Friday, December 30, 2011

Triangles - Geometry off the Page

This is another audiobook review for Audiobook Jukebox - the publisher sent me the discs.

Ellen Hopkins's Triangles (AUDIOWORKS, 2011, 8 hours) would be an excellent book to read in print, I suspect. I certainly have heard / read raves about it from trustworthy sources. I'm not familiar with her YA writing, but Hopkins brings a deft touch with poetic language to her comfortably paced adult novel about three women doing some mid-life soul-searching. Unfortunately, the narrators and the characters just didn't gel for me. The three women are Holly, her best friend Andrea, and Andrea's sister Marissa. All three are caught up in - and in need of escape from - lives that too often revolve around home and children. As my friends and I say, they need a little "me time." They don't always go about it in the psychologically healthiest ways, however.

Holly (voiced by January LaVoy) has it all, from an outside perspective. Staying at home with their three teens while her husband makes a success of his career, she finds herself unfulfilled, longing for the opportunities that might have been - if she'd finished college, if she's stuck with one or another of her hobbies, if, if, if. When she finally takes action, she takes extreme action - extramarital sex, and lots of it, so that the erotica she then writes doesn't have to rely much on her imagination. Although I generally liked LaVoy's voice talents, I felt she wasn't entirely connected with the non-raunchy sides of Holly's character, and because Holly was the least engaging of the three, this whole storyline was the weakest for me.

Andrea (voiced by Janel Moloney) is a single mom with an unfulfilling job at the DMV, who has been disappointed by her ex and past boyfriends and has chosen to stay celibate for a time. She's wary, watching Holly's implosion, but tries to stay connected to her friend while being dragged along to clubs and venues that aren't really to her taste. Despite that reserved side of her, which Moloney seemed to have grabbed as the only useful trait when voicing her, Andrea is smart, witty, attractive, and by far the most compelling character. It's primarily the disconnect between Andrea and Moloney that disappointed me and cast a pall over this entire production. It's both difficult and annoying to have to disregard the manner in which a story is badly narrated to get the full impact of the narrative.

Marissa (voiced by Jan Maxwell) is, like Holly, a SAHM with a successful husband. Her story is vastly different, though - raising a gay teen son and a terminally ill little girl leaves her without a second for anything approaching narcissism or hedonism. Not helping matters are her husband's frequent business trips and frequent drinks when he is home, much less his disapproval of his son. Marissa's was a painful story, and Maxwell was the only narrator who really touched me and made me cry - or let Hopkins's text make me cry - though the unrelenting bleak horizon she faced for so much of the novel made this part hard to always connect with. Much more than the other two, Marissa's story was easy to map out from her introduction, but Maxwell's talents kept me listening.

Interspersed with the three womens' stories were narrative poetry (voiced by Michele Pawk, who I could listen to read poetry for a good long while, I think.) These sections reflected on the geometry and the universality of the journeys the women took, and Hopkins cleverly and carefully uses them to elevate her novel from one with a lot of sex and fighting to one that asks probing questions and refuses to give you stock answers.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Spycraft

My reading lately has introduced me to worlds full of dead drops, double agents, and code breaking. So educational!

Joanna Bourne's The Black Hawk continues her world of French and English spies during the Napoleonic Wars. The Spymaster's Lady was the first of hers I read, and it remains my favorite, but this is a close second. I recommend them all, though, whether you're new to historical romance or turning into an old hand, like me. Bourne paints her characters beautifully, using the tensions of conflicting loyalties and professional dangers to marvellous effect. It's a great way to keep destined lovers apart, plus I love her forceful, determined, clever French female spies. This novel, in addition to exploring street urchin turned Head of Section Hawker, delves into the shadows cast by quiet, deft Pax. Bourne left me eagerly awaiting the next in the series, when I hope and trust we'll learn more about his journey. I also hope the baddies in Military Intelligence get what's coming to them.

Jumping forward a century or more, Jennet Conant's A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS looks at Child's early life, before she knew how to cook, though she did know how to spy. She and her future husband befriended, among other OSS operatives, Jane Foster. It was primarily this friendship that brought Paul to the attention of McCarthy and forced him to defend his roles in the East after WWII. The book is well researched and interesting, but I think I can be forgiven a certain level of disengagement based on my expectation that it would actually be about the Childs, not Foster.

John le Carré's Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy explores intra-agency intrigue in postwar Britain. George Smiley is reluctant to be drawn back into the Circus which shabbily sent him packing. However, it's clear to the upper echelons that there is a traitor in their midst, and George's ouster means he's in the rare position of knowing all the players while remaining free of suspicion. As so often happens in these (fictional) situations, the investigation also forces George to face his personal and professional demons. I had some issues with the pacing in the earlier parts of this novel, but everything built so inexorably to the end crisis. It ends very well, very tightly and tensely.

Monday, December 12, 2011

I Say, It's My Birthday

Forty-two years ago today I was a 7 pound 5 ounce emergency c-section. Cord wrapped round my neck, not an easy time for my mom. (Sorry, Mom!)

Twelve has always been, of course, my favorite number. You guys, next year, on 12/12/12, I'm gonna have the biggest party, and you're all invited! It'll be all duodecad towers of food, and, like, a gross of cupcakes, and we'll play the dozens, and Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw will be there, and we'll watch The Dirty Dozen then see Twelfth Night. You don't even know how amazing it will be.

On a related note, I always have my expectations too high about my birthday. I am a big baby. Actually, here's my on my first birthday. I was a happy girl. A new giraffe riding toy, and Mom made me a cake shaped like a kitty cat ("kitty cat" was about all I could say at one.) My big brother was probably nice to me, my little sister may have kicked happily in utero while the birthday song was sung. So it seems that when I was a big baby, I was good at birthdays.

It's at all those parties in between then and now that I have whined. The clown didn't make the right balloon shape for me, or I fell down too much on my ice skates, or someone gave me presents wrapped in Christmas paper. Or worst of all, the combined birthday-Christmas gift! Yeah, I didn't care if it was "better" than the two smaller gifts - no one else had to share their birthday with the season when everyone else got gifts, too. Was I not good enough to deserve a little Melanie-centric celebration separate from the crowd? No more candy canes on my presents, please!

