15 March 2013

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Readalong: Better Late Than Pregnant

Okay, so I've been lurking for these last four weeks 'cause work has been busy and I've had to travel to Kansas City and interview candidates for a job opening at my store. Oh, and also my computer died, which means it's hard to budge my husband off of his computer, which he uses for work, just because I want to look up Snape gifs.

All of which basically adds up to my sadness at being unable to participate in Alice's HP Readalong. But because I don't want to be the only kid not playing in the sandbox this week, I'm joining in for a belated post covering both GoF and some of the greatest HP fanfiction you've never read.

If we're going to get technical about it, I haven't read GoF for this post. I last read it a few years ago and last listened to it about two years ago, so the finer points aren't exactly fresh in my mind. Thus I will just say two things:
(1) I cried buckets the first time I read about Harry & Voldemort's duel and then I was emotionally wrung out to the point where I couldn't enjoy my visit with my then-partner.  Too bad, as he was living in Louisville for the semester and I only got to see him once every 4-5 weeks.  
(2) I read a first printing of the book, where there is a tremendous editing gaffe in the end, where James emerges from the end of Harry's wand before Lily does.  I was torn between indignation for such a terrible gaffe and wanting to believe that it held important textual significance. 
What about y'all?  Any of you read a first printing, either US or UK or Canadian or Australian? And did it totally mess you up to see Lily and James emerge in the wrong order?

Oh, wait, I have to say a third thing.
(3) Snape. Can you imagine the kind of bravery it must have taken him to go back to Voldemort two hours later, and what kind of torture he must have endured to prove to Voldemort that he wasn't the Death Eaters who had left him forever?  It makes me shiver just thinking about it, and not just because I read fan fiction. He had to have known he was facing death and that only tremendous luck and occlumency could save him. And poor Dumbledore, to know that he was asking that of Snape. I like to think that when Snape returned from his meeting with the newly-recreated Voldemort that Dumbledore did some extra dumblin'. I know I sure would have. 

Anyway...on to the fanfiction discussion.  Harry Potter fanfiction has existed almost as long as Harry Potter, but it really exploded between the releases of books four and five, a period of time known as the "three year summer." That's when I discovered fanfiction for the first time, and may I just say that in my world there has never been a better procrastination tool than reading HP fanfiction.

My very favorite pairing is Hermione/Snape.  Now, don't get all ewwwww on me. Fanfiction is about being open to the unexpected. The very best Hermione/Snape stories, IMO, are the ones penned by Anna on Witchfics: She has written a trilogy that surpasses all other fanfic I've read, with really good writing (much better writing than JKR's, actually), great plotting, and some pretty fabulous lemony bits. ("Lemony bits" is fanfiction speak for smut. Don't ask me why. Google it for yourself.)

There's also the great site dedicated solely to Snape/Hermione fic called Ashwinder.  The site ranges in quality from the terrible to the sublime, but one really fun one is called His Draught of Delicate Poison, written by Subversa, playing off the Marriage Law meme and loosely based on the wonderful Georgette Heyer novel, The Grand Sophy. It's funny and plot-filled and with some fun original characters, but not especially lemony. More like lemon-scented.

My second favorite pairing is Harry/Draco. Yeah, I've got a Slytherin thing, for sure. The very best Draco/Harry fics are no longer available on the internet.  They were penned by a woman named Maya, who is actually Sarah Rees Brennan, and once Rees Brennan published her first real book, she pulled  all of her fanfic from the interwebs. She made it available for a one time download, which I availed myself of, but my computer has since died and those stories are now irretrievable.  I would pay good money to get my hands on them again.  Seriously.  Contact me if you have these stories and I will make it worth your while.

Then there are those stories that, overall, are too wordy or meandering to be good in their entirety, but which have wholly interesting bits that I go back and read occasionally.  One of them features Harry/Snape and it's called The Mirror of Maybe by Midnight Blue--this writer created the concept of wizarding tattoos and Life Ink, and the scenes where Harry is getting inked, and later when he shares  his tattoos with Snape, are great.  Harry is also a tremendously good DADA teacher in this story.

Guess that's about it for now.  So, yeah, back to GoF:

Just kidding.  I meant back to Snape. And by that, I mean I'm finished here.  My husband needs his computer back. 

13 March 2013

Book Review: If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Consider this:

1. Homosexuality is illegal in Iran.
2. Gender reassignment surgery is paid for by the government in Iran.
3. Sahar and Nasrin are two girls who live in Iran.
4. They are also in love with each other.

Leave it to Algonquin, one of my favorite literary presses, to launch their new line of books for younger readers with a novel like If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan.  Nothing like a nice, safe, book that is sure to be a crowd pleaser, right?  No, in fact I salute Algonquin for picking a book like this; it's not often that we see so many layers of non-traditional protagonists in one book: Sahar is not white, nor is she is heterosexual, nor of a Judeo-Christian heritage.

Sahar narrates the story from a first person, present tense point of view.  She and Nasrin are in love and have been since they were little girls. They sneak kisses and caresses behind closed doors until the terrible day that Sahar learns that Nasrin's parents have arranged her marriage to a suitable man. Lucky for Sahar, she can confide the burden of her secrets to her cousin Ali, himself a mover & shaker in the underground gay community, and he introduces her to Parveen, who has undergone gender reassignment surgery.

