10.31.2011

Review: A Study in Sherlock - Stories Inspire by the Holmes Canon - ed. by Laurie R. King and Leslie S Klinger

A Study in Sherlock
Stories Inspired by
the Sherlock Holmes Canon
ed. by Laurie R. King &
Leslie S. Klinger
October 25, 2011
Bantam Dell
I've often discussed both the merits and the foibles of books based on Jane Austen's work. Hop on over to Austenprose and you'll find review after review of Austen sequels or parallels (i.e. Pamela Aiden's books or Abigail Reynolds') as well as a new collection (edited by Austenprose blogger Laurel Ann Nattress) of Austen-inspired stories called Jane Austen Made Me Do It. I think, given the time and means to do the research, one could find that any author with a real canon probably has a similar following. That's where this book comes in.

A Study in Sherlock, edited in part by Laurie R. King (the author who brought us the Miss Mary Russell series) is a sixteen-story collection inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most astute detective.

Some of these take place within the confines of the Holmes universe (i.e. in between Doyle stories). One of these was a "lost" story called "The Startling Events in the Electrified City," about Holmes and Watson's attendance at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, by Thomas Perry. Others are residents of a universe similar to our own whose only difference is an accepted belief in Holmes as a flesh-and-blood person, one of which is "As to 'An Exact Knowledge of London'" which poses the idea of Watson, Holmes and their enemies living on, even today, waging a silent war.

Why, yes, that IS Frank Langella you've
spotted nearest Sherlock's nose!
The rest of the stories founded in the sordid reality that we all (or, at least, most of us) call home. The last story in the collection is of that persuasion: "A Spot of Detection" by Jacqueline Winspear is about a little boy who, on his way home with the measles, believes himself to have witnessed a crime. He stays in bed for days, during which time his mother and aunt read him the Sherlock Holmes canon, which fuels his belief and his need to solve the mystery of the crime himself.

Each of the stories in the collection is appropriately methodical while also providing a necessary dose of whimsy. And no one, I think, is better at that than Neil Gaiman, whose "The Case of Death and Honey" manages to cross yet another plane into a hint of the supernatural. As to whether these stories are true to Holmes and to Doyle, that's difficult for me to say - I must confess I've never actually read the Holmes Canon.

However, it did make me wish I had read it. Moved the canon up on my To-Be-Read pile. I will say, though, being familiar with Holmes only on the basest terms (I've watched "Wishbone" and "The Great Mouse Detective") did not put me at any disadvantage - I wasn't left behind in the mud because I missed a reference here or there. For that reason, I think it could actually make a great introduction to it all.

10.28.2011

Review: Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, by Celia Blue Johnson

Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, by Celia Blue Johnson, is a new collection of the stories, misfortunes and inspirations behind some of your favorite classic novels. At least I am, and I think Ms. Johnson is, assuming that they’re some of your favorites. They are classics, after all. And I’ve read half of the fifty selections in the book, so she can’t be too far off. Just as Newton had his apple (just go with it, I don’t care if it’s true or false, it’s a good story), each of these authors had their moments of clarity that led to their own discoveries, their own, Anna Kareninas, their own Jay Gatsbys (or James Gatzes for that matter) and their Sherlock Holmeses, a large number of them based on real people or real events.

With an average of three to five pages devoted to each subject, the entirety of the book can sometimes feel rather like a series of long Wikipedia articles, but Johnson does make a few attempts at what reads like narrative dramatic irony. Yet that narrative voice is sometimes her downfall—specifically when that voice moves from stating facts to voicing speculation. In addition, since there are only three to five pages for each book (and often the focus shifts to more than one book of the particular author), Johnson seems to only concern herself with what she deems to be the initial impulse to write – the one solitary spark that ignited the author’s spirit; she does not concern herself with certain other factors that may have contributed to the novel’s inspiration. For some books, that’s enough; for others, not so much. For example, Ken Kesey’s hallucinogenic vision of Chief Bromden is enough to explain One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, but other books are just more complex. Let’s take Jane Eyre. Johnson introduces a real case of bigamy that likely inspired a portion of the tale:

