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
Nothing in particular binds these reviews together, other than the fact that I’ve read the books fairly recently, and had some thoughts about them that weren’t long enough for bigger posts.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Simon & Schuster
e-galley from Edelweiss
Devastating. Impressive, in that it didn’t put a valiant sheen on war by turning it into an adventure. Ensemble, alternating perspective, weaving from Tom and Mary living in London and bearing the destruction of bombs and the Blitz… and Alastair, joining up and heading to the front. Alternating between their stories and perspectives makes the emotional pacing work really well, even though they’re living completely different (and heartbreaking) experiences.
Impressive, in that I’ve never seen a WWII novel openly deal with racism this way.
Lovely turns of phrase kept weaving through brutal, violent passages. Marking a long night of bombs overhead, with a piano in a jazz club. A jar of blackberry jam, luminous on a barracks windowsill. I kept underlining bits of sentences, or brief images, both the lovely happy ones, and the startling, harrowing images of war. It took me ages to read this, because I kept putting it down, just before I decided I wanted to cry. Possibly pair this with The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, for similar lovely prose surrounding wartime heartbreak.
The Bookshop on the Corner
William Morrow Paperbacks
e-galley from Edelweiss
This is possibly the sweet, reassuring book you need right after reading the above. The start of this book hit a little bit close to home for an early-career librarian, I have to say. Nora’s job at her beloved library comes under threat when the library is redesigned as a digital, interactive, space, with new management that is looking for cutting edge corporate technology, rather than the skills of a readers’ advisory librarian. On the plus side, it’s set in Scotland, and it’s a romance for a librarian, so it’s wish-fulfilliment for me. Nora gathers up her courage, leaves everything familiar behind and moves to rural Scotland, where she purchases a giant van to turn into a mobile bookshop. The tiny Scottish village where she lands is almost too precious, with an idyllic setting and gruff eccentrics slow to welcome Nora. I was just as jealous of the sensuous descriptions of farm-fresh eggs and cream and food, as I was of the bookshop life and the romance. Not too many surprises (Am I too cynical to read romance novels?) it’s a romance, after all. But it’s a good, happy read. I liked the characters. My only complaint is that I wish there was an annotated bibliography at the end, so that I can go read all the books that were described just as tantalizingly as the food. Some of the titles Nora mentioned and sold real books I recognized, but I’m pretty sure others were invented for the sake of the story… and I want that confirmed, or I want to find the books being referenced. Especially that one children’s book!
A Shameful Murder
Lucked into this as a book recommendation on Goodreads, and found a copy at the library. Set in the dark, foggy streets of Cork, Ireland in 1923, this wonderfully atmospheric mystery forces Reverend Mother Aquinas to confront murder and dark secrets when the body of a murdered debutante floats up from the canal, almost onto the convent’s doorstep. The Reverend Mother sends for Police Sergeant Peter Cashman, one of her former pupils, now a member of the police force. A member of the clergy solving mysteries? Yes please! (It was possibly my Grantchester binge that tipped off the Goodreads recommendation algorithm). I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the story through Mother Aquinas. Although living in the convent, she’s not completely cloistered from the realities of the world. Interestingly, there are intimations of her own origins, born into a high society life she left to take vows. She’s observant, curious, resourceful. The dynamic between the Reverend Mother and the Police Inspector was a delight. They had to transition from past pupil and teacher, to sort of collaborating to solve the crime, in a way that stayed respectful of her vows, his work, their past as student and teacher. The whole mystery is fascinatingly steered by the social strictures of Cork of that time: religion and class and family relationships govern how secrets are kept, who can learn what information, and even how the mystery can be solved. This has the feel of a great series, and turned the last few pages hoping there were at least 6 more books to launch me into a binge read.
Saw the new Ghostbusters on Thursday night. I want to get my thoughts down, but of course, I want to be decorous about spoilers.
