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Review Policy

March 15, 2012

I am particularly interested in books in the following categories:

  • Historical fiction
  • Foodie lit or foodie memoir
  • Historical mystery or forensic-based mystery
  • Extremely well-written YA  genre fiction (no vampire romance or dystopia, please!)

If I request a specific title, I will do my best to review it in a timely manner. I will review books outside of the above criteria at my discretion.

Thank you so much for keeping me Surrounded By Books

– Elizabeth

Phryne Fisher Binge Read

July 21, 2015

A while ago, Lisa suggested that I try watching Miss Fisher’s Murder mysteries, an Australian crime drama set in the 1920’s. She assured me that it had many things I would like: crimes solved by an amateur sleuth, snark and banter, terrific 1920’s fashions, sexiness, and a great supporting cast of chosen-family eccentric characters.

Lisa knows me very, very well. In I dove, and before I knew it, I’d zoomed delightedly through the first season of Miss Phryne Fisher’s adventures. As I got into the second season, and saw the stretch of new episodes dwindling before me, I was brought up short. What would happen when I ran out of new episodes to watch? Time to save them for special occasions.

And then I chanced to see that a GoodReads friend had given 5 stars to a book she was reading… a Phryne Fisher mystery? Could it be? And were they available from my library?

It turns out that the murder mysteries I have such fun watching got their start as a series of novels by Kerry Greenwood, a delightfully prolific Australian author. The books offer up much of what I love about watching the show: The great characters, Miss Fisher, the glamorous flapper who’s not afraid to dig in and solve a gritty crime, dry wit from Mr. Butler, a foil for Miss Fisher in the basically demure Dot, banter from Chief Inspector Jack Robinson.

Having come to the books from the TV show, I can say it’s amazingly well cast, with actors faithful to the look and style of the characters, actors who have excellent chemistry with one another, and seem to enjoy each other as well as the characters they portray.

Transitioning from screen to book and vice-versa, there are, of course a few trade-offs. While Greenwood does describe the sumptuous colors of Phryne Fisher’s elegant wardrobe, seeing the glamorous fashions onscreen is so much more fun. However, on the page you get some of the interior life of the characters: mostly Miss Fisher’s thoughts (whether studying a crime or plotting her next conquest) but also glimpses of what Dot and Butler and Jane and the rest are thinking. I thoroughly enjoy Greenwood’s wit and snark on the page… so much so, that, at various points, I giggled out loud and had to read passages aloud to share them.

As much as I like the glitter and wit of both screen-Phryne and Book-Phryne and friends, I think what I like best about these mysteries is their warmth… Warmth seems like a funny word to apply to a series that deals in dead bodies. But there it is. Phryne Fisher might be changeable in her romantic allegiances, but the friendships in her extended/chosen family are devoted and steadfast.

I guess these count as cozy mysteries? I’ve always had trouble with the term- it conjures cloying visions of cats and sweaters that would clash with Miss Fisher’s fabulous silk dresses. But I like my mysteries best when they have a solid heart. it doesn’t have to be some kind of syrupy True Love Romance. A good team-friendship is my ideal. And some snark in the sweetness. Cozy’s a weird word. Can I have a new one? (That’s a line of thought for a whole other post.)

So, I can say that, whether you choose book or screen, the adventures of Phryne Fisher are a delightful and worthwhile binge.

Words I Have Needed to Look Up

July 12, 2015

This post is long overdue, I think, holding myself accountable to looking up unfamiliar words in books I’ve read.

epicene (adj): having characteristics belonging to both sexes

epistemology (n) a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature,methods, and limits of human knowledge. I see this word all the time and have to look it up, repeatedly. I confuse it with “epistolary.”

iterative: (adj) Repeating

neap tide: (n) A tide that occurs when the difference between high and low tide is least; the lowest level of high tide. Neap tide comes twice a month, in the first and third quarters of the moon. (from Have His Carcase)
neurasthenic– having a nervous breakdown, or, I gather, prone to one, or just having had one. (Describes a scholar in an article I read for school.)

omphaloskepsis: (n) navel-gazing.

