Monthly Archives: November 2011

Secrets at Sea – Richard Peck

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Secrets at Sea is a tale of tails—and whiskers and scampering and crumbs of Bel Paese and thimbles of tea. The Cranstons are mice from an old, really old, New York family. Currently they live in a rambling mansion inhabited by human Cranstons, rather a nouveau bunch by mouse accounting. The remaining mice Cranstons, Helena, Louise, Beatrice and boy-in-trouble Lamont, live in the walls and keep things going nicely. Mama and two older siblings drowned in the rain barrel. Papa was done in by the barn cat as he nibbled a dropped ear of corn. Helena is the eldest and in charge and she is busy from morning to night.

A snake gets Lamont by the tail and Helena must rescue the tail and sew it back on—a risky job for a cosmetically-flawed effect but a mouse does what she can. Louise sits on the bed of the youngest Cranston, Camilla, every night and listens to Camilla’s day. Louise understands several languages, of course, but the poor teenage human has no idea how to interpret mouse so Louise holds her tongue, cocks her head sympathetically and gets all the latest dirt.

Beatrice swoons over boys, any and all boys, as long as they are mice. She has to be watched. And the Cranstons have a shocking secret that threatens to upend generations of New York Cranston mice and expose them to deadly peril. Olive, the klutzy, sallow, unpopular elder Cranston girl, cannot interest a beau for love nor money. So the whole family plans a European tour in time for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, just “to give Olive her chance.”

This is very bad news indeed because if there is one thing mice do not encounter well it is water. And the trip to Europe involves many days on a large ship entirely surrounded by water. Nevertheless, the house will be closed up for who knows how long. The food will disappear and no cozy fires will warm the grates. The foolish Cranstons need some oversight by more socially adept creatures. So the mice stow away and the adventure begins.

Do not think a sea voyage on a crowded ship with cats, constant pitching and rolling, slippery decks, a violently seasick Olive Cranston, mandatory lifeboat drills, assorted human and vermin nobility, and plots that unspool and then thicken is a piece of cake—although there is a fair amount of cake to be had. In fact, at one point Helena is inadvertently and completely iced in sticky pink. But no mind. Beatrice falls in mad love. Lamont apprentices himself to the shipboard mouse steward and develops a Cockney accent and a swagger. Louise plots to keep Camilla happy and Helena discovers she has as many lives as a cat—and needs every one.

Richard Peck sustains a charming voice and a classic fairytale adventure. There is plenty of wry humor and delicious description. Funny plot twists abound and a palace in merry oulde England is no more challenge for these self-assured mice than their upstate estate in New York was. Secrets at Sea is a middle grade book that will keep a young reader absorbed in something more amusing than the usual school tropes of failed tests, bullies and dumb tricks. But do yourself a favor. Volunteer to read it aloud so you get to enjoy it, too. And, if you have no handy kid, just savor the good writing and the clever tail/tale—whatever. Pure whimsy with a soupçon of Austen. Perfect.   

 Secrets at Sea    Richard Peck | The Penguin Group  2011

Prosperity Pie – Sark

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 Sark burst into my chaotic life with Inspiration Sandwich, her initial effort in 1992 that matched handpainted, childlike art with scraps of stories and words of wisdom from her own experience and that of a few self-help gurus. A Sark book is full of unexpected moments: a clock that stretches time by repeating one hour over and over, exhortations to choose “succulence” over predictable and dry activities, observations about self-acceptance and tricks to stay open to new ideas. Painting the whole thing together are the line drawings and color washes that characterize her work as exuberant and playful.

Prosperity Pie: How to Relax about Money and Everything Else takes a tricky topic and makes it manageable. Sark shares her own money foibles and sprinkles the stories with thought balloons for you to fill in like a lighthearted workbook. She quotes Rumi—Be a lamp or a lifeboat or a ladder–in painted hand-printing and highlights the whole quote with oil pastel (or maybe crayon) streaks of red, yellow, blue, and green. She harks back to Louise Hay, the octogenarian publisher of Hay House who preaches self-approval and an attitude of openness to life. She talks about all the ways we deify money or turn it into an ogre. “If money was on the table, I was under it” reads one cartoon with a picture of a crouched woman under a small table. She gives chatty advice and lists plenty of other books about how to relax and accept abundance, offer our true work in exchange for abundance, shift our consciousness to encourage abundance.