 From the moment Sahar meets Parveen, her driving thought is to follow in her footsteps so that she can marry Nasrin, and like many teens, she is completely heedless of the consequences that might follow such an action. All she can think about is Nasrin and not being separated from her; it never crosses her mind that Nasrin might not continue to love her in a man's body, much less than being in love with somebody at the age of 17 isn't a good enough reason to undergo such a medically and psychologically intense process.

Alas, Nasrin never seemed worth it to me. In the same breath that Sahar tells the reader how much she loves Nasrin, she inevitably shares a story that demonstrates how shallow, self-involved, and unconcerned with academic achievements Nasrin is.  I never was able to understand what it was about Nasrin that made Sahar want to forsake her life as she knew it for this other girl, other than her beauty and popularity. Maybe that's the author slyly playing with the idea of teen love, hinting that it can only ever be in the eyes of the beholder? Perhaps, but that would imply a level of sophistication that is otherwise not present in the novel.

There are some interesting minor characters here, including her cousin Ali, but also Nasrin's betrothed (who pops up later in a twist I admit I didn't see coming) and a pair of prostitutes who pose as a mother/daughter team. I would have very much enjoyed seeing more of all of these characters, as I cetainly found them more compelling than Nasrin, and even, occasionally, Sahar. The book is fairly slight--it's a small trim size with generous margins and fewer than 250 pages--so it's a shame that it wasn't fleshed out a little better.

Though I greatly admire the author for tackling difficult issues, I wish she would have developed them more. While these issues are certainly worthy of a teen or adult novel, the handling of said issues feels more like a middle grade novel--lacking the depth and nuance that I have come to expect from finer young adult writers. The first person, present tense (or the present pernicious, as my friend Rob calls it) does not do the book any favors, either.  It is the least sophisticated POV, in my opinion, and a 3rd person narrative could have done wonders for allowing the author to show more from Nasrin's perspective rather than simply to tell the reader certain things, which is how the novel plays out.

Still, I applaud Sara Farizan and Algonquin for producing a novel that is sure to make some young readers think about their world in a new way, including many things they take for granted, and I look forward to more of Farizan's work.  If she reacher her potential and creates novels as substantive as her topics are, she will certainly be a force to be reckoned with.

NB: I read an ARC of the book that I picked up at Winter Institute. Algonquin Young Readers will launch its new line with this YA novel at the end of August of this year. 

12 March 2013

Audio Book Review: Three Junes by Julia Glass

It's amazing to me the difference between reading a book and listening to that book. A good reader can elevate a not-so-great book, while a poor reader can make a great book seem tedious. In this specific case, I'm not sure I can explain the difference between my two experiences with Julia Glass's National Book Award-winning Three Junes, as both the book and the reader are good, but I suspect it's all down to two things: I am a more discerning reader now than I was ten years ago when the book was published, and books resonate more strongly at certain times than others.

My memory may be a bit faulty, but when I first read this book, I apparently never read the jacket copy, as I recall expecting this book to be about multiple women named June.  It's not.  Here's the lowdown, courtesy of the publisher:

In June of 1989 Paul McLeod, a newspaper publisher and recent widower, travels to Greece, where he falls for a young American artist and reflects on the complicated truth about his marriage.  
Six years later, again in June, Paul's death draws his three grown sons and their families back to their ancestral home. Fenno, the eldest, a wry, introspective gay man, narrates the events of this unforeseen reunion. Far from his straitlaced expatriate life as a bookseller in Greenwich Village, Fenno is stunned by a series of revelations that threaten his carefully crafted defenses.  
Four years farther on, in yet another June, a chance meeting on the Long Island shore brings Fenno together with Fern Olitsky, the artist who once captivated his father. Now pregnant, Fern must weigh her guilt about the past against her wishes for the future and decide what family means to her. 

My first impression after listening to the first few tracks of the audio was, "Why the hell is the book being narrated in a Scottish accent?" I'd forgotten that family in question was Scottish, but it still surprised me that the non-dialogue parts were read in the accent.  It took a little getting used to, and on at least one occasion it required listening to certain words or phrases more than once to understand them. To wit: when Paul is visiting Greece, somebody starts talking to him about the "dunkies," or so I thought.  I had no idea what dunkies were, and it was only later in context that I realized that the character was actually talking about donkeys.

I'm ashamed to say that I could not identify how real the narrator's accent is, but he switched back & forth with relative ease between American and Scottish accents (to be honest, they all sounded a little bit faked to me. Faked well, but faked). There were only a few muddied passages where the dialogue switched quickly between characters and the narrative and it was difficult to distinguish who was speaking because the accents became conflated.  John Keating really did a great job of reading this audio, and there were times when it was his storytelling, rather than the story itself, that moved me to tears, although of course sometimes it was both.

My favorite section of the book was Fenno's, though I also really liked the first section that focused on his father, while the last section left me feeling mostly lukewarm. I think it's an interesting choice on any writer's part to impart more knowledge to the reader than to the characters, and I think that's what frustrated me most about the last section. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, in terms of what unfolded between Fenno and Fern, but it never happened.

