Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Genre-ally Speaking: The Madman’s Daughter

Title: The Madman’s Daughter
Author: Megan Shepherd
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: January 29th, 2013
Read: October 2013
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: YA-horror-science-fiction-historical
Rating: 4 H.G. Wellses

The Quick and Dirty:

Juliet Moreau has been living on her own in Victorian London, trying to scrape together a living in the shadow of her father’s disgrace. Once a prominent surgeon, Henri Moreau’s mysterious experiments led to scandal for his family, exile for him, and poverty and hardship for his daughter. As Juliet struggles on her own, she is left wondering whether her father is the warm man she remembers, or the monster that everyone says he is. So when she comes across Montgomery, her father’s old assistant, and discovers that he is still working for her father on an island in the Pacific, she convinces him to take her along on the ship back in order to finally get some answers. On the way they pick up a mysterious shipwreck survivor named Edward, who has no choice but to travel to the remote island with them. Things escalate after their arrival and less-than-welcome from her father when Juliet discovers that he has been experimenting on animals to make them more human-like, and that a killer is on the loose. Juliet knows she needs to escape the island, but doesn’t know if she will be able to escape the madness of her father’s blood in her veins. This novel, inspired by H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, while probably not for the squeamish, is an absorbing gothic thriller that I quite enjoyed.

The Wordy Version:

When this book started off with a vivisection and a wrist-tendon-cutting in the first 50 or so pages, I wasn’t sure it was the book for me. Vivisection reminds me of a traumatic experience with a Mark Twain short story, and y’know, I just like animals too much to not get upset when I read about them being tortured. (You might judge me for finding that more upsetting than someone getting the tendons in their wrist severed, but that tendon-cuttee totally deserved it, so there.) I was feeling a little nauseous, but decided to stick with the book a bit longer because despite the grossness, there was something undeniably enticing about the writing. And I’m glad I did. When I tear through a 400+ page book in less than 36 hours, that says something! (Mostly that I should probably put more of a premium on sleep and social interaction, but hey, it happens.)

The amount of horror was just right for me, since I don’t like hardcore horror very much. If you’ve inhabited society and pop culture in the past century, you probably know what The Island of Dr. Moreau is about and thus have some idea of what Juliet’s dad is up to, but there is an air of mystery and suspense in Juliet getting around to discovering the extent of her father’s nuttiness and finding out how the other characters are involved that pulls you through the story. And then of course there’s the question of how she’s going to extricate herself from this remote island incubator of crazy, AND THEN how she might manage to reintegrate into society after experiencing all of that (although that second question might be best left for the next book). Juliet herself is very concerned with the possibility of having inherited a little bit of her father’s crazy, which adds an interesting psychological slant to the story, although from the reader’s perspective it’s pretty clear that Juliet isn’t as much like her father as she fears.

And yes, this book does have THE DREADED LOVE TRIANGLE. I’m not one of those knee-jerk reaction love-triangle-haters—it can be done well, and I try to give each a fair chance before passing judgment. The Montgomery-Juliet-Edward love triangle falls firmly in the middle of the spectrum. It’s definitely not an equilateral—maybe more of an isosceles? By which I mean that 2 sides of the triangle are well-developed, but one leg is less developed and left sort of flapping in the wind (although if any triangle had a leg flapping in the wind, I guess it wouldn’t really be a triangle, so there goes my metaphor). The attraction and romance between Juliet and Montgomery was convincing and made sense—they had a history, there was chemistry, and there was appropriate conflict. How would you feel if this nice-seeming guy suddenly reveals that he’s been complicit, if not an active participant, in horrifying medical experimentation with your nutso father? There was good internal conflict for both Montgomery and Juliet, and it built into realistic obstacles to their relationship. Now, castaway Edward on the other hand… I mostly just felt he was useless. Not really offensively so. I just…didn’t know what he was doing there. Juliet kept talking about being so drawn to him, and I just didn’t feel it. It didn’t feel real. There wasn’t much chemistry, neither the readers nor she knew much about him, and perhaps most importantly, he didn’t really have much personality. We are told that he is clever and educated, but it is never really shown to us in what he says or does. It wasn’t rage-inducing; I was more like Why are you here? Why aren’t you interesting? And why do you keep distracting Juliet from Montgomery? And yes, yes, Edward has a somewhat important part to play at the end of the story, but even that development failed to impress me with regards to his character. So, Montgomery and Juliet—fun to read about. Edward and Juliet? Less so.

Aside from my confusion about why Edward needed to be in the story, the only other thing that I had qualms about was the amount of time characters spent running around the jungle. And like with Edward, it was less, “This is stupid, I am angry at this writing!” and more, “Why are we doing this…? Oh, okay…” It may have bewildered me for a moment, but it didn’t disrupt my reading of the story and it was easy to forget about it and keep turning pages.

And that ending!! Oh man. Action right up until the last page, and then that cliffhanger. It was pretty awesome, and set up some promising conflict for the next book in the trilogy. (Yes, another YA trilogy. I thought with being inspired by The Island of Dr. Moreau it would be a standalone, but it looks like the next entry will take inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Overall, I enjoyed this one a lot. More upfront, moderate horror than truly frightening, creep-down-into-your-bones, insidiously chilling horror, it drew me in and kept me reading, even with my worries about squeamishness and a limp-legged love triangle. I plan to read the sequel come January 2014, and would think about purchasing a copy of this for my shelf.

It turned out this was a good unplanned Halloween read! Have you read anything spooky this October? What’s next on your TBR?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cookery Bookery: Pok Pok, by Andy Ricker with JJ Goode

Title: Pok Pok
Author: Andy Ricker with JJ Goode
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Publication Date: October 29th, 2013
Read: September 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Cooking
Rating: 5 Phrik

I almost went to Thailand once. While I was teaching in Japan, a friend and I planned to take a trip there one summer, but there was some unrest going on at the time we needed to be booking tickets. To err on the side of safety, we forewent our Thailand plans and visited Bali instead (a real hardship, I know). Bali was, of course, lovely and we had a great time. The food was lip-smackingly delicious, and I encountered my favorite rhizome, galangal, for the first time (it’s like ginger, only better!). Though I am no longer situated in that general area of the globe, I would still like to visit Thailand someday, and this cookbook has further cemented that desire in my mind. I love Thai food, but am by no means an aficionado. Pok Pok makes me want to become one.

How many chef/cook/restaurateurs can say they’ve appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives AND won a James Beard Award? I don’t know the actual number, but I would hazard to guess “not many.” I guess that’s to whole point of Triple D, though—you don’t have to go to a fancy, trendy, exorbitantly priced restaurant to get great food. For a long time I have wanted to eat at Ricker’s much-loved Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, and this cookbook, inspired by his adventures eating in Thailand and his desire to share the joy of Thai food with others, was my most anticipated cookbook of 2013.

He makes a point to say it’s not a Thai cookbook, though—rather, it is a collection of recipes, seen through the lens of his travels to Thailand and other places, that are the result of his drive to recreate something as close as possible to his favorite things that he ate in those countries. He spends a lot of time in Northern Thailand, so yeah, there are a lot of Northern Thai recipes. He explains that through much trial and error he has found how to replicate authentic Thai flavors using ingredients available in the Western world and how to convey these techniques and flavors to others, first through his restaurant Pok Pok, and now through this book with the same name. He describes his goal for the book thusly:

My hopes for this book are simple: to show you how to cook some of the dishes that made me fall for Thai food and to provide a sense of place—context for a country, culture, and cuisine that can be so inscrutable to an outsider, which I once was and in many ways still am.
Beautifully and simply put.

