Category Archives: fiction

Here be dragons

I read a couple of Anne McCaffrey books as a kid, but I was never all that into dragons. I like them when they show up in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire — and especially in the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation — but that series is really about the people. Dragons are just a superweapon.

league of dragonsBut in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, dragons are characters and that’s the genius of the series. She just wrapped it up with League of Dragons, and she did it well. Fortunately there are nine books in all so if you’re feeling bereft about the end of the series you can just start from the beginning again, with His Majesty’s Dragon.

I can’t really suggest these books for people who are jonesing for Game of Thrones between TV seasons or the much longer wait between books. The better comparison is with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series — because both are set in the British service during the Napoleonic wars and have a friendship at heart that is the deepest in both parties’ lives. But Naomi Novik is obviously writing an alternative/fantastical version of history (there are dragons!), which makes it even more fun in a lot of ways. Some dragons only allow women to be their captains/companions. Napoleon ranges even farther afield — all the way to South America. And most importantly, our protagonists and the society as a whole are forced to wrestle with their treatment of the dragons, many of whom are more intelligent than most people. Temeraire is an exceptional dragon, to be sure, but he is expert at mathematics and speaks multiple languages.

Really, these books are best suited for anyone who has ever felt strongly connected to an animal, like a dog or a horse. The fantasy isn’t so much that there are giant, flying reptiles but that your companion from another species could communicate with you directly — and both delight and exasperate you with his or her idiosyncrasies. Dragons, in Novik’s world, are imprinted on the first human who harnesses them and will do everything in their considerable powers to protect that person. Many are intelligent, though they have a weakness for treasure, especially the shiny kind.

That consideration of how dragons should be treated within society as a whole is really the heart of this series, and what elevates it above just another fantasy … with dragons. Though it may have inspired me to give Anne McCaffrey’s books another look (it’s been more than 30 years). And also to finish the Aubrey-Maturin series, which I have been drawing out for well over a decade now.

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Read these, not that

Not this

Let’s get the negative out of the way: Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. This is a serialized novel from the creator of Downton Abbey – I heard an NPR interview with him about it, I like historical fiction, I figured I’d give it a go. I also like to check out innovative or slBelgravia-by-Julian-Fellowes-250ightly different modes of storytelling – though the serial format is a bit of a throwback, too, it’s one that’s rarely seen anymore.

First, the app. It sucked. You had to sign in every time, it never remembered where you were, simply turning pages was far glitchier on the same device than it was in the Kindle or iBooks apps. You had to reload everything every time. New chapters didn’t appear until the day after they were promised. Overall, not pleasant.

Second, the content. I listened to the first (free) chapter on audio. Hiring the actress Juliet Stevenson to narrate the audiobook was the best decision anyone made regarding this enterprise. I liked it enough, and was feeling supportive enough about the whole idea, that I invested in $14 to get the rest of the book, delivered in weekly installments.

I started reading the next few chapters and …  see page-turning glitchiness complaints, above. Also, it soon became clear that while Fellowes may be a supremely talented creator of high-end soap operas, he’s not a great writer, even in the context of historical romance. I read enough of those to know. This wasn’t, strictly, a romance — I’d call it more of a melodrama. But it was insanely predictable and two-dimensional even within those standards.

Which made me very surprised to read in Entertainment Weekly an interview about his latest project, Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (for future reference: avoid projects where the creator’s name appears in the title). Fellowes said this: “Trollope is one of my favorite writers of all time. His emotional position is very similar to my own in that nobody is all good or all bad.”

And my immediate reaction was, what the hell are you talking about? Your villains are so bad they practically twirl their mustaches and the good guys are so good you almost want to smack them. I was glad when I saw that the good critics at Slate had also noted this odd contradiction, as Laura Miller wrote Fellowes “professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal.” (She credits the TV critic Willa Paskin though Paskin’s review is kinder toward the TV show than Miller’s — enough that I might give it a try since we have Amazon Prime anyway and I’m curious to see Fellowes-as-Hitchcock. Or maybe I should just, you know, read Trollope.)