While I remember liking this book when I first read it (I'd given it a 3* rating on Goodreads, for example), I kind of fell in love with the book while listening to it.  There are some seriously gorgeous passages that for whatever reason didn't jump out at me the first time I read it--of course, I can't quote them here because I was driving while listening to the book this time around. This is a mighty fine novel and I'm so glad that I decided to buy it on audio when I saw it at my local record store for $5.  I've since upped my Goodreads rating to 4*, and if I had liked the last section as much as I liked the first two, it might even have earned 5*.

What about you?  Have you had different reactions to the same book when reading it in different formats or when encountering it at different times in your life? 

11 March 2013

Book Review: The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley

When I first heard about this novel several months ago when I was deciding which new winter '13 fiction titles my store should carry, I thought the promise sounded interesting: Elle falls off a ladder and hits her head, causing severe brain trauma, so her devastated husband, Matt, has to make the call to take her off life support.  But wait! Blood work shows that Elle is, in fact, pregnant, so Matt decides to keep Elle on life support until the baby can be born. But wait, part deux! Elle's mother-in-law produces a piece of paper saying dating from two decades ago that says she is Elle's health care proxy, and that she is going to take Elle off life support (acto her advanced health directive), because Elle's wishes should outweigh everything else. Mother is thus pitted against son in this modern medical feud.

Sounds intriguing, no?

Well, if you're a savvier reader than I am, then you will have already anticipated the immediate direction the book takes once the conflict between Matt and his mother arises. I, however, was entirely too naive to anticipate the political melee that broke out, with the militant pro-lifers backing Matt's position and vilifying his mother.  Matt's attorney agrees to take the case because he is eager to set precedent in this arena, heavily hinting that he would love to be one of those people credited with overturning Roe v. Wade.

I almost stopped reading at that point, as I wasn't at all interested in spending the next several hours of my free time immersed in the vitriol that marks this issue, and I certainly didn't want to immerse myself among characters who want to defeat one of the single biggest victories in the women's movement.  No, indeed! Then I had second thoughts; I didn't really know how the book would end, so I decided to stick with it. I had a good idea that the book wouldn't be for me, but I also thought that it was a book I could probably sell and therefore finishing the book would not equate to time wasted.

My biggest issue with the story, and one that I thought was a pretty gaping hole in the plot, was Matt's general disinterest in the unborn child.  He never really gives any indication that he wants to keep Elle alive so that he can be a father to that child, or that so he can still have a tie to Elle after she dies.  He mostly wants to keep Elle on life support because she was desperate to have a child--desperate to the point of being willing to risk her health in order to carry one to term after several miscarriages. Matt is a neurology surgeon and he never indicates that he is the type of person who would be willing to put his life on hold in order to raise a child by himself.  What's more, the hospital didn't realize Elle was pregnant when she arrived via ambulance, so she was pumped full of meds, then put on general anesthesia in a surgical last-ditch attempt to save her.  Goodness only knows how the trauma and the drugs would impact the fetus.

So yeah, I never quite bought into the fact that Matt wanted to be a parent to this baby that, in all likelihood, would be born with all kinds of health issues, if it even lived to term at all.  And since he was perfectly prepared to take Elle off life support before discovering her pregnancy, it was a pretty big sticking point in my being able to read the book at face value.

Looking beyond Matt, though, there were some real complications on both sides of the story, and everybody who knew Elle wants to have their say.  Each family member draws lines: Elle's dad takes Matt's side, Elle's brother sides with Matt's mom. Even Elle's old lover from college shows up with an advance directive that is several years old, from when he and Elle were working for NASA in Texas: this is key, because Texas state law overrides a woman's right to be removed from life support if she is pregnant. It's a big brouhaha all over.

This definitely wasn't the book for me, but I have a pretty good idea the kinds of readers who would: those who love Jodi Picoult, Kristin Hannah, Nicholas Sparks and other issue-driven romances. I will say that I appreciated the author's choice to tell the book from a single point of view (Matt's, via a first person narrative) rather than resort to Picoult's style of using different narrators (and, ugh, different typefaces for each one). I've not read a ton of books by Picoult, Hannah, or Sparks, so this may be grossly generalizing, but I also felt that Sibley's book was slightly more nuanced than those works.  I know several family members, friends, and/or customers who will like this book, I feel.

NB: William Morrow published this book as a paperback original in February of this year. I read an ARE provided to me at my request from my sales rep.

07 March 2013

Book Revew: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

For my job, I receive books every day with an editor's letter tucked inside, exhorting the 101 reasons why I should read that particular book.  (Why, yes, I do love my job. Thanks for asking.)  But what I do not receive every day is a book with letters from ten different editors around the world, exhorting the 1,001 reasons why I should love this book, and that's the first thing that made me sit up and take notice about Ruth Ozeki's new novel, A Tale for the Time Being. The ARC that Viking sent out included notes from editors in the US, UK, Canada, Spain, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Australia, Greece, and the Netherlands. I had not read Ozeki before, but I thought, "A-ha, clearly this is a book to be reckoned with."