 quisby: A wretch; an idle person. doing quisby: idling, not working.
plethoric: (adj) Adjective of plethora. Abundant. In the context I saw, in Sherlock Holmes, it was used to describe an agent… I think, meaning big and tall and heavy.
skeumorphism: (n) The design concept of making items represented resemble their real-world counterparts. Skeuomorphism is commonly used in many design fields, including user interface (UI) and Web design, architecture, ceramics and interior design.
subfusc (adj) dark and drab or dingy
valetudinarian: (n) An invalid, a person who is excessively concerned with his poor health or ailments. As seen in The Sign of the Four. Sort of like a 19th century hypochondriac.
totipotent: (adj) In biology, having the potential for developing in variousspecialized ways in response to external or internal stimuli. As seen in Island Practice.

Book Review: Operation Mincemeat

July 11, 2015

Jacket image, Operation Mincemeat by Bill McIntyreOperation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
By Ben MacIntyre
Broadway Paperbacks
personal bookshelf

Just from the title, you probably have a good sense of whether you want to read this. it’s a carefully researched and detailed account of a complex espionage project coordinated by the British in World War II to convince the Nazi Armies of entirely fabricated and falsified battle strategy information. And this information was conveyed on the person of… a corpse.

The level of complexity and planning that had to go into making it work was fascinating. Everything from the body’s uniform (even accurate down to the underwear) to making sure that the letters blended the personal with plausible military secrets, and conveyed a sense of the dead man’s real, convincing and utterly fabricated life. had to be considered and accounted for. The corpse needed convincing “pocket litter,” deliberately contrived to look random and convey a sense of his realness: theater tickets, unpaid bills, letters that had to be written in persona. It required coordinating a lot of people’s expertise: naval strategy, medical examiners, security clearances, code-breakers, spies and double agents, with only a certain amount of information allotted to each. Threads of communication worked their way across military branches, across countries, woven through secure coded messages and messages on less-secure channels to create confusing and hopefully convincing “chatter,” to be deliberately intercepted. Reading this, I got to see and appreciate some of the tangled allegiances of spycraft, with double agents spying on one another, passing along information with varying degrees of deliberate deception. One thing I learned was that there were spies managing entire networks of fabricated agents, each with real names, personalities, lives. (Making WWII spycraft an excellent career for a would-be novelist, such as Ian Fleming, who gets a nod in these pages.)

At times, the tangle of information, misinformation, double agents and deliberate lies reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Help! (I have to wonder if the mindset of British deception and espionage left a lasting impression on the nation’s sense of humor.)

In addition to presenting a level of research that lets events speak for themselves, MacIntyre clearly had a lot of fun spinning the tales. Little asides and passages made me giggle with delight.

 “The Times was the paper all important people wanted to be seen dead in, and it is not possible to be deader than the death columns of Britain’s most venerable newspaper.”

Or an account of Major Derrick Leverton, “jovial heir to a long line of British undertakers,” who was apparently taking the work of invading Sicily in stride, noting his fellow soldiers’ graffiti on the landing craft “See Naples & Die,” “Day Trips to the Continent.” Leverton was feeling so matter-of-fact about the invasion that he managed to sleep as his boat approached the shore, and caught another refreshing snooze while the troops were being unloaded in a foxhole he’d dug on the beach.

Here’s something to think about: how easy it is to take the immediacy of information and news coverage for granted in the 21st Century. MacIntyre captures the way the operation had to unfold slowly, chronicled in letters, sea voyages, communications that could be carefully constructed, only to be intercepted, or actually blown to pieces and lost. The level of technology available for things like creating identity cards, writing or examining letters, even forensics for the autopsy. It took months for Operation Mincemeat to be planned. Think of how fast information moves, and can be verified or contested now, and think of the levels of trust and the way they have shifted.

The fact that MacIntyre so clearly enjoyed his research and writing, and delights in telling these stories is what makes the book work. There are many, many people whose lives and levels of expertise (and security clearance) have to intertwine to make the telling work. The number of characters and background sketch anecdotes can, at times, make the reading slow going, but MacIntyre’s willingness to see and evoke the whimsy in his story makes it work. Let’s remember– this was a plan to plant false information on a dead guy in the hopes of thwarting major military operations. It’s absurd.

And it made for a terrifically fun read.

