Anne Lamott’s Hard Laughter follows narrator Jessica as she deals with her father’s diagnosis with cancer. The novel encompasses, quite beautifully, Jessica’s tumultuous personal life, her struggles to become a writer, and an apartment and psyche that are in various states of disarray.
This book was given to me by a friend who thought I’d like it and my only complaint was that I thought the voice was too wise for a twenty-something narrator. My friend smiled and said, “But Anne Lamott wrote it when she was in her twenties.” I will forever bow down to Anne Lamott. The prose is fantastic and funny and wise beyond its years. It does an impeccable job of examining how a family deals with the tragedy of cancer and the millions of small victories and losses throughout. Everything about this novel felt real, probably because it’s largely based off her own father’s struggle with cancer. It made me wonder about that ever-elusive line between fiction and nonfiction and left me desperately wondering how much–or how little–of herself Lamott left on the page.
There are writers who are special because of the way they see the world and others who are excellent in how they depict it. Anne Lamott is a true talent of both. Enjoy!
Reviewed by: Kim
Title: Hard Laughter
Read: April 2012
Some books just feel timeless. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is one of those books. It could have been written during World War II (the same time period it’s set), although it was published in 2011. The language has a classic, poetic feel and the story is timeless.
Twelve-year old September is bored with her life in Omaha. Her mother works long hours for the war effort, and her father is abroad, serving his country. The Green Wind offers to take September on an adventure, and they head to Fairyland. Luckily September has the tools to save Fairyland.
September is a strong character, and the friends she makes add to the story. She faces real problems and has to find courage within herself. This is a great novel for children and young-at-heart readers who enjoy fairy tales, fantasy, and whimsical writing.
Title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Source: Purchased an e-version
Read: March 2012
Public broadcasting currently shows Midsummer Murders, the long-running British detective show. Based on the books by Caroline Graham, the series is set in the fictional, and rather deadly, county of Midsomer.
The second episode of Midsomer Murders (and the first I saw) was based on the novel Written in Blood. It features DCI Barnaby and quirky cast of potential suspects.
The Midsomer Worthy’s Writer’s Circle invites a yearly speaker, and they usually can’t get anyone famous or successful to attend. So when best-selling author Max Jennings agrees to speak, they’re mostly excited. The circle’s secretary, Gerald Hadleigh, is furious, as he never wanted to invite Jennings in the first place.
When Hadleigh is found dead the morning after Jennings speaks to the writers, Barnaby is called in to investigate. Almost everyone in the group has something to to hide, whether embarrassing or sinister. He has to sift through everyone’s secrets and the past to find the murderer.
The TV version ups the ante a bit, adding in an additional murder. Most of the major subplots are brought to the small screen, although the book goes into most of them in more depth. The show is satisfying, using two one-hour episodes to dig into the lives of the potential suspects. Not surprisingly, the novel goes deeper into the lives of the characters, and the subplot with Sue is especially rewarding in the book.
Both the books and TV show are fun, perfect for fans of mysteries set in the English countryside. Barnaby is a likable character both on-screen and in the books. His family is important in both mediums, although his wife and daughter are less entwined in the mysteries in the novels. His sergeant, Troy, is nicer on-screen, which works well for the viewing public.
In addition to Written in Blood, I read several other novels in the Inspector Barnaby series: The Killings At Badger’s Drift, Faithful Until Death, A Place of Safety, and A Ghost in the Machine. All are solidly written and would make good reads for fans of cozy mysteries.
Title: Written in Blood
Author: Caroline Graham
Source: Public Library
Read: March 2012
Timeless starts up about two years after the end of Heartless. Alexia and her husband are still living in Lord Akeldama’s second-best closet to allow them to participate in their daughter, Prudence’s, upbringing with her adoptive vampire father. Life is normal for everyone, well, as normal as living with a toddler able to steal the magic of others temporary turn into, for example, a toddler vampire or tiny werewolf, can be.
But trouble is brewing, and Alexia is summoned to Alexandria. Why does the most powerful vampire in the world want to see Lady Maccon? And will the Egyptians know how to properly prepare tea?
Timeless brings the Parasol Protectorate series to a satisfying close while leaving enough room in the writing-sandbox for the new YA series involving Prudence. Major plot threads, like Alexia’s father, are resolved. Prudence is a delightful addition to the story, bringing humor to the story. Some of the supporting characters, like Biffy and Floote the Butler, play bigger roles to good effect.
Author: Gail Carriger.
