02 February 2016

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Summary from Goodreads:
Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all. As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.

Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation -- or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.

The second I heard that Alexander Chee had a novel coming out about a Belle Époque opera singer with a secret I went on a mission to figure out how I might ferret out an advance copy.  I put The Queen of the Night on pre-order in hardback but I knew I was going to need time to read, and re-read, and digest.  Basically, I just want to snuggle the book and pet it because it is that good so I'll try and write something reasonably coherent.

Lilliet Berne is what is known as a Falcon soprano (named for the first such singer, Cornélie Falcon), with a voice of incredible darkness and power but a very fragile physical instrument.  Lilliet's secrets have secrets, secrets that could be deadly.  When she is offered an original role, an accolade that would cap her career, the opera's libretto threatens to bring her secrets to light.  The librettist is an unknown, the novel it is based on unknown to Lilliet.  As she recalls her life, delving through many layers of intrigue and disguise to determine which person betrayed her, the reader begins to wonder: who is Lilliet and what will happen to her?

The Queen of the Night is a novel at the intersection of Romanticism and Realism, two major movements in nineteenth-century art.  The surreal nesting of Lilliet's many-layered life inside the harsh reality of an orphan in Paris during the Second Empire.  The sturm und drang of the opera next to the monotony of being a grisette in Empress Eugénie's vast wardrobe.  The glittering heights of celebrity outline the horrifying years when Lilliet is treated as a possession.  Were this to become an opera, Verdi would have to compose the music.

Throughout the novel, Lilliet muses on the ideas of fate, hubris, and vengeance, giving us a glorious line:
...the gods did not kill for hubris - for hubris, they let you live long enough to learn. (p46)
Lilliet is the Queen of the Night - a role she loves for its dark power and famous for the fiendishly difficult "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen"/"The vengeance of hell boils in my heart," is Carmen - trapped by the hand of cards dealt to her, is Violetta - caught between her heart and her past as a courtesan, is Leonora - the casualty of a revenge plot decades in the making.  As Lilliet notes: "victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat."  As I was re-reading the book, I noticed that I wanted to listen to Mozart's Don Giovanni and Pucinni's Tosca.  Odd, because Giovanni is a baritone role, clearly not something Lilliet would sing, and Tosca did not premiere until 1900, well after the events of the book.  But there is something echoed in Lilliet's struggle against what she views as a curse brought on by hubris: Giovanni brazenly inviting his doom to supper and Tosca singing her haunting aria "Vissi d'arte" about art and prayer.

Tucked in among all the activity with circuses and Emperors and celebrity and opera, there is the simple story of a teenage girl who believes she is to blame for a karmic misfortune.  In her haste to get away she commits error after error as any inexperienced, grieving teenager might do, stumbling into misfortune and by sheer strength of will and cleverness keeping herself alive.  She becomes the famous Lilliet, leaving the adult woman to salvage what is left of the little girl from the Minnesota prairie.  Whatever your thoughts on opera as a music form, this coming-of-age tale with its mysterious twists and turns is the heart of Chee's novel.  A brilliant book to start 2016. 

Bellissima.  Bellissimo. Bravo.

PS: If you aren't familiar with opera - it isn't all Valkyries with blond braids and Viking hats, trust me - I suggest the following list of discs to check out:
Renée Fleming, "The Beautiful Voice", "Bel Canto", "Renée Fleming"
Jonas Kaufmann, "The Verdi Album", "The Best of Jonas Kaufmann"
Bryn Terfel, "Bad Boys", 1996 Don Giovanni recording
Joyce DiDonato, "Drama Queens", "Diva Divo"
José Carreras, "Passion"
The #1 Opera Album and The #1 Opera Album II - these are compilations with both older and newer recordings but wide range

Dear FTC: I did a first-read of this novel using a DRC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss and then I bought a copy because why the hell wouldn't I?

25 January 2016

Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins

Summary from Goodreads:
USA Today bestselling author Beverly Jenkins returns with the first book in a breathtaking new series set in the Old West

Rhine Fontaine is building the successful life he's always dreamed of—one that depends upon him passing for White. But for the first time in years, he wishes he could step out from behind the façade. The reason: Eddy Carmichael, the young woman he rescued in the desert. Outspoken, defiant, and beautiful, Eddy tempts Rhine in ways that could cost him everything . . . and the price seems worth paying.

Eddy owes her life to Rhine, but she won't risk her heart for him. As soon as she's saved enough money from her cooking, she'll leave this Nevada town and move to California. No matter how handsome he is, no matter how fiery the heat between them, Rhine will never be hers. Giving in for just one night might quench this longing. Or it might ignite an affair as reckless and irresistible as it is forbidden . . .

I am very, very overdue to the Beverly Jenkins party.  I'm not exactly sure why - I have at least one of her Destiny books in mass market and one or two on Nook, so, really, this is due to my laziness in not picking them up. (And I met Beverly at Book Riot Live and she's a sweetheart and really, I needed to read her.)

