Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review: "House of Ivy and Sorrow" by Natalie Whipple

Witching families aren't like other families, as we discover in House of Ivy and Sorrow by Natalie Whipple. That sounds like stating the obvious, but magic isn't the only thing that separates Josephine from the people around her; it's just the catalyst. Jo and her grandmother are the last of the Hemlock witches, a once-powerful witching family. But it seems that the Curse that has plagued witches for centuries, the same Curse that killed Jo's mother, has finally found them at their safe haven in Iowa. Unwilling to abandon the magical ground from which she and her grandmother absorb their power, Jo and her grandmother must track down the Curse's origins before whoever is controlling it can overcome their defenses. But why would they be successful where entire generations have failed before?

The situation would seem impossible if all Jo had to worry about was herself and her grandmother, but there are other lives at stake as well: her best friends Kat and Gwen, and her new boyfriend Winn. Whoever is coming after the Hemlock witches isn't afraid to use them to manipulate and threaten Jo. If she stretches herself too thin, protecting them all, how can she protect herself? The only answer may lie with a stranger who offers her a dangerous alliance, and despite her misgivings, Jo may have no other choice.

This was a dark, suspenseful read about the power of family ties, blood or otherwise, and overcoming impossible situations through ingenuity and resourcefulness, and the joys of having the people you love around you. I loved the family dynamic that Whipple created between Jo and her grandmother, the tradition of the women in their family and how it's all based around the magic. It helped to inform the closeness between as well as their relationship with other witching families.

I also liked the nature of witch magic as described by Whipple. She made it very clear from the outset that magic is not something trivial; it is dark in nature, and everything you do with it has a price. The point becomes that a person, witch or not, should consider the price of their actions beforehand and consider if something is really worth the cost. The lesson is delivered without all sounding at all preachy, and Jo finds herself doing things like collecting spiders for spells in exchange for her grandmother's help. The spells, like the magic, are pretty nasty even when their purpose is good. It was a great way to combine the image of the creepy Halloween witch with the loving circle of friends and family at the center of the story.

If you like the idea of practical magic and family, and enjoyed books like Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time series, consider picking up a copy of House of Ivy and Sorrow by Natalie Whipple. It was released on April 15th and is available at your favorite independent bookstore.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Summer Fun With Pets and Books

With spring under way and summer fast approaching, the question of summer activities for kids will be arising in short order. Summer reading programs run by your local library or bookstore are a great opportunity for fun and socialization while keeping kids brushed up on their reading skills, and odds are that there's at least one taking place near you this summer!

But if your kid isn't easily convinced to practice those reading skills, why not add animals to the mix? Around the country programs are popping up that pair kids, books, and shelter animals in need of love and attention. These programs, like this one from the Animal Rescue League of Berk's county, encourages kids to read stories to animals, under supervision.  Kids get time with animals while keeping their reading skills sharp, the animals get much-needed love, and you get to see your kid having fun AND staying in practice. Check your local pet shelters or rescue organizations for opportunities like this one when you start considering what to do with the school-free summer months around the corner!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: "Love Letters to the Dead" by Ava Dellaira

There's quite a variety of novels out there that employ letters to convey a story to a reader. The one that always comes to mind first for me is Judy Bloom's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. But there are many, many others that use correspondence to tell us a story. Among my favorites are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, along with the newly released Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira.

It starts out as an English assignment, the first one at Laurel's new high school: write a letter to a dead person of your choice. It would be a perfect way to bring up May, the sister who died the past year, but that's the opposite of what Laurel wants to do. She'd rather just start over new here, so she instead writes to Kurt Kobain. Laurel doesn't turn in the assignment. Instead she writes more letters, to Amelia Earhart and John Keats and Janis Joplin among others, and her story unfolds for us there.

Missing the sister that she lost and determined to be more like her, Laurel starts to wear May's old clothes, drink, and go to parties. She's convinced that this is the way to recapture her sister, to remember her and become the sort of vibrant person that she was. But things spiral out of control, as they often do in similar situations, and instead Laurel is left feeling even more lost than before. If she's not her old self, and she can't be May, who is she? She'll only find out by confronting what happened the night that May died, and by seeing her for the person that she really was.