Source: Purchased (E-book)
Read: February 2012
Going into Downton Abbey withdrawals? Here are some books to help you while away the time until season three. Since the miniseries is set at a fictional Yorkshire estate, we’ve chosen novels that feature the same region.
South Riding by Winifred Holtby
Set between World War I and World War II, South Riding follows a cast of characters as they negotiate the Great Depression. The different social background and ideals of ideals of the characters sets up their conflicts, follies, and greatest strengths. The third season of Downton Abbey will most likely coincide with this time period.
Back room land deals, political and moral intrigues, the lives of the struggling, whether they’re landowners brought to the brink of financial ruin by the depression, or working class families struggling to eat, bring this novel to life. Strong characters, like the salty Alderman Mrs. Beddows, passionate headmistress Sarah Burton, and sympathetic landowner Richard Carne might not exactly be Lady Mary, or Anna-the-maid, but they’re easy to like and care for.
We reviewed South Riding on this site, and there was a PBS mini-series as well. Colby’s other novels are being re-released this spring in the United States, and check back here in May for reviews as we’re proud to be part of the blog tour.
The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison
World War II and the evacuation of children from London to a fictional Yorkshire estate create the background for The Very Thought of You. Eight-year old Anna Sands leaves her mother for a good education and careful, but not individual, life on the Ashton estate. Lord Ashton is wheelchair bound due to polio, and his marriage to his high-strung wife is fraying.
The Very Thought of You was nominated for an Orange award, and we reviewed it here.
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
Shirley might not be the most popular Yorkshire-based novel by any of the Bronte sisters, but it’s always held a special place it my heart. I originally read it during the long, dark, Finnish winter and Caroline, her beau Robert, and Shirley have always seemed like friends.
Shirley is an interesting contrast to South Riding, as it is set from 1811-12 during the industrial depression sparked by the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812. Mill owner Robert struggles to run a profitable business, and the workers he lays off react violently. His cousin, Caroline, is a bright spot in his life, and he is everything to her. When a wealthy heiress, Shirley, moves to town, she quickly befriends Caroline and Robert sees Shirley as the answer to his financial woes. Shirley, meanwhile, has her own opinion on the matter of love, responsibility, and how to spend her fortune.
Have other suggestions for novels to read while combating Downton Abbey withdrawal? Please recommend them and we’ll add them to the list!
In 1860, three-year-old Saville Kent disappeared from his nursery. He was found later that day in the bottom of a privy. His throat was cut. His murder horrified the English, and his case was major news for the next few years.
The public vilified various members of the Kent household, becoming armchair detectives willing to announce their opinions in public forums like the newspaper and in personal letters to the police, despite first hand knowledge of the case. (A modern comparison: comments on online news sites.)
There were only eight detectives at Scotland Yard in 1860, and one of the best was sent to investigate Saville’s murder: Inspector Jonathan Whicher. Arriving two weeks after the murder, Whicher played catch-up, looking into the personal lives of the Kent Family, much to the shock of the general public. Working class detectives like Whicher were supposed to honor their betters, not investigate their dirty laundry.
The first mystery novels, such as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, appeared at this time and echo the real life murder of poor little Saville Kent. Kate Summerscale weaves these novels, along with letters by writers such as Charles Dickens, and newspaper accounts, into her narrative.
The impact of Saville’s murder on those around him, such as his nursery-maid, add poignancy and show how an unsolved murder effects the innocent as well as the victim. Lives were damaged if not ruined by this case, including Mr. Whicher’s career. Eventually someone confesses, vindicating Inspector Whicher and finally allowing the innocent to reclaim what they could of their lives.
Summerscale’s writing is strong and weaves multiples sources into a compelling and cohesive narrative. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher will make you question if justice was every fully served.
Title: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
Author: by Kate Summerscale
Read: February 2012
Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast is the first Harry Hole novel translated into English, although it’s actually the third in the series. While each Harry Hole novel stands alone, there’s a major plot thread that weaves through The Redbreast, Nemesis, and The Devil’s Star.
As someone who read both Nemesis and The Devil’s Star before reading The Redbreast, I knew how the major plot thread ends, but I didn’t know the reader sees the event happen on the page, and knows the solution the whole time even though the characters (including Hole) are in the dark. This is just one of the many reasons I love these novels.
In The Redbreast, Harry Hole has been promoted to Inspector and transfered to an out-of-the-way desk job after almost causing a diplomatic disaster when the US President visited Oslo. Hole discovers a very expensive rifle was smuggled into Norway, and he’s also assigned to keep tabs on Neo-Nazi events in Norway.
