Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust
I was worried at the end of the last Flavia de Luce novel, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, that we had seen the end of the young chemist who keeps tripping over corpses. Sending her off to school in Canada was a natural ending. Then I learned the Bradley was writing a new chapter in his feisty heroine's story with As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. I am not disappointed.

Poor Flavia is heartbroken as she sails away from England and her beloved Buckshaw, Even though no one understood her there except her Aunt Felicity, it was home. Now she's sailing to Canada to attend the same school her mother did, years before. She's not too fond of the people who are escorting her either. The Rainsmiths insist on treating her like a child, for pity's sake! On the bright side, the same night Flavia arrives at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy, a body falls out of the chimney in Flavia's room. Flavia can't resist the opportunity to investigate, no matter if she has to break every school rule to do it.

Miss Bodycote's is no ordinary school. Since the turn of the Twentieth century, Miss Bodycote's has been training young women to serve as undercover agents in a mysterious agency called the Nide. Everything is a secret and Flavia is constantly frustrated when no one will tell her anything. She truly is on her own. Of course, this doesn't stop our intrepid amateur detective as she follows the clues to find out who was in her chimney and who put the poor woman there and why.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is a wonderful new entry in the Flavia de Luce series.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 January 2015.
Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
King of the Cracksmen
Liam McCool is caught between a rock and a hard man. When we first meet him in Dennis O'Flaherty's rollicking King of the Cracksmen, he is helping a pair of Molly Magees to blow up the a hated company man's house. After the house goes sky high, he returns to his boarding house to discover that his sweetheart has been murdered. To top it all off, his boss back in New York wants him to report back on the double now that his job spying on the Mollies is over. All McCool wants to do is get revenge for his sweetheart, but everyone else is pushing him towards a big role in the Great Game.

There isn't much room to catch your metaphorical breath in King of the Cracksmen. The plot steams ahead like one of the Acme robotic police that are patrolling O'Flaherty's alternate United States. In McCool's world, John Wilkes Booth's assassination attempt failed and Andrew Jackson sold the Louisiana Purchase to the Russians to balance the budget. O'Flaherty takes you from the coal fields of Pennsylvania to New York to Washington, D.C., to New Petersburg (formerly Minneapolis) and back to New York for an exciting showdown.

Along the way, as McCool is set to tracking down revolutionaries, demented heads of Public Safety, overly ambitious policemen, and New York gangsters, he starts to fall in love with crusading reporter Becky Fox—who turns out to be an agent of an organization that is determined to return the United States back into the nation it was before the Department of Public Safety. Meanwhile, O'Flaherty shows us the marvels of a steampunk alternate Gilded Age. There's almost too much in this novel and no time for deep introspection. But then, King of the Cracksmen is billed as "A Steampunk Entertainment."

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 January 2015.


Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
There is one question about World War II that will never be satisfactorily answered. That is: how did good people turn into the kind of monsters that could perpetrate the Holocaust and all its related inhumane crimes? The kind of evil that it took to murder all those millions after stealing every scrap of dignity and hope from them should have been impossible. David Thomas' Ostland is one of the best explorations of this question I've seen yet. This is a hard book to read. It's upsetting in a number of different ways. But it is a very good book, based on the very real life of George Heuser (link to German Wikipedia page for Heuser).

Thomas begins Ostland with Georg Heuser's ignoble arrest from a spa in 1959. Max Kraus and Paula Siebert, the investigator and lawyer who work for the ZSL (German Wikipedia), have been piecing together a case against Heuser. During the war, Heuser was posted with the SS to Minsk as part of Einsatzgruppen A. (The Einsatzgruppen were tasked with murdering Jews, partisans, and whoever else the Reich decided while the Wehrmacht duked it out with the Red Army.) But Thomas conceals this from us for the first half of the book. After a few chapters from Paula's perspective, delivered in the third person, Thomas lets Heuser tell his story*.

Heuser's defining characteristic is his ambition. At university, he studied law and entered the police academy where he graduated at the top of his class. He wrangled a coveted post under one of the most highly regarded men in the Berlin police. He got to work on the career-making S-Bahn Murders case. The higher-ups in the SS "rewarded" Heuser's work by posting him to Minsk. As Heuser tells it, he was unaware of what the Einsatzgruppen were actually doing until he was ordered to take part in mass murders of Jews who had been rounded up from all over the conquered territories.

