Category Archives: Fiction

Scone Island – Frederick Ramsay The Happiness Advantage – Shawn Achor

Still reading and even more all over the map than during the challenge. In some ways I miss the discipline of one book and one blog post per day. But I would have to be an heiress to keep that up so it is something of a relief to let go of the deadlines. Oddly, though, I detest the daily grind of imposed work-for-hire that eats hours of time in research and writing to formula and for a pittance. It was slightly easier to face that when I wrote something just because I wanted to every day. That development could use more thought.

Scone Island was a pretty good adventure–political thriller, if you can imagine such a thing set on a sparsely inhabited tiny island off the coast of Maine with no electricity or phone service but plenty of spooks and bad guys out to get them. Frederick Ramsay writes convincingly about CIA operations and various National Security Agency type scenarios. His bio doesn’t list any insider experience though so I wondered for the whole book how much of it I could trust and how much wouldn’t pass scrutiny by a true intelligence agent.

The hero of the story is Ike Schwartz, a small-town sheriff now and a former undercover operative who is suddenly a target in a deadly web of assassinations. His serious heartthrob, Dr. Ruth Dennis, the president of a university, is recovering from a health trauma involving a broken leg as well as a brutal year managing a faculty mutiny and the two run away to Scone Island for some R&R. Ruth has inherited a cottage from her aunt and Ike slips a generator and a real coffee pot into their gear, not being much of a fan of roughing it. They arrive on Scone Island to hear about a fatal fall from a cliff that will affect, almost immediately, their own safety.

Lots happens. Some of it is very far out there. Good amount of tension and the requisite international issue at stake. Ruth’s mother Eden is a pistol. I liked it enough to read another one–it’s part of a series–but the location really did have its limits and the constant verbal sparring between Ruth and Ike was exhausting after a while.

The Happiness Advantage is Shawn Achor’s bible of how–and why–to be happy. It’s a positive psychology book that cites an impressive number of studies showing the effect optimism and a feeling of well-being can have on your health, career, productivity, longevity and other significant bits of your life. I really really liked the first half of the book in which Achor talks about the cult of the average, positive outliers, the power of your mindset, the tetris effect (getting stuck in a mind-loop), and, in general, how happiness precedes success and not the other way around. Lots of very good science in language a lay person can easily absorb. (Achor, like the Harvard grad student he was, footnotes his references copiously at the end of the book.)

The second half seemed to stretch on–and on. Achor is a corporate trainer and I think he just turned the advice too much into career and company success tips for me. I preferred the personal information and I’ve read (or been subjected to) most of the corporate remedy stuff before. Heavy social networking is one of Achor’s rules for achievement, for instance,  and that seemed tiresome, even though I know connection and community are mental health pluses. But Achor does have a fair amount to say about how your mind and attitude directly impact the minutest details of your existence so The Happiness Advantage holds up.  Stick with the early chapters unless you are a corporate manager trying to jazz your team out of a slump.

 The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work   Shawn Achor | Crown Business   2010

 Scone Island: An Ike Schwartz Mystery   Frederick Ramsay| Poisoned Pen Press  2012

An Acceptable Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle is a great storyteller so I saved her book, An Acceptable Time, for last. It’s a different kind of wrinkle in time. Polly has moved in with her grandparents, both distinguished scientists, who live in an old farmhouse in New England on land that has been inhabited for thousands of years. It’s a very different world from the Carolina coastal island where her marine biologist parents live with the rest of their large brood. Polly is meant to study sciences and prepare herself for college but empirical science intervenes. She encounters a strange man and a dog in the woods and then an acquaintance from her summer job in Greece. Later she sees a frantic young girl with a long dark braid in her grandparents’ pool house.

When a neighbor, a retired Protestant bishop, brings Ogam stones, with their ancient carved alphabet, to her grandparents’ house, Polly’s story catches his attention. Because he has seen the same people–and traveled back in time just as Polly accidentally has, and suspects there is a tesseract, a fold of time that opens worlds, and that the whole thing has something to do with Druids. It’s very interesting if you like all things Druid. L’Engle circles and circles back to build her case for this opening in time. The charming but completely self-absorbed summer acquaintance inserts himself into Polly’s life.  The scientists are skeptical but they can’t discount independent testimony entirely. Samhain, the Druid holy time when the veil between worlds is thin, is approaching and every attempt to protect Polly from some danger in the time slip, including sending her off on a date with the summer boy, fails.