In the introduction, I loved reading about how Ricker got to this point in his life—how he came to fall in love with Thai cuisine, how he ended up opening a restaurant, and his hard-won success. He is very down-to-earth in his approach, and the whole tone of the book sounds like you’re just hanging out, listening to stories from a buddy who knows a lot on the subject of traveling and eating in Thailand and would like to share some of what he’s learned over the years. He dispels the myth of “authentic” and “traditional” with regards to food, explaining that there is no Platonic ideal, no “right” way to make a certain thing. People in one part of the country may add, say, tomatoes to a certain dish, and people in another part of the country may not. It doesn’t mean one is more “authentic” than the other. He also doesn’t look down on Americanized “pick-a-protein” Thai food either, instead viewing it as a gateway to get people interested in other Thai fare. He states that he doesn’t consider himself a chef and he’s not putting his own spin on Thai—he’s a “proud copycat,” and as this book is his best effort at replicating his favorite things that he’s eaten in Thailand, the credit goes to the Thai people who have cooked and perfected them. And I agree with him—credit to the Thai people for inventing and perfecting this stuff, but credit to Ricker as well for being fastidious, motivated, and perseverant enough to bring it stateside.

In the “How to Use This Book” section that follows the intro, he seeks to dispense with the notions that a) Thai food is too much work to make at home, and b) you can’t make Thai food in the US, but at the same time he wants to acknowledge the effort involved in making it. In his words, “You shouldn’t be dissuaded by nonsense, but you should know exactly what you’re getting into.” And there is admittedly a lot of commitment involved in making these recipes, whether it’s monetary (in buying the ingredients and investing in the equipment), or time (for completing all the steps to pull a recipe together), but he has convinced me that it’s both doable and worth it. This section covers a lot of important and thoughtful information, ranging from substitutions, to the difficulty of seasoning to taste in a cuisine where you might not be sure how it’s supposed to taste, to how to eat the food. He is thorough in his explanations and unerring in his choices to do things a certain way—he talks about why he made the choices he did in creating the cookbook and what he’s hoping to accomplish, and I was right there with him all the way. It all made sense and it all felt right.

The design of the book is great—very colorful, fun, and well organized. The photos of people and places in Thailand sprinkled throughout the book are both evocative of the culture and transporting, and I am a big fan of the simple photo staging for the recipes. The perspective is a bird’s-eye view looking down on a plate of the prepared food (plus any accompanying sauces and condiments you make to go with it), with the plate sitting on a simple, uncomplicated (often colorful or wooden) tabletop or countertop. This puts the focus smack-dab on the colors and textures of the food, which might as well be whispering eat me, eat me... As it is one of my cookbook pet peeves, I am happy to say that there are photos for all the finished dishes—yay!!! There aren’t photos with the rice cooking instructions or to go along with the recipes for condiments and sauces in the final chapter of the book. The rice—okay, fine, I’ll give him that one. But I would’ve liked some helper photos to go along with the sauce and condiment recipes.

In broad terms, the recipes in the book cover the categories of dishes eaten family-style with rice, one-plate meals, and sweets. Within the category of the smorgasbord family-style dishes, there are chapters dedicated to rice, the papaya salad and its brethren, other Thai “salads,” fish, stir-fries, Thai minced meat salads, grilled foods, curries and soups, and chile dips. Due to the inadequacy of single English words to properly translate and convey the meaning behind the Thai words for these groupings of food, there is often fascinating (to me at least, in all my language-nerdiness) discussion of what the names for these categories actually mean. Following those chapters are ones dedicated to the aforementioned one-plate meals, “foreign food” (including Chinese and Vietnamese dishes), sweets, and the final chapter of recipes for things like stock, condiments, and other pantry staples.

Here’s a rundown of some more components of the cookbook that I love:

  • For recipes with steps that can be done in advance, he includes a plan of attack for how to break it down and make it easier to accomplish.
  • At the beginning of each recipe he lists what special equipment will be needed to prepare it, so there’s no getting halfway through and then going, crap, I don’t have a granite mortar and pestle! or something like that.
  • For each recipe he provides a flavor profile, giving guidelines such as “slightly sweet,” “tart,” “smoky,” and so on, to help you nail the flavor for a dish you may have never tasted or attempted to cook before.
  • He also provides suggestions of other dishes to go along with each recipe.
  • Before getting to the recipes, he gives a rundown of the veggies, fruits, herbs, spices, noodles, and other ingredients (things like fish sauce and shrimp paste) used in Thai cooking, and there are labeled photos to help you identify them when shopping.
  • He also lists out the special equipment and utensils needed to make these dishes (things like woks and the above-mentioned mortar and pestle), and there is a picture showing them. The picture isn’t labeled like the foodstuffs one is, but it might be helpful if it were.
  • He gives a list of online retailers where you can buy many of these ingredients and equipment in case you don’t have a well-stocked Asian or Thai grocery near you.

As for negatives? Aside from my quibbles about wanting pictures included in the chapter of sauce/condiment recipes and labeling on the equipment/utensil photo, I’d be hard-pressed to find any. Probably the main negative, for some readers, at least, would be the complexity of many of the recipes, and the cost and effort (and in some cases, difficulty) involved in acquiring the ingredients and tools necessary to execute them. But having read through the book, I understand why it’s that way and I’m totally okay with it. More than that, though, I think the value of this book exceeds that of a simple cookbook. It certainly has great value as a book of recipes, but it’s more than just that—it’s a repository of Thai culture as experienced and seen through food and the human interactions surrounding that food’s preparation and consumption. It shows how culture, language, and food are all inextricably entwined, and it shines a light on the people, friendships, interactions, stories, events, adventures, and ingredients that all play a part, leading to the dish you have sitting on the table (or in the book) before you. Here, it’s about Thai food, but the same is true of food anywhere. And it is a pleasure to read.

If you buy this cookbook wanting to sit down tonight and make Thai food, you may be a little disappointed. But Ricker has convinced me that the wait and effort to get the necessary tools and ingredients for making these recipes will be worth it. Even if I had no intention of cooking any of the recipes in Pok Pok, I would still want it on my shelf. It’s so full of beautiful images, truly fascinating information, stories and anecdotes that draw you in, and sincere, funny, heartfelt writing. I absolutely loved it.

Two last things—pok pok is the onomatopoeia in Thai for the sound of a pestle hitting a mortar, and phrik are chiles.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Friday, October 25, 2013

YA Round-Up: Vampires and dystopias and Georgians, oh my!

Over the past few months I’ve accumulated some YA reviews that are purely internal—I have thoughts in my head about the books, but haven’t gotten around to typing them out, and now it’s been so long since I’ve read them that the details are no longer fresh in my mind. But some of these were books I quite enjoyed, and I’d really like to pass that on so maybe some other people can hear about them and possibly enjoy them, too! You see my #booknerdproblems-hashtag-worthy conundrum? Anywho, my solution is to write a mini-review for each (as mini as a verbose individual like myself can manage, anyway), preceded by the Amazon/Goodreads blurb, since too much time has passed since reading and/or I’m too lazy to blurb it myself. Let’s start things off!

First up we have a delightful specimen from the squished-together genre of YA-urban-fantasy-vampires:

Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.

One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a wholly original story of rage and revenge, of guilt and horror, and of love and loathing from bestselling and acclaimed author Holly Black.

