Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

Well, this could very well be my last blog of 2010.  I don't get to write nearly as much as I would like, but I appreciate everyone who reads my ramblings and has been supportive of this project.  That being said, think of this review as my virtual Christmas gift to you.  No returns or exchanges allowed.

Who else but Pat Conroy could write a book about the books he likes to read and turn it into a masterpiece of literature? My Reading Life is a squat little volume containing the history of Conroy's reading life and what led him to be a writer.  You learn about the books that changed his life, how Conroy himself writes, and the power that good literature can have on society.

The book opens with a young Pat Conroy being given a love of books from his mother, Peg, who never went to college, but was determined to educate herself through the works of Austen, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare.  She used Gone with the Wind as a handbook for how a proper Southern woman should behave and in turn Margaret Mitchell's inspiring novel taught Conroy how to be a man.  Books created an unbreakable bond between Conroy and his mother and helped them escape from the world where Conroy's abusive father beat and belittled his family for a lifetime.

Conroy's chapter on a beloved English teacher puts me in mind of the teachers who introduced me to great literature and much of the book reads like a giant thank you to all teachers who dedicate their lives to students.  

Reading 200 pages a day, everyday, since he was a freshman in high school, Conroy developed an amazing command of the English language which allowed him to write books like The Water Is Wide, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, and more.  You learn when reading My Reading Life just how much of Conroy's own life goes into his writing and how the thousands of books he has read helped develop his craft.  I also enjoyed learning that Conroy writes all his books with a fountain pen, like myself.  This is probably the only similarity between Conroy's writing and my own.

My Reading Life is a beautiful creation about the love of books.  Conroy writes in a very conversational manner and I found myself writing down quotes from the text which made me laugh as well as think.  Whether you have read all of Conroy's works or this is your first foray into his literary genius, you're sure to enjoy the read.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Literary Overload: Meeting Patricia Cornwell

 Last night I had the pleasure of meeting Patricia Cornwell in Oakbrook, IL, where she signed copies of her new novel, Port Mortuary.  It was an amazing experience and I hope I can recreate it for you.  As Carrie Fisher once said, "You haven't lived vicariously until you've lived through me."

So I have to give it to my mom.  She swapped out her box of wine and bathrobe for coffee and a warm jacket and drove to Oakbrook to get wristbands for the signing for me, my dad, and her at 5:30a.m.  She was one of the first people in line so she got a sweet cap with the Scarpetta crest on it.  We also got Scarpetta crest coasters and pins at the signing.  Good marketing.

Anyway, we got to the signing an hour ahead of time, but the place was already packed.  Luckily, Patricia arrived on time with her entourage, including her beautiful wife, Dr. Staci Gruber.  Patricia was very warm and funny.  She has a very endearing way of talking about her characters.  "You think I have control over my characters," she told us, "Trust me, I don't."  She said that she invited Dr. Scarpetta to the signing, but she didn't return Patricia's call.

Patricia answered questions from the audience and talked about her writing.  When she wrote Postmortem, she had never read a mystery before.  She bought novels by Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and Dorothy Sayers for inspiration.  However, she ended up writing a parlor mystery set in a morgue.  "The butler didn't do it," Patricia mused, "but he did have his innards carved out."  After a half hour of discussion, Patricia got right into signing books.

While I was waiting for her to sign my book, I got to meet other fans who I've communicated with on Patricia's Facebook page.  Her fans really adore her, and it was great to connect in person instead of online.

I didn't have to wait long to meet Patricia and it was surreal.  I was shaking like a spastic colon, and it was hard to keep my voice from doing the same.  I told her how much I love her writing and how it inspired me to write.  She was incredibly gracious and told me that maybe I could sign a book for her one day.  It was freaking magic.

