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Archive for the ‘Neil’s Picks’ Category

Deed of PaksenarrionElizabeth Moon’s first trilogy of novels about Paksenarrion, a farmer’s daughter turned mercenary, then paladin, is one of the great works of epic fantasy fiction. These books, now issued as a single volume, The Deed of Paksenarrion, describe a satisfying character arc as Paks, as she’s known to friends, grows from good-natured naif to seasoned campaigner to a powerful heroine who has earned her scars.

The story begins as Paks escapes an arranged marriage by joining Duke Phelan’s mercenary company. She learns that war isn’t all adventure, and encounters the frightening powers of magic for the first time. She experiences friendship and sacrifice, and learns self discipline, and has a run-in with some scoundrels in her own company.

The second book is more exotic. Paks has left the company, as there are parts of its philosophy that she can’t make fit with her moral code. She trains to become a paladin, mixes with dwarfs and elves, and takes part in a great quest to an ancient stronghold. Ultimately Paks becomes the victim of some evil magic wielded by dark elves, and as the book ends she has lost her skill at combat and her courage, endangering her future as a paladin and even her life.

Moon brings everything together gracefully in the third book, which I won’t say much about to avoid spoilers. At its core, it involves Paks’s attempt to restore her courage and a quest to restore a missing king to power.

What makes this special? Paks is one of my favorite lead characters in fantasy, right up there with Frodo Baggins and Patrick Rothfuss’s Kvothe, and in many ways Moon’s development of her character more thoroughly builds a complete person than even those other favorites. The pacing is excellent throughout, with a great balance of action, suspense, and moral philosophy. Moon incorporates descriptions of the physical world and the details of horsemanship and fighting smoothly into her writing. Finally, I like that there’s a clear hero to get behind here, but still some gritty details. Paks earns her status.

Since publication of these books, Moon has written both prequels and sequels to this original trilogy. So while the original books are completely satisfying in and of themselves, unlike Tolkien there are more novels to continue your experience in a world you’ll probably grow to love.

Check the WRL catalog for The Deed of Paksenarrion

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East of EdenI’m a big fan of John Steinbeck. He’s a great blend of philosophical content, strong storytelling, intriguing characters, and an awareness of the effect of the natural world on people. He’s a great and important novelist, with all that implies, but he’s also still entertaining to read. Until recently, my list of favorite Steinbeck would have been 1) Cannery Row; 2) Of Mice and Men; and 3) The Grapes of Wrath. Now I have a new favorite: East of Eden.

East of Eden re-tells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, but moves the action to California. It starts in Connecticut just after the Civil War, where young Adam Trask goes through a difficult childhood with a domineering father and a violent brother. He eventually marries Cathy, a woman whom he wrongly idealizes. Something isn’t right in Cathy–a modern person would call her a psychopath.

Adam takes Cathy, against her desire, to northern California’s Salinas Valley. There she gives birth to twins, Cal and Aron, but then deserts the family and assumes a much different life, working in and ultimately running a brothel. His fantasy marriage obliterated, Adam flounders, but is ultimately saved by contacts with a neighboring family, the Hamiltons, and particularly with Lee, a Chinese-born man of high intelligence who hides behind a facade of the stereotypes people want to see in a Chinaman. The boys grow up, at first believing their mother dead, then each slowly discovering the family history in their own ways. Cal is the stand-in for Cain, and Aron is Steinbeck’s Abel.

That’s enough plot. Ultimately, one can overstate the allegorical nature of this story. It’s certainly there, but one could enjoy the book without knowing the bible story. Steinbeck adds additional elements to the tale, but is more sympathetic to Cal and his struggle to do good things than he is to Adam or Aron and their sometimes unconsidered idealism. The result is an epic moral tale, but a fun book too, with elements of romance, suspense, and humor.

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the neighboring patriarch and inventor Sam Hamilton and the slyly wise servant Lee, who becomes such an important part of the Trask family. Cal’s internal struggle is fascinating, and even Cathy, for all her evil, becomes something different to a modern reader, an intelligent woman trapped in a world made for men.

Another strong point here is Steinbeck’s love for the natural world of California. It shines through in his writing, even as he recognizes that the natural world can be cruel.

The library owns two film versions of this story as well, both entertaining, but neither quite as good as the book. The 1955 James Dean film is a classic, and still great fun to watch, but it condenses the story somewhat to make it fit into the length of a feature film. There’s also a 1981 miniseries, which does cover the entire book, if less vividly.

Check the WRL catalog for East of Eden

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Liars ClubMary Karr’s family was the family in your neighborhood that your parents warned you away from when you were a child. They’re volatile people, emotionally toughened one and all. Still, to get to know them through youngest daughter Mary’s 1995 memoir is a bittersweet pleasure for readers who can handle a walk on the dark and gritty side.