“Snarf” would be the word to describe how I consumed this book. I’ve loved Holly Black ever since my first acquaintance with her work once upon a high school drive back from California, when I turned around and asked my friend in the backseat what she was reading (it was Tithe, now one of my all-time favorite books). Count on this lady to inject some life back into vampire stories (har har) by making them scary and compelling again! I liked how vampirism in this world is like a disease, and the echoes of contagion/zombie fiction I found in the story were a nice twist on what I’m used to in vampire books. Tana is a strong, relatable main character, and in the usual Holly Black fashion the side characters are just as complex and complicated as the protagonist. I believe the book was meant as a standalone (yay for YA standalones!), but while it is self-contained and stands on its own perfectly well, there is room for more to come, and I would definitely read that “more.” Awesome book, and kudos to the author for writing the story that was in her heart, despite naysayers and skeptics in the post-Twilight (post-vampire?) YA landscape. Rating: 4 1/2 Garnets in a Necklace

In the middle of our YA sandwich we have a classic-meets-sci-fi story inspired by one of my favorite books:

It's been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.

Elliot North has always known her place in this world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family's estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress, and Elliot's estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth--an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go.

But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret--one that could change their society . . . or bring it to its knees. And again, she's faced with a choice: cling to what she's been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she's ever loved, even if she's lost him forever.

Inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.

I loved Persuasion when I read it a couple years ago, so I thought this YA adaptation sounded fantastic. I looked at the cover, read the title, saw that the Wentworth character was a ship captain, and got really excited. What’s not to love about Persusasion in SPACE?!

…only it’s not in space. Malakai Wentforth is not a space ship captain, but rather an actual boat ship captain. While the blurb, cover, and title don’t explicitly state that it’s taking place in outer space, I think my assumption wasn’t completely out of the bounds of reason. I mean, look at the cover art!!! Needless to say, finding out the setting was in a post-apocalyptic agrarian dystopian society rather than THE FINAL FRONTIER was a little disappointing for me. But I got over it (mostly), and found the book to be quite enjoyable. It was full of Persuasion-y deliciousness, but was different enough to make it the author’s own. I liked the shout-outs to the original, such as Elliot being the protagonist’s first name rather than her surname and Wentworth becoming Wentforth, but the letter that is such an emotional lynchpin of the original felt a little phoned in to me in this one. Overall, though, it was a fun read, and the science vs. religion and genetic manipulation aspects of the story were an interesting sci-fi twist.

One subtle yet important difference I found between the two was that in Jane Austen’s book I never really found myself putting either Anne Elliot or Capt. Wentworth at fault for the tension between them (though there were times I wanted to shake them and tell them to stop being so silly!). You could say Anne’s at fault for allowing herself to be persuaded by Lady Russell to not marry Wentworth and his resentment is thus at least partially merited, but I never really felt like it was a “fault” thing—it was a decision, it happened, it had repercussions, and it wasn’t fun for anyone involved. By contrast, in Peterfreund’s adaptation, because Elliot is a good person she kind of had to refuse Kai—if she hadn’t, her estate and all the people on it would have suffered and probably died due to her father’s mismanagement. Which is a very valid (noble, even) reason for her to not marry him! It still sucks for both of them, but she had a responsibility to these people. Which is why it made me SO MAD when Kai was being a prime douchebag and generally jerky to her. Don’t take it so personally, dude—there were hundreds of lives at stake!!! So I spent a chunk of the book wanting to punch him in the face and for Elliot to run off with her neighbor Horatio, but this new slant to their relationship somehow ended up adding to my enjoyment of the book. I quite liked it, although I still wonder what it would’ve been like in space… Rating: 3.75 Genetically Enhanced Wheat Sheaves

And for our final entry, we have a historical spy adventure set in the royal court of Georgian England:

“A warning to all young ladies of delicate breeding who wish to embark upon lives of adventure: Don't.”

Sixteen-year-old Peggy is a well-bred orphan who is coerced into posing as a lady in waiting at the palace of King George I. Life is grand, until Peggy starts to suspect that the girl she's impersonating might have been murdered. Unless Peggy can discover the truth, she might be doomed to the same terrible fate. But in a court of shadows and intrigue, anyone could be a spy—perhaps even the handsome young artist with whom Peggy is falling in love...

History and mystery spark in this effervescent series debut.

Although it sounds like the sort of thing that would be right up my alley, this one was just…okay. The first person narration by Peggy is mostly enjoyable, but sometimes her flowery language and clever sentence structuring felt a bit overwrought. Though it was a little much for me at times, for the most part I found her distinctive voice to be an amusing and interesting perspective from which to see the workings of the Georgian court. It was clear that the author has researched the history and culture of Georgian England, but that research manifested itself at times in the form of slight infodumps. They didn’t completely eject me from the story, but I felt the info could’ve been woven in more smoothly at times. But then at other times, I was left wanting to know more of the history and culture! Okay, King George I is from Hanover, and there’s a pretender hiding out in France. Wait, how did a German become King of England?? Luckily, the ever-faithful Wikipedia was there to help me fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the history of the British crown.

I was also confused about Peggy’s place in the social hierarchy. Her uncle didn’t seem to be a nobleman, but had a high enough standing that he could marry off his niece to the son of a lord. Peggy’s mother was at court, but did not seem to have any title. So where does that leave Peggy? Was there a well-to-do merchant class at the time that was able to hobnob with the nobility? I don’t know if it’s just my lack of knowledge about the time period, but I thought that could’ve used some clarification to make the story seem more grounded in reality.

Unfortunately, one of my main problems with this book involved something that the entire story hinged on: Peggy’s ability to stand in at court for the deceased Francesca. I really had trouble suspending my disbelief that, even with makeup and a wig, Peggy would be able to impersonate her without anyone noticing. I found it very difficult to believe that she looked enough like Francesca that, especially with the dissimilarities in their personalities piled on top, even Fran’s close friends could not tell the difference.

Even taking these concerns into account, I was still pretty okay with the book until it got to the point where Peggy was jumping to some new, ill-reasoned conclusion every page about what was really going on with the intrigue. I found it to be tiresome, tedious, and a little exhausting to take the ride with her in arriving at each of these new conceptions mostly lacking in evidence. So I had a good laugh when on page 269 she said, “I listed my own proven inadequacies as a reasoner, and that list was depressingly long.” And how! At least she’s aware of it? Despite these criticisms, the book was still okay—I wasn’t shaking my fists and shouting at the heavens to get back the time I spent reading it, but I probably won’t be checking out any sequels. Rating: 2.5 Lace Fans

Have you read any good YA lately?

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (September 3, 2013)
Read in August 2013; Paper ARC from Book Expo America*

For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund
Published by Balzer + Bray (2012)
Read in September 2013; Bought it

Palace of Spies, by Sarah Zettel
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers (November 5, 2013)
Read in October 2013; eARC from publisher via NetGalley*

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copies, our reviews are uninfluenced by their sources.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The 2013 Man Booker Prize (and Banquet)

As you may remember, we are great admirers of the pomp and pageantry that accompanies the Man Booker Prize. So, it was with great excitement that we looked through the official pictures of last week's 2013 banquet and shortlisted authors. Naturally we were also pretty excited to find out who the winner of the prize was and compare it to our predictions.

Guess what? We lost. Both of us failed to predict the winner (here and here, and the only thing that we could have come close to taking credit for was not giving We Need New Names a superlative in the post leading up to the announcement. In fact, the winner was The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, an 800+ page historical fiction novel about prospectors in New Zealand. Aside from all the praise we hear about it (and its landmark Man Booker accolade), we note that it garners the superlative Most Difficult for Booker-phile Americans to Have Read Before the Prize Announcement. Perhaps some of you were able to land a copy as soon as it was released, but it would take terrifyingly fast reading to get through all those pages before the prize announcement a few hours later, and we completely failed on that account. We consider this as the Booker reaffirming its place as a BRITISH prize, even if all English-language novels are eligible next year. (Although we trust the book is excellent in and of itself.)

