Starring Alicia Zuckerman and Judy Blume: Miami Book Fair and more

sally j book cover I’m not going to the Miami Book Fair this year, which makes me sad — especially since I’m going to miss my friend and editor/producer Alicia Zuckerman’s event with Judy Blume Saturday afternoon, about the Sally J. Freedman Reality Tour, a project Alicia worked really hard on. While Judy is best known for books like Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Forever and the Fudge series, Sally J. Freedman is her most autobiographical book. It’s set in Miami Beach in the late ’40s, the same time Judy lived there as a kid. It’s been close to 40 years since I read it and I can still remember details like the fear/dread/excitement of Sally’s conviction that one of their neighbors was actually Adolf Hitler in disguise — and the pain of being stung by a man ‘o war jellyfish.

Even if you can’t make it to the event, check out the story online at WLRN’s website — along with the slide show and the accompanying tour of Judy’s Miami Beach. It’s good stuff, and more than just nostalgia especially if you know and love Miami Beach.

I also wanted to post a couple of recent book reviews I wrote for The Miami Herald. The first was the final book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins War series, The King’s Curse.* More recently, I wrote about The Forgers by Bradford Morrow, a fine crime novel especially for those who like books about books and fans of 19th century gothic dread. And may I once again sing the praises of my alma mater, The Miami Herald, and editor Connie Ogle for continuing to publish book reviews and news about books and even pay local freelancers to write them? Many a larger newspaper has given up the effort entirely and just runs wire. Like the Book Fair and the great bookstore Books & Books, Connie and her team are irrefutable evidence that South Florida is a far more literary place than you’d guess.

* I liked this book a lot and the series as a whole has helped lead me to more of an interest in the Wars of the Roses, the run-up to the Tudor era. My favorites were probably The White Queen, about Elizabeth Woodville who married Edward IV, and The Lady of the Rivers, about Woodville’s mother Jocasta. Others, especially The Red Queen, about Margaret Beaufort, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter, about Anne Neville, I found more of a slog — probably because the women who were telling the story seemed so unhappy and powerless. Well, Beaufort wasn’t exactly powerless — she did successfully maneuver to get her son, Henry Tudor, on the throne. But she was just a drag to live inside of for a couple hundred pages. I wound up watching the Starz mini-series based on the books, The White Queen, and got into it eventually. I’d recommend it for anyone who’s jonesing for the next season of Game of Thrones, especially since George R.R. Martin has repeatedly said that his Song of Ice & Fire books are rooted in the Wars of the Roses.

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Highly Recommended Reading: The Silkworm

silkwormEven though I’ve been reading fairly steadily (if not especially voraciously last month), it’s been a long while since something blew me away like my last read: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith. Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, who published the first book in this private detective series under a pseudonym because she didn’t want it to be overwhelmed by Harry Potter hype.

Her identity came out fairly soon after publication anyway and she’s continuing with the series and I’m so glad she is. In fact, after reading this installment, I wish she’d quit messing around with whatever Potter follow-ups I see reference to occasionally and just settle down with Cormoran Strike. Because it is great.

Cormoran Strike is in some ways a classic private eye — smart but isolated, cynical but still generous enough to offer help to people who need it whether it’s his accidental-temp-turned-assistant Robin, or in this book, his hapless client who is her own worst enemy.

I don’t read a huge amount of contemporary crime fiction though I am trying to increase the proportion. And my favorite is Kate Atkinson, who has recently taken her attention from her excellent Jackson Brodie series to write more literary fiction (I resisted the quote marks! Praise me!!!). Reading Galbraith/Rowling reminds me a lot of the Brodie series because of what both writers do best — character and sly humor, without spilling over into the over-the-top territory of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard. In these books the people seem like real people only more interesting. And both stay mostly focused on our heroes, who are not entirely heroic but entirely human, but also offer occasional points of view from other characters — Atkinson more than Galbraith, who sticks just to Robin as an alternative. Anyway if you’re looking for a satisfying relatively quick read and you’ve got a touch of Anglophilia — or you are just sick of waiting for Atkinson to get back to Brodie — give these a try. The first is called The Cuckoo’s Calling and it’s good enough that I kept going to the second, but I’m saying she’s really hit her stride with The Silkworm.

