30 September 2011

Book Reviews: The Language of Flowers

Looking back over the list I've kept of the books I read each month, September has been surprisingly busy, topping every month except the summer vacation month of June with a whopping 18 books read (about which more anon).  Last night on my way home from work I finished the unabridged audio book of The Language of Flowers, written by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and read by Tara Sands.  Even though it has been on the IndieBound Bestseller list for the last several weeks, I knew next to nothing about this book, and I certainly wouldn't have guessed based on the cover or the title that its characters would be distinguished by their misfortunes.  So when a freebie copy arrived in the "White Box" from the ABA, I jumped at the chance to listen to it. 

Summary, courtesy of the publisher: "The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen, Victoria has nowhere to go, and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. When her talent is discovered by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them."

Yes, Victoria is a victim of the world, exposed to its caprices and cruelties both large and small.  For one year in her life, she had a fleeting chance at happiness with her foster mother Elizabeth, but her inability to trust and love, combined with her finely-honed survival skills of hostility and a ten-year-old's reduced world view lead to disaster and heartbreak.  While I never could quite identify outright with Victoria (happily--I've never had to doubt my family's love for me) or her choices, it was certainly easy to sympathize with her.  

The novel mostly alternates the timeline every other chapter, starting the day Victoria turns 18 and "emancipates" from foster care with the narrative continuing onward from that day, and going back to Victoria's childhood, particularly the year she lives with Elizabeth, her last best hope to be adopted before being relegated to group homes for incorrigible foster children. About halfway through the audio it became pretty clear to me just how the earlier narrative would inexorably and heartbreakingly resolve into the later one. Neither narrative is particularly easy to listen to--it's hard to believe that the foster care system in this country fails to protect and care for so many children like Victoria, and her "adult" self is so misanthropic that frankly it's amazing that she makes it.  

And yet there are points of beauty in this novel.  The flowers themselves, certainly.  Elizabeth is a devoted gardener who teaches Victoria the language of flowers, and after she emancipates Victoria gets a job working for floral designer, Renata (who, despite her Russian background, reminded me of nobody so much as Minerva McGonagall).  But the small kindnesses Victoria encounters are also small points of beauty.  Meeting Renata's mother and being drawn into that gregarious family for Christmas mark the first time Victoria can recall feeling wanted at any family holiday.  She meets a young man of few words at the flower market who is the first person since Elizabeth left her life ten years ago who can read her flower messages. 

To say more of the plot would give too much away, I'm afraid, but it must be said that this is a novel about giving and taking chances, it's about abandonment and love, forgiveness and making amends.  In all, it was extremely satisfying.  I also liked the sly social justice interwoven into this story, with its tales of the foster care system, both woeful ( plentiful) and redemptive (not as many as one might like for a happier ending, but probably realistic). Tara Sands did a very good job reading this audio book, pulling off the sullen adolescent tones of young Victoria and the eastern European inflections of Renata & her family with equal aplomb.  I don't recall a single moment where I listened to the audio and wanted to rewind to enjoy a particular turn of phrase again, so I can't speak to the writing style very much on this one, but I can say that its strength lies in the fullness of the story.  

23 September 2011

I love giveaways, especially when I'm the winner!

 A few weeks ago, the lovely sisters at Rather Barefoot Than Bookless (a name which I love, by the way), were hosting a couple of giveways, open to all readers 'round the world.  I was the lucky winner of two books from The Vampire Diaries series by L. J. Smith.  One of my best friends, Liz, is smitten with the TV series adapted from the books, and she got me interested in watching them--that Ian Somerhalder is so hard to watch, isn't he?  Actually, the whole show is nothing but eye candy, no matter what your preferences and inclinations. When the opportunity came for me to read these two books, it seemed quite fun. 

Thank you, Cecilia, Jessica, and Sandra for hosting the contest and being willing to send these by international post from Sweden to the US!  The books arrived last weekend and I have read them both now.  They're *quite* different from the tv show, most notably in the characters of Katherine and Elena, and in Stefan & Damon's provenance in Renaissance Italy rather than Civil War-era American South. These are two books that I would not normally have ever picked up on my own, but since I won them in a giveaway I read them for my guilty pleasure.  They're very quick reads, and though the books aren't particularly well written, the pacing is good.  I don't think I'll be on the lookout for more of The Vampire Diaries--unless they just show up in my PO Box once more!