We’ll start with my own memories, expectations, everything I was trying like mad not to bring into the movie with me. Ghostbusters the first is one of my go-to, happy childhood, nostalgia and smiles and watch anytime at all, movies. (The fact that original Ghostbusters and E.T. share a place in my heart with the Muppets as formative media probably says a lot about me.) I must have seen Ghostbusters for the first time when I was no more than seven, because I remember having a Ghostbusters logo T-shirt when we were living in California, and I remember running all over the kindergarten schoolroom and playground with my friend Eva, playing that we were Ghostbusters. As far as memory serves, the rules of playing Ghostbusters involved running around, making scowling “important scientists looking for ghosts” faces, and inside the classroom, a sign of ghosts was when the fluorescent lights of the classroom flickered. Kids are weird.
I must have seen original Ghostbusters before we moved from California. I know the scary monster parts with Zuul didn’t scare me nearly as much as seeing Disney’s Fantasia a few years earlier. (“Night on Bald Mountain” made me sleep with the hall light on for years. Brr!) And, as with the Muppets or the lyrics of Rolling Stones songs, the innuendo sailed over my head at the time. When I watched original Ghostbusters again as a teen and a grownup, I laughed with delight at so many of the parts I remembered of manic energy and spooks and wildness. And I got all the jokes.
Here’s something odd: Moving from San Francisco to New York was the Big Major Life-Change of my childhood. And I know I must have seen Ghostbusters right around then. I also know that, as a recently-arrived West Coast Transplant Kid, I didn’t connect New York to The City Where Ghostbusters Happened, and Now I’m Living Here. I remember being completely culture shocked by things like constant traffic noise, and knowing that our floor was someone else’s ceiling. And I remember seeing The Muppets Take Manhattan and feeling the connection of knowing that it took place in the city where I was now living. Maybe if my parents had taken me to the Schwartzman Building of the NYPL at an earlier age, I would have made the connection.
Or I might have decided to be a librarian at a much earlier age.
Trivia I am currently spouting at every opportunity: When the Ghostbusters question Alice, the librarian who gets spooked by the card catalog above, about any insanity in her family, she tells them that her “uncle thought he was St. Jerome.” St. Jerome is the patron saint of librarians!
I was probably destined to be a librarian.
But I digress, I think, from my original digression. Which was to say that I didn’t connect my love of Ghostbusters to moving to the city where it was set, at the time.
And this visitation of my memories is more of a review of the current Ghostbusters movie than it might originally appear.
I hadn’t thought about playing ghostbusters in the playground, not for years. I hadn’t thought about how connected to New York the original Ghostbusters movie was, or how much the first movie was part of my childhood.Seeing smart, funny women, celebrating friendships and wonder and zaniness and busting ghosts, gave me a happy nod to the young Elizabeth running around the playground busting imaginary ghosts with Eva. And a giant, validating middle-finger to any and all boys who told us girls “only boys can be Ghostbusters.” (Some of whom, I know, are whining in movie reviews and comments of their own. None of which I’m linking here, because this is my happiness and nostalgia post, and my playground, so there.) Ladies have the science and the proton packs now. And a generation of girls drawn to science? We can hope.
The new movie is full of sly jokes that made me laugh with recognition. Cameos and references to my beloved original movie, both in plot arc and in sly guest appearances that made the entire theater cheer. References to the realities of living in New York: the rent is too damn high, you get loyal to that one delivery guy, subways. And to the reality of seeing a movie set in, and talking about a city you love: debating where that “Seward” subway station on the 6 line is, recognizing a facade that’s absolutely not-the-Chrysler-building-we-promise.
It wasn’t a perfect movie. There were entire problematic plot threads where I was mad at the jokes to the point of not finding them funny, annoyed at the cheap-lazy jokes made at the expense of a promising character. Writers, do better! It matters!
Let this be my spoiler-free movie review, then. It made me remember being a kid watching the original. It made me laugh with recognition.
It was a love letter to the original movie. It was a grumpy, grudging, sweary love letter to New York, this difficult and weird and haunted city I call home.
But most of all and best of all, it was a love letter to friendship, and to the girls on the playground dreaming of proton packs.