As Polly becomes enmeshed in a three-thousand-year-old society on the land where the farm now sits, her life is threatened in horrible ways and her trust in people is severely tested. There are brave hearts and blackguards in this tale and Polly will deal with each as she tries to mend hostilities, fractured psyches and an environmental catastrophe that could mark her as a blood sacrifice. The story never condescends to the ancient people in the time travel and, in the end, Polly is no Pollyanna, although I was exasperated by her even-tempered treatment of idiots from time to time. But the science is fun and the adventure is lively and the worlds L’Engle builds are convincing ones.  An Acceptable Time was a good choice for a last book. And now to bed. No more late late late nights finishing the story of the day. Or not too many anyway.

An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet)   Madeleine L’Engle | Farrar, Straus and Giroux   1989

Glamour in Glass – Mary Robinette Kowal

Napoleon has abdicated and the Continent is at last safe for Jane and Vincent to chance a honeymoon in Belgium. The two are glamourists, magical illusionists who can create living scenes at will and cause people to disappear in a bubble of invisibility. The French-Belgian world is more open and more intrigue-filled than anything Jane is accustomed to but she quickly resuscitates her shabby French and tries to understand why her husband seems to be hiding something from her. Glamour in Glass is a fantasy set in the language and era of Jane Austen by Mary Robinette Kowal, who goes to some lengths to excise most words that wouldn’t have existed in Austen’s day.

Newlywed Jane is not as accomplished as David but she is the one who comes up with the idea to trap a glamour in glass, inventing a bauble which does magic, although the beta model only works in direct sunlight. It also takes so much energy from her that she falls ill and is nauseous and exhausted for days. Meanwhile Vincent rides out to meet with clients daily without Jane and she is frantic to know what is going on.  As the reason for her illness becomes clear, she makes a shocking discovery about the man she married and the dangerous secret he has kept from her.

And then Napoleon escapes captivity and marches back to Paris and Brits Jane and Vincent are trapped in political intrigue and betrayal, a torturous captivity and a life-threatening bid for escape.  The whole glamour thing is so unusual that it takes some energy on the part of the reader to maintain the illusion. But Glamour in Glass is worth the work. It’s a terrific story with a few surprising twists and turns, characters who behave uncharacteristically to add surprises to the plot and reasonably accurate enough history to be convincing. Good book. Odd but good  idea. Kowal published a well-received prequel to this adventure and it’s probably worth hunting for so I’ll put it on my non-urgent library list for the day when I have the time to read purely for pleasure and escape again.

Glamour in Glass   Mary Robinette Kowal | Tor Books   2012

Scandal on Rincon Hill – Shirley Tallman

Scandal on Rincon Hill is a period murder mystery but I wouldn’t call it a legal thriller as one book review did. Shirley Tallman creates a heroine who is an anomaly in nineteenth century San Francisco, a young woman fervently dedicated to her profession as an attorney with the support of her family, more or less. The “less” is her mother’s heartfelt desire to see her married and settled. But Sarah Woolson has determined that, as married women are the property of their husbands (legally, really!) and not free to develop their own careers, marriage is a state she can never afford. Nonetheless, she is ardently pursued by two very attractive and persistent polar opposites throughout her adventures.

Sarah seems to be operating a one-woman legal services clinic–her clients are prostitutes and indigent Chinese laborers, fresh off the boat. She moves without too much propriety through the seedier back alleys of San Francisco, popping in and out of upscale bawdy houses, disreputable newspaper offices and murder scenes at will. When a scientist is brutally murdered just blocks from her home in a “good” neighborhood, the tabloids go berserk. Then another, similar murder happens and the police are hellbent to pin the crimes on someone and stop the public panic. The two murders appear to be related, although no one can connect them to a killer. And then two young Chinese immigrants are arrested and framed for the crime.

Meanwhile Sarah gets involved with a beautiful “kept” woman who has been dumped on the street by her prominent married lover, despite a signed contract that he will support her. She and her cherubic infant take up residence in the city’s fanciest bordello and she approaches Sarah to represent her in a suit against the ex-lover. The boss of the Chinese tong, well-known to Sarah, takes an interest in the fate of the Chinese suspects who seem destined for a lynch mob. Sarah is spotted going into the bordello by an unscrupulous reporter who writes about her indiscretion in a lurid tabloid. A slick, besotted shipping magnate, a hunk naturally, returns from Hong Kong to pursue Sarah. Her former colleague–less smooth, equally besotted–lurks around, scowling. Her beloved brother is still pretending to be a law clerk but really establishing a major reputation as a fearless crime reporter, unbeknownst to their father, the judge. It’s complicated. And the murders aren’t over yet.

