October 30, 2014

A Magical Tale

The Twyning, by Terrence Blacker, (Candlewick Press), 432 pages, published 9/9/14

Generally speaking, I am not one for fantasy literature. I prefer books that transform this world over books that build new worlds. Terrence Blacker’s The Twyning does both with great success.

The Twyning is a young adult novel, but most definitely one of those with appeal beyond this age group. The novel is set in the late 1800s. Peter and Caz, the main human characters are in their early teens, living in a rubbish tip in a hollow Peter’s dug into one of the mounds of trash. Peter picks up odd jobs as he can, most regularly working with Bill, who catches rats for use in rat pits, and for a doctor engaged in an obsessive campaign against rats.

But Blacker gives readers a second world, set below the streets of the city where Peter and Caz live. There we meet Efren, a young rat. Of course, readers can see where this is headed: rats hunted for sporting, hygenic, or political ends; two children who are cogs in these mechanisms of destruction deciding whether to place their loyalties with a human world that has treated them harshly or with the Kingdom, the world of rats they’ve been taught to despise.

The Kingdom, the rat-world, is a marvelously detailed creation with complex rituals, a tense political structure, and a variety of courts—the Court of Governance, the Court of Punishment, the Court of Warriors, the Court of Historians. Efren is a very junior member of the Court of Tasters, rats trained to detect poison-laced food. The Kingdom also has a spiritual center: the Twyning, a group of rats congenitally connected who rely on the community for necessities and who function as a single entity. (And, yes, these really do exist.)

This book had me captivated from the moment I began reading. It’s narrated in two voices—Peter’s and Efren’s—and weaves the two stories together in another sort of twyning: a cross-species bonding full of distrust that becomes increasingly central to the survival of both Peter and Caz and of the Kingdom.

This book has violent moments. First off, there are the rat pits, where human “sportsmen” wager against each other, predicting which dogs will kill the most rats most efficiently. There are also two large-scale rat hunts. Normally, I can’t stomach books with violence toward animals, but in The Twyning, this violence is central to the story, and Blacker depicts it clearly, but never luridly.

In all, The Twyning is a remarkable tale that makes for compelling reading. The reader wants to spend time exploring the Kingdom, observing the ethos and actions that hold it together. The reader also longs for a happy ending for Peter and Caz. Once one starts reading, it is very, very hard to put this book down. Whether or not you’re a young adult, this is a book that will have you reading long past your usual bedtime.

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October 28, 2014

Life Within and Outside of the Mind

The Imaginary Life: A Novel, by Mara Torres, (Open Road Integrated Media), 169 pages, pub. August 5, 2014

Fortunata Fortuna, called Nata by her friends, is at a crossroads in her life. Beto, her live-in boyfriend of three years has just left her in that sort of “it’s me, not you” way that leaves one hoping for a rapprochement that will never happen. She’s at a loss about how to move on. She spends time with friends, stays out late, fights the impulse to retreat from the company of others—but none of this is easy.

The other thing she does is imagine. She imagines a reunion with Beto. She imagines conversations with him critiquing her life since him. She also imagines possible new relationships.

What’s interesting about this novel is that the real and the imaginary are related in the same style. Readers get no cues about whether they’re in Nata’s mind or the world beyond it. This is an interesting position to be put in, and I very much enjoyed this aspect of the novel.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly interesting in Nata’s life, either real or imaginary. She works late as an ad copywriter, goes out dancing, spends weekends out of town—but this just reads as a series of events without much in the way of a larger narrative arc to give it form.

So I find myself feeling equivocal about this novel. On the one hand, it left me unsatisfied. One the other hand, it kept me reading to the end. For anyone who enjoys contemporary women’s fiction the strengths will probably outweigh the weaknesses—but if that isn’t one’s favorite genre, reading this novel may disappoint.