Shocking news swept through the classrooms at Roe Head School. A governess in the nearby city of Leeds had discovered that her husband had a secret wife from a previous marriage. The poor woman had recently given birth to a baby, and she was devastated. When confronted, her husband explained that his first wife was mentally disturbed. The situation was unbearable for him, but divorce was out of the question. So he had resolved to find a new bride and never let the two women know about one another. A deceitful husband, a nonexistent marriage, an illegitimate baby…the governess’s life fell apart…[On] a trip away from home… [Brontë visited] North Lees Hall, an impressive manor about a mile north of Hathersage. In the past, a mistress of the hall was deemed crazy and confined to a padded room, where she died in a fire. …[Brontë] must have been reminded of the mentally disturbed wife from Leeds. She melded both tales together in the pages of Jane Eyre…”

Okay, governess – check. Bigamy – check. Crazy wife in a padded room – check. Death in a fire – check. But note how Johnson has completely glossed over Charlotte’s being a teacher at Roe Head. And note how she completely omitted any mention of Cowan Bridge. For those who are perhaps less informed, let me explain. As a child, Charlotte was sent to the school at Cowan Bridge along with younger sister Emily and older sisters Maria and Elizabeth. Both of her older sisters contracted tuberculosis while at the school and died shortly after being removed from it. Later, Charlotte was sent to school at Roe Head, to which she returned as a teacher some years later. This should sound somewhat familiar if you know the book at all. But this is left out of Johnson’s assessment.

And then there's Pride and Prejudice. Maybe I’m just over-critical of Austen commentary, but I feel like the content of this episode is just plain lazy. Johnson proposes that Tom Lefroy (I won’t insult any of you by assuming you don’t know who that is – if you don’t, read this…or watch “Becoming Jane”…which is, in fact, what Johnson may have been doing while writing about Austen) was the model for Fitzwilliam Darcy – but then she backtracks with a lot of “yets” and “maybes.” The thing is, she shouldn’t have considered the theory in the first place. If Tom Lefroy’s going to be the inspiration for anything, it should have been Persuasion.

Sure, the initial version of Pride and Prejudice was written relatively soon after the Lefroy affair, but Persuasion would be the more accurate choice. By the time she began it in 1815, Austen had had some twenty years to consider both the affair as it might have been, and her acceptance of Madame Lefroy’s decision in removing Tom from the neighborhood. If any of her novels can be said to have been really inspired by Lefroy it’s Persuasion, not Pride and Prejudice.

To be fair, the original 1796 version of First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice before the edits) does not survive, and perhaps there was a Thomas Langlois Lefroy in its midst, but the version we have today does not, especially not – as is suggested – in Mr. Darcy. If anyone could be ascribed to be a shade of Lefroy, it is Charles Bingley or (and not to stir up too much controversy or anything) Sense & Sensibility’s John Willoughby.

Minus the seduction/ whoring/ illegitimate-siring and subsequent abandonment bit.

10.26.2011

Review: Fezariu's Epiphany, by David M. Brown

Fezariu's Epiphany
by David M. Brown
May 16, 2011
386 pgs
David M. Brown, author of Fezariu's Epiphany, has been writing about the world of Elenchera for over ten years. This book may be his debut novel, but he's been writing its history for a decade. According to Brown's website, Elenchera's history spans more than 47,000 years - and Brown has written it all out. Much like Mordor or Earthsea, Brown's fantastical universe is a place all his own (though one can't deny the influences of Tolkein and Le Guin). Within that universe lives a conflicted hero named Fezariu.

At twelve years old, Fezariu believes he is possessed of a curse that causes suffering all around him - he's certain that it caused his mother to betray him and his step-father to be killed. Wishing to be rid of his past, and believing that the only way to save those he loves from the curse he carries is to run far away, Fezariu joins the Merelax Mercenaries - a group of well-trained men and women who fight for money. Sometimes the cause is less respectful or less moral than another but, as Fezariu and his friends discover, as long as the money is good, the morality is not theirs to question. 

