Thursday, August 23, 2012

"The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

Entertainment Weekly made this book sound poignant and intriguing, so I got it from the library.  They were right, but it seems I'm not at all in the mood for poignant these days.  Remember how This Side of Paradise depressed me?  So did The Age of Miracles.  Not as much, but it still planted a big cloud of gloom over my head for the few days it took me to read it.  If that sounds like a non-recommendation, it's not -- this book is original and lovely, it just was not at all what I wanted (or needed) to be reading right now.  Back before it took a lot of prayer, coffee, and chocolate to get me through the day in a cheerful fashion, I bet I'd have liked this book a lot more.

The Age of Miracles begins on the day that middle-schooler Julia and her parents learn, along with the rest of the world, that the earth's rotation is slowing down.  Known as The Slowing, this phenomenon at first doesn't seem to change things much -- days are a few minutes longer, at first.  Before long, though, those extra minutes are extra hours.  The government decides to stick with a twenty-four hour day, so that everyone can be on the same page about when things like school and work should happen.  Only not everyone likes that idea -- the "real timers" follow the sun's schedule instead, staying awake during the daylight and sleeping in the dark, even though those days stretch longer and longer.

In the midst of all the global upheaval, Julia is also experiencing the ordinary upheaval of adolescence.  She likes a boy.  She doesn't understand her parents.  She wants to need to wear a bra.  She loses her best friend.  She tries to connect with her grandfather.  Life may be slowing down, but for her it is also speeding up.

Walker juggles the balance between global disruption and personal angst pretty deftly.  Neither one ever seems to be more important than the other.  And her concept of what would happen to the world feels very real -- animals and plants can't adapt, humans struggle to find solutions to problems like energy and food sources, and people argue and come to blows over changes they can't control.  In fact, the thing that gloomed me out is how real it felt -- I would sometimes look out my window and remind myself that the world wasn't actually slowing down and my life wasn't being disarranged, that was just in the novel.

If you like end-of-the-world-is-near books, or coming-of-age books, you'd probably dig this.  Me, I'm heading for the solace of yet another cheerful murder mystery.  I have three small children -- there's plenty of angst and strife in my real life, and I don't need more, even if it is fictional.

Particularly Good Bits:

Carlotta's long gray hair swung near her waist, a ghost, I suspected, of its younger and sexier self.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

All play and no blogging

All I've posted lately are book reviews.  I'm sorry.  Summer makes me indolent.  I read, I play with the kids, once in a while I watch a movie.  My brain gets stuck in Playtime mode and doesn't want to create coherent sentences any more often than it has to.  I think I'm using up all its creative energy with that Avengers/Combat! crossover I'm writing.

Oh well, I'm sure once The Avengers comes out on DVD fall comes, I'll be my more productive and bloggy self.


Monday, August 20, 2012

"Too Many Cooks" by Rex Stout

I love Nero Wolfe mysteries.  They are never less than a joy to read.  The dialog sparkles, the plots dazzle, the characters-of-the-day amuse, and the regular characters delight.  In other words, precisely what I needed to bring me out of the everything-is-meaningless-and-grasping-for-the-wind funk I was in after This Side of Paradise.

I thought I'd read this one before, as it's in a Nero Wolfe omnibus I found in my parents' basement a couple weeks ago.  Surely I read that omnibus (two novels and a trio of short stories) back when I first discovered Rex Stout?  But I didn't actually remember any of it while reading, so maybe I just never actually cracked this book, always saving it for when I ran out of library books or something?  'Tis a puzzlement.

At any rate, this is a jolly good mystery.  Wolfe is the guest of honor at a meeting of a group of world-renowned chefs at a resort in West Virginia.  Which means he has to not only leave his Manhattan brownstone, he has travel on a train.  Overnight.  Poor Archie Goodwin -- if you've read any of these books or seen the TV series based on them, you know he's not along because he's expecting to have fun.

But they do get to West Virginia with no actual mishaps, and once settled there, of course the murder and mayhem commence.  One of the chefs is killed, and several of the others had expressed their malice toward him before he died, including Wolfe's particular friend Marko Vukcic, whose ex-wife was married to the deceased.  Fortunately, there's a master sleuth and his trusty aide around to sort everything out.