22 September 2011

Before, After, and Really After, with Night Circus Bonus!!!

This blog post is only going to be related to books tangentially and not at all to travel, so if that's what you're hoping for and yet you keep reading, it's your own fault--you were warned.
Most of you don't know me IRL (mom, that means In Real Life), but up until 48 hours ago, I had very long hair.
DURING: here's all 10-13" of my hair, all chopped off for donation

And up until 24 hours ago, the remaining hair I had was dark blonde.
Now I'm a redhead, but not a red found in nature.  And it was for a very specific purpose.  Tonight the Night Circus came to the Odyssey Bookshop, where I work, and I got to visit with, eat dinner with, and then introduce one of the rising stars of the book world, Ms. Erin Morgenstern.

AFTER-AFTER.  The color looks a little off here, more orange than it actually was.
But my shirt here also looks more blue than black, so maybe it was the lighting.
 For those of you who haven't read the book, there is significance in this book in dressing in all black, with one token of red--a scarf, a flower, a brooch, gloves--and those are the reveursReveurs follow the circus from town to town, continent to continent.  I consider myself one of the earliest reveurs, having read and fallen in love with The Night Circus several months ago, so when we booked an author event with Erin just one week after publication, I knew I wanted to do something special: I would dress all in black, and my token of red would be my hair.  The only problem is that hair of the particular shade I had in mind is not found in nature.  It can, however, be found at Sally's. 
I kinda like this placement of the glass vis a vis the dust jacket
If I had been truly hardcore, I would have bleached my hair and then dyed it Maraschino cherry red.  But I wasn't confident that I could rock that look for the next few months, so I opted for the temporary color. My long-suffering DH helped me color it this morning, and because he's all artistic and stuff, he used two shades: a darker metallic red for the undercoat and then brighter red highlights sprayed on top.  Good times!  I've also discovered throughout the day that I'm covered in what looks like red metallic dandruff, and my ears and neck look eerily sunburned, no matter how many times I wipe them off, so I guess there's a price to pay for the glamourous look.  And do you want to know something a little gross and not-so-glamourous?  Every time I blew my nose today, the snot came out a diluted metallic pink color, even though I was breathing through a towel during the entire color application.  That's some wicked (and tenacious) stuff, man!
Here you can see my husband's artistry a little better
But it was all worth it in the end.  Erin seemed pleased with our Night Circus display in the store, which we fashioned with a budget of only $12.  Good thing I had a skull, some vases, a red-swirly martini glass, and a giant sword at home to put to use!  And I think she also liked our enthusiasm for the book, not to mention my hair, even if I did shed a little metallic dandruff on her when we hugged good-night. 
Ann Kingman, Erin Morgenstern, and Odyssey Staffers, minus Sydney, who was actually working when this photo was taken.

The Night Circus display arrives without warning...I'm kinda glad we worked both a skull and a sword in there

21 September 2011

Book Review: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

For whatever reason, I never read Alexandra Fuller's first memoir, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (perhaps because I thought the title was inexplicable, perhaps because I didn't know it was set in Africa), but as soon as I heard about this one, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, I knew I wanted to read it.  Not only does it have one of the most evocative titles ever, it is also largely set in Africa. And since African lit is second only to Caribbean lit in terms of my regional reading preferences, I devoured this book the same day that my kindly sales rep, Karl, gave it to me.

So apparently in her first memoir, Fuller reveals some things about her mother that came across as less than flattering and perhaps even of the call-social-services-pronto variety.  In Cocktail Hour, her mother is hesitant to talk about her own childhood because she doesn't want to end up in another Awful Book, but apparently she relents enough for Fuller to fashion this 200+ page second memoir of her mother's life.

Nicola Fuller, nee Huntington, is clearly a force of nature.  Hailing from Scotland but living most of her life in central and east Africa, she is of seriously hardy stock.  The kind that is so admirable and interesting to read about but perhaps less comfortable to actually live with.  Unconventional, larger-than-life, fearless, fierce, daunting and undaunted are among her many epithets.