I would happily read more about World War II espionage, provided it was written in this engaging vein.

Book Review: Alice in Wonderland High

July 1, 2015

Jacket image, Alice in Wonderland High by Rachel ShaneAlice in Wonderland High
by Rachel Shane
Merit Press
from Book Expo

Hilary and I both grabbed copies of this charming YA at the Book Expo, because the whimsical premise appealed to us.Alice in Wonderland, retold at a high school with environmentalism and zaniness? Sure! And because the cover design was pretty.

Flipping through the pages, we could tell that Alice’s narrative voice would make a fun read as well:

“If there was one thing I’d learned so far in high school, it was this: good girls are just bad girls who don’t get caught.”

“My sneakers squeaked in a desperate attempt to announce my presence. Traitors.”

“Watching Whitney play an innocent flirt was like watching an army sergeant take dance lessons.”

I do love first-person snark in a YA novel.

The story of Alice in Wonderland is very much a driving force throughout the novel, from naming characters Alice Liddell, and pushing further by having her say things like “Curiouser and Curiouser!”, Whitney Lapin (she’s always late), to Chess Katz (who has a terrific smile)… mushrooms and gardens and having one of Alice’s newfound friends ask Alice “Who are you?” through a haze of pot smoke.

Reading this was very much an experience of:

animated gif from the Avengers of Steve Rogers saying

Updated, the Alice elements and lit refs were constructed inventively and plausibly. The environmental activism plot is both timely and allows for a wild garden atmosphere that fits with the original Alice in Wonderland, but also raises the stakes. (I especially liked Whitney’s brand of eco-pranks, planting defiant gardens in protest.) Setting scenes that introduce Alice to new friends who are varying degrees of sane and speaking in riddles mirrors the feel of Alice’s adventures.

I wish I’d read this while I was still a teenager. As someone [redacted number] years older than most of the focal characters, I had moments of wanting to smile fondly at the intensity, the single-minded urgency of their feelings and their dialogue, or cringe at the thought that I’d probably written something similar in some high school journal. Which is a way of saying that the intensity of first crushes, love and kisses, of friendship and possible betrayals, and just being in high school, is captured perfectly in the voices of Alice and her friends.

Highly recommend handing this to a teenager who enjoys whimsy in a YA plot, or someone who will enjoy catching the lit refs.

Book Review: Lair of Dreams

June 30, 2015

Lair of Dreams
Libba Bray
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Advance Copy via NetGalley

I didn’t expect there to be a sequel to the Diviners at all- the story worked as a self-contained, imaginative historical fiction that hit my sweet spots of being set in New York, following threads of an ensemble cast, and having really inventive scares that were just this side of almost too startling for me. But once I discovered that they were giving galleys away at BEA, getting one became a Serious Quest for me. Many thanks to NetGalley for coming through.

My thinking about Lair of Dreams evolved over the course of reading. Getting ready, I prepared myself by rereading The Diviners, which was a reminder of just how much I’d loved the thrills and scares of the plot. Even the bits that were almost too gory for me, or suspense that was nearly jarring. (I am by nature a squeamish soul, easily startled). I started out really liking Lair of Dreams and being pleased with it, but not absolutely blown away with love for it the way I was with The Diviners. Perfectly satisfying, but not off-the-charts. And I was satisfied with liking the book, but not loving it.

And then I kept reading… A few more chapters in, I really started to appreciate the way Lair of Dreams was constructed.

By its very nature, the menace and mystery of the plot is going to be more subtly creepy than its predecessor: there’s a sleeping sickness affecting people in New York, starting in poorer immigrant communities. Nobody knows why, and the entire city is scared. Lair of Dreams picks up the juxtaposed stories of the ensemble cast of characters from its prequel. I enjoyed watching the characters who’d survived the terrors of the first volume, as they each grew into answers to the question of “What now?”

I find storylines that humanize having supernatural powers immensely satisfying: being able to do a supernatural thing might make some talents larger than life, but ultimately, the person with the powers is still the same person, with insecurities, confusions, pettiness maybe, selfishness, a narrow focus on the short term. Establishing the characters in the aftermath of the first story meant seeing them adapt (sometimes badly) to how their lives had changed. Even the romance aspect had excellently messy and ambiguous near-answers that delighted me. (Especially in genre fiction and YA, I think there is far too much certainty about love, and to see this take a different approach was outstanding.) Henry and Ling might have been my favorite plot thread, with Evie and Sam a close second. The shifting allegiances and conflicts felt like natural extensions of the characters rather than being forced.

