Mini-reviews: Duke, Christmas, Memorial

Duke in Shining ArmorLoretta Chase, A Duke in Shining Armor

This book is the first in a series starring a trio of dukes known as Their Dis-Graces. Ripley, Ashmont, and Blackwood have been friends since childhood, and together they’ve drunk, gambled, and whored their way through London society. Now Ashmont is getting married, but the bride — bookish, practical Olympia Hightower — is having second thoughts. When she runs away on the wedding day, it’s up to best man Ripley to track her down and return her to Ashmont. The trouble is, the more time Ripley spends with Olympia, the more he wants her for himself. I really enjoy Loretta Chase’s writing, especially her humor, but this book was not the right book for me. I really don’t like the “reformed rake” trope, and Ripley is such a stereotypical alpha-male hero. (That said, the humor makes him somewhat more bearable.) But I’ll still be reading more Loretta Chase, and perhaps even more in this series…Blackwood’s marital difficulties, a tiny side plot in this book, sound intriguing!

A Lot Like ChristmasConnie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas

This collection of Christmas-themed short stories with a speculative-fiction twist is a revised and expanded edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. I still stand by my review of that book, but here are my comments on the new stories:

  • “All about Emily” — A sly take on the movie All about Eve featuring an aging Broadway actress and a robot who wants to be a Rockette. A fun one for fans of musicals and old movies.
  • “All Seated on the Ground” — The aliens have arrived, but no one can figure out what they want. The clue may reside in a Christmas carol, so protagonist Meg teams up with choir director Calvin to solve the mystery. A lovely and romantic meditation on “peace on earth.”
  • “deck.halls@boughs/holly” — I liked this funny rom-com about the effects of technology, especially the internet, on Christmas. It’s futuristic and over the top, of course, but the story does a great job of presenting different views on the issue — with a charming romance thrown in!
  • “Now Showing” — Lindsay really wants to see a particular movie, but she keeps being thwarted by circumstance. It seems like the universe is conspiring against her . . . and according to her ex-boyfriend Jack, that’s exactly what is happening. I really liked this playful homage to romantic-suspense-adventure movies such as How to Steal a Million, French Kiss, and Romancing the Stone.
  • “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” — Thanks to climate change (or a “discontinuity,” or Armageddon, or . . . ?), places all over the world are having a white Christmas. Places like Los Angeles, and Honolulu, and Jerusalem. The story follows various characters as they deal with the unexpected snowstorm and try to figure out what’s causing it. I thought there were maybe a few too many characters in this one, and at least one storyline was never satisfactorily resolved.

All in all, I’m glad I purchased this one, even though I already own Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. But if you don’t have either book, definitely go with A Lot Like Christmas instead!

Memorial Hall MurderJane Langton, The Memorial Hall Murder

This is the third book in the Homer Kelly mystery series, but it can definitely be read as a stand-alone. The book begins with an explosion that destroys part of Memorial Hall on the campus of Harvard University. A headless body is found in the rubble, and it is soon identified as the corpse of Hamilton Dow, an extremely popular music professor. Homer Kelly, who used to work at the district attorney’s office, happens to be on the scene and decides to investigate. As a mystery, the book is nothing to write home about; the reader is given a lot of information early on, and the perpetrator’s identity isn’t hard to discover. I kept thinking there would be a plot twist to point the finger in a new direction, but it never came. However, the book is fun to read for its playful satire of university life and its prominent featuring of Handel’s Messiah. All in all, I’d consider reading more books in this series.

Mini-Reviews: Lady, Café, Stranger, Bullet

Lady Molly of Scotland YardCafé by the Sea, The

Baroness Orczy, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard — While Orczy’s best-known work is The Scarlet Pimpernel, she also tried her hand at the mystery genre in a collection of short stories featuring Lady Molly, Scotland Yard’s (fictional) first woman detective. The stories are narrated by Lady Molly’s maid, Mary, who serves as the Watson figure and helps Lady Molly with her investigations. Overall, the stories are pleasant enough, and I liked how Lady Molly’s own history was mysterious until the last couple of stories in the collection. However, I didn’t love the portrayal of Lady Molly as a paragon of every virtue, especially when she engages in several instances of morally dubious behavior, such as telling a suspect (falsely) that her baby is dead. The mysteries themselves are fine but nothing groundbreaking. Overall, the collection is more interesting as a historical artifact than as a set of mystery stories.

