sprite writes
broodings from the burrow

February 7, 2016

into the stacks: january 2016
posted by soe 5:27 am

Shall we begin as we mean to go on? My plan is to post about the previous month’s reads on the first Saturday of the next month. Here, then, are the seven books I finished during January:

Come Hell or Highball, by Maia Chance
Detective novel-, chocolate- and cocktail-loving Lola Woodbury returns from her no-good husband’s funeral to discover not only that her mother-in-law has repossessed her Long Island mansion and turned it over to her odious brother-in-law but also that her husband was heavily in debt, leaving her personally penniless and faced with the prospect of having to return to her overly society-conscious, new-money mother. Instead she takes her dog and hops in her roadster for New York City, where she takes up residence in her late husband’s love nest with her straight-and-narrow Swedish maid and cook, Berta, who claims the sole bed in lieu of back wages owed.

This is only a short-term solution, however. The rent is due. When an exotic dancer of her husband’s acquaintance offers to pay her a substantial fee for acquiring a movie reel from one of Lola’s set back on Long Island, Lola and Berta take inspiration from their favorite fictional detective to retrieve the item in question while earning enough to pay next month’s bills. But when the reel goes missing and a man is murdered, the two women, with the help of the attractive and affable private investigator trailing Lola, must ramp up their game, stepping into the worlds of film, fashion, and the mob.

This Prohibition Era mystery got off to a slow start and failed to hold my interest for months, as I’d read a few pages and then put it down in favor of something else. Somewhere in the middle, though, it found its sea legs and I was eager to see how things got wrapped up. I am glad to see that it’s being turned into a series and look forward to spending more time with our full-figured heroine and her bossy maid.

Published: 2015.
Pages: 320. Library copy.

Call Me Mrs. Miracle, by Debbie Macomber
Holly Larson is taking care of her eight-year-old nephew, Gabe, while her widowed brother is serving in Afghanistan and her parents are doing charitable work in Haiti. Her New York City existence is spread thin caring for two on her personal assistant salary, but she’s making do, even if her boss hasn’t been happy with her since she started leaving at 5 to get her nephew from daycare on time. She’s determined, though, that with some budgeting, she will make this Christmas joyful for Gabe.

Jake Finley, son a major New York City department store owner, is managing the toy department, but has chanced his father’s opinion and the store’s books on a robotic toy that he’s convinced will be the hit of the season, but that isn’t living up to his expectations as of the first week of December. Since his mother and sister died on Christmas Eve when he was a child, he and his father have never really celebrated the holiday season, even if they do have the most visited Santa’s Workshop in the city. With the help of a new seasonal employee, Emily Merkle (whom H.R. has sent up without asking and also mis-badged Mrs. Miracle), Jake is about to have his Christmas season turned upside down.

Debbie Macomber is known for her Christmas books, and I was looking for something to help get me through a tough holiday season. I knew her books had a reputation for being easy-reading, feel-good fare, with a Christian slant that doesn’t smack you over the head. While I prefer happy endings, the other two don’t normally endear themselves to me, but I can handle some sap around Christmas. (Pun not intended, but acknowledged.) This covered all Macomber’s bases and was perfectly serviceable for what it was. Apparently there’s a Hallmark Channel movie. I’m not surprised.

Published: 2010.
Pages: 253. Library copy.

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Kady and Ezra were having a crappy day after their high-school break-up when their planet was suddenly invaded by a rogue megacorporation who start firing on the citizens who are squatting there. Kady and Ezra escape, but end up on different space ships heading for the nearest intergalactic aid station. Kady is a computer-hacking rebel. It turns out Ezra is a flying whiz and is recruited into the flight guard. When the artificial intelligence running the biggest ship of the three-vehicle convoy orders the air force to fire on the science vessel traveling with them, Kady and Ezra may find they’re able to get past the thing that broke them up in order to save the rest of the refugees.

Subsequent emails, IM conversations, schematics, security video footage summary, and memos have been compiled into a dossier by the Illuminae Consulting Firm for an unknown, but high-powered entity, resulting in an epistolary novel that sometimes nearly jumps off the page. I found it neither as fast-moving nor as ground-breaking as a lot of people suggested in their year-end best-of lists, but it is a well-written, action-packed novel that will appeal to science fiction and YA romance fans alike. A solid choice that I suspect will be adapted for the big screen. Definitely read the book, because it will lose a lot of the quality in the transition. (Also, consider reading a print version if you’re usually an ebook fan. My understanding is that anything smaller than a full-sized tablet renders some of the text unreadable.)

Published: 2015.
Pages: 599. Library copy.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal
This novel is the story of Eva, whose father was a Minnesotan cook (and boyhood lutefisk preparer) and whose mother was a want-to-be sommelier at a family restaurant in the Twin Cities, and who grew up knowing and loving food. Each chapter is told by someone who is part of her life — her parents, her cousin, a high-school boyfriend, a foodie rival — to reveal a woman through interconnected pieces, similar to the way a fancy restaurant might arrange the courses of a multi-part meal to complement and build upon one another.

Stradal has a good grasp of language, humor, and character development and clearly loves food, as he sprinkles all four liberally throughout the narrative. Billed by many as life-affirming, I guess I can see that (the hero triumphs over an awful lot of roadblocks), but it wasn’t what I was looking for (not through any fault of its own). Novels compiled by interlocking stories aren’t usually my cup of tea, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this one if I’d realized at the outset that was what this was. It was an ambitious novel and if it fell short of its aspirations, it at least flew higher than most.