Pretty good light reading–some nice historical detail and some conversational ticks that seem a bit mannered. Sarah is extremely aware of acceptable convention and rather pushy and that isn’t always believable in her corseted society.  The characters aren’t too deeply imagined but the stereotypes hold up if you don’t expect too much. The resolution is sudden and neater than I could cheer about–can’t really see it coming, even after it happens. But decent escapist mystery, no real thrills, characters to follow but not really root for. Pure genre, not high art but not bad.

Scandal on Rincon Hill: A Sarah Woolson Mystery (Sarah Woolson Mysteries)   Shirley Tallman | St. Martin’s Press   2010

Squids Will Be Squids – Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith are like those bad boys at the magazine I once worked for who nearly always included jokes about Uruguay and boogers in their copy that you knew were coming but that made you snigger anyway. (I’m talking about you, Dave Barry.)  Squids Will Be Squids is a mad take on Aesop’s Fables that even manages to make fun of poor old Aesop. It’s kind of funny, though.

The art is wonderfully wacky, as it always is in Scieszka/Lane collaborations, and so is the text. Every double spread has a page of instructive parable in multi-sized fonts about creatures like elephants, ants, pigeons, termites, rabbits, duckbilled platypuses (Yes, that is the correct plural. I looked it up.), blowfish, echidnae, pieces of toast, Froot Loops–all the usual protagonists in a fable. There is a cogent moral to sum up each tale. An excellent and cautionary moral, if you are of the feathered persuasion, is: Whatever looks like a pigeon and acts like a pigeon usually makes good pigeon pie. (The particulars of that fable are too appalling to repeat.) Another really pithy reminder is: You should always tell the truth. But if your mom is out having the hair taken off her lip, you might want to forget a few of the details.

One moral involving a beefsnakstick and the aforementioned platypus has a conclusion especially relevant in our carcinogenic consumer culture: Just because you have a lot of stuff, don’t think you’re so special. Not your thing? How about: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Or: It takes one to know one?  I thought there was a moment of undeniable truth in the fable about Skunk, Musk Ox and Cabbage: He who smelt it, dealt it. You can imagine how that story went.

There were a couple of chuckles in Squids Will Be Squids and maybe a hilarity-fest for a small boy who likes fart jokes. Or a grown boy who likes booger humor. Or anyone who just enjoys the very mildly outrageous and slightly goofy and is willing to enter the Scieszka/Lane crazyverse for a while. If  you read this with some kids who think you are stuffy, hopelessly boring and humorless, they will get a marginally better opinion of you. Could be worth it.

Squids Will Be Squids (Picture Puffins)   Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith | Viking  1998

I Will Never NOT EVER Eat a Tomato – Lauren Child

Lauren Child is a wicked spirit from a world in which no grown-ups are allowed. She records the exploits of clever children in paintbox-bright collages of drawings, photographs, patterned paper maybe? and what looks like oil paint crayons. Her books and pint-sized characters are delicious–Clarice Bean is among my favorite utterly self-assured little bad girls. I Will Never NOT EVER Eat a Tomato, a Charlie and Lola book, is a triumph of art and imagination over picky eaters everywhere.

Charlie has this little sister Lola who crosses her arms over her chest and looks at him sideways. You can tell by the look she is one big NO. Lola is a “very fussy eater,” which is a challenge for Charlie when his parents ask him to give her dinner. (We assume the parents are too exhausted to parent the mini-dynamo. Or maybe they have power-player Wall St. jobs and don’t ever make it home before bedtime.) Charlie, though, has a few tricks up his sleeve to deal with an immovable object who only opens her mouth at the table to declare what she will not eat: carrots (for rabbits), peas (too green), potatoes, mushrooms, spaghetti, eggs, sausages, cauliflower, cabbage, baked beans, bananas, oranges, apples, rice, cheese, fish sticks–and NEVER tomatoes. Tough customer.

Ah, but Charlie is undaunted. He agrees she should never touch a single one of those things, even as he puts a bowl of carrots on the table. Lola calls him on it, just before he patiently explains that they aren’t carrots–they are orange twiglets from the planet Jupiter. The peas are incredibly rare green drops from Greenland that fall from the sky. The mashed potatoes are cloud fluff from the top of Mount Fuji. The fish sticks are mermaid snacks from the supermarket under the sea. And, according to Lola, those round red things she would like Charlie to pass to her are moonsquirters. Well, naturally. What did you think they were? Tomatoes?