I was reminded of this (and not just by Mom, who also noticed and commented) at my lovely niece's 4th birthday party last week. The poor girl had been talking about her birthday party for, literally, months. And my sister pulled out all kinds of amazing stops - there was a castle and a dinosaur and a unicorn and a dragon and it was all organized and beautiful and fun. But my niece had herself a couple of meltdowns that felt all too familiar to me. Because after months and months of dreaming about her Big Day, it was happening! But Jamie didn't understand that she wanted him to come look at her castle cake, and she loved her castle cake, but Jamie was just sitting there decorating a shield instead of looking at it! And that's the kind of blown idealism that a young perfectionist and secret narcissist (not the four year old, me) just can't handle.

But I've put on a lot of pounds since my original seven, and a lot of years, and I just want to tell Mom, and Robert, and everyone else over the years of my tantrums and bad mood birthdays: Thank You. I appreciate the surprise parties, and the non-surprise parties, and the balloons and the cakes (Mom makes the most amazing inventive cakes, y'all. Wait 'till you see the one she'll construct for 12/12/12. Right, Mom? ...Mom? You're making me a cake, right, Mom?) I treasure the gifts large and small, and the 'thought that counts' ones that I've returned (with or without pouting about how you just don't 'get' me), and yes, even the Birthday-Hanukkah-Christmas ones wrapped in Mother's Day paper. And the good wishes, the cards, the texts, the kisses on the forehead because I'm trying to sleep in and you're heading to school, the belated greetings, all of it. I'm blessed with many many lovely and loving and thoughtful people in my life, so hopefully all y'all need to forgive me for being a big baby about my birthday is this blog post.

Thanks for making me happy on my birthday.

Now off to plan for next year....

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hug on your babies!

So in case I don't get sentimental enough around the holidays (ask K how much I cried during the half of It's a  Wonderful Life we caught post-Thanksgiving) - I always like to delve into a few books that have high potential to make me maudlin. This season: kids without parents!

I've been a fan of Lisa Tucker's since her debut, The Song Reader. (My review of it never ran, but it was my first assignment for People, back when I wrote for them.) Her newest is The Winters in Bloom, and, yep, I still love her elegant and lyrical prose, and admire her insight into people. This one is about Kyra and David Winters, a pair of damaged individuals who think they've found that building a life together will allow them to let the sleeping dogs of their pasts lie. But it's a lie, and when their five-year-old, Michael, is kidnapped from their yard, they find themselves separately slammed into the realities of all they'd hoped to leave behind. Michael proceeds through his own dream-reality of the first hours away from his hovering, overprotective parents. Tucker gives his consciousness a chance to grow and observe in a very organic way that feels right for Michael's age.

I was listening to Xe Sands's narration of The Sweet Relief of Missing Children by Sarah Braunstein, while reading Tucker's novel, which added a layer to Michael Winter's experiences with his kidnapper. Not that Braunstein didn't include plenty of layers of her own for me to ponder. (Sands is another of those narrators I can listen to read just about anything, and her handling of the voices and tone of Missing Children really wowed me.) This is one of those well-constructed symphonies of a book - each storyline trading off and sometimes vying for prominence but all ultimately working together towards a common tune. In this case, the tune is missing children. Children who were taken, or who have run. Children who long for escape, and some who find it. Children who find that escape isn't all that escapist. It's powerful stuff, and Braunstein handles it deftly. Some POV is from the children, some from the adults, and not every adult or even every child is sympathetic. I'm torn between giving my kids a lecture on stranger danger and interrogating them about their innermost thoughts in order to somehow magically ensure that nothing Braunstein wrote in her debut could ever, in my world, be true.

Ann Patchett's State of Wonder (which I started out reading but had to return to the library, and finished up by listening to as read by the engaging Hope Davis) is - well, wonderful. One of my top ten of the year. (And it looks like I'll end the year at about 300 books, so that's a pretty tight percentage there.) Patchett is another author I'm always excited to see on the new titles lists - I presume every one of you has read Bel Canto already, right? If not, go away and get it immediately. Now! Go! Okay, so this one moves between Minnesotan research labs and the Brazilian rain forest, as Dr. Marina Singh fulfills a promise to the widow of her research partner, Dr. Anders Eckman. Anders died while chasing up the elusive Dr. Anneck Swenson, who had been Marina's inattentive but brilliant mentor in med school. Anneck does her best to stay elusive while Marina, who already has a bit of an identity push-pull thanks to her Minnesota-India heritage, finds unimagined facets of herself in the Amazon. Meanwhile she struggles with her obligation to Anders's widow and his three sons, to find out what really happened to him, and the purview from her boss to examine the state of Anneck's research, not to mention Marina's memories of the incident that drove her to leave medicine for research. The drugs being developed could enormously enlarge a woman's window for pregnancy, which niggles at the mind of forty-ish, single, childless workaholic Marina. It's all a rainbow of imagination-stretching elements, and in Marina, Patchett has created a prism through which to refract it back at the reader. Heady, engrossing, thoughtful stuff.

Also, there were those three fatherless boys, and the orphan child Marina befriends in Brazil, plus the losses and near-losses in the other books. So what I'm getting at here is, oh, I'm so glad I haven't lost my babies, or been lost to them. And hey, kids, you can laugh at the way holiday movies make me cry any old time.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Two Successes, a Failure, and a Treat

A few books of note from this month.

I finally got to finish Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, with the audioproducton of Monsters of Men. It is probably not a good thing to be driving down the freeway yelling, "Fucking bastard!" at the CD player, but that is what Ness, via the conniving Mayor Prentiss, forced me to do. I mean, I'm a fairly tolerant person, and not quick to take offense, in real life or by fictional characters. But Prentiss is just so evil and controlling, and I've been attached to Todd from page one of book one of the trilogy, so seeing him caught in the Mayor's web and in the middle of  the Mayor's war was excruciating. It's a good thing I was listening to this instead of reading it to my son, as I did with the first two books, because I would have had trouble controlling my reactions, and let's face it, probably I shouldn't use that kind of language around him. Listening was also great because I so enjoyed the narrators, Nick Podehl, Angela Dawe, and MacLeod Andrews. Frankly, though, I'm going to have trouble with the next book I hear narrated by Dawe, because so much of her own natural voice informed the voice she used for Mistress Coyle, and I was cringing at her treatment of Viola and the people she led almost as much as Prentiss's treatment of Todd.

