Mash-up Fiction: That's "Pulp", not "to a pulp"

I have this teeny weeny soft spot in my heart for mash-up fiction. Vampires, zombies, werewolves, sea monsters...okay, not so much sea monsters. Although if someone were to mash up Jane Austen and Jaws, I'd probably be there. But because this soft spot is so small, there's not much room for challenging what I like.

If you write a book with any one of these aforementioned beings in the title, I kind of expect it to heavily feature that, and that alone. No one wants to read a book called Gatsby: Werewolf Hunter (I made that up) and have it be partially about zombies. It just doesn't fit. Universes should not cross unless explicitly stated.

So here's where it gets tricky: Jane Slayre. Now...I think "slayer...or slayre" and generally think vampires. Unless it's Buffy. Also, the bloodied heroine on the cover (an edited image of Charlotte Brontë) is holding a stake. And on the cover, right below the title, it says "the literary classic with a blood-sucking twist." Vampires, right?

There are! There are vampires! Aunt Reed and her progeny are all children of the night. The book starts off right. Until it veers into the very wrong. If you've never read the source material, it's a pretty big book and it's pretty dense. This means two things: 1) there's not a whole lot of room to play. If you're going to retain most of the source material AND add supernatural elements, you've gotta integrate it very well and keep any additions slim, and 2) you have to make it move; no one wants to read a 400-page mash up of Jane Eyre with dead spaces (haha). Unfortunately, co-author Sherri Browning Erwin took the latter fact to mean that she had to pack it as full as possible with supernatural beings.

So along with vampires, you've got zombies and werewolves. Let me say that again: vampires and zombies and werewolves (oh my). This makes the poor book just fall apart. If she'd stuck with one lore to kind of tie the whole thing together (one ring to rule them all, if you will) it could have worked. But you've got Jane training herself to kill vampires (with the aid of her slayer/Slayre blood of course!), a school teacher training her to kill zombies (which becomes necessary because, along with Brocklehurst - Bokorhurst, here - being a religious zealot/ asshole, he's also apparently a witch doctor who makes zombies), and then some nonsense about her slayer/Slayre uncle also happening to know shit about werewolves.

It's just...it's a lot. It's a whole lot. And we've got enough going on. I mean...Jane Eyre is already a gothic novel. There is already a sort-of-ghost, and a crazy wife in the attic who burns shit down. Not to mention all the horrible human beings who already play a part in the original. And it's so Emo, it doesn't need any help. Yet here we are. Trying to make things more interesting. It doesn't need it! All this additional stuff does is make Jane more of a bad-ass (which doesn't fit, because she remains emotionally immature) and make Rochester more of a wimp (which he's not!).

This is not me being elitist. I mean, I can be, but this is not that. Mash-up fiction is supposed to be fun. This is not fun. This isn't as bad as Amanda Grange's Mr. Darcy, Vampyr, but it's still not fun. Good mash-up should still retain the potent qualities of the original. For example, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Elizabeth is pretty bad-ass because of her zombie-killing training in China. But Elizabeth was already pretty bad-ass and put Darcy in his place more than once. It works! This doesn't. This is just messy in all kinds of ways. No more, please.


Forever and Fated: Novels That End Badly

About a week ago, The New Yorker's Page Turner blog featured a post by Joan Acocella that discussed the reasons behind books ending badly. Not sadly or routinely (as deaths and things that might occur at the ends of many books are in fact appropriate and moving and cause you to cry for hours - see: The Musketeer Trilogy) but, as Acocella says, "inartistic—a betrayal of what came before."

Acocella goes on to cite Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn as perfect examples where a large chunk right at the end of these previously outstanding novels, the authors have chosen to switch gears and tell stories that no one wants to hear (specifically here, the plight of Catherine and Heathcliff's children, a boring marriage, and Huck resuming stupid antics as directed by the comically inappropriate Tom Sawyer).

The two novels I want to talk about today are very different in tone, complexity and literary appeal. But, when boiled down, they're actually pretty similar. And both of them have terrible, awful, no good, very bad endings that, I think, they should be called out on.

The first of these is Pete Hamill's 2002 best-seller Forever.
From the publisher's website:
"From the bestselling author of Snow in August and A Drinking Life comes this magical, epic tale of an extraordinary man who arrives in New York City in 1740 and remains...forever.
From the shores of Ireland, Cormac O'Connor sets out on a fateful journey to avenge the deaths of his parents and honor the code of his ancestors. His quest brings him to the settlement of New York, seething with tensions between English and Irish, whites and blacks, British and "Americans," where he is swept up in a tide of conspiracy and violence. In return for aiding an African shaman who was brought to America in chains, Cormac is given an otherworldly gift: He will live forever -- as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan.
Cormac comes to know all the buried secrets of Manhattan -- the way it has been shaped by greed, race, and waves of immigration, by the unleashing of enormous human energies, and above all, by hope. 
Through it all, Cormac must fight a force of evil that returns relentlessly in the scions of a single family whose path first crossed his in Ireland. As he searches out these blood enemies, he must watch everyone he touches slip away. And so he seeks the one who can change his fate, the mysterious dark lady who alone can free him from the blessing and the curse of his long life
Drawing on Pete Hamill's bone-deep knowledge of New York City, Forever is his long-awaited masterpiece, a Shakespearean evocation of the mysteries of time and death, sex and love, character and place. It is both an unforgettable drama and a timeless triumph of storytelling."
Sounds pretty good, right? It is. It's a fantastic novel. And I mean novel. It's over 600 pages long. It's dense. It's beautiful. I loved....almost every second of it. Because if there's one thing I love more than a novel that is just plain beautiful, it's one that's impeccably researched and just plain beautiful. And this is a prime example. Until the end.