The Liar’s Club takes place in the 1960s in the Texas oil town of Leechfield and a few months in Colorado. Mary is nine and she and her twelve-year-old sister Lecia are wise beyond their years. They’ve been through some rough stuff: watching a sanctimonious grandmother die from cancer, sexual abuse from playmates and babysitters, and endless fights with other kids in their tough town.

Dad, doesn’t help. He’s an oil man who can be a wonderful father, but when life gets the most challenging he often turns into a distant, hard-drinking man known as the most dangerous man in town. He hangs out with the titular Liar’s Club (although by implication, this title also applies to the whole Karr family), men who tell tall stories with hard truths hidden inside them.

But Mom is the most problematic of all the Karrs. She’s a creative, independent, city woman trapped as a housewife in the 1960s in a small town. She’s carrying secrets from a painful past, details that aren’t revealed until later in the book. She tries to mask her pain with alcohol abuse, but that isn’t enough to dull her dark streaks. Her relationship with her husband alternates between passionate romance, sullen distance, and outright ugliness. For her daughters she is sometimes like a streetwise older sister, sometimes just plain dangerous.

As you can tell, this isn’t an easy book, but the lives feel authentic, and Karr leavens the pain with some hard-bitten humor. I’m often skeptical of childhood memoirs: Can authors really remember their youth in that much detail? I was at times dubious of a somewhat similar book, Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, which I enjoyed but took with a grain of salt. There’s a subtle difference in Karr’s approach that makes me trust this book more. She admits at times that her memories differ from those of her sister’s, or sometimes she just tells us when recall fails and she’s working from after-the-fact speculation. And don’t forget, this is The Liar’s Club; even when the absolute truth is stretched, there is painful but sparkling and hard-won honesty at the core of the story. Read the scenes where Mary’s mother starts to burn the contents of the house or where she fails to cope under the combined pressure of a hurricane and the last days of her mother, and you’ll understand what I mean. If you like this, go on to her other memoirs, Lit and Cherry, both of which have also received high critical praise.

Check the WRL catalog for The Liar’s Club

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Junkyard DogsJunkyard Dogs is the sixth book in the Walt Longmire series of mysteries by Craig Johnson. I started here, listening to the mystery on audiobook on compact disc (The library has earlier entries in the series in print or as downloadable audiobooks). Ideally one would start at the beginning with The Cold Dish but there’s enough continuity between characters that I had no trouble following the action or enjoying the characters jumping into the series in the middle.

Sheriff Walt Longmire of little Durant, Wyoming is a great character, perhaps the kind of man that it’s more fun to read about than to try to get along with in real life. He’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide, a sarcastic sense of humor, and he likes doing things his way. Fortunately, his way works most of the time, at least when it comes to solving crimes. He’s surrounded by a great supporting cast too: his lifelong friend Henry Standing-Bear; his dog (named Dog); and most important in this book, a squeamish deputy named Santiago Saizarbitoria; and his on-again, off-again love interest Victoria (also a deputy).

Junkyard Dogs begins with a run-in with the Stuart family, an odd collection of country bumpkins who run the local junkyard. Grandfather Geo is the seemingly indestructible family patriarch. His grandson Duane and granddaughter-in-law Gina are screw-ups always on the verge of trouble with the law. And then there are the two huge wolf-like dogs they own–the more obvious referents of the book’s title. The Stuarts have an ongoing feud with developer Ozzie Dobbs, who’s in money trouble over the failure of a huge development. Ozzie would love to get rid of the eyesore junkyard next door (and develop the land while he’s at it). The feud would get even worse if Ozzie discovered that Geo and his mother have a bit of a romantic liaison going on.

I won’t give away too much of the plot. A thumb, no longer connected to its owner, becomes an important plot point, as do Walt’s status with Victoria and Santiago’s continuing ability to function in his job. Over the course of the book, Sheriff Longmire takes about as much physical damage as a body can but Johnson has a unique ability to transform pain, ornery behavior, and the terse speech patterns of westerners into high comedy. The mystery puzzle is solid, if not brilliant, but that’s not really the point here. The reason to read this series is for the characters, the atmosphere, and the humor, and on all of those accounts, Johnson is masterful.

If you listen to audiobooks, by all means experience this book that way. I’m not usually a fan of George Guidall, but his voice and characterizations are perfect for this series. I haven’t seen it, but I hear that the television series based on Johnson’s books, Longmire, is also a pleasure.

Check the WRL catalog for Junkyard Dogs

Or try Junkyard Dogs as an audiobook on compact disc.