Another highlight of the month for me was Farthing by Jo Walton. This is not as dystopian as Ness's world (where things were so messed up on Earth that a faction left the planet to settle on New World, which is where all the problems between the Prentiss and Coyle and all them began.) Walton's 1950s Britain is just like our 1950s Britain, except that the British negotiated a truce with Hitler in 1941 that ceded pretty much the rest of Europe to him while they retained self-rule and everyone just put on blinders about the genocide and work camps. Walton stages a murder in the middle of a political house party, brings in an intellectual Scotland Yard detective along with the plodding local police, shines the suspect spotlight on the Jewish husband of the rebellious politico's daughter, and throws in some adultery and communists and train schedules to give it all direction and misdirection. I was so happy to discover this book, and so absorbed in the plot and characters and style. It's book as sustenance, and I am replete.

Contrast that to A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin. In short (as nothing else about it is), I gave up about half-way through and went to the web to find out how it would end. I think three and a half of the Fire and Ice books is a pretty good showing, don't you? (I also used that wiki to find out what happens in the fifth book.)

Now, for those of you who either already love audio or are skeptical about my love of audio, go here. Be sure you have your tissues handy. The narrator Xe Sands started a project to publish short readings of public domain texts, which you can find about with the #goingpublic hashtag if you're on Twitter. (Follow me! I'm dakiMel.) The link above is for Margery Williams's The Velveteen Rabbit, which Sands imbues with such feeling and love that I defy you to read the text yourself without being (positively) informed by her narration. Also at Going Public is my audiocrush Simon Vance, so you can hear why I love him and then believe me and go listen to the dozens of hours of Aubrey-Maturin stories or wherever else you care to find him.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

2 random things

First - I left work early, picked the 16 year old up from school before his last period, and took him out to the Rural DMV. They were running a little behind, but he finally got to take his road test. He got a 90%. I called the insurance company. So, now he's a licensed driver, and he's spent more time with R's car today than R has.

Second - every once in a while I pull out one of the many American Tradition in Literature volumes we have laying aroud here from R's many many many years teaching high school English, and I read the boys a poem. K rewards me for this with a typical K interpretation afterwards. His favorite poets are "Wolly Mitten" and "Bob Snowy." Can anyone guess who these illustrious men are in non-K reality?

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Month of Sequels

Looking over my spreadsheet of the month, I see a heck of a lot of sequels, which explains my lack of blogging. I've already talked about Joanna Bourne, Eloisa James, Jillian Larkin, George RR Martin, Louise Penny, Kathy Reichs, and Dorothy L Sayers. I don't want to bore you, after all - if I'm still reading them, I'm still enjoying them. (Oh, Louise Penny! You keep making me cry. Chief Inspector Gamache is - gasp! - topping even Inspector Lynley as my most beloved modern police officer.)


But I've got to talk about a book I'd meant to read forever, and finally listened to this month: Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone. Oh, y'all. This book is gorgeous, and tense, and loving, and sad, and vivid. I was constantly bereft, then hopeful, and then bereft again. Sunil Malhotra was the narrator, and his voice really resonated throughout the story of Dr. Marion Stone, his quiet twin Shiva, their adoptive parents, and their lives in Addis Ababa. The twins are literally inseparable until birth, a virtually inseparable afterwards, through much of their childhood. Then: things go awry. It's just great.


Okay, tomorrow starts November. In November, I'm doing NaNoWriMo. So, less reading, less blogging, much much more writing. See you guys later!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Right Ho, AudioGo!

Another review on a title courtesy of Audiobook Jukebox.
Publisher: AudioGo, Pub. Date: September 13, 2011, Length: 4 hours, 48 minutes

I went through a gorgeously long P.G. Wodehouse phase in middle school - checked out every title in my local library. (Same branch I visit constantly now. Have I mentioned that I love my librarians? They are the nicest.) Periodically over the past couple of years, I've listened to some of the BBC full cast audio versions of Bertie and Jeeves tales, but haven't run across any of the titles as narrated by Ian Carmichael, until Jeeves in the Offing. (I've had the pleasure of Carmichael's narration on several Dorothy L Sayers novels, and he just screams Lord Peter to me - his voice is always in my head when I read Sayers in print.)

Carmichael is just as deft with Bertie Wooster - joyful, energetic, a tad daft, full of plummy rolling 'Rrrr's and glib onomatopoeia fun. Jeeves, Kipper Herring, Aunt Dahlia, Bobbie Wickham, and all the tertiary characters are equally well-rendered. It's all such a perfect complement to a classic Wodehousian farce - fake engagements, familial obligations, butlers who aren't butlers, a dachshund, and the infamous silver cow creamer all interact at cross-purposes. Unless the purpose is to get Bertie into deeper and deeper water, all while Jeeves is away on vacation. In that case, all the stars align perfectly.

Bertie finds he is unable to resist Aunt Dahlia's command that he keep her goddaughter from an unwise match. Although this involves falling off chairs, encountering his reviled old headmaster, falling in lakes, and encountering his erstwhile girlfriend, he gamely applies all the Wooster intellect to the proposition. If you're at all familiar with the Wooster intellect, you'll be happy to know that he eventually interrupts poor Jeeves's shrimping trip so that greater minds can prevail and save the day. It's an unchanging tale, but Wodehouse constantly managed to retell it with sharp dialogue and an unflagging commitment to the absurd, which makes those long Jeeves and Wooster phases so gorgeous whenever they come along.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Truth is More Sarcastic than Fiction

I've managed to get myself involved with reading / listening to 5 books at once. (Well, not simultaneously... you know what I mean.) Not to mention the one I'm writing. Since that leaves me without any fiction to blog about, I'm turning to real life instead.

This is my little pumpkin, D. He turned 16 this month. This, of course, involved many moments of R & I saying, "We've been parents for that long?" and telling mortifying (to D) stories of his adorable toddlerhood and so forth. We're pretty happy with the guy, especially because he only grew one inch in the last year, and kept the same shoe size, which is a boon to those of us purchasing his clothing and footwear.

