10.28.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
The Devil in the Marshalsea
Tom Hawkins needs to grow up. Three years before Antonia Hodgson's The Devil in the Marshalsea begins, Tom refused to be ordained and ran away to London. Since then, he's been living the life of a gentleman—which he defines when asked as "doing as little as possible." He drinks. He whores. He gambles. He's the despair of his friend, Charles Buckley, and his estranged family. And in the London of 1727, it's only a matter of time before his luck runs out.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and probably before), people could be imprisoned for very small debts. Tom Hawkins owed £20 (which was a fair amount in those days) and all his notes come due. He manages to win enough money to stay out of prison at the card tables, but he's robbed of everything when he's led into the rookeries on the way home. In the morning, Tom is led off to the notorious Marshalsea Prison to wait until someone pays off his debts and gets him out.

Until 1869, when debtors' prisons were abolished, running a prison could be a very profitable racket. Prisoners were charged rent for better rooms and food. Jailers even charged a fee to remove prisoners' chains. It was possible at the time for prisoners to run up even more debt in prison, between the various fees and rents in the prison and sponging-houses. If you couldn't pay any of these, you were tossed over to the "Common Side," where you ran a real risk of dying of disease or starvation before you could be bailed out.* Tom is understandably terrified of ending up on the Common Side.

Just a few days before Tom is imprisoned, another debtor is murdered in the prison. The murderers tried to make it look like suicide, but no one is buying it—especially not the man's widow. Now the murdered man's ghost has been making appearances around the jail and riling everyone up. The jailers are annoyed that all the fuss is cutting into their profits. When Tom befriends (sort of) and bunks up with the murdered man's roommate, the mysterious Samuel Fleet, Tom is given the task of finding out what happened to Captain Roberts in exchange for his freedom. Of course, he has to survive the prison before he can learn anything and everything and everyone around him seems bent on thwarting Tom's efforts.

The Devil in the Marshalsea is a nail-biting mystery. There were times I honestly thought Hodgson was going to kill off her main character because there was no way he could survive the threats and the torture and misery. Tom is such a naif that I wondered that he hadn't landed in prison before this point. His stint in the Marshalsea is a brutal lesson to look out for himself, to question others' motives, and to learn how to find real friends.

The real star of The Devil in the Marshalsea is the prison itself. Hodgson shows a deft hand when displaying the amount of research she did. Historical details are everywhere, but Hodgson never lectures or bogs down the fast-paced narrative. This is the kind of historical fiction I adore.

__________

* Hodgson did a lot of research for The Devil in the Marshalsea, some of which is based on this 1729 report, "A Report from the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the State of Gaols of this Kingdom." The report describes the shocking conditions of the Marshalsea and other prisons of the time.

10.24.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
I normally don't do reviews of books in series after the first one, but the books in Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne are so unique and so terrific that I can't resist telling people around them. This series is a key part of my list of "This Book Will Mess You Up" recommendations.

The Return of the Discontinued Man
In 2202, Edward Oxford is interviewed following his invention of revolutionary scientific devices. The interviewer mentions that an ancestor once tried to assassinate Queen Victoria back in 1837. The thought needles Oxford so much that he drives himself to invent a time travel device to go and talk the ancestor out of it. Once he started popping up in Victorian England, he started influencing history. He sparked advances in steam technology and genetics, a world-ending world war, pissed off human-hating lizards, and thoroughly screwed up the timeline. Sir Richard Francis Burton and his friend, poet Algernon Swinburne, have been fighting Oxford and the side-effects of his time travel for centuries now.

Time is still in flux when we rejoin Burton in one version of 1860 in The Return of the Discontinued Man. Strange version of the original Oxford have started popping up across London, hunting for Burton—but they're not sure why. Meanwhile, Charles Babbage, Daniel Gooch, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel have been working on the various versions of Oxford's time suit to try and figure out how it works. When they switch the machine on for the first time, Burton starts to slide through time. Infinite Babbages are turning on the machine at the same time. Infinite Brunels are disabled in the resultant explosion. Burton himself is sometimes a hero and sometimes a villain in these alternate timelines. His time jaunts are the result of a mysterious and addictive tincture made of a tree that will be familiar to readers of past books.

The first third of the book can be bewildering because of all time jaunts. Once Burton and his allies work out what's going on, Burton comes up with a two-pronged attack on Oxford to stop all this nonsense once and for all (if Hodder allows that to happen, of course). Babbage and Gooch will create a time-traveling ship to take Burton and his party to the future to stop Oxford before he even starts. The other part of the plan is for the members of Burton's Cannibal Club to take the long route through history to provide support along the way.

The ship Burton et al. travel on, the Orpheus, isn't powerful enough to jump all the way to 2202. They make several 54 year jumps. Things aren't so strange in 1914, but 1968 throws them all for a loop. The descendants of the Cannibal Club let the time-traveling team know that Oxford's insanity is still influencing time. Things get even worse in 2022 and worse and worse with each stop. As I read, I could see shades of 1984, Brave New World, and The Time Machine. Oxford's influence, via something called the Turing Fulcrum, have created a monstrous underclass manipulated by drugs and propaganda to work without revolting. The world of 2202 is hellish.