If you’re in the Keys and you have a library card both titles are available in print. The first is also available as an audiobook, the second as an ebook. If you’re in the Keys and you don’t have a library card, head to your nearest library and get a library card.

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What I Read Last Month: October

lump of coalIt didn’t take long for hubris to catch up and whap me upside the head. After my gold star bragging reading record in September, in October I seem to have read … almost nothing. I had my reasons. First and foremost: Work. I got to work on a magazine project, and I produced a radio feature story, which takes a lot of time. Plus: Fantasy Fest! That takes a lot of time. So anyway here is my paltry list for October. It’s almost all romance, too, which is indicative that I’m feeling taxed enough to want some not-too-taxing reading.

Invisible City by Julia Dahl. I actually read that one in late September but forgot to include it in last month’s post. First in a series of contemporary crime fiction — I really liked the protagonist, a young reporter who winds up investigating her personal roots when a Hasidic woman is murdered in Brooklyn.

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau — Second in a historical crime series set during Henry VIII’s England, starring young Joanna Stafford who was a novice until her convent got dissolved as part of the Reformation. I liked this book, too, maybe more than the first in the series, The Crown.

Never Judge A Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean — Historical romance, read as an advanced review copy, last book in a quartet. I liked it fine — love a woman who hides as a man and runs a gambling hell to boot. I even went back and re-read the earlier installments in the series, A Rogue By Any Other Name, One Good Earl Deserves a Lover and No Good Duke Goes Unpunished. They’re all very well done; my favorite is probably One Good Early because I’m a sucker for a nerd heroine.

And I read one graphic novel: Arrow: Year One. I liked it better than Wonder Woman last month, possibly because I know the character better after mainlining a couple dozen Arrow episodes in the last month or so. That’s my other excuse for not reading a lot in October — I watched quite a bit of TV. My husband and I got addicted to Manhattan, a drama set at Los Alamos during the Manhattan project. The whole series is on Hulu Plus and it’s very well done. On my own, I got addicted to watching Arrow, catching up on the first two seasons on Netflix just as the new one started on Hulu. And I am now watching four, count ’em four comics-based hourlong dramas: Agents of Shield, Arrow, Gotham and the Flash. That’s a lot for not having cable. But they’re all pretty good.

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What I read last month: September

bookshelfBecause I cannot fully control my inner gold-star-seeking preening child, and because this is a book blog, I’m going to start posting a monthly roundup, with capsule reviews, of what I’ve been reading. And because I have a lot more reading time on my hands now, and can’t really resist bragging about it.

In September I read:

The Fever by Megan Abbot – The highest praise I can offer for this book is that it isn’t really my thing … and I still couldn’t put it down. High school girls mysteriously get sick, around the same time they are discovering their sexuality and getting vaccinated for HPV. While high school remains, for me, a mostly dreaded land where I have no wish to return even in fiction, I was fascinated by this book. And I didn’t see the end coming, which is always a plus.

Lost by S.J. Bolton – Since the Key West Literary Seminar focused on crime fiction, last January (see Megan Abbot, above), I have been slowly expanding my reading of contemporary crime which had before then been mostly limited to P.D. James and Kate Atkinson. S.J. Bolton is harder-edged than either of those and not as good a writer. But I’m enjoying her Lacey Flint series … and I’ll keep going if only to find out if she’s EVER going to finally jump Mark Joesbury’s bones like they’ve both been wanting for several books now.

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory – I reviewed this one for the Miami Herald. It’s the final entry in Gregory’s Cousins’ War series about the Wars of the Roses, and brings us up to Henry VIII. This time our narrator is Margaret Pole, a York cousin who has a front row seat for Henry’s increasingly desperate search for an heir, growing tyranny and the turmoil England experiences as it breaks away from Rome. I haven’t loved every entry in this series (I liked The White Queen and the Lady of the Rivers, the others not so much) but this is one of the good ones.

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Gen X-ercise

redoaksGeneration X is having a moment. I base this assertion on two items of media I consumed over the weekend.

