29 April 2009

Book Reviews: A Two-fer

MOLOKA’I by Alan Brennert. $13.95 in paperback

This compelling novel follows the life of Rachel Kalama from her girlhood on Oahu through her lifelong exile at the leper colony on Moloka’i, and consequently it follows the history of Hawai’i itself from the US’s unconstitutional overthrow of the monarchy through the attack on Pearl Harbor. The reader feels the same anguish, fear, and isolation as Rachel faces one hardship after another, with a heartwarming reunion with her lost family as a final reward for her hard-earned self-reliance.

HONOLULU by Alan Brennert $24.95 in hardcover

Like his previous book Moloka’i, Brennert’s new novel takes a sweeping and probing look at a little-known period of US history. Jin is a young Korean “picture bride” who, in 1915, risks everything to leave her homeland for Hawai’i in order to marry a man she has never met. When his bitterness and cruelty drive her to run away, she makes her way to Honolulu, finding support and friendship in the most unlikely sources. Brennert takes a hard look at the hardships of being a woman in the early 20th century and at the racism that almost destroyed what is now one of the most thriving multicultural metropolises in the world.

Both books are satisfying reads, but what sets them apart is Brennert’s ability to plumb the mysteries of the human heart, exploring the heights and the depths of our emotional spectrum. What I particularly love is the fine balance he creates between hope and despair without seeming melodramatic. Fans of The Secret Life of Bees, Ellen Foster, or The Kite Runner (or anybody who is drawn to stories of overcoming social, cultural, or religious constrictions) will find much to appreciate in his novels.

26 April 2009

Time flies when you're having rum!

Lawd, lawd, I can't believe I've let it go so long between posts.   A little trip planning, a co-worker's vacation, some extra hours at work, and the discovery of some new fanfiction and my, how the time flies!

So in two months' time I will be on my summer vacation after putting in a couple hundred hours of online research.  Our first stop is our beloved Grenada, an island we're returning to for a third visit, then onward to Anguilla for our first visit.  Our first week will be largely filled with exploration, delving even more deeply "into de country" than our last trip.  We'll sample beach bars and rum shacks, tramp through trails to sparkling waterfalls, stopping by the spice market to stock on up nutmeg, mace, cinammon, and other essentials.  We're renting a vehicle with 4 wheel drive and ample ground clearance, so we'll be able to follow any track, well-beaten or otherwise, on a whim.  Grenada's lush mountainous interior is gorgeous and incredibly inviting, the fresh air redolent with spices and the tang of the sea.

Anguilla is entirely different.  Formed of coral, not by a volcano, it is the perfect counterpoint to Grenada's peaked topography, with white sand beaches ringing the entire island.  These wide swaths are blindingly bright, showing off the brilliant turquoise hues of the water.  You'd swear that photographs of Anguilla's beaches have been Photoshopped into perfection, but they really are that stunning.

I've always relied on the kindness of strangers, especially when it comes to travel planning.  Travel forums can soak up hours of my time on my days off.  I've got a large sheaf full of notes to take with me so that we can enjoy each island to its fullest, much of which is information shared with me by strangers.  I even had the lovely experience of striking up a conversation with two customers yesterday at work--one was wearing an Anguilla t-shirt so I introduced myself to him as someone about to experience Anguilla for the first time.  When I revealed that we would be staying at Carimar,  their own favorite place to stay, they pulled me aside for a good 30 minutes to share their travel experiences and wouldn't be satisfied until I assured them I would take all of their advice to heart.  

I have an online acquaintance named HowardC who has also devoted pages of email to ensure I have a fabulous time in Anguilla.  But what's more, he has gone a step further by sending me a care package--a travel video and a local magazine.  When I planned my first trip to Bequia it was HowardC who sent me his personal photo album from the island to whet my appetite for my visit.   I have another online friend named mymoosie who, upon visiting Nevis for the first time, brought home for me in her bag a bottle of Killer Bee, a killer rum punch found only at Sunshine's, a fabulous beach bar on Nevis.  Just because I had posted that I loved that rum punch and that I had tried to recreate it at home with limited success.  
What is about people with shared passions?  Is it possible that we cannot behave as indifferent strangers?  That there's something in us that calls to each other?  I couldn't possibly say, but I know that I feel a thrill whenever a fellow traveler tells me that some tip or other that I passed along was the highlight of her trip.  