What I love about each one of the entries in the Burton and Swinburne series is that even though they all had the same starting point, they all go in new directions. Hodder is fantastically imaginative. Even though you have no idea how Burton and his friends are going to make it out of this fresh dilemma, Hodder finds a way that startles and entertains.

Too much? I don't care. I love this series.
Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
The Glass Magician
Picking up shortly after the end of The Paper Magician, Charlie Holmberg's The Glass Magician raises the stakes on Ceony Twill and Emery Thane by presenting them with a villain worse than the one Ceony faced down in a cave on the English coast. As if that wasn't bad enough, Ceony is deeply in love with Emery, but the rules of her apprenticeship prevent him from reciprocating.

Ceony and a few of her fellow apprentices were roped into taking a tour of a paper factory, presumably to educate her about the origins of her assigned magical field. It is smelly and loud and boring—at least until a bomb goes off and destroys half the factory. Shortly after, Ceony is surprised by the man who was behind the Excisionist activities the last time they went on the rampage. He wants the secret of how Ceony managed to turn Lira into a frozen statue so that he can undo it. If Ceony gives up the secret, she can save her family, friends, and Emery from a horrific fate.

In The Paper Magician, Ceony turned herself into a hero because there was no one else. Everyone else has given up on Emery when he had his heart stolen, literally. So Ceony stuffed her satchel full of paper, stole a glider, and saved his life. In The Glass Magician, she is forcibly reminded that she's just an apprentice. The grown-ups have closed door meetings to determine how they're going to defeat the Excisionists this time. Ceony can't stand to be shut out. And because the baddie keeps contacting her by mirror and issuing threats, Ceony takes matters into her own hands. Again.

I love this series. It's a pity that I got the first two books in the series all at once (and before The Glass Magician is officially released), because now I have to wait even longer to read the next book in the series.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 4 November 2014.

10.20.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
Starting a series with book three is always a dicey proposition. There might be too much back story for you to figure out what's going on and why characters behave the way they do. Some authors have started to end their books with cliffhangers, making matters worse. The alternative is usually a pages-long information dump at the beginning of a novel that annoys the hell out of series fans and flusters newcomers. Fortunately, S.K. Rizzolo found a middle path. Whether you've been following the John Chase series or came to it new, Die I Will Not will catch you up without overwhelming you.

Die I Will Not
Even though Die I Will Not is a part of the John Chase series, Penelope Wolfe is the star of the novel. Penelope is the wife of a struggling, spendthrift artist. The Wolfe family are currently living in London while Jeremy Wolfe tries to raise interest in his portraiture while Penelope minds the family accounts. Her friend, barrister William Buckler, is trying to attract clients while nursing his unacknowledged love for Penelope. Meanwhile John Chase, a Bow Street Runner, is sticking his nose into cases no one wants him to investigate.

Die I Will Not opens with a woman visiting a newspaper editor in his office and stabbing him, mortally wounding him. The editor was engaged in a battle of words with someone writing under the name "Collatinus." Collatinus was the name Penelope's father used twenty years before to write radical, anti-monarchist, anti-aristocrat letters exposing the follies of the rich and connected. Penelope fears for her family's reputation once this piece of news gets out. The pre-Internet flame war between the editor Dryden Leach and Collatinus threatens to expose even more heinous family secrets.

Penelope, Chase, and Buckler all work to find out what's going on, who murdered who, who the new Collatinus is, and how everything can be kept out of the unregulated newspapers of 1813. Along the way, Rizzolo gives us bourgeoisie parties, street urchins, old conspiracies, illegitimate children, and more. The court scenes in Die I Will Not particularly shine. The trio of protagonists are well drawn, round characters.

I'm not sure if it's because I'm reading book three of the series, but I didn't get a strong sense of the setting of this novel. In mystery series, I've noticed that most of the scene setting happens in the first novels. A lot of the descriptions of places are cursory. Die I Will Not could have been set just about anywhere in the Regency era (1811-1820) or anywhere between 1800 and 1840 if a few names had been changed. Still, the plot and the murder mystery elements of this book are very good.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 4 November 2014.

10.19.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under :
I've been appending that phrase to my official book reviews for a while now. I used to write "a fair review," but I started to over-analyze what I meant by the word. Should I try to include the good and the bad of a book when I mostly hated it? Should I try very hard to find an audience the book might appeal to? So I started saying honest review. I can be honest. I try not to hedge when I have unambiguous feelings about something I read.

"Oh dear god! Chick-lit!"
The reason I'm bringing this all up now is because I just finished listening to the latest episode of Dear Book Nerd, "Book Diplomacy." In this episode, the first two questions had to do with readers who disliked or even hated books they were given by friends. Rita Meade, the host, and her co-host, Dagmara Dominczyk, answered each of these questions with extreme politeness. They offered dozens of white lies the questioners could use to let their gifters know that they didn't like the books without hurting the gifters' feelings.

Yes, I realize this appears to be a fairly ironic topic after my most recent opinion post, "Booksgiving." So it goes, as the man would say. But if you'll stick with me, I can show you that this topic and Booksgiving and my opening paragraph aren't that disconnected from each other.

I encourage book givers to be bold enough to give books they love. They (we) shouldn't get hung up on making sure the book is the perfect choice for someone. If you over-think it, none of us would give (or get) books ever again. But if someone gives you a book you don't like, let them know. You can be polite about it, but I wouldn't invent a series of white lies. You can say to a book giver, "I tried this, but it wasn't for me" or some variation on that. Readers need to be honest.