Patricia also offered to sign her older books, but only after all the new books had been signed.  I waited around and talked to other fans which made the time fly.  One of the books I had was my copy of Postmortem which is very rare to find in hardcover.  Patricia's reaction was priceless, and also showed how thoughtful she is.  She looked at the book and asked with surprise, "Is this a first edition?"  When I told it was, she had someone get her a ballpoint pen because she thought her Sharpie would bleed too much on the old paper.  She really went out of her way for me and I won't soon forget that.

All in all, it was an amazing experience.  Patricia and her team are very gracious and the fans can't be beat.  Port Mortuary already has a number 36 sales ranking on Amazon and is getting great reviews.  I'm very grateful to have met Patricia and hope the rest of her tour is as big a success as her stop in Chicago was.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Cornwell Factor

This is it.  The blog I have been waiting to do since I first started Reading Under the Covers.  This is my comprehensive review of the thrilling works of Patricia Cornwell, who burst onto the literary stage just over 20 years ago with her first novel, Postmortem.  The book launched the incredibly successful Kay Scarpetta series which just reached book number 18 with the release of Port Mortuary, which will be available in bookstores tomorrow.  This blog post is Cornwell and Scarpetta's story.

Patricia Cornwell, a native of Florida, has lived something of a charmed life.  At five, her father left the family on Christmas day and Patricia's mother moved the family to North Carolina, where they lived not so far from Billy Graham's church.  To add to Cornwell's already traumatic childhood, her mother could not mentally handle raising her, and Patricia was sent to live with foster parents.  A quiet strength built up inside Cornwell during these years and her hardships laid the path for great things.

Cornwell received a Bachelor's in English and eventually married one of her English professors and took a job writing the crime beat for her local newspaper.  The job was transformative for her future career as it led her to a job working at the Chief Medical Examiner's office in Richmond, VA.  This was where Kay Scarpetta was born.

Dr. Kay Scarpetta starts off as the Chief Medical Examiner of Richmond in Cornwell's early novels.  Scarpetta proves to be as much a detective as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.  She finds clues to murders on the autopsy table and she's not afraid to go to the darkest areas of Richmond to uncover the truth surrounding a mysterious death.  Scarpetta is surrounded by a faithful ensemble cast including her niece; Lucy, colleague/boyfriend/husband; Benton Wesley, and the ever ambiguous Pete Marino.

Although America has become fascinated by the world of forensics resulting in television shows such as CSI and Bones, Cornwell's first novel was turned down SEVEN TIMES before Scribner's finally published it.  Publishers told her that nobody would want to read about what goes on in a morgue.  I'm sure when Postmortem hit the bestseller list all the publishers who had turned Cornwell down simultaneously smacked their heads and exclaimed, "I should've had a V8!"  Fledgling writers should remember this when feeling their own despair about not being published.  Even the best have to fight to get their books on the shelf.

Even though the success of her novels has made her an international crime fiction icon, Patricia Cornwell's life has not been without its struggles.  In 2007, she bravely announced that she is gay and is currently married to Dr. Staci Gruber, who teaches at Harvard Medical School.  Cornwell has also addressed having bipolar disorder, which is perhaps why some of her novels are particularly dark.

Cornwell's own writing has come under scrutiny in the past decade.  In 2003, Cornwell released her first Scarpetta novel in three years, Blow Fly.  The book was criticized for a choppy plot and the fact that the point of view moved from first person (Scarpetta's) to the third person.  Subsequent novels were also bashed by critics.  Even when Cornwell branched out and started two new series (Andy Brazil and Win Garano) the reviews didn't improve.  In fact, they got worse in the case of the Andy Brazil novels.  However, it is interesting to note that her novels have gotten better since marrying Dr. Gruber.  Just my own observation.  Cornwell has also said that she will only be focusing on the Scarpetta series and has no other plans to write more novels about Andy Brazil or Win Garano.

Probably the biggest upheaval Cornwell has faced is the media buzz surrounding her controversial book, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed in which she claims that painter, Walter Sickert was responsible for the Whitechapel murders.  Ripper and Sickert experts were, and still are, infuriated with Cornwell's accusations, but after reading the book myself, I tend to side with Cornwell.

