly scarred and disfigured, and others became fused with the environment surrounding them. Mothers became fused with their children—children who are never capable of physically growing, forever tied to their mothers arms, one boy has a flock of birds fused to his back, another is forever fused with the desert floor to become a monster of the worst and most frightening proportions, and our heroine, Pressia has a hand fused to a baby doll—its blinking eyes forever attached to what was once a hand. It is only those within the domed autocratic society that are unmaimed, or rather, “pure”. When Partridge, a pure with the highest of lineages, escapes the confines of the domed society in an effort to find the truth of his brother’s suicide and his father’s machinations, he discovers Pressia and her world of survivors. It is there that the two, along with an unlikely band of fused, uncover a plot and connections between Partridge and Pressia that take them all into a danger beyond their wildest imaginings.

What seems at first glance to be an absurd plot with a concept that could easily become cheesy and idiotic, is in actuality a brilliant use of imagination. The fusing is described in such a way that it actually makes sense from a scientific angle (at least for a layperson), and the fuses themselves—whether they are alive, like the children or birds, or inanimate like Pressia’s doll head—are almost characters in themselves, as Baggott makes clever use of them throughout this first book in, what is to be a series. It’s actually amazing how such a seemingly odd, and possibly ruinous plot point ends up “making” the story and when genetic manipulation, paramilitary groups, authoritarianism , and revolution are thrown into the mix, readers can’t help but become engrossed.

I won’t say that if you read one genre book this year, Pure is the one to read—there are too many well-written vehicles out or about to be released, but I will say, that should you choose to partake, Pure is one to give more than a second glance to.

For a bit of entertainment, check out the book trailer below.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Mommy Porn—Really?

I need to go on a little rant here. There has been much ado about a new book called Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James and I just need to speak out. According to the Los Angeles Times the following is the much-discussed back-story to this bestselling ebook turned insta-print hit:

“British author E L James, a former television executive, first published the book on fan fiction site as a super lengthy tome ... that "reimagined the Bella and Edward love affair set in contemporary Seattle, Washington with Bella as the young college graduate virgin and Edward as the masterful billionaire with secret sexual predilections."  (

So obviously James changed the names of her characters to protect herself from the wrath of Stephenie Meyer, and this now three volume saga has been picked up by Random House to be sold world-wide in print form. It’s hard to go somewhere in the book world without hearing this title or author’s name. James has officially surpassed former self-published wunderkind Amanda Hocking and infiltrated the masses that read, well maybe not READ, but at least consume what is popular. After hearing about this book for a few weeks, I finally got my hands on one yesterday and had myself a little go and let me say—what complete and utter garbage!

The book is painful to read. I’m quite certain that those of us who perused it together yesterday are all worse off intellectually than we were the day before. The writing is ghastly, something from “how not to write”, the prose similar to what one might see mocked in a movie where teenage girls read awful romance novels to each other and giggle in hysteria at how utterly painful it is. For example:

“I have rules, and I want you to comply with them. They are for your benefit and for my pleasure. If you follow these rules to my satisfaction, I shall reward you. If you don’t, I shall punish you, and you will learn,” he whispers. I glance at the rack of canes as he says this.” (Fifty Shades of Grey, pg. 73)

Honestly, I think I saw something like this at the Hustler store when I went in for gag gifts—and trust me that stuff was never going to find its way to the bestseller list. I don’t know whether to be more appalled that this book is helping the cause of the self-published “bad writer” (I’m sorry, most people, but not all, can’t find a brick and mortar publisher for good reason), or that women everywhere are being sucked into this vortex of bad prose wrapped in porn. If I were a mother I would be offended that this tripe has been tagged as “Mommy Porn”, because no self-respecting mommy that I know would pummel their brains to horny mush with such unmitigated slop. I’m offended on the part of intelligent women everywhere. Seriously, having come off a year where women have taken a step up cinematically, proving that female ensembles can be smart, funny, even gross, and yet oddly sophisticated (Bridesmaids and The Help), why in literature are our standards so low? Fifty Shades of Grey is the cinematic equivalent of 2011’s What’s Your Number, ridiculous, brain numbing, not worth the time, and a general insult to my intelligence.