But as happy as we are to still have the Man Booker winner left to read this year, we are THRILLED to check out the photos of the banquet provided by the Man Booker Media page. As if the fancy place-settings weren't enough, this year THE DUCHESS OF CORNWALL was a guest of honor! (Actual Royalty trumps any mere royal-looking hall.)

The Man Booker Prize dinner 2013
In a scene very similar to the 2012 Booker Banquet, everything looks posh.

HRH The Duchess of Conrwall gives a speech at the Man Booker Prize dinner - c Janie Airey
Hello, Duchess of Cornwall! (And well played.)

2013 Man Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton, is announced - c Janie Airey
The winner is...Eleanor Catton, whose lighting makes her seem attracted to the podium like Aurora is to the enchanted spindle.

2013 Man Booker Prize trophy - c Janie Airey
But if an Apple TV with the Man Booker name were waiting for YOU, wouldn't you feel the same pull?

HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, Eleanor Catton and Robert Macfarlane, 2013 Chair of judges - c Janie Airey
HRH is not so sure, but the Chair of Judges, Robert Macfarlane, has a smug smile that says YES, the Apple TV is better than about a dozen royal palaces.
Also, how cute is the skewed bow-tie?

2013 shortlisted author NoViolet Bulawayo with her Editor, Becky Hardie - c Janie Airey
Up there in charming points with shortlisted author NoViolet Bulawayo posing with her editor, Becky Hardie.

HRH The Duchess of Cornwall meets 2013 shortlisted author Jhumpa Lahiri 2 - c Janie Airey
Shortlisted Jhumpa Lahiri chats with (or listens to) HRH The Duchess of Cornwall while fellow shortlisted author, Ruth Ozeki, mingles with people not as important to prominently place in photos presumed favorite for the prize, Jim Crace.

Anne Robinson and daughter Emma Wilson at the Man Booker Prize ceremony - c Janie Airey
Unlike the shots of gentle camaraderie we see with authors and publishers, this media-involved mother/daughter pair seems pretty intense. Like, WE ARE HERE BECAUSE WE ARE LITERARY AND PART OF THE CAST OF DALLAS.
(Okay, to be fair we have heard of the mother, Anne Robinson, who was the snarky host of The Weakest Link way back when. We're still not sure why that gets her an invite to the Man Booker banquet, though.)

Harvest by Jim Crace
But over all, everyone seems happy. Here's retiring author, Jim Crace, holding his uniquely bound edition of his shortlisted novel. The artist thankfully chose not to make this memorable copy look like the horror movie the US edition seems to promise.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
Everyone is in such good spirits that they will pretend that Colm Tóibín is not the Branson of the bunch, the one gentleman not sporting a bow tie because he's Irish and too proud to bother with English tradition.
Better luck at universal bow tie wearing next year!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Genre-ally Speaking: Romance and Regency

Can this be true? Has it been months without any read-in-bed-all-night romance novel reviews?

Evidently it is true. The closest I came was the “New Adult” Left Drowning, which was so problematic that I couldn’t pick up another pure romance for ages. That is, a few months. But I went to my library book sale this past weekend and found a Regency romance from 1987 among the mass-market paperbacks, and instantly snatched it from a pile of brittle Harlequins.

The Magnificent Masquerade

Title: The Magnificent Masquerade
Author: Elizabeth Mansfield
Publisher: Charter Books
Published: 1987
Read: October 2013
Genre: Regency
Where It Came From: Used book sale
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Coach Rides

Years ago, in the midst of a much more time-consuming romance novel habit, I happened upon a novel by Fiona Hill, and when I searched for more of her books I found an article she wrote for the New York Times complaining about how tedious it was for an ambitious author like herself to spend her time writing fluffy Regency romances. Far more useful than her message of “I AM A SERIOUS WRITER” was her clarification of what makes a Regency novel different from the standard dime romance: in a Regency, the central characters agree to marry each other after falling in love over banter; consummation is a kiss.

Since the article’s publication in 1989 the Regency has died out as a separate genre, but seeing The Magnificent Masquerade at the book sale reminded me that there once was a time when there were many Regency writers, and many of these books presumably on the shelves of libraries.

I headed home eager to read, and you know what? It was as cute as I had expected. Not brilliant, but completely pleasant like the book equivalent of an ice cream cone.

Here’s our plot: Miss Kitty Jessup, on the verge of adulthood, is a charming jokester who cannot wait to enter society in a few months and dance and flirt with hundreds of eligible young men. Her father, Lord Birkinshaw, isn’t so sure that his daughter’s behavior outside of the schoolroom will be any better than it is inside, and when he hears the Earl of Edgerton complaining about his raucous younger brother, he hits on an excellent idea: Kitty should skip the parties and marry Edgerton’s younger brother because marriage will be a calming influence on both the young people. Kitty, upset that this will ruin all her fun, concocts a plan of her own: on the way to meet her prospective family, she will trade places with the young maid, Emily, who is supposed to be her abigail, and when her unwanted fiancé discover the deception, his family will quickly dissolve the arranged engagement. Having switched places, Kitty and Emily both start to change and desire new things, including husbands neither one of them initially planned to like.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book was that I couldn’t figure out which way the pairing was going to work until halfway through. Two young ladies, two brothers: is it opposites attract or like goes to like? Maybe you’re a better reader than I am, and wouldn’t have those pages of slight suspense, but I hope if you read it you have the same thought process as I did.

I also liked the characters, not for any complexity they may have had, but for their ability to fill their roles pleasantly. Basically they’re nice people (even if half are initially self-centered) discovering that they get along well with other nice people. There’s a little servant drama, which should amuse any Downton fan because (a) the butler has the same dialogue downstairs that you’d expect from Carson, and (b) a major confrontation is over the propriety of having a woman wait at the table upstairs.

In all the book is sweet, and makes me wish the fluffy Regency novel still flourished.

Lady Be Good

Title: Lady Be Good
Author: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Publisher: Avon
Published: 1999
Read: October 2013
Genre: Romance
Where It Came From: Used book sale
Rating: 4 out of 5 Golf Balls

Because mass-market paperbacks were three for $1 (and no fraction for a single book), I scoured the rows until I could find two more. JACKPOT. A Susan Elizabeth Phillips romance not on my library’s shelves! Susan Elizabeth Phillips is probably my favorite contemporary romance author, but her work ranges from uncomfortable (the early Glitter Baby) to delightful (basically all the ones written between 2005-2011). Lady Be Good, fortunately, is one of her more enjoyable ones.

Lady Emma Wells-Finch is the devoted headmistress of a small English academy whose patron is a sleazy twice-married duke desperate for an heir, and willing to coerce Emma into marrying him. Claiming research obligations she travels to Texas, where she is met by a friend of a friend, Kenny Traveler, and promptly plans to sully her reputation enough to make the duke reconsider his choice of bride. Kenny, a suspended pro-golfer escorting Emma as a personal favor to get him back on the PGA tour, finds keeping Emma out of trouble is more amusing than he expected, but his real wish is to get back to the understandable world of golf.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips generally works this successful formula: spunky woman on a break from her life travels or lives with a pro-athlete or actor long enough for them to fall in love and heal their childhood scars and get past their insecurities. I think there’s usually a secondary romance as well; I remember a few with the hero’s mother getting some action. Lady Be Good completely fits into the formula, and that’s a good thing because that means that if you like any of her others that fit the formula, you’re guaranteed to like this one. Conversely, if you enjoy this one, there are more for you to read after!

More than variations of the same cheerful plot, Phillips is particularly good at hooking readers from the first chapter. Unlike Georgette Heyer (and her school of Regency writers), Phillips wastes no time on exposition. Literally we get three pages to establish that Kenny is a pro-golfer with an easy manner before he meets Emma and decides she’s a nuisance, but a nuisance he’d like to sleep with because it’s a romance novel and that’s how these things go. Once we know all that, all that’s left to do is keep flipping pages to figure out how two commitment-phobic people will persuade themselves to be in a serious relationship.