Published: 2015.
Pages: 310. Library copy.

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ada and her younger brother Jamie live with their widowed barmaid mother in a single room in the tenements of London. Ada, born disabled, has never been allowed to leave the apartment nor speak with anyone outside of the family because her mother is ashamed of her existence. When Jamie comes home from school saying that he’s being evacuated to the countryside during the early days of World War II, their mother refuses to allow Ada to accompany him. Ada, however, has spent the days since Jamie began school teaching herself how to walk upright and is determined to remain with her brother (and to escape the impending German bombs). They sneak out of the apartment in the middle of the night and board a train out of London with the rest of Jamie’s schoolmates.

When they end up in a town that was expecting mothers and young babies, rather than school-aged children, the town’s residents wander amongst the group, handpicking children to come live with them. It’s no surprise to Ada that no one wants her, with her club foot (she scared off several people interested in just taking Jamie). They end up being placed in a big house on the outskirts of town owned by a single, reclusive woman named Susan, who assures them that she hadn’t wanted them to stay with her. That said, though, she gives them what they consider to be a huge meal and bathes them and finds them clean clothes to wear.

The children are confused by everything in this town, where everything they’re exposed to — from sheets to storybooks to crutches to doctors to Christmas — is unknown to them. As the weeks pass, the children begin to flourish and Susan starts to come out of her shell. But what will happen when the war really gets under way?

I had this book out of the library for months (thank you, D.C., for the ability to renew a book 10 times) before I finally settled down to read it, expecting something grim. Instead, here was that life-affirming book I hadn’t found in The Great Kitchens of the Midwest. None of the progress that any of the characters makes comes easily, with regular setbacks facing them all. Jamie starts wetting the bed. Some days Susan won’t get out of bed. Ada has monumental trust issues — after all, why get used to any of this when she’s just going to end up back with her abusive mother at the end of it all? These characters felt real and also harkened back both to my grandmother’s life and Rudi’s mom’s life during World War II. My grandmother and her parents had a girl stay with them during the war whom, she admitted later in life, she’d treated rather shabbily, having been used to being the baby of the family. Rudi’s mom’s family, having been branded traitors, fled the Soviet Union in the midst of the war, escaping to Austria ahead of the onslaught of the Communist advance from the east. While she has no love for the Nazis, she has been known to credit them with saving her life.

The book was named a Newbery Honor and won a Schneider Family Book Award, and the audiobook was honored with the Odyssey Award.

Published: 2015.
Pages: 316. Library copy.

The Marvels, by Brian Selznick

Told in Selznick’s now highly recognizable style of interspersing sections of black and while illustrations with sections of narrative, The Marvels begins with pictures. Billy Marvel is the lone survivor of a shipwreck in 1766. Something of a celebrity, he and his loyal dog find themselves at a London theater as it’s being built. Finding himself surrounded once more by sailors (there’s a reason the parlance of the theater and of sailing share many terms), Billy adopts the theater and, later, a child, who grows into a great actor. The Marvels, whose illustrated tale comprises the first 400 pages of the book, remain associated intimately with the theater through five generations.

The text begins 90 years after the pictures leave off, opening in 1990 with Joseph Jervis, who has just run away from his boarding school and is wandering around London in search of an uncle whose address he knows, but whom he’s never met. When he eventually tracks down his reclusive relative, he finds a crotchety eccentric living in a house without modern conveniences and with Victorian-era tableaux set up in every room. Why is his uncle living this way? With the help of a neighboring youth, Joseph sets out to unscramble the mysteries of his uncle’s life before he sends him away.

I am always amazed at how Selznick finds new and interesting ways to combine his two styles and how much sense everything makes when you figure out that riddle. Selznick’s modern era of books have all been must-owns for me, and none have disappointed. I highly recommend it to all.

Published: 2015
Pages: 665.

Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson

A middle-grade graphic novel, Roller Girl tells the story of Astrid Vasquez, in the summer between elementary and middle schools. She and her best friend, Nicole, have always done everything together, so when Astrid falls in love with the roller derby and signs up for derby camp, she automatically assumes Nicole will do the same. Unfortunately, Nicole has enrolled in dance camp for the summer, and with Astrid’s nemesis, mean-girl Rachel.

While Astrid has fallen hard for roller derby, she assumes that it will fall hard for her, too, allowing her to pick it up easily. As we all know, though, that’s not how things go, and Astrid spends an awful lot of time being pretty awful: she falls a lot, she doesn’t have the skills the girls who’ve been skating longer have, and she’s lonely without Nicole. As time goes on, though, her skating improves incrementally, her confidence grows, she makes a friend, and she starts an anonymous penpal relationship with her derby role model, Rainbow Bite. But as camp draws to a close, how is she going to deal with Nicole, whom she hasn’t had a pleasant word with all summer?

I loved the parallels between improving at a physical skill, like roller skating or roller derby, and at an emotional skill, like begin a good friend. Plus, the illustrations were bright and fun, and Jamieson, who is part of a derby team in Portland, clearly knows and loves her sport and conveys that thoroughly throughout. I heartily recommend this book, another Newbery Honor title, which is filled with girl power and feminism along the road to growing up.

Published: 2015
Pages: 240. Library copy.

Category: books. There is/are Comments Off on into the stacks: january 2016.