Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Life After Life: Love!

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
(Random House Audio, 2013)
Format: Audio CDs via library (narrated by Fenella Woolgar)

From Goodreads: "During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, she finds warmth even in life's bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here is Kate Atkinson at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves."

Oh, you've heard the buzz. And you've looked at the kinda weird roses on the cover and thought, 'eh, is this for me?' Well, you can trust me - the answer is YES. It's for you, it's for me, it's for humanity (not to get too OTT this early on in my review, but honestly? I'm not wrong.) I'm an avowed fan of Atkinson's, but it's not that I'm predisposed to adulation - she's always doing something a little, or a lot, different from before, so I take her on a case by case basis. Much like Ursala begins to do, at the point in her life when she realizes that her choices have some very clear consequences. Ursula is a compelling, emotion-driven scientist, and her area of study is her life. As she relives and relives crucial moments in her childhood, first unknowingly then deliberately altering events to avert tragedies for the people in her world, Ursula makes us all think about the lengths we would go to to prevent harm to our loved ones. And when our loved ones start being endangered by world events, it stretches Ursula - and us. How far will we go, how much will we put up with, how much should we personally suffer to bring about change, and will our sacrifices even work? 

It's not just big concepts, though. Life After Life is also a story about family, about the beloved little brother and the difficult big brother, about the black sheep aunt and how she fits in, about chance meetings that mean the world. All that gorgeous detailed stuff that Atkinson does so well, as well.

This was the first narration of Woolgar's I've heard, and there is something deceptively placid about her tone that still had the power to stop me in my tracks. I wanted to flip back and forth a lot more than usual with this book so it may have been a better choice for me in paper, but Woolgar drove the pace admirably and I'm glad to find another narrator I enjoy.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Romance: the Reading & Writing Thereof

So here's a thing about me: I'm a writer.

Bow-wow! Grr-ruff!
It all started back in 5th grade, when I wrote a charming story called "Fortunately / Unfortunately." It was about a kid who had a dog named Angle. (The dog was supposed to be named Angel, but I was 11. I didn't spell very well.) As you might imagine, some very good things happened to Angle, followed by some very bad things. A mountain in Colorado was involved. Also a kind, loving teacher. Maybe that's why my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Penny Heap, the best 5th grade teacher in the history of 5th grade teachers, complimented my story, and thus engendered my desire to be a writer.

(Also in 5th grade: my first publication! My poem, "Twas the Week Before Christmas," made it into the school newsletter. All this validation clearly went to my head, and I went on to enter my poetry in local contests throughout my school years. Won at least one, too!)

Fast forward some years. I'm obviously a major reader. (You've noticed, probably, that I talk about books a lot.) I read in all kinds of genres - if it's fiction, I'll give it a whirl. What I write, though, is romance - contemporary romance, to be exact.

So this week, I'll be at my first Romance Writers of America convention, which makes this a good time to debut my pen name (no, I'm not Robert Galbraith): Melanie Greene.

Also, now I get to point you at a couple of reviews I wrote for my favorite-est romance book site, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I reviewed Sugar Springs by Kim Law, and Becoming Dante by Day Leclaire.

And now back to the regularly-scheduled program.

No, really, that's all. You can go now.

Why are you still here?

You're dying to hear my 1st-published poem, are you?

Fine. Here you go:

'Twas the week before Christmas
And all through the house
Every creature was stirring
Down to Tommy's pet mouse.

The stockings were still in the attic where

Mommy had left them, 'cause the kids didn't care.
The school play was at eight that night
The girls were to be angels in flight

Tommy was Santa, with his bag of toys

All four kids had costumes, what joys.

(Okay, I don't really remember the rest. I can tell you it had a gripping narrative arc: chaos and disaffected kids learn through overcoming challenges to have a beautiful appreciation of the mystical joys of the holiday season.)

(Do NOT start in with me on "oh, you can't remember the rest, Mel? But it's been 32 years and you still have the first 10 lines down cold? And you think we're judging you about the not remembering the rest part?")

I hope that I will delight you with equally compelling plots (though not as well-rhymed) should you someday pick up a contemporary romance by Melanie Greene.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
(William Morrow, 2013)
Format: audio via Audible (read by Neil Gaiman)

From Goodreads: Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Laneis told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark."