Along the way there are funny-awkward situations, awkward-awkward situations, a welcoming and supportive family (albeit with some issues from decades earlier), and the romance of Kenny’s sister with her father’s business rival’s son. (Everyone in Phillips’ world is related to someone else anyway, so don’t be put off by the multiple possessive apostrophes here.) Frothy fun.

To get to frothy fun you almost always have to have an inconceivable plot premise, and this one feels a little more unrealistic than usual. One arranged marriage with English nobility in 1999 raises eyebrows, a second arrangement in Texas in the same book is just silly. I think Phillips figured out a much more plausible way for modern arranged marriage to enter the plots of her more recent Natural Born Charmer and What I Did for Love, but as long as you can get past the set up here, it's hard to stop reading.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Docket: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Hello, bookworms and moths! Our book club's next book has been decided, and we will be venturing into not-YA with Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This one has been sitting on my shelf since its release, so I am glad to have an excuse to finally get into it! I've heard very good things about this one from pretty much all corners, so hopefully we'll continue the pattern after Code Name Verity and the group will enjoy it. Here's the blurb from Goodreads:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

Yay Neil Gaiman!!! And as an added bonus, since Ocean is fairly short and will be for October/November rather than just one month, we decided to throw in his recent book for young readers, Fortunately, the Milk, too. Here's the blurb for that one:
"I bought the milk," said my father. "I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road."

"Hullo," I said to myself. "That's not something you see every day. And then something odd happened."

Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

Like with Code Name Verity, after we finish reading the books we'll have a post with our thoughts where we'd love for you to join in and discuss with us. Time for a visit to the library or bookstore to start tracking down some Neil Gaiman!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Code Name Heartbreak (Which is not a paperback romance novel, we promise.)

You may remember last month when we mentioned that our book club's September pick was going to be Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity, and that we would probably work on some sort of analyze-and-chat post after we finished the book so we could all collectively join in the book club fun. Well friends, that time has come. The book has been read, the feels have been felt, and we are ready to DISCUSS!

Three covers. Take your pick!


Or at least we were. And by we, we definitely mean just Susan, who REJECTED reading this book for our book club on the grounds that it would be TOO SAD (based on pretty much every review that said it was brilliant but heartbreaking). My God, we tried to avoid the waterfall of emotions we knew this book would bring, but we just couldn’t. Our book club picks of late were Not Living Up to Our Expectations, to say the very least. So it seemed petty to continue to avoid a book that made at least 15 Best Books lists in the last year just because we were gormless.

And now our earlier compunctions just seem SO EMBARRASSING. This book is wonderful in basically every way possible, and you have no excuse not to read it. (Okay, maybe one excuse, but it’s pretty lame. We assume it could be possible that everyone else in your town has realized this is a book that should be read and loved, and because of that all the copies in your library may be unavailable. But that’s a weak excuse; pony up the money to buy a copy for yourself. You’ll want to reread it. And then do research and then reread it again.)

We’re just floored. We are utterly and completely floored. WE LOVED SO MUCH OF THIS. Writing voice, narrative structure, characters, emotions, plot. Everything, actually.

Here’s the gist for those of you who are meeting Code Name Verity for the first time: Our narrator is Verity, a British Special Operations Executive who is confessing the details of her mission in Occupied France and her knowledge of airfields and planes to avoid an excruciating death at the hands of her Gestapo captors. It’s all a little disorienting because Verity writes about her feelings towards her collaboration deal, then starts telling the story from the point of view of her best friend, Maddie, whose papers got switched with hers when they flew into France weeks earlier. There are all sorts of twists and turns because Verity is very clever and Maddie is very skilled, but you know all along that it’s leading to the plane crash that left Verity in France, and the consequences of her capture by the Gestapo. We WILL NOT SAY MORE than that until after the jump.

In the spirit of the memorable lists that Maddie and Verity make of their top ten fears, we’ll make a list of the top ten things we want to tell you, and we’ll jump when the information is CLASSIFIED for people who have already read the book.

  1. Verity and Maddie as characters. Both are extremely talented and courageous.
  2. It’s a downer plot but not a downer book. Verity’s narration is funny at times, and almost always upbeat in spite of her being held in a secret Gestapo prison.
  3. Verity’s brother Jamie. He makes eggs for children and we basically fall in love.
  4. The structure of the novel is so inherently unreliable, but her friendship with Maddie is so lovely that you want the narration to have all been reliable, so you end up questioning EVERYTHING while hoping against hope that things are the way you want them to be.
  5. The Nazis are as well developed as the Allies we meet. It is clear that they are performing evil deeds, but it also comes across that their main flaw is their cowardice rather than an innate evil. Unlike in other novels, the Nazi characters have more motive (and internal conflict) than sadism.
  6. Maybe this is part of no. 5, but we can’t fully hate SS-Hauptsturmführer Amadeus von Linden.
  7. Did we mention how much we love Maddie and Verity’s best friendship?
  8. The Peter Pan allusions start on page 5 and carry through to the end, but the exact parallels of characters change.
  9. Everything carries through to the end, and it’s the symmetry and resolution that create the biggest emotional moments.
  10. We have book-overs. Or book hangovers. Whatever the word is to describe that we are having trouble reading other books because we can’t let go of this one.

Now we will jump, to leave in unspoiled condition those who haven't read the book yet and wish to remain spoiler-free. If you find yourself in this category, we leave you with the exhortation of GO READ THIS BOOK, and bid you a fond goodnight. For those who have read the book or really don't care about being spoiled (you know who you are...), click onward!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Man-Booker Last Minute Thoughts!

The day has come, and in a few short hours the judges will announce their pick for the 2013 Man Booker Prize while I will still be reading nominated books. I really meant to have finished most of the list by now, and instead have sampled The Lowland and The Luminaries, started Harvest and A Tale for the Time Being and finished only The Testament of Mary and We Need New Names. But let’s pretend that means I am well acquainted with enough of the list that the impressions and opinions I made of them are meaningful.

Based on my reading I’ll create some superlatives that may or may not be factors that Man Booker judges consider in their decision…

Most Beautiful Language

Hands down, this goes to Tóibín’s Testament of Mary. Tóibín has created a small novel of poetry to explore Mary’s bewilderment and grief concerning her son’s transformation from a sweet boy to the resurrected icon of the inchoate church. I am utterly in awe of the elegance with which Tóibín strings clauses together into looping sentences that bring you into Mary’s memories before he stabs you with shorter sentences of her present loss. Here’s a bit I loved from the final pages, though I copied out other examples while I was reading from the extended narrative of Lazarus’s resurrection. This excerpt won its spot in this post because it is much easier to imagine the context for Mary’s mourning Jesus.

There are times in these days before death comes with my name in whispers, calling me towards darkness, lulling me towards rest, when I know that I want more from the world. Not much, but more. It is simple. If water can be changed into wine and the dead can be brought back, then I want time pushed back. I want to life again before my son’s death happened, or before he left home, when he was a baby and his father was alive and there was ease in the world. I want one of those golden Sabbath days, days without wind when there were prayers on our lips, when I joined the women and intoned the words, the supplication to God to give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute, rescue the needy, deliver them from the hands of the wicked. When I said these words to God, it mattered that my husband and son were close by and that soon, when I had walked home alone and sat in the shadows with my hands joined, I would hear their footsteps returning and I would await my son’s shy smile as the door was opened for him by his father and then we would sit in silence waiting for the sun to disappear when we could talk again and eat together and prepare with ease for the peaceful night after the day when we ad renewed ourselves, when our love for each other, for God and the world, had deepened and spread.

