stuff I read

The Bookman’s Tale

Peter Byerly is in hiding.  Hiding from his grief, from his family, and his friends.  His beloved wife, Amanda, has died and the antiquarian bookseller is holed up in the cottage they had bought and renovated in the English village of Kingham.  One day in Hay-on-Wye Peter enters a secondhand bookshop.  No reason in particular, something just drew him there.  While browsing the shop he finds a Victorian watercolor portrait hidden in the pages of an eighteenth-century book on Shakepearean forgery – it looks exactly like Amanda.  But it can’t be her.  Can’t be.  But Peter steals the portrait anyway and so begins his adventure to unravel the mystery of the portrait.  Which leads him, obliquely, to a mysterious first edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto – a copy annotated by William Shakespeare himself.

Charlie Lovett has created a novel with three converging storylines: Peter’s slow return to life after the death of his wife, the story of Peter and Amanda’s relationship, and the provenance of the Pandosto.  Peter and Amanda’s story serves to explain why the well of Peter’s grief is so deep and why Peter chose the world of antiquarian bookselling.  The Pandosto storyline serves to tease the reader as Peter goes about tracking down its provenance – the reader knows the volume is authentic but the contemporary characters must find the evidence to prove it so.  Nothing is given away too early.

The details in this book are lovely.  In making Peter an antiquarian bookseller Lovett was able to draw on his own experiences in the trade.  The feel of the paper, the quiet of Special Collections, the meticulous detail required to rebind a title (Lovett acknowledges a book by one of my ASMs, Annie, regarding the details).  There’s even a mini-education regarding the competing Shakespeare theories (Stratfordian vs Oxfordian vs Baconian) and book forgery; for those already in the know it’s not too much information to be boring but just enough to fill in the gaps for those needing it.  If you want to read more about antiquarian book collecting, or bibliophilia/bibliomania, or libraries I recommend anything by Nicholas Basbanes

The main driving point in this book is the search for a Holy Grail – a single definitive primary document that will clear up a historical mystery for ever.  For the academic or antiquarian who makes such a find – an authentic find – a career becomes legendary; fail to identify a fake and infamy results.  A find like the Pandosto volume created for this novel is one such Grail.  Books have taken on the literary Grail subject before and I’ve read quite a few (it’s sort of a favorite subgenre).  Jasper Fforde sends up the genre with a Cardenio manuscript stolen from the Great Library within the book world in Lost in a Good BookThe Thirteenth Tale and Possession are both excellent dramatic novels where mystery and obsession swirls around the discovery of such documents and their relationship to those who seek them.  The Bookman’s Tale is very similar to these because not only is the Grail physical for Peter in the form of the Pandosto it is also, at the same time, ephemeral: Amanda was his Grail and she is now lost to him.

The Bookman’s Tale is a Barnes and Noble Recommends pick for Summer 2013.  It’s an excellent novel to read and while away steamy summer days under shady trees.

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

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Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Once Upon a Tower (Fairy Tales #5)

Summary from Goodreads:

To win her love…

As an extremely wealthy laird, Gowan Stoughton, Duke of Kinross, can have any of the maidens at the ball he attends. The only problem is they are all English and Gowan is not so certain they are suitable. He is accustomed to the hard-working lasses from his Highlands, not these dainty noblewomen who spend their days drinking tea or some other such nonsense. But then he makes the acquaintance of Lady Edith Gilchrist. Utterly bewitched by the emerald-eyed beauty with lush golden locks, he knows he must have her.

He must free her from her tower…

“Edie” had the misfortune of being dreadfully ill at her debut ball and barely remembers what Gowan looks like. Even worse, she accepted his proposal the following day. Edie’s only true passion is playing music—until Gowan writes a scandalous letter and stirs the most irresistible desire. Yet when they marry, Edie realizes her husband needs a lesson and locks herself in a tower. Somehow Gowan must find a way to enter the tower and convince his new bride that she belongs in his arms.

Gowan Stoughton was raised by his no-nonsense, straight-laced grandmother and a castle full of servants. He does nothing that is not considered, measured, and controlled. He is only in London on business. He respects the Earl of Gilchrist, who holds a position in the Bank of England similar to Gowan’s in the Bank of Scotland, otherwise Gowan would have avoided a debutante’s come-out ball like the plague. But it’s Gilcrhist’s daughter, so Gowan arrives to do his social duty….