Jenny Colgan, The Café by the Sea — I enjoyed this chick lit novel a lot more than I was expecting to! Protagonist Flora is trying to build a career in London, but her latest assignment takes her back to the remote Scottish island of Mure, where she has to mend fences with her estranged father and brothers. I liked watching Flora’s personal growth, and I also enjoyed the (inevitable) romance a lot more than I was expecting to. Plus, the setting is gorgeous and makes me want to visit the Hebrides! Definitely worth reading if you enjoy the genre, and I’ll be trying more by Colgan.

Stranger from the Sea, TheBullet in the Ballet, A

Winston Graham, The Stranger from the Sea — More fun and games with the Poldark clan, set 10 years after the events of The Angry Tide. The eponymous stranger from the sea is Stephen Carrington, a confident young man who befriends Jeremy and fascinates Clowance. But what secrets is he hiding? I liked this book a lot and found the time jump refreshing — now that the children are grown up, there are even more characters to follow and care about. Not a fan of Stephen, though, and I hope he’s not around for good.

Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, A Bullet in the Ballet — A delightfully absurd Golden Age mystery in which a fairly conventional police inspector must solve a murder that occurs within the madcap Stroganoff Ballet. I really enjoyed the various ballet characters with their artistic temperaments. The murderer’s motive is pretty nonsensical, but this one should definitely be read for the humor rather than for the mystery plot.

Mini-Reviews #8: Losing steam

The last few months of the year always seem to fly by — I can’t believe it’s the middle of November already! Much as I love Christmas and all the hoopla leading up to it, I’m feeling a little burned out this year. I’m behind on reviews again, and I don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about catching up. So it’s back to mini-reviews for the time being, and I think I’m going to stick with this format until the end of 2016. Hopefully I’ll be ready to come back in January with renewed enthusiasm! In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the books I’ve read recently:

most-beautiful-book-in-the-world-thenevernight

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, The Most Beautiful Book in the World (trans. Alison Anderson) — This collection of eight “novellas”/short stories is an interesting meditation on womanhood and the passage of time. Most of the stories have a melancholic aspect, as the (almost always) female protagonists cope with issues like aging, infidelity, illness, and just plain unhappiness. All the same, I enjoyed these stories, particularly “Odette Toulemonde,” which is probably the most uplifting in the bunch. The only one that stood out to me in a negative way was “Intruder,” which has a gimmicky ending. Definitely worth reading if the description sounds interesting to you!

Jay Kristoff, Nevernight — I saw a lot of buzz about this book when it came out, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to the hype for me. The story is about Mia Corvere, a young woman seeking revenge after the political murder of her father and subsequent destruction of her family. She decides to seek out the Red Church, essentially a school for assassins, in order to pursue her revenge. Sounds pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, I could not deal with the writing style, which was completely overblown and trying way too hard to be impressive. I realize this is a very subjective criticism, and other readers may love the style, but it was emphatically not for me.

beginning-with-a-bashp-s-i-like-you

Alice Tilton, Beginning with a Bash — What a fun Golden Age mystery! This is the first book in the Leonidas Witherall series, in which our detective has to solve a murder that occurred in a used bookstore before an innocent man takes the blame. Along the way, Leonidas — who is almost always called Bill Shakespeare because of his resemblance to the Bard — reconnects with an old flame and becomes embroiled in a feud between two notorious gangs. It’s really more of an adventure story than a mystery; the whodunit takes a backseat to the car chases, secret passageways, and assorted goings-on. There’s also some delightful vintage banter, which makes me mad that there’s no film version starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I’ll definitely be continuing with this series, and thankfully I already own the next book, The Cut Direct!