The mystery flashes back to events during World War II, following a Norwegian solider fighting for Germany against the Russians. The story lines eventually converge, but only after a ton of twists, turns, and heartache.
The Redbreast is great for fans of Stieg Larsson and Scandinavian crime fiction.
Title: The Redbreast
Author: Jo Nesbo
Source: Public Library
Read: January 2011
Hey writers. If you’re looking for query help be sure to check out Meredith Barnes’ query help option:
As anyone who’s written a query knows, it’s hard to explain your story in a perfect, short description. If you’re planning to self-publish, the pitch paragraph portion of a query relates to back cover copy for a novel, as both are a short description intending to entice readers (or agents in the case of queries) to want to read your work.
One of the author’s Meredith Barnes is promoting, Dan Streib:
One evening, after searching through the movies on-demand to find something that interested both my movie-watching companion and me, we settled on the film adaptation of The Oxford Murders, starring Elijah Wood and John Hurt. While I liked the movie, I had a few quibbles with it and thought it made some jumps not based in logic or weren’t believable on screen.
It wasn’t until the end credits rolled that I realized the film is based on a novel written by Guillermo Martinez. Since my local library has the book in their collection I knew The Oxford Murders would make an excellent second book for my fifty-two books in one-year challenge.
In The Oxford Murders, a twenty-two year old Argentinean (American in the film) receives a scholarship to study moths at Oxford. His academic advisor recommends he take a room with the widow of her former academic advisor, and so he does. His landlady, a former Enigma code breaker, lives in Oxford with her granddaughter. She’s obsessed with Scrabble and makes him feel welcome. The granddaughter, Beth, and the narrator are attracted to each other but this is never acted upon.
The narrator slowly builds a life in Oxford, working with his advisor and making a few friends through tennis. Then he comes home one day after hitting up the bank so he can pay rent. Professor Seldom, a well-known mathematician and long-time friend of the household, is also arriving at the house. They find the landlady murdered.
Seldom tells police he received a note earlier in the day that read “the first of the series”, and gave him the address of his friend (but no name). There was a circle drawn on the bottom of the note.
More notes appeared, all attached to murders and containing the next symbol in the series. Can Seldom and the narrator decipher the series in time to stop the killer?
Reading a book after seeing is such a strange endeavor since a filmmaker’s view of the story can differ so much any given reader’s interpretation. In this particular case, I knew the end solution, which definitely ratcheted down the suspense. However, it allowed me to appreciate how closely the film mirrored the events of the book while also being more logical. Some of the things I didn’t find believable on screen, like any sort of sexual longing Beth and the protagonist, felt natural in the book. The main character also isn’t obsessed with Professor Seldom, which felt a little too stalkerish and obsessive in the film. While disturbing, the narrator’s whole life isn’t thrown asunder by the murders in the novel, and he continues his education.
The mathematical elements were a nice addition to the story, although sometimes these elements were explained for the sake of the reader and this bogged the story down. In real life, two mathematicians aren’t going to take the time to explain basic mathematical concepts to each other. Rather, they’d talk in mathematical shorthand unique to their field. As a reader I was willing to overlook this because I appreciated the originality of the story and appreciated using mathematics and higher thought to create a serial killer.
Title: The Oxford Murders
Author: Guillermo Martinez
Source: Public Library
Read: January 2011
American Gods kicks off with the protagonist, Shadow, finishing his last few days in jail. He practices coin tricks, and thinks about how much he loves his wife, Laura. He’s getting out of jail in a few days with a job waiting, and of course Laura.
So when the prison warden calls Shadow into his office to tell him that Laura died in a car accident, Shadow’s world shatters. Released from prison early to attend the funeral, Shadow meets a man, Mr. Wednesday. Wednesday offers Shadow a job, which he eventually convinces Shadow to take. Now Shadow is the errand boy for a god in the middle of a war between the old gods (think Norse mythology, Egyptian gods, and traditional stories) and new gods (like Media, and what gods could be created based on what our current society values).
As a fan of stories that transplant traditional folk tales and legends into modern settings, this is a natural book for me to read and appreciate. What we as a society believe and worship (whether in an organized fashion or through other means, like what we spend our free time or money consuming) is a fascinating, and multi-faceted, subject. American Gods touches on these concepts while also telling an engaging story.
Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Source: Local Bookstore
Date read: January 2011