I went back to listening to the chapters on audio and found it improved considerable – thanks, Juliet Stevenson! Maybe Fellowes just writes better for dramatic presentation than old-fashioned reading anyway. Plus no more glitchy page turning. There’s nothing that makes you feel stupider than repeatedly swiping and tapping your iPad so you can read the next page of a book you don’t like that much that you paid real money for. Was it a waste of time? Kind of, though once I’d plunked down that $14 I was going to see this melodrama through to the melodramatic finale. I think that’s what I’m most annoyed about – if I’d gotten this book from the library or even paid a dollar or two on the Kindle, I would be OK with it. But $14 is real money, bookwise, and I feel like I fell for a British-accented, elaborately costumed scam.

And I didn’t even watch Downton Abbey.

Read these!

city of mirrorsEnough with the negative. Let’s move on to gushing about highly hyped entertainment reading that delivered on its hype: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. This is the third in the dystopian trilogy that started with The Passage, back in 2010. I was working at the library then and jumped on the train. Loved the first book, liked the second enough to get through it all (these books are loooooong) and I was damned sure going to finish the last.

It had been awhile (four years!) since The Twelve, though, so I was a little worried about what I remembered about the plot. And it’s not like you’re going to plow through a thousand-plus pages AGAIN to refresh yourself. So I used the same method I do on the rare occasions that George R.R. Martin produces a book – I read the plot summaries of previous installments on Wikipedia. Plus, Cronin used a future-history-of-the-chronicled-events plot device that reminded me of the events of book 2. And we were off.

I loved it. I spent the entire weekend wallowing around in that book – not rushing through thought it was a page-turner, not savoring though I was perfectly happy hanging out in that world. It wasn’t one of those giant tomes where you’re like, “This thing could easily lose a couple hundred pages and no one would notice.” The extended backstory was interesting and, as it happens, a fun return to the 1990s and a refreshing break from the dystopic present of the novels. I liked it at least as much as the first novel and much better than the second. So I was very grateful to my local library for buying several copies and wish I could take that $14 back from Julian Fellowes and give it to Justin Cronin.

My local library was also kind enough to supply a copy of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This update of Pride and Prejudice (should that be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?) got a rave in the New York Times Book Review so I figured I’d like it. eligibleAnd I liked the earlier installment I’d read in this series of contemporary Austen updates. It was also the perfect antidote – or remedy is maybe a better word — to my City of Mirrors book hangover. It’s not like I wanted to live in Justin Cronin’s created world — but I had been so intensely immersed in it that it was hard to focus on minor things like my life and my job. Eligible is a frothy social comedy in the best sense – and it was just so much fun to both learn about these new versions of Bennets and Bingleys and Darcys – as well as watch them reach the happy endings I knew were in store. My only complaint about Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense & Sensibility were that I felt she did some contortions to fit the plot into the 21st century. Sittenfeld’s use of a Bachelor-like reality show (the titular “Eligible”) was brilliant.

I loved how she adapted and changed the characters’ roles and ages but managed to hold onto the essentials – Liz is smart but sometimes a little too sharp, Darcy is uptight but honorable, Jasper Wick (ie Wickham) is a charming douchebag, Mrs. Bennett is pretty awful but hey, she’s your mom and Mr. Bennett is smart and funny but disastrously disengaged. Though my favorite change might be the most radical – Kathy DeBourgh as a formidable Gloria Steinem-like feminist icon.

I did gallop through this one – really, really short chapters made me feel like I was supposed to be doing that – but I was happy to do so. And immediately went to the library and got the two Austen updates I hadn’t read yet, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I really can’t wait to see who gets Persuasion.

colin firth

Just because.

So … five stars to Justin Cronin, Curtis Sittenfeld, their editors and publishers and of course my local library.

Two stars to Julian Fellowes – mostly for trying something a little bit out of the norm. Stick to screenwriting, dude, and next time hire a much better app developer. Though I will check out Downton Abbey one of these years.

 

 

 

 

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Crime fiction, here and there, cozy and not, on page and screen

Roberta Isleib by Carol Tedesco.jpg

Lucy Burdette, aka Roberta Isleib. Photo by Carol Tedesco

I recently interviewed Lucy Burdette, who is really Roberta Isleib, who lives in Key West and writes the Key West Food Critic Mysteries. The seventh installment in the series, Killer Takeout, publishes on April 5.

