Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Library Hotel

Ok, I knew about The Library Hotel in NYC (afterall they were sued by OCLC, the owners of the Dewey Decimal Classification system, in 2003), but I never really investigated it. This weekend I saw an episode of Samantha Brown's Travel Channel show, Great Hotels... and, well, suffice it to say that I was drooling. The rooms are wonderful, but it's the common space that makes the hotel stand out.

Of course to book a "petite" room with double bed for one night in July would cost $331.15, which is a bit outside of my price range. Maybe one day...

Friday, February 23, 2007

Because she can

Because she can by Bridie Clark

Because she can opens on an extravagant New York wedding. Book editor Claire Truman is marrying the man of her dreams, Randall Cox, her college crush. Everything is going well until her nightmarish boss, the notorious publishing queen Vivian Grant, shows up in the bridal suite to work on some projects.

The novel then flashes back exactly one year to Claire sulking in her tiny apartment. Fresh from a breakup, she has just found out that her beloved mentor is retiring. When her best friend drags Claire to an opening in hopes of raising her spirits, she reconnects with the fabulously successful Randall Cox. After they hit it off, Randall offers to introduce her to Vivian Grant. Though Grant is the most reviled person in the industry, Claire takes a job at Grant Books to forward her career. When the rumors about Vivian turn out to be more true than she could have imagined, Claire sticks it out in order to see her new friend Luke Mayville's first novel published.

Debut novel from Bridie Clark, who once worked for the infamous Judith Regan, seems to be a blend of fiction and tell-all. One can't help but describe it as a The Devil Wears Prada for the book publishing world. While Because she can is not a cookie-cutter book, the similarities are striking: including a crazy boss and stressful work environment, the need for the protagonist to stay a year in the position, weight loss, and a public scene marking the end of the protagonist's employment.

Claire is a very sympathetic character, more realistic than many chick lit heroines. Her personal struggle is less about her career than it is about coming to terms with the fact that sometimes Mr. Perfect isn't perfect for you. While readers may get impatient with Claire, her eventual self-realization is satisfying.

Read my review of the audio version on Armchair Interviews...

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The New Moon's Arms

When checking out one of my review assignments for Armchair Interviews, I stumbled upon this wonderful novel and promptly requested a review copy. There's so much in this book that I had a hard time writing a review within the given parameters. The following is taken from a wordy draft of the review. You can read the full and final review at Armchair Interviews...

The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson

53-year-old Calamity Lambkin's life seems to be coming loose at the seams. Beginning "the change of life" and grappling with the loss of the father that she nursed for the past two years, she is amazed when pieces of her past begin to materialize out of thin air. With the onset of menopause, Calamity seems to have reawakened the "finding" gift she had as a youth. Only now, the lost items come to her – everything from her favorite stuffed animal, which literally falls from the sky landing on her head, to her father’s cashew grove, which appears one evening in the yard of her new home.

Things become even more complicated when Calamity begins to look into her father’s past and when she finds a mysterious 3-year-old boy, who she suspects to be one of the sea people, washed up on the beach. She cares for him like her own son, causing a number of problems with her own grown daughter and young grandson.

A fiercely independent woman, the novel’s protagonist became a single mom at age sixteen. As an adult she eschewed her given name Chastity, for Calamity, a name she insists everyone from the local minister to her own daughter use. A very real character, Calamity is fraught with imperfections: she is honest to a fault, she curses like a sailor, and she’s unknowingly cultivated a hard heart caused by being in love with a man she can never have.

Set in the lush West Indies and imbued with their culture, The New Moon's Arms is a mesmerizing book. Hopkinson deftly handles both the mystery of the sea people and the anomaly of the local Mediterranean monk seals, adding both fantastical and historical elements to the mysteries.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

book clubbing in February

February was a nonfiction month for my book club. We read...

Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

A shortened version of the publisher’s book description:
Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of violent crime?
These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much-heralded scholar who studies the riddles of everyday life—from cheating and crime to sports and child-rearing—and whose conclusions turn conventional wisdom on its head. [...]
Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, Levitt and [Stephen J. Dubner] show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives—how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing. In Freakonomics, they explore the hidden side of . . . well, everything. The inner workings of a crack gang. The truth about real-estate agents. The myths of campaign finance. The telltale marks of a cheating schoolteacher. The secrets of the Klu Klux Klan. [...]

Freakonomics is essentially a repackaging of the work of economist Steven Levitt (who actually teaches at my alma mater) previously published in academic journals. His collaborator, author and journalist Stephen Dubner, was able to produce a work more easily digestible by the general public (I say this because the book reads as if it was written almost completely by Dubner).

Personally, while I thought the book was interesting, I’m not sure that it lives up to all the hype especially since it falls significantly short of the claim in its subtitle: to explore "the hidden side of everything" (emphasis mine). The book consists of six chapters each of which explores one or two things (with a few other things tangentially discussed); that’s a far cry from everything.

In any case, none of us were really crazy about the book (one didn't like the part about the Sumo wrestlers, some questioned the data used and what assumptions were made, two people thought you could just read the introduction and skip the rest) and much of our book club discussion this month actually veered away from the book itself to other interesting economics questions.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Debut a Debut: recap and future reading

Today is the last day of the fun and exciting Debut a Debut week.

I featured four books this week:
The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld,
Jade Tiger by Jenn Reese,
Kabbalah: A Love Story by Lawrence Kushner, and
Torch by Cheryl Strayed.

I read and was planning to feature The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury, but changed my mind after another contestant featured it.

I was planning to end the week featuring Londonstani by Gautam Malkani, but it's a challenging read full of London desi street slang -- for example:
-- I already told u, u thick khota: outside Nando's, innit, goes Hardjit, though without needin to shout cos Ravi eased off with his hand an foot for him. -- I also told'chyu we had 2 call Davinder b4 we left dis place, innit, so any a u chiefs know his mobile? (15)
-- and I don't want to rush through it.

I also have a number of other qualifying books on Mt. TBR (to be read):
~ The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin
~ Elements of Style by Wendy Wasserstein
~ The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
~ The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
but as they say "too many books, too little time." I'll just have to get to them when I get to them.

In any case, it's been a great week. I've discovered some great new blogs and read about some great new books. From my perspective, it was a resounding success.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Debut a Debut: Jade Tiger

I actually received this book on Tuesday to review for Front Street Reviews from Juno Books, a new imprint focusing on fantasy with strong female protagonists. The timing was just too perfect; I couldn't not read and review the book for Debut a Debut...

Jade Tiger by Jenn Reese

Song Shan is only twelve years-old when a disaster tears apart her family, destroying everything she holds dear. She flees her Chinese homeland entrusted with a small jade tiger and the legacy of a secret society of female fighters. The tiger is just one piece of the mystical Jade Circle that has been at the heart of her family for almost fifteen hundred years.

The Jade Circle is “the cornerstone of [her family’s] past and [their] future, of [their] power and [their] pride” (32). As an adult Shan is driven by the unbalanced influence of the tiger and she knows she cannot be content until the circle is reunited and in the right hands. Shan’s quest to recover the four missing statues takes her across three continents, testing the limits of the martial arts skill she has cultivated since girlhood and forcing her to confront the demons in her past.

Jade Tiger is a fantasy novel with a touch of romance. It’s also a thriller. Fast paced and compulsively readable, the novel is over almost before you know it. Reese’s love of the martial arts is evident throughout the novel, imbuing a story full of fight scenes with an air of authenticity.

A sympathetic character fully realized by Reese, Shan’s development over the course of the novel is extremely satisfying. Some of the supporting characters, however, are a bit one-dimensional. Shan’s love interest Ian, for example, is a good guy to the extent of having no real personality flaws. That being said, Reese does people the novel with a wide variety of supporting characters including an academic Don Juan, a one-eyed bruiser, and a feisty sixty-year-old with more martial arts skill in her little finger than most have in their whole bodies.