Luckily, this isn't a journey that Laurel has to make alone. She makes some great friends at her new high school, her teachers and parents would help her if they knew how, and of course there are the dead actors, writers, poets, musicians, and folk heroes to whom Laurel pours out her heart in her letters. Each of them has a special connection to her situation, and Laurel brings those into her correspondences, explaining to the letter's "recipient" and the reader why she's chosen to write to a given person at a given time.

There was an awful lot going on in the Difficulty Department for Laurel, and I was a little bit afraid that it would be too much at once and start to sound a little bit over-the-top. But the way that everything worked together, the way that her issues were all related and centered around her unrealistic memory of May, her self-destructiveness, was very well orchestrated. All the issues made sense in context of one another, and the character of Sky really helped to cut through Laurel's skewed perspective. I was very impressed with his mature attitude in the face of Laurel and her unbalanced state, and his refusal to follow her down her path of romanticizing May and her death made me want to stand and applaud. He's just one of the very fun, dynamic characters that occupy this novel.

If you like Laurie Halse Anderson's work (and she has a long list of fantastic Young Adult books to her name) and are ready to fall in love with a vibrant, beautiful character struggling to overcome some big challenges, pick up a copy of Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead. It's a great read, and is available at your local independent bookstore right now!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Recommendations: What works for you?

There's a pattern to the seemingly random reasons why we pick up a given book. Sometimes a title or cover just sticks in our head, or a lucky break puts the perfect book in our hands when we're a captive audience like in a class or on a bus with nothing else to read. But in my experience this happy coincidence is something of an anomaly. So, how do we decide what book to read next? How do we look at the innumerable titles out there and decide which ones are worth our time and effort? Everybody has their own methods, but here are some that might help you pick out your new favorite read:

Book Blogs
Go figure, right? After all, you're reading this one now! From the New York Times to individual booksellers, there are a slew of bibliophiles on the web who would love nothing more than to share their favorite reads with you. The trick is to find a source that reliably caters to your taste in books. If you like mainstream fiction, consider picking something off of the weekly New York Times bestseller list whenever you need something new. Or, if you'd like more SpecFic and YA books like the ones I review here, consider checking out Rachel Hanley's blog.

Book Store and Library Websites
Sometimes it's good to do some research before wandering down to your local bookstore or library for your next great read. If you'd like to know what you're looking for instead of spending hours browsing somewhere, intoxicated by that incredible book smell as the day slips away from you, consider checking out online recommendations from your favorite library or bookstore. The iconic New York Public Library's website has lists of books under their "Explore" tab that can help you narrow down your preferences. Or, if you're looking for a more personalized online recommendation, consider looking up your local bookstore. Most of them offer staff recommendations with descriptions that will pique your interest.

Bibliophile Friends
I've been known to joke that getting a book enthusiast to make a recommendation isn't difficult; it's getting us to stop that presents a challenge! Any one of a million people in your life has a favorite book, one that has changed their life and that they think everyone - especially you - should read. Don't be shy about asking people around you about those books, about the ones that mean something to them. And if they don't sound like your cup of tea, that's okay too! Part of the beauty of books is that there are so many different kinds, and that there's a perfect one for you, who you happen to be at this moment. The odds of you finding one that you like are in your favor.

Visit a Bookstore!
This is my personal favorite method of finding a new book. Clear your schedule for an afternoon and make a date with your local bookstore. It's a wonderful, visceral experience that gives you a certain feeling of awe and anticipation just walking through the doors and being in the presence of so many books, so much knowledge and so many ideas, there all in one place and at your disposal. You can wander through the section(s) of your choice, or ask a bookseller for direction and recommendations. If you're more of a solitary hunter, consider staff pick shelves and "book talker" tags on the shelves that point out books of particular interest. Award winners, new releases, book club choices and local authors - they're all there at your fingertips. So collect a stack, make yourself comfortable on a bench or in an armchair, and take a little while to open the covers, peruse the writing, and find the book that's right for you.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: "Ha'penny" by Jo Walton (Small Change Book #2)