 

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Red Seas Under Red SkiesScott Lynch is in the top tier of epic fantasy writers who are stretching the genre in new directions. Red Seas under Red Skies, the second book in his Gentleman Bastards series, like the first, The Lies of Locke Lamora, combines gritty epic fantasy with a buddy story and a heist crime story line. It’s a cinematic combination loaded with great banter between the lead characters, a twisty, suspenseful plot line, and exotic settings. The series is probably best experienced in sequence, but you could read the second book alone and have a satisfying reading experience.

Master thieves and swindlers Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen have gone on the run after their exciting and ultimately tragic adventures in the first book of the series, finally landing in Tal Verrar, a city state made rich by gambling. As the book opens, we find Locke and Jean in the midst of an elaborate scheme to rob the Sinspire, a seemingly impregnable fortress of a casino with increasingly exclusive action on each higher floor. To rob the most powerful players at the top, Locke and Jean first have to run a long con, winning at enough complicated games of chance to gain access to the upper floors.

But somehow their cover is blown and they come to the attention of Tal Verrar’s powerful political leader. I won’t give away too many plot points, but he traps Locke and Jean and forces them to pose as pirates in another elaborate scheme that will solidify his tenuous hold on power in the city state. There are some great comic scenes as the landlubber thieves try to learn enough seamanship to pretend to be seasoned sea dogs. Of course things go wrong, and the ruse becomes a kind of reality as the duo play for higher and higher stakes. They’ll have to survive pirates, politics, poison, a love triangle, and more, just to get back to the city where they hope to pull off an impossible crime that becomes as much about revenge as it does money.

It’s a complicated plot, but Lynch fills his books with so many great action sequences, so much razor-sharp repartee, so much good-natured derring-do, that it’s easy to forgive any moments where the story stretches credibility. He wraps up enough of these complicated plot lines cleverly that you will be more excited than you are bothered that there are cliffhangers leading to the third book, Republic of Thieves (which was published in late 2013 and has had great reviews as well). I know I’ll be among the readers following this masterful  yarn to its conclusion.

One caution: this series is very much part of the gritty school of fantasy. These are street-toughened characters leading a violent and dangerous life, and readers should expect language and levels of violence that realistically match that setting. It’s leavened with plenty of charm and humor, but come prepared for lots of colorful cursing and bloody action.

Check the WRL catalog for Red Seas under Red Skies

Or try the story on audiobook on compact disc

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Spectator BirdWallace Stegner was one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. You can’t really go wrong with his books, which are all a little different, but always center on characters that are hard to forget. Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety seem to be his most often mentioned titles, and both deserve the attention, but there are more gems in Stegner’s canon.

Narrator Joe Allston is the “spectator bird” of Stegner’s title. He’s a retired literary agent, unhappy both with the circumstances of his retirement and the way in which he conducted his life. He feels as though he was always watching the parade of life, for instance serving as an agent to writers instead of doing the writing himself. His circumstances don’t help, as he has retired to rural area outside of San Francisco where he sees few people but his wife, whom he loves immensely but but whose familiarity he has come to find overpowering.

When he receives a note from a Danish acquaintance in the mail, Joe retrieves his journal and begins to read about the fateful trip that he and his wife took to Denmark back in the years shortly after World War II. His wife insists that he read the journal aloud, as she didn’t know he kept it. Although it’s about an awkward time in their relationship, he complies. He has put aside most of what happened on that trip for the sake of his marriage, but now it all comes burning fresh into memory.

I don’t want to give away too much of the tale, but there’s a mad scientist theme, Hamlet allusions, dilemmas of wartime loyalties in an occupied country, and plenty of surprises in the plot, something the reader might not see coming in a book that at first seems to be a subtle character piece about the cruelties of aging. Joe might be a curmudgeon, and he might be a spectator, but his life hasn’t been uninteresting, even if he chose not to follow every opportunity. This book is about the choices we make, even if we make them by not choosing.

I also recommend this book in the audio format, where it’s read by the talented actor Edward Herrmann (perhaps best known to modern audiences as the grandfather in The Gilmore Girls) whose intelligence comes through every sentence delivered by a pleasing baritone voice.

Check the WRL catalog for The Spectator Bird

Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc

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Doomsday BookConnie Willis is a favorite of the staff here at Williamsburg Library.  She combines interesting science fiction scenarios with literary sensibilities.  Her characters are quirky but believable, and she has an eye for the odd bit of detail that helps a story rise above cliché.  Her pace isn’t for readers that need one bit of action after another, but for those who like a steady, suspense-building progression.  She mixes humor and drama well.

That’s especially true in Doomsday Book, a novel that keeps the reader in suspense about the outcome of its central epidemic-and-time-travel adventure while inducing giggles at odd bits about demanding American bell ringers, a lusty student and his overbearing mother, or an intrepid young teen navigating difficult times with a strange, fearless grace.  Then it stops you in your tracks and wallops you with an emotional finish that underlines the great heartbreak that an epidemic can produce.