Another thing that Lair of Dreams did that I especially enjoyed was pulling back to create a larger social context to frame the supernatural events. The story is set in the 1920’s, mostly in New York. But it pulled back at various points to show how America might react as a nation: a few nods to the revival/evangelical religious, as well as to eugenics absolutely made historical sense, as well as adding a good dash of government conspiracy suspense and menace to help build the mood. There were also some riffs on folklore and Americana that were just fun to read for the language. The passages taking the more overarching view reminded me nicely of American Gods.

All of these elements grew on me over the course of the book, building to a plot resolution I genuinely didn’t see coming. While the pacing shifted from the self-contained scare of the first installment, to what is more clearly a long game with plot threads that are clearly going to carry out into a sequel (and possibly more) the events of Lair of Dreams didn’t end on a cliffhanger. I feel, given the trend, especially in genre YA to end on a cliffhanger (I still haven’t entirely forgiven Maureen Johnson for The Madness Underneath, but I digress), it’s important to note that it’s safe to read Lair of Dreams without having to wait til the next book is in hand.

Just make sure to read The Diviners a few weeks prior, and be ready to shift from startling suspense to a subtler creepiness, in Lair of Dreams.

Scary Stories to Read on the Beach

June 26, 2015

We’ve had a few weeks of humid, sultry days. I’ve been enjoying a spooky re-read of The Diviners, preparing to dig into the sequel Lair of Dreams (my biggest must-read from this year’s Book Expo.)  Re-reading The Diviners, I’m reminded how much I enjoyed the story. It’s a creepy novel set in the 1920’s. It has the allure of magic and the supernatural, a great ensemble cast that captures New York in the era of the flapper, the enticing chill of a ghost story, and some frankly squeamish gory scenes of menace and murder.

Reading on bright, sunny days, or humid, stormy evenings, I remember the first time I read The Diviners. It was in the summer, two years ago, so I had the same juxtaposition of humid days and horrifying, spooky reading. It got me thinking about how much I enjoy that juxtaposition. I love reading a dark, spooky mystery on a bright, sunny day. I don’t know exactly whether the disconnect between my atmosphere and the book amplifies, or tames the creepy feeling to just the right degree. (Not going to lie, I can be a coward and a wimp when it comes to scary, violent books and movies. I still remember how many lights I had on in the apartment the night I finished The Alienist.) Maybe there’s just enough disconnect between the story and my surroundings to make the thrill satisfying, rather than nightmare inducing.

I still remember the first time I enjoyed a truly scary book on a beach. It was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and I was on a Caribbean beach. The contrast between the dazzling blue ocean and the slowly building menace of Hill House made the whole reading experience so much better. It was like a piano solo injecting sweetness into a gritty rock ballad, dark chocolate with the kick of sea salt or chili, or wearing bright pink argyle socks with a sharp business suit (those who know me will know just how much I like that last juxtaposition in particular.) The slight disconnect between the two moods makes the overall mood better.

And then there was the beach vacation where I read nothing but murder and crime novels. And it was great. If a bit unplanned. After the fact, I felt slightly ghoulish.

I know Beach Reads can be marketed as their own, relatively narrow genre. Over at Book Riot, Jessi Lewis makes several good points on that score:

But, let’s pause for a moment and think about how utterly distracting the “beach read” term is in a bookstore. It’s interesting to see that it’s not just “light reading” the beach label is working with– you also have an excess of travel lit, a lack of tragic historical, a great and overwhelming fiction theme that includes the sun on covers, and many violent thrillers that end in chase scenes. Not that chase scenes are bad plot elements, but it’s rough when a seasonal formula defines the plot lines of books.

Speaking of the seasonal formula for book genres and marketing, this gets me thinking, also, of my book reviewing days for the Star-Ledger. Fran the editor would send over a wonderful pile of ghostly and ghoulish reads for me to write about for an October publication date. And the timing usually worked perfectly for that sweet spot of a dark, spooky read on a bright, sunny day as summer wound itself down. Stretched out in a hammock to read about vampires looming out of the shadows. Rattling the cubes in my sweating glass of iced tea when the suspense of the story made me jump.

