26 February 2011

Delicious (Sherry Thomas)

Another winner--is romance just awesome, or are my friends awesome recommenders? Little from Column A...

Delicious is a story about hunger, figurative and literal. Verity Durant becomes cook to Liberal MP Stuart Somerset after the unexpected death of his half-brother (and her former lover), Bertie; what he doesn't know is that she was the nameless woman he thinks of as Cinderella from a single ardent night ten years before. She remembers, though, and from the shadows cooks him meals full of passion and memory--his early childhood in the slums of Manchester, his friendship with Bertie that turned sour as they aged. He's got an inconvenient fiancée, she has a son she won't acknowledge and a hidden past. It's a lovely story of rediscovery and forgiveness...and omigoodness, the food! Anyone know where I can get a cheap madeleine mold?

[P.S. Nobody remembers the 1999 Sarah Michelle Gellar-Sean Patrick Flannery vehicle Simply Irresistible, a romantic comedy about a gal whose cooking is literally magical, right? No? Uhm, me neither.]

24 February 2011

Silent in the Grave (Deanna Raybourn)

One thing I'm learning for myself about the romance genre--which any frequent reader will greet with DERR--is that it's huge, encompassing many historical and alternate-historical periods and settings, levels of explicitness from hand-holding to threesomes and moresomes, divergent writing styles. The throughline, as far as I can see? People fall in love. In other words, the romance "genre" is really most of the stories ever told, filmed, or written. (The others? Probably war stories.)

I started thinking about this whilst reading Deanna Raybourn's compelling and well-written Silent in the Grave--recc'd to me on Twitter by the lovely Sarah Rettger--and wondering, "OK, why is this a romance?" It has the trappings I've grown to love about historicals: faithfully detailed fashions, vocab, and manners (down to uncomfortable class and ethnic distinctions); a heroine who doesn't fit into her society, and a plausible explanation for same (Lady Julia Grey was raised by her crazy family and a succession of Radical tutors); a broody, prickly hero for verbal sparring and unbidden sparks. Lady Julia is certainly attracted to Nicholas Brisbane, a private inquiry agent hired by her late husband, and there's a good ol' Crushing Kiss 2/3rds of the way through; as the first in a series, I think the romantic arc will play out over multiple books, which could be very gratifying (and again, as a measure of how much I enjoyed the book, I am TOTES reading the rest...at...some...point...TOO MANY BOOKS). Still, the driving plot of the novel is not the attraction but a mystery, a very good one. The library I got it from emblazoned "MYSTERY" on the spine...so which is it? Mysterious romance or romantic mystery? While I'm tempted to just say, "Ehn, who cares? Good book," in the reality of publishing and bookselling, what "genre" a book is relegated to is vitally important for reviews, audience, sales, even cover art. (Read Lionel Shriver's wonderful essay on the ladylike covers for her brutal novels.) Romance is an almost exclusively female genre, making it easy to dismiss; mystery, on the other hand, is in my selling experience fairly equally split, though as another huge genre, there are pockets that are more stereotypically feminine or masculine (series set in yarn shops--yes, there's more than one--vs. geopolitical thrillers, e.g.). Then again, a depressing number of men aren't that interested in reading anything with a female protagonist, so shelving this particular title in mystery might not widen its gender audience. Then again again, plenty of women turn up their noses at romance, and I'd hate for them to miss books like this.

Great first lines: "To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor."

Following her husband's death, ostensibly the result of a heart complaint that's prematurely killed men in his family for generations, Lady Julia is appalled by Brisbane's revelation that he'd been hired by a terrified Edward over poison-pen letters, and his suggestion that the death might not have been natural. She throws him out. Then, a year later, while clearing out Edward's study, she finds one of the notes...and the two embark upon an investigation frustrated by the length of time that's passed. It's wonderfully full of danger and dark secrets, as well as Lady Julia's gradual embrace of her widowhood as freeing--an excuse to explore the unconventional and forge her own path--and a satisfying, surprising ending. (For me, the #1 test of a mystery's success.)

Inspired by this reading, I'm thinking of doing a Mystery March to follow my Romance February. Recommendations, of course, accepted!

