Sunday, December 30, 2012

War is Hell on My Reading Equilibrium

A couple of beautiful, trying novels that stuck to my gut, with war at their centers.

This is a book I am in love with. A desert island kind of book. Ignore the 'teen' categorization - don't discount it for any of the reasons that you might sometimes discount a book - and sink into Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity. At its center is the friendship between Verity and Maddie, young women assisting the British war effort in October, 1943, when Maddie's plane is shot down over France and Verity is captured by the Gestapo. Verity's astounding character emerges as she writes a closely-monitored confession that is mostly a paean to Maddie and the story of their unlikely but deep and everlasting friendship. When the story switches to Maddie's POV, the true depth of Verity's intelligence and devotion both to her friend and to Britain is revealed. I listened to the audio of this, and can't stress enough how gorgeously Morven Christie (as Verity) and Lucy Gaskell (as Maddie) narrated. They're both actresses, mostly doing British TV, but I hope they've been bitten by the narration bug after this project, because both were a real pleasure to hear. Christie in particular was a phenom with a wide range of accents and emotions, and Gaskell had me in tears more than once with just her tone as she approached a section of text that would have had had me in tears, regardless. Preemptive tears - one of the special benefits of a well-narrated audiobook. At any rate, text, narration, semaphore, whatever your format - this is a so so worth it book. Enjoy (for the portrait of an extraordinary friendship, not so much for the tears, and how much war destroys beauty, etc.)

Also emerging from WWII, Mark Helprin's In Sunlight and In Shadow is set primarily in New York City in 1947. Harry Copeland was a pathfinder in the war - he and his team of paratroopers were charged with ranging ahead to bring the troops safely to their next engagement. Post-war, he returns to an expected life running the family business, until he runs across heiress and singer Catherine Thomas Hale, which changes everything for them. Their instant connection causes them both to adjust their course, forcing them to seek the most essential parts of themselves in order to be together. The city of New York is as much a character as Henry or Catherine, and Helprin transmits it with such evocative lyricism that I actually had wistful thoughts about moving there. (I... am not a New York life kind of gal.) There's a great deal of fun language to surf in this novel, which is a good thing since it's 700+ pages (30 hours on audio.) Narrator Sean Runnette seemed to be as much a fan of the language and the pacing and movement as I was, though I wish he'd differentiated the character voices a good bit more. I didn't think, starting a 30 hour book, that I'd be impatient for it to continue as I approached the end, but this is a world I didn't want to leave. Helprin had that effect on me with Freddy and Fredericka, the only other of his I've read, and I clearly ought to put him on my ever-expanding list of 'novelists to seek out.' This one is very different, but Harry's pathfinding in a post-war America will stick with me for ages to come.



Sunday, December 16, 2012

Miracles Scary and Sacred


And now back to my regularly scheduled program of books coverage. I've got quite a few fun novels to cover, so buckle your seat belts, because I'm a-bloggin', people.



The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is another of those mind-bending debuts that makes me happy about modern fiction. It has a sci-fi premise, but more coming-of-age than space-age. Julia is ten when the world begins to slow. Something's wrong with the gravitational pull of the Earth, making days and nights stretch out first by minutes, then by hours. Birds fall from the sky, crops fail, but the school bells still ring, whether it's light out or dark. At least at first. Meanwhile, Julia's parents are struggling with their marriage, her Mormon best friend has moved from their San Diego suburb to Utah to face the End of Days, and she has a crush on the boy whose piano lesson is after hers. Walker does a fascinating job juxtaposing Julia's growing awareness of the world around her, both the global and the smaller moments that shape her changing reality. As her neighborhood dissolves in the battle between the Real Timers and the Clock Timers, as her parents struggle with their connection, Julia realizes that no one can tell her what the future will hold. The uncertain world will go on, in surprising, sad, beautiful ways, but Julia can only live one moment at a time.

Walker isn't the only one seeing the world reeling from unexpected changes. One of my for-decades-now favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, has messed with the Monarchs in her latest, Flight Behavior. The butterflies have settled for the winter in the woods of Feathertown, TN, instead of their recently-destroyed habitat in far-warmer Mexico. It's a miracle, but a scary one, since it grows out of climate change and the depletion of natural resources. And it's scariest of all to the marvelously drawn Dellarobia Turbow, who first discovers the forest of quiet flame when hiking her in-laws' land in a desperate climb away from the stifling mundanity of her daily life. She was pregnant and married at 17, which was the end of her illusive dreams of college and a different life from that she'd seen growing up. Years of failing to fit in with her husband's family, years of staying home catering to the demands of small children, years of failing to speak up as her mother-in-law belittled her and her neighbors took advantage of her and her husband took her for granted all propelled her to that butterfly-covered copse. And the mass of bright orange wings (a sight I remember well from my college days - if you ever get a chance to visit Natural Bridges during a Santa Cruz winter, take it!) was enough to stop Dellarobia in her not-yet-adulterous tracks and return her, though changed, to her family. When the in-laws plan to sell the butterfly grove for timber money, Dellarobia finds herself getting charismatic Pastor Bobby involved in her preservation efforts. The butterflies, and Dellarobia, inadvertently go viral. Everyone has a say: the church, climate scientists, biologists, lumberjacks, activists. Everyone but Deallarobia's husband, who is just waiting for the furore to settle down so he can go back to his normal life. The poor man just can't see the silent orange fire now in Dellarobia's spirit, but oh, will she soar.


