Still Star-Crossed by Melinda Taub

April 23, 2014

TodayStill Star-Crossed by Melinda Taub we celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday and also World Book Night, which is always on his birthday.  What better way to celebrate than with a fresh take on one of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays?

Romeo and Juliet has been subject to dozens of adaptations and retellings – so many that it might be difficult to believe that one published just last year could have something new to say. Yet Melissa Taub manages it deftly in a painstakingly researched and imaginative young adult tale of what might have happened after the play’s conclusion.

Days after the events of the play, the truce reached by the houses of Capulet and Montague has fallen upon deaf ears among the young members of each family. Each house blames the other for the death toll; brawls and swordfights abound, and the city’s peace is at increasing risk. Prince Escalus is desperate to find a way to ensure that the pact between the lords of the houses is upheld. But he can’t think of anything other than ensuring a blood tie between them – a marriage between two living members of the families.

Not only is seventeen-year-old Rosaline Capulet mourning her cousin Juliet, she feels responsible for the deaths that occurred in Verona just days ago. After all, if she had accepted Romeo’s romantic advances, maybe he wouldn’t have tumbled into his doomed romance. Maybe she could have spared their city all this heartache. Benvolio hasn’t forgiven her, either. Romeo and Mercutio were his cousins and closest friends – he feels isolated at the loss of his Montague friends and wants revenge. Imagine the surprise and indignation of both youths when Escalus decides that the two of them are the best candidates to unite the houses, ending the feud once and for all. Now they just have to agree to the plan…

The genius of Taub’s story is all in the use of characters given little stage time in the play. She’s wonderful at taking the little we know about them and fleshing them out into full characters. Rosaline’s independence and family loyalty (hinted at in the original play) are admirable traits and help keep the tension going throughout the story, while Benvolio’s stubborn streak creates ongoing conflict. Taub uses Shakespearean dialect in dialogue, but modern language in description, helping immerse readers in the world of Shakespeare without making the book seem unapproachable. If you’re a big fan of Shakespeare (or love a good historical romance), this might be just the ticket!

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Shopgirl by Steve Martin

April 22, 2014

Shopgirl by Steve MartinSpring is here again. What a relief. It sometimes seems like this will be the year of eternal winter. Nope. It is here again and all that new energy brings thoughts of romance to some, hay fever to others. Here is a little love story by Steve Martin who is a lovely writer. A novella is the perfect book for your purse or man bag if you still read paper and this one is not short on endearing, imperfect characters and a concise storyline with the elegant complexity that you would expect from Martin.

As the story opens, Mirabelle is a young, somewhat idealistic clerk at Macy’s who meets an older, more experienced, maybe jaded man, Ray Porter, who is buying a pair of fine gloves for his current lover. With an awkward glimpse of her dating life we also meet a young man, Jeremy, who haphazardly inhabits her bedroom one evening before he leaves the picture for a while on a trip out west. While on his journey, Ray Porter woos Mirabelle with the adult and sophisticated rewards of having fought his way to middle age gathering what is valued and stylishly presented in L.A.

As Mirabelle waits for Ray to pick her up for their second date, after he has spent as much as one month of her rent on their first dinner, she looks around her apartment.  It hasn’t changed much since she graduated from college and got her first job.  She contemplates how things might go when he arrives: “Mirabelle doesn’t have a real sofa, only a low-lying futon cradled in a wood brace, which means that anyone attempting to sit on it is immediately jackknifed at floor level. If a visitor allows an arm to fall to one side, it will land on the gritty hardwood. If he sits with a drink, it has to be put on the floor at cat level. She reminds herself not to ask Ray to sit down.”

Martin’s shrewd observations give these characters enough of the dark shadings of human nature to make them real and interesting. If I told you that it was a terrific movie too, would you promise to read it first?

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Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

April 21, 2014

Destiny of the Republic by Candice MillardJames Abram Garfield, the 20th president of these United States of America, was a remarkable man. His father died when he was 18 months old, and Garfield was raised in almost absolute poverty by a single mother. The family lived in a small log cabin in Ohio, but there was nothing small about the mother’s mind. She realized that education was the path to a brighter future, and made sure that her children became interested in learning early on.