Kasie West, P.S. I Like You — “You’ve Got Mail” is one of my favorite movies, so I was excited to read this YA contemporary romance with a similar plot. One day while spacing out in chemistry class, Lily absentmindedly scribbles a lyric from her favorite indie song onto her desk. The next day, she discovers that someone has continued the lyric, and before she knows it, she and her unknown correspondent are trading notes about music and a whole lot more. But when Lily discovers the identity of her pen pal, it’s the last person she would ever expect. I really enjoyed this book, despite its utter predictability and Lily’s annoying inability to see what’s right in front of her. It’s an adorable, light romance, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

Review: Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

Miracle and Other Christmas StoriesConnie Willis, Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

This collection of holiday-themed short stories is, in essence, Connie Willis’ love letter to Christmas. In the introduction she professes her great love for all aspects of the season, and that love is very evident in the eight stories collected here. In “Miracle,” a young woman discovers her heart’s true desire with the help of “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the Spirit of Christmas Present. In “Newsletter,” a woman notices that everyone around her is suddenly acting kind and polite. Is it because of the Christmas spirit, or something more sinister? (Hint: the latter.) And in my personal favorite story, “Inn,” an alto in the church choir lets a homeless couple into the church, only to discover that it’s Mary and Joseph, lost in space and time on their way to Bethlehem. The genres in this collection range from romantic comedy to murder mystery, but each story deals with expectations that are turned upside-down, unexplained mysteries, and more than a few miracles.

I’m a big fan of Connie Willis, so I had high expectations for this collection, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how much I loved these stories. I knew I was in for a fun ride when Willis contended that “Miracle on 34th Street” is the best Christmas movie ever made, in defiance of the many lovers of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I also loved the speculative edge to these stories, which really emphasized the wonder of Christmas to me. I mentioned that “Inn” is my favorite story in the bunch, and it’s because Willis managed to re-present the first Christmas story in a new way. It’s easy for that story to become familiar, comfortable, and even dull; but “Inn” reminded me that it’s actually a shocking tale in many ways. My one quibble with the collection is that Willis claimed all her stories would have happy endings, but at least two of them (“In Coppelius’s Toyshop” and “Cat’s Paw”) are quite dark! Nevertheless, I loved this book and think it’s a perfect December read!

Review: My True Love Gave to Me

My True Love Gave to MeStephanie Perkins, ed., My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories

This anthology of holiday romances contains stories from some of the biggest names in YA right now, including Rainbow Rowell, Kelly Link, Jenny Han, David Levithan, and editrix Stephanie Perkins. All twelve stories involve a romance and a winter holiday, but each one is different. There are Christmas stories and Chanukah stories, real-life settings and fantasy worlds, characters who find love and characters who find themselves. Rainbow Rowell’s “Midnights” tracks the friendship of Mags and Noel over the course of several New Year’s Eves, until the night their relationship changes forever. Jenny Han’s “Polaris Is Where You’ll Find Me” is narrated by the only human who lives at the North Pole. Myra McEntire’s “Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” involves a bad boy, a preacher’s daughter, and a Christmas pageant gone horribly awry. The variety of stories in this collection guarantees that any lover of the winter holidays will find something in it to enjoy.

Short story collections are usually hit-or-miss for me, but because of the impressive list of contributors to this book, I was hoping for more “hits” than I got. I would say I quite liked about half the stories, with Rowell’s “Midnights” being my favorite by far. By spreading the story over several years, I really got a sense of the depth of Mags and Noel’s relationship, and the climactic scene was pitch-perfect. By contrast, I felt like a lot of the stories actually needed to be full novels in order to make a real impact. For example, “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor had lovely writing and an interesting world, but because the story is so short, there wasn’t really enough room to develop that world. I was also underwhelmed by Stephanie Perkins’ story, which surprised me because I love her novels! But again, I think the issue is that she didn’t really have enough space to develop her characters and make me care about them. As I said, I did like about half the stories, and I’ll be checking out more work by some of these authors (Kelly Link and Kiersten White in particular), but this is not a must-read collection.

