28 February 2011

Book Review: The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson

The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson is, like Ford Prefect's view of the planet Earth, mostly harmless.  That may sound like I'm damning with faint praise, but that's not really the case.  Though I prefer the first book, Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes, this sequel stands on its own pretty well as realistic fiction for teens who want something beyond the usual Clique or Pretty Little Liars tripe (which I would classify as mostly harmful).  Have you taken a look at the shelves in the YA section of the bookstore or library recently?  It's pretty much dominated by paranormal romance and steampunk dystopias, which is all well and good if that's what you're looking for, but the pickin's are fairly slim for readers looking for decent realistic teen fiction.  

Anyway, this books picks up as Ginny Blackstone is trying to compose her college admissions essays when out of the blue she gets a mysterious email from an English boy named Oliver, who claims he has the last letter her aunt left her, the one that was in her backpack stolen from the beach in Greece and which she never got the chance to read.  When she travels to London to meet him and get it back, it turns out he's "kinda blackmailing" her.  And oh yeah, Keith, the boy with whom she had "kind of something" is actually living with another girl named Ellis.  Despite the unlikelihood of the scenario, all four of them cram into a tiny, crappy car and traipse about France, the Netherlands and Ireland following the directives in the last letter in order to find the three installments of a triptych created by Ginny's wacky artist aunt.  International incidents are narrowly avoided and highjinks ensue in the process.  

Whereas in the first novel, Ginny discovers a self-reliance and a sense of adventure she did not know she possessed, in this one she realizes that it's okay to ask for help sometimes, too, and that sometimes the adventures you end up having are quite different from the ones you're expecting.  Yes, as realizations go, these aren't exactly earth-shattering, but the book is still fun, and I respect stories that encourage young people to travel as a means of knowing yourself and learning what it means to be "other."  

My coworker Marika McCoola, the children's buyer at our store, snagged an ARC of this book for me from our Harper sales rep, Anne DeCourcey, because she knew I'd want to read it.  Thanks, Marika! This book pubs in late April 2011.  

26 February 2011

Book Review in Brief: The Family Fang

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Meet Caleb & Camille Fang and their children Annie and Buster, known at home and at large as Child A and Child B.  They’re a family dedicated to making art, but not in a way that anybody would expect.  The term performance art doesn’t quite do justice to what they do—it’s more like guerilla warfare aimed at a complacent public, and it’s not “good” in their eyes unless somebody ends up bleeding, broken, arrested, or worse.  This book is laugh-out-loud on the surface, but the absurdity really only masks a darker level where children are valued only as much as the next prop and where the parents’ final performance is both devastating and liberating.  This book is a marvelous find.  

My Harper rep, the amazing Anne DeCourcey, handed me an ARC of this book that will be published by Ecco in August and told me that I should read it.  She was right.  Again.  Here are some of the passages that resonated with me--either because of the writing, the humor, or my own self-identification. 

On why there should be a third film in The Powers That Be franchise, in which Annie starred: "Yes, well, I think we can all agree that everyone loves watching Nazis getting hit with lightning bolts."  Later on that page, Wilson describes a sip of gin: "So clean and medicinal it felt not unlike surgery under light anesthetic."  My husband, a gin drinker of the highest order, couldn't agree more.  

On how simultaneously funny and pathetic Buster is, upon the prospect of sex: "He could count on one hand the number of times he'd had sex and still have enough fingers left over to make complicated shadow puppets."

Buster again, after his sister has left home and he's alone with his parents, not knowing how to be around them without her: "His mother and father were laughing with such vigor, so genuinely moved, that Buster tried it out, to see what it felt like.  He laughed and laughed and, though he did not yet know what the joke was, he hoped it would be worth the effort he'd already put into enjoying it."

These people are profoundly fucked up.  And profoundly funny.  And profoundly disturbing.  Just read it.

25 February 2011

Book Review in Brief: Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin

Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin
Dark, funny, wry, and wise--these are a few of the adjectives that come to mind after reading this book.  And while any single one of those descriptives is not unusual to find, in my experience it is rare to find a work defined equally by all four.  Judy is a teenager on scholarship at a prestigious performing arts high school with a stupendous singing talent and the smarts to match.  She also happens to be only 3'9" tall.  The usual coming-of-age/prep school/sex scandal story takes on a larger dimension here, if you'll pardon the pun, with Judy's blackly comic narration.   She sees herself as a typical girl, and the only handicap she faces is knowing that others view her as disabled, if not as an outright freak.  Judy's outsider status gives her uncommon insight and you'll find yourself nodding along to her comments on human nature.  This book is part Geek Love, part Prep, part Skippy Dies, and completely, gloriously dark, funny, wry, and wise.