In Forbidden we are introduced to Eddy ("ee-dy" not "ed-dy", I checked) Carmichael as she is being robbed of her newly-purchased train ticket and her remaining savings.  She has saved and saved that money, working for little pay as first a cook then a chambermaid (because the bigots she works for decided they didn't want a black woman in the kitchen) in 1870 Denver, and now it's gone.  Her sister cannot (or, likely, will not) loan her the money for a new train ticket to San Francisco and so Eddy is forced to trade labor for a ride on a wagon to Fort Collins, then to Reno where she wants to catch a train.  Due to the schedule, she decides to accept another wagon ride from a man who seems quite harmless...but who actually intends Eddy harm - he eventually puts her off the wagon in the middle of a desert.  Eddy is rescued just in time by Rhine, returning home to Virginia City with his business partner Jim, and they start nursing her back to health.

Rhine is a really, really interesting character, and because the blurb spoils it, I'm going to talk about how Jenkins presents him.  We meet Rhine in the Prologue as he returns home (eh, not home, really, since it was the plantation where he was enslaved) looking for his sister and then decides to head West, looking for his sister Sable, half-brother Andrew, and half-sister Maeve.  We are given Rhine's history with the family, his physical description, and the fact that he is the son of the plantation owner and a slave.  We come back to Rhine when he rescues Eddy - he is now rich and the owner of many profitable enterprises in Virginia City.  He has a fiancée, who we meet later.  But what we are not explicitly told until much later, and I only gradually realized this, is that Rhine is passing as White.

Rhine passing presents a massive obstacle in his attraction to Eddy, far more than the problem of his fiancée.  My usual romance genre is Regency, and existing fiancées are a common obstacle there.  No one's life is endangered (usually, there are the occasional whacko villains) by breaking an engagement among members of the ton; Rhine's life and livelihood, and the African-American community as a whole because he uses his privilege to protect their interests, depend upon his privilege as a White man in 1870 Nevada.  In addition, Eddy is not even remotely interested in being a White man's kept woman, no matter how handsome and magnetic a man.  She is going to work - she's a fantastic cook and, Lord Almighty, did this book make me hungry - and earn enough money to follow her dreams to San Francisco. 

How Jenkins resolves such a massive obstacle between Rhine and Eddy to bring about their Happily Ever After makes this an A-plus story and romance.  I adore romance novels in which the author widens the scope of the plot so the tension in the plot is not solely due to "I hate you. I love you. God damn it I can't stop thinking about your hair" (I'm paraphrasing SB Sarah) but heightened due to race or class or marital or financial differences - real-life obstacles - between the couple. I loved the ending. There's also a very sweet B-plot romance (though we don't get to see a lot of it) and this book will make you hungry, particularly for marmalade! (And I have to go back and pick up a previous book because it's the love story for a character who pops up at the end of Forbidden!)

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

19 January 2016

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don't Have with People You Don't Like Doing Things You Don't Want to Do by Sarah Knight

Summary from Goodreads:
THE "GENIUS" (Cosmopolitan) NATIONAL BESTSELLER THE ART OF CARING LESS AND GETTING MORE Are you stressed out, overbooked, and underwhelmed by life? Fed up with pleasing everyone else before you please yourself? It's time to stop giving a f*ck.

THE ART OF CARING LESS AND GETTING MORE
Are you stressed out, overbooked, and underwhelmed by life? Fed up with pleasing everyone else before you please yourself? It's time to stop giving a f*ck.

This brilliant, hilarious, and practical parody of Marie Kondo's bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up explains how to rid yourself of unwanted obligations, shame, and guilt--and give your f*cks instead to people and things that make you happy.

The easy-to-use, two-step NotSorry Method for mental decluttering will help you unleash the power of not giving a f*ck about:
Family drama
Having a "bikini body"
Iceland
Co-workers' opinions, pets, and children
And other bullsh*t! And it will free you to spend your time, energy, and money on the things that really matter. So what are you waiting for? Stop giving a f*ck and start living your best life today!

Warning: If you don't like cursing, specifically "fuck" and all it's creative uses, this book (and review) are likely not going to be your cup of tea (I read a review where the reviewer complained there were too many f-bombs, etc. and I almost commented with "duh".)

So, Sarah Knight - having KonMari'd her physical space - decided that she needed to something about the energy drain that giving too may fucks about things you don't actually like or care about.  She developed the NotSorry Method.  I.e. if you really don't like Tuesday night booze and karaoke with other people in your office (whom you don't otherwise socialize with) because it makes your Wednesday morning hellish, and you care far more about doing your job well and impressing your boss than what Janet four cubicles over thinks about you, then politely decline the karaoke and don't give a second thought to Janet.  And so on through all the different relationships and scenarios in your life.

The parody aspects of this book - aping the layout and terminology of Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up - are hilarious.  But all that aside, Knight's message of only giving your mental space, time, and energy (and occasionally) money to people and things you care about is a really good one.  Definitely a fun, useful book for a new year.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

12 January 2016

Smell 'ya later, 2015! Get on in here, 2016! (Come for the books, stay for the pie!)

2015 is being crammed in the recycle bin, hello 2016!  This has been a year of amazing reading and life and I think it was pretty damned excellent.