You see, according to Hamill (I think it's in the interview in the back of the edition I have) he lets us know that he completed his final draft on September 10th, 2001. The next day, the world changed. He spent the next nine days working for the Daily News and requested an extension from his publisher, which was granted, and he spent the next year changing a huge chunk at the end. Because, as he says, you can't have "a New York novel that ha[s] the 1835 fire and the cholera and smallpox epidemics, and not include September 11." And while I agree with that, I have to wonder at Cormac's decision making in a post-9/11 world.

In the very end, he has a choice: he's been on a journey for centuries now, everything has led up to this moment at the very end when he can either follow his loved ones on the path to the afterlife that awaits him, or he can hang out for the next fifty or so years with his baby mama until everyone he knows this century dies and he has to start all over, still never leaving the island of Manhattan, and still never being reunited with his parents. One is a beautiful and cathartic ending, the other is the let-down to let all let-downs down. Guess which one he chooses. Think Juliet waking up and deciding to marry Paris.

And you can bet that those last hundred words or so that totally ruin the entire book were something that Hamill wrote in the original draft. That's the worst part. Even with the re-writes and the terror of 9/11, he always intended to let everyone down.

The other novel I want to talk about is S. G. Browne's 2010 novel Fated.
From the author's website:
Over the past few thousand years, Fabio has come to hate his job. As Fate, he’s in charge of assigning the fortunes and misfortunes that befall most of the human race—the 83% who keep screwing things up. And with the steady rise in population since the first Neanderthal set himself on fire, he can’t exactly take a vacation.
Frustrated with his endless parade of drug addicts and career politicians, it doesn’t help watching Destiny guide her people to Nobel Peace Prizes and Super Bowl MVPs. To make matters worse, he has a five hundred year old feud with Death, and his best friends are Sloth and Gluttony. And worst of all? He’s just fallen in love with a human.
Sara Griffen might be on Destiny’s path, but Fabio keeps bumping into her—by accident at first, and then on purpose. Getting involved with her breaks Rule #1, and about ten others, setting off some cosmic-sized repercussions that could strip him of his immortality–or lead to a fate worse than death.
I almost don't want to even talk about this book. That's how much of a disappointment it was. The first 95% of it was great. And then Browne pulled what the Buffy fan in me would like to call an IWRY

Fabio has completely screwed up. Jerry (God) decrees that Fabio will no longer be immortal. Fabio can't bring himself to tell Sara what's about to happen. Next day, Sara remembers nothing: not who he is, not what he was, not what they were to each other. The ensuing chapter is unfortunate and pretty pathetic. Fabio, now as a mortal, ruins his human life, makes Sara hate him, and then kills himself. All so that Browne can have him become, wait for it, the next Messiah. 

And wait, it gets worse, Sara is the mother of the Messiah. So when Fabio, after he kills himself, regains consciousness within the womb, he's inside the love of his life. In the grossest way possible. Sure, when he's "born" again, he will lose all his memories and will have no consciousness of having ruined everything with Sara, etc. But...seriously? This is how you want to end this book? 

It was a good book. It was enjoyable. It had some annoying stylistic problems, but I glossed over every single one of them because I was enjoying myself. But then this happened. Also, I was cool with the weird religious implications of that first 95% of the novel. And then it got a little too preachy right there at the end, losing all secular appeal.

Hamill's offense was greater. Clearly, this was the ending he'd always intended and, clearly, it was very rude for him to make us sit through over 600 pages of gorgeousness just to do that. But Browne's is more annoying, possibly because the book isn't as good and I was hoping the end would redeem itself a little. Instead it's just got a creep factor of 9 and a boring factor of 11. Both endings were pre-meditated and, unlike Wuthering Heights and David Copperfield where I think the authors kind of felt like they had to keep writing just so that they could eventually find the ending, they make the stories feel kind of cheap. 

Alternately, there is Don Winslow's Savages which got a Hollywood treatment this summer. The novel itself isn't much. Winslow writes like a screenwriter for the most part and he keeps both the dialogue 
and the prose pretty sparse. There's not a whole lot in the way of character development. But it's an insanely quick read if you get the chance. It's not Forever in its size or density or beauty, but the ending is such a great piece on its own, and it's so gorgeously written. It's the kind of ending that I would have wanted Forever to have. It's the kind of ending that Fated should have had. And if Don Winslow could have cobbled that together just for the end of his book, Pete Hamill and S. G. Browne have absolutely no excuse. 


Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books I Wouldn't Mind Santa Bringing Me

it's been a while.

How's everyone doing? Is there anybody alive out there? Hope you've all been keeping busy through my...whatever we're going to call this little break. Let's call it huge case of Vitamin-D deficiency. Doesn't matter. Whatever. Here we are. 

I mostly kept my reading goals...finished that list I'd wanted done by the end of October about a week ago, and I've read two more since. My whole list can be seen on the 2012 Reads page. I'm not really ready to get back to reviewing. Rest assured, I will...just not immediately. I wanted to start off with something relatively benign - a new Top Ten Tuesday. Brought to you by the girls over at The Broke and the Bookish, this week's Top Ten are Books I Wouldn't Mind Santa Bringing Me. So, without further ado...