Another atmospheric, lovely, absorbing novel is Louise Penny's The Beautiful Mystery. I've mentioned Penny's Inspector Gamache before, and he's no less dear to me after eight novels. I'm also mighty taken with his top aide, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who accompanies him this time to the reclusive, almost hidden, monastery to investigate the murder of the choir director who brought Gregorian chants to modern ears. It is a closed community of only 24 - now 23 - living in apparent self-sufficient harmony. Now their vows of silence are rescinded to allow Gamache and Beauvoir to find out which of the men is a killer. The mystery itself is adroit and complex, and the effect of the monastery on Gamache and on Beauvoir is compelling. Both men are dealing with the long fallout of a previous case, and being isolated has brought much of it to the fore. I was grabbed tight by their struggles and enchanted, as well, by the chants and the monastic community. 




Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12-12-12

It's my birthday!! And just because I'm 43 now is no reason not to react to it with child-like giddiness, right? After all - 12-12-12 is pretty darn awesome, as these things go. I've been saying lately, as if it was a cute joke, that I've been looking forward to today for decades. So now it's time to admit, in all seriousness, that I meant it.

(Yes, I get that y'all probably picked up on that already.)

Fortunately, I am surrounded by wonderful people who are indulgent towards me. My boys woke me up this morning with breakfast in bed and a homemade card, plus gifts from them and from Robert. Robert gave me a dozen truffles, plus signed me up to receive a gift a month for 12 months, plus sent me a dozen gorgeous red roses.

I sent them all off to work and school (I took today off) and soaked a while in a bubble bath with the delicious vanilla gel my friends gave me at a birthday dinner last night. Then I set off, just in time for noon, to have lunch with more friends. (I have such a lot of wonderful friends. And all day my phone was buzzing to tell me about emails and FB messages from more far-flung places.)

So, in addition to my other lovely gifts, my friend M set the center of the table with this tower of a dozen cupcakes. Okay, this photo doesn't do them justice, not least because there are far fewer than 12 now. Trust me, they were delicious and artistically presented and a joy to behold.

At 12:12, on 12/12/12, my mom called (not that I heard her, what with the chatter at the table), and my brother texted. And then my more tech-savvy friend taught me how to take a screen shot from my cell phone.

But this is the thing that send me over the moon with glee. My friend D pulled these one by one from the gift bag, reading the poem. It is just beyond awesome, am I right? Don't you wish your birthday was 12/12/12 (and that D was your friend?) (She's very nice - I'm sure she'd be your friend if you asked.)


Pipe cleaners! Lords! (I've read 3 of those romances.) Dance Music - playing as I type!

Swans! French Pens! Turtle Doves!
So anyway, Happy Birthday to Me, and happy 12/12/12 to y'all. I hope it was a good one. And thanks to all the people who helped me celebrate - you're all the best.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I'm a Little In Love with Sherlock


When I was in 7th grade, my history teacher loaned me her copy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Because I am who I am, it was no surprise to anyone to see thirteen-year-old bespectacled me hauling this 1000+ page tome around, working my way through it as I sat in class or walked to and from school or stood in the lunch line. (Every day I bought a PBJ. Every day. Except when they only had grape jelly left, then I had nachos. Health!)

So it is no surprise to me that Holmes and Watson are so hot in current story-telling outlets. (I mean hot as in a big commodity. But: see image snagged from Lyndsay Faye’s tumblr.)


Naturally, I’m fully on board with all of these screen versions of Holmes. Classic? Sure! Modern? Why not! Set him in Ancient Babylon, for all I care, but bring on the Holmes.

I’ve already gone on (and on?) about Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series - as you are all devoted readers and followers of mine, I’m sure you’re at least as far into the series as I am, right? (I finished the madcap, delightful Pirate King and have only one published volume left. This makes me sad.) Have I mentioned the use of language in these books? Mary Russell’s voice is so strong and perfect and everything a smart British-American-Jewish scholar of religion in the 1920s should be, but more so. The word choice could not be more ideal. So, in the series, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are married. And although it’s understated and cerebral, as great loves go, it is indeed a great love. There’s just something vital there between them.