And I was right.  Mostly I just want to heap superlatives on this book, but I'll try to tell you a bit about what the book is about, though that will be tricky.  Like the quantum physics that infuse (infuses? Is the word "physics" singular or plural?) the story, it's a book that alters as one reads and observes. Because a summary would be too complicated, I'm going to borrow the publisher's own marketing blurb here:
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.
Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Nao has become one of my favorite narrators in literature.  She is very much in the vein of Midori from Haruki Murakami's novel, Norwegian Wood, which is to say she's bubbly, bright, and annoying-but-endearing. Her father is suicidal, and the cruelties she endures at the hands of her classmates (shockingly, with the tacit permission of her teacher) make every American YA novel about bullying look like a bonny good time. It's no wonder that she wants to follow in her father's footsteps and try to end it all.  Yet she has this wonderfully indomitable spirit and sense of humor that juxtaposes in a fascinating way with her avowed fate.

Jiko, Nao's great-grandmother, is also a terrific character. Though there are some secrets she has guarded all of her life, she serves mostly as Nao's sole source of stability and as such, she guides her in the way of  Zen Buddhism. Nothing Nao says or does can offend or surprise her, despite Nao's best efforts.

With the character of Ruth, Ozeki starts to break down fiction's fourth wall. Character Ruth splits her time between New York and an isolated island in the Pacific northwest, just like Author Ruth. Character Ruth is a practicing Buddhist novelist, just like Author Ruth. And the similarities go on.... Ruth (the character) is something of a Japanese scholar trying to defeat a bad case of writer's block, so her obsession with Nao's found diary becomes a way for her to sublimate her anxiety. Her husband is a quantum physics-quoting botanist, so there's that, too.

Top all of that off with the fact that Nao's diary excerpts as they appear in the book are amply footnoted for the benefit of a non-Japanese audience, and that the footnotes are attributed to Ruth--but is it Character Ruth or Author Ruth? It's hard to tell sometimes, and that's the whole point, I think.

I love the opening lines to Nao's first section. They put me a little bit in mind of the Emily Dickinson poem, "I'm Nobody!Who Are You":
My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.
A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you're reading this, then maybe by now you're wondering about me, too (p. 4).
I also love this: "I don't mind thinking of the world without me because I'm unexceptional, but I hate the idea of the world without old Jiko. She's totally unique and special, like the last Galapagos tortoise or some other ancient animal hobbling around on the scorched earth, who is the only one left of its kind. But please don't get me going on the topic of species extinction because it's totally depressing and I'll have to commit suicide right this second" (25).

And this bit about Nao's time living with Jiko at the temple:
They bowed and thanked the toilet and offered a prayer to save all beings. That one is kind of hilarious and goes like this: As I go for a dump/I pray with all beings/that we can remove all filth and destroy/ the poisons of greed, anger, and foolishness.
At first I was like, No way am I saying that, but when you hang out with people who are always being supergrateful and appreciating things and saying thank you, in the end it kind of rubs off, and one day after I'd flushed, I turned to the toilet and said, "Thanks, toilet," and it felt pretty natural. I mean, it's the kind of things that's okay to do if you're in a temple on the side of a mountain, but you'd better not try it in your junior high school washroom, because if your classmates catch you bowing and thanking the toilet they'll try to drown you in it. I explained this to Jiko, and she agreed it wasn't such a good idea, but that it was okay just to feel grateful sometimes, even if you don't say anything (167).
That gives you a pretty good flavor for Nao's narrative sections, equal parts earnestness and impishness. There is so much that is extraordinary about this book, but I fear I'm not doing it justice.  I think I will close with the blurb that I wrote up for Publisher's Weekly Galley Talk, as sometimes it's easier to say more with fewer words:

Zen philosophy and quantum physics blend seamlessly in Ozeki’s brilliant new work of metafiction, where sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the author’s attempts to build up and break down the fourth wall. Or as Jiko, the wise and wizened Buddhist nun from the book might say, “to raise or to raze, they are the same.” Jiko’s calm, hard-earned acceptance of contradictions contrasts brilliantly with the life of her great-granddaughter, Nao, a bullied schoolgirl with a suicidal father, adrift in a sea of emotions she is incapable of navigating. When Ruth, on the opposite side of the Pacific, discovers Nao’s diary among the post-tsunami flotsam and jetsam, she becomes obsessed with Jiko’s and Nao’s stories—to the point where she’s convinced that solving the diary’s puzzles will ease her restlessness and dissolve her writer’s block.  I’ve rarely encountered a novel that has made me think about our world quite as much as this one has, where distance and time are mutable depending on the observer, and what is a reader if not the ultimate observer? Ozeki’s novel feels, impossibly, both timeless and utterly of our time, but I suspect that might be the hand of Jiko guiding me. 

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book, provided to me by my sales rep, which Viking publishes on March 13, 2013.

06 March 2013

Book Review: Parallel by Lauren Miller

Book tagline: Your path changes. Your destiny doesn't.  

I picked up a copy of Lauren Miller's new YA novel, Parallel, as my airplane read on the way to Kansas City last week.  I "test-drove" the first two chapters at home just to make sure it was readable and away I went.  I can't recall precisely what it was that drew me to this book many weeks ago, other than I was hoping for a quick read and a disposable one, as it was my plan to leave the book behind in my hotel room to make room for the dozens more I would be picking up at Winter Institute.  But something in this book stayed with me and I brought it back home with me to review.