1-3. The newest annotated editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion, by Jane Austen
4. The 100th anniversary annotated edition of Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie

5. New York Diaries: 1609-2009, by Teresa Carpenter

6. The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story, by Theodora Goss
7. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
8. I, Iago, by Nicole Galland
9. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck
10. The Rescuers, by Margery Sharp


Monday Mailbox 9/17/12

Hello, and welcome to Monday Mailbox. This month, Monday Mailbox is being hosted by Kristen over at BookNAround.

This week I treated myself to a little Amazon shopping. Given my TBR pile (if we're just counting books I currently own, and not counting the ones I just bought, we're at 46) I really shouldn't...but I can't help myself. So, without further ado, my books:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barberry
Purchased this specifically so that I can read it back to back with Barberry's Gourmet Rhapsody.

A Time of Miracles, by Anne-Laure Bondoux
Bondoux also wrote The Princetta.

Swell, by Ionna Karystiani
I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't buy this mostly for the cover/title.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind
A few years ago I was doing a search on Netflix for Alan Rickman movies. This was when I was still paying to get dvds delivered, not just instant watch. The 2006 English-language German film adaptation of this novel popped up; I had never heard of it, but Alan Rickman was in it, and that was kind of all I cared about. It's a weird story...the film is gorgeous. Like...gorgeous. And I'd always intended on reading the novel, but things kind of got away from me....46 books on my TBR list, remember? Now I have it, and I'm planning to read it by year's end. 


Monday Mailbox 9/10/12

Hello, and welcome to Monday Mailbox. This month, Monday Mailbox is being hosted by Kristen over at BookNAround.

This week I picked up a handful of plays at my office. I also made an Amazon purchase, but those haven't arrived yet, so that'll be for next week. :D As for this week:

The Collected Plays by Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman and I go way back to junior year of high school when everyone got assigned a playwright on which to do this giant soul-crushing four-phase project. The year was 2001. The internet was sizeable, but it wasn't the Rancor it is today. YouTube was four years away; Wikipedia was still a fledgling site with only about 20,000 pages (today it has 22 million, 4 million of which are in English); and internet memes were somewhat less interactive. This meant a lot of time was spent in the school library trying to dig up information on a playwright that most people have probably never heard of. I had no access to JStor or Academia.org, and Google did not respond with the some 700,000 results if you searched "Lillian Hellman" as it does today. This meant I had to be very creative, and I had to be a little more critical of her plays on my own. So I read all of them. There's a soft spot in my heart for the broad; she was no-nonsense, she was a bitch, and she was kind of brilliant. 

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller

I'm not going to pretend that anyone didn't read this in high school.

Democracy, by Michael Frayn

Michael Frayn may be better-known for his theatrical farse Noises Off which is, perhaps, the funniest damned thing ever written outside of a Dave Barry column (to me, at least) but his drama is also pretty awesome. This one is a spy drama that takes place in West Germany. The Broadway productionn (2004-2005) starred James Naughton and Richard Thomas, and it was one of the first Broadway shows I bought my own ticket for after moving to New York for college.

Did anyone else pick up plays this week?


Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books on Lauren's Fall TBR List

From The Broke and the Bookish:
Guys, it's that time again: the time to get excited about the books you'll be reading next season! And more particularly: what books you're most excited about that have made it on your Fall TBR list!

Well, we're in the home stretch: the final quarter of the year, and I am SO far behind on my reading this year. So the ten books here are the ones I'm hoping to finish by, say, the end of October:

1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré
I just started this one last week, and I would have finished by now, except that I've been totally and utterly distracted. I've been playing Sudoku on the train ride home instead of reading. For shame. Ten points from Gryffindor. 

2. Tristessa, by Jack Kerouac
Almost forgot I had this.

3. Forever, by Pete Hamill

4. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barberry
Buying this so that then I can read...

5. Gourmet Rhapsody, by Muriel Barberry

6. The Gates, by John Connolly

7. United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties, and Handmade Bitters: A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement, by Kurt B. Reighley
Consider this my election-season reading. They have that saying about keeping your enemies closer and understanding their though processes so that you can better defend against them but, frankly, just LOOKING at Mitt Romney's No Apology: Believe in America makes me angry. Should we ever actually be in a room together, I might throw it across said room. So I'm going for something a little milder: just plain prettyish Americana. 

8. A Time of Miracles, by Anne-Laure Bondoux
Bondoux also wrote my much-beloved The Princetta.

And finally, in honor of Halloween:
9. Psycho, by Robert Bloch
10. Jane Slayre, by Charlotte Brontë and Sherri Browning Erwin


Monday Mailbox 9/3/12

Hello, and welcome to Monday Mailbox. This month, Monday Mailbox is being hosted by Kristen over at BookNAround.

This week I picked up two books at my office's lending library:

Love in the time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez
Because I feel like this is something I should have read already, and haven't. 


A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar
The movie makes me cry. Can't wait. 


Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Bookish Confessions

From The Broke and the Bookish:
Top Ten Bookish ConfessionsEveryone has at least one bookish confession... Join us in spilling our deepest held secrets around one of our most beloved pastimes. Everyone has a bookish confession. What's yours? If you have one feel free to share it, if not feel free to commiserate with ours

So, without further ado, Lauren's top ten bookish confessions:

1. I bought into the Twilight thing for a whole week. The movies are a separate monster, and I'm sure I'll find time to harp about that later but, for a whole week, I bought into the Twilight...thing. I did not sleep. In the span of four days (two of which were work days) I read the whole saga. I also read Stephenie Meyer's not-really-published "Midnight Sun" which, I thought, was the best writing out of all of it... yeah. That happened.

