Sunday, April 15, 2012

Books Are Our Friends

 I know I am not the only one who experiences something in life, and thinks, "Oh, this is just like when so and so in such and such book did this.."  Good books are not over when the last page has been read; good characters last despite the ending of a series.  I am often reminded of Nick Carraway watching that light and thinking of Gatsby's life...beating against the current.  Aren't we all in some way or another?  Good books are going to capture those moments that are ubiquitous and real.  I am often borne back into the past, even if it isn't the way to move on in life.  I just can't help it. 

Life is challenging right now, even more so than usual for me.  I have some tough realities to face, but face them I must.  I have lots of family and friends to get me through, and I am so very grateful for that.  I also have books, and I know I will bring them with me into any challenge.  I wonder how much I will think of Michelle Cooper's Montmaray Journals series when I think back to this period of time in my life.  It is very apropos, to be sure, for anyone who has grown and changed, loved and loss, looked back and looked forward.  Sophie's story is not unique in theme.  Despite a made-up country, her story is anyone's.   I love this series, and the characters have always felt more like friends to me than like fictional characters.  The Montmaray Journal, The Fitzosbornes in Exile, and The Fitzosbornes at War are books in a series that is overshadowed by showier, more dramatic series.  The writing, characterization and development in this series is far superior to that of many other series.  I hope the general public discovers them.

I have a happy memory of when my kids were little and we first moved into the house where we live now, but won't be for much longer.  The boys were 5 and three, and they ran across the yard to a fence that separated our property from the neighbor's.  I had been afraid that we would not like living so close to others, that this new house wouldn't suit our needs.  But as I watched them race across the grass and climb the white fence, my fears were put to rest.  I remember it along with the end of the final book about the Fitzosbornes, as Sophie remembers her sister Henry racing along the beach, her beloved dog at her side.  "That is just like when the boys ran to the fence,"  I thought.  Good books last like good memories. 

My NetGalley review is below.




Michelle Cooper's third and final installment in the Montmaray Journals series is a much more mature and sophisticated book than the previous two.  It is to be expected, however.  In The FitzOsbornes at War, Sophie, Veronica, Toby, Henry and Simon grow considerably since they were introduced to us in the first book, with years passing and wars brewing.  Not only have the Fitzosbornes aged, but they have faced grim realities:  the occupation of Montmaray by Nazis, the rationing of food and supplies, the bombing of London, and the entanglement in a war by all ages and genders.  Toby and Simon join the RAF, Henry becomes a WREN, Veronica works as a translator, and Sophie writes propaganda for the British Food office.  Even Aunt Charlotte does her part for the war effort, trying to outdo her rival Lady  Bosworth in monies collected for charities.  The books spans the five long years of WWII, and is again told in the form of Sophie's journal entries, letters and articles.  The naive Sophie has a much wiser voice in this final book, but she stays true to character, and is an excellent storyteller.  Readers will weep with the FitzOsbornes as they experience loss, and rejoice as they reach victory.  Cooper does not spare the family from the war; readers should be ready for a realistic look at how it changes people and places forever.  Each member of the royal family will be altered in some way while fighting the war and finding the way to return to the beloved island of Montmaray.  Cooper's final book in the series is a satisfying ending to a story full of characters who are more like friends, and a plot that will last in memory.   Readers who have faithfully followed this underappreciated series will remember Sophie, Veronica, and the others and think, "I wonder what she is doing now?''  Well-crafted, this final book is a victory for Cooper and a must-read for fans.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Debut

If someone says "free books," I instantly raise my hand.  It's a Pavlovian thing, probably.  Getting my hands on more books is a daily goal.  Of course, I have to read them, too.  That's where the problem begins, not because I don't want to, but because I do want to.  I also want to read the other 294 titles I currently have listed as To-read on Goodreads.  I want to do nothing but read, but there are these other obligations like children, work, cooking...When I got my weekly update from Early Word and it was looking for reviewers for the Penguin Debut Authors group, my hand shot up in the air.  "Pick me!  Pick me!"  I am that annoying kid in the class who always has to be heard.