22 February 2011

The Iron Duke (Meljean Brook)

This is the romance novel China Mieville would write, body horror and all.

It's set in a steampunk alternate England, nine years after the fall of the two-century regime of the Horde--yup, the Mongolians have nanotech in this world, and they were ruthless about using it, infecting and controlling the population of Britain with radio-operated "bugs" that suppress the emotions (except when whipped up into an occasional mating frenzy, the issue of which were taken from their parents and raised in centralized crèches). They also cyborged (not that that's a verb) thousands of laborers: pneumatic hammers for miners' legs, arms modified into sewing machines--reminiscent of Mieville's Remade, though less Dantesque. 

After the former pirate Rhys Trahaearn destroyed the Horde's control tower, acquiring the titular dukedom for his trouble, the slowly reconstituting society finds itself divided between "buggers," the nanoagent-carrying former subjects, and "bounders"--those with ancestors wealthy or lucky enough to have escaped to the New World before the occupation, now returned to a country they still consider their own (yes, I love that these terms are repurposed insults!). Relations between the two groups are strained at best--bounders are obviously resented by those who suffered under Horde control, and they in their turn distrust buggers who can be controlled by technology. And bounders and buggers alike often view our heroine, police inspector Mina Wentworth, with disgust or hostility: she is half-Horde, the product of a Frenzy at which her mother was raped. (Her mother, in fact, gouged out her own eyes upon seeing her daughter's telltale features. Though she seems to have come to terms with it over the 30 years of Mina's life, and has awesome new prosthetic eyes.)

Mina meets the Iron Duke (to what extent that moniker is literal I shall leave as an exercise for the reader) investigating a dead body found on his estate--a man who seems to have dropped from the sky. They have the expected Sudden Overwhelming Hot Pants for each other, but their mystery-solving airship-voyaging ass-kicking boot-knocking journey to Happily Ever After is fraught with some really dark and complex issues: not only is Mina the product of rape, she was forced into a Frenzy shortly before the fall of the Horde and equates her own sexual desire with loss of identity and control, leading to a really excruciating scene where Rhys mistakes her struggling during oral sex as arousal, and essentially assaults her by accident. I KNOW, RIGHT?!?! And it's a believable scene, too, not the now-squick-inducing "forced orgasm" trope found in 70s romance novels (ever so pithily summed up by the Smart Bitches as "rapetastic"); his shock and horror at realizing what he's done are backed up by his own history, sold into prostitution at the age of eight.

Again: I KNOW, RIGHT? This is not a fluffy book, and I have to applaud its audacity.

(Also? I am pretty sure there's some kind of 9/11 allegory going on, though I can't really tease out direct equivalents. But it takes place nine years after the fall of a tower, and sometimes the buggers are referenced as being sleeper agents for a foreign power, echoing some anti-Muslim rhetoric...I might be COMPLETELY reading too much into it, though.)

18 February 2011

Soulless (Gail Carriger)

I am ever so pleased to announce that I did, in fact, re-finish Anathem, in a week even! And I liked it again, even without the #mindblown of the first go-round. A nice chat with the Freebird book club, as well--I may have been too shy to stick around and introduce myself, but I can yammer about books anytime.

Still, fun as nerdatron me found it, Anathem is Heavy, and thus Gail Carriger's almost impossibly breezy Soulless, a hybrid steampunk-Victorian-comedy-mystery-romance--with werewolves'n'vampires!--was a most welcome digestif, perfect for reading in McGolrick Park on a teasing taste-of-spring day (a balmy 67 degrees). It features a plucky, acid-tongued, too-smart-for-her-own-good heroine, Miss Alexia Tarabotti, who cannot forgive her father for having the poor taste to be both Italian and dead; in addition to an unfashionable olive complexion and a formidable figure, he bequeathed a most peculiar genetic defect (OK, I can't stop talking like that, because the whole book is written in the elaborate deadpan of Austen crossed with Wodehouse. Also I need to stop comparing folks to Wodehouse until I've read some, jeepers). Miss Tarabotti was born without a soul. This gives her an advantage over London's supernatural population, as any vampire or werewolf she touches loses their powers during contact. And one particular werewolf, Lord Maccon, Alpha of the capital's pack? Well, they do a lot of touching. It's a funny and silly little confection of a book, and I liked it well enough I plan to suss out the rest of the series at the first opportunity.