The story concerns Kivrin, a young Oxford history undergraduate in an alternate near future where limited forms of time travel are possible.  Kivrin’s desire to visit the Middle Ages is somewhat exploited by a don who takes too little care with the lives of time travelers.  So as she makes her voyage back in time, it’s against the protests and warnings of Dunworthy, a more careful man who is the story’s other narrator.  Dunworthy prepares Kivrin as best he can, but as the time machine is deployed, apparently successfully, he can’t escape feelings of dread.  As a Christmas-time epidemic descends on Oxford, with the time machine operator one of its first victims, and Kivrin’s location in time cannot be confirmed, his fears grow.

The story alternates between Kivrin’s narration in the past and Dunworthy’s efforts to bring her back in the present. Epidemics figure prominently in both story lines.  I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers, but its a well-plotted story with just enough humorous detail to add variety.  The historical detail is just about perfect, and it captures an aspect of history seldom addressed in books like this: everyday struggles of regular people, with the currents of war, politics, and violence present, but in the background, not the foreground.

If you enjoy this you might go on to some of Willis’s other time travel novels, To Say Nothing of the Dog and the duology of Blackout and All Clear.

Check the WRL catalog for Doomsday Book

Or get Doomsday Book for an e-reader

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Muck CityI’ve become accustomed to a certain kind of contemporary story about high school and college sports.  It involves programs where wealthy donors court spoiled players and break school and NCAA rules with impunity, where a jaded professional attitude infects even young players and every resource is put into creating stars.  There are good and bad examples of this story, but it’s getting a bit familiar.  In the end, I feel a little jaded after reading about another collection of athletes with disproportionately high opinions of themselves.

Muck City isn’t like those stories.  It’s about Glades Central High School and a few other neighboring schools around Belle Glade, Florida, a place that is legendary for the athletes it produces on a regular basis (28 NFL players to date), but where there is no money to pour into the team.  Belle Glade is a broken sugar town, a place where poverty, drugs, AIDS, violence, broken families, and unemployment are the rule, not the exception.  Almost none of the players on the team have two-parent families.  While Glades Central often wins or compete for state championships, its players are often in ragtag uniforms, drinking pickle juice on the sideline where other teams drink Gatorade, still playing both ways because the team can’t afford to travel a big squad.

Yes, the recruiters are after the Belle Glade kids, but Mealer’s book shows a squad driven as much by desperation as by fame.  Football will be the only way out for most of these kids.  Everyone in the community seems to have an opinion about how the team should be run, not just because they are sports-obsessed, but because the team is one of the few bright spots in a bleak place.

Mealer was given good access to the team and he uses it to good advantage, but focuses on half a dozen main characters.  Quarterback Mario Rowley is a minor talent hiding major injuries, but through sheer force of will he competes for a college scholarship and to ease the memory of his dead parents.  Jonteria Williams is a cheerleader trying to do something nobody at Glades Central does, make a better future through academics instead of football. Other players rise to the occasion, surprising their coaches and themselves, while at least one major talent falls prey to too much attention and not enough work ethic.  Coach Jessie Hester, a former NFL player with his own demons, is trying to keep the team together while fending off a thousand second guesses and pressure to win at all cost.

And while other sports stories can turn into repetitive accounts of one game after another, leading inexorably to the big game that you know from the start the team will win, Mealer’s book is more about life, about what sports can solve and what they cannot solve.  About the many tragedies that can befall those who live in the world’s forgotten places and the hard-won triumphs that occasionally can be scratched out.  Yes, there are plenty of game accounts, but the real game here is life.  That’s what makes Muck City a book not just for football fans, but for anyone who cares about the human drama.

Check the WRL catalog for Muck City

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Gone-Away WorldIf you like writers as diverse as Joseph Heller, Neal Stephenson, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, or Charles Dickens, you’ll want to run to the novels of John le Carre’s son, Nick Harkaway.  I can get away with that much name dropping in one sentence because Harkaway is that good.

His first novel, The Gone-Away World, takes place in a near future after some kind of event  has left only a narrow band of land habitable, protected by the mysterious chemicals from a pipeline.  In Harkaway’s tour de force first chapter, we discover that this pipeline has been breached and the refinery that fills it is aflame.  A misfit crew of mercenaries, including the unnamed narrator and his lifelong friend Gonzo Lubitsch, is asked by a powerful bureaucrat to fix the problem.