Fezariu is taken under the wing of a retired mercenary by the name of General Bayard - it is he who guides Fezariu, taking advantage of his emotional detachment, and shapes him into a great warrior. After three rigorous years of training, Fezariu and his friends are welcomed as full-fledged mercenaries. But was it worth it? Fezariu left behind his uncle Edward and his step-sister Alycea to achieve this future. And although he will go on to do great things, there will always be a piece of his past that will never let go. 

We've all seen this story before. It's got its roots in everything from Harry Potter at Hogwarts to Jedis on Coruscant, to Lord Byron. I even thought, in a few scenes, that it was turning into an allegory about the American Revolution. The tortured young man is not a new concept. The novel itself is well-developed in terms of pacing and, it goes without saying, a rich fictional history. But where Brown fails is his dialogue. The scenes are pretty. The people are pretty. The action is...well, not pretty, but you get the idea. But the dialogue really suffers. 

this dude!
A lot of the time it reminded me of a video game - you know how, and maybe this is more early/mid-90s games than the newer ones, I'm not sure but - you know how when you'd reach a new stage there'd be some hippy kind of guide who would tell you what tasks lay ahead of you? There'd be a lot of information and very little style to the delivery. The best example I have is, and bear with me, Mickey's Magical Quest - where Mickey walks into a house and is greeted by some mouse/dog/disneything who looks like he's going as Dumbledore for Halloween and goes into this whole diatribe about what Mickey will face. That's kind of what it felt like. Best example in the book - Fezariu goes to Clarendon and asks some townies about the mayor, and about his opposition being assassinated. Their response sounds like it was written by one of the President Obama's speech-writers. 

That aside, the book does have some definitely touching moments, and emotionally it is almost (ALMOST!) well-developed. But every time a feeling is about to come out, the dialogue gets in the way. This novel could benefit from some serious editing, preferably by an editor who gets the world of Elenchera, and who can assist Brown in finessing his style into something worthy to stand on the same shelves as Tolkein and Le Guin. 

10.25.2011

Review: Being the Third Jane Austen Mystery: Jane and the Wandering Eye, by Stephanie Barron

*Wipes sweat from brow* Phew, I thought I was going to screw up my posting schedule already, and I hadn't even posted the first book! I tried to write last night...but I fell asleep looking at earrings on Etsy. I tried to write today at work, but I didn't want it to be angry (and work often makes me angry). So here I am, almost Wednesday, finally getting around to this Tuesday review...and I finished the book on Saturday! Tsk tsk to me. Anyway...

This was the first of the series that I felt was less-solidly built. I think it had a lot to do with its locale. While the first mystery takes place at a manor and the second in a small sea-side community (both mean a small cast of characters and easy-to-follow plots), Jane and the Wandering Eye takes place in Bath (this means a large cast of characters, constantly shifting in and out of town). Well-versed Janeites will know, of course, that Austen hated living in Bath, a trait that she gave her final heroine, Anne Elliot. She missed the country, and it shows in Barron's version of her.

But the cast of this novel is too large. In its scope, it's more like "Law & Order" and less like "Columbo"...not that I don't love "Law & Order," but you know how sometimes they introduce characters at minute 10 and minute 25 (right around introducing the person who actually did it) and by the time you get to their testimony in minute 51, you can't remember who the hell they are? That's how this plot felt. Though the story did deal quite a bit with actors and the theatre, which is something that always makes me perk up a bit (especially on "Law & Order"!) Lord Harold, who appears in the previous two books, is present yet again, but as it is his direction that leads to Austen's involvement in the plot-thickening, as it were, the whole thing seems a little convoluted.

As for the wandering eye of the title, I was kind of hoping it would be about those paintings where the eyes follow you around the room? You know, like the Mona Lisa or those paintings in the Haunted Mansion. But actually it's about eye portraits of the eighteenth century - instead of miniatures of a lover's face or torso (think Wickham's/Darcy's miniatures in Pride & Prejudice), artists would do portraits of just someone's eye in the same size, and then the painting would be set in a locket or a watch or a brooch....seriously, how creepy can we get here?