Through it all, Cornwell has remained a class act.  She stays connected with fans through Twitter and Facebook and always shows an interest in her readers and what they have to say.  I'm actually going to a signing in Chicago this Thursday where I will have a chance to meet her in person.  I hope I remember how to talk.

Port Mortuary has already been available in the UK for about a month and has been receiving great reviews.  The book is once again told through Scarpetta's point of view, and she is facing her toughest case yet.  A body was left in the morgue freezer where it continued to bleed, indicating the person was still alive when placed there.  Scarpetta must figure out what happened before her career and reputation are ruined.  I can't wait.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I call them Salander's Principles. One of them is that a bastard is always a bastard, and if I can hurt a bastard by digging up shit about him, then he deserves it.-Lisbeth Salander-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

What do you think of when you think of Sweden?  I used to think of ABBA, Ikea, and blonde people frolicking in open fields.  Turns out, Sweden is bleak as hell according to Stieg Larsson’s
Millennium Trilogy.  However, these books are anything but depressing and are the type of novels that come along only once in a decade.  The series, which consists of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest have become an integral part of pop culture selling millions of copies worldwide, spawning three films in Sweden, and now a U.S. remake of “Dragon Tattoo” is in the works.  Perhaps it is the fact that there will never be any more novels in the series which has jettisoned them to such an iconic status.
Stieg Larsson passed away unexpectedly before “Dragon Tattoo’s” Swedish release.  He apparently had begun work on a fourth book in the series, but it was never completed.  Larsson’s girlfriend of 30 years, Eva Gabriellson wants to finish the novel and publish it, but Swedish law will not allow her.  In my personal opinion, this blows, but now I’m just editorializing.  Onto the book itself.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens at a rather sluggish pace, detailing a cold case involving a supposedly murdered girl, Harriet Vanger, who’s body was never found.  We also meet a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist who’s career has been ruined after a piece he’s been working on falls apart.  It’s hard to see exactly where Larsson is going with all this, but once you get through the first couple of chapters, the pace picks up considerably.
Blomkvist finds himself in the employment of Harriet’s uncle, Martin Vanger, who has become virtually obsessed with his niece’s disappearance.  What starts out for Blomkvist as a job writing Vanger’s autobiography soon turns into an investigation as to what really happened to Harriet.  Blomkvist is met with countless roadblocks in his investigation in the form of the Vanger family who are secretive about their lives and Harriet’s past.
The story shifts point of view when we are finally introduced to the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander.  A pierced, tattooed, spiky haired, sexually ambiguous waif, Salander will kill you as soon as look at you (sounds like my last date).  Salander has a knack for investigating and is hired by Vanger to investigate Blomkvist before Vanger hires him.  Even though Salander seems to know everything about everybody, we know virtually nothing about her.  What is known is that she is considered mentally unfit to run her own affairs, and is left at the mercy of an abusive guardian.  Don’t worry though--Salander always wins.
One thing Salander fails to recognize is that Blomkvist is also an investigator to some extent so it’s only a matter of time before he finds out of Salander’s investigation into his life.  When they eventually join forces, albeit unwillingly, the real fun begins.  Salander and Blomkvist’s investigation into Harriet’s disappearance is filled with action, suspense, and many pots of coffee (buy coffee before reading this book because you will always have a taste for it).  Although the ending of the book is fairly predictable, the journey is enthralling.
In short, the novel is fantastic.  Salander is sure to become one of the classic heroines in crime fiction.  I plan on reviewing the other two books in the future as well.  Hopefully, Swedish law will change and allow us one last adventure with Lisbeth Salander.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Quick Update

Hello my neglected readers.  I'm so sorry I haven't blogged in a couple of weeks.  Please don't report me to BFS (Blogger Protective Services).  I would hate to see you end up with foster bloggers.

