Monday, March 28, 2011

Mystery Monday - BLACK SWAN by Chris Knopf

BLACK SWAN comes out in May, and I'm reviewing it now so you have a chance to read the first four books in the series before picking it up.

Sam Acquillo is a rarity in series fiction: the protagonist who starts out at rock bottom and stays interesting as he gets his life together. At this stage of his development, he is marooned on an unfriendly island off the tip of Long Island with his girlfriend, Amanda and dog, Eddie. Poor Sam. All he ever really wants to do is be left alone, but his senses of justice and chivalry once again see him embroiled in a dangerous mess. With more severe weather in the forecast, he is forced to seek shelter at the island's inn, the Black Swan, where the owner's daughter, Anika, is a lovely young thing with an eye for Sam. When Sam suspects that a suicide at the inn is the result of foul play, his nature does not permit him to walk away, despite the danger. Sam fears for Anika's safety, and for that of her computer genius brother, who appears to be the target of some very unsavory people.

In essence, this is a locked-room mystery, with the weather serving to keep the island relatively cut off from the mainland. The supporting characters keep secrets and tell lies, making for a mystery of satisfying complexity. This would be melodramatic if it weren't for Knopf's wicked sense of humor. He adds levity at just the right moments to alleviate the tension:

"I introduced her to Amanda, who complimented Anika on her leather choke collar. I'd lived among women long enough to know this was a peace ritual, an expressed hope for boundaries to be respected and good will shared among all. Anika responded with a demure glance toward the ground, a fondling of the observed object, and a suggestion that it would look far better on Amanda, given her long, slender neck. I wondered if I should now piss on the grass at Amanda's feet, anthropologically speaking" (pp. 35-6; uncorrected proof).

Sam is a complex fellow, a former boxer and former engineer who left corporate America for a quiet life by the water. His experience with solving complex problems, not to mention his right hook, have helped him get to the bottom of some thorny mysteries in the past. In the first book, he has hit rock bottom, but he is not indifferent. BLACK SWAN is the fifth book in the series. Sam has grown as a person, but Knopf has kept him complex and unpredictable. Sam is wittier than your usual hard-boiled detective, more competent than your usual amateur sleuth, and he sometimes lets his inner boxer get the better of him. He may know exactly what he ought to do, and then do the opposite. There are no ruts or predictable patterns in this series.

Knopf is equally at home describing the finer points of sailing in a storm, how to sabotage software, or the best self-defense moves in close quarters, and his clarity, wit, and precise language are the perfect backdrop for an engaging mystery. I highly recommend that you begin with THE LAST REFUGE.

FTC Source Disclosure: I received an ARE courtesy of The Permanent Press.

My review of THE LAST REFUGE


Sunday, March 27, 2011

13 Rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro

Here's an irresistible premise for you: an author takes a box of mementos collected by a neighbor who died without heirs, and incorporates them into a novel imagining the life of their owner. But, wait! Let's have an American professor in Paris find this box and write letters summarizing his findings. But the box should be left deliberately by the secretary of the department, who urges the professor to share his findings. And! Let the professor suffer from fevers that call into question the veracity of his letters. Are you confused yet? I have gone back and forth between rating this book five stars and rating it two. I settled on three, no - four, no three. I liked it, and I would certainly recommend it to a friend, but it's not doesn't quite...well, let me explain.

Shapiro's first novel is inspired by an actual box of mementoes she inherited after an heirless neighbor dies. She has always been fascinated with the box of treasures. What we choose to keep reveals so much about us, but also leaves great mysteries that can never be known for certain. This box belonged to Louise Brunet, who fell in love with her cousin (who was killed in the Great War) and married her father's apprentice. She teaches piano to Garance, a prodigy, and yearns for passion in her life. Shapiro imagines Professor Trevor Stratton scrutinizing the mementoes and finding their histories, their meaning to Louise, becoming gradually more obsessive and confused whether he has uncovered a truth or has only imagined it.