Because this book is a little tricky to summarize, I'll commandeer the publisher's promo copy: 
Abby Barnes had a plan. Get into a great college, major in journalism, and land her dream job at a major newspaper. But on the eve of her 18th birthday, she's stuck on a Hollywood movie set instead, wishing she could rewind her life. But the next morning, she’s in a dorm room at Yale, with no memory of how she got there. A collision of parallel worlds has left Abby living a new reality every time her younger parallel self makes a new decision. Forced to live out the consequences of a path she didn't choose, Abby must let go on her plans for the future and learn to focus on the present, without losing sight of who she is, the boy who might just be her soul mate, and the destiny that’s finally in reach. 
I'm probably dating myself, but this book reminded strongly of the movie Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, in which the main character's life splits into two futures for the audience: what would have happened if Gwyneth's character had reached the subway train in time on a particular day and what would have happened if she hadn't. The movie hints that the end result would have been the same, at least in terms of her career and relationship, but one path was filled with more heartache and trouble than the other. 
Fact, they should be called The Fetals.
With Abby, it comes down to colliding parallel worlds.  [Cue INXS's Two Worlds Collided].  One day in her senior year in high school there is an earthquake that rocks the entire world, not just her immediate area of Atlanta, GA. Turns out that those tremors felt 'round the world was an instance of two parallel universes touching each other, and her life from that moment onward takes two drastically different directions: in one life she lands in college, but in another life she's the ingenue of a big blockbuster film. THANK GOODNESS in one of her lives, she lands in the astronomy class taught by a world-reknown theoretical physicist who was laughed out of the Ivies for his ridiculous theories of parallel universes.  AM I RIGHT?!  The catch is that, unlike everybody else she knows, Abby seems to be the only person living in the new parallel world who has memories, no matter how vague, of her old life. 

What I thought would turn out to be a simple equation of Chapter Odd Number = This World, Chapter Even Number = That World ended up being a bit more complicated than that, which means the reader really has to pay attention to each chapter header to see when and where Abby is waking up each morning.  You see, instead of having a linear storyline in one world or the other, everything that happens to Abby in World X has an effect on her in World Y, but one year later.  Complicated, no?  There's a reason for this, and it has to do with the earthquakes, but frankly I didn't pay all that much attention to it.  Like books with time travel subplots (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Time Between Us, The Time Traveler's Wife, etc), I tend to just accept it at face value and move on without thinking about it too much, because inevitably the moment I stop to really contemplate the paradoxes, those books fall apart for me. 

I was actually really taken with this book.  It's not high literature or grand adventure, but it's a good story about high school and college, about the choices that we make, and how the repercussions of those choices may stick with us far longer than we anticipated.  It's friendship and jealousy and angst and first love.  It's about what happens when we let go and let God let parallel universes show us that despite their very different outcomes, we are essentially the same person. 

This book was a lot of fun. I can't pretend that it changed my life, but it made a day of travel and one night in a hotel room a lot more enjoyable than they otherwise would have been. The writing was neither so beautiful nor so terrible that it took me out of the story, but there was one point that made me snort, so I'm including it here. The scene: Abby wakes up in bed with the hot college boy she has had a few dates with:
"You're still wearing your shoes," he says, pointing. I am indeed still wearing my shoes. And every other article of clothing I came with, including my jacket and scarf. I think my purse is in the bed somewhere, too. "Were you afraid I'd get the wrong idea?" he asks. I look down at his bare chest and am instantly flustered. Holy pecs 
"It wasn't that," I say quickly. "It's just ..." Every excuse I can think of is creepier than the real reason. "Okay, yeah, I didn't want you to think that just because I was sleeping over, it meant that you and I would ..." Heat creeps up my neck. I can't even say the word without blushing. 
"Well, in the future, if you'd like to remove your outerwear before sleeping, I won't take it as a signal that you're asking for sex." 
I squirm under his gaze, suddenly very uncomfortable with all the sex talk. If you can't handle the sex talk, probably not ready for sex (pp. 274-275).
NB: This book will be published on May 14, 2013, by HarperTeen.  I received a free ARC upon request from my sales rep. 

05 March 2013

Book Review: Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Publisher's marketing says this about Jessica Brockmole's novel, Letters from Skye: A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, [this] atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.

I read this book because it was pitched to me as a good companion to a book I really loved -- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: it's an epistolary novel filled with wartime secrets, crossing the generations, complete with a remote island setting. On the surface, it's an apt comparison.  But where Guernsey is a charming and old-fashioned story, Letters from Skye feels rushed and largely unbelievable. More to the point, the language in the letters, particularly the exchanges up to and during World War I, feel anachronistic in their language. That is, far too modern in their sensibilities and language patterns.  I felt like I was reading a set of contemporary letters, written by contemporary lovers, not something written close to 100 years ago.

Not the worst literary sin in the world, to be sure, but that's not the only one committed here.  I suppose that it's rather the nature of epistolary novels to disobey the "show, don't tell" rule, but there were so many moments of "telling" in this novel that I almost laughed out loud. In order for the reader to know certain segments of the plot, the World War I lovers basically repeat back in letters to each other things they did during their fleeting time together. As someone who once was an avid letter writer, it stretched my credulity to believe that either character would essentially rehash their entire visit like that on paper for the reader's benefit. Additionally, the novel feels fairly two dimensional and predictable and it fails to give a good sense of place, either of Edinburgh or the Isle of Skye, which I think is its greatest crime -- one of the best things about the Guernsey book was the sense of time and location it was able to convey.