I don't want to give away a major plot point, but suffice it to say that something awful happens to Judy.  We know right away that something happens, as in the first chapter she's narrating the story as a runaway in a seedy motel room a few days after it happens, but the book leads up to that something gradually.  The only part of this story that was not believable to me was that in the end, Judy and her family decide not to prosecute the people involved in the something.  Maybe I would feel differently if I were a parent, though.  It's hard for me to say.  But now I really want somebody else to read this book so that I can discuss it openly--maybe my thinking is a little self-righteous and idealistic, and maybe the book is actually more realistic.  So if you've read it, let me know and let's chat!

NB: I requested an ARC of this book from my sales rep, Jennifer Philpott.  Rachel DeWoskin will be reading at the Odyssey in April and I look forward to getting the chance to ask her these questions myself.

Edited to add: This book has since been postponed due to some mysterious editing that had to be done on it.  The publisher is being very closed-mouthed about it, though, which is causing no end of speculation among my staff.  I was able to purchase from The Strand an unauthorized copy that sneaked out while FSG wasn't looking!

21 February 2011

Book Review in Brief: The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

I first heard about The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan a few months ago when our sales rep showed it to us.  Never having read him before, it didn't elicit the kind of excited reaction that I know other readers have had, so when the book arrived in the store, it went mostly under my radar.  Then my friend and former coworker, Rebecca Fabian, posted about it on her great blog called Wildly Read, so I started paying a bit more attention.  I bought this book for myself shortly after I read her blogpost with the intention of giving it as a Valentine's Day present but ended up keeping it when I figured my beloved probably wouldn't like it...That, and we decided not to give each other presents this year as a means of saving our pennies for vacation instead!

Something old is new again with this novel.  It's the story of a love affair, but instead of being told chronologically, it's told alphabetically through dictionary entries where the couple's experience over the course of their relationship defines the words.  Because of its nature, it was a very fast read for me--unlike other readers, I wasn't caught up in the relationship so much as caught up in the narrative structure.  I'm not always a fan of gimicky storytelling in my fiction (George Perec? No, thanks!) because it usually gets in the way of the narrative flow, but this book I enjoyed.  I also liked how the lovers in question go unnamed and genderless throughout the books--which means every reader can read into this novel his or her own romantic inclinations and orientations. I at first identified the primary speaker as male and the "you" as female because of a few details (shoes, a pole dance reference), but I'm convinced in retrospect that it could go either way.

Here are a few excerpts--I chose shorter ones, but some of the definitions cover more than one page:

candid, adj.
"Most times, when I'm having sex, I'd rather be reading."
This was, I admit, a strange thing to say on a second date.  I guess I was just giving you warning.
"Most times when I'm reading," you said, "I'd rather be having sex."

fallible, adj.
I was hurt. Of course I was hurt. But in a perverse way, I was relieved that you were the one who made the mistake. It made me worry less about myself.

sacrosanct, adj.
The nape of your neck.  Even the sound of the word nape sounds holy to me.  That and the hollow of your neck, the peek of your chest that your shirt sometimes reveals.  These are the stations of my quietest, most insistent desire.

One last thing to mention...I love it when publishers are loose and comfortable enough to play with their logos for certain titles.  Knopf did it for the book Geek Love, so on the spine of that book, the traditional Borzoi logo bore five legs instead of the usual four.  I've not seen anybody mention it before now for The Lover's Dictionary, but the three little fish that comprise the logo for FSG (Farrar, Strous, Giroux) have heart-shaped heads instead of the usual triangular ones.  Subtle, but cute!

17 February 2011

Literary Blog Hop: What one book would be your solace in the midst of war?

Literary Blog Hop

The literary blog hop is sponsored by the good folks at The Blue Bookcase, and this week's question (from Mel U) is: If you were going off to war (or some other similarly horrific situation) and could only take one book with you, which literary book would you take and why?

