Starting off this month’s What We’re Reading blog with something a little different, The Girl with the Kaleidoscope Eyes by David Handler.
This book is a murder mystery that made me grin, not because of silly hi-jinks but because of the author’s voice—or the protagonist’s voice since it’s in first person. It really needs to be read with tongue firmly in cheek. It’s set in the 1990s, when cell phones are huge clunky things, before the internet and social media. But the entire tone is gritty, cynical noir, as if it were an old time 1940’s film with James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart. The protagonist is a ghost writer for celebrities, one who once had a brilliant literary tome and could never write a second. So he talks cynically of literary and Hollywood agents, of his affairs with Hollywood and literary stars, gives sound advice to teenagers who never asked for it, and is—and I use this phrase in all its nuances—cocksure of himself. And while he’s doing all that talking, he’s solving a closed-door murder case.
For those of you who remember the 1970s, read this just for fun. He strews famous names, music, and film right and left. If you don’t remember the 70’s, read it anyway, and try to imagine seamy Hollywood without Twitter.
As usual, I've read quite a few books in the last month. Reading is, for me, an "unwind" activity that helps distract my mind and give it a break from the current story before I go to sleep, so even when I'm writing hard, I'm also powering through books.
The standout read for me this month was Tell The Wolves I'm Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt — which isn't about wolves or even shape-shifters. It's a coming of age story set in New York in the 1980's, about a 14 year old girl whose beloved uncle is dying of a mysterious illness. (The reader soon realizes it's aids.) Sounds grim, I know, but it's wonderful. After his death, she begins to sort out what is truth and what is fable, and what is important in life. I read it on the recommendation of a friend and have been urging people to read it ever since.
I've also read a lot of crime novels this month. I finished the more lighthearted "bookbinder" series by Kate Carlisle that I mentioned last month. And then I went onto a series by Julia Spencer Fleming, starting with the first one, In the Bleak Midwinter. I liked it a lot, although I got annoyed with the heroine once or twice, but only in that first book. I read the second one and was hooked. I'm now up to book #8 in the series. The characterization is excellent and the plots are terrific. I would definitely read the books in order as things — relationships, characters, situations etc — develop through the series. The books are darker than the Kate Carlisle ones, but not too dark. If you like Louise Penny or Elly Griffiths, I think you'll enjoy these books too.
I’ve been on a nerdy history reading phase lately. Having enjoyed American Eden so much (the story of David Hosack, early medicine in the U.S. and the founding of the country’s first botanical garden) I dove right in to The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell's Perilous Journey and His Vision for the American West by John F. Ross. Don’t be intimidated by the long title—it’s not a dry, scholarly tome (though there’s clearly a great deal of scholarship behind the story.) Rather, it’s a really fascinating portrait of both a remarkable individual and the vast America West as it changed from unexplored wilderness to an area that has shaped so many national debates to this day—who are we as a people and how do we treat our natural resources? Combining thrilling adventure as Powell and his fellow explorers make the first perilous journey through the Grand Canyon with a sensitive narrative of how Powell saw native peoples, the beauty of the landscape and the problems created by homesteading in a land that had precious little water, the book paints a compelling picture of late 19th century America and the clash between preservation and development. Readers also get a riveting look at what life was like west of the Mississippi as they follow Powell from a a mostly self-taught boy curious about the world around him to becoming a college professor, the Director of the U. S. Geological Survey, which helped map the West , and the first Head of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. An engaging and enlightening read.
For the current WIP in my Lady Arianna mystery series, I’ve also been reading some European history, albeit on the lighter side. Dancing Into Battle: A Social History to the Battle of Waterloo by Nick Foulkes is a highly entertaining look at the personalities (and peccadilloes) of the Allied forces gathered in Brussels as they frantically tried to cobble together a way to counter Napoleon’s reseizing of the French throne. From the prominent but penniless grand families who came to the city because it was far cheaper than living in London, to the various military commanders, both competent and otherwise, it brings the British expatriate high society into sharp—sometimes too sharp—focus as they prepared for one of the great battles in history. (though as Wellington said it was “ . . . the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”) The love affairs, the hi-jinks—and of course Lady Richmond’s famous ball—come wonderfully alive. It’s a fun slice of history for any Regency aficionado.