So, how did I do on non-reading resolutions posted back in January 2015?

1. Be mindful in my reading and bookish purchases - keeping this up will help so much with financial responsibility and the general amount of excess stuff in my house that I will never get around to reading/liking/re-reading. - This resolution went well until about fall and then ALL the books were published, so not terrible but not great.
2. Be timely on reviews - such a big deal, especially for books that I have requested as a reviewer (I know that there has been a lot of discussion in the book blogging community about what is "owed" to a publisher but, in my opinion, if a publicist, etc. has taken the time to send me an ARC or DRC then I should return the gesture by reading and reviewing the book in a timely manner). - Slightly better, but I tend to have review-writing binges because, let's be honest, I like to read books far more than write about them even if I do like to write about them.
3. Drink more water - do I need to drink as much Dt. Pepsi as I do? No. Although, #deathbeforedecaf is still a mantra (you cannot separate me from my coffee). - eh, I did better not buying two+ mochas per day? I made my own coffee?  Didn't drink that much more water.
4. Move more - the hip (and knees and back) and I have come to an agreement on ways of moving so I should be able to at least get on the elliptical and basic weights at the gym. - The hip got worse (in fact, I had two cortisone shots last week) so gym was not an option but I did walk a lot.
5. Cook for myself - I got a Dutch oven and new pots and pans for Christmas so this year the goal is to wean myself off of frozen dinners for 2/3 of my meals (they are handy, but my MSG-sensitivity is much less of an issue if I cook food for myself). - This went really well.  Fell off a bit in the summer but got back in the cooking groove in September.
6. Be brave - I still hate having my picture taken or meeting new people but I need to keep putting myself out there. Nothing gets accomplished by holing up in my house with the cats and books and not interacting with actual people in a social setting.
7. Take a vacation - I hope (HOPE HOPE) to have the finances sorted out enough to visit my friend Kate and see Rhinebeck (aka New York Sheep and Wool) this year. ALSO, Book Riot announced their first live event in early November in NYC and I really, really, really want to go to that, too. (And see my friend Beth! And maybe Karen!)
8. Relax - cf. resolution #7. - For 6, 7, and 8, this is all down to Book Riot Live.  I took a real vacation and flew out to see Beth for a few days then we went to BRL which was amazing.  And I rode the subway all by myself.

And now for the pie!!  Pie charts!

To start, I blew past last year's total of 195 books with 269 books (I had a brief spat with Goodreads, who thought I'd read 270 but it turns out the site had recorded a "finish date" for a book in progress...data, man).  I read so much great stuff this year, too many to pick a favorite, but standouts include runs of ODY-C and The Wicked + The Divine, Between the World and Me, Citizen, Come as You Are, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, The Rogue Not Taken, Dancer, Edinburgh, When a Scot Ties the Knot, and The World Between Two Covers, which influenced a lot of my book purchasing and reading for the rest of the year and beyond.



How many different genres did I read?  More books = more genres!

 

I leaned farther toward physical formats than digital this year, mostly due to a dislike of how Comixology was redesigned after the sale.  I let my subscriptions expire there and transferred them to my LCS (Geek City Games and Comics, holla!) if I wanted any of the new runs.  This will also be the last year for Oyster in my stats (boo!) but in July the three local libraries pooled their digital resources to make Digital Johnson County - now I can borrow ebooks and e-audiobooks using Overdrive!


Speaking of library use, I put that library card (all three) to good use this year and started snagging library books and audio CDs instead of buying all the things.


This year I started tracking whether the book was translated into English, a result of my having read The World Between Two Covers.  An informal count for last year puts my number of "books read in translation" under 10 so this is an improvement.


How about the percentage of genders?


This was the first year in a long while - since 2006 -  that male authors crept up to the 50% mark, due to the runs of ODY-C, The Wicked + The Divine, and Wayward where the writers and authors are male (white males, too, which will come up again in a bit), to the tune of 20+ issues read in physical comic form.  In contrast, my aversion to the Comixology format caused me to forgo reading Ms. Marvel in issues and wait until the last two trades were available in paperback to read them - changing approximately 11-12 issues into two books.  It changes the "opportunities" in the data for G. Willow Wilson.  Also worth pointing out, to my knowledge all of these authors are cis-gendered; I don't really track orientation, though I know a number of authors I read in 2015 are gay or lesbian.

So here's the big, big deal: did I read more authors of color?  Last year, only 11 of 195 (5.6%) authors were non-white so I gave myself a D- in Diversity.  This year:


Not a great jump, 15.5% non-white, but at least it didn't go backward.  So I will advance myself to D+ status.  Still, not a passing grade.


I decided to do a second breakdown, this time race by genre, to see where non-white authors are coming into my reading and where I really need to start looking (and actually reading - I have a lot of POC in my TBR stacks).  I deliberately didn't combine comics and graphic novels/manga so I could see that all the comics issues have white writers (to be honest, the East Asian authors in the GN/Manga bar are all from the manga genre).  There are a lot of places to improve.  A LOT.