As you may recall, one of my earlier reviews was about Kathryn Stockett's "The Help."  As luck would have it, she's going to be speaking just a few hours of south of where I live in Evansville, IN and doing a book signing.  So Mom and I are busily sharpening the ends of our toothbrushes on the off chance we need to shank someone in order to get a good spot in line.

There is also going to be yet another book sale over in Dayton, OH the following day, but I haven't decided whether or not I can/will play hookie from school.  We'll see.

Anyway, I have some big reviews planned for November, but not the time to write them now.  One is more of a rant and less of a review.  I'm also going to be writing a comprehensive review on the works of Patricia Cornwell who is coming out with the 18th novel in her Kay Scarpetta series at the end of the month!  I could just wet myself.

Stay tuned until next time.  Be well and be well read.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as "dearie." When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poison, and come to "Cyanide," I am going to put under "Uses" the phrase "Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one 'Dearie.
-Flavia de Luce

Who would have thought that a middle aged Canadian man living in the 2000s would know anything about an eleven year old girl living in 1950s England?  Surprises of surprises, Alan Bradley succeeds in this task with the creation of Flavia de Luce.  Flavia, is by no means your typical little girl.  She finds refuge in a Victorian chemistry lab located in her family's estate--Buckshaw and has a penchant for poisons.  She reminds me somewhat of a non-wizard version of Hermione Granger.  For the Sunny Von Bulows in the audience, Hermione is an intelligent young witch from the Harry Potter novels.  Anyway Flavia's cleverness and sense of adventure make her the perfect candidate in solving a murder that takes place literally in her backyard.

At first, the novel seems harmless enough with its quirky characters and witty dialogue.  We quickly learn that Flavia is free to do as she pleases, thanks to her father, Colonel de Luce, who spends more time with his stamps than his daughters.  We also find out early on that Flavia's mother, Harriet, died when Flavia was too young to remember her.  In addition, Flavia's sisters, Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy) are too wrapped up in boys and books respectively for either of them to pay Flavia much mind.  However, everything abruptly changes when a dead bird turns up on the back stoop at Buchshaw with an old Penny Black stamp shoved through the beak.  As if this incident isn't disturbing enough, Flavia stumbles upon a (nearly) dead body in the family's cucumber patch.  The event proves thrilling rather than traumatizing for Flavia, but the macabre scene turns darker when police arrive and Flavia's father is charged with the murder of the deceased stranger.  Flavia soon finds herself playing the role of lead investigator in order to track down the real killer.

The ensuing events lead to Flavia discovering secrets from her father's past, uncovering a mystery of a lost Penny Black, and putting herself in increasing danger.  When she finally puts all the pieces together, Flavia is faced with a situation which would make even the seasoned mystery reader squirm.  Fortunately, this is the first book in a series so we know the odds are in Flavia's favor.

In short, this is a charming novel about a girl detective who's not afraid of being different.  The plot is fast-paced, but thoughtful and introspective when needed.  Bradley doesn't skimp on the supporting cast, and there are more wonderfully bizarre characters than I can list in this review.  The sequel, The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag, came out this year to great acclaim, and there are four more novels in the queue.  I hope Bradley keeps up the momentum of his first two efforts--Flavia de Luce is too good a character to waste and someone I will never get tired of reading about. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock

Mary was the Tudor trailblazer, a political pioneer whose reign redefined the English monarchy.-Anna Whitelock

Just as children have been taught for the past 450 years, I grew up knowing Mary I only as “Bloody Mary.”  She was the woman who persecuted Protestants, exiled her sister, Elizabeth I, and forced England into an unpopular alliance with Spain upon her marriage to Philip II.  However, in Anna Whitelock’s historical biography, Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen, we meet a woman who was every bit as courageous as her grandmother, Isabella of Castile, and had to fight just as hard for her crown.  This is the story the history books don’t teach and one I hope after reading this review, you’ll walk away finding Mary to be a slightly more likable figure in world history.