Review: One More Thing

One More Thing-Stories and Other StoriesB.J. Novak, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

In this collection of (very) short stories, B.J. Novak — formerly a writer, producer, and actor on the US version of “The Office” — uses his comedic imagination to ask a variety of hypothetical questions. What if the hare who lost the fabled race to the tortoise became obsessed with thoughts of a rematch? What if the handsome man you met in a bar turned out to be a brutally violent African warlord? What if you could literally hold a mirror up to Earth? And what if Chris Hansen, of “To Catch a Predator” fame, were forced to go to a Justin Bieber concert at the insistence of his tween daughter? Novak answers these questions and many more in his debut collection of funny, dark, ridiculous, and often poignant stories.

The first thing to say about these stories is that most of them are very short, some no more than a page or two. So most of the stories don’t have time to delve deeply into plot or character; rather, they focus sharply on a single joke or idea (see, for example, “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela” or “The Market Was Down”). In that sense, it’s easy to see the influence of Novak’s TV background. However, even if you aren’t a fan of “The Office” or its style of comedy, you should still find plenty to enjoy in this book! I was very impressed by how smart Novak obviously is; clever wordplay and literary allusions abound. Several of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, but the comedy is often followed by a swift stab to the gut. One story in particular, “The Ghost of Mark Twain,” gave me chills. Overall, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this book, but I was very pleasantly surprised!

I was fortunate to be able to attend a book signing with Novak at which he read a few of the stories out loud. Having heard the stories in his own voice, I would strongly recommend the audiobook to those of you who enjoy that format. Apparently Novak reads many of the stories himself, although there are some “special guest appearances” by other actors such as Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham.

Review: By Love Possessed

By Love PossessedLorna Goodison, By Love Possessed: Stories

As the title suggests, this collection of short stories is loosely focused on the theme of love, but not just romantic love: there are stories of friendships, parent-child relationships, and love requited and unrequited (mostly the latter). The stories are also pictures of life in Jamaica, chronicling the country’s postcolonial poverty, class warfare, desperation, and ambition. But while the setting is clearly and specifically delineated, the stories in this book also explore universal themes. In “The Helpweight,”a successful woman meets her ex-husband again after he has been in England for many years, but she is shocked when he asks for a favor. In “Shilling,” a teenage girl daydreams about her crush, but when he finally notices her, the reality is far different from her fantasies. And in “The Big Shot,” a man who has worked all his life to escape the grinding poverty of his childhood is suddenly confronted with his past.

I think this is the first book I have ever read by a Caribbean author, so it was an entirely new experience for me. I loved the fact that these stories paint such a vivid picture of life in Jamaica, from the weather to the food to the patterns of speech. Several of the stories are written in dialect, and the characters’ speech patterns vary depending on their level of education. While some of the phrases and spellings were unfamiliar to me, I really felt immersed in the world of these stories. Goodison is also a beautiful writer; she has a talent for conveying a lot of information without ever explicitly saying it. I found the endings of the stories especially impressive because they provide just enough closure without tying everything up too neatly. As with most short story collections, some were better than others, but I can’t think of any that I really disliked. (My favorites are the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph.) I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in Jamaican or Caribbean literature!

Review: The World of Jeeves

World of Jeeves, TheP.G. Wodehouse, The World of Jeeves

This book is an omnibus of short stories describing the adventures of Bertie Wooster, an amiable but dim aristocrat in early 20th-century England, and Jeeves, the consummate gentleman’s gentleman. Bertie is a friendly soul who just wants to be left alone to enjoy himself. Unfortunately, he has plenty of friends and relatives who are continually making demands on him, both financially and emotionally. His terrifying Aunt Agatha holds him in contempt, yet she is constantly trying to “improve” him and set him up with equally terrifying young females. His friend Bingo Little is always falling desperately in love with some girl or other, and for some reason he always approaches Bertie for help. Though Bertie is not overburdened with brains, he has a generous heart and usually wants to help. Good thing he has Jeeves, whose gravity and intelligence always manage to get Bertie and his friends out of whatever scrapes they’re in.