That's like the eighteenth-century version of creepy Skype-ing. Very digital get down. "Oh, Lord so-and-so I'm so very erotically to always have this painting of your eye close to my heart." Gross. No wonder none Austen's books have crap like that - it's disturbing! I mean, Captain Benwick's miniature likeness being drawn up for Fanny Harville is one thing. That's like keeping a photo of a loved one in your wallet (so I guess his then having the painting re-set and engraved for Louisa Musgrove...that'd be like stealing from someone's wallet...?), but just an eye? Creepy. Barron handles the creepiness tolerably and assigns the owners of such tokens with a decent amount of both validity and eccentricity.

But while she succeeds there, she seems to fail in Lord Harold. Maybe it's the romantic in me, but the stop-and-start of his emotions is too much. Isn't Bath busy enough without the added ruckus? I'm hoping the next novel (Jane and the Genius of the Place is a little less crowded (based on the fact that we're moving chronologically, and the fact that I know Austen lived in Bath until 1805, and on the fact that Wandering Eye takes place in December 1804, I have reason to hope that we may be granted a reprieve from that awful city).

10.24.2011

Monday Mailbox #26: The Apologetic Edition

Monday Mailbox is hosted this month by Savvy Verse & Wit.


Hello, my darlings. I must apologize for neglecting you all for so long. I realize it's been two weeks without a peep. This was in part due to my being out of town, in part due to some emotional turmoil, and also in part due to the fall slump. And what a slump it is. I finished If Jack's in Love back on 10/8 and now, here we are at 10/24, and I've only finished another book and a half. I feel the energy being sucked out of me. It's awful. I love the fall. I just can't seem to get my reading done. But with only just over two months left in 2011, I've really got to kick my ass into gear. And so, without further ado, we shall commence with the Mailbox portion of this post:

The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery

This was an unsolicited ARC from Penguin (Riverhead). The book is due out January 5, 2012 (yay! I have time to read it!) and I haven't done a whole lot of investigating what it's about... so instead I give you a portion an interview (a portion that I think says just enough without saying too much) with Avery, c/o Amazon:
"My first novel, The Teahouse Fire, was about the tea ceremony of Meiji-era Japan. Because the subject matter was one most American readers know little to nothing about, I felt an almost missionary obligation to offer the reader everything I knew about that world--to lecture, really--and the book is paced accordingly. 
My second novel, The Last Nude, takes place in Paris between the wars, a setting about which most readers know at least a little, and many readers know far more than I. It isn’t news that flappers listened to jazz in the twenties, or that Europe in the forties was a bad place to be if you were Jewish. This time around, I had to learn how not to lecture but to converse, how to give the reader the pleasure of supplying missing information, how to leave things out. 
The result of leaving things out is, I hope, a more fast-paced novel than my first. I went into this book thinking about the various pitfalls artists can encounter--surfeit in Tamara de Lempicka’s case, loss in Anson Hall’s, history in Rafaela Fano’s--and I knew that if I was writing a novel about something as un-American as failure, I should at least try to make it sexy and suspenseful."

The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye

Another unsolicited ARC from Penguin (Amy Einhorn/Putnam), this one's not due out until March of 2012 (woohoo! tons of time!). This one I've actually read the back of (ooh, look, initiative!) and can tell you with certainty that it's a historical fiction that focuses on the dual impact of the Irish potato famine and a new official police force on the city of New York. More on that later. 

*  *  *

Now. I feel like this is an appropriate time to discuss what's happening in the next few weeks in terms of my reading. There are ten weeks left in 2011 and I have THIRTY books that I want to finish in that time. Am I crazy? I'm not going to say no. So. Here we go. I have nine more Barron challenge books, nine books to read for the Sense & Sensibility Bicentenary challenge, four books of random assortment to read by Christmastime (or my family will kill me), and then eight books I promised publishers I would actually read, and it would be good if I did that. Without further ado, here is my planned review schedule...book gods, help me. If any of these dates get changed/updated, it'll show on my "2011 Reads" page. 