Look, I get that there are women who enjoy erotica. I’ve read a few, and I can see where the, I hate to say pleasure, but the thrill of it lies. My issue is taking a piece of poorly written fan fiction and turning it into a mega-hit that women are pursuing as though it were lottery winnings instead of fancily disguised pornography. This book isn’t art. It’s not even good. So, go ahead read it, but stop trying to make it something it’s not, which is good.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012


It’s like people you see sometimes, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it’s somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who can’t talk. Only I know that I’m that person to other people, maybe to every single person in that whole auditorium.

To me, though, I’m just me. An ordinary kid. (Wonder, pg. 306)

Wonder is one of those remarkable books that manages to utterly captivate; it makes you grin, it makes you cry, and it, at times makes you a little angry (righteous anger to be sure, but anger none the less). A simple story about a boy with an extraordinary face, getting through his first year in a real school, Wonder is anything but ordinary.

Told in multiple narratives, readers get a glimpse into the life of a ten-year-old Auggie, disfigured from birth with extreme facial abnormalities, as he tries to maneuver his way through the harsh world that is middle school. Readers hear from Auggie, his family, and friends as they all struggle to deal with the everyday ups and downs of existence, while also dealing with the sometimes cruel realities of life for someone who is anything, but ordinary. In a time where more and more of the novels for kids and teens deal with dysfunctional families, teen angst, and substance abuse, Wonder is a breath a fresh air. The family, despite dealing with such a heart wrenching issue, is shockingly ordinary. The parents are married (to each other), they care about their children and actually spend quality time with them. The kids have the same issues as most kids do—fighting with friends, struggling through homework and school, dealing with the changes of getting older. This is an average family just doing their best to be happy. I love that for once, I can pick up a book that features a group of people put into one of the most extraordinary circumstances, and instead of imploding and turning on one another, they actually support each other and work together. It sounds sappy and Walton-esq, but it isn’t. They still have their problems, serious ones at that, it’s just the handling of it is a bit more real and relatable to the average reader.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. A book for all ages, Wonder is astonishing in its ability to capture so much in such a simple way. For such an unpretentious book is packs a lasting punch. It’s charming, funny, moving, and everything else you could ask for in a novel. A truly worthy read.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea

In a departure from my current list of mysteries, dystopics, and paranormal fantasies, I took a breather and picked up Morgan Callan Rogers’ Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, a smartly told coming of age story set in 1960’s Maine. The story follows young Florine Gilham as she comes to terms with the sudden disappearance of her mother and her own burgeoning womanhood. Told in Florine’s crisp Yankee dialect, the reader is given an intimate look at Florine’s internal struggles—from coping with the mysterious loss of her mother, to her father’s sudden relationship with another woman, to her efforts to understand the changes in her own body as she moves from a playful eleven-year-old girl to a headstrong eighteen-year-old woman.

This was one of those books that really captivates. It’s not so much the story, as there are many holes that are left unfilled and some scattered MacGuffins that almost detract from the ultimate point of the novel (Florine’s coming-of-age), but the character of Florine whose voice is so remarkably honest and fresh, that draws readers in. Florine is brilliant, flaws and all, as she maneuvers her way through the unexpected emotional hardships of her teen years. She’s blunt, yet also prone to sentimental and beautiful imaginings of her lost mother, as she tries to make sense of her changing world. In some ways Florine reminds me of characters from Southern fiction writers like Rebecca Welles, Beth Hoffman, and Fannie Flagg, in that while the voice maintains its Yankee-ness, the language of place and character takes on the spin and beauty similar to that of what is thought of as Southern Fiction. The small town feel and quirky characters almost feel as though they are hushed away in a small Georgia town just slightly on the wrong side of the tracks. Of course, that image lasts only in snippets as the lobster fisherman and dialect take you right back to Coastal Maine. It’s this sense of place and character that really wins readers over more so than the plot itself.

Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is a good novel, a nice snippet of life in a small northern coastal town, and a candidly told narrative of growing up and moving on. It was an enchanting rainy day read and a delight to sink into.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Reading Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales are “in”. If you don’t know that fact you must be living in a dark, dank tunnel with blinders and earmuffs on. With dueling Snow White movies about to start showing, a 3-D reissue of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a Jack in the Beanstalk in the works, a 2013 Hansel and Gretel film; and that’s not even mentioning the two television shows with fairy tale ties—Grimm, the fairy tale cop show and Once Upon a Time (my personal favorite), the sprawling epic from the writers of Lost. It seems as though Hollywood has found it’s current muse in the realm of fairy tales and not surprisingly, so has the book world.

Actually, I should change my wording on this one—the book world has never forgotten this magical realm—there have always been new editions of Grimm’s, Hans Christian Anderson stories, and so forth; there have also been some great retellings, although it’s more typical to find them in the children’s section of your local bookstore, than with the classics or fiction—it’s just that as usual Hollywood takes the credit (at least in the eyes of the non-readers). In reality, Hollywood is running a half second behind publishing, taking its cues from what’s hot in books (as an example: Hunger Games, The Descendants, Hugo, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), so it’s really no surprise that there are a few really good retellings of classic tales out right now in book form.

I have long been a fan of fables. Starting with my old Read-Along versions (cassette of course) of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid and Aesop’s Fables, to the Leslie Anne Warren version of Cinderella (which I have on dvd), to the old Fairy Tale Theater with Shelly Duvall, and graduating to my hardbound edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (all 700 pages of it), I have never outgrown, and can never quite get enough of the fairy tale world. Since I’ve always had a free flowing access to books, thanks in first to my Book Buyer grandmother, and then to my own employment, I have been fortunate enough to have an unusual amount of opportunities to read these retold fairy tales—and there are more of them than any of us could possibly count. So, in light of the renewed fairy tale craze, I thought I might mention a few worth visiting. This idea, I have to say was not quite my own, I have to give credit to my seven year old nephew who recently spent the night at my house and started an interesting conversation about fairy tales, and how so many of the tales are told in such different ways. Not your typical conversation with a 1st grader, but one that spurred me to search my memories for all the different Snow White/Wicked Queen punishments, The Little Mermaid endings, retelling the stories from memory to my young nephew. Now, I do owe him a couple of readings from my original, and rather dark Complete Grimm’s (sorry, buddy, running behind on that one), but it also prodded me to think through the new stuff and what’s worth a read.

Brand new, and the start of what is to be a quadrilogy, is Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, a fascinating reimagining of the Cinderella tale (made popular by both the Brother’s Grimm and Charles Perrault), taking place in a rather bleak future, where our heroin is a cyborg with an unusual and rather special past. I know, “cyborg’ probably turned many of you off, it did me too, but having promised to read it, I was surprised to find myself completely captivated by the characters and the rather fantastic tale. Cinder holds that undercurrent of darkness from the original tale, actually, there is more death in this book than you might imagine, and it unwinds itself just enough to pull you in as a reader, and then dump you off into an abyss of endless possibilities at the end when it makes you wait for the next in the series. This one is highly imaginative, and perfect for those readers who like a bit of that sci-fi, dystopic edge to their fantasy tales. Now, I understand that the word dystopic is overused and is now turning many a book buyer to drink, so if that’s not your cuppa, I suggest an older retelling of the Cinderella story, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix. This is a slightly more feminist version, gritty, grounded more in reality, without the traditional magic, or in the case of Cinder, science. Just Ella is a quick read, but it is unforgettable and wonderfully told; a perfect way to revisit an old favorite.

Diane Zahler is also a wonderful author who reworks lesser-known tales very well. In February 2012 she has a great new book based loosely on Grimm’s The Six Swans, called Princess of the Wild Swans, and in 2011 she released another novel The Thirteenth Princess that retells the more well know story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Both books are aimed at a younger audience than the two mentioned above, but hold enough of the magic of the original tales to charm more mature readers.