…And immediately loses his heart to the quiet, angelic beauty. Or his mind, surely, because he’s never made such a rash decision in his life – he appears at Gilchrist’s house the next morning to scoop all the other bucks, bloods, and wife-seekers to make Lady Edith his wife. She will be perfect – quiet, docile, pretty, and able to fit into his life without much change on Gowan’s part. The Earl of Gilchrist is, of course, delighted to consent to Gowan’s offer. Lady Edith meekly accepts as well. Though in the privacy of her room Edie panics about as much as a person who feels like death can panic. She has the influenza and such a high fever that she’s barely going through the motions – she doesn’t know Gowan, his likes, his dislikes, whether he likes her…. Does he even know she plays the cello? Once Edie has recovered from her illness she pens a letter to her betrothed outlining her…expectations, shall we say, about her forthcoming marriage.

Thus, Once Upon a Tower takes off at top speed. Gowan is a bit taken aback by Edie’s letter and pens one of his own in return. Edie demands much more of Gowan’s time than he expected. She practices the cello – a lot – which brings music into Gowan’s life, an element he had never previously experienced. Gowan has a much younger half-sister, a relation Edie was not expecting. And, well, their marital relations don’t progress smoothly – Edie is a master of conflict-avoidance leading to the blowout of all blowouts. Gowan storms out of the castle and Edie mews herself up in the castle tower.

Eloisa James has added another gem to her sparkling Fairy Tales series – this time a mash-up of Rapunzel and Romeo and Juliet. The details of the story are wonderful. Edie plays “Dona Nobis Pacem” for her step-mother Layla when she’s upset over her crumbling marriage. Layla, in turn, is a fully fleshed-out character with her own dreams and foibles rather than a stock step-mother figure. The characters make a delightful visit to the wedding of Marcus and Honoria from Julia Quinn’s Smythe-Smith series (if you haven’t met JQ’s tone-deaf Smythe-Smiths definitely catch up with Just Like Heaven and A Night Like This before The Sum of All Kisses drops in November). Gowan is allowed to make a massive mistake but, unlike James from The Ugly Duchess, he comes to his senses in a few weeks rather than seven years both wiser and humbler. Edie and Gowan’s reunion scene is one of the best James has ever written, on a par with Eleanor and Villiers from A Duke of Her Own, and brings two very stubborn, independent only children to trust and confide in each other. Very swoon-and-two-Kleenex worthy.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)

Summary from Goodreads:

What’s a duke to do, when the girl who’s perfectly wrong becomes the woman he can’t live without?

Griffin York, the Duke of Halford, has no desire to wed this season–or any season–but his diabolical mother abducts him to “Spinster Cove” and insists he select a bride from the ladies in residence. Griff decides to teach her a lesson that will end the marriage debate forever. He chooses the serving girl.

Overworked and struggling, Pauline Simms doesn’t dream about dukes. All she wants is to hang up her barmaid apron and open a bookshop. That dream becomes a possibility when an arrogant, sinfully attractive duke offers her a small fortune for a week’s employment. Her duties are simple: submit to his mother’s “duchess training”…and fail miserably.

But in London, Pauline isn’t a miserable failure. She’s a brave, quick-witted, beguiling failure–a woman who ignites Griff’s desire and soothes the darkness in his soul. Keeping Pauline by his side won’t be easy. Even if Society could accept a serving girl duchess–can a roguish duke convince a serving girl to trust him with her heart?

The Duke of Halford is having a bad year. Only he knows how terrible. And it’s about to get worse – his mother, desperate for grandchildren, has kidnapped him for the express purpose finding him a wife. Griffin wakes, hungover, as the ducal carriage arrives in the bachelor aristocrat’s personal Purgatory – Spindle Cove, home of wallflowers, bluestockings, and spinsters. The Dowager Duchess drags Griff into the Bull and Blossom and commands him to choose: which ever young lady he picks, she will mold into the Duchess of Halford. Just then Pauline – the outspoken, whirlwind barmaid – scurries into the room. She’s late for her shift, rumpled, and covered in something sparkly (she had a bit of an “accident” with a bin of sugar). And she has a dreadful accent (from the ton perspective). She’s perfect – perfectly able to scuttle his mother’s plans. Griff chooses Pauline.