Prosperity Pie cooks up a cheerful repast to counter the gloomy indigestible buffet of scarcity and bitterness of this wrecked economy. We can change our own world, Sark claims, and fix what’s around us at the same time. Can’t argue with that unless you are a determined pessimist. Try a slice of Sark’s pie to liven up a dull meal. It has all the flavor and cockeyed optimism of childhood to cheer you up and cheer you on to that dreamscape of possibility that just might turn out to be real.

Prosperity Pie : How to Relax About Money and Everything Else    Sark | Simon & Schuster  2002

Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas

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Meg Carpenter ghost-writes formulaic YA books, keeps deleting chapters of her “real” novel back to the same 43 opening words, lives in Dartmouth in a moldering cottage with a complete loser of a boyfriend who refuses for some philosophical reason to get a paying job. She is always short of cash, food, cell phone minutes, patience with the verbally abusive boyfriend. But she is bright, curious, very functional and quirky enough to like and she has a very smart and equally likable dog.

When Meg reviews a book called “The Science of Living Forever” for the review fee, she encounters some intriguing ideas about immortality. When a friend texts her for help managing an affair that her partner is about to stumble across, Meg casually tells her to push her car in the river and tell the partner that’s why she is late—and the friend does. When Meg meets an older man who attracts her, she fantasizes about him, goes home to her slacker boyfriend—and takes up knitting socks. Her friend Vi is working on a theory of a “storyless story” and the fab dog operates with a kind of Yoda-like wisdom and can sense people arriving before they are anywhere within earshot or sight.

In childhood, Meg stumbled across a mysterious cottage in the woods where she was introduced to magic, faeries and fortunetelling, and saw a curious ship in a bottle. Many years later the same bottle washes up on the beach at her feet. It turns out to have significance for the older not-yet-lover who is conflicted about his own live-in relationship with a woman more-or-less his own age. Oy vey. Everybody is somehow connected to everybody else. Everybody is shagging everybody else, too, or at least thinking about it. Most of the characters are extremely bright—writers, artists, gallery directors, university professors—all probing the meaning of  life, reality, coincidence and deep metaphysical questions at every turn.

There is terrific description of the Devon countryside and many intense conversations over copious amounts of wine about what to do, why to do it and what it all means. Meg’s friend tells her to put some requests out to the universe and see what comes back. Meg is a confirmed skeptic but big change comes back—an unexpected check for a movie option that frees Meg to put some space between herself and loser-won’t-get-a-job-boyfriend Christopher, that ship in a bottle on the beach, a magical beach cottage that I wanted to move into immediately, a permanent gig writing a self-help column for a newspaper (more money for the starving freelancer), a workable concept–at last–for the breakout book, yarn to knit into socks and rhubarb to turn into jam.

Not much happens—events occur and Meg reacts to them but she only backs into change for much of the book so the sense of plot is almost missing. Maybe she is in a storyless story. Maybe her childhood friend Rosa did or did not throw herself under a train when she finished filming “Anna Karenina.” Maybe the author of the mysterious book was eaten by the mysterious beast of the Devon moors, if there is a beast, but maybe not. It sounds dreadful but Our Tragic Universe was actually an interesting read. I wanted to find out what happens. I didn’t mind that not too much does. I really loved that beachfront cottage—and the dog is great. You’ll love the dog.

Skip the book if you hate post-modern fiction, or writers and their underfunded angst, or endless conversations about ideas. But grab it if you like smart, good writing that pulls threads from everywhere and knits them into something more entertaining than a pair of socks.    

Our Tragic Universe  Scarlett Thomas | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2010

Blue Nights – Joan Didion

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Blue Nights is more like a poem than a memoir. Joan Didion writes about her daughter Quintana Roo, motherhood, loss, and aging in that succinct prose of hers that works like embroidery stitches—precise, practiced, selected with the impact of the finished piece in mind. She describes a sad journey to a dark place by editing out far more than she reveals and circling back to evocative fragments over and over.