When I give a book that turns out not to delight the giftee or I get a book that I didn't like, I take comfort the the closest thing to a catechism librarians have: Ranganathan's Five Laws. Here are laws 2 and 3:
Every reader his book.
Every book its reader.
If a book you give doesn't work out or you get a book you don't like, re-gift it. The book (even if it's Twilight) will find someone who loves it. In my experience, books have second, third, or even fourth lives as they change hands.

The upshot of all this is that we readers shouldn't be afraid to form and share our opinions about books. We should talk about why we do and do not like books. We should try new things and avoid reading ruts. Our reading lives should be dynamic.

10.17.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
The Paper Magician
Paper is not a very formidable thing. At least, that's what Ceony Twill things when she's apprenticed to Magician Emery Thane to learn the art of paper folding. She thought she'd have the pick of assignments after graduating at the top of her class from Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined. But if she had become a Smelter like she wished, she would have missed out on the incredible adventure Charlie Holmberg created for her in The Paper Magician.

As a scholarship student, Ceony buried herself in books. She strove to be worthy of the anonymous scholarship that made it possible for her to follow her dream instead of working as a domestic and cook. She doesn't think much of eccentric Thane when she meets him. Of course, she's not inclined to think well of him when she is greeted at his door by a gigantic animated skeleton made of paper. That would disconcert even the keenest apprentice magician. The first few days don't help her warm to Thane, either. But she applies herself and takes to paper magic better than she expected. Still, she wonders what she's supposed to do with pretty bits of paper.

Ceony's test as a magician comes early when an old enemy barges into Thane's house and steals the magician's heart right out of his chest. The other magicians Ceony calls in to help give him up for dead, she grabs a stack of paper, steals a massive paper glider, and travels to the coast to get Thane's heart back. Then the adventure really starts.

The Paper Magician is a magical book in itself. To describe it here would rob it of its charm, so I won't say too much more about Ceony's revelatory journey to get Thane's heart back before the magician dies. Holmberg fully commits to the world she created and it's clear she thought about how much paper could really do against an enemy that can use someone's own blood and body as a weapon. Of course, Ceony also has a clever mind and a fierce determination to go along with her flying birds and confusion spheres and razor sharp paper stars. This is a fun, fast young adult read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots
Jessica Soffer's Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots turns on food and love and regret. Lorca Seltzer has learned to cook because it's the only way she can get her icy mother's approval. But she self-harms when her mother returns to her self-absorption. Victoria Shohet used to run a restaurant with her husband, Joseph, but that was many years ago. For the last few years, she has caring for Joseph as he died of cancer. She is completely lost when he passes.

Lorca and Victoria only meet through chance and a flyer posted by a busy-body neighbor. Lorca is caught cutting herself and school and is suspended. Her mother takes the school's recommendation to send her to a boarding school. But Lorca hopes that if she can make her mother's favorite dish, masgouf, she won't be sent away. It's heartbreaking to watch her struggle for the affections of a deeply selfish woman. With the help of a bookstore worker she has a crush on, Lorca finds the restaurant and the owners. Then she finds a flyer for Iraqi Jewish cooking taught by Victoria (not entirely willingly, because it wasn't her idea). The two connect over the traditional (and delicious sounding) recipes. 

If only it was that easy. If Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots was chick-lit, it would be. The characters would heal over tea and Iraqi cookies. Lorca's mother would realize how awful she's been to her daughter and would make amends. Victoria would come and live with them in a house full of warmth and wonderful smells. But this is not that book. Nothing is ever easy for Lorca or Victoria because they have so many regrets. Lorca frets about her mistakes with her mother. Victoria regrets the daughter she gave up for adoption years ago, which destroyed the growing bond she was building with Joseph. There's too much for them to suddenly get past. 

Tomorrow There Will be Apricots is not an easy book, and that's what I appreciated about it. Though Soffer makes a misstep (I think) by including two flashback chapters narrated by Joseph, this is a well thought out book. It has psychological veracity and depth—enough to make you want to reach through the book and crack fictional skulls, at times. I loved seeing Lorca find affection and validation outside her family. She deserves love from people who can give it without strings for a change. 

10.16.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
Giving people books is a fraught issue among bibliophiles and bookworms. What if they don't like the book? What if they hate a book you loved? What if someone gives you a book you hate? Many episodes of book podcasts I enjoy and blog posts by other readers I follow have been devoted to the ticklish diplomacy necessary for book giving. And yet...I love getting and giving books. So when I see posts like this on Tumblr, I immediately repost with a call to other readers to MAKE THIS HAPPEN:

Until our culture changes enough for casual book giving, we book folk have All Hallow's Read. Neil Gaiman explains:


We used to have World Book Night, but the funding fell through for the American version. World Book Night was a non-profit organization that helped readers share their love of reading with strangers. You could sign up, receive books, and then distribute them anyway they liked. People would leave books on trains or on benches, or just stand on a corner handing them out.