My reading is still very heavily from Anglophone countries, however, my reading The World Between Two Covers did prod me to widen my reading to include more authors with origins outside my very safe US/UK/Canadian reading borders.

What are my plans for 2016?

1. #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks
2. Be timely on reviews - I have made serious use of my OmniFocus apps to get the release dates for DRCs/ARCs I have organized and to help my organize my reading into individual tasks (GTD FTW!!) which should (ideally) help with getting reviews written and posted in a more timely manner.
3. Drink more water - the FitBit app can help track this, so I should use it.
4. Move more - the cortisone shots take full effect by the end of January so I hope to at least be back on the elliptical in a regular manner.
5. Cook for myself - this is going really well.  I also received My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl and I want to make all the things!  This is also good for the budget.
6. Be brave - I'm better at not hiding in general but if you throw me into a crowd by myself I tend to either not talk to people or glom onto the one person I actually know and talk A LOT (read: too much about nothing in general).  And in that vein...
7. I am going to BEA!!!  I just got registered for my very first BEA (ouch, the dollars) so I will have to be super brave, and network, and find my way around a huge convention center filled with people and not glom onto my roommates for the week.
8. Stop driving to work - last week was a bust with the cortisone shots, but this week in taking the bus to work rather than driving has been going well.  I hope to keep it up because $10-15 per day to park the car (plus the extra gasoline) vs. $2 per day riding the bus is a way better fiscal plan.
9. Last, but certainly not the least at all, I need to increase the percentage of books and comics I read that are written by non-white authors.  Some genres (like fiction) will be a simple matter of reading books already on my TBR, others (comics, romance, biography, sciences) need me to put forth a far more conscious effort.  I would also like to start tracking LGBTQIA as best I can - I use a relational database, so it's not hard to add and even compare to previous years, but this might take more than just reading an author's bio.  People do not fit neatly into boxes, and I certainly don't want a world where each author fills out a form and checks all the boxes related to diversity just because that makes it easy for poor little me, but I need to think about how to look for that information.  (My default right now is "white, cis-gendered, straight, USA" if I can't find information that is self-identified otherwise.)  I'll try to take a look at reading stats at least halfway through the year, if not more, to see how I'm doing.

And that's it!  Bring it, 2016!

08 January 2016

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Summary from Goodreads:
From the New York Times bestselling author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena—dazzling, poignant, and lyrical interwoven stories about family, sacrifice, the legacy of war, and the redemptive power of art.

This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich character portraits and a sense of history reverberating into the present, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a captivating work from one of our greatest new talents.

I haven't yet read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (see: I have a lot of unread books on my Nook because of ebook sales) so I'm making my introduction to full-length Anthony Marra work with his new collection of interlocking short stories set in the Soviet Union/Russia and spanning from the era of Stalin to the 2010s of Putin, The Tsar of Love and Techno.  Each chapter's narrator links in some way to the next chapter's narrator but the tie for all these stories is a Soviet art "restoration" expert who is tasked with erasing dissidents from photographs and paintings and keeping Stalin's photographic appearance youthful.  As Roman alters history he paints-in images of his brother Vaska, imagined images ranging in age from a young child to an old man, because Vaska was executed for remaining faithful to the Orthodox church.

These stories nest and curl around one another in an intricate tangle.  Roman becomes obsessed with the image of a disgraced ballerina - one he is meant to "erase" - which leads to his downfall.  In the next story, the life of the ballerina and her subsequent family in a Siberian labor camp is narrated by a Greek chorus comprised of the women descended from the ballerina's fellow labor-camp inmates.  The next story moves to Grozny, in the immediate aftermath of the war in Chechnya, where an art curator cleverly creates a tourism board and art museum out of nothing to finance the reconstructive surgery of a dear friend injured in a bombing when an oligarch, with the ballerina's granddaughter on his arm, comes to town.  And so on - nine chapters fill in the details of men and women living out uncertain lives of heartbreaking reality.  The Tsar of Love and Techno is a wonderful puzzle box of a novel.  The only, only possible mis-step was the very last chapter which changed style entirely to near-fantasy whereas most of the chapters clung to realism with only a tiny hint of magical realism.  It didn't add much to the content of the novel, except to fill in the tracks on a mysterious mix tape and I find that I would have rather continued to guess at its contents.

A definite recommend if you're looking for a beautiful but wrenching book.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

PS: If you want a taste of Marra's writing, the seventh chapter, "The Palace of the People" was included in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. I had been thinking I had read that story before then pegged it when the two characters got on the subway.

07 January 2016

A Much Needed Opportunity: #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks

Confession: I buy lots of books.  I have some unread paper galleys/finished copies, too, but since I get most advances digitally the vast balance of unread items in my house are purchases.

(OK, so this is probably not a huge surprise since I'm a book person and you're probably a book person and possibly have a similar large stash of unread books).

Well, I did an informal count and it seems that the unread portion is between 40 and 50% of my personal library.  And that's just printed paper books.  This number is approaching four digits and I'm not even going to pretend to try and count the unread books in my Nook and iBook accounts.  Let's just say that I shouldn't be allowed near an ebook sale with a credit card for the same reason that I can't be allowed in a library sale by myself.