Shapiro's language teeters on the line between poetic and overwrought, crossing into both territories. I spent several minutes trying to decide whether certain passages were brilliant or cliched, and for some, I honestly still can't tell. Like this one: "The first time, the pain was so terrible that she'd thought it could not possibly get any worse. The second time, the pain had eaten her whole, had incorporated her into its being. Her flesh was pain itself" (p. 111). Since there are mementoes in the box from both World Wars, we are brought into both through the flashback/imaginings of Stratton, with mixed success. The two pages made up almost entirely of a story told in footnotes fell flat to me. Footnotes pull me out of a narrative like nothing else. The second person intrusions also pull me out of the story: "Inside you find a bit of change, scattered on the cloth lining like so much stray cash. Why not drop the coins one by one along the way and see where we wind up?" (p. 205)

Then there's the ambitious framework, in which Trevor Stratton and Josianne (the secretary) are barely developed characters. While the premise is interesting, Louise's story is simply far more interesting than the contemporary one. The ending for Trevor is ambiguous, but I'm familiar enough with French film that it didn't bother me. The disparity between the involving tale of Louise's life and the flat passages about Trevor and Josianne was simply too great. I have to admire the ambition of this novel, and Shapiro's boldness in execution, and I loved the story she imagined for Louise, but too many clever touches interrupted the narrative flow for me. Still, an utterly fascinating (if sometimes frustrating) read.

FTC Source Disclosure: I purchased this book.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Picture Book Thursday: Animal Story Time

First of all, HAPPY ST. PATRICK'S DAY! Did you all remember to wear green? Even though it would make more sense for me to feature St. Patty's day books today, I don't have a bunch of those sitting around. So today's topic is: ANIMALS! :-)

Read to Tiger by S. J. Fore is a very cute story of a little boy trying to read a book. His tiger keeps interrupting by chomping his gum, impersonating a bear, practicing karate and more. It's not until the tiger realizes the little boy is reading a book about tigers that he becomes interested in the book. In the end, the little boy finally ends up reading his book to the tiger. This is a great picture book for young readers. There is much repetition and great pictures to help with more difficult words. A nice choice for an older sibling to read to a younger sibling. S. J. Fore previously published Tiger Can't Sleep which I'm sure is just as cute! We'll have to take a look at that one too.

I recently received a board book copy of Mister Seahorse by Eric Carle. This is a new-to-me title. I actually thought it was a newly published Carle book, but realized it's just a new edition. Mister Seahorse was originally published in 2004. A fun book for kids interested in sea life. Another repetitious story showing fish families. This one is unique because it focuses on seahorses, sticklebacks, tilapia, Kurtus nurseryfish, and more. All varieties where the father takes care of the eggs instead of the female. A great way to show the nurturing side of males. The book has acetate overlays on every other page featuring a hide-and-seek camouflage for the fish. As always the bright Carle illustrations are wonderful! I'm sure this would be a delight for toddlers through pre-K.

I've had Brown Rabbit in the City sitting on my shelf for awhile. And I'm happy to finally be able to review it. Such a sweet little tale! This is the sequel to the book Moon Rabbit. In Brown Rabbit in the City, he comes to visit his good friend Little Rabbit. Little Rabbit flits all over the city with Brown Rabbit in tow. They visit her favorite cafe, a tall building, crowded streets, an art gallery and the subway. It's all a little too much for Brown Rabbit and he goes off on his own. All of sudden, Little Rabbit realizes she was too busy showing her friend everything. They didn't really get to visit and enjoy the company of each other. She rushes off to find him and the two enjoy spending the next day together in the park dancing and playing music. A very sweet rabbit story if you're looking for an Easter gift that doesn't scream "Easter".

Source disclosure: I received unsolicited review copies of each of these books from Penguin Young Readers Group.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Teaser Tuesday

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!

"Typical of October, the frenzied wind and sea conditions didn't always correlate with precipitation. A sailor could be consumed by a raging maelstrom, while the folks on shore enjoyed a sunny, breezy day." - Black Swan (the fifth Sam Acquillo mystery) by Chris Knopf p. 21 (uncorrected proof)

Monday, March 07, 2011

Mystery Monday - Flavia deLuce

I was unable to resist the third Flavia deLuce novel, A Red Herring Without Mustard, even though it's still in hardcover, and I was not disappointed. These, along with Susan Wittig Albert's Beatrix Potter mysteries, would also be great for middle-graders, though the mysteries are complex enough for adult fans of cozy mysteries. Flavia is a precocious eleven-year-old sleuth and eager student of chemistry (partly so that she can effect revenge on her mean older sisters), fascinated by crime-solving (life in 1950s rural England is, after all, pretty boring). I really enjoy the chemistry aspect of the books. In one of her experiments, Flavia uses some of what she's read to test for fingerprints on an object that's been submerged underwater. When a Gypsy caravan comes to Bishops Lacey, Flavia has her fortune read. The Gypsy woman who had given Flavia a puzzling fortune then turns up dead. Was it the Gypsy's odd granddaughter? The strange woman who had accused the Gypsy woman of stealing her baby years before? Is Flavia herself a suspect? And what does a bizarre religious cult have to do with any of this? Red herrings are abundant in this mystery, which also includes some further development of Flavia's character and family. This could be read alone, but I've certainly enjoyed reading this series in order.