Two weeks ago, I received the first book in the mail, The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman.  While Zimmerman has written other books, this is her first fiction.  It is historical, and is set in mid-seventeenth century New Amsterdam.  The book takes its title from an actual position in earlier time periods.  Orphan masters were in charge of caring for the orphans of a community.  New Amsterdam's orphans play a key part in this historical suspense book, and unfortunately for many of them, it is the supporting role of corpse.  Someone is killing orphans.  That someone uses the Native American folklore to confuse the community, and appears as a Witika.  Also know as the Wendigo, this Native American boogeyman haunts the wilderness and takes, rapes, kills and eats its prey.  A grown orphan, Blandine von Couvering, finds herself thrust into the mystery, not only to help the orphans, but eventually to clear herself of blame.  As more children disappear, familiar and beloved members of New Amsterdam become suspect, including Aet Visser, the orphan master and Blandine, whose independent, assertive nature makes her stand out even in the gender-tolerant Dutch community.  Aided by a British newcomer, Edward Drummond, Blandine discovers the truth is often more frightening than tales of the boogeyman.  United by love, the couple must face a serial killer who is haunted not only by loss and hunger and but also by a sense of entitlement.

The setting of this book is fascinating.   Historical fiction lovers will adore Zimmerman's writing style which brings life to a long-gone Dutch community in 17th century America.  Political upheaval is imminent for New Amsterdam, and Zimmerman deftly weaves a cast of characters whose actions and interactions create a beautiful and intricate plot tapestry.Characters who seem extraneous initially eventually become central to the plot, and each is cleverly developed and connected to the mystery at hand.  The plot may be somewhat formulaic - that was one problem for me.  I found myself checking off a mental checklist each time an event occurred that was predictable or expected.  Overall, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and  found it easy to pick up and hard to put down.  Zimmerman is an author I will seek in the future.  

Sometimes, raising your hand a lot pays off, as it did in this case.  This afternoon is the live chat that is part of the Penguin Debut Authors group, and I look forward to sharing thoughts with others who have read this fascinating book.  Can't wait to see what arrives next, but until then, I am reading Michelle Cooper's third installment of The Montmaray Journals, The FitzOsbornes at War,  a Net Galley ARC that I snagged immediately.  I also have seven books to read for SOYAMRG by the third week in May.  Oh, and I went to the public library this week and checked out three books that really look good, including a book of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates.  So many books, so little time.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Two for One

A long and snowless winter has become an early spring.  On the second of April, flowers are in full bloom and trees are green, a sight usually not seen until the middle of the month.  Temperatures have already hit the high 70's this year, and wintry pale legs emerge from shorts and summer skirts.

We are in our Spring Break now.  Eleven days free of schedules, alarm clocks and homework.  I left everything work related at work.  This week, I will concentrate on the tasks I want to concentrate on:  reading, gardening, parenting.

In the past two days, I have finished two books for review.  One was Unspoken:  Book One of the Lynburn Legacy by Sarah Brennan Rees.    The other was A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle.  The completion of this book fulfilled the responsibility of two reviews - Net Galley and SOYAMRG.  Two very different books.

The first in a new series, Unspoken is the story of Kami Glass, a British teen living in the village of Sorry-in-the Vale.    All her life, Kami has been different.  It is not just the matter of being half-Japanese that separates her from her peers.  Kami hears a voice inside her head, that of Jared, a very real boy that Kami has never met.  Despite the peculiarity of hearing the voice, Kami is quite close to Jared and can reach out to him in times of need or joy.  The two share thoughts and feelings.   Her parents are aware of the situation and Kami has one friend, Angela, who is too lazy to be bothered by Kami's real imaginary friend.  Trouble has come to Sorry-in-the-Vale.  The disappearance and ritualistic death of animals and the return of the Lynburns has stirred up the small village.  Secrets hide in the back of the once familiar shops, and the faces of neighbors are lined with worries and fears newly discovered.  The return of the aristocratic Lynburns, sisters Rosalind and Lillian, is perhaps the most disturbing event that has occurred in the past twenty years.  The beautiful blond women bring with them their families, including handsome sons Ash and Jared, and live in the cold, imposing manor house.  On an awkward elevator ride, Kami finds herself face-to-face with Jared.  In her mind, she hears her beloved Jared complain about the Asian girl he has encountered.  It is her reaction to this comment that reveals to Jared who Kami is, and thus begins their strained and unexpected real relationship.  Despite the difficulties of interacting as physical beings, Jared and Kami find themselves thrown into the mysteries of Sorry-in-the-Vale, the sleepy town that is not at all what it seems.  When a girl is found dead, the community turns its fearful eyes to the Lynburns and the strange power they seem to hold over them all.  Kami and Jared must overcome their own fears and doubts to stop the evil that has returned to the village, before it is too late.