I tend to think of scary stories as Not My Thing, and to avoid reading them unless given a book to review.

But I need to remember just how much a good scare hits the sweet spot for me on a warm, summer day.

Book Review: Primates of Park Avenue (a memoir with an asterisk)

June 12, 2015

Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir
by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.
Simon and Schuster
free review copy via Edelweiss

As a fan of social history, and a bit of an armchair anthropologist, I was looking foward to reading this book. (I majored in anthropology in college, mostly because reading ethnographies appealed to my fondness for a well-told tale, along with my intrinsic nosiness and tendency to want to see patterns.) The idea of an anthropological take on the uptown New York “ladies who lunch” also piqued my curiosity. My personal favorite use of anthropological analysis has been to squint at the familiar, and the domestic, and try to figure out its underpinnings as though it were a faraway tribe. And, despite sharing an island with these super-affluent women, I very much see them as a separate, and remote tribe. I was looking forward to this book both as a chance to be a bit voyeuristic into the world of designer handbags (even after reading Martin’s ode to them, I’m not wholly sure I know what a Birkin bag looks like) and blown out hair and cutthroat private preschool admissions and the proscriptions of designer workout wear.

The fact that Martin combined descriptions that satisfied my desire to gawk at the luxe life with anthropological analysis and metaphors drawing connections between these wealthy mommies and the behaviors of primates in the wild made the book even more fun to read. Explaining women’s role in apartment hunting by drawing connections to hunter-gatherer practices, or highlighting similarities between Physique 57 workout classes and tribal initiation rituals (or primate mating displays)…or working to understand the extreme practices of plastic surgery (even, yikes, numbing foot injections to withstand towering, pinching heels) by seeking commentary from a professor of ornithology, ecology and evolutionary biology.
I feel the book delivered exactly what I wanted: a combination of a voyeur’s look into the weird world of the super-rich, with decently constructed anthropological metaphors. It whets my appetite to read more anthropology and sociology, and makes me nostalgic for sitting in a classroom and digging into ethnographic texts with my professors’ guidance.

So I had fun with this, and emerged from reading it thoroughly satisfied. It wasn’t deathless prose, and some of the insights could have been communicated with more subtle writing… but I think a lot of her analysis made sense, and her points were laid out clearly, if not always artfully.

But, of course, here’s the thing. Right about when I started reading it, just before its publication date, it turned out, there were “factual errors,” in the book despite her claims of academic rigor, or of sticking to the facts.

I haven’t decided what I think about this. That knowledge, that maybe she wasn’t there as long as she claimed, or that details had been fudged, did not impact my enjoyment of an engrossing read, with descriptions I could just about picture, and analysis I appreciated.

Here’s what I’m left wondering, about the commentary about the book’s truth or not…Why the outrage? It’s mostly a memoir, as in, what she remembers happening, and she’s used her academic knowledge to tease out and question some assumptions about the social structures she described in the text. The narrative was coherent enough to keep me reading, and leave me thinking about my own social world as well as hers.
I think it might be a better idea to remember the importance of accounting for the role personal point of view, and conscious narrative structure play in participant observation and ethnographic narrative, and, of course, memoir.

In my junior year of college, I took a terrific class about anthropology and documentary film. And one of the most important themes of the class was the need to remember that a documentary, seen through the ostensible camera lens of capturing actual events, is just as carefully constructed to tell a story as a fictional screenplay and film.
And why shouldn’t the same be even more true in the medium of text? Details blurred, reconstructed, embellished, lost in translation, even made up, in the transition between actual experience to understood experience, to written text.

Instead of outrage and asking if Primates of Park Avenue got the details wrong, or is faked, or false, or diminished by fudging the details?… let’s ask a better question:
How on earth could we expect it to be an account of objective truth? And why aren’t we taking this critical, questioning view of more stories (news accounts, let’s just say, perhaps) presented as objective, unvarnished truth?

What do you think? Of the book? Of truth and memoir? Of designer handbags? Drop me a line.

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