16 February 2011

Two cents.

So the huge news in the book world today is Borders filing for Chapter 11 and closing 200 stores (including the one half a mile from my house in Wichita, where I bought most of my books in high school. And, uhm, made out with my boyfriend in the parking lot). Might as well add my tiny voice to the din of blogging. Here's what I said to a friend on Facebook who asked "Why is it bad that a mega-chain bookseller is closing?":

Well, it's bad news for the thousands losing their jobs, certainly, and for the publishers large and small who'll never see the millions of $$ Borders owes them. And it's bad news for communities whose only access to bookstores is a Borders.... It's bad news for all bricks & mortar bookstores because pundits will use it as an example of Why the Bookstore is Antiquated, and because it will drive even more traffic to Amazon, which will use the money to further its monopoly-seeking corporate agenda. Finally, it's bad news for me personally because it's going to flood the already nonexistent bookseller job market here with competition, some with more experience than me, and I don't have a resume good for anything else.

11 February 2011

The Comedians (Graham Greene)

Speaking of twentieth-century British Catholic novelists (because I was. Waugh, remember?): finished Graham Greene's 1965 Haiti-under-Papa-Doc novel, The Comedians, another that's hung out on my TBR list for ages--two years, in fact, as I added it after reading this wonderful collection of Greene's letters. And considering Baby Doc's recent return to Haiti, this is the closest I come to topical.

It's the story of three unremarkably-named men who meet on a boat to Port-au-Prince: Smith, an American presidential candidate, who ran against Truman on a vegetarian platform, and proudly polled 10,000 votes; the clearly pseudonymed Jones, a trickster of mysterious origins (a trope no one does better than Greene); and Brown, our narrator, another Greene archetype, this one the rootless, jaded, aging British expatriate who becomes caught up in the fruitless idealism of others. 1960s Haiti, the worse for its people, exemplifies another fascination of his, the society in decay. Like 1930s Mexico in The Power and the Glory, postwar Vienna in The Third Man, or colonial Vietnam in The Quiet American, it's a minefield of shifting alliances and sudden violence.

Most interesting, I think, are the Americans. Smith and Mrs. Smith ignore the warnings of experience and book a room at Brown's hotel, once glitzy with glamor and famous for its rum punch, now emptied out by fear. They're stubbornly trusting and optimistic, staunchly anti-racist, willing to jump through mental hoops to explain away or justify the corruption and terror of Duvalier's government and secret police (the Tontons Macoute). Yet they are thoroughly good people, without the fatalist core of so many Greene characters, and the only mutually supportive and happily married couple I can recall in Greene's work, sympathetically portrayed despite the charmingly archaic use of "vegetarian" to mean "flaky."

The Comedians is more of a piece than it is unique, in the prolific scheme of Greene's work (after all, he wrote steadily for 60 years)--but by this I mean that it's part of a wide, deeply moral--and very readable--vision of the twentieth century that can't be missed.

09 February 2011

An Evening of Long Goodbyes (Paul Murray)

Paul Murray's Skippy Dies was my arbitrarily chosen favorite novel of '10 (or maybe it was Perdido Street Station? GAH do not make me make this decision!), and I am so very, very pleased to report that his first novel is every bit as good. Reviewers (including me) have thrown around comparisons to Wodehouse, but--and I say this while shamefacedly hanging my head for never having read Wodehouse, just totally watched all the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Woosters--I think Evening also partakes greedily of the spirit of Evelyn Waugh, at his vicious, darkest, funniest best.

The narrator, Charles Hythloday, is a willfully retrograde country gent, living the Brideshead dream of leisure and far too much wine, watching Gene Tierney movies and ignoring the world outside, i.e. fin de 20e siecle, awash in new money and Eastern European refugees. His father (a cosmetic chemist) is dead; his mother in rehab; and his actress sister, Bel, has brought home an absolutely appalling gentleman friend (described by Charles as"bulky and distended, grotesquely so, like one of those self-assembly IKEA wardrobes I'd seen advertised on TV"). Also, his Bosnian-or-something housekeeper is acting a bit batty, and furniture seems to be disappearing. And those dull-looking envelopes Charles has been stashing in the string drawer for Bel to look at at her leisure are, in fact, increasingly dire mortgage notices. Without a Jeeves, what's a Wooster to do?