After that, the story alternates between exploring the narrator’s adventures in the present and the past.  Slowly, we discover the twisty story of how the world came to an end, how the narrator was rendered unreal, and how he attempts to recover his life.  This plot is impossible to condense, but the astonishing thing is that although this story is halfway in fantasy, halfway in reality, half serious and half parody, and loaded with characters like pirates, ninjas, and mimes, in the end it all makes a perfectly bizarre kind of sense.  There are plot twists you won’t see coming in a million years, enough eccentrics to populate a small country, and enough madcap but spot-on social observations to make every page an adventure.

This is a dense read.  Expect a challenge.  But whether you enjoy science fiction, literary fiction, or humor, I think you’ll find it truly rewarding, a book that’s worth the effort for vivid style, biting social commentary, audacious metaphors, and imaginative world building.  Don’t expect a standard post-apocalyptic dystopia, expect a weird, bumpy ride through a surreal landscape.  Strap in and enjoy!

Check the WRL catalog for The Gone-Away World

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Book Review Destiny of the RepublicJames Garfield is an American president most don’t know more about than that he fell victim to an assassin.  That’s a shame, because unlike so many of our presidents, whose lives stand up poorly to scrutiny, Garfield was a truly admirable man.  If you read Candice Millard’s book Destiny of the Republic: a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, you’re guaranteed to finish with a much better knowledge of a great American and the times in which he lived.

The book begins at the Republican convention of 1880, and reading about it will make readers understand how completely the political process has changed.  Garfield is there to give the nominating speech for his fellow Ohio Senator John Sherman, the major competitor to the machine-backed Ulysses Grant.  His speech is so good, that when the convention is deadlocked between the other two candidates, the little known Garfield sneaks onto a few ballots as a compromise choice.  With each ballot, his support grows, until despite Garfield’s stunned objection, he finds himself the Republican nominee for President.  Back then it was considered distasteful to stump for oneself much, so Garfield returned to his Ohio farm for the duration of the election, where he indulged his love of books, learning, farming, and family while others campaigned on his behalf.

Soon Garfield was President, but not without enemies.  The powerful Roscoe Conkling, whose candidate Grant had been beaten by Garfield wanted someone his political machine could control. He even managed to get his stooge, Chester Arthur, a man with no real qualifications, on the ballot as Garfield’s VP.  More dangerous to Garfield was the deranged Charles Guiteau, a failed commune dweller, lawyer, street preacher and writer, who was convinced that his support of Garfield during the election entitled him to an important appointment.  When that wasn’t forthcoming, Guiteau started hearing voices that told him to shoot Garfield, and even imagined that he would be made a hero after he did it.

The book isn’t just about Garfield.  It’s just as much about the medical practices of the time, and the lack of support for antiseptic techniques that killed Garfield more slowly and surely than Guiteau’s bullet.  It’s about Alexander Graham Bell and his feverish attempt to create an invention that would locate the bullet in Garfield’s body exactly.   It’s about the now hard-to-fathom practices that allowed a US President to travel without accompaniment or much attention in public.  The pages are full of fascinating minor characters and detail that brings this little known period of history to vivid life.

Pair this with Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, another look at the unknown details of presidential assassination or Millard’s other great work of popular history, River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.

Check the WRL catalog for Destiny of the Republic

Or try Destiny of the Republic in Audio CD, Large Print, or Ebook formats

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SeminarI’m the kind of hardcore theater devotee that reads the scripts of plays as pleasure reading.  Sure, I’d rather see a good production, but given the economics of modern theater, if you don’t live in a large city where there is enough demand that theater companies can draw an audience with some new or lesser-known plays, you most likely won’t get to see many of these shows on stage.

Besides, plays make for good reading.  The time limits of the stage mean that a play is a quick read, something one can squeeze into a day if need be.  I enjoy playing the game of imagining which of my favorite actors would be good in the roles as I read them.  Even more fun, reading a play is an invitation to project yourself into the role of actor, even if you’d never go near a stage in real life.  Plays are full of cracking good dialogue, meaty conflict, and even the heavy dramas often contain real belly laughs.

So it is with Seminar, a play headlined first by Alan Rickman then by Jeff Goldblum a couple of years ago on Broadway.  Four aspiring young writers have pooled their money to schedule a private seminar from a literary icon, an event held at one of their homes.  In her preface, playwright Theresa Rebeck notes that part of her pleasure in writing this play was to create a chance for an older actor take some younger actors to school.  The writer Leonard is sour, used up, and manipulative, but one can’t help but stifle a nasty laugh at the way he finds the vanities and insecurities of the pretentious students and dissects them after reading a few sentences of their writing.  He doesn’t have their best interests in mind and uses them in every way imaginable, but in the end, each learns something valuable from the contact.

If you’ve ever shaken your head at some of the blowhards that seem to populate the world of modern literary fiction, I think you’ll enjoy the way that Leonard puts a pin in the pomp of these four young writers while facing his own demons.  Give this Seminar a look.