Sarah Brennan Rees has written a suspenseful and moody first installment in the Lynburn Legacy series.  An abrupt ending will seduce readers back for answers and romantic fulfillment.  Sorry-in-the-Vale is a well-developed setting and despite the mysteries that surround it, really quite charming.  The strong sense of place is the best feature of the book:  Gothic, yet quaint all at the same time. It is the believable setting that makes the whirlwind plot easier to follow.  Within the first 20 pages of the book, Rees has thrown readers into a half-dozen realities that are all central to understanding both the rising action and the characters.  Readers may find themselves taking deep breaths and flipping back a few pages to fully understand the issues introduced at the beginning of the book.  A slower pace is not always a good thing, but I think the plot and characters of this book would benefit from just that.  After the hundred yard dash that is the beginning of the book, the pace does slow down.  Some of the best moments of the book are when Jared and Kami are alone exploring who each is in light of the others existence.  The climax and the resolution of the book work:  thus the surety that readers will be back for more.  There are few factors in the book that separate it from other YA paranormal romance, but if Rees focuses on the bond between the connected teens, she may be able make Lynburn Legacy series one a must read for teens and the young at heart.
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Doyle's A Greyhound of a Girl is a story for all generations, one that offers insight for the young and the old.  It is about four generations:  Mary, her mother Scarlett, her grandmother Emer and great-grandmother Tansey.  The journey the women take is one both metaphorical and physical, and with it, each gathers elusive memories as well as the realities of life. 

Mary's best friend has just moved away.  Forlorn, she walks home from school, only to be met by a lady in the front of her house.  Odd features which emerge as age, transform into an old-fashioned appearance, and Mary finds herself intrigued by the lady, Tansey, with her quaint way of talking and dated methods.  When she mentions the name to her mother, she is told that the name is that of her great-grandmother, a woman who died when her own ailing Granny was only three.  After several encounters, Mary introduces her mother to Tansey, and she confirms that she is indeed, a ghost who was unable to leave her daughter.  Realizing that Tansey and Emer must be reacquainted before it is too late,  Mary and Scarlett invite the ghost to visit the hospital.  Riding in a car is a new experience for the ghostly great-grandmother, and she savors every moment of the trip.  Sadly, ghosts are translucent, and the trio realize she cannot venture into the hospital where her appearance may cause more trouble than needed.  Instead, frail and worn Emer is bundled into a wheelchair and then into the car where the four generations travel to the family farm where Tansey died of the flu after she cared for the slippery, skinny greyhounds in the yard.  Emer's fear of the dogs is tied to the loss of her mother, who quickly puts to rest that fear.  In the empty, abandoned farmyard, the four generations look upon a life that was, and still is, despite the change of year and scenes.  Grand, indeed. 

Doyles' beautiful, lilting writing speaks to the reader as if the room is full of Irish lassies.  The style and structure of the dialogue carries the reader quickly from one line to the next, as if borne by windy, green meadows where greyhounds run.  Each character has her turn to talk and tell her story, and the essence of each generation is caught in simple memories.  The book is a quick read, and will engage readers from one chapter to the next, until there is no more to read.  However, the voices of the book remain, and will last well after the last page is read.  Doyles' story, then, is one of life and of what passes from one generation to the next.  A Greyhound of a Girl is a sweet story, one to be read and savored by any age.

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Moving on to The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman.  Review to follow!  Now for some April sunshine!