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October 23, 2014

Saving Jane Austen

First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen, (Viking Books), 320 pages, release date 16 October, 2014

Charlie Lovett, author of The Bookman’s Tale, has a new novel out: First Impressions. Like The Bookman’s Tale, First Impressions is a multi-period literary mystery, but in this case the two protagonists are women and the literary mystery concerns the work of Jane Austen. Austen lovers should love this book. Jane is portrayed respectfully and given a satisfying and appropriate fictional relationship. Sophie Collingwood, the present-day heroine, is an Austen lover determined to find and to disprove evidence that Austin borrowed the plot for Pride and Prejudice from a collection of allegories by an obscure clergyman. The very title of Lovett’s book should draw in Austen fans: First Impressions was the working title for Pride and Prejudice.

As readers of lost-book-and-authorship mysteries will quickly realize, First Impressions is a formula book—but an engaging and well-written one. (I could also point out that formula books exist precisely because they are appealing to readers, formula or no.) Lovett alternates chapters set in the present day with chapters set in Austen’s lifetime, keeping these brief and engaging enough that the reader can easily be tempted to read “just one more chapter.”

The propriety of the Austen chapters provides an interesting foil to the present day chapters, which aren’t really racy, but do present a much different set of morés. Sophie is quite willingly bedded on the third date. When she and her sister Victoria discuss new men in their lives, they sort them into the categories “kill, bed, or wed.” Nonetheless, Sophie comes across as an Austen-like character: inexperienced in love and both shy and genuine in her romantic interactions.

Like some of Austen’s fiction, First Impressions is disproportionately populated by characters with a certain kind of wealth: money, land and/or rare books. Sophie grew up on the family estate, which needs continual repairs, but is quite impressive. Her beloved Uncle Bertram has one of the finest book collections in all of England. Both of the present-day romantic leads appear to be independently wealthy. In other words, while Sophie makes a good every-woman, she lives a life quite different from the lives of most of those apt to read this book.

This isn’t a book that will change readers’ lives, but it is a great deal of fun, particularly for bookish sorts. Readers may learn a bit about the history of publishing and current methods of bibliographic research, but for the most part what they’ll get is several hours of pleasant entertainment with enough references to literature to make them feel like insiders.

*****

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. The opinions in this review are my own.

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October 21, 2014

Two Pairs of Brave and Lively Siblings

The Sign of the Black Dagger, by Joan Lingard, (Floris Books, Myrick Marketing and Media, LLC), 192 pages, originally published in 2005, new edition released September 1, 2014.

If you’ve got a middle-grader who enjoys historical adventures, you may want to check out The Sign of the Black Dagger. The plot follows two pairs of children: the present-day Will and Lucy and historical figures William and Louisa, who lived in Will and Lucy’s house two hundred years ago.

Both sets of children face similar problems. Their fathers have run up huge debts and have left their families. Will and Lucy’s dad is hiding from unsavory creditors; William and Louisa’s dad must live in the debtor’s sanctuary attached to a noble house. The present-day scenes are written in third person. The historical scenes are written in first person, alternating between the voices of William and Louisa.

This isn’t one of those children’s books that transcend the genre sufficiently to make good reading for adults as well. Nonetheless, for the right age group (perhaps fourth through seventh grades) this book will provide a relatively quick, satisfying read.

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October 17, 2014

The Part-Time Vegan

The VB6 Cookbook: More than 350 Recipes for Healthy Vegan Meals All Day and Delicious Flexitarian Dinners at Night, by Mark Bittman,  (Clarkson Potter), 272 pages, released May 6, 2014

While I’ve been an on-again, off-again vegetarian throughout my adult life, I’ve never been vegan. Give up cheese? Never! But love of cheese aside, I’m always eager for a book that takes a new approach to vegetarian cooking. VB6 isn’t a vegetarian cookbook, but it’s a good 3/4ths vegetarian, and definitely worth a look for vegans, vegetarians, and carnivores alike.

Mark Bittman’s approach to eating evolved out of his love of food and the health challenges that many of us hit along the way: extra weight, pre-diabetes. Rather than completely changing his eating habits or beginning to take an assortment of medications, Bittman came up with his own dietary compromise: he eats vegan for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, but is open to all possibilities at dinner.