As the mental horizons of the children broadened, Garfield became interested in the sea, and decided to become a sailor. Eventually, he found work as a canal driver near Cleveland, but after only six weeks, illness forced him to return home. While recuperating, he became interested in academics, and this led him to Geauga Seminary, in Chester, Ohio. Initially, Garfield supported himself as a janitor, bell ringer, and carpenter, but soon enough the educators at the seminary realized that they had a supreme mind in their midst. Garfield was offered a teaching position, and this was where his career as a hands-on intellectual began. It led him to fight slavery in this country and to a long and distinguished Congressional career.

When the 1880 Republican National Convention began, Garfield had no presidential ambitions – he was simply there to endorse John Sherman. In his improvised speech, Garfield listed qualities that a president should possess and emphasized the importance of party unity before he got around to mentioning Sherman by name. His speech deeply impressed many delegates, and people began asking him to become a nominee. “No, no, gentlemen,” he said sternly. “This is no theatrical performance.” However, before long, delegates sent a stunned Garfield to the presidential race, and a reporter mentioned that the reluctant presidential candidate looked “pale as death, and seemed to be half-unconsciously to receive the congratulations of his friends.”

Garfield accepted the task his colleagues had given him, led a front porch campaign, and ended up in the White House. It is quite possible that this capable, generous, humble, and intellectual man could have made a great president. But after just a few months in office, James Garfield was shot by a gun carrying egomaniac, Charles Guiteau, and in the incapable hands of present doctors, the gunshot wound grew worse over time.

In Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard has written a well-researched and deeply moving account of the collision between two men: one asking for nothing, the other feeling entitled to everything.

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Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

April 18, 2014

Ordinary Grace by William Kent KruegerOrdinary Grace is narrated by the character of Frank Drum when he is an older man.  He reflects upon the summer of 1961, when he was 13 years old and growing up in the small Midwestern town of New Bremen, Minnesota.

Frank is the son of the town’s dutiful Methodist minister.  His mother, beautiful and talented, is still not completely resigned to having become a minister’s wife.  She had expected to be a lawyer’s wife, until Frank’s father was called to change careers. She resents the time he spends with his flock, but adapts by using her musical talents in the church and grooming Frank’s older sister for the type of musical career that she wishes she could have had.  Frank’s younger brother is wise beyond his years, but sensitive and beset by bullies because of his stutter. Frank himself is reaching towards adulthood, and realizing that some things are much different than they seem on the surface.

The idyllic setting and delicate balance of characters in Krueger’s book are pulled into crisis as several deaths occur in Bremen throughout the summer.  Some of the deaths only affect the Drum family in a distant and philosophical way, but others hit much closer to home. This is a coming of age story for Frank, who learns about caring, believing, tragedy, miracles and grace as the summer progresses.

Like most of Krueger’s other works, this is a mystery.  He is well known for his popular mystery series featuring detective Cork O’Connor.  But Ordinary Grace does not follow the traditional detective and clues format, and is a much more literary creation.

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Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by Martin E. P. Seligman

April 17, 2014

Flourish by Martin E.P. SeligmanLongtime psychologist Martin Seligman argues that there is more to mental health than the absence of mental illness. He is a proponent of a movement he calls “positive psychology,” which proposes a five-fold view of well-being
represented by the acronym PERMA: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. A rigorous scientist, Seligman packs his book with statistics and results from numerous experiments, showing that positive psychology really does make a difference in our life fulfillment.

For example, he makes the point that most of us have heard of PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—but we need a better understanding of post-traumatic growth. Without a working knowledge of how to grow stronger through life’s adversity, we are apt to fear that every downturn in our mood is the beginning of depression or some other mental syndrome.

This book is the story of the positive psychology movement and how it is gaining ground in schools, universities, corporations, and the military. It is also filled with practical exercises for individuals to use, such as WWW: “What Went Well.” At the end of the day, think of three things that went well, and analyze how your personal strengths contributed to them going well. I tried this, and it really does help me to notice and build on the things in my life that are successful.