2. I went on an Ambrose Bierce kick a few months ago and borrowed this DVD of Ambrose Bierce stories and a paperback collection of his stories from the New York Public Library. Still haven't returned them. They're sitting in my desk drawer at work. I owe some money.

3. In case #2 didn't clue you in, I'm awful at returning library books. 

4. Reading annotated versions of books makes me feel totally cool and smart and stuff, so I do it on purpose.

5. Even though I've been told that I must, I have still never read any Tolkien.

6. I shunned Harry Potter when the novels were first coming out. It kind of had to do with the fact that my sister was totally into them and, for those of you who don't know me very well, I don't like to enjoy things that the masses enjoy. I'm kind of a little elitist, and I accept that. But then the first film was coming out and my mother told me that I could not go see the movie with her and my sister unless I read the books. I still stood my ground. Then my mother and my sister went on a cruise a few weeks before the first movie came out. While they were gone, I caved and read all the books that had come out up to that point.

7. I dog ear like crazy. My books, library books, doesn't matter. The only time I don't is if I've borrowed it from a friend and they're picky about that. Otherwise, dog ear dog ear dog ear.

8. I also mark up my own books. I write in them, I highlight, I notate...yeah.

9. I know that everyone says the play of Peter and the Starcatcher(s) is so awesome, but I love the books so much, I've avoided going to see it...I'm worried that it won't be everything I want it to be. And then I'll be sad.

10. Took a class called "The War Novel" I think sophomore year of college. Read half of the assigned books. Will never read Proust ever again.


Review: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson
(Penguin Classics Rev. Ed. 1998)
208 pgs
Eleanor has spent the last decade of her life caring for her invalid mother who has recently passed. Eager to start her life, she defies her sister's wishes and accepts an invitation from a doctor she doesn't know to come and stay with some other guests in a manor for the summer. She doesn't know what to expect, she doesn't know who will be there, or what the place will be like. She has no idea what the doctor (a paranormal investigator of sorts) has in store for her. She doesn't know that the house has been waiting for her. As things start going bump in the night, everyone is a bit on edge. But Eleanor, who has lived in the shadows for so long, enjoys the attention the events afford her. After all, the house seems to be making it all about her.

Unlike Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House does not possess (if you'll pardon the pun) of a specific malicious or malcontent spirit or entity; rather, it is the house itself which seems to harbor resentment and ill-will. The knockings on the walls and doors leave no marks, and the cold is the result of no draft. Some of the strange feelings one has in the house seem to be explained away by the original (strange) builder's uncanny habit of making everything just slightly uneven and askew, but for the rest, it's a mystery.

The Haunting of Hill House, is a thriller to end all thrillers. It has been incredibly influential in the genre of horror since its publication in 1959. Notably, Anne Rivers Siddons and Stephen King have been affected by Shirley Jackson's, dare I say, perfect story about a haunted house. As Siddons says (while discussing her novel, The House Next Door (1978)--a tribute, really, to Jackson's book):
A house... is an extension of ourselves; it tolls in answer to one of the most basic chords mankind will ever hear. My shelter. my earth. My second skin. Mine. So basic is it that the desecration of it, the corruption, as it were, by something alien takes on a peculiar and bone-deep horror and disgust. It is both frightening and...violating, like a sly, terrible burglar. A house askew is one of the not-rightest thigs in the world, and is terrible out of all proportion to its actual visitant... 

It's worth noting, of course, that the most unpleasant personalities (the housekeeper, and the doctor's wife) go about unbothered by the house; it is only the innocent who are targeted.

This is a theme that's harped on in the 1999 film adaptation "The Haunting" starring Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson. Taylor (the Eleanor - Nell - character) discovers that the original builder (who, in the book, had two daughters who lived into adulthood, and whose lives mirror that of Eleanor and her sister) had all of his children die in childbirth, lived as a reculse, and ended his days kidnapping children from the town nearby and murdering them. Their souls are trapped in the house (along with his) and can be seen in the very very creepy cherubic faces all over the place. It's a disturbing (and bad) film, and it kind of beats Jackson's original story to a pulp.

You'd be hard-pressed, I think, to find any haunted-house story or film (or tv series--American Horror Story, anyone?) from the last few decades that was not influenced by Shirley Jackson, and The Haunting of Hill House is just the tip of that iceberg. I strongly recommend it be your first stop on any course through American Horror Fiction.


Review: The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill
Vintage (reprint ed.)
First published in 1983, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black follows Arthur Kipps, a young London solicitor who, to improve his position within his firm, takes on the task of settling the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House in Crythin Gifford. When he arrives, the locals seem kind but are wary of him, and they attempt to caution him away from completing his task; it seems Eel Marsh House could be, in a way, cursed. Haunted.

Those words don't exactly get tossed around lightly, and Kipps doesn't exactly catch on: determined to get his promotion, Kipps rallies and spends a handful of frightful days and nights at Eel Marsh House. The residence exists on its own kind of island in the marshlands; it is only accessible at low tide, via the Nine Lives Causeway (are you seeing a symbolism pattern here? Nine Lives Causeway, Eel Marsh House, Mrs. Drablow?) I'm certain that some of my own trepidation while reading was due in part to my familiarity with the story, but that speaks, nonetheless, of Hill's gift for thrilling her reader.