I feel like I haven’t known what to do, what to say, for weeks. Weeks of sad news, heartbreaking stories of loss, of violence, relentless hatred. Made sense to let my book blog go dark for a bit, felt weird to be blithering about mysteries and spaceships and libraries in the face of the news.
Saw this OwlTurd comic, it resonated.
I work at maintaining optimism. I try to work from the belief that people around me are doing their best at any given moment. And to push myself to do my best and give my best. I work on accepting where I am, where people are, to meet us where we are and work from there. (Yes, sometimes it really, really takes work. But it’s important to me.)
Reading the news is heartbreaking, frustrating to feel helpless and crushed by the weight of World Events. I try to have faith. And man, does it take work, sometimes! It takes careful curation of my media, whether news outlets, social media, or reading preferences.
This resonated, too.
I know it’s my duty as a citizen and information professional to read the news, to stay informed, to bear witness. To read the experiences, fiction and nonfiction, of those whose voices are marginalized or under threat.
I also know that if I don’t counterbalance the news I consume with a pretty steady diet of fiction I can trust to have a reassuring, happy ending, I’m probably going to cry. Or scream. I need stories to help me feel steadier and less heartbroken about the fate of the world. (Even with seeking out positive endings and optimistic literature, I know I should be reading and reviewing more diverse voices, across different cultures and experiences. That’s on me to do better on the blog.)
Been thinking about writing this post for a few weeks. Because it felt spectacularly tone-deaf to blither along with just another round of book reviews or happy and whimsical link lists. I hate that there’s any number of tragedies and heartbreaks in the news, near and far, that could have inspired me to think and write these thoughts. But there it is.
Having woken up to the news about more violence this week, I felt helpless. I felt overwhelmed by how much violence is ravaging our country. Coming in to make flyers and to read tweets seemed pointless.
But then I remembered I was going to the Library.
At its core, a public Library is one of the few places on earth with no sides.
Everyone is welcome no matter what race, creed, religion, skin color, sexual orientation, gender identity, political view, or any of the other ways we divide and categorize each other.
I feel like today more than ever, the Library reminds us that we can work together. We have this place in each of our communities that stands up proud and tall and invites everyone in to be fed emotionally, intellectually, and yes sometimes literally.
I work in a college library, with students who are learning and building skills. I can help with research, push critical thinking, help polish job applications and cover letters. Offer books and articles that expand perspectives. So there’s that, to feel actually positive about.
I believe in trying to stay optimistic and upbeat, trying to encourage people. Sometimes, it takes work. Sometimes, I need to retreat behind a barricade of books for a bit.
I’m doing my best. I trust that you are, too.
Can I just say how much I love reading in the age of Twitter?
Jotting a few notes on Twitter can happen with the ease, speed and brevity of a note in the margin, with the added benefit of being able to share the note, and continue the conversation. When authors join the conversation, it becomes even more fun.
Of course, it’s not mandatory, never mandatory, that an author engage with me on Twitter when I’m blithering about their book.
Sure is fun, though.
With The Dragon Round, I happened to know the author beforehand, as we’d become friends while both working at AMACOM.
(There were also Twitter messages back and forth, which I can’t share here, as character names, and spoiler-y events are mentioned. They included wailing at Stephen over lost sleep, nearly-missed subway stops, and certain decisions about characters. He displayed an excellent lack of remorse.)
As many readers know, I’m a huge fan of the Billy Boyle series by James Benn.
Yes, the series is right in my sweet spot for character-driven historical mystery with heart and solid friendships. And the mysteries stand up to rereading. Which I am doing, now. I’m sure I’d enjoy them, even if I’d had no interactions with the author.
That said, I also know that James Benn is a kind soul, generous with his fans both online and off. (Also, a former librarian, so cool!) Does that influence how much I enjoy his books? Maybe.
I know that part of the enjoyment of re-reading has been Tweeting as I read.