So, I need to read books that I already own because...sigh.

Conveniently enough, Andi at Estella's Revenge has a solution for me: #readmyowndamnbooks, a You-Do-You Reading Effort.


There aren't really any "rules" - no percentages or quotas, etc.  Just however we want to try and read down our TBRs.  These are Andi's super basic rules for herself:
  • Read my own books
  • Try to knock off 100 in 2016 by either reading them or ditching the ones that are DNF
  • I can't buyyyy myself any books until I've read a significant amount of my own. Like maybe I can treat myself for every 5-10 of my own books I read. I'll be fairly flexible with this and see where my guilt leads me.
  • If I'm itching for newness...use the library. Even if it's the shitty local one.
Pretty easy, right?  I've been thinking about this for a bit and I've come up with my "rules" based off Andi's rules, since I like them alot:
  • Read my own books (that's an easy one, haha)
  • Do a cull of my personal library in a reverse-KonMari way (yes, I read that book, it was OK, but not terribly useful for me personally in general, good to think about on a "materialism" level, though).  Now, I can't use KonMari itself - a book in general gives me joy.  So I reverse this - if I pick up the book and I immediately think " *sigh* I still have to finish this" or "I will never re-read this" or "I don't remember buying this" or "Ugh, this author is a turd" then that is a clear signal that the book needs to go in the library donation bag (legit, the 2014 prize for finishing the ICPL adult summer reading program was a gigantic tote bag) or in a paper bag to make a short trip to the recycling center (reserved for crappy-looking books and galleys I don't want).  I can probably do a pretty fast cull and dump 100 books easy.
  • a) Avoid buying books just because the book is there and I can.  b) Keep track of the books I buy - I'm thinking a simple list on the List app since I can update that from my phone (if you're also on the List app, *waves*).  c) If I'm "maybe" on a book, get myself to the library, don't fork over the dollars.
  • Think twice before buying a Nook or iBook just because it's on sale (I don't have a good solution for ebook impulse buying). Of course, now that I've said that, Avon Books is going to have an amazing surprise sale or something...*sigh* #bookwormprobz.
  • Shift my library audiobook reading - I really got into using audiobooks during the day job this past year so I should really investigate the Overdrive audio and CD audio library holdings to help knock down the unread titles (and then decide if I really want to keep the paper copy).
So that's it!  Pretty simple.  I'll try and do updating periodically.  I'll also be hosting a challenge with Andi round-about May, so that'll be fun!

Go forth and Read Your Own Damn Books!

31 December 2015

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Summary from Goodreads:
Spare and unsparing, God Help the Child—the first novel by Toni Morrison to be set in our current moment—weaves a tale about the way the sufferings of childhood can shape, and misshape, the life of the adult.

At the center: a young woman who calls herself Bride, whose stunning blue-black skin is only one element of her beauty, her boldness and confidence, her success in life, but which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love. There is Booker, the man Bride loves, and loses to anger. Rain, the mysterious white child with whom she crosses paths. And finally, Bride’s mother herself, Sweetness, who takes a lifetime to come to understand that “what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”

A fierce and provocative novel that adds a new dimension to the matchless oeuvre of Toni Morrison.

God bless and keep Toni Morrison. If I am half this articulate and creative at her age....wow.

Now, I had originally picked up at DRC of God Help the Child, and couldn't get into it.  So I bought a hardcover when it came out - because why wouldn't I buy Queen Toni in hardcover - and still couldn't get into it.  This is not a big book, so I couldn't figure out why this book wasn't catching on for me.

So then I found God Help the Child on Overdrive, and it's read by Toni Morrison.  *muppet arms*  Toni Morrison has such a wonderful reading voice, I wanted to marinate in her words (guys, the way she says words that start with "br"...convenient, since one of the main characters is named Bride).   But also, I figured out why I was having trouble getting into this book in print.

The characters are all expert at emotional distance.  Sweetness denies her child, Bride, love or human contact because she isn't a light-skinned child like her parents.  Bride, desperate for this contact, does something terrible as a child and undergoes a terrible experience trying to right that wrong as an adult.  Booker, sensing that Bride is holding something back, pushes her away.  All this distance was pushing me away as a reader.  One of the things I love about Beloved was the emotionally gripping nature of the characters, Beloved's anger, Sethe's anguish - it's right there from page one.  I was there for those characters almost immediately, but I was having trouble caring for the characters in God Help the Child.

Toni Morrison reading the book was a way in for me.  It took about half the book before I pegged what was going on and then began to care about why Bride was doing what she was doing.  Then the book got really, really good.  This is all beside the point that Toni Morrison can write a sentence.  That goes without saying.

So if you're having a bit of trouble getting into God Help the Child, I recommend the audio book.  A great listen.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of the book from the publisher via Edelweiss, then bought a hardcover, then borrowed the audiobook from the library via Overdrive.

30 December 2015

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Summary from Goodreads:
From the bestselling author of Assassination Vacation and Unfamiliar Fishes, a humorous account of the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette—the one Frenchman we could all agree on—and an insightful portrait of a nation's idealism and its reality.