NB: Grenada photos courtesy of Grenada Explorer.   Anguilla photo courtesy of Trip Advisor

10 April 2009

The supposedly non-existent demographic...

I had an interesting experience earlier this week at work.  You know how over the first sales quarter of 2009 that sales of e-books have jumped something like 110%?  And you know how our trade organization and various booksellers tell us to calm down, that everything's okay, we're not going to be going the way of the independent music store anytime soon?  'Cause it's only the younger generation (which doesn't read much anyway), the folks who go ga-ga over gadgets, who are going to be buying the Kindle?

Well, folks, I met the supposedly non-existent demographic this week.  A woman came into the store to browse our fiction section.  By her own admission she is nearly an octogenarian (!), and she was busily taking notes.  When I asked her if I could help her, she said (politely) no.  That she was looking for new titles to download to her Kindle.  She loves independent bookstores--she loves the feel of them, their selection, their staff picks, the way they engage the community.  She even said she's been missing her indie bookstores since she bought the Kindle.  But she's still coming in to our store to take advantage of our expertise and love of books and careful selection and walking out without a purchase, choosing instead to spend her money with Amazon.  

Bookstores, both indie and chain alike, need to be able to compete on this playing field.  And we need to be able to do it yesterday, not two years from now.  What can possibly happen to us when even 80 year old women who really value what the independent bookstore brings to them choose to shop at Amazon?  I'm no fan of chain bookstores (nor of any of chain stores, really) but I think that in this instance we should work together to make the publishers aware of a missed opportunity.  By not working with bookstores to make e-books widely available, not just in the Kindle format, publishers are effectively making Amazon their biggest competitor.  

I know this economy is tough, folks.  Though I'm still fortunate enough to have my job, I have friends and family members who have lost their jobs and are counting every penny.  But *where* you spend your money is just as important as *how much* you spend.  Think about what you want in your community and for your community when you're deciding what to purchase.  

04 April 2009

What I'm reading now...

In a nod to Nick Hornby and in an effort to get by with a small(ish) blog, I'm just going to list the books I've read recently or am reading now.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a laugh-a-minute.  The Bennet daughters form the Pentagram of Death!  Darcy thinks Jane has been stricken by the Satanic plague!  Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the nation's pre-eminent defender and lady of the Deathly Arts!  This book was pure-dee entertainment and I'm glad I read it.  Though the vomiting and those Most English Bits were a bit much.  I know, right?  Something over the top in a Jane Austen/zombie fanfiction is so highly unexpected!

An Embarrassment of Mangoes by Ann Vanderhoof.  

I've actually read this book a few times before, but it always makes me happy so I'm revisiting it to get in the mood for my upcoming trip to Grenada.  Sure, this book has all of the obligatory recipes for conch and coconut shrimp, as well as the tales of peril on the high seas.  But unlike so many other travelogues written about living and/or working in the Caribbean, this author and her husband really got into the local groove of whatever island they were on--volunteering, going to political rallies, exploring every inch of the islands, befriending locals, joining in the various Carnivals and Jouverts and other festivals, and in general becoming a part of the community everywhere they traveled.  Makes other books, such as one about opening a restaurant on Anguilla, seem backwards and colonial.  

Random House sent me a copy copy of Olive Kitteridge that I finally read this weekend.  I hadn't realized that it's actually a novel of connected short stories where the titular character is only occasionally the protagonist.  This way we get a fuller version of Olive, a woman of a certain age who lives in a small coastal town in Maine--she's complicated and ornery, smart & sharp spoken, weary of fools and wary of change.  Her influence over the town is both distant and far-reaching, as she taught seventh-grade math to most of its denizens.  She's respected but not well liked, but she surprises everyone, including the reader, with her periodic bursts of insight and compassion.  Definitely an interesting read, this book should please both short story readers and those who prefer novel-length fiction.

Last weekend I went down to Memphis to visit my two best friends and over the course of the weekend I got a few books read.  I read Zoe Klein's forthcoming Drawing in the Dust from Pocket Books on the way down there.  It's a story that combines archaeology, religious fundamentalism, romance, and ghost stories in modern day Israel.  Fun, frothy, and easy to read, it made my day of travel much less tedious than if I hadn't read it.  Don't worry--the cover of the advance reading copy is quite pretty, showing a woman's hair blowing in the breeze with the desert blurred and faded in the background.  I'm not sure why it's not been "unveiled" yet, but there you go.  Fans of The Red Tent and People of the Book will probably find much to enjoy in this debut novel.