So yes… Tweeting while reading has become a new part of enjoying a reading experience. I’m glad I can reach out and tell an author I’m enjoying a book, or reading a specific scene. And Tweets that become a conversation are really, really fun. (Not an obligatory part of my reading enjoyment, never that. I’m sure authors must feel pressure to be constantly on social media and interacting with fans. I’m sure that happens on an exhausting scale, as part of expanding their reach. And I bet that can get really weird.)
So this is a thank you, to Stephen S. Power, James R. Benn, Lauren Willig, Daniel José Older, and all the other authors writing, and Tweeting and connecting with readers.
It’s a treat.
The Dragon Round
by Stephen S. Power
Simon and Schuster
(e-galley from NetGalley)
I got an advance review copy from NetGalley in February, and within a few chapters, I was urging anyone who would listen to pre-order this excellent fantasy novel. I wrote a review saying as much even before I finished it. As I kept reading, I kept enjoying and appreciating how good it was. But enough of the reasons why evolved as the story went on that I decided it deserved a second take on the review.
Everything I said initially is still true: If you like swashbuckling, enjoyed Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, and are a discerning fantasy reader, you’re going to appreciate this book, especially for the seafaring adventure and shipwrecked island survival that set the tone of about the first half of the book, told mostly from the perspective of Jeryon, the ship captain, and Everlyn, the ship’s apothecary stranded with him. The worldbuilding was consistently impressive. Power’s prose makes the island and its strange flora and fauna easy to imagine, along with the physicality and behavior of the dragon.
I zoomed through the first chapters, enjoying the swashbuckling and island adventure, and the fact that the dynamic between captain and apothecary developed out of an uneasy alliance and sidestepped romance tropes in favor of solid friendship. (Made all the more enjoyable because it was true to the characters, and a decision that not nearly enough fantasy authors make.)
In the first half of the book, I saw some references to a corporate-driven culture with its machinations and eye on the bottom line, influencing the decisions characters made. I was impressed with a fantasy world developed enough to show the economics driving it forward. Showing the business sensibility made the world and the characters and their motivations more believable. I appreciated that perspective especially because, full disclosure, I knew Stephen when I worked at AMACOM, a business books publisher. (As I read, I entertained us both with Twitter updates, mostly a running tally of how many times I stayed up too late or nearly missed subway stops because I was swept up in reading.)
About midway through The Dragon Round, the adventure and swashbuckling mood takes a decidedly darker turn, driven in part by Jeryon’s revenge, but also by digging deeper to unpack the economic motivations and machinations, shifting between characters’ perspectives. The first section of the book focuses tightly on the three shipwrecked island dwellers, raising the dragon and working for survival in an idyllic adventurous way. But Jeryon has revenge on his mind, against the crew members that put him there, which turns the story decidedly darker and more brutal as it concludes. Lots of scheming. And violence. Deserved violence, creatively plotted and well written, with newly introduced characters given enough time that their deaths make sense.
I won’t say more about the specifics of how the revenge is exacted, because I want you all to read this and be as surprised as I was by certain plot elements. (We’re talking “read and muffle shocked noises in public” surprised.) Note for the squeamish: The author deploys the same care and vividness describing dragon violence, as evoking island idylls. So yes, there are grisly bits. Not all of which involve the dragon.
An important note for fantasy readers: while I hear there’s a sequel in the works (yay!), the novel concludes with enough satisfaction to stand alone and end properly.
In sum: Excellently crafted fantasy novel, with lots of action and surprises, and some revenge-fueled gore. And dragons. You should read it.
Placeholder to catch up with myself:
Rise of the Rocket Girls. V good, worth a reread. After I get it back from various family members who are reading it next.
The Winter Place by Alex Yates. Dreamy YA fantasy w Nordic folklore elements, welcome change from Ye Basic Vaguely Celtic Fantasy typical worldbuilding.
The St. Mary’s time travel books by Jodi Taylor. Review to be titled: Max can’t have nice things. In any century ever.
Commence binge-reread of Billy Boyle books, review the ones I haven’t done.
Something about the Tragically Hip. Not a book review, I realize but am overdue to do some writing in that vein.