Quintana died less than two years after the sudden death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, but she was already gravely ill when he died. She was 39 years old and succumbed to a septic infection that no medical intervention was able to cure, after repeated relapses, induced comas, emergency room visits and hospitalizations in intensive care units. A Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the cardiac arrest that claimed Dunne in their Manhattan apartment after a hospital visit to see Quintana, while Didion was preparing dinner in the kitchen. By the time the hugely popular best seller came out, Quintana, too, was gone and Didion could find no magic to sustain her through her losses.

The book’s title refers to a few weeks around the summer solstice when the evening light just before sunset turns a luminous blue. Didion says this doesn’t happen in southern California, where Quintana Roo was adopted and where she spent her childhood. But the blue light is observable in New York, where the family moved decades ago and where Quintana died. The blue is the same as the spent rods in nuclear reactors or stained glass in a cathedral, Didion notes, and I grant her poetic license because I have been in the spent fuel chambers of a nuclear reactor and seen the eerily beautiful blue light wavering up through the pools of water but I have never seen an evening or a sky like that in the city, or in Central Park.

It is a gentle metaphor, though, for all the sorrow in this slim reflection and there are other colors that pierce Didion’s prose and return again and again to haunt her: the peach-colored cake from Payard at Quintana’s wedding reception when the whole family was alive and together and unaware of what loomed ahead; the iridescent blue and green peacocks on the lawn of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; the red soles of Quintana’s Christian Louboutin satin shoes visible as she knelt at the altar; the white stephanotis she wove into her braid under her bridal veil. Months later, by the end of that year, Dunne was dead and Quintana was in the first of several comas.

There are other colors and bits and pieces of life picked up, examined, put down and then picked up again. Didion writes of the fear that is born with a child and how it never leaves you—the overwhelming need to make sure she is safe, the worry in advance about all the things that might go wrong, the late-night panic about how wrong you are, how unsuited to the task of shepherding this miraculous creature through childhood and into a fairytale life.

No fairytales, after all, in Blue Nights. Quintana goes to the right schools, travels with mom and dad on movie shoots and publicity tours, is articulate, bright and precocious as you might expect from a child with two successful writers for parents. And Quintana suffers from her own demons, years of therapy for inconclusive diagnoses—manic depression, alcohol abuse, OCD, suicidal ideation, borderline personality disorder. Didion searches her own soul for the blame. Was Quintana insecure because she was adopted? Were her parents too busy with their careers to give her enough attention? Was the child forced to grow up too quickly in a household of sharp minds and quick wits, an adult world? Maybe, as much as the fear, the impulse to self-blame comes with the territory of motherhood. Who is a perfect parent? Who is even a good-enough parent? These are unanswerable questions.

How do we survive after our children? Didion asks. What matters after everyone you loved is lost? What to do with the colors and the memories? How to grow old and frail alone, consigned to the waiting rooms of doctors and the apartment stuffed with mementos that can never bring back the husband, the daughter? It doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t fair—it just is. Didion stares at the bleak years and edits every meticulous word. She misses Quintana. “How could I not still need that child with me?” she asks. Blue Nights is Joan Didion’s poem about the ebb of a life. It is heartbreakingly sad.

Blue Nights  Joan Didion | Alfred A. Knopf  2011

Writing Jane Austen — Elizabeth Aston

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Georgina Jackson is the author of a critically acclaimed, award-winning, dismally selling, dismal novel set in her favorite grim era of British history. The acclaim was spectacular, two years ago, but the writer’s block she now has is equally spectacular and her bank account is teetering on the edge of empty when her rude, bitchy, intimidating agent calls with a deal.

Writing Jane Austen tracks the tortuous passage of a novelist through the wilds of plotting and writing a book she doesn’t believe she can pull off. What Gina’s awful but brilliant agent has negotiated for her is a contract to finish a recently discovered first chapter of a lost Jane Austen novel. The work will make Gina a household name and, more importantly, fill up that disastrous bank account. One problem—she hasn’t read a word of Austen doesn’t want to and can’t imagine how to pull off such a feat on a killer deadline with 3,000 handwritten Austen words as her point of departure.