My first instinct for this question is to go with The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, which ties with Pride and Prejudice as the book I've read most often. It's got several things going for it, not least of which is length, and when you can only bring one book, it might as well be a big 'un. It offers history, philosophy, fellowship, songs, and laughter. Meditations on war and meditations on peace, and how war isn't really over even when the final battle is. It also doesn't neglect to mention how hard war is on the people left behind by those at front. Moreover, the characters have become my friends through the years, and in the darkness of war, who wouldn't want to be surrounded by comrades?
Some might object to this answer on grounds of its lack of literary merit, this being the literary blog hop after all. And if we're talking strictly the beauty of the prose, I might be inclined to agree. But I'm not sure there's a more monumental work of literature from the 20th century (certainly not in the English language, and I think it could go toe-to-toe with any work from any other language), considering its scope, its staying power, and the sheer amount of scholarship that went into creating multiple languages and mythologies and histories for Middle Earth. Frankly, I find it all a bit staggering. Plus it's thick enough to probably stop a bullet and thus save my life. So there.

13 February 2011

Who wrote the book of love? A mini book review for Valentine's Day

I don't usually identify myself as a reader of romance novels. Every now and again I feel the urge to read a little smut, which my Harry Potter fanfiction provides in spades, but romance?  Not really.  I don't mind it as a by-product in my novels, but it's rarely what I look for as the driving force in my fiction.  Thus, I was a little surprised how swept up I was with this forthcoming book from Jojo Moyes (NB: this title has already been published in the UK and quite probably Australia, but it goes on sale for American audiences in July of this year).  People who regularly read the genre may recognize tropes that I am not familiar with, so I don't want to say this book was fresh and new, necessarily, but it was a lot of fun for me.  If you're looking for a book that celebrates love, both the grand passions and the steady, every day sort of love, this would be a good one for you.  Happy Valentine's Day!  (Or as we say in my house, Happy Valium Time's Day!)

The Last Letter from Your Lover: When journalist Ellie stumbles over a love letter in her newspaper's archives in a last-ditch attempt to save her job, she uncovers a romantic mystery for the ages.  The impassioned and articulate letter, addressed merely to "Jennifer" and signed "B," asking her to leave her husband for him, inspires Ellie to research just who this pair of lovers might be--and might even give her insight into her own doomed affair with a married man.  Meanwhile, the dual narrative introduces Jennifer, who wakes up in a London hospital in 1960 after a car crash--she is the sole survivor, but she has no memory of the events that brought her there.  This delightful, compulsively readable novel of old-fashioned grand passions, star-crossed lovers, and even of love that sneaks up on you, offers up elements of both Romeo & Juliet and An Affair to Remember, topped with its own unique dollop of modern sensibilities and style.

04 February 2011

Book Blogger Hop: What Are You Reading Now?

Book Blogger Hop

This week's question at the Book Blogger Hop, sponsored each week by Crazy For Books, what book(s) are you currently reading and why?  

I'm in various stages of a few different books right now.  I'm about halfway through an ARC of The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai, which I'm reading for fun.  It's the story of a librarian who rescues/liberates/kidnaps (depending on your point of view) a child whose parents are trying to pray the gayness right out of him and who only let him read books that have "the breath of God."  It's a fun book that my Penguin sales rep, Karl Krueger, sent to me a few weeks ago that I'm just now getting around to.  This book will be published in June.  

And as I mentioned in a previous post this week, I'm still working on the ARC of The Tiger's Wife, which I'm mostly reading for work.  Our store is interested in booking her for an author reading once her book debuts in March. 

I also just started reading the new/forthcoming memoir from Andre Dubus III called Townie.  I wasn't such a big fan of The Garden of Last Days, but I think his book The House of Sand and Fog comes about as close to Greek tragedy as modern literature can get.  His new book proves him to be a wordsmith of the highest order, and just in the first chapter he's left me suckerpunched.  The book doesn't come out for another month, so I'm reading the ARC from David Goldberg, my Norton sales rep.  Dubus will be reading at my store next month, and I have to say, if you've never had the pleasure of hearing him speak, do yourself a favor and attend one of his readings while he's on tour.  He's handsome and engaging, yes, but he is also so erudite that he peppers his talks with so many literary quotations that he's a walking-talking Bartlett's.  And what's more, he's got that intense charisma so that when he's signing your book and speaking just to you, he absolutely makes you believe that in all the universe there's nothing he would rather be doing at that moment.  