While Reese’s freshman effort lacks a certain sophistication, it does show a great deal of potential. This reviewer fully expects to see more from Reese in the future.

To learn more about Jade Tiger and its author, visit Reese's website.

This review (or something closely approximating it) will be appearing on Front Street Reviews in the next few days.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Debut a Debut: Torch

I discovered the following novel while reading an article in Library Journal,1 a retrospective of the season's top debut novels designed to "alert librarians to writers who bear watching"...

Torch by Cheryl Strayed

Teresa Rae Wood is a firecracker. After escaping an abusive marriage she comes into her own. The host of her own radio show, Modern Pioneers!, Teresa lives an idyllic life in small-town Minnesota with common-law husband Bruce and her two children: 17-year-old Josh and 20-year-old Claire. When, out of the blue, Teresa is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the family's whole world changes. Within months Teresa is dead. Reeling from the shock, Bruce, Claire, and Josh falter; the family comes apart at the seams.

Torch is less a novel about someone suffering from cancer as it is an exploration of the anatomy of grief. The whole feeling of the novel changes with Teresa's death. It becomes more fragmented, mirroring of the lives of the family.

In Torch, Strayed looks honestly at grief and suffering. Her characters are fully realized, immensely human in their failings and small triumphs, and her descriptions of rural Minnesota have an air of authenticity. Smattered with the inescapable humor of everyday life, the novel is more than just sad. All this combines to make a story that, though it is fiction, is true.

An accomplished novel -- a novel that does not read like a debut -- Torch speaks eloquently to anyone who has suffered a great loss. How it affects others, I can't honestly say. Reading this book and writing this review I can't hide from the fact that my best friend died when I was nine and that I make my husband change the channel whenever the trailer for the soon-to-be released Bridge to Terabitha movie comes on. And, that's a good thing.

A successful essayist, Strayed has an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University.
You can learn more about Strayed and her work at her website.

1131, no.16 (October 1, 2006): 38-41.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Debut a Debut: Kabbalah

In honor of Valentines Day (and the fact that I didn't go to work today) I decided to feature a book that I wasn't originally planning to read and review for Debut a Debut...

Kabbalah: A Love Story by Lawrence Kushner

Fitting for a rabbi who has authored over a dozen books on Jewish mysticism and spirituality, Kushner's first work of fiction is an allegorical novel centered around Jewish mysticism.

Kalman Stern is a rabbi who teaches courses on mysticism at the college. A resounding failure in his personal life, Stern immerses himself in his work. His secret wish is to have a mystical experience just once before he dies. When a mysterious letter falls out of the binding of his copy of the Zohar (the master text of Kabbalah), Stern's life begins to change in unexpected ways...

An ambitious novel that falls short of meeting its full potential, Kabbalah is nonetheless potent. Multilayered and full, despite its short length, the novel introduces readers to some of the basics of Kabbalah (which is a real draw right now given the current interest in it thanks to the involvement of some high-powered celebrities in the Kabbalah Centre) even including an index of citations. More than that, though, Kabbalah poses thought-provoking questions, making it a book that bears rereading.

While fiction junkies may be somewhat disappointed with Kushner’s character development, Kabbalah is thoughtfully written. The way Kushner weaves together the various threads of his story -- as well how he allows different versions of the same event to be equally true -- illustrates in a very powerful way exactly what he is trying to elucidate in the novel.

More information on Kushner and his work can be found on his website.

And, since I seem to be on a cover kick lately, I should say that this book’s dust jacket is gorgeous.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Debut a Debut: The Interpretation of Murder

I've actually had the first book I'm featuring for Debut a Debut on Mt. TBR for quite a while. It seems that the contest was just what I need to propel the book to the top of my list.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

In 1909, after being invited to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Sigmund Freud made his first and only visit to the United States accompanied by then-disciple Carl Jung as well as the less well-known psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi. The visit prompted Freud to call America "a gigantic mistake" and all Americans "savages." He also blamed the trip for many physical ailments some of which predated the visit; no one is exactly sure why. The exploration of that question is the premise of law professor and first-time novelist Jed Rubenfeld's historical thriller The Interpretation of Murder.

