Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The State of the Picture Book

Holly wrote a post a while back reacting to an NYT article that suggested that picture books are in decline.

Well, my friend Gwyneth alerted me to a rebuttal in Publisher's Weekly that really made me feel better about the whole picture book thing :) The article goes through the assertions made by the New York Times to support their theory and pretty effectively relieved my concerns about the loss of picture books. They're here to stay!

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

What an extraordinary first novel. Rebecca Hunt has taken an audacious, ambitious premise, and executed it in an insightful, rich way. Winston Churchill is a well-known depressive who referred to his sometime companion as The Black Dog. Hunt has personified The Black Dog with Mr. Chartwell, the new (canine) boarder at the home of librarian Esther, who is a widower. His presence is entirely unwelcome, yet strangely irresistible. Esther allows him to move in, but resents his presence. He has moved to be conveniently situated near Winston Churchill, who is reflective on the eve of his retirement from Parliament, but he has other jobs as well. This novel really should have been a disaster with this premise. A dog who walks on two legs and affects human manners (though not so well that he can resist chomping on a bone in the hallway) sounds laughable, and not in a good way. But Hunt approaches the subject of depression with sensitivity and deep understanding, and "Mr. Chartwell" embodies it nobly, with messy rudeness and plaintive pleas for understanding.

Hunt's language reveals a sensitivity to the nuances of depression, as well as an elegant precision. Churchill says that "the prospects of retirement could not yet be fully contemplated, being too full of awful passion. It churned the heart with thistles."*** Esther feels that "...the weeks of her life had drifted past as ghosts. There was the rare bump of pleasure, perhaps from a meal out or a visit to the cinema, but it was brittle and shattered under the lonely monotony of the ghost days." But she doesn't immediately recognize that her relationship with "Black Pat" is much more complicated than that of a landlord and boarder. He explains his "job" to her, nicely summing up the symptoms of depression: "With Churchill we know each other's movements, so we have a routine, I guess. I like to be there when he wakes up in the morning. Sometimes I drape across his chest. That slows him down for a bit..." Churchill speaks to Black Pat with familiarity, even affection, but also with bitter resentment. He always knew that Black Pat would return for Churchill's retirement, and he reluctantly accepts the presence.

Hunt's Churchill is fully believable and complex, a great man plagued by doubt, dreading retirement. Esther represents a different stage of visitation by depression, still adjusting to Black Pat's charms. She is also a well-developed character in her own right; a young widow still mourning her husband and coming to terms with loss while attending to new and old friendships and her job, which eventually leads her to Churchill's study to take dictation. Their encounter is the crux of the novel, beautifully exquisite and surprising.

I fully expect this to be my favorite novel released in 2011. Hunt's writing is utterly inventive and surprising, her story told with wisdom and sensitivity.

***All quotations are taken from an uncorrected proof and should be checked against a final copy, tentative publication date 2/22/11.

FTC Source Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader's Edition from the publisher.

An interesting discussion of Churchill's history with depression can be found here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Superheroes: A Pop-up Book

I was absolutely delighted when I received a box in the mail from Little Brown and Company! It had some fun stuff inside that I hope to review in the next couple months. But there was one treasure in there that could not wait! I had to get this up, and it would have been posted sooner except I had to take photos of this AMAZING book!

Now, let's preface this by saying, I don't know the first thing about superheroes aside from watching the first couple Superman movies back in the day and the first couple Batman movies in the '90's. Oh, and I did happen to watch reruns of the original Batman television show when I was a kid in the summer when I visited my dad. I suppose, I might have a few Wonder Woman episodes stored somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind. Heh....maybe, I actually have more Superhero knowledge than I thought! ;-)

But now, I have a son. And I do feel like I will eventually have to be up on my Superhero speak. This book will certainly send me on my way!

There are about 6 or 7 different pop-up pages, each featuring a superhero. For instance, the first page is Superman.Each page contains smaller pop-ups on the side discussing various villains and superpowers. Here's an example:
The details in the pop-ups are incredible. Here's the Wonder Woman page and a detail:

Her lasso is made out of gold cord! This is the detail that really blew me away! I will admit, I'm relatively new to pop-up books so maybe many of them have real 3-dimensional details out of materials different than paper. But I couldn't believe it when I opened this page.

Then the grand finale of the book:
A collage of all the superheroes on one page, complete with little numbers and a legend identifying each character.

Still have a little boy to buy a gift for this week? This would be PERFECT! Run out and get it NOW! :-)

Source disclosure: Received unsolicited from the publisher: Little Brown & Company.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Teaser Tuesday - Mr. Chartwell

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read
Open to a random page
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My teaser is from Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt:

Churchill stared out of the window at the green slopes below..."I've wondered on occasion whether you were there, waiting to stake your flag from the moment my soul entered the world."