Next: I mentioned Lyndsay Faye’s novel Gods of Gotham and how I was totally brought round to absorption in her world. Her debut, Dust and Shadow, is Dr. Watson’s narration of Holmes’s involvement in the case of Jack the Ripper. Again, the language was superb. The pacing and Faye’s grasp of the characters shone throughout, and I raced through it, while not wanting it to end. Enhancing the narrative was the audio production - Dust and Shadow was read by my big audio-crush Simon Vance. (My husband assures me that his diphthongs are not the sum of the man, and that I need to stop getting carried away by them. And that’s well and good, but in this book, at one point, Holmes takes on a Welsh accent to mask his identity. Vance as Holmes as Welsh! Come ON!) 


So there it all is. The timeline of my romance. From adolescent impressed by the Great Detective’s skills to sympathetic reader of Holmes’s wife’s tales to absorbed listener of Vance-as-Holmes tackling one of the most known true-crime serial murder cases in history. Throw in a little Miller / Downey Jr. / Cumberbatch action (or a LOT…) and is it any wonder that I am more than a little in love with Sherlock Holmes?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Many Happy Returns


In the fall of 1988 I packed up my new cow-themed twin XL sheets and moved to Santa Cruz, California, ready to start classes at one of the hippiest liberal tie-dye granola universities ever. Something like 99.99% of my classmates were from California, and the matching system for roommates in the dorm went something like this: “That girl’s from out of state. So is this girl! Let’s put them together. Surely being the only ones on the hall paying out-of-state tuition will give them plenty to talk about.” It didn’t quite work, but Marie & I did find one topic that set the tone for our year of living together: our mail-in ballots for the presidential election.

For those of you who don’t remember 1988’s election, let me help you out. Reagan’s Vice-President, George H.W. Bush, former Representative from my great state of Texas, was running against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. And although Bush ultimately carried California (along with much of the rest of the country), the folks I was meeting at UCSC weren’t his supporters, to say the least.

And Marie? Fellow out-of-stater Marie? She was from Massachusetts.

Now, I was pretty proud of being a 7th generation Texan, and as the cow sheets might have indicated to you already, had gone off to Santa Cruz happy to use “Texas” as shorthand for “everything you need to know about Melanie.” Nowadays I try to paint a slightly more complex picture, because although Texas will always be a part of me, there are things about this state I don’t embrace. Many of those things are Bush-related.

But still, in my first ever vote cast, it was for the Bush-Quayle ticket. (Even back then I made plenty of Quayle jokes. Because come on.) (Wouldn’t it have been fun to have Quayle as a VP candidate in the days of Twitter?)

So, this is my way of saying that I apparently groove on being the odd one out, when it comes to presidential politics. Marie and I had a LOT to discuss that election season, and, well, we didn’t spend much time together once we’d met our own sets of locals to hang out with instead. I wonder what ever happened to Marie? If any of you run in to her, tell her I’m sorry for my belligerent stance, and that I’ve changed.

The most fun I’ve ever had on election night was the 1992 election, when I once again voted by mail, and no, not for either of the Texans (Bush or Perot) on the ballot. I was living in England, but Santa Cruz had changed me. I rarely ate granola, but I definitely wore tie-dye. (Yes, there are pictures. No, I won’t dig them up for you.) That one Republican presidential vote is the only one I ever cast. My British friends and I stayed up all night (silly time zones!) drinking whisky and watching the returns, and were punch-drunk when it was declared for Clinton (some of us were drunk-drunk. No names. But did you know the drinking age in the U.K. is lower than in the U.S.? True fact. Also, turning 21 when you’re an American living in England falls a little flat.)

Now I’m back in Texas, living in one of the most conservative parts of one of the most conservative cities, and I’ve had the “wrong” yard sign up for the past several elections. I love all my FOX-loving friends (even though they’re all wrong.) They’re sweet enough to tolerate me (to my face, anyway.) And there’s a fun little underground of fellow Obama-supporters. We have a secret handshake and everything. (We don’t.) (Do we? Did someone forget to tell me?)

I’ll be staying up late watching the returns again this year, and hope it’ll be fun rather than excruciating. (I hope it’ll be excruciating for all of my friends. I love you! Sorry your guy’s going to lose!) I love voting. I love the whole beautiful mess of democracy, even when I’m enraged by all the nonsense engendered by elections. I may vote for the wrong guy – if not now, then certainly in the past. There’s always someone to disagree with me. But the thing is, I vote.

You vote, too. Agree with me, or seek to counteract me, or don’t give a damn about my ‘not going to count anyway, it’s TEXAS, Melanie’ ballot, but vote. (Also, if you’re local – how about throwing your support to the library bond? You can agree with me on that, can’t you? Thanks.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch the news obsessively until this thing is called.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Goodreads Awards

The Goodreads Choice awards for 2012's best books nominees are in - have you voted?

As so often happens when books are discussed, I have opinions. And since I have this handy-dandy book blog at my disposal, I'll share them here.

In the fiction category, I voted for Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son - as I said when I blogged about it in July, this is fun, a mental stretch and a solidly constructed journey. Some of the others might be magnificent, thought. I'm really looking forward to reading the new Kingsolver - she's been one of my favorite authors for decades now. I've heard such good about the Diaz, too, and the Benaron. (Turns out that, despite having read over 300 books so far this year, very few of them are Best Fiction types.) 