World War II is a popular backdrop for SpecFic because it affords so many possible alternative outcomes to what went down in the history books. Novels like Code Name Verity and The Book Thief are prime examples of colorful, imaginative fiction that could have happened. Author Jo Walton took this a little further, postulating an entirely different outcome to the war in Ha'penny, the second book of a trilogy set in this dark alternate England. In the first book, Farthing, the terms of a terrifying ceasefire between Great Britain and Hitler's mainland Europe are presented to the reader. The "Farthing Peace" ended the war, but under the terms England has begun to change in the shadow of Hitler's ideals. Murder, persecution and political scheming abound, with a wealthy bank heiress and a detective from Scotland Yard at the center of a very tangled government web of crime and cover-ups.

Ha'penny picks up the trail from another direction, following Inspector Carmichael after the Thirkie murder and investigation. He's drawn next into the mystery of an aging theater actress, who along with a young military man was blown up by a bomb in her kitchen. Carmichael has his work cut out for him, sorting through communist conspiracies, plots by Jewish extremists, and other convoluted scenarios, all while feeling pressure from the superiors who know his own personal secret. As Carmichael works the case, actress Viola Lark is shocked to learn that one of her fellow players in the new production of Hamlet has apparently blown herself up in her own kitchen. But perhaps even more surprising is the sudden contact she receives from one of her socialite sisters, part of a life that Viola decided to leave behind when she became an actress. But in meeting her sister, she becomes entangled in a suicidal new plot put together by unlikely allies to take down the corrupt Farthing Set and the fascist government that is turning England into a mirror of Hitler's Europe. It'll be the performance of Viola's life, and will end in either her incarceration or her death, and the destruction of nearly all she holds dear.

This second book of the trilogy preserves Walton's style of alternating between third-person narrative following Inspector Carmichael and first-person from the perspective of Viola Lark. Seeing the way the web of conspiracy is woven by Viola, and the way that Carmichael works to unravel it, is like watching a predator close in on prey. The reader can not only see the creation of decoys, failsafes and cover-ups employed by one party, but also how effectively they throw off their pursuit. By the key moment in the outcome, I was honestly uncertain about who would come out on top.

The innovative world-building continues as well, and the complicated power struggle within England's government progresses as well, at a steady pace with clear ties to the events set in motion in Farthing. Who is in power, and what they do with that power, directly influence Carmichael, Viola, and the investigation that connects them. There are also references to both the Thirkie murder and the Kahn family that assure the reader that these two books are, indeed, connected in more ways than just through characters. These connections, and their ultimate result, is something that I'm sure will be included in the third book in the trilogy, Half a Crown.

If you like intriguing mysteries set in exciting new worlds, and if you enjoy political suspense without too much grit or gore, consider reading Jo Walton's Small Change trilogy: Farthing, Ha'Penny, and Half a Crown. They're creative, they're clever, they're intense, and they're available right now at your favorite independent bookstore.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Books and Love

There are some fun things floating around on the web about reading and romance. Articles like "15 Dating Problems Only Book Lovers Understand" or "10 Excellent Reasons to Date a Bookworm"  can be light and humorous, and you may even have seen this sort of thing posted here from time to time. But by far my favorite quote about love and books comes from Charles Warnke, and it's not the typical tribute to the advantages and challenges that go with loving a bibliophile. It's brutal, it's honest, and the first time I read it I had to remember to breathe again. So I'm sharing it here with you, and I hope that it gives you something to ponder, whether you love it or hate it or don't know quite what to think of it.

"You Should Date an Illiterate Girl"

"Date a girl who doesn't read. Find her in the weary squalor of a Midwestern bar. Find her in the smoke, drunken sweat, and varicolored light of an upscale nightclub. Wherever you find her, find her smiling. Make sure that it lingers when the people that are talking to her look away. Engage her with unsentimental trivialities. Use pick-up lines and laugh inwardly. Take her outside when the night overstays its welcome. Ignore the palpable weight of fatigue. Kiss her in the rain under the weak glow of a streetlamp because you've seen it in film. Remark at its lack of significance. Take her to your apartment. Dispatch with making love. Fuck her.