This is over now. The boy became a man and left home and became a dying figure hanging on a cross. I want to be able to imagine that what happened to him will not come, it will see us and decide—not now, not them. And we will be left in peace to grow old. (76)

Alyssa just wrote about Halloween books; I am willing to argue that this is the most haunting bit of writing I’ve read in ages.

Most Interesting Point of View

I think Harvest has this one in spite of its having a middle age English male narrator in a year when other contenders have young women narrators from Zimbabwe and Japan. This narrator is much trickier than the other narrators—he’s telling the story of a crime in a small village, and the larger general corruption in the community that allows everyone to silently watch his or her neighbors blame a newly arrived family for it. The plural and singular first person wind together so the reader has trouble initially seeing who is part of the “we” that observes and thinks some things, and why the narrator obscures his own view in the middle of a plural mentality at times. The book is a little slow, but every time “we” comes up, it makes the mood a little more chilling (yes, apparently the Man-Booker list is rife with selections described by Halloween-appropriate adjectives).

Most Pleasant to Read

So far I am really enjoying A Tale for the Time Being. It’s the confident diary of an Americanized Japanese teenage girl, and the story of a novelist who found the diary washing ashore. The diarist, Nao, is personable and tells about her life in tones far cheerier than you’d imagine possible considering the major themes are loneliness, cultural estrangement, and despair. The only bright spot for Nao seems to be her tech-savvy Buddhist nun great-grandmother, who has lived a fascinating life and now is explaining philosophy one text at a time.

I don’t particularly care for the fictionalized author Ruth, but the book moves extremely fast (especially considering how many points of Buddhism and Japanese culture it pauses to explain), and there are no more than a few pages of Ruth before Nao returns with her multi-time dimensioned diary.

In any case, I am excited to see how the book ends, even as I enjoy the pages leading to it. The very definition of a pleasant read.

Do you have any last minute opinions about the Man-Booker winner?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review Times Two: The Pretty Pictures Edition

Hi all—it’s a twofer, it’s a twofer! Two reviews in one post, that is. Who doesn’t like a double dose of nice illustrations? First up is a very cool graphic novel, followed by a children’s picture book of a Scottish folktale. Keep reading for the rundown!

Title: The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice
Author: Mike Carey, Peter Gross, Kurt Huggins, & Zelda Devon
Publisher: Vertigo
Publication Date: September 24th, 2013
Read: October 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Fantasy Graphic Novel
Rating: 3.5 Sunken Ships

This lovely little graphic novel is billed as a standalone prequel to the author’s series, The Unwritten, which is (from what I gathered through a quick Amazon check) about a guy named Tom Taylor whose life is kind of ridiculous because his father named him after the main character of his insanely popular Harry Potter-like book series. And it’s about the power of literature and words and stuff. Although I have wanted to try out this series for some time, I have not yet done so, and thus I came to this graphic novel having no background on the story whatsoever, aside from the aforementioned basic ideas. I was a perfect candidate to test on and see if the book succeeds as a standalone! So now the question is, did it?

The answer is yes, for the most part. First things first: The art is really, really beautiful. It is all rendered in gorgeous full-color, and a treat to look at. As for the story itself, there are two different tales unfolding at the same time—that of the man writing and publishing the first Tommy Taylor book to coincide with the birth of his son, who he has decided to call Tom Taylor, and that of the actual story about Tommy Taylor’s adventures at a school for magic and his discovery of his own magic in his efforts to take down an evil vampire. The Tommy Taylor story was interesting enough, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to many fantasy tropes, and some very funny bits. I especially liked that when there was a sort of seriousness in the Tommy Taylor story, it would often have a humorous line to bring things back into perspective. In one of my favorite examples of this, a man and a sea monster are talking about the recent deaths of some people at sea. A man and a sea monster having a conversation is pretty amusing straight off, but what they’re talking about is pretty rough, right? People dying when a ship sinks is no fun at all. But when the monster insinuates that the man had a thing for a woman who went down with the ship, the man snarks back with, “Anyone can read a gossip column. Even without opposable thumbs.” Which gave me a really hilarious mental image of the big whale-looking leviathan reading a newspaper.

The really intriguing part, though, was the diary entries by the Tommy Taylor author, and trying to get a handle on what he’s seeking to accomplish by naming his son after the book character, timing the publication to his son’s birth, making it seem like the biological mother was not the actual mother… Is he just an egomaniac crazy douche-y monster willing to do anything for marketing, or is there something more to it? While this book does not tell you for a certainty if there is something more to it and, if so, what that something more may be, it definitely made me even more interested to read the actual The Unwritten series to see what was really going on and how it all plays out.

Overall, I think it was pretty successful as a standalone graphic novel. For me, as one uninitiated into the greater Unwritten universe, the fantasy meta-ness of the Tommy Taylor story added to its appeal, and the mysteriousness of the Tommy Taylor author’s storyline drew me in and made me want to know what the heck was going on. The writing was very good, and the art was awesome, too. I waffled between giving this a 3.5 or a 4, and settled on 3.5 because while it was good and definitely intriguing, I didn’t LOVE it. I think the people who would LOVE it and really get the most out of it are those who already have The Unwritten series under their belt—this sort of origin story would probably be most meaningful to those who already know what comes after. For the rest of us, we get a good story and good art, and with luck our interest is piqued enough to check out the graphic novels it spun off from. After we’ve read those, we can come back to this one and appreciate it on a different level.

Title: The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies
Author: Heather Forest
Illustrator: Susan Gaber
Publisher: August House, Inc.
Publication Date: October 7th, 2013 (Reprint Edition)
Read: October 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Children’s Folktale Picture Book
Rating: 4 Tasty Cake Crumbs

In this retelling of an old Scottish folktale, a bakerwoman famous for her delicious cakes is captured by the King of the Fairies, who wants her to bake for him and his kingdom. Knowing that she will never be allowed to leave if they taste her amazing cakes, the woman uses her wits to find a way out of the situation and get back home to her husband, baby, and baking. I thought this book was very cute and lots of fun. I’m a sucker for a good folktale, and this one was new to me! I like that it’s a story about a mother having an adventure, and that she’s a woman with skills who uses her head to rescue herself. And on top of that, she keeps her promise to the fairies at the end! All in all, this nameless bakerwoman is a pretty great role model.

The story is well-written, with repetition of certain lines that children can pick up on and join in reading or acting out with the story-reader (such as the Fairy King’s reaction to each of the bakerwoman’s requests: “He clapped his hands, he stamped his foot, and the ground split open”), and there’s funny stuff that will make kids giggle, such as a baby flinging porridge around at fairies. Though the Fair Folk from Celtic cultures and story traditions can sometimes be scary, these fairies aren’t at all, and the resolution of the story is happy for everyone. The last line is a good message for children, and well put for the enjoyment of grown-up readers, too: “For fairies’ gold, they say, is like love or knowledge—or a good story. It’s most valuable when it’s shared.” Awwwww! For added learning, there is also an author’s note at the end that talks about the story’s Scottish origins and the meaning of the word “flummox” (which is a very good word, I might add).

Equally important to the writing, where picture books are concerned, are the illustrations. I thought the art was very cute and pretty—it has a certain softness and plumpness, but still manages to be vaguely ethereal. The palate is colorful but muted, and it all blends together seamlessly with the story. Overall, I found this to be a very nice book for kids and kids-at-heart.

Are you as enticed by pretty pictures in books as I clearly am? What are some of your favorite graphic novels or kids’ books with great art? Hit us up and let us know!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copies, our reviews are uninfluenced by their source.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Booktoberfest, or, Happy Halloween Reading!