Bookworms and bibliophiles, we need to get over our anxieties. We need to give more books. After all, if we give more books, we'll start getting more books from people. (I'm pretty sure that's in a Beatles' song.) And that's how we'll make offering to buy a book instead of a drink a common practice and make All Hallow's Read bigger and maybe resurrect World Book Night.

10.15.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
Charlie Parker's tale began more than a decade ago, with Every Dead Thing. The private detective has faced more than the usual hazards. After losing his wife and daughter to a serial killer, Parker's cases have grown darker and stranger. In Charlie's world, evil is not just an abstract concept. In Charlie's world, there is such a thing as Evil. And it's starting to run out of places to hide in John Connolly's The Wolf in Winter.

The Wolf in Winter
Prosperous, Maine is a quiet town that seems to be holding its own through the recent recession. It always has. The town has something looking out for it. And that thing is hungry. Of course, we don't know any of this at the very beginning of The Wolf in Winter. Instead, we first learn that not all is right that in Prosperous when a homeless man learns that his estranged daughter got a job after there, then disappeared. Jude, the homeless man, calls in all his debts but is found hanged in a basement in Portland before he can call Charlie Parker to go looking for his daughter.

Parker picks up Annie's trail at a women's crises center in Portland and follows it to Prosperous. But the town has always kept itself to itself. It's hard to get anyone to tell him anything. Still, his spider senses tingle when he visits the disturbing, ancient church in the middle of the town. He slowly starts to piece together what might have happened to Annie. It becomes clear before long that whatever has been protecting Prosperous needs to be stopped.

As Parker investigates, Connolly shows us the perspectives of Prosperous' chief of police, two terrified citizens, a dying wolf, and a former enemy. It might seem too much when I list it all out, but it creates a hugely atmospheric thriller. It raises the stakes. And then Connolly raises them even higher when Prosperous hires a pair of assassins to try and take Parker out of the picture. The Wolf in Winter is an incredible, complex novel.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 28 October 2014.

10.12.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
Slammerkin
For want of a red satin ribbon, Mary Saunders was hanged for murder at the age of sixteen in 1764. "In her sixteen years she'd shot along the shortest route she could find between life and death, as the crow flew" (p. 376*). Emma Donoghue's astonishing novel, Slammerkin, is based on the sketchy historical record of the real Mary Saunders. Just as she did with Frog Music, Donoghue paints between the lines the historical documents to create a realistic portrait of a character's life.

Mary never fit in with her family in Charing Cross Road. Her mother admonishes her to learn a trade. Her step-father mostly ignores her. She lives a cold, hungry, un-beautiful life with them and it galls her. She wants something more, but she can't ever really articulate it. One day, she makes a deal with a peddler to swap a kiss for a red ribbon—but he takes much more than a kiss from her. And the ribbon turned out to be brown. When word gets out that Mary is no longer "pure," her parents throw her out of their cellar apartment. She spends an appalling night on the streets before she is rescued by the dissolute Doll Higgins. Doll teaches her to sell herself as an independent "Miss" on the London streets.

Doll has many lessons for Mary. Doll repeats that a girl should never give up her liberty, but Doll comforts herself daily with the infamous blue ruin gin. It's a hard life. Mary is occasionally robbed and beaten. When she gets sick, Doll encourages her to go to a Magdalen Hospital for penitents—even though Mary is far from remorseful about her way of life. After she gets out, Mary finds that she just can't go back to life as a "Miss." Worse, she has no money to pay Doll's bill after Doll freezes to death and has to flee for her life. She goes to Monmouth, her parents' hometown in the British Marches. At the age of fifteen, Mary tries to go straight.

In Monmouth, Mary gets a job as a maid and dressmaker's assistant. Before long she finds that she has just as much trouble fitting in with the Jones family as she does with her own family. I didn't expect that she would be able to be happy in Monmouth. I kept waiting for her to flee to London. But she stays for months. She stays until, one night, she snaps.

Slammerkin is not an easy read. Everywhere our protagonist turns, there are barriers. She's expected to be so many things: chaste, obedient, industrious. But there's so little reward for living that way. It's little wonder that Mary takes to the streets if it lets her be her own mistress. Mary is all wrong. She's her own antagonist most of the time. Because the novel opens with Mary in Monmouth jail, you know that things will not go well for her. Still, I had a little hope that there would be a miracle.

If you read Slammerkin, you will not like Mary Saunders. She's sharp and harbors grudges. She is selfish and avaricious. And yet, Donoghue makes her fascinating. Mary is a train wreck you can't turn away from.

___________

* Quote from the 2000 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt paperback edition.

10.11.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
The Forgers
Once a crook, always a crook? It certainly seems that way for Will. As a child, his mother taught him calligraphy. Once he'd mastered all of those scripts, Will started to copy the scripts of authors in his father's rare book library. Becoming a forger was just a natural progression of Will's obsession with text. By the time we meet him in Bradford Morrow's The Forgers, Will has reformed—mostly. But when his lover's brother is brutally murdered, all of Will's secrets could be exposed.

The Forgers is narrated completely from Will's point of view. I always get suspicious when a criminal is a novel's first person narrator. He's unabashedly egotistical. He's proud of the work he did—forging letters and inscriptions on first editions to make them more valuable. He's disgusted by the work of lesser forgers when he comes across it. The fact that Adam, his lover Meghan's brother, might be a forger—and not a very good one—pisses him off. You'd think he'd be more pleased when Adam is badly beaten and mutilated by an intruder. Of course he lies to Meghan and tells her he's horrified. Mostly, he's worried that Adam's possible crimes will destroy Meghan's wary trust of him.