When I started writing this review it read like a history lesson.  There was so much I wanted to say about Mary, but I’m going to try and focus on Whitelock’s books specifically.  After all, this is a book review, right?  Right!

I’ve always been a fan of the underdog.  I’m also an Anglophile.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that I have become intrigued by Mary Tudor.  Several recent books including The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir, The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter, and Mary Tudor: The Tragical History of the First Queen of England by D.M. Loades are proof that I am not alone in my genuine liking of Mary.  These texts exonerate Mary, explain her immense contributions to the reshaping of the English monarchy, and demonstrate that the seeds of hatred planted by her detractors all the way back in 1558 are finally being reconsidered.

Whitelock takes us chronologically through Mary’s life using countless historical resources including letters written by Mary herself.  After the divorce of her parents; Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, Mary was declared a bastard and only had a chance of becoming queen if her younger half brother, Edward VI, died without issue.  Mary was unloved by her father, kept away from her mother, and tormented by her stepmother, Anne Boleyn.  She was also condemned for her Catholic beliefs during the Protestant reign of Edward VI.  It seemed that life was one hardship after another for Mary.  Fortunately, Mary’s tribulations only made her stronger and eventually won her the admiration of the people and the crown of England.

In 1553, Edward VI died and the Protestant regime place Mary’s cousin, Jane Grey, on the throne.  Mary was not discouraged and raised an army that overthrew the government and Mary was declared the rightful queen.  Mary was beloved by the people throughout most of her five year reign and Catholics rejoiced at Mary’s plans to return to the old faith.  Unfortunately, her inability to produce an heir to the throne and the nearly 300 burnings of Protestants caused much unrest among the people and when Mary died in 1558, England was ecstatic when Elizabeth took the crown.

What historians forget and Whitelock points out is that Elizabeth owed everything to Mary.  Mary paved the way for all queen regnants by showing the world that a woman could rule in her own right.  With no one to love her, Mary’s Catholic faith was all she had so it’s really not surprising that she worked so tirelessly to bring England back into the Holy See.  However, Elizabeth cast aside the memory of her elder sister and Mary’s tomb was buried under the rubble of broken altars during Elizabeth’s reformation.  It’s ironic that three years after her death, Elizabeth was moved into Mary’s tomb and the two of them have spent the last 400 years side by side.

All this and more can be found in Whitelock’s book.  She does an excellent job of putting the reader in the moment and really feeling for Mary.  I do want to point out that poor editing diminishes the book to some extent.  For example, the book states that Mary died in 1557, but all historical documents and countless other texts confirm that it was 1558.  Being a historian, I’m sure Whitelock knows this and the mistake was the fault of an editor.  Did I mention that bad editing is one of my pet peeves?  Anyway, if you want to learn more about Mary, English history, or just want a good old fashioned Medieval soap opera, grab a copy of Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock.  I truly hope that this book and other texts will change the popular opinion of Mary I, my favorite monarch.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book Scouting 101: Save the Drama for Your Mama

Hello and welcome to a very special edition of Reading Under the Covers.  Rather than a book review, this week I want to tell you about the fun, rewarding, and slightly stinky world of book selling.  We will return to our regularly scheduled programming next week.

Over the summer, I found myself being drawn into the strange little profession of online book selling.  This endeavor came to fruition with the aid of my book-pushing mother.  You see, she sells used and in some cases quite rare and collectible books through  Her store, The Moonlighting Librarian, offers over 1,400 books, with an impressive 40 being books I have listed.  In an attempt to increase my emaciated inventory and sales, I joined my parental unit on a trip to Bloomington, IN for a used book sale.  This is my story.  The day in the life of a book scout: raw, uncut, and uncensored.

10p.m.-I got home from my night class and we loaded up the car with carts and bags for books, as well as enough luggage for even Diana Ross to utter, "That might be a bit much."