She is also unapologetically pro-Colonial and the reader must entertain the possibility of her being virulently racist, too. Problematic, that.  And yet she loves Africa, with every last fibre of her being, and it's hard to imagine loving a place so much that you don't also love its people.  So suffice it to say that Alexandra is a product of both her generation and her social class, and that she is one of the most complicated and fascinating and charismatic characters I've ever encountered.  If she had lived in ancient Greece, her life would be sung by the likes of Sophocles and Aristophanes--in other words, equal parts tragedy and comedy.

I never knew much about Rhodesia, other than it became Zimbabwe and that the gorgeous Ridgeback dog breed hails from there, until I read this book. What I know now isn't particularly pleasant, either.  If this book is to be read at face value, Rhodesia was basically an entire country for for all of sub-Saharan Africa's white-flight.  Great.  I also learned more about the Boer War, which somehow has always remained hazy in my mind, no matter how many novels I read that reference it (same thing with the Crimean War, come to think of it; maybe it's my American upbringing rearing its ugly head).

But enough with my ramblings.  Here are some passages that I think attest to the kind of person Nicola Fuller was, and the life she led.  Alexandra Fuller clearly had a great subject to work with here, but it was her writing as much as the store that kept me turning the pages breathlessly.  The Narrative "I" in many of the below passages is Alexandra, Nicola's daughter:

p. 73 "I reassured Mr. Faraji that Mum is an extreme omnivore.  She has eaten snails peeled off the farm's driveway and wild frogs' legs from the bush surrounding the Tree of Forgetfulness. Once she even ate a prawn cocktail in hyperlandlocked, socialist-era Zambia, and if that didn't kill her, I argued, a little dysentery-laced street food on Mombasa wasn't going to do the trick.

p. 118. "People often ask why my parents haven't left Africa.  Simply put, they have been possessed by this land.  Land is Mum's love affair and it is Dad's religion."

p. 39 '' 'I used to run away from our bungalow...and play in her garden with my first best friend, Stephen Foster.' Mum smiles at the memory. 'Stephen and I used to take turns pushing each other on his tricycle. We wore matching romper suits. We had tea parties. We went everywhere together, hand in hand.'
     'Stephen was one of Zoe's sons' I guess.
     Mum frowns, 'No, no, no,' she says. 'Stephen wasn't her son. Stephen was a chimpanzee.'
     There is a small, appalled pause while I try--and fail--to imagine sending one of my toddlers off to play with a chimpanzee... 'Weren't your parents worried he would bite you?' I ask.
    Mum gives me a look as if I have just called Winnie-the-Pooh a pedophile, 'Stephen? Bite me? Not at all, we were best friends.' " (NB: The jacket photo for this book is a picture of Nicola and Stephen Foster, colorized of course.)

p. 142, after the death of one of her children, "The doctors tranquilized Mum until her grief receded to a place so deep that she was the only person who could hear it. In this way, everything about Adrian's death became a devastatingly slow injury, shards of hurt surfacing sometimes unexpectedly decades later the way pieces of shrapnel emerge from soldiers' wounds years after they have been hit."

p. 170, during the civil war in Rhodesia, "On the way home, Vanessa and I fought over who would have Olivia on her lap.... Until Mum (sitting in the front with her Uzi pointed out the window) swiveled around and threatened to swat both of us unless we settled down, shut up and looked after the baby. After that we got serious and put Olivia on the seat between us, below the level of a window so that if we were ambushed, a bullet would have to go through the Land Rover door and one of us before it could ever reach our baby. There was an unspoken rule. If we were all going to die, it would be in this order: Dad, Mum, Vanessa, me, and then unthinkingly last but only over all of our dead bodies, Olivia."

20 September 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: What I've Missed

It's been a number of weeks since I have participated in a Top Ten Tuesday, but today's topic seems lighthearted,  andoff the bat at least it seems like it won't take long to compile.  Plus, I just got a sassy new 'do and I'm feeling up for some belated blogging fun.  This week's topic, sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish, asks what are the top ten books I feel everybody else has read but me...For my purposes, I will take "everybody else" as either the book blogging community or the bookselling community.  Or possibly the English major community.  Or sometimes the New York Times Bestseller List community.  You know, whatever works. 

1. The Kite Runner.  I may be the only registered bookseller in America not to have read this book.  I saw the movie.  And I know that it doesn't count.  But my friend Robyn, over at You Think Too Much, has some pretty strong things to say about this book, and though I've not read it, I entirely agree with her!  Oops--upon looking up the link for her review, it turns out that she was referring to Hosseini's second book, but I'm pretty sure the reasoning still stands. 