Jane and the Wandering Eye (already finished! review will be posted 10/25!)
Fezariu's Epiphany (I'm about halfway done. I should have a review up by 10/27)
Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway (planning for 10/28)
A Study in Sherlock (review will post 10/29)
Pumpkin Roll (review will post 10/31)  (11/2) (11/3)
The Woman Who Heard Color (hopefully 11/2) (11/4) (11/7)
Jane and the Genius of the Place (11/4) (11/5) (TBA)
Jane and the Stillroom Maid (11/6) (11/7) (TBA)
Guerilla Leader: T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt (11/8)
The Death of King Arthur (review will post 11/10)
Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House (11/13) (TBA)
Jane and the Ghosts of Netley (11/16) (TBA)
Jane and His Lordship's Legacy (11/19) (TBA)
Confessions of a Shopaholic (11/20)
Jane and the Barque of Frailty (11/22) (TBA)
Willoughby's Return (11/25)
Eliza's Daughter (11/27)
Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron (11/29) (TBA)
Brightsea (12/1)
Jane and the Canterbury Tale (12/4) (TBA)
Gone with the Wind (12/6)
Scarlett (12/8)
To Kill a Mockingbird (12/11)
The Cookbook Collector (December date TBD)
The Three Weismanns of Westport (December date TBD)
Sense & Sensibility (December date TBD)
Sass & Serendipity (December date TBD)
The Dashwood Sisters Tell All (December date TBD)
Elinor & Marianne (December date TBD)
The Rape of the Muse (this one will have to be read in my spare - ahahaha - time... so date is totally TBD)

10.10.2011

Monday Mailbox #25 - Manic Monday Edition

Oh boy. The week preceding the last Monday Mailbox was so crazy that I forgot about a book I'd received. WHO AM I??

Dancing With Mrs. Dalloway:
Stories of the Inspiration Behind
Great Works of Literature
by Celia Blue Johnson

My apologies for the Amazon clip art attached to this image. Apparently there's not a better version of the image on the web at the moment that I'm writing this. Anyway, I'm excited about this book and I'm somewhat disappointed that I haven't had a chance to read it yet. Like I said, life's been crazy. But once I do read it, it's going to go right next to Once Again, to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature's Most Intriguing Dedications, by Marlene Wagman Geller.

And, for record-keeping's sake, here's one I got this week:

Every Dead Thing, by John Connolly

This is Connolly's first novel (with it, he won the Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel in 1999). I'm so excited that someone found a copy of this in their laundry room and brought it in, or I might never get started on the Charlie Parker series. But now that I have it's beginning - muah hahaha. Let's just say I've got a challenge planned for myself next year. *Glances at TBR shelves* *sigh*

There will (probably) be no Monday Mailbox for me next week as I'll be on vacation in Florida. Should I pick up any books while in Orlando, I'll share them in Monday October 17th's mailbox. :)

10.08.2011

Review: If Jack's in Love, by Stephen Wetta

If Jack's in Love
by Stephen Wetta
September 29, 2011
Amy Einhorn Books
368 pgs
If Jack's in Love is author Stephen Wetta's debut, a bildungsroman built on the foundation of two romances, both of which are varying shades of Romeo & Juliet

It's the story of two brothers living disparate youths in the same broken down house. The house, a shambles, is a visual representation of their family life - falling apart, screens missing, trash piled up against the side that never gets tossed, only sifted through and reorganized. Wetta, in the afterword, says that he wrote this as a kind of homage to a boy from his youth who lived in a similar home - I think every neighborhood had a family like that. 

Taking place in the South in the 1960s/70s, these lovers are surrounded by the omnipotent (and, in the novel, specific) force of social clashes, as well as the less specific (and disappointingly under-developed) racial tensions. Wetta hints at the racial divide (i.e. Gladstein living in a black ghetto, Dickie Pudding's father being a member of the KKK), but never fully develops the implications of such. Part of this surely has to do with the narrator being a twelve-year-old boy whose focus is more on his hormones than anything else.