In Mystery & Thriller, I voted for Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This book is my Jerry Maguire - it completes me. I can only repeat myself from my post in August: READ THIS BOOK. Now, I loved the new French book (though I still like Faithful Place best of all of hers), and am eager to dive into the new Penny (I fall deeper and deeper for Gamache with every volume), but I was disappointed with the pacing of the new McCall Smith. 

And oh, Historical Fiction. Such a glut of goodness. I loved the Mantel. The Faye was great. I'm in the midst of reading the Stedman, and have been truly transported in time and space by it. The Edugyan and the Morton are in my TBR pile, smiling at me with promise. The Livesey is another I've heard so much about, and plan to get my hands on soon. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Look!

I was completely drawn in by Jennifer Egan's 2001 novel Look at Me, which I listened to as read by Rachael Warren. It is, in some ways, all over the place. But it's woven into a vast strange look at looks, and what's behind them.

Charlotte is a New York model who ends up with an unrecognizable face after her car is totalled one day near her hometown of Rockford, Ill. (Or as she prefers to put it, distancingly, "near Chicago.") After months of recovery and reconstruction, she returns to the fashion world - or tries to, but without her former face, can't get work. Meanwhile, a detective is after her help to find the mysterious Z, who disappeared around the time of Charlotte's accident. Eventually Charlotte becomes embroiled in an Internet venture (this was 2001, after all) to put her life on display. Kind of an early Kardashian, but faker. Or more real, depending on who you ask. Her hook is the fact that no one can tell who she is anymore, but behind that is the deeper truth that she's not all that sure herself.

Meanwhile, back in Rockford, her former best friend's daughter, also named Charlotte, is entranced by the mysterious Michael, who showed up in town around the time of Charlotte's accident. Young Charlotte is perfectly teen-love-struck - her refrain is "if he does that, then he loves me" - and seeing Michael through her eyes is astounding when compared to seeing Michael though his own lens and that of the omniscient reader.

This was my first audiobook narrated by Warren, and while I enjoyed her tone and pacing, I wished for a little more complexity and differentiation to her voices. With the shifting POVs of Egan's novel, it would have enhanced the audio a good bit.

Big Charlotte's ambition is to see the "shadow self" of everyone she meets. Not the face they hold to the world, but the one beneath that, that shows the truth of a person. And throughout Look at Me, one thing is clear: no one is who they seem. No one is as bad as they seem, or as good as they wish. It doesn't take a disfiguring wreck to see that beauty is skin deep but depth is difficult for us all.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Weekend of Many Antics

Battle of the BandsHomecoming DanceMe & KClean HandsScribing the TorahHot Dog
Tower of Cake

October 2012 busy weekend, a set on Flickr.


I mean, not for nothing, but we were busy.

It was homecoming weekend at my oldest son's high school, which meant many loud and festive events, starting with Thursday's parade and the Battle of the Bands. D's band has played in BotB every year so far, and they do fairly well. They should have won this year, because of course they were the best, but 3rd place is pretty fun, too. I'm not sure how loud the actual Homecoming game was on Friday, but I bet BotB was louder. (I make it a point to avoid high school football games, after 3 years of going to every one of the dang things during my marching band days.) (This particular point will be snapped off like that of a crummy pencil in a couple of years, when K starts high school and his own marching band career. What do y'all think the odds are of my convincing him to drop sax before then?)

So then it was Friday, which was so long ago I can't even remember, but probably something happened. It usually does. I worked, I came home, I wrote some words. R took K shopping.

And Saturday. D was up early because auditions for All-State Orchestra were that morning. (Good luck to him. And the other orchestra guys. Except not as much luck as I am wishing D, in case that means he doesn't get in and they do. It would be rude to wish ill luck on the kids I don't know, so I'll refrain, what with me being a stellar human being and all, but... good luck to D, especially, above everyone else.)

K's soccer team finally didn't lose! They tied. Which, at the tail end of this season, is a pretty nice result.

Also Saturday: the Homecoming Dance. One of those pics up there is D with his very cute girlfriend. Did I mention, I learned how to tie the bow tie? Because, thanks to the consistently helpful folks over at Tie-a-Tie, I can now add 'almost decent at bow tie tying' to my skills list. (Tie-a-Tie is one of the secret powers I've picked up after 19 years of living with only males.) (Sorry, dogs, you don't count. Mostly because neither of you ever let me dress you up in frilly things.)

Here's a fun parenting game: when your kid gets all dressed up for something, spend as much time as possible adjusting his tie, picking lint off his lapel, fidgeting with his hair, etc. That way, when you get to his date's house, he'll be totally nerve-wracked. It's the best!

(By the way, that whole Flickr set thing I have going up there? I have no clue how to make my mac & iphone be effortless as I feel they should be with photo sharing. They seem to be a couple of two-year-olds afraid to lose their favorite dump trucks. So this is my probably-temporary solution.)