2.  Anything by James Patterson.  Considering that he writes about 237 books every year, that's sayin' something.  And yet he's always on the bestseller list. 

3. Hamlet.  It even made the #1 position on a previous Top Ten Tuesday list

4. Sarah's Key.  Bestseller list, bookseller list.  Not sure about blogger list.  Never read it.

5. Three Cups of Tea.  Bestseller list, bookseller list. 

6. Eat, Pray Love.  This one seems to be on a lot of lists today, and with a lot of animosity behind the not-reading-thereof.  I just haven't read it.  No agenda here.  Saw the movie.  While I can handle sentimental and insipid movies, similar books don't earn lots of points for me.

7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo et al.  Yeah, I don't really do scary all that well.  Will never, ever read these because scary books haunt me far more than scary movies.  (Okay, fine.  I saw this film version, too.  And I thought it was good. So there.)

8. The Art of Racing in the Rain.  I won't say why right here, but I'll coyly leave you a link if you're inclined to follow it. 

9. The Alchemist.  Apparently I didn't get the memo in high school/college that this was a must-read for sensitive, intelligent young women. 

10. Anything by Jonathan Franzen.  Yes, I duck my head in shame. 

What about y'all?  What was your top pick?

16 September 2011

HP7, aka Frankly, Dumbledore, YOU Disgust ME

I have recently completed a re-listening to Harry Potter and the Death Hallows audio, read by the extraordinary Jim Dale.  It's been a couple of years since I read or listened to this book, and it stirred so many feelings in me that I am compelled to blog about them. 

As with so many other readers, I have been completely swept up in the world that J. K. Rowling created back in 1997.  With the exception of books I & II, I have read or listened to each book in the series more than a dozen times.  I know this world in a fairly intimate way and have dwelled there in my mind more often, no doubt, than is healthy. I am no great fan of the film adaptations, though I like them well enough.  I have spent hundreds of hours reading hundreds of novel-length fanfictions because Rowling's is a world I don't want to leave.

I created the Harry Potter midnight release parties for my bookstore, and when I honeymooned in summer 2003, I arranged for my book to be FedExed overnight to a remote Caribbean island so that I didn't have to wait the 10 days until I got home to read Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, which was released on my wedding day (I got married in Antigua and the book was not available there on its on-sale date).  I knew who RAB was before I turned the page in book six, and after the end of book one, I never, ever doubted Snape's allegiance to Dumbledore.  And until book seven, I never, ever doubted Dumbledore's goodness and wisdom.

While I could have done without some of the characters, I enjoy most of them.  I think the Marauders were a pretty nasty collective piece of work.  I think the twins were bullies, but somewhow they were drawn in a way that I liked them against my own better judgment.  Ron, bless him, I found mostly useless--he rarely reached the potential shown in his epic chess match in the first book.  Ginny is fine and I suspect might have been worth getting to know outside the Harry filter.  Draco was intriguing from day one and has one of the most interesting backstories of any of the students.  Bellatrix and Umbridge were far better drawn enemies than the caricature of Voldemort ever was.  Harry I have serious affection for.

Some of them, however, I love: Hermione, Neville, Luna, McGonagall, and...Snape.  Yes, I am an unapologetic Snape enthusiast.  Now, of course, I'm half in love with him from my fanfiction reading.  But even before I knew what fanfiction was, I was convinced that Snape was by far the most interesting character of the series and expected the proper resolution of the story arc would demand that he and Harry have their moment of confrontation, followed quickly by their moment of understanding and begrudgingly-bestowed respect.  I wanted more, naturally (would've been nice to see Snape, the metaphorical orphan, mentoring Harry, the literal orphan and form a healing alliance for the wizarding world, which would stand in direct contrast to that other orphan, Tom Riddle, and what a wasted opportunity that was), but I expected at least a good resolution between Harry and Snape.  Too bad that I didn't get it.  Because HP7 is a good book that stands on its own pretty well, but as the culmination to the series it's pretty piss-poor, as far as I'm concerned. 