A short 176 pages, The Woman in Black is a page-turner that packs a quick hard punch in the gut of anyone who's ever feared that bump in the night, gasped at the rocking chair in the nursery that seems to move of its own volition, or needed to fast-forward past the swingset in the opening credits of "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" (i.e. me)

I have not yet had the opportunity to read or see Stephen Mallatratt's stage play adaptation of the novel, a production of which has been running in London's West End since 1989, but my understanding (from friends who have had that chance) is that it's a fairly faithful adaptation, utilizing a similar story-within-a-story device as the novel. I have, however, seen the most recent film adaptation. Twice. It's not really as faithful, as there are some major changes and additions. The thing about film in general is that you don't need to put in extra effort to creep out your viewer. Especially with this kind of source material, wherein Hill manages to send chills down one's spine with just words; she doesn't need a soundtrack in a minor key, or gore, or a muddy handprint on the front door (saw the movie and didn't catch that the first time? me too.)

It's too far away so you can't see it
in this picture, but go back and watch
the movie. When Kipps first arrives at
Eel Marsh House. Muddy handprint
on the door.
As my high school english teacher loved to point out: nothing is more terrifying than what might be imagined in the mind's eye. The film, starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, definitely puts some extra effort into terrifying its audience, not really trusting them to scare themselves adequately with that which is unseen. The backstory for the woman is changed a bit. The effect her presence has on the neighborhood is changed quite a bit. The stakes are higher. By comparison, the novel could be called sedate.

If you didn't like the film (too gruesome? too much emphasis on creepy ghost children?) don't let that dissuade you from reading the book. The novel is milder, more straightforward, and will still give you that spine tingle you desire without the Hollywood excess.


Review: Sweet Talk, by Julie Garwood

Sweet Talk
by Julie Garwood
Dutton Adult
August 7, 2012
368 pgs
A guest review by Jessica Pruett-Barnett

When I was in college, my RA kept a stash of romance novels underneath her bed. It was awesome because she had an open door policy and I lived with her so...free romance novels whenever I wanted! Her books generally featured a strong-willed woman (who maybe has sisters that get their own books...awesome!) who ended up with a man equally strong-willed and awesome in bed. When I moved to New York, I ended up with a roommate who loved romance novels even more than my college roommate. Hannah's books tend to be series featuring firefighters, police officers, NASCAR drivers, even a boutique sex hotel in Manhattan (my favorites!). After reading Julie Garwood's Sweet Talk, I gave Hannah my copy to read ASAP.

In Sweet Talk, IRS agent/attorney Olivia Mackenzie is investigating her father's business on the down low because she thinks that he is running a Ponzi scheme. When Olivia meets with a man she thinks will help her find evidence against her father, he attempts to kill her, leading FBI agent Grayson Kincaid (with a name like that, you know he is going to be good in bed) to save her. They both feel the attraction immediately, and he helps her in her investigation, leading to an emotionally-charged (and sexy) conclusion. 

I think the storylines in romance novels are generally overlooked, and that is why they can have a bad reputation as a legitimate genre. While not reinventing the genre, Garwood wrote an engaging plot, complete with corruption (timely!) and murder (always exciting to read about). Her Olivia and Grayson are fully developed and mirror each other in a way that is important for romance novels as you can really see them staying together.

There are two major sex scenes, which is appropriate for a novel of this size (about 350 pages in my advance copy) that also has a pretty involved plot. The initial scene is written extremely well, with no pulsating member in sight. The title of the novel comes out of this scene: Grayson says “Wow” after they have both orgasmed, and Olivia asks if that is his versions of sweet talk. He asks if she needs sweet talk and she says “No, 'Wow' pretty much said it all.” That is a good summary of their relationship.

The only point in Sweet Talk that didn't ring true is in the second sex scene. Olivia is determined to tease Grayson, to “make him beg,” but can't. She thinks “when it came to sex, how could she have thought she was superior.” It was so out of character for Olivia to say something along those lines that I was thrown out of the story. They are equals everywhere else in this book, does he really have to best her sexually? That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Sweet Talk and have already put a few of Julie Garwood's books on my Amazon list.


Review: True Believers, by Kurt Andersen

True Believers
by Kurt Andersen
Random House
July 10, 2012
448 pgs
Kurt Andersen's True Believers, new from Random House last month, is written as the memoir of a woman with a more than colorful past. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Karen Hollænder (or Hollander, as she's known later in life) had a midwest upbringing and a Cambridge education which led to her work as an attorney, a law school dean and, most recently, a potential nomination to the Supreme Court. But she turns down the latter even before it's truly offered and goes on a campaign to revisit her past all because of a dark secret she's been harboring since the late sixties.

As a teenager, Hollander and her friends were, as I'm sure many teenagers were, obsessed with the dashing mystery that was James Bond. The juxtaposition of her memories of their playacting against the memories of the actual crime they set out to commit later in life is marvelous. But any time the action is supplanted with fact-listing or present-day events, the momentum slows, and the novel suffers.

The problem seems to be the format of the memoir as a whole. Andersen fails to capture the autobiographical style and the story drags. What could be a very relevant picture of innocence as radicalism in today's political climate reads instead like a rather dull un-nuanced picture of the baby-boomer era. The author has, whether intentional or not, set Karen Hollander up as a kind of Briony Tallis. She's done wrong. She knows she's done wrong. So she writes about it and dredges up the past and tries to atone for her mistakes.

But the difference is that, at the end of McEwan's Atonement, you (assuming you have a heart in your body) have your heart wrenched out and Briony, despite her mistakes, is completely sympathetic. But in Karen Hollander's case, she's not written well-enough to sustain any kind of sympathy. And her off-handed good intentions that drive the story aren't enough for the reader to honestly care about what mistakes she made and what they meant.