It’s a “cozy” mystery, which means no blood or sex on the page, as Roberta tells me during the interview. Not my usual thing but I enkiller takeout coverjoyed her book, which is set in the run-up to Fantasy Fest … with a hurricane bearing down. It didn’t even give me too much of a Wilma flashback. I especially admired how she addressed the tensions among Conchs, yearround locals and snowbird socialites. That’s a large — and growing — aspect of life down here, at least from my perspective.

At the same time, my husband and I have been watching the second season of Bosch on Amazon Prime (no spoilers, please — we’re only halfway through). I liked the first season fine but the second one is much better. The best part is that I haven’t read any of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books. Most of my crime fiction reading is

Bosch

Titus Welliver plays Harry Bosch.

historical and just about all of my contemporary crime fiction reading has been set in Florida (Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, et. al.). But now I’ve got the first Bosch book, The Black Echo, on order from the library.

And I feel like I’m primed for L.A., not only by watching the TV show — which manages to make L.A. look fairly attractive, probably because nobody on there ever spends time stuck in traffic — but also because I just finished Shaker by Scott Frank. I read a short story about it in Entertainment Weekly and my most exshakercellent local library already had a copy. Frank is a screenwriter and this is a first novel – my opinion has been that screenwriters write excellent thrillers and crime fiction because they know how to move a plot along, as well as how to write dialogue. This one bolsters my theory and is also an excellent option for people who are jonesing for Elmore Leonard now that the master has left us. Frank wrote the screenplays for Out of Sight and Get Shorty and it shows, though he doesn’t really have Leonard’s funny vein. He’s not trying to be funny, though, so that’s cool.

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Going home again

dickinson homeI have written previously about my hesitation in reading books about places I consider home, fiction or non. Yet they do have a strong appeal — which is why my husband and I have for the last three years led a group at The Studios of Key West called Reading Key West. So when I stopped by the Key West Library a couple months ago and saw a novel in the new books section called Amherst, I grabbed it.* Then I circled around it for a week or two.

I had another reason to worry about this book. Besides the familiar territory thing, I’m wary of novels about real people, especially writers. These seem to be having a moment, with the works of Paula McLain, Erika Roebuck and the like. I’m not dead set against them. But I worry, because the fictional representation of any real person’s life feels even more fraught when that person is a writer.

Eventually, though, I picked it up. And wound up loving it – especially the historical sections, which recount the infamous love affair of Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, with a young neighbor, Mabel Loomis Todd.

Their story is interspersed with a contemporary story, a young British screenwriter wants to write a movie about the love affair and is visiting Amherst for research. Oddly, the contemporary part felt less authentic to me though I appreciated it as the story of a young woman coming to grips with love and what it may mean in her life. But the entire book was propulsive, even if I kind of knew the broad outlines of the Todd-Dickinson affair and the role Mabel Todd played in getting Emily Dickinson’s poems out to the world. I’d like to read more of William Nicholson’s books – and since he’s a screenwriter, too, I’d really like to see him take a shot at the movie about that passionate, a little bit tragic, ultimately Victorian couple. With Emily lurking around upstairs in her white dress, of course.

Reading and enjoying Amherst gave me the courage to finally pick up another Emily Dickinson book  I’ve had around for awhile – Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl. I don’t want to give this book a bad review, because I think it was well-done. But I am definitely not the right reader. It’s YA, for one thing, and though I do read some YA it’s almost all in the fantasy/dystopia area. More problematic is it’s in the genre corner I have a real problem with, which I usually refer to as Jane Austen Solves Crimes. Only in this case it’s Emily Dickinson. And she’s a teenager! Some of it just didn’t make sense to me, for how people in 19th century small town New England would behave. I wonder what I would have thought of this book as a younger reader. I might have liked it a lot – and it might have led me to get really into Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

 

* Here I would like to offer some props — and thanks — to the good people at the Key West Library who are responsible for ordering new books. Twice recently I have come across books that I hadn’t previously heard of in the New Books section and in both cases, Amherst and The Fair Fight, they were books I really enjoyed. I appreciate a serendipitous discovery via browsing more than I can say in this age where everything is linked and recommended. So thank you, Key West Library staff! As a reader I appreciate your discernment and your commitment to bringing us books. So do many other readers, even if they don’t realize what you’re doing for them.