What can I say about Jeeves and Wooster that the entire world hasn’t said already? Wodehouse has a very specific style and brand of humor, and literally nobody does it better than he does. Bertie’s narrative voice is an utter joy to read, showcasing his own lack of intelligence but also satirizing the pretentious language of some popular fiction at the time. Strangely enough, his friends and family all think of him as the village idiot, but he’s probably smarter than most of his friends — definitely wiser than poor Bingo, for example! And the interplay between Bertie and Jeeves is wonderful; Jeeves always appears completely respectful and subservient, yet he dominates Bertie mercilessly (for his own good, of course!). I definitely recommend the story “Bertie Changes His Mind,” which is narrated by Jeeves and demonstrates how skillfully he is able to manipulate his employer. My one caveat is that you should pace yourself while reading this book, because the stories are all very similar and could become tedious after a while. But I loved it and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys British humor and wants a good belly laugh!

Review: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door

Suddenly, a Knock on the DoorEtgar Keret, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (trans. Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, and Nathan Englander)

This collection of short stories is a strange mixture of realism and fantasy, comedy and tragedy. Keret is an Israeli author, and several of his stories reflect the current struggles of that country; one of them begins with a conversation in a restaurant and ends with a suicide bombing. But there is no grand political pronouncement in these stories, and ultimately they’re not about politics. Rather, they depict universal human experiences like sex, friendship, death, love, loneliness, chance, and fate. My favorite story in the collection (“What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?”) starts with politics but ends somewhere else entirely, as a documentarian interviews both Jewish and Arab residents of Israel and meets a man with a magic goldfish. Most of these stories are dark, and many are surreal, but all of them offer a fascinating perspective on the human condition.

I don’t often read short stories, and I’d certainly never read anything by Keret before, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this collection. Keret’s style is very understated and direct, which works well in his fantastical stories especially; it’s as though he’s telling a joke with a completely deadpan expression. I also think the stories as a whole are very well-crafted, with endings that are resonant and satisfying but don’t necessarily tie everything up too neatly. I definitely teared up on more than one occasion! As usual, a few of the stories didn’t quite work for me — the titular story in particular was a bit too clever for its own good — but overall I was very impressed with this collection and plan to read more by Etgar Keret.

Review: The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories

The Wedding of ZeinTayeb Salih, The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories (trans. Denys Johnson-Davies)

This very short book contains two short stories, “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates,” as well as the novella “The Wedding of Zein.” All three works portray everyday life in a Sudanese village, but from varying perspectives. “The Doum Tree…” is about a sacred tree that is threatened when outsiders want to cut it down to make room for a new agricultural system. “A Handful of Dates” portrays a young boy’s disillusionment as he realizes that his grandfather isn’t as heroic as the boy once thought. And in “The Wedding of Zein,” the village laughingstock is about to be married to a beautiful and much-desired woman; the varied reactions of the townspeople to the news reveal subtle tensions within the village.

Before giving my thoughts on this book, I must admit that I know next to nothing about Sudan. I wasn’t even aware that its population spoke Arabic until I saw “translated from the Arabic” somewhere on my copy of the book! So I was very interested in reading these stories and broadening my horizons a little bit. Interestingly, my first impression after reading this book was that it could have been set in any number of places: the  country’s major conflicts of the last several years, including the secession of South Sudan, are not mentioned at all. Yet I did get a sense of the country’s Islamic culture and traditions, as well as its incorporation of progressive ideas in the realms of medicine and education. I found my glimpse into this foreign (to me) culture extremely fascinating. But I really liked the book’s focus on universal themes like love, family relationships, and the intricacies of village life. All in all, I found this book very easy to read and would definitely consider reading more by Tayeb Salih.