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Not the ToyA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and by that I mean 1980, most of us were shocked to find out that (gasp!) Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father and Princess Leia was his sister. Now that spoiler is such a ubiquitous part of culture that I don’t even feel nervous about dropping it on you in the first paragraph, but back then it was kind of mind blowing, especially for those of us who thought Luke and Leia were going to get together despite the attentions of the brooding Han Solo.Gold Bikini

Graphic artist Jeffrey Brown takes the idea a step further, imagining Vader as the struggling parent of the two moppets in two small but wonderful comic collections Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess. The result is precious but droll, a keepsake that would make the perfect Christmas gift for any parent or any Star Wars fan.

In Brown’s imagination, Vader tries to use his Jedi tricks to get Luke to eat his breakfast and go to bed, but young Skywalker is having none of it. He’s even more exasperated when teenage Leia wants to go out in her gold bikini.  Use Your HateHis dark manner and high-blown speech patterns are no match for a child’s inquisitiveness or tantrums. Faced with his children, Vader really isn’t such a bad guy. It’s a testament to the power of the original design of Vader’s dark costume that despite his unchanging mask the reader can see Vader rolling his eyes, giving into frustration, or unable to do anything but smile at the antics of his little ones.

These little books only take a few minutes to flip through, but you’ll want to share them with everyone you know who knows Star Wars. And who doesn’t know Star Wars?

Check the WRL catalog for Darth Vader and Son

Or try Vader’s Little Princess

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City of SaintsFirst-hand knowledge of a novel’s setting can be a double-edged sword. If the author portrays the location ineptly, the reader that knows the place may find it impossible to enjoy other aspects of the book. On the other hand, if the author brings that setting to life, the local reader may be willing to forgive other flaws.

Such is the case for me with City of Saints, a mystery novel based on a once famous but now forgotten historical murder in 1930s Salt Lake City. I lived in Salt Lake for almost ten years myself, and although Hunt depicts a period long before my birth, I could picture my grandparents rubbing shoulders with Sheriff Art Oveson as he tried to solve the killing of an adulterous socialite.

At first, this Salt Lake City may surprise you. It’s grittier than one might expect, especially for the 1930s, but I always found the Utah capital to contain more cultural diversity and more big city problems than its squeaky clean Mormon image might imply. With mines and railroads in full flourish by 1930, and with the glitz and controversy of Southern California a day away, it makes sense that Salt Lake City has contained that diversity for a long time. That’s the tension that underlies Hunt’s story: Oveson is a practicing Mormon, but he comes from a law enforcement family. He knows there’s a darker side to his town. His partner is about as rough as men come and may have different allegiances than Oveson. Departmental politics and powerful men trying to protect clean public personae taint his case from the beginning.

As a mystery, Hunt’s tale is average, but because it captures an unusual place in a complicated time so well, I think you’ll enjoy it, even if Salt Lake City is new and exotic to you.

Check the WRL catalog for City of Saints

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Beautiful RuinsAs Beautiful Ruins opens it is 1962, and tourists have begun to find the beautiful towns of Italy’s Ligurian Coast, but in a quaint village called Porta Vergogna, Pasquale Tursi has inherited a seldom-visited hotel from his father. He’s laboring to carve a sand beach out of the rocks and create a clifftop tennis court that he’s sure will draw visitors to the Hotel Adequate View (named via an awkward translation). He can see his dreams beginning to come true with the arrival of a beautiful American starlet, only to discover that she has been sent away from the set of the epic film Cleopatra with a cancer diagnosis.

The story jumps forward to the present day, where Claire, a young production assistant, has had her fill of the inane pitches for films and television shows that she screens in her work for Michael Deane, a once-influential producer now sunk to backing lower fare. She promises herself that if she doesn’t hear a good pitch today, she’ll quit her job and take a position as an archivist in a new film museum (even if it is run by the Scientologists). Her last meeting is running late, and her fate seems sealed when two mismatched men finally arrive, one a young man pitching an unfilmable historical adventure called “Donner!” and the other an Italian who can’t speak much English… Pasquale Tursi, now much older and in search of the lost piece of his past.

Walter’s story continues to jump from episode to episode, key moments in the lives of his vivid characters. This kind of story only works if almost every scene is vivid. Otherwise the reader resents giving up a vivid section for one that is more drab. Walter makes it work though, as he stops in with an American singer trying to make a comeback on the fringes of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; with a community theatre production in Northern Idaho; with a cynical American soldier in a Catch 22-like WWII Italy; and on a manic day with a drunken Richard Burton. Like a jigsaw puzzle, each set piece adds a little to the mysterious picture, and the sad but beautiful lives of the protagonists are revealed, the beautiful ruins of the title.