Sunday. Oh, Sunday. You know how there's this hurricane that everyone on the East Coast is freaking out about today, because of the whole 'perfect storm' aspect? Well, the sun was shining prettily here in Houston, but it didn't stop Sunday from being a little perfect stormy anyway.

9-12:45 - K at religious school & Hebrew tutoring (his Bar Mitzvah is 2 1/2 months away. Not that I'm freaking out. At all. Don't be silly.)

2-4 - all of us at the Eagle Court of Honor for one of D's BFFs. R was the adult speaker (he had the best speech of the 4 adults speaking about the individual scouts. And not just because he left off pointed political rants about our president, even. Though that helped. Not that he would have.) (Note to self: go vote tomorrow. Even though there's no chance that my vote will count electorally in Texas, I'm all in favor of bumping the popular numbers.) (Hi, I'm a liberal. In case that wasn't clear.) Anyway, it was very sweet to see G get his Eagle (D isn't too far behind - another thing about which I will be sure to freak out soon.) He's a really stellar kid, and I loved seeing all the photos of him (often with D beside him) over the past dozen years that we've known him.

4:45-6 - (again, family, I'm sorry I was so - um, forceful about ensuring that you left the scout thing on my timetable.) (Even if I was right.) (I should have been nicer. A little nicer.) My aunt's temple is getting a new Torah this year, and she had K inscribe a letter into it as his Bar Mitzvah gift. It was so cool, you guys! After dressing up all nice and stuff (look at my guy in his suit), we went up and ritually washed our hands (honestly, they felt so very clean afterwards, I was amazed) and then sat up with the scribe, who told us about the letter K would scribe (Ches) in terms of the 8th day after Creation and explained why it's written differently in the Torah than in regular Hebrew. Then we all got to touch the feather on the quill he used to scribe the letter. And we all smiled, and the photographer got a nice shot of the gang (my family, my parents, my sister and her family.) There were a few things to do after that, reflective moments, as much as the 9 of us plus a couple of aunts and some random people we ran into there can be reflective.

6:05-8:30 - to that same aunt's house (she's really nice) where we had a celebration of my dad's 70th birthday, which was last week. His brother and his in-town sisters were there with their spouses, and a couple of my cousins, and us all. It was barely more than 20 people, which is practically intimate for this side of my family, and it was nice to get to visit with everyone. We had it catered by a hot dog place. You heard me. Hot dogs. A couple of dozen delicious hot dogs, with a million toppings (okay, a dozen), side dishes, and this magical thing called a savory cheesecake as appetizer. It's cheesecake, but savory! We had four flavors, and while I would kick you over to get to the smoked salmon-Gouda one, I'm hardly adverse to the Santa Fe, either. The other totally congruous thing this hot dog restaurant does is cake balls, so naturally we had them create a tower of 70 of the things (sorry, had to excuse myself for a minute to scrounge a lemon flavor out of my fridge) for Dad's 70th birthday. (Some of the cake balls were cheesecake. See - not just an appetizer! So versatile!)

Meanwhile, we got a message that K's team actually won a game while we were at all of these events. Go, Thunder! See, perfect storms have silver linings, sometimes. (You know, because of thunder? Storms? ...Get it?)

For the record, I didn't pull over to have R drive home from the party because I was drunk. Don't listen to my kids. My contacts were doing that weird blurry thing to alert me that I needed to take them out instantly, and it seemed like maybe putting R behind the wheel for the interstate portion of our trip home would be wisest.

Also for the record, the wine was good.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ye Gods

Three God novels today. Well, not entirely, but that's what the titles claim. 

I wasn't at all sure about Lyndsay Faye's newest, The Gods of Gotham, when I started it. Set in New York City in 1845, in the midst of the potato famine and the resultant mass influx of Irish into the city, I was just a little put off by the 'let's analyze the ethnic interrelationships' of it all. But I gave it a chance. (Well, I returned the print version, but then I checked out the audio narrated by Steven Boyer, and was absorbed entirely.) It's not just that Boyer's voice - just tense enough, with a sweet, sad note that suited Tim Wilde's story perfectly - made the story better, though this is one of those cases that I recommend audio if you're at all an audio person. But once Faye's scene is set - Timothy is shoe-horned into a job as a copper star, the new police force for the city, by his larger-than-life brother Valentine - the novel really takes off. A blood-soaked ten-year-old girl fleeing the brothel where she was raised literally runs into Tim after the end of his patrol, and through the tissue of her lies, a truth emerges: the unmarked graves of nineteen carved up child prostitutes ('kinchen mabs' in the flash vernacular that pervades the book, most of which is incorporated without a lot of blatant translation exposition.) As Tim re-imagines his job to involve not just the stopping but also the solving of crimes, he runs alongside and sometimes afoul of a variety of well-drawn characters - the minister and his lovely daughter, the mob of newspaper sellers, the Irish being courted by Valentine's Democratic Party, Val himself, with his many moods and vices. It's a rich and complex world, well worth visiting, even as it evolves. 