Also, of course, we had the Driver License Events.

We live in a Really Major Metropolitan Area, which means, among other things, very long lines at the DMV. The High School Information Network indicated that a trip to a nice rural town would mean 3-4 minutes in line rather than 3-4 hours. So driving an hour each way for the road test is a "good idea." Never mind factors like the high cost of gas, and that sitting in the DMV waiting room at least theoretically allows for reading or homework while driving doesn't. Still, a road test on quieter roads is a tad less stressful, and the boy's heart is set.

But wait! Road tests are only available via appointment. And appointments have to be made in person, by the test-ee. Somehow, Parental Logic pointing out that this would mean 4 hours of driving to and from the Rural DMV didn't hold water. Everybody jumping off bridges, and all that. Also, the Major Metropolitan DMV has a known 5+ week wait for the appointment, and who wants to wait that long? Not my 16 year old, that's for sure. There was some vague mention of potential lines when going back for the driving appointment, even though that was unsubstantiated by the High School Information Network. Probably because they all jumped off the bridge of the Rural DMVs.

So I'm looking up rural DMVs. Telling D that yes, mileage wise, that one by the beach is closer. But it involves driving through downtown and past one of the airports to get there, so it's not quicker. I pick one with a Google Map-estimated drive time of 48 minutes, and ascertain that it will be open on Columbus Day at 8 a.m.

D is eager to be the first one in the door, and I have to work that day, so I let him drag me out of bed at 6:00. We spent the day before parallel parking up and down our street for an hour, and he's been doing very well. We both feel ready. (His dream is that they'll say they have an appointment that same day if we'll wait around to take it.) He grabs the keys and heads out to the car.

Turns the key. Nothing. I explain about locking the ignition, but yanking on the steering wheel has no effect. Key in. Key out. Try to turn wheel. Check gear shift. Try to turn key. Press in brake. Turn wheel. Double-check gear shift. Key finally turns... and car alarm goes off.

HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK!

I'm in the passenger seat, attempting to stay level-headed and instructive and also to press the right buttons to turn off the damn alarm. And hoping my neighbors weren't planning to, you know, sleep in at all.

He was a little rattled. But he took a deep breath. Restarted the car. Successfully backed down our driveway (one of the toughest of the routine tasks.) We were on our way.

A quarter-mile later, he had to turn onto the feeder road of the freeway, ideally into a left lane so he could U-turn at the intersection. And yet. He chose a good moment to turn, he pulled out with good speed, but not only into the right lane, but up onto the curb. With both passenger side tires. Narrowly - and I mean narrowly - missing a fire hydrant before he plunked the car back down onto the street.

Plunk.

Ker-plunk. Ker-plunk, ker-plunk.

I had him pull into a parking lot. Ker-plunk, ker-plunk, ker-plunk.

So for future reference, son, that's what it feels like to drive on a flat tire.

We switched seats and I got the joy of the shoulder-wrenching teeth-clenching quarter-mile drive (ker-plunk, ker-plunk) back onto the feeder road, down the major thoroughfare, and into the mall parking lot to the Sears Auto, which opened at 8 a.m. As we abandoned the car and walked home, he finished the seventh stage of grief (the rage was something to behold! but my favorite was bargaining - it was pretty clear the Traffic Gods were just not in the mood to listen to his pleas.)

So we sat around for an hour, then went back to Sears where they'd have finished with us sooner if some something mechanical something something else tool-related hadn't intervened. But hey, it allowed us plenty of time to watch Jerry Springer "help" some nice people who were forced by the economic downturn to cheat on their spouses. Oddly, usually with their spouse's younger, hotter siblings, which must be a lesser-known side-effect of the recession. Who knew?

8:30, Mel in the driver's seat and $170 poorer, we hit the road again. Once we got to Rural Town, D was confident enough to drive to the DMV, where we found a short-ish line in the most stereotypically tiny 3-person shack of an office ever imagined by whoever it is who goes about imagining these things.

After a wait while the nice women at the Rural DMV help a wheelchaired senior citizen who arrived after us (but that is part of the Rural DMV Stereotypical Way of Life), D is vision-checked, thumb-printed, relieved of $11, and then, the big moment arrives. DMV woman pulled out the giant "Road Test" binder.

Drum roll, please. (D's present from us was a drum set. Either because we love him and want to please him, or because we are a little cuckoo.)

4 weeks.

Right around the time school gets out.

An hour away.

Heaven forbid I should ever doubt the High School Information Network again.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Plug for Plugged

Slight format change, since I'm reviewing this title for Audiobook Jukebox.

Publisher: AudioGo, Pub. Date: September 1, 2011, Length: 8 hours, 27 minutes

Eoin Colfer's Plugged is hilarious. (I say that while hearing narrator John Keating's sarcastic Irish accent, which puts a lot of emphasis on the 'hi' and doesn't mean what it says as much as I do.) I've read/listened to all of Colfer's Artemis Fowl books, and this adult novel has the same sensibility: adventure prompted by one unexpected event after another, situational humor, Our Hero scraping by with a little help from luck and a little help from law enforcement officials who would rather not be in the position Our Hero puts them in. Shades of Butler, Holly, Root, and much of the rest of the Fowl gang abound. This isn't a deep thoughts or tense mystery novel, but it is engaging and fun.

Our Hero is Daniel McEvoy, an Irish ex-military ex-pat working as a bouncer at a seedy New Jersey casino. His overriding concern is the progress of his hair implants - until he gets drawn into investigating the murder of one of the bikini-clad casino hostesses and the disappearance of his back-alley surgeon friend. In short order he's dealing with drug runners, corrupt cops, mobsters, and his crazy upstairs neighbor, and at no point does he feel particularly competent to handle any of it. He's an eminently likable Our Hero - smart, talented, acerbic. I was all over Keating's narration - it was bright and crisp and handled the pace of the narrative charmingly. (I think we all know by now that I'm a sucker for the Irish accent. My fear céile doesn't sound as Dublin as he did when I imported him, but it pops up delightfully at times.) (It means 'husband' in Irish. Yeah, I have an Irish dictionary in my study, jealous?)