Charles's voice is so constantly quotable, so hilarious, so affected, so willfully oblivious to reality--of his family, of Ireland, of, indeed, modern society as a whole--just the perfect viewport on the often gritty and terrible truths of the world. This is what reminds me so much of Waugh: the mix of utter frivolity with societal chaos and decay, tragedy and farce cheek to jowl.

There is also, I have to say, some of the BEST worst dialogue I've ever read, from an oh-so-socially-conscious play performed in the erstwhile Hythloday ballroom: "Don't you see? My addiction was a cry for help. Heroin was replacing the love that you, and at a larger level society, weren't giving me." Priceless!


Hey, remember when this blog was going to be book reviews AND creative writing from me? Hilarious! However, I am moved to post a couple of actual poetry-related items. Don't worry, this won't take long.

First, go read this "Ode to the Semi-Colon" over at Theresa's blog, because it is AMAZING and I wish I had written it! Semi-colons are just beautiful. Like a mermaid on a rock, or a cat with a fluffy tail.

Second! In belated honor of Elizabeth Bishop's centenary yesterday, a wee snip of a poem I wrote for her and Wallace Stevens back during a self-imposed "Yeah, you should really read some 20th-century poetry" period several years ago, entitled...

Poets in Waiting Rooms

Elizabeth Bishop
at the oral surgeon’s;
her waters run through
my land-locked aesthetic but no less so
does the word “maxillofacial.”

Wallace Stevens
through three hours at the DMV,
on the last day of my period.
Here it is hard to love
the concrete over the abstract;
here I believe him the vague comfort
of the unreal.

Though with handfuls of ugly-
worded colors I have no doubt
Stevens would make this queue radiant
as lead and flaxseed imitating moonlight.

Oh gosh, another book I need to read.

Crabspackle! I forgot that WORD has started a Classics Book Group, reading the Russians this year--finally, an impetus to read Anna Karenina! (Even though I am going to be a total jerk and check it out from the library, being totally skint whilst I wait for freelance checks/tax refunds so I can reimburse my bf for the goddamn rent. If I get a real job by the end of the month, will dutifully pick it up at the source.) Which adds another hefty tome to the TBR pile...I did chop it down yesterday by devouring An Evening of Long Goodbyes (see: No Real Job), which was GAH amazing, and deserves its own entry. Later today, promise!

08 February 2011

The week in romance. (And an unavoidable hiatus.)

I flew through THREE books last week--which is great, because I've got some other must-reads clogging up the ol' spare time, on which more later. Some thoughts on each:

When Beauty Tamed the Beast, Eloisa James: Gosh, this was just great. A heroine with her rep in ruins because of an unfortunately pleated dress, a hero based on Gregory House (muscle infarction, "everybody lies," and all, though it's his father who was the opium addict), a castle in Wales!! Followed it up with An Affair Before Christmas, another James with an altogether different trope: it's about an already-married couple made miserable by her awful, awful mother's having taught her that sex was horrible and disgusting and not be enjoyed at any cost, and their gradually getting to know each other as people, leaving aside the physical aspect until their love is based on a firmer foundation. So sweet.

A thorough James convert I; not as blown away by the central romance in Courtney Milan's debut,Proof by Seduction, but still liked the book's exploration of the pathetic economic options available to women of "uncertain birth" in early Victorian England. The heroine has supported herself as a fortune-teller for 12 years; the hero's the cousin of one of her clients and a reluctant marquess who'd rather be studying macaws in Brazil. Their cross-class attraction strains her wishes for independence--how to be his lover without becoming his mistress?--and makes her ashamed of a profession based on lies. What I liked best about the book was the dynamism of the characters, all of whom are troubled and unhappy--Jenny's ambivalence, Lord Blakely's social awkwardness and passion subsumed to duty, and especially the cousin-client, Ned Carhart, a painfully sweet naif prone to depression and self-loathing. For their happy ending, all of these people have to create different visions of themselves, and Milan doesn't pretend it's easy.