 

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New books by writers I have met in real life and interviewed

Olivia, subject of From The Notebooks of a Middle School Princess. Illustration by Meg Cabot.

Olivia, subject of From The Notebooks of a Middle School Princess. Illustration by Meg Cabot.

Meg Cabot has recently returned to the world of the Princess Diaries with two new books, one for adults and one for middle schoolers. As an (alleged) adult, I can attest that Royal Wedding is a fun read. Princess Mia is all grown up and facing some regular grown-up issues as well as some only-royalty-of-a-small-European-principality issues. And interesting fact about From The Notebooks of a Middle School Princess: Meg illustrated the book — which is copiously illustrated — herself. I talked to Meg about the books, as well as about why she lives in and sometimes writes about Key West. The interview ran in one form on WLRN and in another in The Miami Herald.

I can’t help, while I’m talking about Meg Cabot, to give a shout-out to a couple other series by her that don’t get anywhere near the attention of the Princess Diaries or some of her other books but that I think are worthwhile reads. The first is Insatiable and its sequel, Overbite. They’re vampire books for adults that both riff on and gently satirize Bram Stoker’s original. They’re fun and funny, without being outright satire. The other is the Abandon trilogy, which is a YA series of books based on the Greek myth of Persephone — and set in Key West!

And I recently read the The Fatal Flame, the final volume in Lyndsay Faye’s excellent trilogy about Timothy Wilde, an early New York policeman or copper star. I interviewed Lyndsay for Littoral, the Key West Literary Seminar’s blog, before she came to the 2014 Seminar about crime fiction. When I got hold of this final volume, The Fatal Flame, I read it as slowly as possible, savoring my first immersion. I almost never do that, especially with crime fiction. If you’re interested in historical fiction, historical crime fiction, 19th century New York or any of the above, give these books a try. Can’t wait to see what Lyndsay gets up to next.

 

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Two for the road (or the couch, or the deck chair)

williams_charles_theboxingbaronessI hadn’t heard or read anything about The Fair Fight before I saw it on the new books shelf at the Key West Library. But I’m a sucker for historical fiction so I checked it out. And you know what? It was great. Really great. After a recent disappointment reading a book set in the same era, it was especially nice — and because the book is the first from this writer, Anna Freeman. Here’s hoping for many more. And here’s to my local library (and yours, I imagine), which not only keeps providing all kinds of services to people who really need them but also, because someone decided to order an interesting book, provided me with an excellent reading experience that I didn’t even know I was looking for.

The story is told from three different points of view, which has something of that Rashomon effect — the same events from different angles — and also provides a rich understanding of the time as it would be lived by a poor young woman, a wealthy young woman who has been orphaned and afflicted by smallpox, and a younger son who links his destiny to his feckless, alcoholic school friend (who also happens to be the brother of the wealthy young woman).

Ruth, the poor young woman, is making her way as a prizefighter. Apparently this did happen — women boxed. She is born into a brothel without many prospects but her fighting does bring her to the attention of a large and strong young man.

I don’t want to go too far into the plot … rather I recommend this book to anyone who read and enjoyed Blindspot, Jane Kamensky and Jill Krementz’s homage to 18th century romps. That has a very different setting and plot but is also told through the points of view of two characters. And it shares the appreciation of the era but with a contemporary enough sensibility to allow us to access it without feeling like we’re inhabiting a museum piece.