Someday someone will make a beautiful film from this book with great characters, beautiful settings, and equal touches of comedy and drama. You don’t need to wait. Read the book and you’ll soon have a lovely movie vividly screening in your own head.

Check the WRL catalog for Beautiful Ruins

Enjoy Beautiful Ruins in large print

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cvr9781476727912_9781476727912_hr.JPGIn Matt Haig’s The Humans, the aliens are watching us, and when a Cambridge math professor makes a discovery that will lead to the advance of the violent and unstable human race, they send one of their own to intervene. Professor Andrew Martin is removed and his life subsumed by an alien who is equal parts arrogant and bewildered. This narrating alien is from a collective society (think Star Trek’s Borg and you’ll have the general idea). He doesn’t even have his own name, and so the interpersonal communication and self-motivated actions of humans are largely a mystery to him, but he’s a quick study, especially after a trip to jail for indecent exposure. Besides, the man he’s replacing wasn’t exactly beloved or normal, so while his wife, son, and other contacts notice a difference, they don’t find his eccentric behavior completely unexpected. In fact, they find it an improvement on the old, self-absorbed Andrew Martin.

The alien’s job is to eliminate anyone who might have come in contact with the breakthrough, and driven by his idea of the collective good he at first has no qualms about ending the lives of innocents. Over the course of the book, however, encounters with human pleasures like peanut butter, the Beach Boys, a dog, and (strangest of all) emotions, leave him torn about what to do and baffled by the first strange stirrings of feelings toward others. As one might expect, the results are hilarious in a daft English way, but on a less expected level, the story is also insightful and touching.

I recommend The Humans to science fiction fans, humor lovers, or anyone looking for a fast-paced book that is unusual and diverting.

Check the WRL catalog for The Humans

 

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Caught StealingCharlie Huston is an Elmore Leonard for a new generation. Or you might think of him as a writer like Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey, but with occasional influences from other pulp genres. Like all of these great noir writers, he writes fast-moving, violent stories that make readers laugh at the dark comedy at the same time he makes them understand how regular folks with basically good intentions take a tumble down the moral staircase. I’ve written previously about his Joe Pitt series, in which a fixer works New York City’s streets in an alternate future overrun with vampires. Now let’s turn to his first series of books, the noir trilogy that begins with Caught Stealing.

Hank Thompson is a sympathetic narrator, a former baseball star who felt his whole life change when the weight of a third baseman came down on his ankle during an attempted steal. Now he’s tending bar on the Lower East Side and working on a second career as an alcoholic. Fate isn’t done with Hank though: with a few more bad decisions, he will find himself left with one working kidney, with himself and his loved ones in danger, and on the run from criminals and cops alike. Huston shows how with some small mistakes and some bad luck, a regular guy gets pulled into a life of minor crime, then even murder.

Caught Stealing is a clown car that opens to reveal one eccentric character after another: Tweedle-dum and -dee Russian mobsters, an extravagantly crooked cop, a pair of sadistic but self-improving bank robber brothers, a bevy of low life friends and other thugs, and a cat named Bud who uses up several of his lives during the course of the narrative. Everyone’s in search of a mysterious key, and New York City becomes a pinball machine where all of these crazy characters careen around, slamming into each other until only a few are left on the table.

Hank is both believable and entertaining because in the middle of all the disaster and violence, he can’t help but let normal thoughts intrude: What will his mother think? Will his beloved San Francisco Giants make the playoffs?  Just how cool is this cat?

If you don’t care for language or violence stay away, but if you read this series, I guarantee quick reading and an equal share of laughs and moments when you think about the potential consequences of life’s smallest bad choices. The series finishes with Six Bad Things and A Dangerous Man.

Check the WRL catalog for Caught Stealing

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Les Miserables

Les MiserablesI’m in the final week of rehearsals to play a dream part: Thenardier, the innkeeper and thief who, with his wife, serves as both villain and comic relief in the musical Les Misérables. It’s a show that I’ve always loved and I’m excited to be part of bringing it to audiences at Peninsula Community Theatre in Hilton Village, Newport News. Great performers are cast in iconic roles like the bread-thief-turned-guardian-angel Jean Valjean, the letter-of-the-law Inspector Javert, the tragic young mother Fantine, and the young love triangle of Marius, Cosette, and Eponine. I thought I’d use this post to review some of the versions available from WRL.

I’m not going to address Victor Hugo’s original novel. Good but long, many find that they can’t work up the impetus to finish 1,400 pages of a story they may have already encountered in several forms. If that’s your cup of tea, by all means read it, but I’m going to tighten my focus.

I also won’t spend much time on the non-musical films based on the story over the years. Fredric March squared off against Charles Laughton as Valjean and Javert in a great 1935 film. Michael Rennie and Robert Newton are less remembered by film fans, but their 1952 offering is not bad. The French tackled the story themselves in 1958. The library also carries successful versions with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush from 1998 and John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu’s 2000 television miniseries.