I'm going to have to take a brief break, howevs, due to two factors: first, I have a couple of library books due in three days that can't be renewed--An Evening of Long Goodbyes and Graham Greene's Haiti novel The Comedians. Second, Freebird Books' Post-Apocalyptic Book Club (yes, that is the greatest book club idea ever) is discussing Neal Stephenson's 2008 tour de force Anathem next week! I am not entirely optimistic about my being able to reread the entire 1000-page tome by the 17th, but I'd like to reread it anyway. Here's my original review from the first go-round:

AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Plato, Saint Augustine, Leibniz, Kant, Mach, Husserl, and Godel make up Anathem’s metaphysical backbone,” Neal Stephenson tells us in his acknowledgments. It’s a wise assertion to make up front, warning the reader, in effect, Ideas Ahead; while he may lose some of his audience, those of us who think to ourselves “Ooh, I love Saint Augustine and Leibniz and Kant!” know right off we’re in for a treat.

Anathem is less science fiction than philosophy fiction (to coin a phrase and a genre). Set on the Earthlike planet of Arbre, it’s told in the voice of young Fraa Erasmas of the Concent of Saunt Edhar, part of a worldwide network of sequestered intellectuals called avout. These men and women have for millenia lived a cloistered existence, cut off from contact with the outside world except during certain festivals. And what do they do within their walls? They think: about numbers, geometry, astronomy, physics; they study the ideas of their forebears; they form squabbling philosophical orders; they relentlessly discuss and examine every notion they have in formal Socratic dialogue, chasing down illogic and ferreting out bits of truth. Around them, civilizations and religions rise and fall—but the avout stick to their discipline, and keep knowledge safe.

And then, something appears in the sky, and everything changes.

The high point of Stephenson’s talent, as should be obvious from all the neologisms in this review, is world creation. Fifty pages in, he can reel off a sentence that, out of context, makes no sense at all—but without resorting to clumsy exposition, he’s immersed the reader in this familiar/unfamiliar world so completely that its vocabulary becomes second nature. This is helped along by frequent entries from the avout’s most recent Dictionary, which go so far as to provide etymology. He’s also phenomenal at explaining difficult concepts, the great concepts, in fact: the nature of consciousness, the objective truth of plane geometry, the quantum possibilities of multiple universes.

If all this makes Anathem sound dry, that’s my fault entirely. In Stephenson’s hands, all of these heady concepts and hypotheses are part of a grand adventure. The novel is funny and weird and action-packed and even romantic. Just when I’d think I knew what was going on, he’d throw me a curve that upped the stakes. You’ll know, just from the acknowledgments, whether you’ll love Anathem. And if you do, I’d be happy to talk about it—because, as the avout and philosophy majors like me well know, it’s sharing ideas that make them true.

01 February 2011

Bloject! Also, a destined-to-be-teen-classic.

First: Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King) was a Printz Honor Book this year (the YA Newbery, essentially), and WOW. The story of a girl whose best friend from childhood turns his back on her, then dies, leaving to deal with overwhelming love, hate, grief--and the duty to clear his name. It's utterly raw but somehow hilarious. I love that there are interjections from her ex-alcoholic accountant father's POV as well as Vera's (and her dead friend Charlie, and the Pagoda that looms over their town)--lesser teen fiction will paint meddling parents in a strictly negative light, but these sections let us into Ken Dietz's own struggles: we know he always wants the best for Vera, even if he's not very good at figuring out how to make that happen. Really wonderful.

I've decided February will be a romance-readin' month! (And nerts, I am not the first person to coin the portmanteau "bloject." Isn't it great?) I figure I can handle two novels a week (and maybe still have some time to read Paul Murray's first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, whose first few chapters are a giddy, Wodehouseian Waughist pastiche). First some more Eloisa James, obvy: When Beauty Tamed the Beast (whose hero is loosely based on Gregory House! AWESOME) and An Affair Before Christmas (second in the Duchesses series). Then whatever comes from the ol' liberry fastest--I've reserved:

I will keep you in the loop! V. excited.
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