Seligman makes the point that some of the most accomplished people in history have had to struggle with depression and have come out stronger for it. Life is a balance. None of us are happy all the time, but well-being is more than happiness; it also encompasses growth, along with a positive sense of achievement and purpose in life. This book provides an excellent road map to point us in the right direction.

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The Sound of Broken Glass by Deborah Crombie

April 16, 2014

The Sound of Broken Glass by Deborah CrombieThe past and the present intersect in Deborah Crombie‘s latest thriller, The Sound of Broken Glass. The Crystal Palace, once used as an exhibition hall in London, was tragically destroyed in the middle of the 19th Century and although attempts were made to rebuild it, it was never the same. Yet the area where it stood will always be called the Crystal Palace, and  it plays a role in this exciting story.

Detective Inspector Gemma James and Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid are married to each other. They need to solve their cases and still find time to raise their three children. Gemma is called in to investigate a ‘John Doe’ found in a shabby hotel room in the Crystal Palace area. Registered as Mr. Smith, he turns out to be one Vincent Arnott, a prominent London barrister. Arnott has not just been murdered, but he has been tortured before his death. As Gemma and her team try to put the few clues together, her husband, Duncan discovers that there may be a connection to a musician’s agent Tam Moran - one of the last people to see Arnott alive. The agent’s main client, guitarist Andy Monahan may also have a connection to the murder.

To complicate the case, a second body soon turns up.  It is another barrister with some of the the same telltale signs at his murder scene. It appears that Duncan and Gemma may be dealing with a serial killer.

Deborah Crombie is known for her deliciously involved detective stories and this may be one of her best. When the past and present catch up to each other, be prepared for an explosive ending! Even following the clues you may be surprised at the identity of the killer.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

April 15, 2014

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskyThe Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those terrific, but unfortunate (for adults, anyway), books that is labeled as “teen.” Most adults probably would pass this slender tome by, and that would be a sad mistake.

Chboksy’s debut novel is a cult classic as well as being critically acclaimed; no easy feat. Anyone who navigated adolescence (uh, all of us) can relate to some aspect of Charlie, an awkward wallflower and high school freshmen that no one seems to notice. The novel is written in a series of letters to a “friend,” and captures what it is like to experience everything for the first time.  It doesn’t shirk from the topics of: deep friendship, homosexuality, sex, drugs, alcoholism, theft, mental illness, sexual abuse – you name it, it’s in there, and written about in a candid, open way.

Charlie retires his wallflower status when he is befriended by high school seniors/brother and sister Patrick and Samantha. As he is brought into their inner circle of friends, Charlie learns that the people he used to admire from afar, and think had perfect lives – are just as damaged as he is. Most of the novel rings very true, and Charlie as written by Chbosky (who has said he has a lot of Charlie in him) is a delight to read. I normally don’t enjoy epistolary novels, but this one had me riveted so much that I watched the film after reading the book (hint: the book was better, but note that Chbosky also wrote the screenplay AND directed the movie). Well-drawn characters, realistic dialogue, and a plot twist at the end all make for a classic.

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Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

April 14, 2014

Dark Places by Gillian FlynnEveryone has hobbies. I enjoy reading and cooking. In Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, members of the Kill Club make murder their hobby. The Kill Club is comprised of individuals obsessed with horrific murder cases. Those obsessed with “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas” reach out to Libby Day, the only surviving victim of the massacre that took the life of her two older sisters and mother. Her brother, fifteen at the time, spends his life in prison after being convicted of the brutal crimes. Members of the Kill Club obsessed with her family are also convinced that her brother Ben did not commit the crime.

Libby has spent the last 25 years “not thinking about it” which really has not worked out too well for her. Her Aunt Diane truly tried her best to help Libby, but could not handle her violent and destructive acting out. Libby was eventually sent to distant relatives until she reached adulthood. Now in her mid-thirties, she is finally running out of the money donated by those once concerned with the fate of “Orphan Day” as she was nicknamed by the media. Her desperation for money is matched by members of the Kill Club’s need for information. They want to ask her questions, buy her family souvenirs and convince her to help free her brother. Libby stands by her testimony and her survivor sense of self-preservation is fierce. She gives into their demands for information and to reconnect with her past. She finds out new things about her family and the horrible event that defines her world.