The recipes he offers are delicious. While some may be familiar, there are interesting possibilities as well. (What that man can do with chickpeas!) The gorgeous photography throughout the book increases the temptations. Bittman categorizes fruits and vegetables into into groups we can eat in unlimited amounts (leafy greens, citrus, melons) and those that we should eat occasionally because of starch or fat content (avocados, corn).

The book offers recipes for breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, and desserts. He also puts together a month’s worth of daily menus. The menus are a great idea, but would involve more time working with food than I’m accustomed to. I can spend a while cooking dinner, but breakfast and lunch are on the run, so I can’t imagine myself actually using the meal plan. And I’m a curmudgeon about desserts. As a diabetic, I try to skip prepared desserts and to stick to my favorite fruits, so a whole section of desserts felt a bit like wasted space to me, though I know others will disagree.

Final verdict: I’ll be keeping this book on my shelves, but won’t build my diet around it. Instead, I will use it primarily as a source of interesting dinner recipes. I’ll also make regular use of his advice on stocking a pantry and buying groceries. It’s sound, helpful, and definitely doesn’t have the feeling of diet depredation.

Note that I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.

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October 16, 2014

Three Scientists Walk into a Henge

The Stonehenge Letters, by Harry Karlinsky, (Coach House Books), 256 pages, pub. June 3, 2014, available in paperback and electronic formats

The Stonehenge Letters is a remarkable creature: sort of a hybrid history/science mockumentary. I have never come across another book like it. I’ve read short pieces of science satire or humor, but Karlinsky sets up his joke and maintains it through two hundred and fifty-six engaging pages.

The premise behind the book is this: After establishing the Nobel prizes, shortly before his death Nobel funded a one-time prize for the “solving of the Stonehenge mystery.” The competitors for this prize were limited to the first decade of Nobel prize winners, a group that included the likes of Marie Curie, Rudyard Kipling, and Ivan Pavlov.

The book is written as carefully produced non-fiction and includes a variety of forms. There’s a narrative of the discovery of this competition by a psychiatrist searching the Nobel archives in an attempt to understand why Freud was never granted this honor. The book is peppered with documents: wills, photos, and the like. And the fun only increases when it moves on to texts of the articles written by the various Nobel laureates who competed for the prize.

The fun of this book lies in its seriousness. If it weren’t for the subject matter at hand, one would be hard pressed to accept the fact that it’s fiction.

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October 14, 2014

An Uneven Journey through Seventeenth Century London

The Thief Taker, C. S. Quinn, (Thomas & Mercer), 432 pages

The Thomas and Mercer that publishes The Thief Taker is an imprint of Amazon, which may (or may not) affect your interest in purchasing this book. As Amazon becomes increasingly draconian in its negotiations with major publishing houses, it’s also cutting the publishing houses out of the loop entirely. Normally, I wouldn’t be on the side of big anything—but whatever size a publishing house it, it most assuredly is smaller than Amazon. Had I known this title was an Amazon publication, I probably would have been more hesitant to request a review copy as I’ve been trying to disentangle myself from the empire that is Amazon.

*****

That said, I did request a review copy, and I did read it. The Thief Taker wasn’t quite what I’d hoped, but it did keep me reading through all 400+ pages. The novel is set in 1665, after the restoration of the monarchy in Britain, a time of fierce Protestant-Catholic tensions, of an epidemic of the Black Death, and just months before the great fire of London—which readers know is coming, even if characters in the book don’t.

Given this, I’d been hoping for my favorite kind of historical novel: one deeply imbedded in its time that brings to life the the fierce, brutal wrangling of religious factions and that depicts in detail the now-almost-unimaginable conditions of everyday life of the period.

I got a little bit of this sort of thing—but mostly I much more predictable historical romance with occasional interesting detail thrown in.