Still, I did find the last 50 pages fairly satisfying, and it was undeniably a quick read. If you like your books on the lighter side, if you enjoy romantic and/or historical fiction, and if you're not fussy about anachronistic sensibilities, you just might like this book much better than I did.

NB: This book will be published by Ballantine Books in July 2013 and I read an advance reading copy of it provided by my sales rep.  As the back of the ARC states that the rights for Letters from Skye have already sold in over 20 countries, it may very well be the case that my opinion of this book is in the minority.

04 March 2013

Winter Institute: Kansas City

KC's beautiful Union Station
When was the last time I mentioned here how much I love my job?  (Quite recently, as a matter of fact).

Last week I traveled with co-worker/friend/mentor Joan Grenier to Kansas City for Winter Institute, which is the funnest of all possible fun book conferences to attend. While Kansas City has many, many groovy things going for it, I think even its fiercest apologists must admit that it's not at its best in February. Especially not when it's bookended by blizzards.  (See what I did there? I managed to work something bookish and alliterative into that one sentence fragment.)

Joan and I were among the lucky ones, as we timed our travel day perfectly--missing the storms at both our destination and at home by about 12 hours.  Not only that, but since winter travel can lead to many plane cancellations and airport closings, we specifically chose to fly through Minneapolis.  MSP is a workhorse of an airport--they don't close for a little snow, wind, or ice AND it's a comfortable and beautiful place to spend a few hours, should your destination airport wimp out and delay flights into it.

Festivities began that Friday night at a cocktail reception in Union Station, a truly beautiful space and one which we could reach via the elevated and sheltered walkway from the hotel. We mingled about, chatted, drank, reconnecting with old bookseller friends and making new ones.

We spent Saturday and Sunday attending various plenary addresses and breaking up into smaller groups for educational sessions and networking.  On Saturday over lunch we got the first of two "rep picks," which are essentially speed dating sessions. We, the readers, sit down and eat while sales reps from six different publishers have 15 minutes to tell us about their favorite books being published this spring and summer. One of the other highlights of Winter Institute is the author reception on Sunday night, where for two hours, about 40 (or so) authors lined the perimeter of a big ballroom and we could stand in line to meet whichever ones we wanted AND get free books signed.  You'd think that after more than 15 years in the biz that I would be a bit jaundiced, but that's not the case.  This was the fifth Winter Institute that I attended, which means I have a finely honed strategy now. I offer it up here for your own edification:
(1) Line up near the door while you're waiting for the ballroom to open.
(2) Study the layout of the ballroom and which authors are located at which tables while you wait.
(3) When the doors open, make a beeline for the Rock Star authors, as their lines will be longest.  Do NOT pause for booze and/or food. Basically, if you want to get a book signed by Sherman Alexie or Dave Eggers AND you still want time to meet other authors, do those lines first.
(4) There will be lots of authors with nobody at their table waiting in line. This is sad, but there will be time for you to stop at almost all of those authors' tables after you get your Rock Star signatures.
(5) If you must fortify yourself with booze or food, just grab & go as you cross the ballroom from one author line to another. Try to grab foods that won't leave grease stains on your books. For the last two years they've had some pretty amazing madeleines on offer--these are perfect.  Two bites will polish off one madeleine. They're light & airy and won't mark your fingers. You don't even really need a napkin.
(6) Above all, make sure you have a commodious book bag so that you always have one hand free to shake hands, hold a wine glass, proffer a pen or business card, etc. (Maybe this should have been in the #1 spot, eh?)
My hotel room view--love the skating rink and the fairy lights on the trees

Some Rock Star authors like to chat with each person who comes through the line.  While I appreciate this when an author does this in my bookstore with my customers, I would prefer not to wait in line behind 100 other people while the Rock Star author tries to make each one of them feel like a Special Snowflake. I have no idea whether other booksellers feel this way or not, but frankly, I wish there were two lines for those authors: the express line and the Special Snowflake line.

This year I made one crucial mistake: I underestimated the popularity of an unprecedented author + dog signing.  The first time I walked by that table the line was manageable--maybe 5 people, so I ducked into the Dave Eggers line to get a book inscribed to my coworker. By the time I made my way back to that table, the line was substantial and slowly moving. Knowing that I had one worker and one husband to still get books signed for, I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone and just stand in line for a while.  It was worth it, though, because if you like novelty books, dogs, and/or the design aesthetic of Chronicle Books, it's great. If you're like me and you happen to like all three, it's amazing. Here's a shout-out to Sally Brewster from Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC, who enlisted her husband's help to get a second book signed for me, as they were being fairly strict about limiting them to one per customer.

On Saturday, I met up with some folks from Bloomsbury and FSG and some booksellers to walk over to Lidia's for dinner. Gail Godwin, the author of one of my favorite books this spring, Flora, was at the dinner, so I was doubly excited to be invited. The food was excellent and so was the company:
Dick and Ken from Oblong Books and Macmillan
Cristina and Kelly, from Books & Books and Carmichael's 
Author Cathleen Schine and me
For each course, the authors changed tables so that as many booksellers as possible got to speak with them. The thing about these author dinners is that they basically come with a bottomless wine glass.  Once you sit down to eat, it's impossible to know how much you've had to drink because the waitstaff constantly circulate among the tables, topping off everybody's wine.  This is just as well for many reasons, among them being that somebody at the party thought it would be a good idea to insult Southerners in general and people from the hills of western North Carolina in particular, calling them backwards. When I politely inquired what made him say this, he clarified that they were backwards and conservative, and ipso facto ignorant. This, despite the fact that there were people from Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Kentucky, and even North Carolina, right there in the room. So instead of getting into a further exchange, I simply picked up my newly-refilled wine glass, turned away, and began a conversation with the person on my other side. Manners: what has happened to them, I ask you?