Like many people, including Harry himself, I was surprised to learn of Dumbledore's past, but rather than being disappointed in him, it made him far more interesting in my eyes.  Hard-won wisdom, experience, and self-knowledge make for a better character any day in my book (and make me curious what we would learn if given a glimpse of, say, Gandalf's youthful indescretions).  It's no wonder, then, that in books 1-6 and the backstory we get there that Dumbledore comes across as powerful, wise, and good--he's spent decades reflecting on his past and honing those worthy qualities in atonement.

So why on earth does he not treat Snape with the compassion we would expect in those pensive memories of HP7?  After all, we've just learned that 18-year-old Dumbledore was best friends (we find out later from Rowling after the series has been published that they were probably lovers) with Hitler Grindelwald, he subscribed to his plan for the master  human wizarding race, and he was quite ready to throw over his own siblings and follow Grindelwald's hallows hunt--not to mention he possible killed his own sister.  So it felt like a punch to the solar plexus for older-and-wiser Dumbledore to say to Snape, who in 1981 could not have been older than 21, "You disgust me."  Really, Dumbledore?  Snape disgusts you?  For wanting the only person he ever loved to be kept guarded from Voldemort?  Because he didn't automatically beg to save James Potter, the boy who nearly got him killed a few years earlier but was only given detention for it because *you* didn't want to let the wizarding world know you had allowed a werewolf into Hogwarts?  Frankly, Dumbledore, you disgust me for saying that when at almost the same age you were fucking Grindelwald, subscribing to his anti-muggle policies, and wanting to bring back your dead mother so she could watch over your younger siblings and relieve you of your adult responsibilities. To exaggerate slightly and put it more bluntly, he was well on his way to becoming one half of a two-man Death Eater Squad team, all in the name of The Greater Good. [sidebar: why couldn't he have just been gay in the books instead of being outed after the last book had been published? I can't quite think lowly enough of Ms. I'm-Wealthier-Than-God Rowling that she was worried that she wouldn't sell as many books if a main character were gay. My quibble here isn't that he was *fucking* Grindelwald, but rather that he was fucking *Grindelwald*]

And as if that weren't enough, you make a second knife-thrust to the heart when you say "Perhaps we sort too soon." Why, Albus?  Because Slytherins are second-class citizens?  Incapable of doing good in the world?  Because only Gryffindors can be brave?  Because Slytherins, unlike Gryffindors, don't deserve a second chance when they recover from their adolescent foolery?

It's not that I don't respect Albus for his teenage failings.  We all do things in our younger lives that as adults we are not particularly proud of, and we commit acts in pairs or groups that we wouldn't dream of doing on our own.  In fact, Albus's dabbling with anti-muggle policy in his youth makes him a far more interesting character in my eyes, and I admire his fortitude and redemption in later life all the more.  Which is why I cannot forgive his lack of empathy towards Snape in these pensieve memories.  If it's because Snape reminds Albus of his own teenage self, then it's all the more reason for me to want to bitchslap  ol' Dumby.

I was so upset/disappointed by listening to HP7 last week that I dug a couple of pieces of novel-length fanfiction that I think are superb at addressing the Harry-Snape story arc.  They are well-written, the characters remain firmly rooted in character, and the final denouement is so interesting that it's hard to believe that Rowling took the ordinary, conventional route to actually have a battle of Hogwarts when there were better choices out there.  I am speaking of Theowyn's excellent Harry Potter and the Enemy Within and Harry Potter and the Chained Souls, which can be read here

Of course, it's not all rants that I have for HP7.  There are countless times that I was moved to tears throughout the listening, and some of the plotting is fantastic.  I'm not sure that the Gringotts scene, breaking into the Lestranges' vault, could be improved upon, for one thing.  And despite the total unnecessity of the multiple-Harry escapes from Privet Drive (umm, how 'bout just driving away in a Muggle car, with driver and Harry and fellow passengers all polyjuiced to look like somebody else?), it was also an exciting read.  And learning about Regulus & Kreacher was heartbreaking.  And that Hermione--I lost track of how many times she saved their collective asses.  How awesome is she?  And Neville and Luna, keeping up the resistance on the home front.  I kept wanting to hear more about what they were doing back at Hogwarts every time they were mentioned.  And Harry's deathwalk in the Forbidden Forest, surrounded by his four ghostly protectors--yeah, I was sobbing through that bit.