As a bonus, the recipes for a lot of the dishes described in this mystery are included in the back!  I've always wanted to try the dishes Fritz Brenner (Wolfe's resident cook) concocts, and The Nero Wolfe Cookbook is on my Christmas list, but until the day I get that, I might just try out one of the recipes included in this book.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

"This Side of Paradise" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Oh bother.  I'm afraid I didn't like this book very well at all.  Much of the writing was quite brilliant, of course, but it depressed me a great deal.  Not because it's sad, because it's not sad.  I mean, it's not sad like Old Yeller or Doctor Zhivago.  It's just that the character spends his young adulthood wandering around, trying to figure out who he is and what life is all about.  It's pretty well a perfect picture of the whole Lost Generation, which is what it was intended to be, but it got into my head and started making me wonder if I was doing anything with my own life.  And I know that I am doing worthwhile things, such as raising three children, being a loving wife, and even writing something to amuse other people now and then.  But sometimes I feel like I'm just coasting along, and this book really intensified that feeling.  So I'm glad I'm finished with it, and I've picked up a nice, cheerful murder mystery to wash the ennui out.

Particularly Good Bits:

The invitation to Miss Myra St. Claire's bobbing party spent the morning in his coat pocket, where it had an intense physical affair with a dusty piece of peanut brittle.

The great tapestries of trees had darkened to ghosts back at the last edge of twilight.

Friday, August 03, 2012

"Sweet Dreams, Irene" by Jan Burke

My review of Sweet Dreams, Irene is now available here on the Novel Book Ratings blog :-)  It's the second in Jan Burke's series about the mystery-solving newspaperwoman, Irene Kelly.  I liked it better than the first, and am confident the series gets even better as it goes along, mostly since I read one of the later books first, dontchaknow.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

"Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor" by Stephanie Barron

It seems that my blog has had three themes of late:  The Avengers, mysteries, and Jane Austen.  Perhaps I am stuck in a three-rutted road.  At any rate, I have just finished reading, this very evening, a book that combines two of those themes.  Not, I fear, Jane Austen and The Avengers, which, however diverting, would be an unlikely pairing.  No, this book combines Jane Austen and the murder mysteries.  It is, in fact, a mystery starring a fictionalized version of Jane Austen herself.

I know what you're thinking:  Absurd!  Travesty!  Sacrilege!

But it's not.  It is, to be precise, great fun.

Stephanie Barron sets up her story by saying that a family friend was excavating an old building and found a trunk of letters and journals that turned out to have belonged to Jane Austen herself.  (This is very like the way that Laurie R. King sets up her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books, only in them, Russell has sent a trunk full of manuscripts and oddments to King.)  This book, then, is pieced together from journal entries and letters to Austen's family members.  It does involve historical parts of Austen's life, and also a treasure trove of details about life in Austen's time.

The story begins with Jane Austen visiting her friend Isobel, the new Countess of Scargrave, who married Frederick, Lord Scargrave, a scant three weeks previous.  Jane welcomes the opportunity to visit them upon their return from a honeymoon abroad, as she has only recently accepted and then rejected the hand of Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither (honestly his real name, silly as it may seem).  But Lord Scargrave falls ill and dies following a fancy ball thrown in Isobel's honor, and Isobel is suspected of his murder.  Convinced of her friend's innocence, Jane throws all her intelligence and knowledge of humankind into discerning the truth.

The beautiful thing is, Barron has caught the cadence of Austen's writing, her phrasing and word choices, the flavor of her dialog.  At times, one can almost believe this to be based on something Austen herself wrote.  There are some similarities in situation, character, or specific lines of writing that reflect Austen's novels, which to follow this imaginary timeline, would have been published a few years later. 

The author also included a number of footnotes that clarify things such as how the British justice system worked, medical practices of the day, and which characters were actual people in Jane Austen's real life.  These are especially useful for readers like myself, who enjoy Austen's work to no end, but aren't keen on researching life during the British Regency. 

I do have to say that I was occasionally frustrated by the fictional Austen's tendency to rehash a character's motives after already contemplating them earlier on, and a few of the character names (a butler named Cobblestone?) stretched disbelief a bit, but overall, I enjoyed this book.  I definitely want to read more of them -- Barron has written nearly a dozen now.  Find out more on her website, where she has some intriguing thoughts on Austen, mysteries, and the art of writing.

Here is my favorite passage, which made me laugh aloud when I first read it:
"Nay, Isobel," I protested, "do not cause yourself the trouble to search further.  I believe Lieutenant Hearst will amply serve my purpose.  He has good looks and charm without the slightest suggestion of better feeling, and he possesses not a penny he may call his own.  he shall do very well for a portionless clergyman's daughter.  We may expect him to ruin me and then depart for a noble death before Buonaparte's cannon, at which point I shall throw myself in the millpond and be renowned in wine and song.  Has Scargrave a millpond, Isobel?"
See?  Great fun :-)  For those who love both Jane Austen and a good mystery, this is a treat not to be missed.