If we're to take anything from this book, it would seem to be that this picturesque story of youth is dragged down when tied to the present by the loss of idealism: we in the present/future of the novel cling to sarcasm, to realism, to naturalism, to cynicism, and we've forgotten our idealism along the way. We're too content with our lives; technology makes life too easy, keeping us over-medicated and too sane for any real revolution to ever happen again. But that's on a meta level; it doesn't excuse the stylistic failure of the novel nor the lackluster voice that drives it.


Review: The Concubine's Gift, by K. Ford K.

A guest review by Jessica Pruett-Barnett
The Concubine's Gift
by K. Ford K.
Creative Space Independent Publishing
January 2011
230 pgs

I am, perhaps, overly harsh when it comes to entertainment. If I don't like a movie within 5 minutes, I turn it off. This obviously doesn't occur when I am in the movie theatre (if I am paying $13 for a movie, I will finish it and LIKE IT), but I often send back my Netflix movies unfinished. "Cashback"? Sent back. "Debating Robert Lee"? Shoot me. The same goes for theatre. I don't leave at intermission much (Crimes of the Heart, South Pacific, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and that awful college production of Exit The King all deserved it, I swear), but when I do it was out of boredom or my hatred of Tennessee Williams. 

Books, however, I finish, even Sophie in the Haunted Brothel in New York City (although a bottle of wine was needed for that...also, the Amazon link for that isn't working, so I give you this gem: an excerpt from Sophie in the Haunted Brothel in New York City). There is always something the pulls me towards the end, whether it be an unsolved crime or the need to know if Sophie manages to run away from her murderous pimp who killed her best friend and makes her live and work in Greenwich Village in a time period unknown (I don't think they have punctuation in that time period judging the author's inability to use a period).

I couldn't finish The Concubine's Gift, by K. Ford K. I only wish it was bad. Unfortunately, it was worse: it was boring. I know the story takes place near a bordello because the back of the book told me so. It also told me that Bernice, the main character, is sexually inhibited; but, really, with a name like Bernice she wasn't going to be a wild and crazy hooker. Fifty pages in and the most I get out of the story is that Bernice is ashamed to have sexy dreams and a silly, stereotypical (borderline racist really and inappropriate as today isn't Racist Tuesday) story about a girl who was sold into sexual slavery and became a prostitute in China.

Romance novels are supposed to be fun and provide an escape into a fun scenario. I don't want to imagine being a hopelessly sexually oppressed woman who equates sex with shame, and whose sexuality is awakened by magical powder from an old Chinese prostitute. I want to be a strong woman who has awesome sex with a firefighter, or an FBI agent, or with a bartender in Manhattan's newest sex hotel. I think K. Ford K. needs to read some modern romances to see what a modern woman wants out of a romance novel: shame need not apply.


Review: Auraria, by Tim Westover

Auraria, a novel
by Tim Westover
QW Publishers
March 3, 2012
386 pgs
Tim Westover's Auraria is an original and fantastical semi-allegorical condemnation of capitalism. The novel, new from QW Publishers (this year), champions natural resources and the power of nature while simultaneously mocking the mythology of bourgeois initiative with an inventive plot and setting full of ghosts and larger-than-life creatures, moon maidens and will 'o the wisps. But while the story may be rife with anti-capitalistic feelings (much in the same way that Jaws can be interpreted) it also promotes integrity and ingenuity: the backbone and nervous system of the American dream.

The plot is somewhat reminiscent of both The Great Gatsby and The Bible...if you can imagine. It follows Holtzclaw (a Nick Carraway character) who, employed by a Mr. Shadburn, seeks to buy up the lands of a mystical and illusory Appalachian valley known as Auraria for the purposes of tourism and industry...at least, this is what he believes. In reality, Mr. Shadburn is, in fact, planning an hotel and spa for tourists, but his intention is to bury Auraria, to sink it and all it stands for. (Note: Although this story, with its moon maidens and terrapins, is fictional, it's worth pointing out that Westover based it upon an actual Georgia ghost town).

Holtzclaw is at once guided and distracted by a young girl who calls herself Princess Trahlyta, who seems to be part nymph and part ghost (fun fact: Princess Trahlyta was a Cherokee princess, the legend of whom serves as the false legend that Shadburn and Holtzclaw invent in order to stir up interest in their tourism scheme). Those with any Latin/ romance language/ science background will see what's coming next: Auraria is basically a gold mine. But not just any mine...this gold comes not from the earth, but to it, sloughed off of the bodies of moon maidens who see it as we would see sweat. Their bathing in Auraria's streams over the years has caused there to be the smallest particles of gold in all of Auraria's waters, even the rainwater. And it is this gold that Shadburn both needs and detests. It would be easy to cast Shadburn as the villain, but the gold seems to be both champion and villain of this strange little myth.

The plot itself is a little weak (some characterizations seem forced, and a certain romance is neglected for the better part of it) and the author's use of adjectives is a bit overzealous. But the setting, a secluded place with its own mythology and norms (much in the way of Inkworld or Terabithia or Narnia) is exquisite. It's both an interesting ghost story and an astonishingly visual and cinematic fantasy. In the right hands, a film adaptation (fantasy? horror? it could be both!) could be gorgeous.


Mailbox Monday 8/20/12

Well hello.

Deepest apologies for my absence. Things have been a little nutso in my corner of the world. I won't bore you with the details, but I'm back now.

To celebrate my return to the blogosphere, I'm posting a review a day for the next 6 days because, while I haven't been posting or reviewing, I have been reading. So hooray. After this week I plan on going back to posting my regular review once or twice a week plus memes.