So it's not that I don't like this book.  It's got a lot going for it.  It's just extremely problematic for me as the concluding book in the series.  And don't even get me started on that infernal epilogue. It's got "insipid" written all over it.  Ron hasn't grown up--he's a real Slytherin bigot.  Ginny apparently has no say in what her children were named.  We all meet our soulmates at the age of 11 because, you know, that's the way the universe works.  And Slytherin, even 19 years later, is still the big, bad House.  Which means that 25% of the wizarding population is condemned at the frickin' age of 11 to be looked down upon by all "right-thinking" magical people. 

Well, there's a fanfic to fix that, too, but unfortunately it got pulled from the internet when the author became a published writer.  Written under the penname Maya, Coda To An Epilogue: Twenty Years Later, or The Kids are All Right, is one of the finest pieces of Slytherin redemption I've ever read.  Albus Severus Potter chooses Slytherin, because he wants to try to heal this rift in the wizarding world.  He becomes best friends with Scorpius Malfoy, adventures ensue, and that's just the beginning.  Only at the end does Papa Harry wake up and realize that his kid has had it right from the start, and that his son will complete the work that he, Harry, should have finished. Gosh, I wish that work (as with many of Maya's other wonderful novels) were still available to read. [sidebar: But I'm very happy (for both myself and her) that she's publishing actual YA books under her own name: Sarah Rees Brennan. If you haven't already looked at her demon trilogy and you're a general fan of YA fantasy, take a look.] 

11 September 2011

Book (P)Review: Two YA Novels for Spring '12

Slide by Jill Hathaway features a largely realistic setting with one aspect of fantasy, or suspend-your-disbelief, for the reader: Vee Bell suffers from narcolepsy, but when these sleeping fits overcome her, she "slides"into another person's mind and sees the world through their eyes for a little while.  Which is how she knows that her sister's friend, Sophie, didn't kill herself--she was occupying the killer's mind and saw the knife.  But of course how can she possibly go to the police with this information?  So instead of blocking these slides she tries to encourage them, hoping to learn more.  When there's another "suicide" at the high school, Vee knows she has to work even faster if she wants to prevent the killer from striking again.  Along the way we get a cast of suspects, a budding relationship with the new boy in town, and new insight both into her father's life and her best friend's life.  A little learned empathy is never a bad thing, right?

This book reminds me largely of a book from earlier this year--Clarity by Kim Harrington--and the denouement in this book is fairly similar.  Although this book is for a slightly older audience, fans of one will enjoy the other.

I was never personally convinced of the "sliding", and I could see the ending coming from a good ways off.  But I think younger teens in particular will respond well to this book. Overall, though, I think this book will find an eager audience, even if it's not my cup of tea.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith is light and sweet and a little something more, and I mean that in a good way, not damning with faint praise.  It's the story of seventeen year old Hadley Sullivan and how four minutes changed everything in her life.  She's supposed to be on a plane to London where her father is getting remarried to a woman she's never met, but instead she gets into a fight with her mom and is running late by just four minutes. She's put on the next flight, seated next to sweetly funny Oliver, and what starts off as the worst day of her life turns out to be, well, surprisingly awesome.  After their plane lands in London, Oliver and Hadley are just smitten enough with each other and know just enough personal information to be able to track each other down later in the day, with surprising results.

Hadley starts off as a typical teen, self-absorbed and unable (or maybe just unwilling) to see her parents as anything other than their relationship to her, but by the end of the novel (which takes place in just 24 hours) she's able to see them as adults who have lives and interests and priorities beyond being her Mom and Dad.  And she realizes that while she may not have a say in their life choices (much less like them), she *can* choose how to react to their decisions, and that maybe forgiveness is a good place to start, both with herself and her new family.

So no, this isn't an exciting do-or-die adventure, nor is it a romance for the ages, or full of angsty vampires.  It's simply a good story, well-told, replete with first love and second chances.  Teens who like Maureen Johnson's novels or who are looking for realistic fiction that's not Gossip Girls/The Clique will enjoy this book a good bit and I wouldn't be surprised if there were a movie in the works soon. 

NB: I read both of these books in ARC form, courtesy of our publishers' sales reps.  The former releases from Harper in 4/12 and the latter releases from Hachette in 2/12. 