“Her. I’ll take her.”

Any other young woman of the marriage-and-security seeking variety would have fallen all over herself in gratitude. Not Pauline. Practical, sturdy Pauline thinks Griff is absolutely cracked. She can’t go off and be a duchess. She’s a servant and not the best at that, besides which she has dreams. A dream to get her and her mentally challenged sister Daniela out of their father’s hovel for good. Pauline is saving money to open a circulating library. So Griff makes Pauline a deal: if she will come to London for a week and be the worst duchess candidate in history he will give her one thousand pounds, more than enough to stock her circulating library. Pauline agrees. Griffin’s mother is not to be underestimated. She takes Pauline into her confidence: she needs grandchildren, and quickly, before she knits herself to death. Pauline finds herself caught between two wounded, lonely people and she doesn’t know if she can keep either bargain.

When we first met Griff he was presiding over the orgy masquerading as a house party at Winterset Grange – the house party Colin and Minerva come across on their way to Scotland in A Week to be Wicked. The dissolute duke from that scene is no longer interested in shocking the ton. He just wants to ignore Society and shuffle off this mortal coil as the terminus of his illustrious family line. His heart is broken – his secret to keep forever – and it is Pauline who, despite her attempts at failing duchess training, becomes the duchess of his dreams.

Pauline creates her own fairy tale. Although she wears pretty gowns, learns the ins-and-outs of Society, and upgrades her accent underneath it all she’s still outspoken, independent Pauline from Spindle Cove who wants to own her own life. And that’s what draws Griff back to her.

Tessa Dare continues her witty, wicked Spindle Cove series in grand style, a Cinderella story for those hot summer nights. The story is stuffed with the witty trademark Dare writing we expect from the Spindle Cove series. Readers who have watched My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman, and Miss Congeniality will appreciate those influences on key scenes. There is knitting (the Dowager Duchess is a compulsive, though inexpert, knitter). And a trip to a bookshop (Griff fills Pauline in on the type of books people really want to read). And someone gets called a trilobite (you can guess who provides that sobriquet)!

mini-review · reflection · stuff I read

This is Water/Make Good Art

Summary from Goodreads:
Only once did David Foster Wallace give a public talk on his views on life, during a commencement address given in 2005 at Kenyon College. The speech is reprinted for the first time in book form in THIS IS WATER. How does one keep from going through their comfortable, prosperous adult life unconsciously? How do we get ourselves out of the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion? The speech captures Wallace’s electric intellect as well as his grace in attention to others. After his death, it became a treasured piece of writing reprinted in The Wall Street Journal and the London Times, commented on endlessly in blogs, and emailed from friend to friend.  Writing with his one-of-a-kind blend of causal humor, exacting intellect, and practical philosophy, David Foster Wallace probes the challenges of daily living and offers advice that renews us with every reading.

This is a very interesting speech and DFW brings up a number of things to think about. Unfortunately, it’s terribly sad knowing now that DFW took his life a few years after giving this speech. It makes some anecdotes and thoughts in This is Water very eerie.

Summary from Goodreads:
In May 2012, bestselling author Neil Gaiman stood at a podium at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts to deliver the commencement address. For the next nineteen minutes he shared his thoughts about creativity, bravery, and strength: he encouraged the students before him to break rules and think outside the box. Most of all, he encouraged the fledgling painters, musicians, writers, and dreamers to make good art.  This book, designed by renowned graphic artist Chip Kidd, contains the full text of Gaiman’s inspiring speech. Whether bestowed upon a young artist beginning his or her creative journey, or given as a token of gratitude to an admired mentor, or acquired as a gift to oneself, this volume is a fitting offering for anyone who strives to make good art.

In contrast, Gaiman’s speech is on a serious subject, but it gives a wonderful uplift.  Granted, this is for an arts college commencement – hence the emphasis on “good art” – but the message can be applied to almost any profession.  Choose what you like, and be passionate about it so your outcome is good and worthy of your effort (a way better commencement address than any I had to sit through).  The layout provided by Chip Kidd is a fabulous addition to Gaiman’s words (for those of us who have heard Neil read, you can hear his voice in your head). Definitely a book to own in hard copy.
 

'Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season: As the school year winds down…

The end of the school year (both K-12 and college) brings a flurry of odd bookstore encounters.