In Rubenfeld's version of events, Freud's animosity toward America is a result of what happened while he was staying in New York City before his lecture series. During that week, Freud and his followers become involved in a strange murder investigation and are blackmailed by people trying to impede the introduction of psychoanalysis to the country.

When society girl Nora Acton, having survived a brutal attack strikingly similar to a recent murder, is suffering from crypto-amnesia and hysterical muteness, it seems that psychoanalysis may help catch a serial killer. Due to his prior committments, Freud delegates the analysis/treatment to protagonist and narrator Stratham Younger (a fictional character described as "America's most committed Freudian analyst") and so the tale begins to unfold.

Within the novel, historical personages -- including Abraham Brill (Freud's translator and one of America's first proponents of psychoanalysis), G. Stanley Hall (president of Clark University and founder of the American Psychological Association), and New York's mayor George McClellan -- mingle with fictional characters like Stratham Younger, Nora Acton (loosely based on Freud's real-life patient "Dora"), coroner Charles Hugel, and Detective James Littlemore, making for a very realistic tale. The Interpretation of Murder is steeped in period detail, providing a painfully accurate portrait of early 20th Century New York City (Rubenfeld includes an author's note in which he explains exactly where the novel deviates from historical fact).

While I enjoyed "seeing" Freud and Jung "in the flesh" so to speak, I found the novel to be less thrilling than expected. The story seems to get a bit lost in the details. For example, while including so many specifics about Jung and Freud, their individual neuroses, and their relationship did enhance their stock as fictional characters, it detracted (and distracted) from the story itself. In any case, this is an easy mistake for a first-time novelist to make and The Interpretation of Murder is nothing if not an ambitious novel. While it may not be perfect, it still makes for a fascinating read.

On a side note:
Strangely enough, one of my favorite things about the book is the cover design. That's not to say that the novel itself isn't good, it's just that the cover is amazing, masterfully done by Raquel Jaramillo. The photo that you see through the window in the black dustjacket wraps around the book itself and evokes the scene of the book's first murder. Just wonderful...

Another side note:
The Freud Museum in Vienna has a wonderful group photo taken at Clark in 1909. You can see it here.

It's Debut a Debut week!

I am so happy to report that today is the first day of the Debut a Debut contest.

Because I was out of town for the better part of last week I'm not quite ready to post my first 'Debut a Debut' review so you'll just have to check in tomorrow to see what I've picked to read for the contest.
Right now I'm planning on featuring three debut novels, though if I'm really productive this week I may be able to squeeze in a fourth.

You can read more about the contest here.

And to whet your appetite for the week ahead, go here to see a list of qualifying debut novels and contest prizes.

If you are participating in the contest, leave me some links so I can check out your 'Debut a Debut' reviews.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Behind the Eyes

Behind the Eyes by Francisco X. Stork

Growing up in a violence-ridden housing project, sixteen-year-old Hector Robles kept his head to the ground. A studious boy, he was the last person anyone would expect to end up on the wrong side of a feud with the local gang. However, when his impulsive older bother sets his sights on Gloria, the neighborhood knockout and on-again, off-again girlfriend of Chava, leader of the Discípulos, that’s exactly what happens.

Victim of his own impulsiveness, Hector gets caught in what seems to be a never ending cycle of violence. When he realizes that leaving El Paso is the only thing he can do to protect himself and his family, Hector agrees to go to Furman, a reform school one step away from a juvenile detention facility. The influence of the Discípulos is far-reaching and, even with the protections that Furman offers, Hector knows that he is not completely safe.