Of  April and Oliver, the least said, the better.  One night after an uncalculatedly large dose of caffeine, I read this book straight through.  I wanted to be able to fall asleep.  But short of that, I wanted to be able to care for April, one of the most messed-up characters I've read about in a long time.  But the book was more like a trainwreck--in between wanting to slap her, I couldn't stop reading to see what self-destructive thing she would do next.  I'm being admittedly a bit harsh about it, but I suspect that fans of Jodi Picoult's The Pact will find much to recommend it.  We can't all like the same things, alas.  What a dull world that would be!

Scent of Sake by Joyce Lebra.  This well-researched first novel tells the story of Rie, a woman born into a sake-brewing dynasty in early 19th century Japan.  A bright young girl with natural business acumen, Rie bristles under the extreme sexist mores that dictate her behavior.  Saddled with a boorish husband, she discovers ways of quietly undermining his power.  Little does she realize, however, that as time goes by she demands the same sort of sacrifices from her family and employees that she herself was forced to make, effectively becoming just as domineering as the men against whom she was rebelling.  An interesting read.

I did finish reading two wonderful books that I've mentioned earlier in this blog.  One was just as good as I hoped it would be and the other was just as good as I'd remembered it (isn't it nice when that happens?).  Stephen Fry's wonderfully funny book about visiting every state in the US was a delight.  And finishing Without Reservations was like saying goodbye to an old friend.  I hope that one day when I'm on my own again that I'll have the courage to pick up and travel like she did.  


01 April 2009

Demons and Zombies and Books, Oh, My!

You know it's a grand year when not one, but two, major Jane Austen pop cultural events occur. Sometime this summer, moviegoers will be treated to Pride & Predator, a film about filming yet another version of Pride & Prejudice, when the unthinkable happens--an alien invasion! I'm very excited about this prospect. I like both films and movies--don't make me choose among an adrenaline-filled espionage thriller and the thoughtful, quiet, character-driven subtitled story from Argentina and the sweeping historical epic or the arty costume drama. I want 'em all. Pride & Predator should promise the best of all worlds. Popcorn & Raisinettes will complete my happiness.

But even that movie can't compare to my excitement over the new book published by Quirk Books this week-- Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith. At first I wondered why the author didn't choose a classic more suited to the gothic & the macabre to introduce zombies. Wuthering Heights seemed the most natural choice. Even Jane Eyre had the nifty plot device of the mad woman in the attic. If you're going to start with Austen, Northanger Abbey might seem more logical. But then I read what prompted the author: why was the regiment stationed in Meryton when they were actually needed to fight on the continent? Could it be...that zombies had invaded the town and that the residents' lives were in danger?

I'm eagerly awaiting the comp copy that my sales rep promised. But if it doesn't arrive by the weekend you can bet that one of the store's copies will be going home with me.

In other news, I finished another book last week that is forthcoming from one of my favorite fanfiction writers. Sarah Rees Brennan is so far best known on the internet for her fabulous Harry Potter stories, predominantly featuring the Harry/Draco pairing. Very soon she'll be as well known for her teen fiction, the first of which is The Demon's Lexicon. In the spirit of not spoiling anything, I'll make my comments as wide as possible. Overall I thought it was a good first effort but it was not as polished as her later fanfiction tended to be. Those readers who've enjoyed her dialogue, particularly Draco's laconic snarkiness, will still find evidence of that in her new book, particularly in the brother-sister team who seek out help from the Alan and Nick, two brothers born into a family constantly on the run from magicians.  One early example: '"Rituals with the dead," Jamie repeated in a faint, stunned voice.  Nick turned and looked at him coldly. "I mean," Jamie said, and swallowed, "how interesting and not at all creepy!  Please go on."'

 The pacing was a little uneven, and I'm not crazy about this new style of writing that names a concept or character on one page but doesn't explain it to the reader until pages or even chapters later. Since I tend to skim things when reading, this tactic makes me go back and re-read paragraphs to make sure I didn't skip something crucial--when inevitably the explanation show up later in the book.  Still, there was a major twist in the end that I didn't call correctly, though like a good mystery writer, Rees Brennan had strewn clues and red herrings throughout (unlike much of her fanfiction, where I correctly anticipated many of her plot twists). The end left me wanting to pick up the next book in the series right away, which means I'll have to wait at least another year or so for it.