My 16 year old saw the discs and claimed them next, and I wish him 8 1/2 hours of happy listening. Both boys are Colfer fans, but due to the ex-strippers and a certain amount of nude gun play (not an euphemism. Or, not entirely), I wouldn't let anyone younger get ahold of it.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Grab Bag, if that bag was full of stuff from my bedside table

(Functionality issues: usually the pics are hyperlinks to Amazon, but their handy little widget isn't working. Now I have boring old static pics instead of dynamic ones. I bet you'll boycott my site until it works, huh? Damnit.)

On to the latest in Mel's books!

First up, in the "well, ain't that a little peculiar?" category, Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang. Okay, you've got Child A (Annie) and Child B (Buster), who are the progeny of the Fangs, a couple of performance artists who have been staging unexpected pieces using their children since they first saw the fascinated horror on the faces of the patrons waiting in line behind baby Annie as she wailed on Santa's lap. As adults, Annie and Buster turn to more conventional forms of self-expression (acting and writing) but are still inexorably drawn into their parents' weird and weirdly compelling orbit. Does it sound weird? It's weird. But not precious or "quirky," which I feared reading the premise. I trusted the recommendations, though, and was so glad I did. Despite the Art, this is ultimately a very good novel about families, growing into your own identity, and how people screw each other up and shore each other up, sometimes at the same time.

I am surprised that this is the first time I've actually blogged about Susan Mallery, since I've read basically every word she's ever published. In particular, I've gobbled up all of her Fool's Gold series (a small town in California with a sever man shortage, leading to a nicely empowered town full of pretty single women who gradually pair off with hunky men who drift in.) Her latest about this town is a trilogy about the Hendrix triplets: Only Mine, Only Yours, and Only His. This month I listened to all three of these, narrated by Tanya Eby. so that was approximately 25 hours of Dakota, Nevada, Montana (the triplets) and their men. She's a brightly-voiced narrator with great pacing, so I routinely enjoy her work. The only down side in all this was that Eby's voices for each hero-heroine pair are basically the same, so listening to these all together got a bit run-on-ish. I was therefore particularly impressed with Mallery, giving them all such distinct but interwoven characteristics - in the previous Fool's Gold books, I couldn't really keep them straight (not that it was necessary), so I feared they would be too similar when it came to their own stories. Mallery uses their time off in college wisely - especially with the last novel - to make their issues unique and their romances well-tailored to each woman. Now I need to keep an eye out for the next ones, to see whether the new librarian, the fire chief, or the goat farmer will be the woman to hook up with the remaining Hendrix siblings - the single dad math teacher and the heretofore-unseen deployed soldier. (My bet: math + goat, army + library, and someone tertiary for the fire chief.)

And for further adventures in series reading, I grabbed I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett. This is his YA take on his Discworld books, centering around young witch Tiffany Aching. Now, I haven't read much of the adult Discworld stuff, but I do so enjoy the Hag o' the Hills and her many adventures with frying pans and stick-on warts and underworld creatures. My kids did, too, and normally I'd try to get this on audio so we could listen during a road trip, but: no road trips, and the library only had hardcover, so. (That's my subtle way of saying I'd rather read than spend time with my sons, even if I'm reading to them during that time. What? They know I love them and stuff.) Once I'm through the next 800 hours of the Game of Thrones books, and then everything I put off reading / listening to so I could enjoy/slog through Martin's stuff, I may just have to figure out how to enter Discworld without the whole thing toppling me through sheer volume. (Which, to Pratchett's credit, is probably a big side effect of YA and adult readers both who encounter Tiffany Aching's stories.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tey Time!

One of the authors I've read tons of in the past couple of months is Josephine Tey, a Scottish mystery writer who died in 1952. Tey's primary character is Scotland Yard's Inspector Alan Grant, a handsome poetry-loving detective with an interest in history and a predilection for gut feelings that drive his superior a bit mad. Although Tey is sometimes a little too rooted in her time (mostly to do with social morays), the mysteries are unconventional and a great deal of fun. Each novel is only around 200 pages, and the writing has a very lyrical quality as well as a sardonic wit. (If you know nothing else of me by now, you should know that I love me some sardonic wit.)

I pulled some "speak to Mel" quotes from the novels I returned to the library this week to share here. Enjoy!


To Love and Be Wise, Chapter 6: Lavinia on trying to define the appeal of the disconcerting Leslie Searle: "He has a nice gentle voice and an engaging drawl; but so have half the inhabitants of Texas and a large part of the population of Ireland."
(The Irish-Texan voices in my own household vary in their gentleness, but all are engaging.)

To Love and Be Wise, Chapter 14: Grant on a quiet morning in the countryside: "People who get up at the crack of dawn during the week, and had no animals to get them up on Sunday, must be glad to sleep late. He had grumbled often when his police duties had broken into his private life... but to spend one's life in bondage to the predilections of animals must be a sad waste of a free man's time."
(No, the cat never wakes me up at seven every Sunday. At least, not if the dogs get me up first.)

The Daughter of Time, Chapter 6: Marta on acquiring books: "No T. More in any of the bookshops, so tried Public Library. Can't think why one never thinks of Public Libraries. Probably because books expected to be soupy. Think this looks quite clean and unsoupy. You get fourteen days. Sounds like a sentence rather than a loan."
(Hi, Harris County Public Library and Houston Public Library - thanks for all of the unsoupy books!)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Updates - I know you've all been wondering!

First of all, my desk. You'll all be relieved to know that, inspired by Nicole Krauss's Great House, I did finally finish the Great Desk Unburying Project of 2011, and am now sitting at a very orderly, very work-friendly antique roll-top desk. Ain't she a beaut?

Also, my smart, charming, handsome husband conducted the on-stage interview of Krauss and Francisco Goldman this week for Inprint Houston, and he told her about my desk project. She told him she'd had people name children after Alma in her The History of Love, but since Great House doesn't lend itself to that kind of homage, mine was the best. Yeah, that's right, the best. (I may be paraphrasing.)