In the first half of Ostland, Heuser wonders at what kind of monster could murder all those women. Where did Paul Ogorzow (German Wikipedia) come from? What made him? In the second half, Heuser starts to compare himself to Ogorzow. What would the murderer say, now that Heuser has killed more people than the S-Bahn Murderer? Only two things make it possible for Heuser to live with himself. He tells himself, over and over, that all he can do is his duty and follow orders. The morality of what he's doing rests with the people giving the orders, not him. The second thing that makes it possible for Heuser to carry on is lots and lots of vodka. (Thomas found a statistic that the SS went through a bottle of vodka for every person they killed as a part of a "special action.") The men that Heuser works with drink and talk about everything they're doing in painful, dehumanizing euphemisms. The second half of Ostland is absolutely brutal.

Thomas jumps from 1941-1943 to the early 1960s as Heuser's war criminal trial progresses. Siebert grows gloomy as Heuser's lawyer manages to have charge after charge dismissed. The case appears to be crumbling even though Siebert and Kraus know he's guilty of terrible things. The last part of the book is a long meditation on the "following orders" defense and the mind-set of SS and Wehrmacht members during the war. Ostland is a very nuanced book, more balanced than anything I've yet read. This is not to say that Thomas is an apologist. He is very clear that Heuser and men like him bear a measure of the guilt and blame for the Holocaust. Men like Heuser will ask, "What else could I have done?" But if only more people had questioned their orders...

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 January 2015.


* In the Author's Note at the beginning of Ostland and the acknowledgements at the end, Thomas describes his thorough research into Heuser's life and trial. Ostland is more fictionalized non-fiction than a straight work of historical fiction.


Posted by Annie Smith | File under :
"You can't evaluate a work outside the context of its time."
"You can if it's good."

Daria, "Is it Fall Yet?"
As I was reading The Amber Keeper and The Barefoot Queen, I wondered if I was being too harsh—even before I finished them and wrote my reviews. Every time one of the eighteenth century gypsies asked someone if they were "OK" in The Barefoot Queen or yet another pair of characters would have a meet-cute in The Amber Keeper, I had a hard time controlling my eye rolls. And yet, these books are rated fairly highly on GoodReads.

I probably shouldn't review books when I'm feeling sarcastic.
In the last few years, I have a read a lot of very good books. Plus, I re-read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for my book group. I've been spoiled lately. It's hard not to hold everything I read to the same standard. It's not fair. I have no problem judging a book based on the merits of its genre. I have different standards for plot and characterization when it comes to speculative fiction and mysteries and literary fiction and historical fiction.

I suppose I do have one yardstick when it comes to basic writing competency. A story can be bad when the basic premise is flawed or the writer doesn't have a big enough vocabulary or the structure is so poorly constructed that it ruins whatever effect the author was going for. Besides, I would hate to think that I was actually lowering my standards to give a book a good review when it was just so-so and I know that others will like it just fine. It's just that reading really good books spoils me until I can recalibrate.

I'm probably overthinking this.
Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
I have always been fascinated by tales of the Russian Revolution. An entire nation, caught between east and west, jumps several stages of development to try and create a workers' paradise only to erupt in terrifying violence. How did anyone survive the bloodshed and the starvation and disease and the cold? Whenever I see the Revolution mentioned in a book's description, I jump at the chance to read it, more often than not. Unfortunately for me, this doesn't always work out and in the case of Freda Lightfoot's The Amber Keeper, the Revolution was used as a more-exciting-than-usual setting for a fairly prosaic family drama/romance.

The Amber Keeper
The Amber Keeper is narrated by Abbie Myers, who returns to the Lake District of England after the surprising suicide of her mother. Abbie was in disgrace for years, having run off with a Frenchman and having a child out of wedlock—a big deal in 1963. As no one else in her family will talk to her without starting a row, Abbie questions her grandmother, Millie, about her mother. Millie is reluctant to say more than that she adopted Kate from an orphanage in London in 1920. Abbie is persistent and we soon get to learn about Millie's experiences as a governess for the Belinsky family in St. Petersburg from 1911 to 1917.

Millie's story is periodically interrupted as Lightfoot tells us more about what's going on with Abbie as she and her daughter try to settle in at the family house. Abbie resurrects her mother's jewelry story and fends off her brother's attempts to sell it and her new competition. Millie's story is much more interesting. It was always a relief to head back to Russia, even though Abbie is a better than average protagonist. But how can her story compete with Millie's? Not only is Millie a stranger in a strange land, she also has to deal with an utterly diabolical mistress, Countess Olga Belinsky. (Though it should be Belinskaya, in proper Russian, right?)

Olga is a pathological liar, greedy and lustful. (In fact, she embodies several of the Seven Deadlies.) For the sake of the children, Millie stays on, even though Olga tries to steal the love of Millie's life and actually lands the poor woman in a Bolshevik prison later in the novel. Once Millie finally tells the family where Kate came from, it's clear just why she stayed in St. Petersburg far longer than she should have. Olga is a much more electrifying character than this book deserves, to be honest. A novel from her perspective would have been amazing—assuming a reader could stay in her head long enough without getting thoroughly fed up with the woman. But then, readers stay with Scarlet O'Hara for the length of Gone With the Wind, so maybe it could work.