After Adam's death from his injuries, the investigation stalls. Meghan and Will grow closer. They eventually move to Ireland to get away from bad memories. Meanwhile, an old enemy returns to torment Will. Years ago, before Will was exposed as a forger, someone started sending him letters in Henry James' handwriting warning him that his secrets would come out. Now the letters are threatening him and extorting him for money. Will learns quickly who's behind it and the rest of The Forgers becomes a cat and mouse game between Will and his blackmailer.

The Forgers is a slow book for a thriller. But I was entertained by watching for hints of Will's lies—because I knew he was lying to me. He would say things that made me wonder just how far Will would go to keep Meghan from finding out about him. It was also fascinating to watch Will struggle against his addiction to forgery. I'm not really supposed to quote from the advanced reader copies I get, but this passage from early in the novel reveals the depth of Will's lust for writing:
Not words so much as letters, their connectors and flow, were what mattered most to me, at least in the beginning, back when I was starting out. Each letter required the right presence and pressure, the tender weight of ink, old sepia, faded black, on my small canvas. The ascenders, the descenders, the choreographic shape and spirit of a comma, these were what kept me up at night. The precision of a period. Single quotes like black crescent moons in a parchment sky. The adage has it, Do what you love. This was what I loved. (Location 161, Advanced Reader Kindle Edition).
This really is a book for bibliophiles. The Forgers takes us to a dark corner in the book world. It's a book about men who see nothing more important in the world than a rare text that was touched by an author.

I received a a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley and Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 4 November 2014.
Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
Dracula
Most readers approach re-reading books they've liked with trepidation. What if it's not as good as I remember it? What if I hate it this time? I read Dracula, by Bram Stoker, ages ago. I hadn't forgotten the story. Dracula is such a major part of Western pop culture that it's pretty much impossible to forget the story. The last time I read it, however, I hadn't had five years of literary criticism classes jammed into my cerebellum. I didn't hate Dracula, but I saw problems on this read through that I didn't notice before.

I won't bother to summarize Dracula in this post. If you don't know the story by now, you've been living under a rock. (Besides, there's always Wikipedia.)

I knew there were gender issues in Dracula. I knew that Stoker made a point of playing up the impurity and sensuality of the female vampires. What I didn't notice at the time was how Stoker kept harping on about male and female virtues. Mina Harker—until Dracula gets his fangs in her—is held up as everything a Victorian woman ought to be. At one point in her diary, she even mocks the "New Woman." The men all praise her for her kindness and propriety, though they always seem shocked out of their cravats whenever she has a great idea for their next move. When Lucy Westenra turns into a vampire, she is constantly described as voluptuous or as having voluptuous features. She is rapacious in a way that deeply disturbs the men. Meanwhile, the men—Harker, Seward, Van Helsing, Lord Godalming, and Morris—are lauded for being brave in the face of the danger. There is a lot of unintentional—and exasperating—hilarity when the men and Mina start to withhold information from each other, each intending to protect the other party from worrying too much. (Ironically, this comes after a long section of information sharing, in which the Harkers' compile everyones' documents.)

On this read-through, I was also fascinated by Renfield. Renfield is the anti-vampire group's canary. His madness comes and goes with proximity to Dracula. He and Dr. Seward have fascinating conversations about souls and blood and life. Even though Seward is mostly clueless about what Renfield is talking about, I was intrigued by how Renfield was trying to turn himself into a vampire without having any idea how to go about it.

I was also fascinated by Van Helsing. He is a font of information (though he never tells you how he gets it). He dithers and procrastinates throughout the book, but he still the anti-vampire group's best hope for eliminating Dracula forever. Through Van Helsing, Stoker gets to show off the years of research he did before he wrote the novel. Part of the fun of any vampire novel is learning even more myths and legends.

Mina Harker was the best character of the lot. She's an ideal woman (for Stoker, anyway), but she's also fallible. She's the smartest person in the book (for all Van Helsing's erudition). It's a great pity when she's shunted aside by the men. But I loved how she got the chance to get a bit of her own revenge in the big confrontation against Dracula at the end of the novel. She deserved that.

I wonder what it would have been like to read this novel back in 1897. It's almost impossible read it now without knowing something about it or having seen the characters reused in other books and movies. As I read, it was hard not to think of Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Anno Dracula, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

10.07.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
Mansfield Park
I have to say it. Mansfield Park is Jane Austen's depressing book. After reading Pride and Prejudice and Emma and Northanger Abbey, I was expecting another female protagonist with a lively wit and ready humor. Fanny Price was not that protagonist. About the only quality Fanny shares with her compatriots is a strong sense of self. There are times in Mansfield Park where other characters quite literally forget that she's in the room. But I have to wonder, is Mansfield Park the truest of Austen's novels?