Let the anxious contract you've unwittingly written evolve slowly and uncomfortably into a relationship. Find shared interests and common ground like sushi, and folk music. Build an impenetrable bastion upon that ground. Make it sacred. Retreat into it every time the air gets stale, or the evenings get long. Talk about nothing of significance. Do little thinking. Let the months pass unnoticed. Ask her to move in. Let her decorate. Get into fights about inconsequential things like how the fucking shower curtain needs to be closed so that it doesn't fucking collect mold. Let a year pass unnoticed. Begin to notice.

Figure that you should probably get married because you will have wasted a lot of time otherwise. Take her to dinner on the forty-fifth floor at a restaurant far beyond your means. Make sure there is a beautiful view of the city. Sheepishly ask a waiter to bring her a glass of champagne with a modest ring in it. When she notices, propose to her with all of the enthusiasm and sincerity you can muster. Do not be overly concerned if you feel your heart leap through a pane of sheet glass. For that matter, do not be overly concerned if you cannot feel it at all. If there is applause, let it stagnate. If she cries, smile as if you've never been happier. If she doesn't, smile all the same.

Let the years pass unnoticed. Get a career, not a job. Buy a house. Have two striking children. Try to raise them well. Fail, frequently. Lapse into a bored indifference. Lapse into an indifferent sadness. Have a mid-life crisis. Grow old. Wonder at your lack of achievement. Feel sometimes contented, but mostly vacant and ethereal. Feel, during walks, as if you might never return, or as if you might blow away on the wind. Contract a terminal illness. Die, but only after you observe that the girl who didn't read never made your heart oscillate with any significant passion, that no one will write the story of your lives, and that she will die, too, with only a mild and tempered regret that nothing ever came of her capacity to love.

Do these things, god damnit, because nothing sucks worse than a girl who reads. Do it, I say, because a life in purgatory is better than a life in hell. Do it, because a girl who reads possesses a vocabulary that can describe that amorphous discontent as a life unfulfilled - a vocabulary that parses the innate beauty of the world and makes it an accessible necessity instead of an alien wonder. A girl who reads lays claim to a vocabulary that distinguishes between the specious and soulless rhetoric of someone who cannot love her, and the inarticulate desperation of someone who loves her too much. A vocabulary, god damnit, that makes my vacuous sophistry a cheap trick.

Do it, because a girl who reads understands syntax. Literature has taught her that moments of tenderness come in sporadic but knowable intervals. A girl who reads knows that life is not planar; she knows, and rightly demands, that the ebb comes along with the flow of disappointment. A girl who has read up on her syntax senses the irregular pauses - the hesitation of breath - endemic to a lie. A girl who reads perceives the difference between a parenthetical moment of anger and the entrenched habits of someone whose bitter cynicism will run on, run on well past any point of reason, or purpose, run on after she has packed a suitcase and said a reluctant goodbye and she has decided that I am an ellipsis and not a period and run on and run on. Syntax that knows the rhythm and cadence of a life well lived.

Date a girl who doesn't read because the girl who reads knows the importance of plot. She can trace out the demarcations of a prologue and the sharp ridges of a climax. She feels them in her skin. The girl who reads will be patient with an intermission and expedite a denouement. But of all things, the girl who reads knows the most ineluctable significance of an end. She is comfortable with them. She has bid farewell to a thousand heroes with only a twinge of sadness.

Don't date a girl who reads because girls who read are storytellers. You with the Joyce, you with the Nabokov, you with the Woolf. You there in the library, on the platform of the metro, you in the corner of the cafe, you in the window of your room. You, who make my life so god damned difficult. The girl who reads has spun out the account of her life and it is bursting with meaning. She insists that her narratives are rich, her supporting cast colorful, and her typeface bold. You, the girl who reads, make me want to be everything that I am not. But I am weak and I will fail you, because you have dreamed, properly, of someone who is better than I am. You will not accept the life that I told of at the beginning of this piece. You will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied. So out with you, girl who reads. Take the next southbound train and take your Hemmingway with you. I hate you. I really, really, really hate you."

-Charles Warnke

You can find the original source of this piece here.