I first read Neil Gaiman's American Gods about six years ago, and I was immediately on board with his vision of Old World deities fighting to maintain their place among the powerhouses of the modern age, with technology's wunderkind doing his best to stop Odin from bringing his forces together. Our hero, Shadow, is released from jail a few days early to attend his wife's funeral, and thus begins a journey that gets just a little crazier every step of the way. Anyway. During my Armchair Audies work, I often saw the 10th anniversary edition of American Gods mentioned - a full cast audio, revised and updated by Gaiman - and it took the prize for audiobook of the year. So I got it, and listened, and yep, that would be one well-deserved prize-winner right there. The cast is clearly having a lot of fun playing leprechauns and trickster spiders and carbon-copy men in black suits, and why wouldn't they? They have such an immersive text to work with. It's fully capable of enhancing twenty hours of your life.


I am still captivated by Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series, and The God of the Hive is absolutely no exception. I've read ten books in the series over the past five months, and my appetite for Russell and Holmes is still so strong that I'm beginning to experience anxiety that King has only published two more so far. That'll take me into next month, but what then? How will I slake my desire for all things Holmesian? (That's not a real question. There are a plethora of options, including the first novel by the aforementioned Lyndsay Faye, but I don't know that anything will really satisfy in the same way.) So, at this point, Russell and Holmes are married, and have been through trials across the globe. They are recently returned to England, where they meet (in The Language of Bees) Holmes's son by Irene Adler. Damian is a bit older than his stepmother, but his relationship with Holmes is far newer. He brings trouble along with his presence in their lives - for himself, his wife, and his young daughter.  Holmes and Russell, of course, jump into the fray, and as this book opens, they are on separate - and dangerous - journeys to protect the various new members of their family. They both meet with new associates who they hope will become allies, as they progress together via cryptic messages and their sure knowledge of how the other is likely to act. There is whimsy and wit and a certain amount of ripping apart of the known to get to even deeper truths. Have I mentioned I love this series? I love this series.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Quilting


This is the first quilt I made. I just kinda made it up and dove in, which means if you take a close look (okay, a cursory glance) at it, you’ll find all kinds of uneven seams and a whole mess to do with batting and the washing machine and their basic incompatibility, the way I built the layers. But it hangs on my wall anyway, and I love it. 


I started quilting when I was in college - no particular reason why. I mean, in 3rd grade when Santa gave me a sewing machine, I immediately loved making clothes for my Barbies and so forth, but despite my mom's prodigious skills at kid clothes and the best Halloween costumes ever, I never really became much of a seamstress. So the quilt thing was a little random (wait, I remember why: I did a docent thing for the AIDS quilt when it was passing through Santa Cruz and was impressed by the diversity of the construction as well as the messages, of course.) 

Since then I've made maybe a dozen quilts, mostly small, with a few big ones thrown in. Some crazy quilts, some traditional patterns. (This one is a strip quilt out of flannel, so dang cozy, which we often fight over at my house.) I've made them for nieces, siblings, my parents, a couple of baby quilts for friends, etc. My sons - well, there's this whole big project where I made a 12" square for each year of their lives, with the intention to combine them someday into a story quilt of their childhoods. Yeah. I have a lot to catch up on. Most of my Giant Armoire of Fabric is full of fat quarters I picked up for those quilts. 

One of my favorite places to fabric shop is the International Quilt Festival, which will be back in Houston at the end of this month. It's simply astounding to wander the aisles of quilts (and note how very accomplished these quilters are, and how very rudimentary my own skills are.) I'm so inspired by the fabric artists - my first novel is about a quilter at an artist's retreat, in fact. The things they manage with cotton and thread would bowl you over.

One of my most artistic quilts is the one I made for my mom's 50th birthday. I crafted a Texas Star, with each arm of the star representing a decade of her life. (One of her doll's dresses for the first 10, baby handprint fabric for her 20s, when she had the four of us, etc.) Then I had my grandmother, my dad, and my three siblings each make a smaller star which I floated in the spaces between the arms of the main star. All of the background fabrics are celestial patterns. It was my first really big project and I love how it turned out. 

I made a small (tiny) quilt for my dad's 60th. It's a pictorial square that I floated in a frame. It's inspired by the yard of the house where I grew up - the view from my bedroom window was of a live oak tree with a garden of azaleas and the lawn. I embroidered his initials at the top and mine at the bottom, and it's kinda pretty.

With the weather cooling and the quilt show coming to town, I've been thinking about my quilting a lot lately. It's been - well, my youngest niece is almost five, so I guess about that long since I actually finished a project. My oldest son just turned 17 (yikes!) which means I have a lot of work to do if that old goal of a 'your life in fabric' quilt is going to happen, so watch out, everyone. Once I re-open the Giant Armoire of Fabric, just about anything could happen. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Return of the Vampires


Here are 3 sequels to big vampire novels. (By big I mean you're likely to hear of them even if you're not a paranormal reader - two of them are also big as in hefty, but that's a good thing.)