"I didn't come until sent for." Black Pat's eyes were like leeches on him. "But I've been a companion to others around you, so I've never been far away." (ARC, p. 149)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor: Set a potboiler in 1786 Cambridge, and it instantly has more credibility as literature than say, The DaVinci Code. Funny how that works, that the "historical" classification adds gravity. The Anatomy of Ghosts is a historical potboiler, and a good one, but it is not transcendent literature. It is, however, a fun read, and a pleasant way to while away a couple of hours. John Holdsworth, a washed-up bookseller, is nursing the loss of his son, who drowned in an accident, and of his wife, who committed suicide after losing significant amounts of money to a "medium" who claimed to be in contact with the son. He is in dire straits when Lady Anne summons him to perform two jobs for her: to inventory her late husband's book collection and to bring her son, Frank, a Cambridge student, back from the insanity that claimed him after he supposedly saw a ghost. She feels Holdsworth is uniquely qualified to go to Cambridge and debunk Frank's "haunting" because the angry widower Holdsworth had written a scathing debunking of the spirit world called The Anatomy of Ghosts.

When Holdsworth arrives at Cambridge, he finds a strange array of clues in Frank's room, and Frank's roommate is missing. To complicate matters, a secret society called the Holy Ghost Club doesn't want Holdsworth (or anyone else) to find out what happened at Frank's "initiation" into their society the night before he went mad, the night an orphan girl and the wife of the master both died. Is one of these women haunting Frank? Or is something else afoot? What really happened the night Sylvia Whichcote died? What sort of depravity does the Holy Ghost Club get up to? Why does Frank insist on quacking? Throw in all this intrigue with a completely unbelievable "romance" (that, far from being romantic, was creepy and rather off-putting), and you have all the ingredients for a bestseller. Though I saw for the most part where the plot was going, I kept turning the pages to find out who really killed Sylvia Whichcote, and for Taylor's rich, lovingly described 18th-century Cambridge campus, whose narrow lanes and lush quads are the most realistic part of the novel. Taylor has a gift for evoking a time and place in the past, using language, descriptive passages, and perfectly phrased details to bring his setting to life.

Fans of historical settings will love Taylor's masterful depiction of Cambridge, and lovers of potboilers will enjoy the suspense, twisting plot, and depraved young men that populate it. All in all, a fun read.

FTC Source Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Joy of Spooking + contest winner

Some of you may recall that I reviewed The Joy of Spooking: Unearthly Asylum. And then I disappeared from the face of the blog-world. I am going to cite "personal reasons" and get on with a long overdue contest announcement!

I know there are those who swear by random number generators, but I am old-fashioned. I have yet to embrace Kindle or Nook, and I prefer pulling a slip of paper out of a hat. Actually, I have Lilah pull a slip out of the hat, a task she takes very seriously.

The winner is...drum roll...JenL! Thank you very much to all who entered. This is a delightful series. The third book, SINISTER SCENES, comes out next year, and I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Teaser Tuesday - holiday murder mysteries

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read
Open to a random page
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Kensington has a brilliant marketing strategy for their cozy mysteries. At the holidays, they release a hardcover collection of three short mysteries, one each from Joanne Fluke (the Hannah Swenson mysteries), Laura Levine (Jaine Austen), and Leslie Meier (Lucy Stone). Fans of each series will pick up the volume for their personal favorite sleuth, then get hooked on the two with which they're less familiar. I've sometimes read the Meier series, but I've read every Fluke and Levine. The Fluke entry was rather perfunctory this time, but the Levine is quite funny. My teaser is from the Laura Levine story/novella in Gingerbread Cookie Murder:

"Then, before I knew it, Edna grabbed the sparerib out of my hand and hurled it across the room at Preston, hitting him on his forehead, somewhere around his brow lift. As much as I hated to lose that sparerib, the guy had it coming." (p. 151)

Monday, December 06, 2010

Mystery Monday - Arnaldur Indridason

I received Arctic Chill, the fifth book in Arnaldur Indridason's mystery series set in Iceland, featuring Inspector Erlendur, as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer selection, and had no trouble jumping right in. The fifth was so well-written that I immediately snagged the first four in the series. I'm not going to do full-on reviews of the first four books; I just wanted to mention them to anyone needing something to fill the void left by the end of the Stieg Larsson trilogy! Though the books are very different, they seem to me likely to appeal to fans of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The forbidding landscape, insular culture, and twisting mysteries are satisfying additions to my mystery shelf (shelves...who am I kidding?).

My review of Arctic Chill is right here.

Here are the first four, in order. The sixth is out in hardcover, and is called Hypothermia.

Jar City
Silence of the Grave
The Draining Lake

My overview of the series: These are excellent police procedurals, strongly rooted in solving the crime (the way I like it!), but with compelling police officers who become more nuanced with each entry in the series. Erlendur has two children, estranged until recently, and a tragedy hidden in his past that haunts him. Indridason's Iceland is bleak, insular, forbidding...and strangely captivating. When issues of racism related to immigration arise, I wondered what on earth would possess anyone to move there. Erlendur refers to "the usual Icelandic disappearances;" i.e., suicides in a casual fashion. Murders are rare and easily solved...but this series tests Erlendur's sleuthing abilities with more complex murders. Stark realism and nuanced characterization make this series stand out from a sea of procedurals.