These three authors do a fantastic job of reinventing well-loved stories, but there are those that sell the originals short. Just like director Catherine Hardwicke nearly ruined Little Red Riding Hood for us with her atrocious film Red Riding Hood (who knew Gary Oldman could be bad in a film?), there are authors who adapt and destroy, instead of building new offshoots. I won’t go into too much detail, but author Jackson Pearce, whom I have now given two chances to wow me with her re-interpretations of Little Red Riding Hood (Sisters Red) and Hansel and Gretel (Sweetly), has proven that not all adaptations are magical, in fact some, like those two mentioned, can be abominable, taking the word “grim” to a new and unappealing level. Fortunately, with the plethora of offerings, we as readers (and watchers if we’re looking at film/TV) can be more discerning, avoiding those types of disasters more easily.

If, like me, you want a taste of the original to go with the new, there are some beautifully made editions of these fairy tale collections put out by Dover Publications, currently available; English Fairy Tales retold by Flora Annie Steel, Grimm’s Fairy Tales with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales retold by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, and Norton’s edition of The Annotated Hans Christian Anderson. Each of these is a beautiful addition to your bookshelf, but more importantly they are filled with wonderful stories capable of transporting you to other lands and times, if only for as brief moment.

Fairy tales aren’t going anywhere. They will continue to exist and expand into whole new concepts. These stories offer us the baselines to so many of our favorite forms of entertainment. So why not take a moment to revisit these tales of old—whether in their more original form, or in one of the retellings available out there, you are sure to find a nugget of brilliance, or at least a moment of enjoyment.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Delving Into Carol O'Connell's Mallory Series

“And Mallory’s road was run.”

That sentence at the end of Carol O’Connell’s 2006 Find Me has haunted me for nearly six years. Not because of anything devastating that occurs in Find Me (although it is filled with amazing revelations about the character Kathleen Mallory), but because I truly feared the end of O’Connell’s brilliantly scribed series. And so I’ve spent the past years diligently searching for the next O’Connell novel to appear. I was rewarded with her stand-alone mystery Bone by Bone in 2008, but nothing on the Mallory front. I was fairly sure that my worst fears for the series had come true, no more Mallory, until I happened to glance up and see an advanced reading copy of The Chalk Girl. I was giddy. I dropped the other books I was currently juggling and got sucked into the New York City, as owned by Detective Kathleen Mallory.

Here’s the deal with the Mallory series. Mallory is a bona-fide sociopath, with a mind like a computer; she also carries a big gun and has a badge. I’m taking a very complex, highly original, wholly fascinating character and reducing her to a few glib lines—doing O’Connell and her brilliant creation a great disservice, but to get Mallory, to understand the character and world O’Connell has created, you just need to read her. Start with Mallory’s Oracle and whip your way through the rest. I guarantee you too will become a fan.

The Chalk Girl, the newest book in this ever-fascinating detective series takes place several months after the events of Find Me. Here you will find my only criticism, the dramatic and revealing plot of Find Me, particularly the spectacular ending, are barely mentioned—almost as though they did not happen at all. I was really moved by Find Me, it was an epic road novel, with emotional depth, and elegant prose, not typically seen within the confines of a detective serial. To push those events aside is slap in the reader’s face and an insult to the characters and their journeys. Let’s just say that I was a bit annoyed.

After pushing aside those feelings, I was able to delve into the mystery of The Chalk Girl. First, let me give a very brief synopsis:

A child appears in Central Park, drops of blood on her shirt—from the sky she tells the police. When a body is found hanging from a bag in a tree, Mallory and her cohorts from Special Crimes are pulled into a past of wealth, blackmail, torture, and death.

True to form, the characters brought in by this murder and a series of unusual attacks that follow are well drawn and remarkably deep, considering that many of them are probably not going to appear in subsequent books. The twists and turns are truly twisted—occasionally shocking, and often moving. As a psychological suspense, The Chalk Girl hits it’s mark, as part of the Mallory series, it seems as though it has taken a step back in character development, but in all honesty, I think it’s me putting my wants for the characters far above the actual integrity and motivations of their established actions.

Despite these thoughts on my part, this is a solid mystery, with dark, disturbing undertones perfect for the psychological suspense fan. The Chalk Girl is a much anticipated and rewarding return to the world of Kathleen Mallory. I can’t recommend this series enough. Now…when’s the next book out?