Justin Cronin's The Twelve is the second in The Passage trilogy. The Passage was published pre-Overreader, but trust me when I say that the night I stayed up until 4 a.m. reading it because Icouldn't put it down is burned like post-apocalyptic fire in my mind. (I ain't even saying so because I know the author. But I do know the author. It's not through him I got the advance copy, though - his publisher has me on a list from back when I did reviews for the Houston Chronicle. Still, I'm going to his launch party in Houston on Friday, so full disclosure on the amount of gushing I'm about to do.)
Anyway. I listened to the first book earlier this year, because I wanted to be caught up on all the action. Turns out I didn't need to, since Cronin starts with a clever and effective Book of Genesis-style prologue recapping The Passage. We're then thrown into the action, tracking various displaced First Colony residents, mostly in Texas, as well as going back to the beginnings of the viral outbreak that spread vampirism to start with. Here's the basic thing: while The Passage was a headlong hurtle, almost manic and full of terror and raw survivalist emotion, The Twelve is one of those conspiracy theorist's crazy rooms full of maps and post-it notes and yarn strung from one pinpoint to another. Just enough time has passed for the survivors to have established governments and routines, just enough is now known about what caused the Virals, that Peter and Alicia and Amy and the rest are forced to be politic negotiators as well as adventuring warriors. There is a lot about faith and prayer and higher powers, a lot about corruption and willful ignorance and the futility of acting both within the system and outside of it. Also, there are a lot of people being killed, loved ones being ripped away, desperate hopes for reunion, terror, sadness. So, yeah. It's great.

Also great, but about a very different kind of vampires, is Deborah Harkness's Shadow of Night. This is the follow-up to A Discovery of Witches, which I raved about when it was my 100th book last year. This begins where that left off - with Diana and Matthew, the witch and vampire odd couple taking the academic and non-human worlds by storm, leaping into the past so that Diana can search for a missing book of spells. Kit Marlowe isn't too happy to see her (he has a crush on Matthew) but Sir Walter Raleigh and the rest of the Elizabethans are helpful. Except the suspicious witches who don't understand her hanging out with vampires. And the demons who want to run their spy network without all the attention she's garnering. And the vampires whose turf she's invading. I loved how damned uncomfortable Diana found the whole experience: the clothing, the food, the role of women. She went from being a historian entrenched in the ideas of the time to being a participant actively excluded from engaging with those idea-makers, and watching her find her place in this world, especially when Matthew's vampire nature was let loose to shine in all kinds of new-to-her ways, was compelling. The setting - and ability to connect with his father again - also gave Matthew a whole cocoons worth of layers through which he had to struggle to emerge as a true husband and partner to Diana. Harkness handles both of their journeys with deep understanding of her characters and a fine grasp of how to make their time-jumped reality mold them individually and as a couple. I can't wait to see what she does to them in the final book of the trilogy.

These last vampires, I don't have so much to say about. Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series is the basis for True Blood, which I've never seen since I don't have premium cable. Living Dead in Dallas is the second book, after Dead Until Dark, and I will say that it is much better written than the first. This series has a fun set-up (Louisiana mind-reader bar waitress meets and falls for undead local boy, much murdering and vendetta-having and bleeding ensue) and I didn't pick them up expecting great literature. Still, I found the first one clunky and badly edited, and those issues improved in the second. And stayed better in the third - so, yes, I'm a series completest, it's one of the reasons I've posted so little lately, since I've been reading more in series I've already blogged about. The Sookie books are easy downloads from my library, and I'll probably keep throwing them on the Kindle because, you know, why not. But on the other hand, now that I've experienced them and get the whole vibe, why? 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Novels, Novels for Everyone

I'm still here! Oh, what tumbleweeds have flown through my blog's landscape this month. But, like a conquering hero, or locusts, I inevitably return.

It's not that I haven't been reading. I've got plenty of good stuff to share with y'all. I've just been in one of those crazy all-over-the-place places, which for me means I'm in the midst of six or seven books, and have to stop myself and focus before I can talk about anything. (I know, I'm soooo manic, right? People shy away from me in public, with all this kind of craziness on display.)

But here are some pretty books you might well admire.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers is a debut novel (you guys, I read so many books in series, and so many authors I discover then devour, and it's a treat to come across a debut and sit, fingers crossed that I will get to enjoy them over the course of their careers.) It reads as a sophisticated, incisive portrait of a very compelling character. Victoria has been orphaned since birth, and made the rounds of foster care and group homes, the one shining period of enduring peace and happiness being when she lived with a grape-grower named Elizabeth. Elizabeth wanted to adopt the eleven-year-old, and then things went wrong, so much so that when we meet Victoria on her eighteenth birthday, she is ill-equipped to be released from care. But she is eager to be on her own, and to retreat into the world of flowers. Elizabeth taught her the Victorian language of flowers (you know, red rose means love, yellow rose means friendship, and a thousand more I never suspected until I read this.) It's the most accessible and honest form of communication Victoria can use, and when she meets a flower grower who seems to understand it, it signals the start of a relationship but also the unraveling of the secrets of Victoria's past. The whole thing is compelling and smoothly plotted, if a little too fast to wrap up at the end, and I hope like heck that Diffenbaugh publishes more like it in the future.