03 February 2011

Book Reviews in Brief: Where She Went and The Weird Sisters

 Where She Went by Gayle Forman. First of all, let me preface this mini-review by saying that if you're looking for a book with the emotional weight of the If I Stay, you'll be disappointed.  This is a book about relationships and self-identity and we're getting Adam's 20-something, world-weary point of view instead of sensitive, stuck-in-between-the-worlds narration from Mia.  It's different, yes.  But I, for one, think that in this case, different is also good.  

In this sequel to the brilliant but devastating If I Stay, Forman explores tragedy’s capacity to destroy relationships.  Despite Adam’s and Mia’s rising fame as a rock star and cellist, respectively, both of them are still reeling three years later from the aftereffects of the metaphysical link they shared during Mia’s coma.  Ultimately, this sequel is a thoughtful narrative on identity and the thin line between self-preservation and self-destruction in the face of catastrophic events.

I got my advanced reading copy of Where She Went from Marika McCoola, the children's buyer our store, who probably got it from her sales rep at Penguin.  The book will be published in hardcover in March 2011.  

 The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Reeling from their modestly-to-spectacularly- failed lives, Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia all move back home to live with their parents in the small college town in which they were raised, but each sister claims that she is there to take care of her mother, who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Getting beyond the petty sibling rivalries of their youth and not throttling their father, a renowned Shakespearean scholar who dishes out advice only in the words of the Bard, has never been so trying!  Eventually, though, all of the dark secrets seep out of the sisters one by one, and in laying bare their deepest fears, they discover a newfound loyalty and respect born out of their differences. The perfect book for anyone whose life is blessed (or cursed, depending on your own point of view) with a sister! 

Karl Krueger, my sales rep from Penguin, gave me this advance reading copy last fall and it has recently been published in hardcover.  While the book itself is enjoyable and fairly light (despite the mother's cancer), the collective first person point of view narration of the sisters was mildly irksome and not executed particularly well.  Still, Shakespeare fans will enjoy spotting the hundreds of allusions and quotations from the Bard's work.  Not sure that I qualify as a Shakespeare fan per se, but I did take a dedicated course on his work in both college and grad school, and it was fun spotting the obvious and the not-so-obvious ones.  

02 February 2011

Literary Blog Hop: Where would you rather be right now?

Literary Blog Hop

I'm very pleased that my friend Robyn's question was this week's jumping-off point for book discussion.  Sponsored by The Blue Bookcase each week, today's topic is:
What setting (time or place) from a book or story would you most like to visit? Eudora Welty said that, "Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us believe it...," so in what location would you most like to hang out?  
Since Welty is a favorite writer of mine and from my adoptive state of Mississippi, I thought this would be easy to answer, but I'm afraid it's not.  As a person with white skin, I could drop into many places and times and still have a relatively privileged experience--less so than a white man, certainly, but still.  Lots of people romanticize various periods of the past, but I'm not sure I'd want to visit any time period (at least not for very long) where I was still thought of as another person's chattel (or where anybody could be considered someone else's chattel, for that matter).  I'd love to visit Pasternak's Russia, Wharton's Italy, Welty's Mississippi, Tolkien's Middle Earth, Montgomery's Prince Edward Island, Austen's English countryside, Rowling's Hogwarts, Elizabeth Peters's Egypt, Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana, Bill Bryson's Australia, and so many more places.

But tonight, in the midst of a nasty snowstorm, I'm going to cut through all of the socio-economic and political ramifications of place and say that where I'd most like to be right now is on a sailboat with Ann Vanderhoof and her husband as they meander through the Caribbean.  They're a couple from Toronto who traded in their fast-paced lives to sail from Canada down to Trinidad and back.  Twice.  Their two memoirs/cookbooks track their experience and I heartily recommend them to anybody who wants to feel the warm tradewinds on her face and scent the jasmine and nutmeg on the evening air.  They're exactly where I'd like to be right now!!!  What's more, unlike most travel writers who just stick to the glossy brochure version of these mostly third-world islands, they get off the beaten path, beyond the tourist hotels and the Photoshopped beaches, to see how the other half lives.  They make friends with the locals, learning their food and their recipes and the culture.  They get down & dirty cleaning conch shells with Grenadian fishermen; they clamber over hill and dale in the Dominican Republic to catch goats (who graze on rosemary and are thus more delicious than goats who live in town) to put into a stew; they "shuffle and whine" at a Trinidadian Carnival, getting drenched in beer and sweat and possibly other bodily fluids.  If you are an armchair traveler and want to experience the Caribbean, you couldn't do better than to pick up one of these books!