Fanny was born to a "lesser" branch of the Ward family. The eldest sister married a baron. The next married a well-to-do parson. The third married for love and gave up riches. Some years later, the two older sisters—well, mostly the middle one, Mrs. Norris—concocted a scheme to help their sister who was overburdened with children. They decided to raise one for her and chose Fanny. At age 10, Fanny goes to live with her Bertram cousins to learn how to be a gentlewoman. Tellingly, Mrs. Norris harangues poor, young Fanny on the drive from Portsmouth to Mansfield about how grateful she must be to her relations. Any sign of disappointment or sadness or anger will be interpreted as ingratitude and the punishments will be terrible. Consequently, Fanny learns to bend to the wishes and wants of everyone around her. She lives in a nebulous area on the social spectrum. She's not treated as part of the family, but she's not a servant or friend either.

A good portion of the first third of Mansfield Park actually focuses on everyone around Fanny. We learn about her silly female cousins and her serious cousin, Edmund. We learn about Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. Austen gives us snarky descriptions of Mrs. Norris, who is always happy to volunteer other people's time and resources but ducks out as soon as someone suggests she take an active role. She's an awful person, but a very entertaining character. When we actually meet Fanny, it's hard not to feel sorry for her. She's disregarded and shunted aside by everyone but Edmund. It's no wonder that she grows to love him. I said before that she's firm in her principles. This is true, but she seems to get away with declining to participate in a highly inappropriate play or give Henry Crawford any romantic encouragement by coming so close to actually dying of embarrassment that the other characters take pity on her. Fanny gets happiness at the end of Mansfield Park, though it seems mostly to come about after the other characters have wised up to their follies and flaws.

I also said before that this might be Austen's truest novel. What I mean by that is, I had no problem believing the events of Mansfield Park. That there are so many wildly happy marriages in the other novels and so little real world consequence of people's follies (excepting the Wickhams), that it's hard to really believe them. As I read Mansfield Park, I wonder how many women (possibly Austen herself) the author met who were similarly ignored and emotionally battered by people with more power. I was strongly reminded of Villette, by Charlotte Brontë. In that novel, too, a female character on the sidelines watches life pass before her. Mansfield Park is a sad story, even if it ends with marriage and happiness.

10.04.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
The Ploughmen
Both men were orphans. Their fathers died when they were young. Their mothers left them. They grew up on struggling farms in northern Montana. But John Gload became an unrepentant killer and Valentine Millimaki became a sheriff's deputy. Kim Zupan puts these two men in the same jail, where they bond over their insomnia in The Ploughmen.

Since he's been put on the night shift, Millimaki can't sleep. He and his wife have been ships in the night and barely see each other. During the days, when he can't sleep, Millimaki goes looking for missing people. At night, he listens to Gload talk about the people he's killed and how he came to be the way he is. The similarities pile up between the two. As The Ploughmen rolls on, Millimaki's marriage falls apart and his colleagues try to coerce Gload into telling them where all the bodies are buried.

There isn't a lot of plot in The Ploughmen. Most of the time, it's just Gload and Millimaki talking or Millimaki brooding somewhere in the Montanan wilderness. The language Zupan uses is sober and poetic. Scenes jump from one to another (though that might have been the way my galley was formatted). I'm not sure what it is about the American plains that draws poetry out of people, but the sky and the grass and the emptiness leave a lot of room for thinking.

The Ploughmen is also about loneliness and being alone. Some characters have the knack for being alone. Others emphatically cannot. Millimaki's wife cannot bear the loneliness of their remote cabin. Everything frightens or annoys her, until she moves back into town. Millimaki can't understand the problem. It's nothing to him to wander for miles across the landscape with his dog. He misses her, of course, but he feels that it's his duty to find the missing people. One day, he hopes that he will be able to find someone in time to save them.

Zupan's tale is not a happy one. There's too much violence and emotional hurt for that. But The Ploughmen also features the strange species of friendship that grows between Gload and Millimaki. We spend more time in Millimaki's head than in Gload's, so we don't learn much about why he likes the deputy so much. I guess it's just that Millimaki is kind to him where everyone else treats him with contempt and threatens the hardened man at every turn. A little kindness goes a long way in the harsh Montana countryside.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. 

10.01.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
Through NetGalley and Edelweiss, I can read books from the future. If I'm lucky, I can read a book up to six months before it's scheduled to appear in bookstores. I try not to gloat (too much) about this.

But there's one book I can't get...unless I learn how to become immortal. 

Getting a picture of actual Norwegian wood is
harder than you might think. You have to sift through
pictures of John Lennon, Haruki Murakami novels,
and, because it's the Internet, cat pictures.
Katie Paterson, a Scottish artist, has bought a forest outside of Oslo. In 100 years, the trees will be used to create paper for books that have not yet been written. Except, one has been written. Margaret Atwood was asked to write a book that will be the first book in the Future Library. Even if the first book wasn't by Atwood, I would still be pissed that I wouldn't get to read it. 

The Future Library website explains its purpose:
Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.
But aren't authors already writing for the future? Their intended audience might be readers alive and buying books right now, but their books will still exist in the future. That's why we still have Dickens and Austen and Shakespeare and Sophocles. I suppose the only writers that really need this kind of future insurance are the hack writers. (Even then, I suppose its possible that some future librarian will stumble across some ancestor's copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and get sqwicked out.)

Atwood doesn't need to worry about this. I've always ascribed to Italo Calvino's definition of a classic as a book that "has never exhausted all it has to say to its reader." (Okay, technically, there are 14 things Calvino used to define a classic.) I wonder how a writer goes about deliberately writing for a future audience, for readers who will have different cultural shibboleths and history and who might not understand the mindset of 2014? What a strange assignment to take on. 