On August 16, 1824, an elderly French gentlemen sailed into New York Harbor and giddy Americans were there to welcome him. Or, rather, to welcome him back. It had been thirty years since the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette had last set foot in the United States, and he was so beloved that 80,000 people showed up to cheer for him. The entire population of New York at the time was 120,000.

Lafayette's arrival in 1824 coincided with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Congress had just fought its first epic battle over slavery, and the threat of a Civil War loomed. But Lafayette, belonging to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction, was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what they wanted this country to be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans, it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing singular past.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is a humorous and insightful portrait of the famed Frenchman, the impact he had on our young country, and his ongoing relationship with some of the instrumental Americans of the time, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and many more.

Sarah Vowell has a new book!  Actually, it came out back in October but it took until December for me to get ahold of an audiobook - because that's the way to put a Sarah Vowell book in your brain.  I love her voice and reading style and she gets a whole load of actor (and sometimes non-actor, cf Stephen King as Abraham Lincoln in the audiobook of Assassination Vacation) buddies to voice different historical and contemporary people.

A book about Lafayette publishing during the phenomenal run that is the musical Hamilton is like the best thing ever.  Impetuous French teenage aristocrat showing up to offer his services to the fetal United States (which aren't the United States yet since the Revolutionary War wasn't over and the Constitution just a twinkle in the Founders' eyes) - I don't think it's was ever emphasized in my history classes that Lafayette was so young.  It is really interesting how hard it was to keep the Continental Army from starving to death and how hard it was for France to get promised men and money to America (and then the US stuck its head in the sand during the French Revolution).  A really interesting story.

However, I don't think Sarah Vowell's usual format of historical-event-contemporary-aside-historical-event worked as well here.  It works amazingly well in Assassination Vacation because it's structured more around her travels.  Lafayette in the Somewhat United States has a much more linear structure based around Lafayette's life so jumping in and out doesn't work as well.  I was also a bit disappointed that so much of the book focused on the Revolutionary War (despite the title, that should have tipped me off) but very little on Lafayette's 1824 American tour.  But still, a fun book to listen to, definite recommend if you have a road trip.

Dear FTC: I borrowed this book from the library via Overdrive.

29 December 2015

One-Eyed Dukes are Wild by Megan Frampton (Dukes Behaving Badly #3)

Summary from Goodreads:
When does proper behavior deserve a deliciously improper reward?

The scandalously unmarried Lady Margaret Sawford is looking for adventure—and is always up for a challenge. Her curiosity is aroused by a dangerous-looking stranger with an eye patch, an ideal companion for the life she longs for, no matter what Society might say. So when the piratical gentleman turns out to be a duke—and just as boringly proper as any other nobleman—she can't help but incite him to walk on the wild side.

Well-heeled, well-mannered, and well beyond any interest in society's expectations, the Duke of Lasham is tired of being perfect. Margaret's lush beauty and gently laughing eyes are an irresistible temptation to embrace the imperfect—and her. But if a little misbehavior is appealing, unleashing his wild side is completely seductive—as long as the lovely Margaret is the object of his passion.

Megan Frampton is a new-to-me author this year with her series Dukes Behaving Badly.  The Duke's Guide to Correct Behavior was a good start, but maybe needed a bit more work.  Put Up Your Duke was an excellent step up with a good plot but the new entry in the series, One-Eyed Dukes are Wild, really brought everything together with a fantastic plot, great hero and heroine, and good tension.

We met Lady Margaret Sawford in Put Up Your Duke when her sister Isabella made a marriage of convenience with Nicholas, the new Duke of Gage (which turns out well, obviously, since Isabella and Nicholas are the main characters in that book).  Isabella decides that she won't let her parents marry her off to a man she's never met, Lord Collingwood, breaks the engagement and announces that she is the mysterious author of the Gothic serials in the paper leading her parents to pretend she doesn't exist.  (Which in the end is good, because Collingwood is a swine and the less said about Isabella's and Margaret's parents, the better.)  One-Eyed Dukes are Wild starts a few years later.  Margaret has returned to London - still the scandalous author, still unmarried, who lives alone with her maid and wears non-virginal colors.  She keeps herself financially afloat with her writing and her winnings at the gambling table (she's a bit of a whiz with cards) because she's still an aristocrat and she gets invited to parties for her reputation.

Seeking quiet at a party, Margaret crosses paths with the Duke of Lasham.  Lash (who has such a great first name, I'm not going to spoil it), despite his pirate-like eye patch, is so concerned with being the correctly-correct Duke Who Always Does the Right Thing Because That's What Dukes Do isn't quite sure what to do with Margaret.  She gives him the deference due his rank but doesn't flatter, simper, cling, or entrap.  Indeed, she tells him at the first meeting that she doesn't wish to marry him if they are found in the same room alone together.  When they later meet by happenstance at the National Gallery, and Margaret rescues Lash from a gaggle of "art appreciating" women, they begin to wonder if there is more beneath the surface of the other (that's a really terrible sentence, I apologize).