This is a “Perils of Georgina” book as our heroine encounters evidence of Austen everywhere, writes nothing, dodges the incessant phone calls and demands of the horrible agent, a horrible publisher and his horrible researcher sister. She leases the garret of a London townhouse owned by an academic who needs the rent. His movie star girlfriend is on location in Ireland so he has a lot of time to commiserate with Gina as she thrashes on the hook of the contract. His oboe-playing kid sister runs away from her boarding school and shows up at the front door, ready to dye her hair purple, argue Austen’s case with Gina and refuse to attend any school because the discipline bores her.

Gina visits a few locations that Jane Austen inhabited or used for her novels, keeps resisting the assignment, drinks a lot of coffee and goes for long walks, trying to discover some method to call forth a book channeled from an author she knows almost nothing about. Gradually, her life begins to resemble an Austen novel and one day she finally picks up Pride and Prejudice, gets hooked and reads all six of Jane Austen’s books in a sleepless marathon. Which doesn’t solve her writer’s block. At least she now likes Austen.

Elizabeth Aston sprinkles her adventure with country estates, costume parties, kidnappings, phantasms from the pages of Jane Austen’s books that visit Gina in odd moments, lots of chat about writers, not writing, novel ways to write a novel, failed attempts to write a novel. The procrastination is so tangible in the book it nearly becomes a character. It made me downright uncomfortable, being an accomplished procrastinator myself. Complications straight out of an Austen plot pop up everywhere, the dialog slips in and out of Austen scenes, the landed gentry share the same intrigues, piques and obsessions as Austen’s characters. The love stories are no surprise and end in happily ever afters with well-matched couples triumphing over minor adversities to wed.

Gina eventually writes a book, after Jane Austen turns her life and her writing upside down. But what happens to it and to Gina is not precisely what you expected, dear reader. It’s fine and funny, though, and Writing Jane Austen is purely entertaining and well done. You might want to settle down with Emma or Mansfield Park at the end of it and lose yourself in genuine Austen territory, not a bad way to be inspired by a book.       

Writing Jane Austen: A Novel   Elizabeth Aston |  Touchstone  2010


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The Mozart Conspiracy — Scott Mariani

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I have to stop picking up books with the names of composers in the titles. At least I have to stop adding them to my reading stack before I scope them out. The Mozart Conspiracy by Scott Mariani was a fast-paced read but it really exhausted me. In true thriller fashion, the book opened with some gruesome and perverted incidents that were creepy enough to alert a sane reader to the havoc to follow. No claims for sanity here—reading a book a day in medias res is a less than rational challenge. So I read on, knowing full well things would get more horrible as the pages turned. They did.

Ben Hope is a former SAS officer, member of a British special services unit of highly trained operatives who carry out the most critical and dangerous missions. These days he’s a hero-for-hire, rescuing children from pedophile rings and solving complex and deadly crimes. Ben’s friend Oliver Llewellyn dies a suspicious death and Ben is contacted by an old flame, Oliver’s younger sister Leigh, a world famous opera star who happens to be the girl Ben left behind.

The twist is the Mozart letter, a document discovered in the hollow leg of an antique piano by the Llewellyns’ father. The letter contains a secret that reveals something important about Mozart’s puzzling death and may prove that he was murdered. Some people will stop at nothing to get the rolled parchment in Mozart’s handwriting. Ben has to piece together what Oliver stumbled across as he researched the letter, and how that may have killed him. Leigh is in the same danger after she reveals on television that she will carry on her beloved brother’s research, using the materials he sent to her.

A conspiracy encompassing an ancient order that may still exist, a mysterious estate with a ritual assassination room in the cellar, a rising young politician with a green agenda and sadistic enemies, the terrified opera diva, a dogged Viennese gumshoe who is working in a compromised police department, a young kid who gets kidnapped a lot but remains resilient, a renegade nun on the lam from the law in a totalitarian regime, a scarred and deformed very very bad guy in a large cast of unsavory characters, all this captures and nearly kills Ben who wants to save his former lover and avenge his friend.

The torture is ugly, the weapons are plentiful and powerful, a shocking thing happens and then an even worse thing happens and then it gets nasty. Ben Hope has an astonishing ability to withstand injury and pain and escape imprisonment, imminent death and sophisticated traps. Many things become weapons and many weapons are lovingly described and demonstrated. Mariani would seem to know his knives and guns. He doesn’t quite know his opera, which undercuts the credibility of the tale at a few points.