9.28.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
First Impressions
Last year, Charlie Lovett gave us an exciting (for bibliophiles) tale of literary discovery and skullduggery in The Bookman's Tale. Lovett's back with story about the beginnings of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in First Impressions. This book is going to piss off a lot of Austenites (until they get the to the resolution, anyway).

Sophie Collingwood grew up in a grand country house with a magnificent library—that she wasn't allowed to use. It was a cruel torment for a born bookworm. Her only joy was to visit her uncle in London. Bertram's books all had their own stories about where they came from and what was going on in his life when he read them. Bertram taught her to care for books and hunt down treasures and understand primary sources. It's only fitting that she would grow up and work at an Oxford University library. When he dies, it's a shock. Sophie just can't believe that it was an accident. And when Bertram's library disappears, Sophie is doubly devastated.

Sophie investigates what really happened to Bertram and his library. Meanwhile, Lovett tells a story of Jane Austen and a curate named Richard Mansfield. The elderly writer of allegories and instructive stories. With Mansfield's encouragement, Jane revises Elinor and Marianne, later Sense and Sensibility. Mansfield also inspires a small novel that Jane initially calls First Impressions. Over the years, that small epistolary novel will grow into the Pride and Prejudice we all know and love today.

Near the beginning of the book, Sophie gets a job in a rare bookshop run by one of her uncle's friends. One of her first tasks is to find a copy of Mansfield's extremely rare second edition of allegories. Sophie is threatened and hounded as she tries to track down the book. Her original investigation into what happened to Bertram is hijacked when some documentary evidence hints that Jane might have stolen the idea for First Impressions from Mansfield. This is the part that Austen fans will hate, because Lovett lets this accusation linger for a long time before the book resolves itself.

I had some qualms about this book as I read it. I thoroughly enjoyed The Bookman's Tale, but the relationship between (fictional) Jane and Mansfield bothered me—especially with the accusation of plagiarism hanging around. In 1796, when Jane first started writing First Impressions, Jane was only 21. She was still writing epistolary novels and hadn't come into her own as a writer. Still, I often think of her as a kind of literary Athena; I rarely think about how Jane became Jane Austen. When the plot hinted that she might have stolen a story, I was livid. And the idea that Jane needed a mentor and collaborator bothered me, especially when Lovett revealed Mansfield to be such a poor writer himself. The eighteenth century parts of the book were wobbly. Then when Lovett adds a pair of love interests for Sophie that mirror Darcy and Wickham, his First Impressions starts to feel overstuffed.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 16 October 2014.

9.26.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
Of Bone and Thunder
After reading so much historical fiction, it felt strange to dip back into the realm of fantasy. Instead of Victorian or post-war manners, I got dragons. Instead of lengthy descriptions of architecture or clothing, there were descriptions of magic systems and non-human sentient species. On top of all that, Chris Evan's Of Bone and Thunder doesn't sound—at first blush—like a book that would attract my attention. Still, how can you pass up a book that was billed as Vietnam with dragons?

Whatever universe you're in, war is hell. For the various narrators of Of Bone and Thunder (the grunt, the spy, and the flyer), the war against the Forest Collective is a disaster. No one really knows what they're fighting for. The enemy are everywhere. The landscape is a horror of jungle and heat. Even after the king who ordered the war dies, they fight on because no one in command is willing to admit defeat.

Of Bone and Thunder is divided into three parts. In the first, we get the lay of the land like a new soldier. In the second, things get worse for everyone. In the third, things really go to hell as the Forest Collective goes all out against the invaders. Evans somehow manages to raise your sympathy for the narrators, but not for the war they're fighting. As I read, I worried that Jawm and Vorley and Carny might not make it to the end of the page—but I wasn't rooting for them to win the war.

The advertising for this book was entirely accurate. There are many events and character types that are direct analogs for things that happened during the Vietnam War. I was a little bothered that I could see them so easily at first. The analogs struck me as cliché. But after a few chapters, I was interested to see what Evans was doing with the familiar events and characters by porting them into his fantasy world. While it's not entirely original, Of Bone and Thunder is far from cliché. If you like military history or war novels and you like fantasy, this book will be perfect for you.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 14 October 2014.
Posted by Annie Smith | File under :
I had way too much fun at the ad shoot.
During Banned Books Week, the libraries I have worked for have created a police-tape bedecked display and that's pretty much it. Once, I got to run a banned book reading group, but hardly anyone showed up. This year was different. This year, I got to present at my university's ethics awareness week*.

It was refreshing to talk to people outside the library about what Banned Books Week is really supposed to be about—and clarify what librarians mean when we're talking about "celebrating" BBW. I got to remind people that the whole event is really about protecting intellectual freedom. As librarians and intellectual freedom advocates see it, intellectual freedom is the right to pursue your curiosity wherever it takes you...and then come back and tell the rest of us about it.

The best part was the discussion at the end. My "lecture" ended after about 30 minutes, to leave time for the audience to respond. I always get a bit nervous when I present before faculty; I always worry that one of them will raise the bullshit flag on me. But there was a solid back and forth about parents and overprotectiveness and chilling effects. Then the discussion continued out into the hall after we gave up the lecture hall to the next presentation.