Thanks to Pat Rice's recommendation of Christina Lauren, I picked up one of her books—Roomies was a delight, start to finish. Holland has a mad crush on a talented, attractive subway busker–and when her uncle needs a skilled musician for his hit Broadway show, she suggests the mysterious guitarist, only to find out he's an Irishman whose green card has expired. She agrees to marry him to save the show, while secretly ratcheting up her fantasy crush. Calvin is not just hot, Irish and brilliantly talented–he has a good heart. But as their faked relationship begins to feel real, Holland isn't sure if he's falling in love with her, or pretending just to stay on the Broadway stage. The story is clever, funny, touching, and intelligently crafted–and Christina and Lauren, a BFF writing duo, are gifted and smart writers. I loved it, and I'll be looking for more of their stories.
I'm also reading Educated by Tara Westover—her intense and detailed memoir growing up as the youngest child of a Mormon fundamentalist and a natural healer, raised without a formal education, knowing very little of the world beyond their mountain. Desperately wanting an education, she teaches herself what she needs to know and enters a university at age 17—not even knowing what the Holocaust or a simple essay is—yet she makes it all the way to a PhD from Cambridge, and by the way, develops into a gifted writer. An astonishing book, powerful, beautifully written, compelling, it sharpens a focus on a determined, independent girl breaking away from a tough lifestyle that few of us can imagine, yet it exists just around the bend of the mountain.
Mary Jo here:
I have a certain fondness for royal romances–one of my very favorite books is To Marry a Prince by Sophia Page, which is based on an alternative line of descent from Regency Princess Charlotte instead of Queen Victoria. A great read.
But Alyssa Cole takes a very different tack in A Princess in Theory . Alyssa Cole is a relatively new and extremely talented and versatile writer. An African American, her first book was a Civil War espionage romance with a heroine who was a former slave and now spied for the Union, and a Pinkerton detective hero. It won MASSES of awards and accolades!
A Princess in Theory is light-hearted and funny, but also addresses serious topics. Naledi Smith was orphaned very young and grew up in the New York foster care system. When we meet her, she is a very overworked graduate student in epidemiology and is barely scraping by even with two part time jobs. She does not have time for emails telling her she is betrothed to an African prince and please send scans of her passport, driver's license, and her social security number. Yeah, right!
Except that she actually was betrothed as a toddler to Prince Thabiso of Thesolo, an African kingdom rather like the Wakanda of the Black Panther movie. Since he has to be in New York on business, he decides to look her up. She's working at her part time waitress job, thinks he's the temporary help assigned, and he decides to go along with it because he likes the idea of being perceived as a regular person, not a prince. And so the fun begins. He is a terrible waiter. <G> The overall shape of the romance is not unexpected, but the Cole's twists make this story unique and powerful as well as enjoyable.
Joanna here, talking about a sort of fantasy, I suppose.
Lost in a Good Book is the volume you want transformed into a person and seated on your right at a long diplomatic dinner when the person on your left side needs to speak at length and privately to the Plavotkin Underminister for Finance. Like a good diplomat – or, really, any excellent companion over dinner – Lost is cynical, intelligent, and funny.
Lost brings us the second installment in the adventures of Thursday Next, intrepid Time Agent and paradox wrangler extraordinaire. It’s sneakiness and brains versus The Powers of Evil and the somewhat more ubiquitous Powers of Obnoxious Greed. It is, in short, a Book For Our Times.
Lost is Book Two of Seven in Jasper Fforde’s series. Other Word Wenches have recommended these, but not just recently, so here I am doing it again. Lost is neither the first nor the most recent of Fforde’s excellent books, but it's the one I just reread and I want to hold the whole set up and wave it around so everyone can see it.
Really, you should probably read The Eyre Affair first.
So now the wenches are waiting impatiently—what joy have you found in books lately?