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Friday, January 6, 2012

Haven’t I (Seen/Read) This Before

  (Some Spoilers, Beware)

Lately, it seems that it is nearly impossible to pick-up a book or go to the movies without having some sense of déjà vu. For instance, when I saw the film Dream House (2011, Daniel Craig, Rachel Weiss) all I could think of was “Something about this sure reminds me of The Others.” It’s like watching the The Lion King and realizing that it’s Hamlet, except instead of clever re-workings of classic texts we see blatant robbery of ideas. Now, it has been said that there are only a certain number of plot lines within literature (I’m including film in this genre, as I find it to be a form of visual literature), I personally like the listing from Ronald Tobias[i], which is the following twenty plots:

  1. Quest
  2. Adventure
  3. Pursuit
  4. Rescue
  5. Escape
  6. Revenge
  7. The Riddle
  8. Rivalry
  9. Underdog
  10. Temptation
  11. Metamorphosis
  12. Transformation
  13. Maturation
  14. Love
  15. Forbidden Love
  16. Sacrifice
  17. Discovery
  18. Wretched Excess
  19. Ascension
  20. Descension.

 Of course the number varies according to which scholar is speaking, but all are in agreement that there are only so many ways a story can go. The thing is, I don’t care if I see the same plot, as long as it’s well put together with interesting new twists to old concepts. After all, we as viewers and readers are typically drawn to the same type of stories over and over again, if we weren’t we certainly would not have as many paranormal books aimed at teens (thanks Twilight), Nordic mysteries (Stieg Larsson), or graphic horror films (Saw). We as consumers love more of the same—we just want it to be bigger and better the next time around.

This roundabout thought process leads me to a new young adult book, Tempest by Julie Cross. A brief synopsis of the plot is that a 19-year-old time traveler must travel through time in order to save his girlfriend. This is a simplified premise, but suffice it to say that it was enough to get me to get me to pick up the book. Basically, this teenager, Jackson Meyer, finds out he can jump through time (never to the future, and only a few hours back), when his girlfriend Holly is killed by mysterious men in 2009, Jackson inadvertently leaps back to 2007, he is unable to get back to his own time and Holly. Jackson spends the rest of the book leaping through time trying to change events, all the while discovering the origins of his abilities, the truth of his birth, and trying to escape from shady CIA agents other time-travelers with a serious agenda. Interesting story, neat plot idea, and actually as a hole it worked. I liked the book, emphasis on liked—not loved.

 It’s hard to love a book when images from a couple of mediocre movies keep popping into your head. You see, the storyline starts to bear a markable resemblance to The Butterfly Effect and Jumper. One movie I hated, the other was okay entertainment even though it starred that brooder Hayden Christensen. If you’ve seen Butterfly Effect then you know the direction this book will take—think about what happens when you mess with time in order to save one person—if not, well congrats the ending of this first book (it’s a trilogy) will be a surprise. As for the Jumper similarities, think elite groups hunting people who “jump” through time (in the movie, it’s location, not time) and weird familial ties to the enemy hunters—you get the idea. It’s hard for me to imagine that the concept for this story wasn’t subconsciously, if not consciously, derived from bits and pieces of these other stories. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing blatant here, the story absolutely stands on it’s own legs, and has snippets of originality at it’s core, but these similarities are hard to disregard as an avid reader, and in this case movie watcher. They kept me from really getting absorbed in the book as an original and interesting story. It’s hard to love a book that does that.

 As this is the first book in a trilogy, you might ask, “will you read the next book?” the answer to that is a resounding yes. I liked the book. I want to know what happens next. It’s not a bad tale if the author has managed to capture my attention this much. Let’s just say that the next in the series will not move directly to the top of my pile, as say the next book in the Matched series by Ally Condie. My recommendation would be to read it if you’ve seen the movies mentioned, but try and move beyond the similarities. If you’ve never seen either movie, enjoy the book as an creative and entertaining love story. Either way, Tempest is a decent read, definitely one to pull out of the pile and onto your bedside table.

[i] Tobias, Ronald, 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993

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