Twelve-year-old Jack Witchers’s brother Stan, however, has always been violently indignant about his social status and ready to confront the world about it. His arch nemesis is Gaylord Joyner, crown prince of the Joyner clan, a family whose status is perhaps not too high above the Witchers, but high enough that a deep, dark ravine separates them. Gaylord Joyner’s younger sister, Myra, is the subject of Jack’s love.

The pair make up the first set of Romeos and Juliets – theirs is a fast-growing, innocent kind of childish love, tormented by their social disparity and familial hatred. They are the star-crossed lovers, represented in light and air and magic. Their love marches to the beat of Myra’s awkward hopping-walk, in contrast to the hum of Anya’s GTO – the beat of Stan and Anya’s romance. Stan and Anya are an older Romeo and Juliet: wiser on the surface, certainly more socially-conscious, but that wisdom and consciousness is somewhat poisoned by their lazy notions about love and responsibility. Theirs is a different kind of passion, violent, instantaneous in its growth. 

As the close of the book will suggest, the story is written from Jack's perspective some years later, after the tragedies and the dramas of his youth have passed. But Wetta still manages to be loyal to young Jack, allowing him a childlike honesty akin to Tom Sawyer's, but with the benefit of the adult reasoning - making it more adult than young adult. But all-in-all a successful tale of love and death and everything in between.

10.03.2011

Monday Mailbox #24

This month's Monday Mailbox is hosted by Savvy Verse & Wit.

Just one book this week, but it's pretty.

Fezariu's Epiphany, by David M. Brown

This is an unsolicited review copy I got as part of a virtual book tour. 
It's a fantasy novel, the first in a new series by Brown.
I hope it's good. At least the cover's pretty. :)
Review is scheduled for Thursday, October 13th. 

10.01.2011

Review: Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, by William Kennedy

Changó's Beads and
Two-Tone Shoes

by William Kennedy
September 29, 2011
336 pgs
"I was always told to get my story in the first paragraph." 
Daniel Quinn has been a reporter, a novelist, a lover and a gunrunner. He's been privy to a private concert with Bing Crosby, been referee to a duel involving Ernest Hemmingway, and he's crawled through the Sierra Maestra to personally interview Fidel Castro. And by the end of William Kennedy's newest novel, Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, he has been a part of two separate revolutions which have seemingly nothing to do with one another. Nor is Daniel their constant. Rather, the betrayal of rights and dignities signify the cause of both. And Daniel is there to capture them with his pen.

Born out of the jazz age, there's a mystical melancholy beat that pulses through the novel. The sentences are short. The punctuation is haphazard. The point of view is never the same for three pages straight. But the passion remains imbued in the subtext - the beating of the drums of revolution riding just beneath the surface of the lover's melody, faster and louder as the novel reaches its conclusion.

The title comes out of the representation of the Santería god Changó in each of the two worlds. Santería is a religion from West Africa and the Caribbean which blends Yorùbá tradition with Roman Catholicism and Native Indian tradition. In Changó, one of the more powerful of the gods, you can see hints of Zeus or Tlaloc. And in Babalú-Ayé, you can find Lazarus. The religion, like the jazz, is a constant in the novel - dictating the emotional markers that move the plot along. In Cuba, Changó is a god, a deity, protecting his followers. The beads Renata wears in Changó's name save her life. In the Albany riots, he is represented as a man - a poor black man with a gun who wears two-tone shoes and breaks up riots and saves lives.

The two rebellions are wildly diverse, from two different poles with two different purposes. But Kennedy brings them together, like playing two separate melodies at once as a perfect dichotic piece, as Cody does in his "farewell" concert. And it is not until that moment that the two wars are truly unified. It is not until then that the reader can truly comprehend the vision of Kennedy's work - being not about two separate instances of revolution, but being about one long perpetual revolution that goes on even now. And although there seems to be a general assumption that Quinn himself has written most of this book, the novel has the true feel of an older, wiser hand. I've never read Kennedy's work before, and I don't know that this novel would entice me to read his other novels, but this one is truly beautiful in its styling. Even if he doesn't take his own advice about getting the story in the first paragraph.