3a.m.-We finally find the fairgrounds where the book sale will be held the next day.  No one is there.  All I am aware of is the sound of dueling banjos and the smell of my own fear.  The point of driving down in the middle of the night was to get the first spot in line, but the gates are locked so it's off to a hotel for the night...what's left of it.

8a.m.-My sainted father goes to the sale ahead of us and gets the 10th spot in line.  Success.

11:30a.m.-Bleary-eyed and under-caffeinated, my mom and I arrive a half hour before the sale.  We are dressed quasi-homeless which is not uncommon for book sales.  In fact, a book sale is probably the only time I don't care how I look in public.  No one cares.  The dealers just want books, not a fashion show, and they make this fact painfully evident.  I wait impatiently amid a sea of culottes and fanny packs for the sale to start.

Noon-The sale opens and we rush in like a herd of cattle into what is basically a barn.  It's actually rather appropriate considering the circumstances.  Now here is where things get down and dirty.  Book sales smell.  The books smell, the people smell, and eventually you will smell too.  I know I did.  But that's OK because all that matters is finding cheap books to resell for a profit.  I use a scanner which tells me what a book is worth for resale.  I have to consider the condition of the book and how many are already listed on amazon.  If it's a good deal, then it goes in my cart.  However, you have to act fast or someone else will get "your" book.  Actually, everyone at this sale was very friendly which is unfortunately a rare occurrence.

My mom and I do our own thing at the sale.  She goes her way, I go mine.  Every once in a while I can see her crazy-eyed and scanning like her life depended on it.  Her best deal of the day was a book she bought for $3 and listed online for $75.  My best was a book for $3 that I can resell for $20.  Not great, but not bad either.  All in all, we will more than pay for the cost of the books, travel to and from the sale, hotel expenses, and multiple stops at Steak 'n Shake while still making a profit.

As you can see, being a book dealer is by no means glamorous.  My hands were black with dirt and dust by the end of the sale and I sifted through hundreds of books to find the 50 that will make a profit.  I don't make enough to earn a living doing this, but it is fun.  I love books and I'm not too ashamed to say that it's a rush to find that "one" book that makes the trip all worthwhile.

I hope you've enjoyed this bizarre journey into the book selling world.  Perhaps you would like to do this for a living?  It's a lot of work, but with time, effort, and persistence, you too can be insane!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls.-Carrie Fisher

Like any red-blooded American male, I became instantly aware of Carrie Fisher at the tender age of 10 after seeing her in the infamous metal bikini  she wore in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.  I even had a cardboard cutout of her in my room during my adolescence.  Kicks the creep factor up a notch, doesn't it? Anyway, in 2008 I discovered that Carrie Fisher was more than just Princess Leia.  She is in fact an incredible writer with four novels (Postcards from the Edge, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful) and now this autobiography which documents her all too eventful life.

Wishful Drinking started off as a stage show starring the manic Fisher in which she entertained fans with stories of her celebrity parents (Debbie Reynolds and the late Eddie Fisher), a gay husband who forgot to tell her he was gay--she forgot to notice, and the effects of drug addiction and manic depression. The show and book are an attempt to recapture events of her life she forgot after undergoing Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) which she has partaken of repeatedly in order to control her manic depression.  Fisher considers herself more or less cured now, but the initial round of treatments wiped three months of her life from her memory.

There is nothing off limits in this book.  Fisher opens up about failed marriages, a daughter she fears she has scarred for life, a larger than life mother, and an absent father.  Fisher describes stints in rehab and waking up with a dead man in her bed.  No really, it happened.  One of the scariest/funniest stories in the book is when she recalls being put in the psych ward of a hospital after being taken off all her medication.  It caused her to stay awake for six days and by the end of the sixth day Fisher believed that everything she saw on television was happening to her in real life.  At least, as real as you can get when you're Carrie Fisher.

Over the years, Fisher has been criticized for her acting abilities, or lack thereof, which she addresses frankly in the book.  However, whatever she didn't get in the acting department she more than makes up for in her incredible storytelling ability.  There is nothing forced, trite, or boring to be found here.  The book is funny yet insightful and Fisher is painfully honest about her addictions and mental illness.