I muddled through The Amber Keeper fairly well, but I did not like the tacked on ending at all. It felt like Lightfoot was trying to end things with a bang, rather than letting this story be a quiet one of family reconciliation.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 1 December 2014.


Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
The Barefoot Queen
Caridad, Melchor Vega, Ana Vega, and Milagros Carmona all seem to have nothing but bad luck. That or author Falcones likes nothing better than to create characters and then torture them for almost 700 pages. As The Barefoot Queen rolls along, there is poverty, injustice, imprisonment, slavery, rape, and murder. It's a wonder that anyone survives what Falcones puts his characters through.

The Barefoot Queen opens in 1748 as Caridad arrives in Seville after the man who owned her died on the sea voyage from Cuba. Everyone tells her she's free, but what's freedom to Caridad when she has no money and no one will help her find her way? After a few false starts with uncharitable Christian organizations, Caridad meets Melchor Vega as she's about to give up and starve to death. Melchor is enchanted with her mournful singing and takes her home to his family. Melchor Vega has always been the embodiment of a gypsy. He's known to wander. When he wanders away after delivering Caridad to his daughter, Ana, and granddaughter, Milagros, Caridad is once again left to fend for herself. Her knowledge of tobacco and cigar-making come in handy and help her make a meager living.

Life bumbles along for the quartet until a decree comes down from the king that all gypsies are to be rounded up and imprisoned. Milagros, Melchor, and Caridad escape, but are separated. Ana is captured and sent to Málaga with thousands of other gypsy women. Over the next several years, she suffers hunger and humiliation and torture. Meanwhile, Caridad runs afoul of the law and is also imprisoned for two years. Melchor travels the length and breadth of Spain to seek revenge on a man who assaulted Caridad and stole from him before launching an ill-starred quest to free his daughter. Milagros does get to marry the man she thinks she loves before learning just how much of a villain his is and suffering terrible exploitation.

As Falcones spins his tale, he treats us  to short essays about why the gypsies were rounded up, Spanish court manners, the tobacco industry of mid-eighteenth century Spain, and other topics. It does make for dry reading and lengthens an already long book. There is no over-arching plot to The Barefoot Queen. I would have described the book as picaresque if anything funny had happened. (It does not.) If there is a tragic version of picaresque, I would use that word instead. Bad things just keep happening to our quartet of protagonists, truly awful things. There are themes that keep this book tied together. Falcones uses his characters to explore what freedom means, what a person can live with and what they can't, how the law can be deformed by money and religion, and forgiveness. Still, The Barefoot Queen is an arduous read.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 25 November 2014. 


Posted by Annie Smith |
I knew when I tried to read The Portrait of a Lady, that Henry James probably wasn't right for me. There was no spark, no chemistry in that first chapter. But then, I love Thomas Hardy. I like E.M. Forster. I devoured Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence and House of Mirth. Why didn't I like James? I decided to give him one more chance when I started reading The Turn of the Screw as my Halloween read this past month. I'd heard that it was a thrillingly creepy story and if I didn't like his human drama, perhaps I could learn to like his horror novella.

I was wrong.

Or, my first impression of James was correct after all. Henry James is not for me. I can't stand his grammar, that's what it is. I even tried to read the text aloud to get a feel for his style, but that didn't help either. Here are the first two sentences from The Turn of the Screw:
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him.
In these two sentences there are 15 comas, one em dash, one semi-colon, and two periods. Fifteen commas! Even for a Victorian that's excessive. I just couldn't get past the prose. That hasn't happened to me for a long time.

What is the trick to reading Henry James? Why do people (and by people I mean critics) like him so much? Any suggestions are welcome.


Posted by Annie Smith | File under :
I think I'm a grown up now. Last week, I closed on a lovely house that is twice the size of my apartment. There's even a room that I can use as a dedicated library—something I've always wanted. I've already painted it the color of good Morocco leather and it's going to look even more amazing when I get the bookshelves in.

All this goes to explain why I have to slow down on reading and posting over the next few weeks. There's more painting to be done and the arduous task of schlepping all my books over to the new house. I have few books to move this time around, having weeded out books that sounded good in the bookstore but disappointed when I read them. And for two years now, I've been buying more ebooks than print books. I still have about 675+ books to move, though. (I lost count a while ago.)

I should be able to get back to my usual blistering rate of reading and reviewing by the first week of December. Right now, I'm working my way through Ildefonso Falcones' massive The Barefoot Queen and re-reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for my book group. I'm still reading, I just don't have hours and hours to devote to it at the moment.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
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.


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 : , ,
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