The first was an episode of Slate’s The Gist, which is an excellent new podcast by Gen X-er Mike Pesca. Specifically, it was Pesca’s spiel at the end of the episode about Schoolhouse Rock, those classic cartoon shorts from the 1970s that taught us about grammar, math and legislative process. They are the subject of a special this Sunday on ABC. If I had cable, I’d watch it.

The second was the pilot of a new TV series on Amazon called Red Oaks. It’s set in a New Jersey country club in the summer of 1985, which is the summer between high school and college for the main characters. It was also that summer for me.

Gen X-ers have to grab our moments because we don’t get many of them. And we treasure them because it feels like that’s all we get. It’s the inevitable consequence of being caught in the sociocultural demographic vise between the Baby Boomers and their progeny, the Millennials. So we got to spend our youth resenting the Boomers and our maturity watching Millenials take center stage. Based on everything I’ve read and the word of many people I trust, I’d probably like Girls, the Lena Dunham show on HBO. But I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it.

(Important note: While I am going to continue bitching throughout this post about both generations, I am aware that these are gross generalizations — and that some of my favorite people on earth and good friends are in each of them. So please don’t take it personally.)

Both of these media experiences — especially coming on the same day! — were sweet because we Gen X-ers, even as we head toward our 50s, don’t get much of a chance for nostalgia. The Boomers own that territory, from the Wonder Years to classic rock (does anyone really need the Eagles or Led Zeppelin on the airwaves any more?????). The Millennials are already going there, rhapsodizing about shows that were apparently on Nickelodeon while we Gen X-ers were working crappy jobs and sporting unflattering hairstyles.

So I’m going to revel in our little moment here, while we’ve got it. I hope Amazon picks up Red Oaks. I may watch some YouTubes of Schoolhouse Rock or go see if the library still has that DVD. And I would like to point out that while the generations before and after us have had their cultural impacts — oh, have they had their cultural impacts — that a few of us have managed to stand out. Specifically, I’d like to appreciate:

  • Jon Stewart. If I had to choose one person as the voice of our generation, it would be him. Because he is funny as hell, and smart as hell. If there is any legacy bestowed on us by the Boomers that we have enthusiastically furthered it is the erosion of institutional authority. Stewart embodies our generation’s tightrope walk between idealism and cynicism and he embodies it by constantly pointing out that the emperor has no clothes — whether that emperor is Ronald Reagan or Jerry Garcia.
  • Wes Anderson. Speaking of nostalgia — almost every one of his movies is designed to hit that late ’60s, early ’70s analog sweet spot in our memory banks. And if his films have one overarching themes, it is fathers — and father relationships from the generation before parents thought they were supposed to be their kids’ friends.
  • Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz. I remember, in college in the ’80s, when Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were all the rage, I came across a copy of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and immediately knew this guy was the real deal. I didn’t hear about Diaz till later because he’s even closer to my age but wow, what a talent. One thing I really appreciate about both of them is their appreciation for weirdness in the genre/scifi/comics/whatever sense.

I know this Moment isn’t going to last long. And just thinking about it long enough to write this blog post has me wondering: Maybe there’s an advantage to our squeezed-in-the-middle demographic position. There’s the pleasure of feeling aggrieved, which is always satisfying, but more importantly there’s the pleasure of being part of a more select club. I always attributed my underdog sympathies to growing up as a Red Sox fan … but now I wonder if it’s more of a generational tendency. Our time was going to come, and then it was already gone. But we’re still here.




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Aren’t they fantastic?

book coversI recently reviewed two books that are right in my realistic fantasy wheelhouse for The Miami Herald — both are the final installments in trilogies and both were just great, in different ways. I’m going to link to the reviews here but they will eventually go off the Herald’s free site so I’ll try to remember to change this once that happens. In both cases, I strongly recommend reading the entire trilogy and not starting with the third volume.