10 September 2011

Book (P)Review: Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

About a month ago I received a manuscript from Wendy Sheanin at Simon & Schuster called Carry the One, written by Carol Anshaw.  Not familiar with the author, but trusting in Wendy's judgment, I placed it very near the top in my stack of books-to-read-soon.  Work has been very busy for me lately, for though I started this book one week ago, I only finished it last night.  I've rarely dog-eared a book this much in my life!  It seems like every other page I was stopping to admire the prose or pausing to mull over the author's insights. 

A disparate group of twenty-somethings, bound alternately by family, love, or lust, drives off into the night after a wedding--a little high, a little drunk, a little hazy with sleep--and a little girl must pay for their bad judgment with her life.  As the novel follows the wedding-goers through the next few decades, their lives riddled with guilt and recrimination, three siblings search for meaning  (and, perhaps, redemption) in vastly different ways: through art, social justice, and addiction. Along the way, Anshaw demonstrates she's at equal ease descending into the maelstrom of drugged delirium as she is scaling the heights of the grander moment of human existence.  In short, she's brilliant at making these flawed and damaged characters compulsively readable and real. 

I've included some of my dog-eared passages here.  Some are insightful, some are great descriptions, and some are just plain eerie because of how well she nails humanity's impulses, both low and high:

p. 31 "They all watched him go down.  Everyone was tacitly deferring to some universal law that, while his daughter lay in the hospital morgue, a father was allowed to punch out the guy lounging around in the wedding dress."

p.133, at a a traditional hammam in Paris: "They [the bathers] came in an amazing variety of sizes, from cigaratte-thin women to women larger than any Carmen had ever seen.  Women who, when naked, looked like giant soft-serve sculptures, their bodies great, graduated overlapping fountains of flesh."

p. 171, where siblings Nick and Alice are eating dinner out: "He picked up his menu and scrutinized it for a  long time.  Whatever he'd loaded up on in the john was kicking in, he had pumped up from cold to hot, dropped from agitated to dreamy. He sat a while without speaking.  When he finally said something, what he said was 'coconut.' Like this counted as conversation, or he had just taken conversation to some higher plane where everything was encrypted and compressed. While Alice was still working the old-fashioned way with sentences."

p. 211, Carmen on September 11, 2001 "By mid-afternoon, Carmen was sifting the text for the subtext...Pretty soon, they'll get the President ready for his close-up to congratulate us for being Americans.  This huge unprecedented, unmanageable mess, all the complexity behind it--they're already starting to manage it. They're making theater out of pure horror so we can watch the unwatchable and then get back to the mall."

06 September 2011

Literary Tees: Look Good and Do Good, All at Once

Usually I cannibalize my personal blog to find tidbits to post on my store blog, A Reading Odyssey, but this time it's the other way 'round.  What follows is a post I wrote up yesterday for the store blog, but I'm sure many of my fellow bloggers and blog-readers would be interested in these great t-shirts, too!

 So... if you're a local Odyssey shopper, you've probably noticed that the long lines and high-energy buzz that come with textbook rush have returned.  That's right--it's back to school time for Mount Holyoke College!

Which also means it's that time of year when we introduce new product lines into the store.  And the one I'm most excited about right now is from the Out of Print Clothing Company.  They have created a line of t-shirts that feature the original dust jacket of many works of classic literature, both new and old.  And what's more, for every t-shirt that our store sells, the company will donate a book to a community in need.  So you get to look great and feel great, all in one!  I'm already the proud owner of the lovely Pride & Prejudice tee (don't you love the peacock?) and I'm pretty sure that A Clockwork Orange will be making its way to my house soon, too.  Another cool thing is that most designs come in both men's and women's sizing, so if you like a slim silhouette for your tees, we've got you covered.

See a design you like but we don't carry yet?  Leave a comment here or post on our Facebook page and the next time we order, we'll try to get it.

And if you're a reader or follower of As the Crowe Flies, I'd love to take an informal survey and ask you which designs from this company do *you* think are the best?  Which ones should we carry at our store? 

05 September 2011

Book Review: Strangers at the Feast

Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.  Because I seem to have gotten myself not only on an advance access reading list from Simon & Schuster, but on their mailing list for finished copies of books, too.  About a month ago I received a copy of Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes from the good folks at Scribner, along with a copy of The Hundred Foot Journey (reviewed here), which makes me suspect that it might be a mailing list catering to bookclubs. 