I liked this book so much that I also listened to the audiobook which is read by Fisher.  Honestly, it's better with Fisher reading than doing it yourself.  It's obvious why Wishful Drinking was so successful as a stage show.  Fisher tells the story as if she's having a conversation with you over cigarettes and oxycontin.

Anyone looking for good writing, a laugh, or a better understanding of addiction and mental health issues will enjoy this book.  You don't have to be a Star Wars fan to enjoy this book.  Just a fan of the emotionally disturbed--which, if you're friends with me, then you already are.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

"Do you ever wish you could...change things?" she asks.
And I can't help myself.  I look at her head on.  Cause that's one a the stupidest questions I ever heard."-A conversation between Skeeter and Aibileen, The Help

Let's be frank shall we?  This book is exactly the opposite of what I usually read.  I'm much more likely to journey into the world of crime with Kinsey Millhone and Kay Scarpetta than I am to take a bivouack in the deep south.  However, I could not escape the buzz surrounding The Help and like a cat being dragged to a bath, I decided to try and read it...I couldn't put it down.

The novel is set in Jackson, Mississippi (I still sing "M I double S I double S I double P P I to remember the state's spelling) during the early 1960s and encompasses the lives of African American maids and the women they work for.  There are three narrators.  The first is Aibileen, a middle aged maid who acts as mother to her employer's children.  Then there is Minny, a maid who has been fired from every job she's ever had.  Finally, there is Skeeter, a 23 year old white girl who doesn't know what to do with her life.  I have read books with multiple narrators before, but never seen it done well.  Luckily, Stockett is able to find three unique voices in her protagonists and effortlessly keeps the book running like a well-oiled machine.

Basically, the book addresses the racial tensions in Jackson and Skeeter's attempt to give the maids of the city a voice in a world that has gone deaf.  Stockett shows the ugliness of racism without being preachy or self-righteous.  In her notes on the text, Stockett reveals that her own family had a black maid when she was growing up.  The tales of what happens to the maids of Jackson are a far cry from the jovial slaves of "Gone with the Wind" who couldn't have been more pleased to be the property of whites.  The women are treated like trash and they rarely like their employers.  Fortunately, Skeeter helps give the maids justice and their white employers what's been coming to them for a long time.

Of all the characters, I associated the most with Skeeter.  A year apart in age, Skeeter and I both live with our parents, are single, and hope to be writers.  We're also trying to find ourselves.  I hope I'm half as lucky as Skeeter is in pursuing her goals.

There were numerous times, especially during the Minny sections, where I had to put down the book and laugh out loud.  Then there were times I was so angry I could scream and so sad I could cry.  It all sounds cliche here, but the book truly moved me.  The last sentence of the book, which I won't spoil here, really resonated with me and I find myself running the line through my head often.  Hopefully you'll keep it in mind as well.

There's no word yet if there will be a sequel to The Help.  Stockett says she will write another book, but considering it took her four years to write this one, we will all have to be patient.  In the mean time, grab a copy of The Help, and pour yourself a glass of sweet tea.  Just be sure to inspect your chocolate pie closely before eating.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

City of Dragons

"She'd be alone, but Miranda was used to that."-Kelli Stanley, City of Dragons

I've spent a lot of time thinking about which book I would choose for my first review.  Authors all over the world waited with bated breath to see just who the lucky winner would be.  I mean, considering I already have three followers, a review by me could make or break a writer's career.  But I digress.

The book I chose is City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley.  The book, set in San Francisco 1940 is a PI Noir novel.  Unlike classics such as The Maltese Falcon, the protagonist and femme fatale are one and the same in heroine Miranda Corbie. Miranda is a private investigator and a former escort with a past riddled with loss and disappointment. Despite her hardships, Miranda dusts herself off and manages to rise above her misfortunes albeit with a hardened view of the world.