Next up, my son. Although he still has War and Peace on his bedside table, K hasn't gotten much further with it since my initial blog post about it. He's read no shortage of other novels since, most of which far exceed the average reading level for his age (lest you think I think he's anything short of brilliant!) My brother-in-law, who is a journalist covering the publishing industry, wrote about K in his newsletter in August, which was fun. Also, it was great for my Blogger Stats, which, not to put too much pressure on you lovely readers or anything, I like to view probably too often. I broke into the elusive South American market thanks to him - now I've either been read or "read" in six continents. As soon as I crack Antarctica, I'll be, like, rich and famous and stuff.

At any rate, here K is this morning playing his new saxophone. He's in middle school now, so we won't even stress me out by mentioning all the different things he's doing with his after-school time. (Naturally, he is phenomenally talented and successful at all of them. And beloved by his friends and his mentors. And his not in the least biased parents.)

(For the record, the other son, who is closing in on his 16th birthday, is ALSO brilliant, talented, adorable, charming, loving, and successful. I'd give you a pic of him, if only I ever saw him. Between school, orchestra commitments, his band - oh, wait, two bands now - practices (original band has another paid gig this weekend!), soccer, the girlfriend, and now, since he wasn't busy, the school musical, I'm only sure he still lives here due to the ever waxing and waning supplies of Nutella and bananas we have to keep in stock for his daily peanutellanana sandwiches.)

Oh, yeah, and books. I haven't posted a lot about what I'm reading lately, not because I've suddenly stopped or anything (as if), but because I've been reading / listening to a ton of sequels to previously blogged about novels. More Meyer, more Penny, more James, more Sayers, more Heyer, more Martin. (I just downloaded the third Fire and Ice book - almost 50 hours! I'll start it... soon.) Never you fear, though, I've got a couple of things in progress that I'll blog about soon.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Magical and comical worlds to explore

The Night CircusFirst of all, I will pester you to read this book: Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. My review in the StarTribune can be summed up thusly: Love! If any part of you enjoys fable or romance or darkness lurking beneath the surface or magic or longing or kittens, you will be transported by this novel. I read it in July in order to review it, and it has thoroughly stuck with me in the ensuing months. Jim Dale (whose name is always followed, perhaps by law now, with the words: "narrator of the Harry Potter audiobooks") did the narration on this, and I'm eager to re-experience it with his voice once my library gets ahold of it.

MaineIf your sense of humor is caustic or your sense of family is complicated by many generations worth of bad behavior, check out Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan. Sullivan gives us three generations of women in different parts of the country who come together at the matriarch's beach house in Maine. I most enjoyed that with each of the four women, their POV was so strong and sympathetic that I felt about the other three the same way the current woman did. And then we'd jump to the grandmother or the sister-in-law for her POV, and everything took on a new light. All of the women are petty and flawed yet passionate and true in their own ways, and as they come together in the present, we can see how fallout from the past shapes them all. Plus: dollhouses! (Okay, so, my mom designed this huge amazing Victorian dollhouse for my sister and I when we were little, and had the shop cut the pieces, and together we built it, and bought all kinds of amazing little working lights and thumbnail-sized shingles and such. It isn't complete. But it's still astounding, and one of these days.... Maybe my sister's little daughter will inspire us to return to it.)

My Lucky Star. Joe KeenanFor more straight-up wit, Joe Keenan's comic novel My Lucky Star is just the ticket. I need to hunt down Keenan's earlier novels, which are about the same characters, all narrated by struggling wordsmith Phil. In this novel, his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants charming ex-boyfriend Gilbert manages to lure him and their friend Claire from New York to Hollywood to work on a screenplay for a couple of the hottest names in town. Rabid gossip, blackmail, star-gazing, and hijinks ensue. Keenan's pedigree (writer for Frazier, among other things) allows him to present some all-too-believable scandalmongering of the fictional variety. It's very fast and farcical, and though if I were Gilbert's Facebook friend I'd hope to be wise enough to unfollow him, seeing them work their way out of deeper and deeper holes is a lot of fun.

10 years ago - just motherhood, wherever it takes me

Ten years ago, my sons were one and five. The older one had just started kindergarten. That, I figured, put us on the brink of an exciting and ever-expanding new world, one where he would learn - oh, everything! polar explorers and nanotechnology and Shakespeare and Schubert and Spanish, too. And ultimately, he has.

But I didn't think my five year old would learn about terrorism. I didn't think he would jump from secure little trickster to boy who needed to watch me lock each door at night before he could sleep. I never expected that the next time we flew overseas to visit Nana he would even be aware of his fellow passengers, much less worried about them.
I suppose it was some bad parenting, his awareness of the suddenly dangerous would. It was partly that same playground knowledge seep that had him talking about Power Rangers in preschool, even though we'd never seen the show. And there was no way to keep the students unaware. 500 five to twelve year olds in one of the largest cities in the nation? The stories abounded. So his feeling of being on shaky ground wasn't entirely our failure to shield him.

But my sister and brother-in-law lived in Brooklyn, across the street from a fire house where my one year old had been given a tour of the ladder truck just a few months earlier. They worked in Manhattan, my sister just two blocks from the WTC. They were safe. I'd dropped the boy at school and the toddler at daycare that morning, I'd turned on NPR for the brief drive to my office, I'd heard about the first plane crash, I'd walked inside to a message from Sis that they were fine, and then I'd seen the television as the second plane hit. And I'm grateful for that order of events, because if she hadn't gotten through when she did, before the phone lines were useless, if I'd seen the towers fall not knowing if she was commuting under them or in her office or (as she was) safe at home - well, anyway, if my son needed to see me lock the doors at night, needed to hear my reassurances that the windows also locked, and if he got that sense of insecurity from me, it's among the more benign emotions that I could have passed along.

(My brother-in-law wrote a very moving account of that morning in his essay about how publishing has changed post-9/11)

My youngest has essentially always lived in that world. He doesn't remember breezing through airport security without worrying about the amount of toothpaste in the carry on, or when yellow ribbons on trees and bumpers were a rare sight, or a day he'd never heard of Al-Qaeda. At eleven - eleven! - he cheered the night President Obama announced Osama bin Laden's death. That's the world my baby, born the 2nd day of Y2K, lives in.

So while I usually celebrate that both of them have exciting and ever-expanding new worlds opening to them as they grow up, I mourn that those worlds have threat levels. It is what it is, the world today, and there are only so many things a mom can do to keep her sons safe in it. I will always try to do those things, and if that sometimes includes a nightly tour of the deadbolts, so be it.