I quite like Margaret.  She's independent, feisty, rash but with good intentions, smart at cards, and has an excellent maid (though I am tired of the I-don't-think-I'm-pretty-because-my-sister-is-gorgeous-trope).  I also like the idea that the "scandal" of her writing is that she writes fairy tales for money and they are published in the paper as opposed to writing actual scandalous material circulated under the counter, so to speak.  I loved how her adventures with Lash, when he decided he needed to stop being so "correct," included going ballooning (which he loved) and eating eel pies (which I don't think he did).  Even the scene where they go to the dance hall was an interesting twist - I have usually encountered scenes like this where the heroine is the one looking for adventure, not the hero, so this was a fun change.

What Frampton does in this book is turn the idea of "behaving badly" on its head.  In the previous books, the dukes generally are considered to be "bad" rakes (although, in my opinion, not nearly bad enough to deserve the sobriquet).  In this book, Lash is so proper and always does what is right and that behavior has caused him to be fenced in.  In his experience, behaving badly has consequences.  He doesn't know how to feel or have his own emotions or read intimate situations correctly - this leads him to behave very badly later in the book.  The contrast in personality between Lash and Margaret creates excellent romantic tension.

One-Eyed Dukes are Wild was released today!  Happy reading!

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

21 December 2015

The Rogue Not Taken by Sarah MacLean (Scandal & Scoundrel, #1)

Summary from Goodreads:
LADY SOPHIE'S SOCIETY SPLASH

The youngest of the infamous Talbot sisters scandalized society at the Liverpool Summer Soiree, striking her sister’s notoriously philandering husband and landing him backside-first in a goldfish pond. And we thought Sophie was the quiet one…

When she finds herself the target of very public aristocratic scorn, Sophie Talbot does what she must to escape the city and its judgment—she flees on the back of a carriage, vowing never to return to London…or to society. But the carriage isn’t saving her from ruin. It’s filled with it.


ROYAL ROGUE'S REIGN OF RAVISHMENT!

The Marquess of Eversley was espied descending a rose trellis—escaping an irate Earl and his once-future countess. No lady is safe from Eversley’s Engagement Ending Escapades!

Kingscote, the Marquess of Eversley, has never met a woman he couldn’t charm, a quality that results in a reputation far worse than the truth, a furious summons home, and a long, boring trip to the Scottish border. When King discovers stowaway Sophie, however, the trip becomes anything but boring.

WAR? OR MORE?

He thinks she’s trying to trick him into marriage. She wouldn’t have him if he were the last man on earth. But carriages bring close quarters, dark secrets, and unbearable temptation, and suddenly opposites are altogether too attractive…

There's a new Sarah MacLean novel!!  The Rogue Not Taken is coming out on December 29, 2015!!  (Go, go preorder, then come back.  No, really!)

OK, so, gossip columns, social climbing, secret identities, road trip, parental estrangement, and broken hearts?  Yes, yes, yes, yes.

Lady Sophie Talbot, the plainest, quietest of the scandalous Talbot sisters - scandalous because they are the newest of the new money and new titles and Society eats up gossip columns about them - achieves notoriety when she knocks her sister's philandering duke of a husband on his arse.  In a koi pond.  During a culturally tasteless garden party.  With the entirety of the ton watching.

Exeunt, stage right.  Sophie spies her chance to escape the party when the even more scandalous Marquess of Eversley - because he is infamous for ravishing young ladies, therefore causing their socially advantageous betrothals to be broken - comes climbing down a trellis in front of her.  King isn't an idiot.  He doesn't want to get married, much less be trapped into marriage with a Talbot sister, so he refuses to give Sophie a ride.  Sophie, however, bribes a footman, borrows the boy's livery, and hops on the back of King's carriage.  Only to find that 1) the carriage doesn't turn toward Mayfair, 2) it doesn't stop moving until nightfall when it is at an inn far away from London, and 3) King isn't in the carriage, it's full of wheels.  Nuts.  (King turns up a few minutes later as the winner of a curricle race.

Thus begins a trip to the north of England full of intrigue, tactics, highwaymen (gasp!), and dreams.  It's like a Georgette Heyer novel if Georgette Heyer didn't have to observe propriety in her fiction in the early twentieth-century.  I love Sophie - not quite as much as Pippa from One Good Earl Deserves a Lover because Pippa is my geeky homegirl and I lurve her - because she never stops wanting more for herself.  She doesn't think that pots of money should change a person or require them to live in the social whirl of London.  She doesn't just want to be the sister of women who court scandal simply for the sake of more inches in the gossip column.  She wants a happy marriage - certainly not her sister Sera's, speaking of which, I hope Sera gets her own book - with books and tarts and country air.

Sophie also manages to knock King on his own arse.  Metaphorically, since I don't recall her actually punching him.  And let's face it.  King needed it.  The weight of the chip on his shoulder from his history with his father is SO BIG it would crush him if it actually fell on him.  Sophie chips away at King's problems bit by bit and it's so, so wonderful.  Although I wanted to crawl into the book and punch King at least twice...why are men so pig-headed?  Oy.  Delicious, but oy.