What really puts this book into page-turner overdrive is how Flynn alternates viewpoints each chapter between:

-extremely jaded, present day Libby,
-the confused teenager, soon to be convicted murderer Ben,
-and the worried, always at loose ends, soon to be dead mom Patty.

So you have the present day Libby trying to process the past that she refers to as “dark places” while trying to survive financially and emotionally. You also have Ben and Patty on the day leading up to and the day of the murder adding unknown facts to an infamous case. The twists and turns are reminiscent of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster from a few years ago, and the setting is very similar to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This book also examines the 80’s frenzied fear of Satan worshipers as well as today’s current obsessive rush to exonerate those wrongly convicted. Dark Places is a well-constructed, exciting and disturbing page turner.

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Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

April 11, 2014

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna TrollopeThere’s a growing trend for the estates of famous deceased authors to commission new “continuation” titles based on the settings and characters the authors created, sort of like officially sanctioned fan fiction.  One good example is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, a new Sherlock Holmes novel approved by Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate. Agatha Christie’s estate has also recently authorized more Hercule Poirot mysteries.  Publisher HarperCollins is going one step further with its Austen Project, asking some of today’s best-selling British authors to re-imagine Jane Austen’s works with close retellings of her books set in the current time period.  The first of these out of the gate is Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility.

Trollope’s book, like the classic, focuses on the three Dashwood girls, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, and their mother.  Mr. Dashwood expires before the book even begins, but from a modern ailment – severe asthma – not from a hunting accident. His estate passes to his son from his first marriage, not due to entailment laws, but because he never actually legally married the girls’ mother, a modern twist. Left homeless, they snap up the offer of a cottage in the countryside free of rent from a wealthy cousin, John Middleton.  The story proceeds with the same characters and plot points as the original, but with modern “sensibilities.”

Much of the charm of Austen’s books lies in the customs and manners of the time period when they are set and her own unique style in making fun of them and her character’s many foibles.  Trollope’s book is also witty and satirical in its own way.  It’s interesting to see how much of the humor and how many of the romantic predicaments are timeless and translate well to today.

The Austen Project has scheduled all of Jane Austen’s books for this treatment.  Next up is Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, followed by Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld.

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Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

April 10, 2014

Libriomancer by Jim C. HinesWhat’s not to love in a book about magic wielding librarians versus evil vampires?! I’m a sucker for a good Urban Fantasy novel with plenty of action, and this one delivers. I also enjoy books about books and books that make me laugh out loud. It’s rare that I find a book that hits all three of these, but that’s what Jim C. Hines has done with the first book in his Magic Ex Libris series.

Isaac Vainio works as a librarian and cataloguer at the Copper River Library in Michigan. He catalogs books for the local library, but also for a magical group of libriomancers, known as the Porters. Libriomancers are people who have the magical ability to draw forth objects from inside books. This branch of magic was founded by none other than Johannes Gutenberg, the man who invented the printing press. But what happens when Gutenberg goes missing and vampires start attacking the Porters, leading to an all-out war which could expose all magic to the rest of the world?

Oh, and did I mention that there are as many different types of vampires as there are authors who have written about them? Yup, because in addition to the real vampires that the folklore was based on, there are breeds with different characteristics and abilities who have come from the fictional words of authors from Bram Stoker to Stephenie Meyer. Other magical creatures from books also exist in our world, such as Lena Greenwood, a motorcycle riding dryad, who helps Isaac in his adventures battling vampires and trying to figure out what’s really going on to cause this war. Fans of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series will certainly appreciate Isaac’s witty banter and one-liners, as well as the much larger story of book based magic.

I had heard of Jim Hines from reading about his blog posts addressing the misogynistic depiction of women on Sci-Fi & Fantasy book covers. Jim brought attention to this issue in a rather ingenious and funny manner – he posed in the same outfits and positions that the women on the book covers did. He’s even followed it up with several other “cover poses” including some with other authors and has raised money for charity. I’m so glad I finally picked up one of Jim Hines’ novels and will definitely be reading the sequel, Codex Born.

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