Two high schoolers (likely boyfriend/girlfriend) are looking around the history section with that utterly lost look on their faces.
Me:  Can I help you find something?
Girl:  Well…we need to read 1984 but it’s not here. (Waves at US History)
(Oh honey, no….)

Two teachers are wandering around in the fiction section.
Male teacher:  Do you have any Faulkner?
Me: Yes we do – which book are you looking for?
Female teacher:  Oh, any are fine.
(I showed them the shelf of Faulkner, they made appreciative noises, and I left them to browse.  About 15 minutes later, they come find me.)
Female teacher:  Do you have any shorter Faulkner?
Me (shorter?):  Are you looking for short stories?
Female teacher:  Not really.  These are pretty dense.  (Shows me Absalom, Absalom, As I Lay Dying, and The Sound and the Fury)  We were hoping for something like this but shorter.
Me: Well…I don’t see any abridgements available in the catalogue.  There are literature guides like Sparknotes.
Male teacher: Oh, those will work.  We just need it for Contest Speech.
(I’ve never come across a kid who did Faulkner for Contest Speech – I can’t decide if that would be interesting or just plain nuts)

Parent with an armload of AP biology and calculus study guides: Are these books guaranteed?  The tests are next week and my son needs a 5.
(Unless the courses and exams have changed greatly since 1996, which I doubt, the result is more dependent on whether one paid attention in class all year rather than the cram session but, no, a study guide is not a guarantee of a perfect score.)

Customer (college-aged male): You don’t have any copies of Paradise Lost.
Me (finding this very hard to believe because I saw some not long ago): Well, let’s go look on the shelves in poetry.
Customer: Poetry?? But I don’t want to read a poem.
Me: Here it is, under Milton in poetry.
Customer: Do you have one that isn’t a poem?
Me: No. Milton wrote a poem about the fall of Satan.
Customer: Do you have it in English?
(Give up while you’re ahead, big guy)

Very pleasant college student on the phone:  Do you have a copy of Ulysses?
Me: We do, do you need a particular edition?
(She needs the Knopf with the 1961 text, which we had on hand)
Student: Great! I’ll be in to pick it up tonight.  Will it take long to read?  I have to have my paper done by the end of finals.
(Finals were about 10 days away when she called.  Um….)

Most often-heard response to the statement “Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy in the store but I can get one in about a week”:
“But I need it tomorrow!”
(And then when I mention things like libraries and ebooks I get a withering look in return)

I also have a more generalized comment about Lexile scores, but will save that for a different post.

mini-review · stuff I read · YA all the way

Eleanor and Park

Summary from Goodreads:
Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.

Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.

Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises…Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Those of us who lived through high school know that the “cool” kids are also often the most cruel.  Reading Eleanor and Park brought all that back to me.  How the girls are really mean to Eleanor because she’s a big girl, with wild red hair, and pretty much no money (of the three, in the suburban eighties probably the money thing is going to be the worst).  How the teachers really didn’t do anything to help Eleanor (I was lucky in that teachers intervened when I was teased but no one is willing to help Eleanor here).  Her homelife is terrible (one of my Goodreads status updates mentions that I want to light her stepdad on fire – in retrospect, I might push her mom into the blaze, too).  Park is on the margin, too – he’s half-Korean and the kids make no bones about slurs even if he is “accepted” within the school population.  As much as he doesn’t want to jeopardize his tenuous standing, there’s just something about Eleanor.  One of my favorite lines mentions that he thinks she looks like art, and art isn’t neat, it’s beautiful and messy.

Being set in 1986 there were some cultural brand drops that caught my eye – anyone remember Esprit bags? – and oh, the hunt for Walkman batteries.  I do wonder why Rowell chose to set the book in the eighties (which, considering the current YA population is starting to have birthdates firmly in the 21st century, puts the book into a historical fiction category – wow, did that just make me feel old) but Eleanor and Park’s story is one that works when put into any cultural context.

BNBC · mini-review · stuff I read

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Summary from Goodreads:
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle–and people in general–has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence–creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

I read this with my Literature by Women group.  A weird and crazy-snarky novel.  I really liked the construction of Bernadette’s life and how she feels completely out-of-place in the private school world, caught between high art principles and suburban mom-hood.  Great use of the supporting “documents” and the structure of the book (also: totally a warning about using one of those “assistant” services on the web, yikes!!). Loved the section headings (Runaway Bunny!). Bee was an excellent protagonist.