So jump in at the beginning of a new series with Sarah MacLean!  (I want to know, really, really, if we get to see the Fallen Angel and any of the previous rogues in the coming books - we know it's the same world since we met Sophie in a scene during Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover).

Dear FTC: I received a DRC from the publisher via Edelweiss - and I have a copy on pre-order for my Nook because who doesn't love a new Sarah MacLean novel?

19 December 2015

Backlist Bump: Edinburgh by Alexander Chee

Summary from Goodreads:
Twelve-year-old Fee is a gifted Korean-American soprano in a boys' choir in Maine whose choir director reveals himself to be a serial pedophile. Fee and his friends are forced to bear grief, shame, and pain that endure long after the director is imprisoned. Fee survives even as his friends do not, but a deep-seated horror and dread accompany him through his self-destructive college days and after, until the day he meets a beautiful young student named Warden and is forced to confront the demons of his brutal past.

[Backlist Bump is a new feature I'm trying - essentially, when a new-to-me author has a new book out often I feel like I need to stop and back-up to a previous book for comparison.  Alexander Chee gets the honor of being the guinea pig. (Sorry, Alex.)]

In February, the literary world will receive the sublime gift of Alexander Chee's new novel The Queen of the Night (start drooling now, I'll have a review up in January).  About three chapters into the DRC for Queen, I decided I had missed something in not reading Chee's only previous novel, Edinburgh.  I'd read some of Chee's short pieces but not his novel.  So I tracked down a used copy of Edinburgh - the novel is, sadly, currently out of print.

From the first line, Edinburgh had me caught and held fast:
After he dies, missing Peter for me is like swimming in the cold spot of the lake: everyone else laughing in the warm water under some too-close summer sun.  This is the answer to the question no one asks me. (Edinburgh, page 1)
The story of pre-adolescent Fee, narrated by his adult self, is a heart-wrenching tale of music, betrayal, and self-preservation.  There are places in this story where I couldn't breathe.  Chee does not shy away from the painful parts of the book - the sexual abuse Fee and his fellow singers suffer at the hands of the choir director, the shame, the confusion - and yet it doesn't feel graphic or gratuitous.  I think the first hundred pages or so might be hard to read for a survivor of such abuse, but the way Chee explores Fee's survival compared with that of his friends is haunting. Fee, as a young man exploring the possibility that he might be gay, feels the weight of survivorship differently from his friends who struggle to reconcile their own sexuality, either as straight or gay or questioning, with their history of abuse. Even as Fee entered adulthood, and seemed to have found an equilibrium in his life, fate brought the past back around in a circle, like a musical coda.
Love melts all our murder. As much as it makes it. (Edinburgh, page 51)
At the heart of this book, though is Alexander Chee's writing.  I read the majority of Edinburgh while on an airplane - tucked into a corner of my window seat, the end of my pen in my mouth, barely breathing, trying to hide the tears that kept pooling in my eyes. The sentences carved themselves into my brain.  Whatever you think about the subject or plot of this book, there is no arguement that Chee's ability as a wordsmith is first-rate.  For example:
Blue. Blue because it's the color people turn in the dark. Because it's the color of the sky, of the center of the flame, of a diamond hit by an X-ray. Blue is the knife edge of lightning. Blue is the color, a rose grower tells you, that a rose never quite reaches. (Edinburgh, page 191)
Edinburgh is scheduled for re-release as an ebook, at the very least, on February 2, 2016, the same day The Queen of the Night is also scheduled for release in hardcover, ebook, and so on.  I haven't yet found information for a paperback re-release, but I do hope that is also in the works.  Edinburgh deserves a "bump" so it can find a new audience.

Dear FTC: I tracked down a used copy of this book.

08 December 2015

Sophia by Michael Bible

Summary from Goodreads:
“Michael Bible may have hit what a lot of us were trying, a singular new voice for CEOs to slackers. He’s so open, so easy, so fluid, you’ll smile with joy turning every page.”—Barry Hannah

If Nicholson Baker shaved his beard and moved south of the Mason-Dixon line, he’d look and sound a lot like Michael Bible. Uproariously funny, unabashedly sexy, and with a nuanced sincerity that won’t sneak up on you till the end, Michael Bible’s novel is not only much-anticipated, but highly rewarding.

If you are offended by the idea of a preacher drinking, doing drugs, and having sex, this short novel is likely not for you.  If you don't have issues with those things, read on.

Because Reverend Maloney has sex dreams about the Holy Ghost (or maybe they're real, who knows, because he's got some substance problems).  He's also got a booze problem, lady problems, and drags his genius friend Eli around to chess tournaments where he palms Eli's winnings.  Along the way he narrates - mostly to Eli - a novel produced in koan-like (sort-of, these are longer than koans and completely un-Buddhist in spirit) paragraphs interspersed with the lives of martyred saints.  Bible winds up his amazing short novel in a New York metro-wide chess match that smashes together Harry Potter and Mikhail Bulgakov.

So if you need to get away from your nutty relatives and Christmas-overload, blow your mind with Sophia by Michael Bible (not giving away where the title comes from).

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this novel from the publisher via Edelweiss.