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.