To me however, Les Mis is made something more by the anthemic music of Claude-Michel Schönberg. It’s a moving marriage of bombastic, heart-stirring music with a tale that’s every bit as over the top. Here’s where we might have to agree to disagree: to me the 2013 film fails to take advantage of this music. Director Tom Hopper goes for intimate stagings and actors with smaller voices, where the songs are meant to stir audiences in big houses, to be sung to all creation, to stand your hair on end with power, not to be sung in a tight close-up on the anguished features of an emoting actor. Although I know many loved the film, it didn’t work for me. If you don’t believe me, compare the film’s soundtrack to any of the versions below.

I’m all about the musical as presented on stage, and there are many fine recordings and concert films available for others like me. The original British production was iconic, the first in English, with Colm Wilkinson as Valjean, Michael Ball as Marius, and Patti LuPone as Fantine, but the orchestrations for the music hadn’t quite found their ultimate form. There are some synthesizers where other versions use orchestral instruments. When this CD wore out recently, I replaced it with something different.

The first Broadway cast recording is one of my favorites. Wilkinson is still in place as Valjean, but Terence Mann is a powerful foil in the role of Javert. The orchestrations are stronger, making this a grade-A recording.

Most recordings of Les Mis sacrifice material to fit the show on two discs, but for the full experience, including the best symphonic recordings of the music and an all-star cast including Gary Morris as Valjean, Philip Quast as Javert, Barry James as Thenardier, and Michael Ball back as Marius you have to get 1999’s complete symphonic recording. Many versions have great singing, but this is the one if you want to hear the orchestra in detail.

Of course the full Les Mis experience includes visuals, and for those, you have options beyond the recent film. Two anniversary concerts deserve attention, with fine performances in concert stagings. The 10th anniversary concert filled the Royal Albert Hall with a dream cast: Wilkinson, Ball, and Quast, plus Alun Armstrong as Thenardier, Ruthie Henshall as Fantine, Judy Kuhn and Lea Salonga as Cosette and Eponine, and Virginia’s own Michael Maguire as Enroljas.

It didn’t seem possible, but the 2011 25th anniversary concert, staged at the huge new O2 arena in London, is even bigger than the 10th anniversary. It introduced the world to Alfie Boe as Valjean, and featured musical theater mainstays like Norm Lewis as Javert, Lea Salonga, this time as Fantine, and Ramin Karimloo as Enroljas. The Thenardiers are hilarious and larger than life. Samantha Barks, who gave one of the best performances in the film as Eponine, shows she has chops enough for the stage too. The only misstep is teen heartthrob Nick Jonas as Marius, whose voice is a bit overmatched by the surrounding cast.  At the end, dozens of performers who have appeared in Les Mis productions join the fun, including five Valjeans.

So start exploring, and get ready for the 2014 revival on Broadway. With a little listening and watching, you too can join the ranks of those who love being “misérables.”

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I don’t know about you, but when I hear about the history of grave robbers digging up fresh corpses in the night to conduct medical experiments, my imagination goes to England, with the stories of men like Burke and Hare. But why? Young America also had doctors who needed to learn anatomy. How did our early surgeons learn their craft?

ResurrectionistMatthew Guinn takes this subject matter and gives it an even better twist in his debut novel The Resurrectionist. His story combines the historical novel with a contemporary thriller. Guinn uses two narrative threads.

In the present, young Dr. Jacob Thacker is on suspension for Xanax abuse and banned from practice; he has become the publicity officer for a South Carolina medical school. His dean’s pet project, a renovation, uncovers a dark secret from the school’s past: a store of bones used by long-ago anatomy students, bones that came entirely from slaves or recently-freed African Americans. Thacker wants to uncover the story behind the bones, while his boss pressures him to cover up the story and prevent protests so the renovation can continue.

The second story line takes us back to the past, and slowly reveals the history of those bones under the building. Here the lead character is Nemo Johnston, a resurrectionist hired by the school to procure human bodies in a time when animal corpses were often used unsuccessfully to learn anatomy and medical schools were chaotic, unregulated affairs. Nemo eventually rises to become the anatomy instructor at the school. The kicker? Nemo is himself an African-American, a recently freed slave who through sheer ability becomes the anatomy instructor for students who still don’t view him as their societal equal.

What happens to a grave robber hated by one community for stealing his people’s bodies and resented by another for rising beyond his expected station? Will Jacob protect his career or go public with the story that he slowly uncovers? Read The Resurrectionist to find the answers to these and other questions in a novel that handles questions of race with sensitivity and unpacks the vaults of history while spinning a fascinating yarn.

Check the WRL catalog for The Resurrectionist

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