(The photo included in this post is © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: "The Queen of the Tearling" by Erika Johansen

I love fantasy novels about reluctant monarchs trying to save their kingdoms when the odds are stacked against them. It's a popular but perilous setup to enjoy reading, because while there are some fabulous books and series built on that idea, there are also a lot of them that are trashy, formulaic, badly written, and (in this reader's opinion) not worth the time it takes to read them.

So I was a little bit nervous when I picked up a copy of The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, worried by the thought of another disappointing variation on the theme of "struggling monarch." It was a completely unnecessary concern though, and in no time at all I was sucked into a dangerous world of power struggles and conspiracies, traitors, a kingdom in need of a ruler to repair the damage done by her predecessors, and a 19-year-old girl trying to prove her mettle on the throne.

Kelsea, the only daughter of the Tearling's last queen, has been raised in secret by a former court historian and a former member of the Queen's Guard. Far from castle and court, Kelsea learns survival and outdoor skills, protocol and comportment, harnessing her emotions to make fair and rational decisions, and the history of what will one day be her kingdom. But there are large, intentional gaps in her education, namely the history of her mother's rule. So when on her 19th birthday the Queen's Guard arrive to take Kelsea to the capitol city to be crowned, she's in for something of a shock at the state of the kingdom. Poor to begin with, it's been essentially bled dry by the Regent, the Church, frivolous nobility and the looming shadow of the kingdom of Mortmense, with which Kelsea's mother made a terrible agreement to spare her kingdom.

Before she can even begin to sort out what needs fixing first, Kelsea needs to earn the trust and respect of her Guard, the love of her people, and the approval of a mysterious outlaw known only as the Fetch. But in doing so she sets her kingdom on the path to war with Mortmense, a war which they have absolutely no chance of winning.

Johansen has created a troubled, hopeful, believable world in which there will be an awful lot of mess before things truly begin to improve. but I'm very eager to see how Kelsea and her Queen's Guard make their next move, especially given the immensely enjoyable character dynamics between them. Even though she's the queen, Kelsea is still young and inexperienced. That being the case, and with few people she can trust, her Captain of the Guard is an important adviser and sounding board. But that relationship sometimes interferes with the orders that Kelsea gives, which created some real tension in an otherwise close dynamic. I also have a feeling that Pen will become an increasingly important player in the Queen's Guard.

I'm also very curious about the Fetch, who was an important but fairly minor character in the grand scheme of the book. His relationship with Kelsea is intriguing, and it's obvious that he's playing his own game, but his interests coincide neatly with Kelsea's. For now, at least. There is a lot more to his story and his place in the kingdom than is made apparent, and I truly want to know more!

My only real gripe with the story itself is that we never find out details about the Crossing. there are implications, small pockets of information and references to it, but despite ample opportunity (in a history lesson during Kelsea's childhood, for example) the reader is never completely clued in on the entire story. I found that immensely frustrating, and hope that perhaps it will be addressed in the next installment. Better late than never, after all.

While royal, Kelsea is neither beautiful nor petite. I loved that about her character, and the fact was mentioned more than once by other characters. The Fetch's remark on the subject actually made me wince, but Kelsea accepts her looks and, even if her disappointment is palpable, focuses on more important issues. The subject of her weight is also brought up in a manner that I thought could have been handled better, by emphasizing the effect of arms training and exercise on a person's figure instead of just eating less to lose weight. But I think the idea of a plain queen with a sturdy figure trumps my quibbling over body image approach in one scene. From Johansen's descriptions of Kelsea's plainness though, I'm completely unsold on the idea of Emma Watson playing the queen in a planned film version of the story.

If you're a fan of Tamora Pierce or of Kristen Britain's Green Rider books, you'll want to mark July 8th on your calendar. That's the release date for The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, and your local independent bookstore can help you pre-order a copy now. Which you should really do, because this is a book worth reading.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Writing Tips from P.D. James

If you're a fan of suspense and crime writing, odds are that you've read at least one book by P.D. James. She's written more than twenty of them, after all! My personal favorite is The Children of Men. She's given some excellent writing advice here for those of us who would also like to be successful writers into our nineties.