First up was The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness, the finale in her All Souls Trilogy. The first book was called A Discovery of Witches; the second is The Book of Night. Harkness writes for those of us who are open to stories of the supernatural but don’t really want to deal with Twilight and its ilk. As I said in my review, despite most of their characters being witches, vampires and daemons, these books share more DNA with A.S. Byatt’s Possession than they do with Twilight. They start out in Oxford’s Bodleian library and its main characters, witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew Clairmont, are brought together by a long-lost manuscript that Diana accidentally conjures up during her research into medieval science (ie. alchemy). That manuscript is, of course, the titular Book of Life but to re-find it Diana and Matthew have to, essentially, change the world. And travel back in time to Elizabethan England (that’s the setting for the second book, The Book of Life). So if you like Tudor stuff, as I do, that’s another gold coin for you.

The second was The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman. This also includes the supernatural but it is a more conscious riff on other books, especially The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Mostly they are the story of Quentin Coldwater; at the beginning of the first book, The Magicians, he is a hyper-intelligent super-dorky kid who likes to practice sleight of hand (coin and card tricks) and can’t quite let go of his devotion to the series of books about Fillory, the rough equivalent of Narnia. What is supposed to be a college interview turns into his introduction to Brakebills, an academy of magic that is kind of like Hogwarts with sex and drugs. The second volume, The Magician King, recounts Quentin’s post-Brakebills adventures. The third has him back in the real world, ie. the Earth that we know, and confronting adulthood as he nears 30. I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoilers but if you loved Narnia as a kid, these books are a must-read. And the final volume, especially, is in many ways a love letter to books and reading — I think it captures the way we all want to — and in fact, do — practice a little alchemy when we’re really immersed in a book no matter how unrealistic or different from our own lives it may be. Not surprising, since Grossman is the book critic for Time magazine, I suppose. I can’t wait to see what both these authors do next.


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Audiobooks: What’s my problem?

Photo by Curious Expeditions via Flicker Creative Commons license.*

I want to be an audiobook user. Reader? Listener? OK, I don’t even know the correct term. I love the idea of experiencing books in a different way, of having someone literally tell me a story. And I like the potential multitasking, too. I could be reading and knitting. Or cleaning. Or driving.

But it just keeps not happening. This despite the fact that I have once joined Audible, multiple times laboriously downloaded books on CD from the library, then transferred them to various iDevices and even tried Playaways, those self-contained audiobooks.

My most recent attempt was with The Quick by Lauren Owen. It’s a book that appears to be in my wheelhouse and the only format the library had it in was audio. So I got it. On a trip up the Keys last week, I started listening.

But the problem was that my attention just kept wavering. And it wasn’t the story’s fault — the story was interesting! I want to read this book. In fact, I want to read it so much that I requested the library purchase it as an ebook, which they did. The rest of you who are into historical/supernatural/British/literary fiction can thank me later. I’ve already got it checked out.

A similar thing happened over the summer, when I tried so many times I’m embarrassed to admit it to listen to The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. I love Sarah Vowell. And she reads the book, along with a bunch of special guest stars like John Hodgeman and Stephen Colbert. I love history, and don’t mind if it’s got a bit of snark to it. It should have been like the best extended episode of  This American Life ever. But again, my attention kept drifting. And this despite the fact that some of the time I was listening to it I was on buses of various species, traveling across the state of Massachusetts. There could not be conditions better suited to listening to that book.

Another work about some of the same characters, John Barry’s book on Roger Williams, is very useful for putting me to sleep on plane trips, I have learned. But I still don’t feel like i know much about Roger Williams. And I’d like to. And I like John Barry.

I’ve only found audiobooks really successful a couple times in my life. During really long car trips where you just have no choice. During long, boring projects like painting a room. And back in the 1990s when I used to cover the county for the Miami Herald and spent a lot of time driving up and down the Keys. The two-cassette abridged versions of John D. MacDonald novels were perfect for a single trip — and maybe it didn’t matter so much if I zoned out a little along the way. They were abridged anyway.

Even though I’ve given up on The Quick, I’m going to keep trying. Though it might take me until my next long car ride, or painting project.





* Image above, as the caption says, comes from Flickr’s Creative Commons. The terms say you’re supposed to link to the license, which I couldn’t figure out how to do in the photo caption. But there it is, if you’re interested.

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