My review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
My review of The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett

You've got to admire a book whose cover is decorated with gold seals and entitled Winner of the National Book Award. I realize that authors don't create their own cover art, but whoever designed this cover encapsulated Jincy Willett's debut novel in two dimensions. In Rhode Island, chaste librarian Dorcas (known all her life as "Dork") plans to ride out a storm in her library, tackling the "New Books" shipment. This shipment is particularly troublesome, as it includes the true crime/biography written about her promiscuous, larger-than-life twin sister, Abigail. We learn that Abigail is awaiting trial, and as Dorcas pours herself one bourbon after another, she reads the book, unfolding the events that led to Abigail's current state. The overwrought prose of the fictional author combined with Abigail's obfuscations and lies is sharply contrasted with Dorcas's thoughts and reflections as she reads. Throughout, references to potentially dangerous New England weather and the "pure unadulterated Yankee bullshit" that runs rampant in Rhode Island give a strong sense of place.

Dorcas lives in her head; Abigail lives out loud. Dorcas reflects, "A well-wrought piece of fiction...helps us make sense out of the chaos of our lives. Why be deliberately obscure when real life is so fractured and opaque?" The plot of this story would be unbelievable, the protagonist (and pretty much all the characters) would be unsympathetic, in another format. But Willett's choice to tell the story through Dorcas's reaction to Abigail's story opens the door to Willett's wicked wit and sharp satire of writing itself (with a healthy swipe at metaphors, and at "true crime").

I won't spoil the slow dribbles of information that culminate in the revelation of the nature of the crime. If you pick this one up, you're in for great satire, biting wit, and almost unbearably complex characters. And you'll both anticipate and dread the revelations that lead up to the train wreck approaching in slow motion.

My review of The Writing Class

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Picture Book Thursday: Peter Brown Storytime

The more I look at Peter Brown's books the more I love them! The two I review below both have a nice take on children and their involvement with nature and the environment.

In Children Make Terrible Pets, Lucille "Lucy" Beatrice Bear is dancing in the woods when she comes across an animal (really, she finds a little boy). She brings him home begging her mother to keep him. Lucy is allowed to keep him as long as she accepts sole responsibility for him. She names him Squeaker for the sounds he makes. She plays with him, eats with him, naps with him, pretty much does everything with the little boy. BUT, he is not easy to care for. He simply will not be potty trained, he messes up the furniture and does not listen very well. She is pretty fed up with him until one day he is missing! She looks all over and finally discovers the little boy had made his way back home to his family. She decides that is where he belongs and she says good-bye. Upon returning home, Lucy tells her mother that children really do make terrible pets. :-)

Such a cute story! And a great way to introduce kids to the idea that the animals we find in nature should remain there so they can be with their families where they belong. I've also discovered that Peter Brown's author notes are fun! This one says:
When I was a child, I once found a frog in the woods and brought it home to be my pet. My mom was not happy. "Would you like it if a wild animal made YOU its pet?" she asked. To which I replied, "Absolutely!"
The Curious Garden is the story of a little boy living in a dreary, gray city without any green space. While exploring the city, the little boy discovers a tiny patch of wildflowers on an unused elevated railway. He decides he is going to be a gardener and waters and cares for the little patch only to discover the garden wants to spread out. It was curious, and wanted to spread to other parts of the city. Before he knows it, there are wildflowers and trees popping up all over the city and more gardeners appear to care for the new green space. The city is transformed into a completely different place thanks to the curious nature of the spreading plants.

And again, I found the author's note at the end interesting. It begins:
It often seems impossible for nature to thrive in a city of concrete and brick and steel. But the more I've traveled, and the closer I've looked at the world around me, the more I've realized that nature is always eagerly exploring places we've forgotten. You can find flowers and fields and even small forests growing wild in every city; you just have to look for them.
It ends with:
All of this made me curious: what would happen if an entire city decided to truly cooperate with nature? How would that city change? How would it all begin?
Read The Curious Garden with your kids to find out how he answers those questions. I thoroughly enjoyed these two books and look forward to future books from Peter Brown!