Oh, to have just tucked him in with a story and a song and a kiss a little longer, though.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Some Series Stuff

I've been reading & listening to plenty of series, again, some more.

Murder Must Advertise (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries)So much of this summer fun has been discovering Dorothy L. Sayers, and her charming Lord Peter Wimsey. I've  been reading in order of publication (excepting the stories), so I've just now finished a popular favorite, Murder Must Advertise. Oh, if I didn't love him already, Lord Peter undercover always just wins my heart in the most through fashion. Could he be more tongue-in-cheek? Could he be cleverer? More insightful? A better cat playing with mice? And although I missed Bunter, as I always do when he plays a small or absent part in the plots, I enjoyed the large doses of domesticity at the home of Lady Mary and Chief Inspector Charles Parker, wedded in bliss. All this, plus drug smuggling and deadlines!

The Franchise AffairNot enough English detective fiction for you? Or for me, as the case may be? Well, not to worry, I've also continued with Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant - so far, I've read through The Franchise AffairAlthough Grant appears only tangentially in this one, I very much enjoyed Tey's twists and turns and the characters she created for this mystery. I like Grant and wish him well (you know, in that "I'm not crazy for wishing a fictional character by a dead author well" sort of way), but I became very quickly caught up in the life of sedate country lawyer Robert Blair. His interactions with home-keeping aunt, flashy business-partner cousin, and mysterious clients are all finely drawn and deeply felt, for all of his quiet solidity. I felt outrage, and yearning, and helplessness, and determination, and joy. So good.

Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy (Bloody Jack Adventures)And to jump ship entirely from the detectives, I hopped on board Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer. Young orphan Mary, seeking a life better than that she has with a London street gang, dresses in trousers and talks her way on board the HMS Dolphin as a ship's boy named Jack. There, predictably, she encounters a few difficulties hiding her gender, but the Dolphin is mostly a safe haven, with regular meals (never mind the weevils), music, friendship, and adventure. Through no fault of her own - or mostly no fault of her own - Jacky becomes a bit of an epicenter of trouble on board. She handles everything with excellent spirit, cringe-inducing naiveté, bravery, tenderness, and determination. I've also listened to the second book - Curse of the Blue Tattoo - and prefer the first. But Meyer's character and Katherine Kellgren's narration have me eagerly lining up the rest.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Bestsellers - Old People & Debuts & Both

A few from recent bestsellers lists. Because despite my last post, I don't read only things with excessive flesh spilling over the cover, no matter what my husband thinks.

Emily, Alone: A NovelEmily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan - very little exposed skin, and all of it wrinkled. This is the same Emily I met in Wish You Were Here, now moved on from the immediate aftermath of her husband's death, but still impacted by his presence in her life. His sister, Arlene, is Emily's most frequent companion, and they depend on each other while still not seeing quite eye to eye on their world. Emily's children and grandchildren aren't as present in her life as she'd like, and her neighbors and friends are literally dying out, and her dog is getting old. It's a recipe for gloom in many ways, but Emily is a resilient character, acerbic at times, smart, and involved with every aspect of her life. The moments the novel carries us thorough are small (and very closely observed, in true O"Nan style), but infused with potency. I was left wanting to write my grandmother an overdue thank-you note, which isn't possible on this plane, but I hope she knows I meant to all the time.

The PostmistressSarah Blake's debut, The Postmistess, was transporting, complex, and stylistically deft. It weaves together the stories of Iris - the Postmaster of a small Cape Cod town, Emma - the wife of the town doctor, and Frankie - a radio reporter stationed in London during the Blitz. To Iris and Emma, who are both fairly new to their small, insular town, Frankie starts as just a voice on the radio, but a voice with import to them both. Emma's new husband, the town doctor, is compelled by one of Frankie's stories to head overseas to help the British, leaving Iris as a bastion for Emma to reluctantly lean upon. As Frankie delves deeper into the undercurrents of the war - especially in what it means for the Jews in Europe - her words feel more and more futile to her. Blake shows the impact she has, though, in the growing alarm of the Cape Cod town where Iris attempts to keep order in her life by following every rule of the postal service. (There's a great metaphor here with the flagpole and her paramour's hunt for U-boats in the Atlantic, but I won't spoil it - keep an eye on the flag, though, when you read this.) Frankie's reports from London and France brought tears to my eyes (Orlagh Cassidy's narration was perfect) and Blake made me think deeply about the nature of communication and secrets.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)And because I love nothing more than a great debut novel, I also read Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Widower Major Pettigrew falls apart on page one, upon hearing of the sudden death of his younger brother. He's bolstered, unexpectedly, by Mrs. Ali, the owner of their small English village's convenience store. As Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali tentatively expand their friendship into something deeper, both are embroiled in issues with their extended families. Meanwhile, the golf club's social committee is planning their annual gala, and both the Major and Mrs. Ali are pulled into their provincial and preposterous plans. The comic characters are just on the right side of sympathetic, and the sympathetic characters manage to be a bit comic, as well. Ultimately it's a very tender and charming look at two lives that no one expected could become one.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

From my ears to your screens - more audiobooks


The Quiet GentlemanGeorgette Heyer is basically the creator of the Regency romance genre, which is a pretty big claim to fame, really. She published dozens and dozens of novels between 1921 and 1975. Every once in a while I'll pick one up and enjoy that she was also a writer skilled at using humor and tension to construct engaging novels. I just finished listening to The Quiet Gentleman, and am reminded that I should make more of an effort to track down her entire catalog. One of my libraries has a pretty good selection, actually, so I'll get on that. The wry, isolated 7th Earl of St. Erth and the perceptive, competent Miss Morville are, socially, an unlikely pair, but they are hand-in-glove as they figure out who is out to kill the Earl and what to do about it. Great fun.