(No, the person of whom I speak is not in my photos, and no, I will not name any names. I still haven't even said who is was who sat next to me at the worst author dinner ever.)

The next night was the Algonquin/Houghton co-hosted shindig.  I didn't know what to expect from the Houghton side of things, but I knew from experience that the folks at Algonquin put the fun in funicular, so I was really looking forward to it.  Turns out that they rented a gallery space and asked Arthur Bryant bbq to cater it.

Kelsy from Bank Square Books

The cool loft room that Kelsy and I explored with Jessica from Northshire
Two other favorite authors from the spring lists were there that night, too: Carlene Bauer from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Frances & Bernard and Jill McCorkle from Algonquin for Life After Life. We all went back for extra helpings of the bbq, we tossed back a few local brews, and then it was time for the authors to tell us a bit about their books.  After that, it was time for cupcakes, and I cannot for the life of me figure out what happened to my cupcake photos, but you'll have to take my word that they were gorgeous.  Unfortunately less tasty in practice than theory, but I often find that's the case with cupcakes.
L-R: author Carlene Bauer, me

L-R: me, author Jill McCorkle, Algonquin marketing guru Craig Popelars
Ahh, good times, good times.  Joan and I had to leave Winter Institute early because Delta pre-emptively canceled our flight 48 hours ahead of our departure, so we opted to depart on the last day of the program rather than risk getting delayed in Kansas City. On the downside, we missed the small press author reception and a couple of really productive-sounding educational sessions, but on the upside, we shared a taxi to the airport with author Ruth Ozeki, who wrote yet another of my favorite books this spring, A Tale for the Time Being. Now all I have to do is wait until next year to do it all over again in Seattle!

03 March 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain

NB: I have slightly modified my original review of this book.  I'm more excited than I can express that this book won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and since I said a long time ago that I thought this book would make the 2012-2103 awards circuit, I guess I'm crowing (get it?) about my own premonitions, too.

Summary from my ARC: Told over the course of a single day*--specifically Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, as the Dallas Cowboys take the field--Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the story of Bravo Squad, eight survivors of a ferocious firefight with Iraqi insurgents, whose bravery and and valor have made them national heroes. In the final hours of their Pentagon-sponsored "Victory Tour," Bravo's Silver Star-winning hero, nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn, will confront hard truths about love and death, family and friendship, war and politics, duty and honor.

I feel that in addition to being a fresh and edgy book, this may be an important book. So far it's the only one I've read coming out of the Iraq War that subsumes itself in neither action sequences nor in an overwrought family or romantic drama. This one seems to be just as much about the concept of war itself as the politics behind it and how America feels about it. (Though given the book takes place mostly in Texas, especially Dallas, we're not really given a look at the dissenters' side of things.) 

Billy Lynn is a fascinating character, a boy thrust into the army (in lieu of doing hard time) after taking a crowbar to his sister's ex-fiance's car for gallant but misguided reasons. He's a thoughtful young man, fully aware that the labels of "hero" mean nothing when one's actions are guided neither by bravery nor fear, but simply reactionary to any given situation, including Bravo's famous firefight with the Iraqi insurgents: one day you're the hero and the next day you're cowering under your humvee and refusing to come out. His thoughts are never far away from his imminent return to Iraq, nor from his buddy, Shroom, who died the day Billy was labeled a hero.

Ben Fountain's novel is the first book coming out of the Iraq War (that I've read, at least) that seems willing to say that war is, more than anything else, a commercial enterprise AND an entertainment enterprise. It's difficult not to draw these parallels about the US's involvement in Iraq with, say, the Dallas Cowboys franchise and the oil-steeped politics of the state in which the book is largely set, or the larger-than-life characters we meet, such as the Dallas Cowboys' owner or the man who spends the book negotiating a movie deal for Bravo. War as commercially motivated enterprise, not a political one, isn't a new concept per se, but it goes a long way in increasing this particular reader's distaste for it, because if it's really not about oil, really not about protecting our interests, and really not about freeing a people from their dictator's rule, then it's really not something I can ever understand, or wish to, for that matter.

Karl Marlantes blurbs this book, and he's not a writer whose opinion I take lightly, especially when it comes to the topic of war. He calls it "the Catch-22 of the Iraq war," and with a comment like that, I'm not sure that there's anything more to add.  I'll just conclude with some passages that resonated with me as I read it:

"So they lost Shroom and Lake, only two a numbers man might say, but given that each Bravo has missed death by a margin of inches, the casualty rate could just as easily be 100 percent. The freaking randomness is what wears on you, the difference between life, death, and the horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace on the way to chow, choosing the third shitter in line instead of the fourth, turning your head to the left instead of the right. Random. How that shit does work on your mind (26-27)."