I love Halloween. I always try to read at least one spooky and/or Halloween-themed book every October, so on a recent trip to my local independent bookstore I was very excited to see a display of the new Penguin Horror line of special editions of classic horror tales. Not that I’m actually a horror aficionado—more like I love great cover design, and Penguin has definitely cornered the market on that front. According to Penguin USA’s website, this is a six-volume series curated by filmmaker and horror lit fan Guillermo del Toro. I don’t think anyone would question this guy’s horror chops, but just in case you’d like extra proof that he’s a good man for the job, I’ll direct you to this nightmare-inducing creature from his excellent film, Pan’s Labyrinth:


The cover art for these editions was created by Penguin Art Director Paul Buckley, and they are very nice hardcover copies that would make a festive eye-candy addition to any bookshelf. Seriously, I hold Penguin solely responsible for all the duplicate classics I have on my shelves, which I felt compelled to buy simply because of the awesome covers. Maybe some of these will join the ranks someday! Here’s a look-see at what’s on offer in this line:

I would probably be interested in trying out the Lovecraft (every year I mean to check out his books, but I never get around to it…) and The Haunting of Hill House. After actually reading Frankenstein in college it struck me as more sad than scary, but that is an awesome cover. The Poe one is, too. And all the rest of them. WHY MUST YOU DO THIS TO ME, PENGUIN?!?

I thought I’d follow up my fascination (obsession?) with the Penguin Horror line with a rundown of some of my favorite spooky or Halloween-y books throughout the ages. Maybe you’ve read some of these, and maybe some will be new to you. In no particular order, I present to you a smattering of my seasonal fall faves:

  1. The Hallo-Wiener, by Dave Pilkey. A super cute picture book about a dachshund who is made fun of by all the other dogs for being short, and humiliatingly has to dress up as a hot dog for Halloween. But when a monster attacks, he saves the day and the other dogs feel ashamed about their treatment of him. Back when I was in high school I used to read books to kids at a local Halloween event, and this was always a great favorite. Very cute and funny!

  2. House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not actually finished reading this book. I started a couple years ago (in October, of course) and for one reason or another got distracted and haven’t gotten back to it yet. Even if I had finished it, I don’t think I’d be up to the task of blurbing it, so I will refer to GoodReads for this one:
    Years ago, when House of Leaves was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet. No one could have anticipated the small but devoted following this terrifying story would soon command. Starting with an odd assortment of marginalized youth -- musicians, tattoo artists, programmers, strippers, environmentalists, and adrenaline junkies -- the book eventually made its way into the hands of older generations, who not only found themselves in those strangely arranged pages but also discovered a way back into the lives of their estranged children.

    Now, for the first time, this astonishing novel is made available in book form, complete with the original colored words, vertical footnotes, and newly added second and third appendices.

    The story remains unchanged, focusing on a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

    Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story -- of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all their dreams.

    I remember the story being layered, complexly structured, meandering, and very creepy. The whole bigger-on-the-inside thing is fun when it’s a TARDIS, but for the house in this book it was more ominously malevolent. Someday I will finish reading it!

  3. The Diviners, by Libba Bray. Having read other things by Libba Bray, I knew she was more than capable of scary (the poppy knights in A Great and Terrible Beauty, anyone?). Still, I was not prepared for the level of creepiness I found in The Diviners. The story revolves around a girl named Evie O’Neill and a cast of other bright young things living in New York in the 1920s. Sounds pretty normal, until things take a left turn into creepy territory when occult shenanigans and a serial killer enter into their lives, and Evie, with her secret ability to learn things from touching objects, tries to get to the bottom of it. I read this one quite accidentally last October, having no idea it would end up being so appropriate for the month. Parts of it were really, really scary. Actually, I think the book trailer probably does a better and more artful job explaining it than me. I normally find book trailers to be kind of ridiculous and hilarious and not my favorite thing, but this one really captures the feel of the book:

    Yeah. Terrifying, but awesome.

  4. “Nowhere is Safe,” by Libba Bray, from Vacations from Hell. While we’re on the subject of Libba Bray, this is the first thing I read from her that really made me go, “Wow. That was scary. And really, really good.” There were moments of creepiness in the Gemma Doyle trilogy, but nothing really scary for me. Then I read her short story in the Vacations from Hell YA anthology. Her story, “Nowhere is Safe,” was really the standout of the whole book. Here is my attempt to summarize it in one sentence without ruining any of the fun: Some young people are backpacking in Eastern Europe, and find themselves trapped in a town where the people have a contract with the Devil. Perhaps your brain might be thinking, “Hostel?”, but I assure you it’s not like that at all (I’m not into the slasher/torture-porn sort of stuff.) It’s so so SO worth tracking down a copy of this book—the story is scary good and good scary.

  5. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz. A classic collection of horror folktales for kids! I remember first reading this one when I was 10 or 11 at my aunt’s house on Cape Cod—I can’t remember whose book it was (probably belonged to one of my cousins), but I remember tentatively flipping through the pages and reading a couple of the tales before I got too creeped out and put it away, only to bring it back out a couple hours later and read some more. Stephen Gammell’s illustrations really add to the scare-factor. I get chills just thinking about them!

  6. The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (illus.). Okay, I guess this one is sort of a gimme these days, but I decided graphic novels needed some representation on this list. I enjoy both the TV and comic versions of The Walking Dead—they each have their own distinct personalities, and they’re different enough that I don’t find myself constantly comparing them. I really enjoy the character development in the show, but I think the graphic novels have more moments of true, stomach-flipping horror. (And it’s always the humans, rather than the zombies, who perpetrate it.)

  7. Baby-Sitters Club Super Mystery #3: Baby-sitters’ Fright Night, by Ann M. Martin. Like most young female readers of the ‘90s, I loved me some Baby-Sitters Club. The mysteries were always my favorites, and this was one of my most dog-eared ones. Sadly, it’s been a decade and a half since I read it and I don’t remember many details, but here’s what I managed to dredge up from the quagmire of my memory: The BSC goes to Salem, Massachusetts around Halloween. Can’t remember why. School trip? Maybe. Anyway, there is a famous diamond that gets stolen, and the BSC does their thing. Abby was super-cool, and I loved her narration. I wanted to be awesome like Abby! Who knows how this would hold up if I re-read it now, but at the time it was the perfect mix of spooky and fun for Halloween.

  8. And for my final offering, I present you not with a book, but with an internet-y virally-spread creepypasta-presented-as-reality type story called The Dionaea House. It’s about…a creepy house. And that’s all I’ll say, so as not to spoil anything. But it’s good. And veeeeery creepy. Click here to read it.

Now that I’ve thoroughly creeped myself out writing this post and am now jumping at noises and shadows, I don’t think I’ll be walking my dog after dark tonight. What are your favorite creepy or Halloween-y books? Anything in particular you like to read when the weather cools down and the leaves start to blow? Hit the comments and give me suggestions of things to read and add to my list!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Review: Poor Little Dead Girls, by Lizzie Friend

Title: Poor Little Dead Girls
Author: Lizzie Friend
Publisher: Merit Press
Publication Date: December 18th, 2013
Read: Sept - Oct 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: YA-contemporary-thriller
Rating: 2.5 Secret Society Scandals

The Quick and Dirty:

Lacrosse star Sadie Marlowe transfers from her life in Portland to the prestigious Keating Hall in Virginia on an athletic scholarship. Boarding school life with the 1% is a bit of a culture shock for her, and she gets yet another shock when she is kidnapped one night to be inducted into a secret society. The posh parties, high fashion, and other privileges for members are enough to keep her from thinking too hard about the unexplained bruises on her body, other members with sociopathic tendencies, and the mysterious deaths of some former inductees—until things get really out of hand. But will Sadie be able to extricate herself and her friends from the toxic world of Keating and the Order of the Optimates before it’s too late? There’s potential here, but clunky dialogue, blah characters, and other aspects of the story/writing need polishing.