But I feel that halfway through the book the author didn’t quite know how to get out of her plot situation so the ending felt half-baked and a wuss-out.  Some of the secondary characters felt very cliched; not sure if that’s because most of the book is told from the viewpoints of Bee and Bernadette or if the author just didn’t flesh them out.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Ideal Bride (Cynster #11)/The Truth About Love (Cynster #12)

Onward and upward with the Cynsters!  There are so many, which is both a pro and a con.  We’ve gotten out of the Cynster family proper and moved to the brothers and sisters of the heroes and heroines of the first books.

Summary from Goodreads:
Michael Anstruther-Wetherby is a rising member of Parliament—a man destined for power. Aristocratic, elegant, and effortlessly charming, he is just arrogant enough to capture the interest of the ladies of the ton. And with his connections to the wealthy and influential Cynster family—his sister is married to Devil Cynster, the Duke of St. Ives—his future appears assured.  Except that Michael lacks the single most important element of success: a wife.  Political pressure sends him searching for his ideal bride, a gently bred, malleable young lady, preferably one with a political background. Michael discovers such a paragon but finds a formidable obstacle in his path—the young lady’s beautiful, strong-minded aunt—Caroline Sutcliffe.

One of London’s foremost diplomatic hostesses, Caro has style and status but, having lived through an unhappy political marriage, wants nothing of the sort for her niece, who has already lost her heart to another.  So Caro and the younger woman hatch a plot—Caro will demonstrate why an inexperienced young lady is not the bride for Michael. She succeeds in convincing him that what he really needs is a lady of experience by his side.  And the perfect candidate is right under his nose—Caro herself. Then it is Michael’s turn to be persuasive, a task that requires every ounce of his seductive charm as he tempts and tantalizes Caro, seeking to convince her that becoming his bride will bring her all her heart desires . . . and more.

But then a series of mysterious, and dangerous, accidents befall Caro—an assailant has stepped in with their own idea for Caro’s future—one that could involve murder. Before Caro can become Michael’s ideal bride, they must race to uncover the unknown’s identity before all hope of what they long for, and wish for, is destroyed.

The first to fall is Honoria’s brother, Michael, a career politician.  Of all the Laurens heroes I’ve read, Michael is actually the least compelling.  He’s OK, but not terribly memorable.  Caro is quite fun, except she’s the unfortunate recipient of my least favorite romance trope: the virgin widow.  And the reasons given for such a state really don’t add up to much of an excuse for using such a trope, in my opinion.  The mystery plot is possibly tipped too early but the set-up for the denouement was quite good.  It also explains quite a bit about Breckenridge who reappears in the Cynster Sisters Trilogy much later.

Summary from Goodreads:
Gerrard Debbington, Vane Cynster’s brother-in-law, is one of London’s most eligible gentlemen. Uninterested in marriage, his driving passion is to paint the fabled gardens of Lord Tregonning’s Hellebore Hall — an opportunity that is now at hand…if Gerrard agrees to create an honest portrait of Tregonning’s daughter as well. Gerrard chafes at wasting his talents on some simpering miss, only to discover that Jacqueline Tregonning stirs him as no other. Certainly, she is beautiful, but it is her passionate nature that strikes sparks with Gerrard’s own, igniting desire and sweeping them into each other’s arms, convincing Gerrard that he has found his ideal soul mate — the lady he must have as his wife. But something is horribly wrong at Hellebore Hall. Evil and lies are reaching out to ensnare Jacqueline — and Gerrard will have to move Heaven and Earth to protect the remarkable woman who, for him, personifies the truth about love…

Moving directly on to Gerrard Debbington, who was a fun side character in the second Cynster novel, we find him off to paint the amazing gardens at Hellebore Hall.  Laurens get a boost of many cool points for the creation of Hellebore House and its gardens. Very evocative and suitable for a romance novel – it even throws a little older Gothic feeling into the action.  I had a little trouble with Jacqueline’s characterization; it’s frequently mentioned that she is working on some very intricate embroidery but she is never actually seen to be sewing or have any finished pieces.

This may have the ooky-est plot resolution I’ve come across in a romance novel. I’m not sure how common that plot element is. Interesting.