I became aware of City of Dragons by pure coincidence.  My parents were vacationing in Arizona and were visiting the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale on the same day Stanley was signing the newly released novel.  My love for the Golden Era prompted my parents to buy me a signed copy and Stanley was incredibly gracious to my mom and dad and expressed an interest in me writing to her should I ever need advice about writing myself.

I tore through the book in about three days and quickly set about contacting Ms. Stanley to tell her how much I enjoyed the book.  She is a truly wonderful person and was so humble about being praised for her writing.  The two of us correspond every now and then and she is someone who I think is going to be very successful in this business.

OK, onto the review.  City of Dragons opens amidst a Rice Bowl Party celebrating the Chinese New Year.  Miranda, who has been observing the festivities, soon finds herself cradling the wounded body of Eddie Takahashi, a Japanese teenager.  A gunshot wound proves fatal to the young Takahashi and Miranda will be damned if she's going to let the murder go unsolved.  You have to remember that at this time Americans weren't looking too kindly on the immigrants arriving from the Land of the Rising Sun.  San Francisco police would have been all to eager to sweep the murder under the rug.  Unfortunately for them, they have Miranda to deal with.

What made me fall in love with this book is Miranda herself.  Despite a somewhat questionable past, she's a good and moral person who seeks justice and works to break down racial barriers.  She comes across as a hard-boiled individual with a Chesterfield hanging from her lips, rye on her breath, and a pistol in her purse.  But you can't help but be mesmerized by her.  Stanley creates such a vivid character in Miranda that I found myself thinking about her even when I wasn't reading the book.

Not only is Stanley a terrific writer in terms of character development, the language of City of Dragons is every bit as beautiful as Miranda herself.  The prose are poetic and the careful attention to detail sends me back into a world I will never know...but would give anything to experience.

Anyone interested in detective novels, the 1940s, or sexy redheads with guns should pick up a copy of City of Dragons.  The book has been successful enough that Stanley recently finished writing a sequel.  A prequel to City of Dragons titled Children's Day can be found in the book First Thrills which features a number of short stories by mystery writers.  In addition, Stanley has another novel, Nox Dormienda, which will be getting its own sequel in February of next year.  The books are set in London 83 A.D. and have been dubbed as "Roman Noir" novels.  The unusual eras Stanely writes about not only speak to her creativity but also to her intelligence.

Well, that's all for now.  Be sure to check out City of Dragons and have the makings for a Singapore Sling on hand when you do.  I know I'm looking forward to more adventures with Miranda in San Francisco 1940.

The Blog Post Jitters

So how do you write a blog that's unique, engaging, funny, and informative when there are so many millions of blogs out there in the internet Bermuda Triangle?  I'm not sure you can.  Fortunately for you that's not going to stop me from rambling on about my own thoughts and musings regarding books, writing, and the literary world at large.

Now why write a blog about books?  Does anyone even read anymore?  Of course.  It might not always be a traditional hard-bound book, but any reading is good.  Although I do go into full book-collector-snob mode when I see someone with a Kindle.  I'm trying not to do that though.

I can remember the Midwest summers of my childhood reading under the covers with a flashlight.  I really did this more for theatricality than anything else.  I'm sure my mom would have encouraged my nocturnal reading sessions since she has been pushing books on me my entire life.  A good book, glasses, and a book light are to her what a spoon, lighter, and meth are to an addict.  Hey, I just used a simile!  That college education really did pay off.  Anyway, my mom made me love books.  I remember learning the alphabet (or at least part of it) by reading the spines of Sue Grafton's "alphabet mysteries."  Doesn't everyone?

Now, I actually read what's inside Sue Grafton's books along with dozens of other writers.  I hope to do weekly reviews of some of my favorite books along with giving some background info about their creators.  My ramblings will probably veer off in a hundred different directions like some ill-fated Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but I'll try to keep my thoughts on track.  So here's to me writing something worth reading and hoping you'll enjoy it too.