A coming of age story centered around finding inspiration in unexpected places, building internal discipline, and the importance of overcoming fear, Behind the Eyes charts Hector's rocky journey to manhood and self-knowledge. Throughout the novel, Stork juxtaposes the present with the recent past, allowing the reader to gain insight into Hector and the reason he is at Furman at the same time as Hector is struggling to understand and his own part in what happened in El Paso.

Peopled with a vast array of fairly realistic characters, the novel explores the all-too-real struggles of children growing up in the inner city. However, while the story is interesting and compulsively readable, it lacks a sense of urgency. Despite being set both in the projects of El Paso and within a military-style reform school, Behind the Eyes fails to be as gritty as expected. Though this may be because the book is targeted to a young adult audience, one can't help feeling that the book has been somewhat sanitized. That being said, an unexpected ending does give the novel – and Hector's character – substance.

A Boston-based lawyer, Francisco Stork has a background in Latin American literature. His debut novel, The Way of the Jaguar, received second place in the 25th anniversary Chicano/Latino Literary Prize competition in 1999. Behind the Eyes is Stork's first novel for young adults.

Reviewed for Front Street Reviews.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

One Good Turn

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

Edinburgh is abuzz with the annual Fringe Festival, packed to the gills with tourists taking in the festival fare. When a road rage incident leaves one visitor to the city hospitalized, a complex net of mystery and intrigue begins to envelop everyone who witnessed the attack.

Ex-cop, ex-private investigator Jackson Brodie (the protagonist of Atkinson’s 2004 hit, Case Histories) is suffering from post-retirement depression. A visit to Edinburgh with his potentially-unfaithful girlfriend, small-time actress Julia, does nothing to brighten his mood. His trip goes from bad to worse in quick succession as he first finds the body of a dead girl, which mysteriously disappears taking with it his credibility, and then is attacked by "Honda Man," the perpetrator of the road rage incident he witnessed the day before. When he realizes that the two incidents must be connected – after all "a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen" is his mantra – Brodie is determined to figure out what’s going on, much to the chagrin of Detective Inspector Louise Monroe, who has enough problems to worry about without Brodie interfering with her investigations.

Russian matryoshka dolls are a fitting theme for this wonderfully complex novel of plots within plots. Peopled with a variety of finely drawn characters, One Good Turn is evidence of Atkinson's ability to infuse the crime genre with the literary fiction that has been her trademark since she debuted with the Whitbread-winning Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Although One Good Turn is Atkinson's second book featuring Jackson Brodie, it does stand on its own. While readers of Case Histories enjoy a better understanding of Brodie's backstory, there is nothing in One Good Turn that hinges on knowledge gained in Case Histories. Fans of Atkinson's stouthearted protagonist will be happy to know that the author leaves herself room for another sequel.

Read my full review of the audio version on Armchair Interviews.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Check out a debut (2)

Another book that would make a good choice for the Debut a Debut contest is...
Ellis Avery's novel, The Teahouse Fire.

Book description:
A sweeping debut novel drawn from a history shrouded in secrets about two women--one American, one Japanese--whose fates become entwined in the rapidly changing world of late-nineteenth-century Japan.
When nine-year-old Aurelia Bernard takes shelter in Kyoto's beautiful and mysterious Baishian teahouse after a fire one night in 1866, she is unaware of the building's purpose. She has just fled the only family she's ever known: after her French immigrant mother died of cholera in New York, her abusive missionary uncle brought her along on his assignment to Christianize Japan. She finds in Baishian a place that will open up entirely new worlds to her--and bring her a new family.
An utterly absorbing story told in an enchanting and unforgettable voice, The Teahouse Fire is a lively, provocative, and lushly detailed historical novel of epic scope and compulsive readability.

Chapter one is available on the author's website.
And, for more on Avery and her novel, visit Powells.com to read an original essay, "Tea and the Writing of The Teahouse Fire."

Avery will be coming to Buffalo this month. Giving a reading at Buff State's Rooftop Poetry Club on the 9th and another (which will be accompanied by a tea ceremony demonstration) at tru-teas on the 10th.