You are very unsophisticated. Charlie is a genius. And Lola is practically a vegan by the end of the book–except for the fish sticks. It’s yummy. It could simplify melodramatic meals at your house, too. Serve it up right before a big salad with a side of whimsy and see what happens. Then go out and collect every loopy book of Lauren Child’s that you can find. She’s really really good. So are moonsquirters.

I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato (Charlie and Lola)   Lauren Child | Candlewick Press   2000

Gawain and the Green Knight – Mark Shannon and David Shannon

I’m familiar with David Shannon’s hilarious, evil “David” books. No David! is the first of those and they star a bad little boy whose exuberance keeps him in hot water and his mother on repeat admonishing “No!” It’s so easy to see how this kid goes off the rails every time he moves that it is perfectly safe to read and enjoy the books with a kid–David is such a mess that even children can laugh at the trouble he gets himself into. So, I was curious to read a different sort of Shannon book, a collaboration between David Shannon, artist, and his brother Mark, writer, on one of King Arthur’s tales. Gawain and the Green Knight is for a slightly older but still unsophisticated crowd. The story of Gawain, the youngest of the Knights of the Round Table–and something of a kid brother–simplifies the rich world of Celtic myth and legend into a one-note quest that proves steadfastness and courage.

The illustrations are rich but rather dark. I liked the touch of ending a white text page with a small woven tapestry (painted) that depicts another visual element of the words on that page. Gawain is hesitant and tongue-tied until he impulsively takes the challenge of a mysterious Green Knight who appears in the midst of Arthur’s warriors. The knight is enormous and wagers that a man brave enough to strike him with an ax will not prevail. Being knights, only honor is at stake–the challenge is just yuletide sport. Being males, pointless violent stunts are irresistible, so the wager is on. Naturally, there is a catch. Gawain chops off the knight’s head and the knight picks it up and booms out the penalty. Gawain will have to travel to his Green Chapel and allow the knight his counter blow.

Complications, in the form of a fair lady who embroiders Gawain a protective sash and a magical couple and castle where Gawain spends the night before riding to the Green Chapel, allow Gawain to show his true mettle. It’s very high-minded with almost no blood and the good guys triumph in the end. Arthurian stories are marvelous and I would never hesitate to put one in front of a kid but I don’t know how much this one would captivate. I found it a little flat–possibly a chivalrous small boy would think it was exciting and cool.  Not a hapless mini-disaster-area like David Shannon’s anti-hero David, though. Put Gawain and the Green Knight in front of him and he’d probably spill purple grape juice all over it.

Gawain and Green Knight   Mark Shannon & David Shannon | G. P. Putnam’s Sons   1994

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic might as easily be named The Book of Lists. Julie Otsuka inscribes a library of research into a slim volume that is almost poetic in its evocative spareness. She tells the story of the Japanese “picture brides” who traveled by ship to the West coast at the turn of the last century to marry men who had sent handsome photographs and eloquent letters–not written by them and not depicting them. Reality was harsh. The sea voyage was hard to endure; their husbands were field workers, twenty years older than the photos, someone else entirely, house servants, not bankers. Their new homes were sacks in sheds at the edges of farms where they picked in the fields all day. Or bare bones servants’ lodgings at the back of the house or in one of the out buildings. Their wedding nights were closer to rape than romance; their lives were exhausting, unending labor. They washed and ironed in laundries, cooked and served in restaurants, escaped from brutal husbands to find work in the bawdy houses in California’s cities, filled the sleeves of their wedding kimonos with stones and waded into the Pacific.

The whole immigrant experience is encapsulated in words that make a slide show of images and impressions. Children are born, live or not, acculturate, lose the customs and the language, turn away from their families to become Americans. And then World War II comes, and Pearl Harbor, and the infamous reception centers are set up and the neat, hard-won homes, the established restaurants, the quiet, orderly presence of the Japanese is suddenly erased. The outrage in this book is palpable. In saying very little, it says everything. Line-by-line, layer-by-layer, Julie Otsuka builds a world of hope, despair, persistence, achievement and overnight devastation. When I first learned about the Japanese concentration camps in this country, many years after my “American history” courses in school, I was appalled. But it seemed so distant, so unimaginably backward, an aberration I couldn’t really comprehend. The Buddha in the Attic makes the whole ragged struggle of being an immigrant visceral, the deportation of an entire ethnic group to internment camps vivid and unforgivable.