Unlike the rest of the world, I thoroughly enjoy Neil Gaiman. (In case my dry tone doesn’t convey, I know that the rest of the world agrees.) Ocean is his new novel for adults, although the story primarily takes place when the narrator is a young boy. We get cats magical and sometimes malevolent, a clearly malevolent nanny who once was a worm or perhaps an evil spirit, and a strong family of witchy women who may not be as straightforward as they appear.

It all weaves a strong web around the reader, and Gaiman’s superb narrative skills only add to the spell. He really is the gold standard of writers narrating their own work, and I’ll always go for audio when I’m looking at a new Gaiman. (Or rereading one from my pre-audiobook-obsession-days.) (As long as it's not illustrated.) So although this wasn’t my very very favorite of his (that would be Anansi Boys), there is everything good here to recommend it. With everything he does, jumping from genre to genre and all kinds of concepts, there is always something just so very Gaiman about his work that guarantees I’ll be absorbed and enchanted.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

I Get the Last Word

The Last Word by Lisa Lutz
(Simon & Schuster, 2013)
Format: advance ebook via Net Galley

From Goodreads: "Isabel Spellman is used to being followed, extorted, and questioned—all occupational hazards of working at her family’s firm, Spellman Investigations. Her little sister, Rae, once tailed Izzy for weeks on end to discover the identity of her boyfriend. Her mother, Olivia, once blackmailed Izzy with photographic evidence of Prom Night 1994. It seemed that the Spellmans would lay off after Izzy was fired for breaching client confidentiality, but then Izzy avenged her dismissal by staging a hostile takeover of the company. She should have known better than to think she could put such shenanigans behind her.

In The Last Word, Izzy’s troubles are just beginning. After her hostile takeover of Spellman Investigations, Izzy’s parents simply go on strike. Her sister, Rae, comes back into the family business with questionable motivations. Her other employees seem to be coping with anxiety disorders, and she has no idea how to pay the bills. However, her worst threat comes from someone who is no relation. Is this the end of Izzy Spellman, PI?"

I've mentioned Lutz's Spellman series before, because: sharp, fun, kooky but not too kooky, and Izzy is great. So I'm sure you all have been avidly following the series, and are ready to bemoan along with me that this looks like the end of Izzy Spellman. Which certainly wouldn't bother her parents, who are engaged in a most hilarious passive resistance campaign against her takeover of the family PI firm. (I shudder to think how I'd have managed moving up in my own family business if my mom had, like Izzy's, refused to explain the ins and outs of the accounting software. So: thanks, Mom!) Fortunately, Izzy has Edward Slayter in her corner, and even though he has Alzheimer's, he's sure he can protect her even as she tries to figure out who is embezzling from his company and framing Izzy. 

Lutz is a playful author. I wonder if she just pulls random items out of the ether and challenges herself to incorporate them plausibly in her book. Izzy's challenges include twelve cans of tear gas, hideous Christmas sweaters, her ex-boyfriend's mother, the FBI, and a windowless file room inconveniently positioned for her attempts to eavesdrop on Bible Study. And somehow it all makes sense. As with the other books in the series, the investigative work takes a back seat to the delights of the Spellman family and their associates. And because the characters are all so real, well - I won't spoil it, but I will say that I cried. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Don't You Fret, M'sieur Marius

Well, howdy, folks! You all remember how I'm reading Victor Hugo's Les Misérables this year, and posting about it all the time? (If by "all" I can mean "yeah, some....") Well here I am again!

Interesting and Informative
and Historical and... yeah.

To be honest, Volume 3: Marius didn't start out dynamically. So I slogged through (but here I am at 47% complete, which is encouraging), and am giving you all this at the low, low price of one entry:
Book First - Paris Studied in Its Atom
Book Second - The Great Bourgeois
Book Third - The Grandfather and the Grandson
Book Fourth - The Friends of the A B C

We meet Marius. Eventually. First, Mister Victor's Recap of All Things Ever. This is where we meet "the gamin - the street Arab - of Paris" (p.388) who you'll know better as Gavroche. Here's some of Hugo's delightful prose about this breed of guy:

  • "The gamin is not devoid of literary intuition. His tendency, and we say it with proper amount of regret, would not constitute classic taste. He is not very academic by nature." (p.389)
  • "All crimes of the man begin in the vagabondage of the child." (p.392)
  • "There are two things to which he plays Tantalus, and which he always desires without ever attaining them: to overthrow the government, and to get his trousers sewed up again." (p.394)
  • "The Paris gamin of today, like the graeculus of Rome in days gone by, is the infant populace with the wrinkle of the old world on his brow." (p.395)
  • "This child never felt so well as when he was in the street. The pavements were less hard to him than his mother's heart." (p.399)
He also goes on a great deal about the universality of Paris:

  • "Paris makes more than the law, it makes the fashion; Paris sets more than the fashion, it sets the routine. Paris may be stupid, if it sees fit; it sometimes allows itself the luxury; then the universe is stupid in company with it." (p.397)
  • "Paris is always showing its teeth; when it is not scolding it is laughing." (p.398)
  • "As for the Parisian populace, even when a man grown, it is always the street Arab; to paint the child is to paint the city; and it is for that reason that we have studied this eagle in this arrant sparrow." (p.398) (Oh, is that why? I thought you just liked to bloviate.)
  • "To stray is human. To saunter is Parisian." (p.437)
So Gavroche, on the rare occasion that he returns home, shows up at the hovel we know so well, where Valjean and Cosette briefly took refuge after leaving the Thenardier inn. All new inhabitants by now, including Gavroche's poorly-off family in the attic room (mom, dad, two almost-grown and well-loved sisters) - they never particularly welcomed him home, which Gavroche took in stride, not knowing any better.

Also in this treasure-box of a building: "a very poor young man who was called M. Marius." (p.400)

And now: Mister Victor's Recap of Marius's Entire Family Tree. Salient points: grandfather M. Gillenormand is the life and soul of an anti-Napoleon salon filled with gray-haired folk. He lives with one of his two daughters (the ugly one. "Both had wings, the one like an angel, the other like a goose." (p.406)) Her grand-nephew Theodule was her favorite person. Her other grand-nephew Marius, who actually lived with them, was a serious chap, who never saw his father. The father, Baron Pontmercy, we already met (Hugo sure is fond of weaving all these random people together across the breadth of his book) - he was Napoleon's soldier who Thenardier "rescued" (i.e., started to steal from until caught) from a pile of corpses at Waterloo. Pontmercy went through the rest of life loyal to Napoleon, and was reviled, and had to give up his son to M. Gillenormand in order to keep the poor kid alive. He had to promise never to see him, and Gillenormand intercepted all the letters he wrote Marius, though there were a few sympathetic church folk who used to observe Pontmercy lurking behind a column just to get a glimpse of his son. And finally Pontmercy dies, after summoning Marius, who makes it to his room an hour too late. Marius is saddened, and after he finds out how much his dad suffered for his sake, vows to fulfill Pontmercy's last request, which is to look up that nice M. Thenardier and see if he needs anything.


Marius (who is "on the whole, a cold and ardent, noble, generous, proud, religious, enthusiastic lad; dignified to harshness, pure to shyness." (p.417)) becomes an anti-Royalist in honor of Pontmercy, which Gillnormand and his daughter find out (as does Marius's cousin Theodule, sent to spy on Marius, but Theodule opts carelessly against ratting out his cousin.) So grandpa throws him out. He doesn't have anywhere to go, but fortunately he's spotted by a classmate from college, who is part of this gang of young Revolutionaries called The Friends of the A B C (do you really want the whole long detailed political history as to why? I didn't think so.)

Enjolras (the leader), Combeferre (the guide), Jean Prouvaire, Fauilly, Courfeyrac (the center), Bahorel (the clown), Lesgle or Laigle, Joly, and Grantaire - we meet them all here. I'm not really going to pass along the introductions, delightful though some of them are, because: wordy Hugo. "All these young men who differed so greatly, and who, on the whole, can only be discussed seriously, held the same religion: Progress." (p.438) Any rate, Marius mixes in with them, but doesn't pay too much attention to their philosophies, being mostly concerned with not having any cash or a job. (M. Gillnormand does have his daughter send him cash, but he returns it as tainted stuff, and moves - presumably to the hovel - in order to save what he has left and to prevent her readily finding him again.)

"Marius had fallen into a wasps'-nest of wits. However, although he was silent and grave, he was, none the less, both winged and armed." (p.442) (See, Hugo, this is why I forgive your interminable history lessons! That is a genius line.) So one day when he's half-paying attention as they all sit around drinking wine and gibbering on about Progress, Marius overhears something which causes him to stand up and make a grand speech about how if it weren't for Napoleon, they wouldn't have Paris as it was, they wouldn't have Progress, yadda yadda. Kind of stuns the group into silence.