Book Reviews in Brief: The Matchmaker of Perigord and Clara & Mr. Tiffany

Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but book reviews are so delightful!  Here are two mini reviews from books I've recently read.

The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart. I've rarely encountered a novel that was as charming and fable-like as this one.  Set in the tiny French village of Amour-Sur-Belle, whose inhabitants can only charitably be described as kooky, this is the story of Guillaume, the barber-turned-matchmaker, who rather haplessly tries to bring love to Amour. If you're a fan of Chocolat and an admirer of the diversity found in even the smallest hamlets around the world but that still retain the unique flavor of their region, then this is the perfect novel for you.  

It's not as polished or ambitious as her newer book, The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, which was one of my favorite books of 2010, but it's still a good read if you enjoy that sense of whimsy.  My sales rep from Harper, Anne DeCourcey, sent me a finished copy of this backlist title at my request. 

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland. Vreeland does it again, taking a female character whom art history has relegated to a minor role and creating a wholly believable and full life for her.  Here we have Clara Driscoll, who creates beautiful and innovative glass designs for Louis Comfort Tiffany in fin de siecle New York.  I found the art process behind the making of the stained glass pieces to be endlessly fascinating!  The period detail, as well as the increasing interest in unionized labor and workers’ rights, added to my enjoyment, too.  This is a fairly light read with just enough historical substance to give it a bit of heft.  

This book was published by Random House in January, but I read it in ARC form a few months ago when my sales rep, Michael Kindness, gave me a copy.  

Last Month in Review: January 2011

I'm going to take a page from Nick Hornby's articles from The Believer and start making a list of the books I've read in any given month. I can't quite list all of the books I've received from the publisher or bought on my own 'cause that would just take more time than I'm willing to give.  I get books every day in the mail. Some of them I keep, some of them I pass on to others (if you ever want to be a recipient of these free ARCs, let me know and we can work something out). I got about 100 free books at Winter Institute alone last month.  So I'll just list the books that I read.  I used to keep a list every year of the books I'd read, but the last list I could find was from 2002, where I read 113 books.  Back then I didn't include novel-length works of fanfiction or audio books, but I plan to include them this year. 

Books read in January 2011

Open City by Teju Cole (reviewed here)
Where She Went by Gayle Forman (YA novel; I may be one of the very few readers who won't trash it in my review to come)
The Last Letter from Your Lover by Jojo Moyes (Light & fluffy & fun, but I probably won't review it)
Miss New India by Bharati Mukherjee (review to come; also qualifies for the South India Challenge that I signed up for!)
 Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin (Amazing! Review to come)
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (Loved it!  Review to come)
My American Unhappiness (very interesting, review to come)
What There Is To Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, edited by Suzanne Marrs (excellent stuff, review to come)
Clarity by Kim Harrington (a YA novel I read for work.  Probably won't review it.)
The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart (charming.  mini review probably forthcoming)
The Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian (very good. review forthcoming)

Eleven books.  Not bad.  But considering I had four days of travel that month and I get can get a lot of reading done on airplanes, it should have been more. 

01 February 2011

Teaser Tuesdays: The Tiger's Wife

This is the first time that I've participated in the Teaser Tuesday meme, sponsored by Should Be Reading each week.  Usually by the time I get home from work on Tuesdays, eat dinner, clean up, head upstairs and get on my laptop, it's too late to think about blogging.  But today's blizzard is a mixed blessing; work closed early, and now I'm home early enough (and with enough energy!) to participate.

Today's tease comes from a forthcoming book from Random House called The Tiger's Wife by debut novelist Tea Obreht, whom I got to meet recently at Winter Institute.  The book releases in early March and is getting lots of buzz, mostly because young Tea was recently named to The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 list.  From the opening paragraph on p. 7:

"The forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death. That first night, before its forty days begin, the soul lies still against sweated-on pillows and watches the living fold the hands and close the eyes, choke the room with smoke and silence to keep the new soul from the doors and the windows and the cracks in the floor so that it does not run out of the house like a river.  The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past...and sometimes this journey will carry it so far for so long that it will forget to come back. " 

NB: Usually when I do a Google Image search for a dust jacket image, it's the first thing that pops up in a search.  Not this time.  First several pages' worth were images of Tiger Woods's ex-wife. I guess it's a sad fact of life that so many more people care about her than about this wondrous new literary novel!