It won’t take too many hours to read this small book but the high-definition cinema of its story will stay in your head for a long time.

The Buddha in the Attic   Julie Otsuka | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

The Book of Madness and Cures – Regina O’Melveny

In Renaissance Venice, a brilliant and unusual young woman is the only female doctor permitted to practice. She is the companion, research assistant and student of her father, himself a renowned physician. Gabriella Mondini is passionate about her healing work and the knowledge she and her father are assembling into his magnum opus, The Book of Diseases, a compendium of everything known about medicinal plants, highly imaginative cures, folk remedies, bezoars and other medical marvels. And then her father disappears.

The Book of Madness and Cures is Gabriella’s search for her elusive father and for her own identity. He has been journeying for some unspecified purpose for ten years, writing to her sporadically from various university towns in Italy, Scotland, Morocco and then vanishing. Soon enough, without the sponsorship of her famous father, the physician’s guild withdraws permission for Gabriella to practice. Over her mother’s protests, she sets out with two longtime family servants and her own medical chest to retrace his steps.

Regina O’Melveny’s richly layered novel is crammed with details of the hardships of travel, the learning of distinguished physicians at some of Europe’s great universities, the stubborn hope of an intrepid young woman that her beloved father will be found alive, her growing dismay as she tracks disturbing stories of mad behavior and begins to suspect that some family curse may have set him in flight from her.

Very dense book but a real story with fleshed -out characters, a colorful  historical canvas and a classic journey to the interior of the self.  Gabriella is single-minded in her search, curious about the amazing breadth of knowledge that begins to unfold for her, faithful to transcribing all she discovers into a book of her own, worthy of publication. It works on many levels. Nothing cliched–and wholly believable, if startling and dramatic, plot developments. The Book of Madness and Cures is well-named on a number of levels. I would re-read it for the vast amount of information I probably missed tackling it as a one-day read.

The Book of Madness and Cures: A Novel   Regina O’Melveny | Little, Brown and Company   2012

In Bed with a Highlander – Maya Banks

In my quest to decipher just what inspires a seven-figure advance to a romance novelist, I tucked into a different series by Maya Banks. In Bed with a Highlander was definitely a better story than the  quasi-military pandering and weird paranormal oddities in the last Banks book I read. This one has a classic story of gruff lord of the keep–laird in this case as we are in Scotland–falling under the spell of the obstinate and spunky young woman who enters his protection unwillingly but eventually romps with great enthusiasm in his bed. Plots of regicide, internal perfidy, threats and violence abound. The characters were as unstable as romance characters usually are–tough and then unaccountably shy and then tough again, no real substance to them. But attractive, volatile, highly-sexed, multi-orgasmic and beset by battles at every turn.

The oddest thing is the way these books are slapped together and marketed, as if the story there is exists only to fill the pages with predictable dangers and sex–and then more danger and more sex, punctuated by startling moments of personal enlightenment in which the main players admit that they love each other. It’s a convention of the genre; it’s fine. But the cover! The cover of In Bed… was truly weird. A battle-scarred Scottish laird, muscled and shaggy, is depicted as a hairless, shirtless bodybuilder from Venice, California wearing a pair of shorts. The heroine, a Scottish bastard with green eyes, Celtic curling hair and clothes of the period is a sinuous Asian vamp with long dark hair and a sort of blue teddy-like thing that has just a little too much fabric in it to be from Victoria’s Secret.  Does this indicate that the publisher believes the intended audience for a Scottish period romance is too stupid to require more than half-naked bodies in a clinch set against a backdrop of green tartan? Tacky.

I’m getting this genre a bit now.  I’ll probably need a few more books to suss out why it is so appealing as a storyline to so many people.  Romance sells like hotcakes–hot romance like hotcakes with real maple syrup. Is it Cinderella for grown-ups, or Sleeping Beauty maybe? I’m puzzled at the flattened-out nature of it but that might just be because I’m not reading more complex, nuanced versions of the basic plot. Murder mysteries are more satisfying, in general, although the badly written ones are as bad as anything unreadable, whatever the genre. So, no more contemporary military types with their bulging jeans and Wal-Mart spectrum of emotions.  I might hunt for historical romantica so there is at least some marginal world-building to examine in between the sighs, moans, poisoned goblets of ale and clashing of bloody swords.

In Bed with a Highlander (McCabe Trilogy)   Maya Banks | Ballantine Books  2011