papadobleI mentioned in my last post that I really liked another book I checked out from the library — The Trip to Echo Spring. But as long as I’m wholeheartedly recommending books … This examines the lives of six writers through the lens of alcoholism. Which would be easy enough to do reductively, but Olivia Laing manages to do it expansively, to see her subjects as tragic figures, true, but also as gifted, inspired and at times heroic. For Key Westers, there’s the connection with Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. But for anyone interested in 20th century American literature, it’s a thoughtful survey and investigation into the lives of six of our greatest writers — besides Williams and Hemingway, she writes about F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman. Even though I’d already read a lot about most of those guys (all except Berryman), I found it an interesting and enlightening book — the best kind of literary biography where the writer and the work are connected without assuming that all writing is autobiographical or some kind of psychological puzzle to be deciphered. I also liked following Laing’s travels around the U.S., much of it by rail, as she visited the places that the writers lived. It sounds like she wandered through my neighborhood (Tennessee Williams’ house is about three blocks from mine). I wish I’d known — I would have invited her in for a drink.

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Hits, misses and a couple that went out of the park

FullSizeRender-4Some recent reading that exceeded my expectations The novel I really want other people to read so we can talk about it is Euphoria by Lily King. It’s historical fiction, though set in the early 20th century in New Guinea, not my usual time and place. It’s based on a period from the life of Margaret Mead though heavily fictionalized. And it’s mesmerizing. Also short enough that you can, essentially, read it at one sitting. It was one of those books where I was intentionally making myself slow down so it would last longer. The Trip to Echo Spring is about writers and drinking. It’s a portrait of six alcoholic writers, two of whom are Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, so it features a Key West visit. But it’s not a clinical or sociological dissection – more of a literary meditation and travelogue as the author travels around the country visiting some of their homes. I first heard about The Mechanical from this NPR review, the good people at the FKCC Library were nice enough to order it at my suggestion and I read it in less than two days. It more than lived up to my admittedly unformed but moderately high expectations. I’m not a huge reader in this genre but I do occasionally enjoy it and this was a good one. Books that lived up to my expectations: I finally got around to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which got a lot of praise last year and deserves it. Kind of like The Passage (which it even references) but without such a large cast of characters … or the wait for two more installments. I picked it up looking for distraction during a period of high anxiety over a work project. I’m not recommending dystopian stories as a remedy for anxiety but it did take my attention away from my own silly worries. Because why get all consumed with anxiety about a work project when other people are trying to survive a pandemic and its aftermath? C.J. Sansom’s new book in his excellent Shardlake series, Lamentation, is both a classic crime fiction procedural and a fine helping of Tudor intrigue, all in one nice big book. It’s nice to have him back, even if he goes through the usual trials. Maybe even more so. I tried out another historical series, this one set in Anglo-Saxon Britain, with Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell – that was good enough that I’ve got the second volume on request. And I liked The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn, which I found browsing the library’s new books shelf – it’s not exactly Tudor intrigue though it’s told from Jane Seymour’s point of view. It’s about her sister-in-law, her brother Edward’s first wife, who is shipped off to a convent after a sexual scandal. It’s not for everyone though I’d say more for the Hilary Mantel interior psychology fans than those who favor the Philippa Gregory court/sexual power plays. I finally finished The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, a nice meaty nonfiction tome that covers the dynasty from Henry II to Richard II. I am even hopeful I will remember my Edwards and Henrys, at least for a little while. I got through my next work of nonfiction a lot quicker. After a disappointing spy thriller last month, I took a flyer on a thriller based on an ad in Entertainment Weekly. Maybe not the best basis for selecting books but you know what? White Plague was just fine. I was glad the library had it in the collection — I might have regretted spending my own money on it. But I didn’t regret the few hours it took me to read it. Books that didn’t live up to my expectations: I bought The Skull and the Nightingale in hardcover and have had it on my shelf for a couple years. Why? I don’t really remember and when I finally read it — meh. Set in the 18th century but not the sort of romp that, say, Blindspot was. Interred With Their Bones  should have been right in my wheelhouse – a lost Shakespeare play McGuffin! Some scenes set in Shakespearean London. But this one strayed over the Dan Brown line of disbelief suspension. The Marriage Game by Alison Weir. Why does Alison Weir keep writing fiction? And why do I keep trying to read it? She’s such a good popular historian – but her fiction reads like some of the most wooden romance writing ever. Ugh. I didn’t finish this one. And you know I don’t do that very often.

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