The Spymaster's Lady (The Spymaster Series)For more fun during the Napoleonic Wars, I listened to Joanna Bourne's The Spymaster's Lady. Being a post-Millennium novel, it has a lot of skin and passion on the cover instead of manor house politeness. Still, it has a lot to make it a worthy successor to Heyer - excellent pacing, a deep immersion in the political and social life of the times, characters who are immediately sympathetic. I read a lot of romance, and get jaded about plots where Guy and Girl can't get together because of some trivial misunderstanding that even a basic amount of communication or common sense would clear up. So having a French spy and an English spy navigating the path to true love - and some sort of accord that would keep their nations safe and honors intact - was a refreshing take on the relationship tension. I'll be adding more Bourne to my library hold list, too.

Vaclav & Lena: A NovelAnd because I can't read only fiction with people in period costumes, I checked out Haley Tanner's debut novel, Vaclav & Lena. The title characters are a couple of Russian immigrant kids who become each other's life rafts as they navigate elementary school in Brooklyn, until events - and Vaclav's mother - conspire to put on hold their plans to grow up to be "famous magician and his beautiful assistant." Their holds on each other's hearts are sustainable despite the confusing circumstances that separate them. Tanner lays bare their souls - especially Vaclav's - making it easy to believe in magic even as the characters learn how to deconstruct then reconstruct the tricks behind the illusions. Tanner's portrayal of their relationships with Vaclav's mom, and hers with them, is profoundly real, touching, and memorable.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

George, Gregor, and Georges

Firsts, lasts, and onlys this week.

A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book OneFirst, the first in the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones. Been hearing about this one for years, of course, and even more since the HBO series started. But it's a heck of an undertaking, and I wasn't crazy about the narrator in the sample I listened to, so I put it off a bit. (Read it to myself? A multi-volume fantasy epic? That's what audio at work is made for! As long as I can Wikipedia the odd name or map, etc.) But all in all, I'm glad I got on with it, and look forward to my library bringing the second one off hold so I can see what happens to my favorite characters (Jon, Bran, Arya, Dany - it's all the young generation. The adults, give or take Catelyn and Tyrion, are all a wash for me.) And the narrator grew on me - he was a little too gruff while I was trying to both absorb all these new people/places and calculate the weekly payroll. But once we were over the learning curve, and things like casual violence and incest were assimilated into the pattern of the story, I was happily swept away by the action and intrigue and the constantly shifting political and moral ground that the characters had to tread.

Gregor and the Code of Claw (Underland Chronicles, Book 5)In a much simpler (and less morally repugnant) way, Suzanne Collins also played with shifting political battlegrounds in her Underland Chronicles. The last of these - Gregor and the Code of Claw - brings Overland and Underland humans together for yet another quest, but this time, Gregor is questioning not his place in the Underland (he found peace with that earlier in the series) but the place of all humans in Colllins's strange land under New York City. In many ways it did resonate with the Martin saga - various kingdoms vying for supremacy, outliers trying to break in, more bloodshed than is healthy, broken trusts. Although, Luxa is a way better 12-year-old monarch than Joffrey, by a long shot. At any rate, I read the first of this series years and years ago, before Hunger Games was a twinkle in Collins's eye (I presume) and liked it, but I don't think I'd have gone back and finished the rest of the series if I weren't so overcome with love for Katniss and her story. Gregor doesn't come close to packing the same wallop, but it's still a great, imaginative world full of some most excellent characters.

Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big KidAnd just because he talks about his two favorite Georges constantly (Lucas and Romero), I'll also talk here about Simon Pegg's memoir, Nerd Do Well. Actually, before that, I'll do you a favor and tell you that if you haven't seen Hot Fuzz and, more essentially, Shaun of the Dead, you need to rent them. I know, I don't care about zombie movies, either, but trust me, okay? And how about that, I'm not even in the "male 17 to 40" demographic that's crazy about the film. (Come to think of it, no one in my house is, either. D is 2 years too young and R is 2 years too old. Sorry, marketers, best to go next door instead - they have 3 teen boys in high school / college, they're perfect for you!) Anyway, this is of course a bit of a silly book, full of in and out-there jokes, but it's light and interesting and actually made me view Star Wars in a different light. Thought I'd figured out all kinds of stuff about it already, given the boy-heaviness of my home and all. So: funny stories, sweet bits of nostalgia about childhood adventures in school and on stage, tons of palpable love for his mum, some insight into the weird world of professional actors/comedians, and a goofy subplot to pad the pages. Well worth checking out.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Old Dog, New Tricks

Adopting our puppy has been both energizing and thought-provoking for 10-year-old Ali. In the past six months she has learned so much, belying the old adage.

Ali on Walkies: Do we have to go so fast? Are we there yet? Isn't it time to turn around? Why is Eve pulling so hard on her leash when it just makes Alpha cue up a new podcast and keep us out even longer?

Ali on Dinner: Great, time to body-check Eve again. How's a mutt supposed to get enough to eat around here?

Ali on Sleeping: Wait, we get to sleep in Alpha's room? With the carpet and the fan and the opportunity to nose for scratches if any hands flop near the edge of the mattress? I should have tried this whining-in-the-middle-of-the-night thing ages ago!

Ali on Play Time: Ha! Take that, Eve! I'm taller than you, I've got Boxer lineage and you know what? You know what?? Boxers are fighters, yeah, that's right, fighters! Come and get me, little girl, just you try it. (Oh, come on, Eve, stop with the biting my collar thing, will you? That's right, lick my ears a little. That's the stuff.) Hey, look at my Mean Fighting Face, isn't it scary? Grrrrrr! I curl my lip at you. (Whew. Can we rest now? We can? *flop!*)

videoAli on Knocking at the Front Door: What's that pup doing.. oh! Bark! Bark! BARK BARK BARK! Grr-bark!

Ali on Noises Within the House that Might be Knocking at the Front Door: What's that pup doing.. oh! Bark! Bark! BARK BARK bark BARK! Grr-bark!

Ali on Television Dogs: What's that pup doing.. oh! Bark! Bark! BARK BARK! Grrr!

Ali on Fetch: Why is Beta throwing that stuffed orca again? And why does Eve keep chasing it? Is it suddenly alive? Let me run to check! Almost there! Oh, wait, no, it's not alive. Keep your fur on, Eve, I don't want your stupid orca. Oh, wait, she's throwing it again. I should get in on this! Run! No... still just the stupid orca. That's it, I don't care what you people say, I'm not playing. Hey! Where is Eve going to so fast?