"Those people [movie studios, producers, etc], the kind of bubble they live in? It's a major tragedy in their lives if their Asian manicurist takes the day off. For those people to be passing judgment on the validity of your experience is just wrong, it goes beyond wrong, it's ethics porn. They aren't capable of fathoming what you guys did (57)."

I love this moment between Billy and his sister Kathryn, re: their father:
" 'He's an asshole,' Kathryn said. 
To which Billy: 'You just now figured that out?' 
'Shut up. What I mean is he likes being an asshole, he enjoys it. Some people you get the feeling that can't help it? But he works at it. He's what you'd call a proactive asshole' (75)."

Billy with his nephew on leave:
"Based on his highly limited experience with small children, Billy had always regarded the pre-K set as creatures on the level of not-very-interesting pets, thus he was unprepared for the phenomenal variety of his little nephew's play. Whatever came to hand, the kid devised some form of interaction with it. Flowers, pet and sniff. Dirt, dig. Cyclone fence, rattle and climb. Squirrels, harass with feebly launched sticks. 'Why?' he kept asking in his sweetly belling voice, as pure as marbles swirled around a crystal pail. Why? Why? Why? And Bill answeing every question to the best of his ability, as if anything less would disrespect the deep and maybe even divine force that drove his little nephew toward universal knowledge...So is this what they mean by the sanctity of life? A soft groan escaped Billy when he thought about that, the war revealed in this fresh and grusome light. Oh. Ugh. Divine spark, image of God, suffer the little children and all that--there's real power when words attach to actual things. Made him want to sit right down and weep, as powerful as that. He got it, yes he did, and when he came home for good he'd have to meditate on this, but for now it was best to compartmentalize, as they said, or even better not to mentalize at all (82-83)."

The reader never gets the full picture of exactly what happens to earn the Bravo Squad their Victory Tour back home, but here is one of Billy's ruminations on it: "All your soldier life you dream of such a moment and every Joe with a weapon got a piece of it, a perfect storm of massing fire and how those beebs blew apart, hair, teeth, eyes, hands, tender melon heads, exploding soup-stews of shattered chests, sights not to be believed and never forgotten and your mind simply will not leave it alone. Oh my people. Mercy was not a selection, period. Only later did the concept of mercy even occur to Billy, and then only in the context of its absence in that place, a foreclosing of options that reached so far back in history that quite possibly mercy had not been an option there since before all those on the battlefield were born (125)."

Read this book.  Seriously, just read it. If it doesn't make the award circuit come NBA & NBCC time, I will be grievously disappointed with the state of the world.

01 March 2013

Last Month in Review: February 2013

It hasn't been a great year for me in terms of my reading productivity.  As Goodreads never fails to remind me, at my current pace, I'm at least 2 books behind schedule to complete my year-end goal of 125 books read in 2013. Le sigh. 

Here is where I stand:

1. The Outcast by Sadie Jones. Audio book read by Dan "I play Matthew on Downton Abby" Stevens.  The first book I completed in February was a frickin' audio book, and I didn't finish it until February 11, for goodness' sake. I liked it very much, however, and it wasn't shabby listening to Matthew's voice for several hours during my daily commute. Of course, I finished listening to this before I discovered the terrible things that Julian Fellowes did to Matthew's character in the season finale. 

2. Flora by Gail Godwin.  This is an excellent novel and one that will no doubt make my Top Ten list come year's end. With any luck I will write up a full review, but here's what I wrote up for my bookstore's shelf tag for it: In this novel, Godwin has produced a literary masterpiece of a life told in reflection. Helen, the book’s narrator, looks back in her old age to the summer of 1945, when her cousin Flora moves from Alabama to North Carolina to take care of her. A precocious, moody, and sensitive child, Helen is devastated by her grandmother’s death and her father’s temporary abdication to Oak Ridge for the war effort, but determined to maintain a certain snobbish propriety in the face of Flora’s country ways. Godwin channels the spirits of Jane Austen and Eudora Welty in this brilliant examination of loss-haunted lives, all redolent with Southern atmosphere.

3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling. I've been participating in a complete Harry Potter readalong, sponsored by Alice at Reading Rambo and it's been great fun. 

Really, how can you take this seriously?
4. Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers.  This was a completely over-the-top historical romance/fantasy novel for the YA crowd.  Second installment of the His Fair Assassin trilogy. That's right, the one with the tagline, "Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?" I expected (and was fully rewarded with) a rollicking good time, some girrrrl power, a few interesting historical notes, a good bit of predictability, and nothing approaching realism. Perfect for a day when the snow is softly falling outside. I can't remember the last time 500 pages went by so quickly!

5. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.  Fantastic novel. Not sure if a review is forthcoming or not. 

6. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa.  Creepy collection of short stories.  If you'd told me that this was the same person who wrote the sublimely restrained The Housekeeper and the Professor, I'd have scoffed at you. 

7. Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole.  Very disappointing. I just might write a review.  

8. Parallel by Lauren Miller.  Another YA, with a review to be published here on Sunday, March 3, 2013. 

9. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler.  Review here. Pretty compelling story.  Who knew what a pistol she was?  (Apparently a lot of people and I'm just late to jump on the Zelda bandwagon.)  I was so taken by the character of Zelda that I've ordered a copy of her book and have dabbled in internet research on her life. 

What about you?  What have you read in February that you loved? Hated?