This week's reviews will include:

Auraria by Tim Westover (Tuesday 8/21)
Guest Review: The Concubine's Gift by K. Ford K. (Wednesday 8/22)
True Believers by Kurt Anderson (Thursday 8/23)
Guest Review: Sweet Talk by Julie Garwood (Friday 8/24)
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (Saturday 8/25)
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Sunday 8/26)

As for Monday Mailbox business, it's being hosted this month by 5 Minutes for Books; in the time since I last posted, I've received two books:

The first book was Wookie the Chew by James Hance, whose website is a geek's delight.

Along with Wookie the Chew, I also purchased two prints (this one and this one...and I'm seriously considering buying this one and this one). Hance is right now running a special print "Off to Save the Princess" in an effort to save his own beautiful little princess, Madison. Madison is 7 and is suffering from a stomach ailment with too many letters in it. All proceeds of that print go to support Madison's medical/ travel expenses. For more information about "Hugs for Maddy," click here.

The second book was an ARC of Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz's newest book This is How You Lose Her which will be published by Riverhead on September 11th.

Happy Reading!


Monday Mailbox 7/23/12: Shameless Self-Promotion Style

This week I received...no books. 

I'm sorry to have directed you here under false pretenses. But, as friends and readers of my blog, I need you to bear with me for a moment of shameless self-promotion.

I'm involved with a play - a musical - called The Hills Are Alive. It is, as you may expect, an amusing take on the events following The Sound of Music

We are participating in New York City's Fringe Festival this year, and I was asked to do a Q&A for NYTheatre.com. If you can come see the show, that's fantastic. If not, there is one teeny tiny way that you can help us out. When you click on the link to my Q&A (below) you'll see that, under the title (The Hills Are Alive!: Lauren Cartelli) there's a Facebook LIKE button. The Fringe production that gets the most Likes on their Q&As will get a free banner for marketing purposes on the NYTheatre.com website. 

So....we need your likes! You don't even have to read the Q&A (although I think it's splendid, and you should), just follow the link and click on the LIKE button. And, if you're feeling uber-generous, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click through to the other two Q&As for our show (Ashley Ball, and Eric Thomas Johnson) and Like theirs as well! I'll even do you one better and link to all three from this page! No scrolling involved! Just click the link, and then click LIKE. I'm also including a link below for those who would like to look into purchasing tickets for the show (it's Fringe! it's cheap! come see!)

The cast thanks you in advance for your help!
I hope everyone had a wonderful week full of books, and I hope you have an even better week this week, full of good karma (which you get after liking our Q&A pages)!


(this link takes you to the H page of the Fringe listings - just click on the date/time you'd like to attend The Hills Are Alive in order to purchase tickets)


Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books for People Who Like Peter Pan

You know the drill: second star to the right, and straight on til [Tuesday] morning...

Top Ten Tuesdays are, as always, brought to you by the girls at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's theme is Top Ten Books for People Who Like X Book...in this case, J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. I apologize in advance, a few of these are series, not just one book so, for those of you who take this kind of thing to heart, there's a lot of reading in your future. 

Peter Pan, the story of the boy who won't grow up, is so much more than that when examined on a literary scale: it's about becoming a part of the story, getting sucked in, in a way. Wendy entertains her brothers with the tales of Peter Pan, only to have them swept into that world. A few of these listed are like that. Others capture the high adventure and mischief that Peter captures in his Neverland. And a few of them take place in the heart of Neverland itself.

1. Peter and the Starcatchers Series, by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson (4 books)
Duh. You can't have a list for Peter Pan without the Peter and the Starcatchers series. Apparently they only sell books 1-3 as a box set, and the fourth one separately. Which is fine, really, because the first three are the better ones. The fourth one was kind of a let down.

2. The Bridge to Neverland, by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
A Starcatchers book that's not really in the world of the Starcatchers, but still as worthy.

3. The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
Talk about getting sucked into the story. That's just what Bastian does. Fans of the film will recognize the first half the novel. The second half is...weird.

4. The Kingdom Keepers, by Ridley Pearson (5 books)
I couldn't resist another Pearson title. I've only read the first two books in the series (III and IV are seriously beckoning me!) and this is a little less Peter Pan and a little more Disney, but the idea is similar--being wrapped up in a world where the characters who, before, only existed in fantasies, are real. Even the dolls on "It's a Small World." Have fun with that one.

5. Tales from Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Part of the Earthsea Cycle, but you don't need to read the others to read this one. Mystery and fantasy and adventure and hijinks. And it's gorgeous.

6. The Princetta, by Anne-Laure Bondoux
Adventure, high seas, gorgeous, inventive, original. Read it. 

7. The Daydreamer, by Ian McEwan
Part-Kafka, part-Lois Lowry, part-Dr. Seuss. McEwan read these stories to his kids and gauged their reactions in the editing process. Sweet and simple stories about a little boy's fantasy world. AND the boy's name is Peter.

8. The Chronicles of Prydain Series, by Lloyd Alexander (5 books)
Welsh fantasy bildungsroman--The Black Cauldron is part of this series. Since it's about Taran growing up, it's kind of anti-Pan, but the structure and mysticism make it a definite part of this list.

9. The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly
This book would also belong on a list for people who like the film Labyrinth. The story is somewhat similar, but the execution is stunningly different. The mythology involved is just...god, I love this book. It's a little gruesome for some...I know some people just can't seem to get through that. But if you love fairy tales of any sort, this should be on your list. Another example of a child being sucked into the stories.