The plot is this: a murderous plague doctor stalks London, unidentifiable beneath his protective robes and bird-beaked hood. Maria, the sister of one of his victims hires thief taker Charlie to find the killer. Maria is beautiful, haughty, with airs appropriate to the much-wealthier status her family held before the civil war. Charlie is an orphan left at a foundling home with a mysterious key hung about this neck, a thief-taker with a wide range of lower-class contacts and an eye for ready escape routes. So you know what’s going to happen. There will be bickering and more bickering. There will be assorted types of disdain. There will be repressed longing.

If you enjoy this sort of historical romance, you’ll probably enjoy The Thief Taker. I had hoped for something more and was left feeling only partly satisfied as I finished the book.

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October 09, 2014

Victorians, Vampires, and Steampunk—Oh, My!

The Spiritglass Charade: A Stoker & Holmes Novel, by Colleen Gleason, (Chronicle Books), 360 pages

The Spiritglass Charade is the second volume in Colleen Gleason’s young adult Stoker & Holmes series (the first was The Clockwork Scarab). Stoker and Holmes are not Bram and Sherlock. They’re Evaline (Bram’s younger sister) and Alvermina Holmes (niece of Sherlock, daughter of Mycroft). These women live in a steampunk, alternate version of Victorian England and work as investigators for the government, taking on cases that require female detectives.

The two women make an interesting team. Alvermina, who goes by the less-cumbersome Mina, lives with the company of a housekeeper. Her mother left the family. Her father is almost always occupied elsewhere on government business. She, like her better-known uncle, is highly logical and expert in all sorts of abstruse fields, what might be called a “right brain” type. She thinks of herself as plain—she has the “Holmes nose.”

Evaline, in contrast, is wealthier, a member of society by virtue of her brother’s theatrical fame, highly impetuous and intuitive and absolutely confident in her own attractiveness, what might be called a “left brain” type. She is also—surprise!—a venator: a hunter of vampires.

Given Evaline’s calling as a venator, it’s not surprising that working together is challenging for both women. Mina is reluctant to believe in the supernatural world Evaline inhabits. Evaline is irritated by Mina’s methodicalness—when the undead are present, immediate action is called for.

I admit that I am growing attached to these two young women. Reading The Clockwork Scarab, I wasn’t certain how successful this series would be. Now I’m hooked. This isn’t highbrow reading, but it’s too much fun to be missed. Besides Mina and Evaline the reader meets Irene Adler (of Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”), employed by both the British Museum and the government’s intelligence-gathering arm; Dylan, an unwilling time-traveler from our Twenty-first Century; and Pix, a mysterious, sometimes threatening, presence in the London underworld, who deals in illicit electricity—this being a steampunk England, all means of power besides steam are outlawed.

In this England, cities are built in multiple layers and one must be able to afford fare for an elevator to move between them. The upper levels are supported by hot-air balloons. This is an age of invention, and nearly every apparatus imaginable has been invented, in a steam version, of course. There are equivalents to Segways and motorcycles, automated holders and page-turners for newspapers, even “Hystand’s Mechanized Eyelash-Combe.” If you can allow yourself to accept this improbable and uneven body of technology, you’ll have quite a good time.

In this volume, the two women are working on behalf of the Princess of Whales, who is concerned about a friend who has become prey to unscrupulous spiritualists as she attempts to contact her dead mother and locate her missing brother. Mina, of course, is determined to prove these spiritualist frauds; Evaline, while suspicious, feels they may well be genuine (there’s also the matter of a pair of mediums who know her childhood nickname of “Linney-Lou”).

My one complaint here is how quickly and completely both Mina and Evaline are beguiled by handsome young men. They’re delightful examples of independent young womanhood, but one wearies of them blushing in the presence of a number of young men who are recurring characters in the series. In their favor, however, they walk a fine line between the mores of their time and their own determination to live life as they choose. They fret regularly about propriety, but also acknowledge the pleasure of being kissed.

If you know a young woman in her mid-to-late teens, this book is apt to make an excellent gift, an invitation to fun and adventure, made even more interesting by its imaginative setting. And if, like me, you’re an adult reader, you’ll still enjoy this book as a sort of mini-vacation between other, more demanding volumes.