I barely remember seeing this book in hardcover when it was published last year and I don't think I really knew anything about it, but when I picked up the paperback I was mildly intrigued to read the synopsis: On Thanksgiving Day 2007, as the country teeters on the brink of a recession, three generations of the Olson family gather.  While the Olsons navigate the tensions and secrets that mark their relationships, seventeen-year-old Kijo Jackson and his best friend Spider set out from the nearby housing projects on a mysterious job.  Little does either party know that their paths are about to cross in fateful ways. 

While this book doesn't go as far in certain directions as I was hoping for, Vanderbes does a very neat job linking up the antecedent and postcedent storylines for each character. It's mostly a story of race, wealth, and privilege, the restrictions of class and gender, the politics of war, and family ties that are so twisted that there's no hope of unraveling them.  Much of it is heartbreaking in its unflinching realities, and knowing in the end that the real "perps" don't get any comeuppance is both revealing and extremely uncomfortable, at least for this reader.

Some of the passages that I turned down while reading:

From one of Kijo's chapters: "From the decorations around the house, it was hard to tell who Grandma Rose thought more highly of: Jesus or Elvis Presley.  Jesus hing in the bathroom, kitchen, living room, and Kijo's room, but not in Grandma's bedroom.  A signed photo of Elvis sat propped o her nightstand beside a photo of her late husband.  A framed Elvis album hung over her bureau.  Kijo figured Jesus probably wouldn't like the lady friends who sometimes stayed the night" (184).

From one of Eleanor's (the matriarch of the Olson clan) chapters: "But Eleanor did no believe in complaining.  She merely sat with Marybeth and other friends in one of their living rooms, reminiscing about the days they wore miniskirts--oh, how Eleanor had loved showing off her legs.  The days when waiters promptly appeared at their tables and flirted.  When salesgirls eyed their pocketbooks and asked, eagerly, how they could be of help.  When they opened magazines and turned on televisions and recognized their beautiful trim selves.

But Eleanor waved away any regret: she had been a wife, a mother. She had done wonderful and important things.  How could she be sad that the world didn't congratulate her for what was a reward in and of itself? "

01 September 2011

Last Month in Review: August 2011

Oh, summer, how I will miss you!  August always feels like the month of the last hurrah, doesn't it?  But this time around, at least, it was a pretty productive reading & listening month for me.

1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  Great novel, to which I give the "Least Expected to Love" award; review here

2. Pie Town by Lynne Hinton.  I guess I wanted this to be a cross between the movie Waitress and the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.  Guess I was terribly wrong 'cause I could hardly get through it.

3. The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins (unabridged audio).  I wouldn't have ordinarily chosen to read this book, but a friend had the audio and let me borrow it.  Glad I listened, but it scares me to think about the high percentage of people worldwide who give no credence to evolution.

4.  The One and Only Stuey Lewis by Jane Schoenberg.  This is a funny and delightful early chapter book for readers in the 7-10 range.  I'm very proud for my friend Jane because USA TODAY just picked it as a top book for back-to-school reading. 

5.  Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan.  Wow, this book really surprised me with how good it was.  Three generations of women in one family, figuratively duking it out one summer at the Maine shore.  Lots of Catholic guilt and complications and bizarrely knotted family ties.

6.  Bossypants by Tina Fey (audio).  I've never watched her TV shows and really only knew her from her Sarah Palin impressions, but I enjoyed this audio book.  Mostly because she read it herself, and as you probably already know, Ms. Fey is a very funny woman.

7.  Bumped by Megan McCafferty.  YA book about teen pregnancy for profit.  Review here

8-10.  The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard Morais, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, and The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison, reviewed together here

11. The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer Smith.  A sweet and fun YA novel. 

12. The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar.  Beautiful novel from one of my favorite writers.  Book is forthcoming in early 2012, my review is forthcoming a bit sooner than that.

13.  The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth.  A YA book dealing with a teenage girl's coming out and the lack of understanding in her insular, religious community, forthcoming in early 2012. Review here

A few stats: 2 audio, 2 nonfic, 4 YA/younger readers.  Interesting to me that the two non-fic were also the audio books this month.  Guess that's as good a way as any to boost my nonfiction "reading."