The Wordy Version:

This book…gah. I just. I don’t know how to feel about it. It’s not horrible by any means, but there’s so much that could be better about it. It was really hit and miss for me—some parts were pretty good, but other times it just fell flat.

I was drawn to this book because it sounded vaguely like the Pretty Little Liars series, which I unironically and unabashedly enjoy (the books, not the TV show. The show is dumb). Wealthy teenagers with private school shenanigans—scandal! Murder! Mayhem! The books are very different, but try as I might, I find it very hard not to compare the two. Still, for you, dear readers, I will try to keep them in separate corners of my head.

For the most part, the writing in Poor Little Dead Girls is good in that the words are put together in sentences that make sense and flow well. However, I do have issues with the dialogue—it often sounds like it’s trying too hard to sound teenager-y, dropping all kinds of lingo and slang that comes off a bit like an adult trying to approximate how they imagine high schoolers might speak. Even for the adult characters the dialogue simply doesn’t feel realistic. There were also many times when the word choice or phrasing of a sentence was just off—I understood what the author was going for, but it was just a bit wonky and could have been said better or more clearly. Keeping in mind that I read an advanced reader’s copy that may differ from the final published version of the book, here’s an example of some word choice/ambiguity that made me lol: “Brett shook her head, so small it was almost imperceptible” (270). I would argue that “slightly” would be a more appropriate word than “small” in this instance, unless of course Brett’s head really had been shrunk down to microscopic proportions. I can forgive that sort of word-wonk if it happens once or twice in a book, but if it happens repeatedly there’s some editing that needs to be done. Here’s hoping these sorts of things get worked out before the final version goes to print.

Another thing that left me confused in this book was the humor. Sometimes it was spot-on and made me cackle to myself as I read (ex: referring to a pair of heels as “high-fashion bear traps” [47]), and other times it just fell completely flat for me (“Maybe fashion designers really were magical. It would explain how they had managed to convince people to wear shoulder pads” [47] ::crickets::). Humor can be a subjective sort of thing, but I felt there was unevenness here.

I also felt the storycraft aspect of the writing could use some work. I was irked by characters being introduced only to disappear until it was convenient for them to be a part of the story again (e.g. Sadie’s roommates), and the romance between Sadie and her male counterpart transfer-student-lacrosse-player-not-buying-into-this-rich-crap Jeremy was on the trite side (although the pair of them watching a movie online together while in separate dorms was cute). There was uneven characterization and not much difference in voice between many of the main characters—you could probably give me isolated quotes from many of the Keating girls and it would be hard for me to match up who said what. Sadie herself had moments of feisty badassery, but other times I found it hard to connect with her. Additionally, sometimes there were jarring statements or turns of phrase that didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the book (“Her voice cracked like a choirboy's whose balls were starting to drop” [138]—oddly vulgar, no?).

There was also level of unreality that I just couldn’t shake and made it hard for me to suspend my disbelief. Things like the fact that Sadie rarely ever thinks of friends back home in Portland, that she is able to identify and comment on her roommates’ habits after knowing them for about one night, a character saying he’d call Sadie even though we’d recently established that he didn’t have her phone number…I could go on. And there were loose plot threads dangling at the end—what happened to Thayer, and more importantly, Brett, who was one of the protagonist’s good friends and dealing with a (spoiler alert) abusive relationship?! I don’t know if the author is planning a sequel, but I didn’t think those things (well, mostly Brett) should be left up in the air.

Like I said, it’s hard for me not to lay this one alongside Pretty Little Liars in my mind. Both are kind of bonkers, outrageous, implausible rich-kids-at-school stories, but PLL has a gossipy, scandalous fun to it that I didn’t quite find here. There’s implausible that I can suspend my disbelief and have fun with, and then there’s implausible with mustache-twirling bad guys and a certain cardboardiness that doesn’t entice me to buy in.

That being said, it’s worth noting that despite these complaints, I did finish the book. I may not have been completely satisfied with many aspects of the story and writing, but it did pique my curiosity and pull me through the story. The writing had a humor and brightness that shone out from behind the things I found problematic, and I wanted to see the mysteries through to the end and find out how things turned out. But would I buy it? Probably not. Would I check out a sequel? Also probably not. I see potential here, but I think the book would benefit from some (a lot of) polishing and tightening.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Review: Spending Spree, by Cynthia Overbeck Bix

Title: Spending Spree
Author: Cynthia Overbeck Bix
Publisher: Twenty-First Century Books (Lerner Publishing Group)
Publication Date: November 1st, 2013
Read: September 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 3 Shopping Bags

I decided to request this book about the history of American shopping from NetGalley because I’d recently been watching the ITV/PBS show Mr Selfridge. I found the show fascinating, thanks to its depictions of both the advent of shopping as a pastime rather than a necessity and Harry Selfridge’s marketing techniques in a time when marketing hadn’t really be invented yet. (The soapy character drama was good, too.) I thought this book would be a fun way to get more of the same. And it was, for the most part—not an academic, exhaustive reference text sort of thing, but a book clearly researched and able to satisfy a casual interest in the topic.

The book appears to be geared to teenage girls, but barring the first page of text with talk of the reader heading to the mall with friends when they want to go shopping and desires for tablets and skinny jeans, there isn’t anything that’s really AHHH IN YOUR FACE TEENAGER. I had wondered if the book would be a simplistic treatment of the topic, but I was pleased to find a lot of interesting information. It covers the evolution of shopping in America from the time of general stores and traveling salesmen, up through the rise of big city department stores, five-and-dimes, big box stores, the birth of the mall, and internet shopping bursting onto the scene. A lot of basic stuff is covered (like, “What is a chain store?”) but there was a ton of trivia and info that was new to me. For example, did you know L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a window decorator in Chicago and founded the National Association of Window Trimmers? I did not! Now I will forever picture him in my head as the attractive French window trimmer from Mr Selfridge…

The book touched on a few topics related to the “dark side” of shopping, such as credit card debt, shopping addiction, and big box stores pushing the mom and pop shops out of business, but didn’t discuss things like sweatshops and environmental pollution that result from rampant consumerism. I guess I would’ve liked a bit about that, since I feel it’s an important thing to address with regards to shopping in this day and age, but I guess that topic could be a whole ‘nother book unto itself. I was also surprised that in the chapter about e-commerce the popularity of online flash sales didn’t come up!

Overall, an interesting book. I can see it being useful in libraries at school and elsewhere for kids writing papers, and for teenagers who enjoy their shopping. I don’t think it’s limited to that group, though. If you’re writing your dissertation on the history of shopping it might not be the one for you, but if you have some interest in the topic, I think this is a good bet— the tone is informative without being dry, it covers the basics and broad strokes while also delving into some interesting trivia, and at a slim 88 pages it’s a quick read. The quotes about shopping sometimes seemed a little random or haphazard in their placement in the text, but the black and white photos, etchings, and doodle-illustrations made up for them. A bibliography, index, and further reading section in the back are also useful additions for students and those readers interested in more information.

But my single favorite thing I took away from this book? DeadMalls.com. Just the existence of a website dedicated the topic delights me. I checked and am not familiar with any of the dead malls listed for my state, but there are definitely a few around here heading in that direction…

What are your tastes in non-fiction? Are you interested in the history of shopping enough to read a book about it? If not, have you watched Mr Selfridge yet?

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Happy October!

A box of ARCs from New York--what a great way to start October! Thanks, Sus! Anyone read any of these yet, or have plans to? Which should I start with??
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