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October 07, 2014

Life Among Endangered Birds

The Birds of Pandemonium: Life Among the Exotic and the Endangered, by Michele Raffin, (Algonquin Books), 240 pages

Michele Raffin’s The Birds of Pandemonium is an engaging read offering one model of avian conservation and raising questions about conservation efforts that deserve further examination. Raffin fell into the work of conservation gradually, beginning with an attempt to help an injured pigeon on the roadside. Her home and yard now house some 350 birds, representing 40 species, many of them threatened or endangered.

The threats facing exotic and endangered birds are being addressed on many fronts—though there’s always more that needs to be done. Conservation groups buy and protect key habitat; individual birds are moved among zoos to keep breeding populations diverse; and both avian veterinarians and rare bird dealers study and care for these birds, engaging simultaneously in research and husbandry. One of Raffin’s biggest concerns, addressed in the book and in her life, is the scattered, often carefully guarded knowledge among breeders.

Yes, what breeders do is one kind of conservation. When birds are bred for sale in captivity, they’re less apt to be removed from the wild for sale, leaving existing populations better off. It’s often breeders who have the patience and time to discover what’s necessary for successful nesting and raising of young. On the other hand, what breeders do is also a business. As Raffin tell us, there’s a hesitancy to share knowledge with potential competitors, which means that discoveries in husbandry rarely have the broad impact they might.

At the close of the book, Raffin lays out her large, long-term ambition: to create sanctuaries for exotic and endangered birds across the U.S., to purchase flocks from breeders that will remain with the breeders during their lifetime and will be moved to sanctuaries after breeders pass on, and to set up apprenticeships so that the breeders’ knowledge can be preserved for eventual broader use.

Raffin builds up to this proposal through some delightful story telling. We meet individual birds, learn their idiosyncrasies, and follow her thought process as she determines addresses their individual needs. There’s the parrot Amigo, a problematic biter, who steals the heart of one of Raffin’s sons. There’s a one-legged turaco with a particular sympathy for autistic boys.

Because Raffin gives her story a chronological structure, the reader has an opportunity to learn along with her. She begins by opening her home to “special needs” birds: those with behavioral problems or whose owners face a crisis that means giving up the bird. Without ever losing her love for these neediest birds, she comes to concentrate on breeding and raising highly threatened species. This allows her to provide zoos and other conservation groups with new birds to add to their colonies in order to maintain genetic diversity.

This book is well worth reading both for the information it contains and for the simple pleasure of coming to know some of the birds Raffin has met during her work in this area. And, if readers want to learn more about Raffin’s work and bird conservation in general, they can go on to visit the web site for Pandemonium Aviaries.

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September 30, 2014

Artists’ Colony in a Time Warp

The Hundred-Year House: A Novel, by Rebecca Makkai, (Viking Adult), 352 pages

The Hundred-Year House is a novel in reverse. Its four sections move back in time: from 1999 to 1955 to 1929, and finally ending in 1900. This makes reading it a bit of a game. Each step backwards offers new pieces of the puzzle to snap into place, assuming the reader is alert enough to catch them all.

The house of the title is Laurelfield, which began as a private home, became an artists’ retreat, then became a private home once more. Laurelfield may or may not have ghosts. The house has seen tragedy aplenty, but the rapping may be spirit communication or falling acorns.

My primary complaint about The Hundred-Year House is that as the novel progresses, the sections grow shorter and less filled-out. The 1999 characters are developed in detail, surprising readers as new aspects of their personalities are revealed. By time the novel reaches 1900 the characters are essentially stick figures: we’re told things about them, but aren’t given enough to feel as if we’re entering their inner world.

That said, The Hundred-Year House is an engaging read. When I reached the end of the 1999 section exactly halfway through the story, I was uncertain where the writer was headed; I felt as if I’d read a complete novel by the time I got there. Even though I found the later sections less well-developed, I enjoyed the backward journey Makkai took me on. There most certainly was more to say—and 1999 was truly more of a beginning than an ending.

Pick this book up when you’re looking for a mix of entertainment and riddle. It always offers enough of at least one of these (and often both) to keep the reading pleasurable.

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