Leigh Lllewellyn is about 34, still early in an operatic career. As a big star she would sing the major roles. As a trained singer she would choose roles carefully to mature and preserve her voice. But Mariani has her singing Verdi’s Macbeth, Puccini’s Tosca and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte—the Queen of the Night role. The Verdi and the Puccini call for darker, full-bodied voices with the heavier timbres that a singer develops over time. Singing those roles too soon will imperil a soprano’s top notes and the topmost belongs to the Queen of the Night, a high F above high C. No way does one singer tackle all those parts at the same point in her career. So, being an opera nerd, the discrepancy made me wonder what else might have been lightly researched.

The violence is convincing, though, if sickening. And Ben loves Leigh, the two of them dash all over Europe in every type of conveyance, evil triumphs again and again and many bodies pile up—one has an iron skillet half-buried in his brain, courtesy of our clever hero. It’s a very bloody book and most of the characters die and the conspirators trace their lineage to a sect of the Masons, the organization Mozart belonged to and glorified with The Magic Flute.

Clues do fit together neatly; villains are beyond redemption; Leigh is beautiful and as good an actress as she is a singer; Ben finds it increasingly hard to protect her. Every beat is a fresh disaster. The Mozart Conspiracy earns its thriller stripes in an action movie explosion of nonstop brutality. Mozart isn’t very essential; he serves mainly as an excuse  for absolute carnage that continues senselessly after the book’s logical end. It seemed like too much to me. I would have preferred more Mozart and fewer maniacs and several dozen fewer murders in the mix.

 The Mozart Conspiracy: A Novel    Scott Mariani | Touchstone  2011

The Mummy Case — Elizabeth Peters

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Amelia Peabody is a strong-willed Egyptologist with definite feminist leanings in late 19th century Britain and she is, much to her surprise, married. Radcliffe Emerson, a distinguished archaeologist with a passion for all things pyramid, is her adoring and combative spouse and before long a small precocious Emerson, nicknamed Ramses, is busy upending their household and their lives.

The Mummy Case is an Elizabeth Peters mystery with Peabody at the heart of the devious doings in the desert outside Cairo but it is Ramses who takes over the book. He travels with mum and dad to Egypt at age six or seven, a child with an unerring instinct for dirt and disaster, a pet cat he calls De Cat Bastet who is fierce, slightly feral and will not be parted from him, a prodigious knowledge of Egyptian antiquity and practically everything, a knack for picking up and translating obscure languages and a habit of bending the English language to his own intentions, despite the explicit regulations of his mother.  

Family and feline set out for Egypt anticipating a rich dig in the temples of Dahshoor, a site only lightly explored with tantalizing potential for major discoveries. Alas, Radcliffe has failed to secure dig permission in time and someone has beat him to it. The Emersons are relegated to a bone-strewn site with no standing pyramids, right next door to the coveted dig. But before they even arrive on the desolate scene, Amanda has stumbled across a murder and a mystery in the commercial byways of Cairo that will threaten their work and her entire family.

Muslims, Coptics, christians and missionaries vie for center stage with eccentric Brits, a pet lion cub, missing antiquities, an odd mummy case and the misadventures of an irrepressible child who invites fresh disaster at every turn. Ramses insists on his speech quirk—to pronounce all “th” sounds as “d” sounds, even as he translates ancient papyri, overhears whispered plots in several languages, conducts his own clandestine excavations and acquires a second ferocious beast to live in his bedroom at the dig site.

The Mummy Case is amusing and instructive, detailing the black market antiquities trade, the supercilious white invaders of a complex, ancient civilization, and the ability of a determined small boy to dominate his world, reveal perfidy and avoid directly disobeying his mother. Ramses makes the intellectual sparring between his brilliant parents, the zealots and crooks, the misguided Brits and the hunt for artifacts fun. He is central to the plot and its resolution, and a welcome addition to the Amanda Peabody sagas. It’s an entertaining read full of vaudevillian characters, improbable developments and a narrative that makes it all believable with the kid and de cat Bastet at the heart of the story. Those two are small but effective heroes who don’t doubt themselves for a second, and neither do we.

The Mummy Case: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense (Amelia Peabody Mysteries)    Elizabeth Peters | William Morrow   2007