10. The Inkheart Trilogy, by Cornelia Funke (3 books - Inkheart, Inkspell, Inkdeath)
Just as Wendy in effect breathes life into Peter and Neverland with his stories, so, too, do the silvertongues of Funke's world. AND there's high adventure. AND there are fairies. AND you should also watch the film. The end.


Monday Mailbox 7/16/12

Monday Mailbox is hosted this month by Mrs. Q Book Addict

Get ready, this week's haul is a big one.

First, from the office: 


by Robert Bloch 
Published in 1959, this is the book that ended up as the now-famous Hitchcock suspense thriller of 1960. This edition of the book is from the period of the not-so-good remake of 1998, directed by Gus Van Sant.

by Raymond Chandler 
Chandler's 1939 novel, the first in the Philip Marlowe series, made famous my the 1946 film (the second movie to feature Bogart & Bacall together).

And then, from a buying spree on Amazon because, you know, I need more books

by Laura Lippman 
I'm usually pretty good at making sure I get the edition I want when I'm ordering on Amazon but, like I said, this was a little bit of a spree, and I didn't pay attention. I ended up with this edition, the mass market paperback (Avon) from 2004 instead of the William Morrow reprint ed. paperback from 2011 which is prettier. Either way, I wanted this book, so I'm not gonna gripe I'm just...you know...a little miffed at myself. Anyway, in case you haven't heard of this book:
On a July afternoon two little girls, banished from a birthday party, take a wrong turn onto an unfamiliar Baltimore street -- and encounter an abandoned stroller with a baby inside it. Dutiful Alice Manning and unpredictable Ronnie Fuller only want to be helpful, to be good. People like children who are good, Alice thinks. But whatever the girls' real intentions, things go horribly awry and three families are destroyed.
by Pete Hamill 

This book (2003) was recommended to me after I read Pete Hamill's Tabloid City last April
 ...the magical, epic tale of an extraordinary man who arrives in New York in 1740 and remains ... forever. Through the eyes of Cormac O'Connor - granted immortality as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan - we watch New York grow from a tiny settlement on the tip of an untamed wilderness to the thriving metropolis of today. And through Cormac's remarkable adventures in both love and war, we come to know the city's buried secrets - the way it has been shaped by greed, race, and waves of immigration, by the unleashing of enormous human energies, and, above all, by hope.

Reminds me a lot of that show that emerged for half a season on FOX back in 2008, "New Amsterdam." I was actually sad when that show got canceled. I wanted to know what would happen to him and the lady doctor! Wikipedia (that Elysium of laissez-faire scholarship!) cites a , stating:
After hearing about the upcoming series, author Pete Hamill alleged that the show has similarities to the plot of his 2003 novel, Forever, but producer David Manson claimed he had no knowledge of the book until after filming had wrapped.
I'm glad I wasn't the only one.

by Sherri Browning Erwin & Charlotte Brontë
"The Literary Classic with a Blood-Sucking Twist" indeed. This is one of those books that I buy myself and then say "Now why...WHY did you do that?!?" But I must confess, I get a sort of guilty pleasure out of reading these campy mash-ups that are based on books I actually know very well...I get a kick out of it. 

Jane Slayre, our plucky demon-slaying heroine, a courageous orphan who spurns the detestable vampyre kin who raised her, sets out on the advice of her ghostly uncle to hone her skills as the fearless slayer she's meant to be. When she takes a job as a governess at a country estate, she falls head-over-heels for her new master, Mr. Rochester, only to discover he's hiding a violent werewolf in the attic--in the form of his first wife. Can a menagerie of bloodthirsty, flesh-eating, savage creatures-of-the-night keep a swashbuckling nineteenth-century lady from the gentleman she intends to marry?

"Our plucky demon-slaying heroine"? Plucky? Interesting word choice. We'll see. For the record, I've just discovered that Erwin also wrote a mashup of Great Expectations called Grave Expectations...honestly, isn't that story weird enough without the extra shtuff? Jane Eyre, too...it's a gothic novel...there's enough weird crap in it...I'mma still read it but...c'mon.

by Muriel Barbery
I haven't purchased a Europa book in a while so, in my spree, I decided one of the books had to be from Europa Editions. I was going to get Elegance of the Hedgehog which, I gather, should be read before Gourmet Rhapsody, but the price was right on this one. In any case, it'll be a while before I get to it, so I have plenty of time to add its predecesor to my collection.

by John Connolly
While the design of this book is not as simply beautiful as the covers for The Book of Lost Things and Nocturnes, the folks at Atria have managed to maintain some semblance of likeness in the paper cut-out style. It's a bit more dramatic than the others, but I hope that bodes well for the story itself. And while I would have preferred the 2010 edition with the mostly yellow cover, I'm glad I was able to snag this edition from 2009 rather than the 2011 edition which has a beautiful but dissimilar design. I can't wait to get to this book. I feel like I've been waiting forever to read it.

by Kurt B. Reighley
Don't you just love the rubber-stamp and lithograph design? I love the cover of this book. Published in 2010, I came across it when looking up something about Antique Archaeology, the business at the center of A&E's "American Pickers." 
Americana. It's more than mere nostalgia; it's a conscious celebration of community and sustainability. It's a movement born in response to the ever-accelerating pace of modern life and Internet technology overload. All over the country, people are returning to an appreciation for the simpler things in life, which are brilliantly surveyed in United States of Americana—the first comprehensive handbook to all things Americana.
I hope everyone else's haul was as interesting and multi-faceted as mine was!