One of those authors I devour is Jonathan Tropper, and One Last Thing Before I Go was no exception. Unless the exception is that I devoured it more exceptionally ravenously than others of his. It's yummy. Honestly, a book about a ex-rock star who makes his living playing in wedding and bar mitzvah bands while ignoring his ex-wife and daughter and living in a dump of a long-term hotel habituated by other pathos-laden divorced men, and I love it? Yeah. Tropper is excellent at giving me reasons to invest in his characters, in this case, even before Silver has a heart attack while taking his fresh-from-high-school-graduation daughter to get an abortion, I felt for him. The genius of Tropper is that even in the midst of Silver's self-pity and self-absorption (all of which is accompanied by some biting humor), he is a man I'm pulling for, even as I laugh at him and cry for him.

And here's another English amateur sleuth series I can't believe I haven't mentioned already. Rhys Bowen's Her Royal Spyness (and subsequent Royal Spyness mysteries) is narrated by Georgie (aka Lady Victoria Georgiana blah blah blah, 34th in line for the British throne), who is young and penniless and not fond of living with her brother the dim but affable Duke of Rannoch (and his not-affable wife) in the ancestral Scottish castle that has yet to obtain any of the mod-cons of the 1930s. So she settles herself in the family's London townhouse, clandestinely begins making money as a house cleaner, and even more clandestinely takes on espionage assignments for her relative the Queen. There's the awful Wallis woman, there's a body in Georgie's bathtub, there's wedding-crashing with dashing-but-mysterious Irishmen, and Georgie has a Cockney ex-police grandfather and a neglectful jet-setting ex-actress mother. What more could you want? More? Well, you've got it, because there are five published and one forthcoming Georgie books, and so far, I've adored them all (Royal Blood less than the others, but it's a marginal thing.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Books that Make Me Grin

Okay, after an uneventful week (phew) I am returning to the plan. The plan to make you happy! Here's how: read these books. So easy, right? Plus, two of them are series starters, so there are books and books of smiles on the horizon. You're welcome.

I am turning into what might modestly be termed a rabid super-fan of E. Lockhart's novels. It all started with Frankie, but once I knew how ably she grabbed onto the everyman-ness of her teen characters and explored their gorgeous depths, I was hooked. The Boyfriend List is the first in a series about Ruby Oliver, a 15 year old exploring the genesis of her panic attacks with her newly-acquired shrink. It's about boys, and crushes, and friendships, and betrayals, and Popsicles. But it's anything but mundane, because Ruby is stellar. She doesn't know she's stellar, and her shrink doesn't set out to prove she's stellar, and her friends certainly don't end up thinking she's stellar, but we the readers get to know it, and that's the magic and the joy of Lockhart. Plus, footnotes!

Another fun series starts with The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz. The Spellmans are a family of private detectives living in San Francisco, and their bad sheep is our slightly defensive, very snarky, but loving narrator, Izzy. She grew up second-place to her always-perfect brother David, and then her parents had adorable late-in-life baby Rae, putting her in third. Her spate of teenage crimes and romantic disasters are, mostly behind her, but that doesn't stop her parents from putting Rae on the tail of Izzy's new boyfriend. (The Spellmans spend as much time spying on each other as they do on their clients. Surveillance tasks are both a punishment and on-the-job-training.) Izzy wants out from under the phone tap, but when Rae goes missing, nothing will stop her until her sister is found. Izzy's voice has a quick energy that feels effortless, and Lutz puts her through her paces with a great deal of charm and good old-fashioned moxie that is a delight to read.

And now on to side-splitting guffaws. Jenny Lawson, also known as The Bloggess, wrote (and narrated) her "Mostly True Memoir" Let's Pretend This Never Happened, which engendered more laughs per minute than anything I'd read/listened to since the next-to-last David Sedaris. (I didn't really go for his bestiary.) It was problematic, actually, since I listened while commuting. Fortunately I have a hybrid now, so sitting in the car after reaching my destination just to listen to more words from the sound system doesn't destroy so much of the environment. Unfortunately I listened to this mostly with my kids in the car (which will make you question my suitability as a parent. But I skipped the most adult stuff with the 12 year old!), and they got really mad at me if I listened to any of it without them. Basically, Lawson grew up in small-town Texas, with an eccentric-to-say-the-least father and all kinds of odd small-town Texas school situations. But even the not so odd stuff is comedy gold when viewed through Lawson's somewhat skewed perspective. She's a fan of the hyperbole, and extremely good at combining self-deprecation with emotional resonance. I hope there's a next book, and a next, and a next in her.