As I did the research for "You Can't Handle This Book," I felt that talking about intellectual freedom and censorship has become even more important. I had to limit my search to instances in just the past 12 months. My bibliography is huge enough as it is. There have been so many incidents in the past year, from elementary school libraries to public libraries to middle and high school libraries to colleges. It was disheartening to see so many. (It didn't help that a friend sent me a link to this story from The Los Angeles Register about yet another banning for John Green's The Fault in Our Stars that happened on September 23. Books aren't even safe during Banned Books Week anymore.

I ended my session with an exhortation to the audience to read irresponsibly. I hope they do.

__________

* Ironically, I got on the roster by working connections. 

9.21.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
Why aren't people talking about Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox? There's so much crammed into this short book that I want to read it again even though I just finished it. The book is so good that critics should have been gushing like Twi-hards over it.

Mr. Fox
St. John Fox is a not a nice man. He's hard on his wives. He kills his female characters left and right. He doesn't have close friends. The only person who will really talk to him is not actually real. You see, St. John made up Mary Foxe. For years, she's been his muse but now even Mary is fed up with him. She can't stand to see another female character die on a page for no reason. So she challenges him. As if this wasn't weird enough, Mr. Fox gets even weirder from here.

Mr. Fox is the kind of book that I used to have no patience for. It's unabashedly experimental. There were places that I had no idea what the hell was going on. St. John and Mary get into each other's heads and into each other's stories. They wrestle for control. The pronoun "I" is used interchangeably between the two of them. You can't rush through Mr. Fox, because it's hard to tell what's real and what's just a story.

What helped me get through the book and reach an interpretation* were the symbols and folklore motifs that Oyeyemi scattered through the shared stories. Foxgloves are everywhere. Reynard shows up frequently and Bluebeard's name gets dropped. As Mary tries to rehabilitate St. John the serial killing author, their stories highlight the problems with gender roles, the power of stories to tell truth, about the need for humans to find partners, about the flexibility of the mind.

It's funny that I read Mr. Fox after listening to the latest episode of Dear Book Nerd. In episode 19, one of Rita Meade's questions concerns a philosophy professor who dismissed fiction as lies. As I listened to Meade and her guest overcome their outrage and answer the professor's charge, I wanted to chime in and say 1) even Plato told stories and 2) even though a work of fiction isn't true, it contains truths. Mr. Fox is a perfect example of the ability of fiction to help us confront uncomfortable facts and truths and work through our problems.

_____________

* Because if any book could support multiple interpretations, it's Mr. Fox.

9.20.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
Frog Music
Truth is stranger than fiction—at least, it contains the seeds of something stranger than fiction. As I read Emma Donoghue's stunning Frog Music, I was enjoying it because it was a well-crafted work of mystery and historical fiction. I had no idea that the story was based on real people and history until I read Donoghue's notes at the end of the book. Now I have to wonder if Donoghue really didn't solve a 140 year old murder.

Frog Music opens dramatically. Blanche Beunon, danseuse and prostitute, has just leaned over to remove a stubborn gaiter from her leg when gunfire rings out. She is wounded by flying glass from the broken window, but the bullets killed her companion, Jenny Bonnet. Jenny was an eccentric who lied about nearly every detail of her past and preferred to dress in men's clothing, even though the San Francisco police would regularly fine or jail her for it.

Just after Jenny's murder, Donoghue splits her narrative. Blanche is our narrator for both. In one track, we see Blanche has she meets Jenny and what leads up to the murder. In the other, we follow Blanche as she tries to figure out who killed Jenny and rescue her infant son, P'tit Arthur. We learn about Blanche's lover, Arthure Deneve, and his constant companion, Ernest Girard. We learn that the two men have been funding their vie de bohème with Blanche's money. We learn that Arthur sent away Blanche's son because he interfered with her earning money. But Jenny upsets the balance by asking a few simple questions. Jenny's questions lead Blanche to discover what really happened to P'tit Arthur. He'd been placed in a notorious "baby farm," The knowledge that her son nearly died of neglect and that it was partly her fault drives Blanche to try to reform herself. This does not go over well with Arthur.

Sex plays a big role in Frog Music, but not in the way you might expect. Jenny and Blanche are not draw together because they are lesbians. Blanche is drawn to Jenny's freedom. I suspect the Jenny is drawn to Blanche because Blanche reminds her of what she used to be. Rather, sex plays a role because Blanche is frequently berated or exploited because of her sexuality. She likes sex. She likes sex a lot. And in the nineteenth century, there's really no place for a woman who is known to enjoy sex. You may not look to a novel set in the 1870s to have much to say about contemporary society, but there's still a lot of censure towards sexual women in our time.

I was enthralled by Frog Music. The characters are so richly drawn, a blend of historical fact and Donoghue's fictional polish. Even the secondary and tertiary characters shine with life. I had no problem imagining them carrying on after the last chapter. And the setting! Donoghue does marvels in resurrecting the San Francisco of 1876. The city hums with people bustling and hustling. (In the author's notes, Donoghue writes that many of the places in Frog Music no longer exist, having been destroyed by earthquake, fire, or time.) This book is simply incredible.