Source disclosure: I received an unsolicited copy of Children Make Terrible Pets from Little, Brown & Company. The Curious Garden was an e-book download from my library.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


I rarely toss aside a book without at least skimming to the end, especially when I received an advance copy and feel an obligation to write a comprehensive review. But, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain has defeated me. I've peeked at LibraryThing and Amazon reviews, which are glowing, so I want to make the disclaimer that this book is simply not for me. I appear to be an exception, so you may well love this book. I'm going to explain what I didn't like about it, which may be exactly what you're looking for in a beach read.

The Paris Wife is about Hemingway and 1920s Paris, shown through the eyes of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife. I was very excited about this one. I enjoy fictionalized accounts of real people. I'm fascinated by the 1920s, and what a juicy setting is the expat community in Paris at that time? But this book left me cold. I tried a dozen times over three months to plough through it, but I simply never cared about the characters. The writing is fine, though the dialogue is stilted. Hadley is not a well-drawn character, and certainly lacks the depth to carry a first-person narration. Hadley before Hemingway is boring, and I didn't care about her at all. She tells us some of her feelings about being a spinster, but McLain stops short of giving her breath. She's a paper doll, well-dressed in 1920s fashions, but with nothing behind them. I was relieved when Hemingway came on the scene, because he can't possibly be dull, right? Well, apparently, he can when told through a fictionalized Hadley's eyes. When they finally arrive in Paris, I was again relieved, because at least there's the interesting expat community. But that, too, had a shallow feel, and it never evinced any emotion from me except a mild, "Oh, look, Gertrude Stein" or "Hey, there's James Joyce." Because everything is told through Hadley's eyes and Hadley is not a nuanced, interesting character, nothing she sees has any depth. I would have learned more about who Hemingway really was as a human being by reading a biography.

FTC disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from Ballantine Books through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Guest Post: Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

I received a copy of Jodi Picoult's new book in the mail a couple weeks ago and just knew my friend Amber would want to read it. I knew I wouldn't be able to get to it for quite some time so thought she would love getting a copy before it even hit bookstores. I asked her if she wouldn't mind writing a review for the blog and here it is!! Thank you so much Amber! You can find out more about Amber here on her own blog. And now without further ado...the Sing You Home review:

Hello On My Bookshelf readers! I’ll be honest when Holly asked me to write a review of Jodi Picoult’s new book I was a little intimidated. Holly and Allison write amazing reviews and a good part of what I read comes from their reviews and suggestions. I love to read but I’m not much of a reviewer. I have a very hard time finding the right balance of information to include in my reviews, but I’m giving it my best shot! I will admit I am a fan of Picoult (I believe I have read all of her books) so I had high expectations for this book. I was not disappointed.

Sing You Home
centers around three characters, Zoe, Max and Vanessa. Zoe and Max have struggled with fertility issues throughout their marriage. A tragic turn of events causes Zoe and Max’s marriage to eventually fall apart. Zoe, a music therapist, focuses on the one thing that can make her feel better, her work. During the course of her work she meets Vanessa and they quickly become best friends. When Zoe finally feels like her life is falling into place and she is genuinely happy again her world is rocked to the core by the actions of her ex-husband. She suddenly is thrust into a world where her character and morality are being questioned.

A couple of interesting things about this book, since the main character in this novel was a music therapist Picoult wanted to include some original music as a soundtrack to the novel, the chapters correspond to the tracks on a CD included in the book. Picoult wrote all the lyrics and her friend Ellen Wilber provided the accompaniment and the vocals on the CD. I have not yet listened to the CD, but I will definitely be doing so. The other thing I found interesting about this novel is that because it is told from the point of view of three different characters, each character had their own font throughout the novel. It was a great way for me to keep track of which point of view I was reading. Since some of the parts could have been any of the three characters view point it was easy to distinguish the characters when I got wrapped up in the story.

While parts of this novel completely infuriated me, it was also those parts that made me want to read faster to find out what was going to happen. I really enjoyed this book, it was thought provoking and made me smile, laugh and tear up throughout its pages.

Sing You Home
will hit stores March 1st, 2011.

Source disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher after requesting it on Shelf Awareness.