Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Mini Reviews of Mini Books: The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water


The infamous Robin Hood and Maid Marian have settled down. Peace has generally reigned in Nottingham for years, and the Locksleys live happily on their estate with their three children. Robin and Marian return home from court ready to have a conversation with their daughter Mary, who is almost old enough to marry. Before they can come to a consensus, the three children are kidnapped. Robin and Marian call every ally for help, but Mary, John, and Eleanor might just have enough intelligence, bravery, and pluck to save themselves.

I've loved Robin Hood ever since I watched the Disney movie as a child. I'm always looking for new stories to try, and The Ghost of Sherwood was a quick, delightful read. I don't think it stays with readers for too long, but reading this story is an excellent way to revisit beloved characters and imagine how they might have changed with the passage of time. If you love Robin Hood, this would be a great way to spend an hour or two and a fun story to share with the next generation of readers looking to spend some time in Sherwood Forest. 

The Ghosts of Sherwood
The Robin Hood Stories #1
By Carrie Vaughn
Tor.com Publishing June 2020
112 pages
Read via Netgalley





Lau Fung Cheung and Tet Sang are bandits, but they are still men of honor and decency. When a customer becomes hostile with the waitress at a coffeehouse, they intervene on her behalf. But they didn't expect the waitress to follow them, hoping to tag along on their adventures. Guet Imm is a nun in the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, and certainly not a person the bandits expected to live and fight alongside.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water was written with a true understanding of how novellas work. The reader knows that there is a wider world at play for these characters, but this particular story is about just a few people, their goals, and their relationships with each other. This is a wuxia-inspired (martial arts) story. While there is some fighting, it is mostly about slowly trusting the people around you and discovering where you belong. Zen Cho excels at subverting your expectations--where you expected a battle, you find an exploration of faith; where you expect a moment of great importance, you find yourself chuckling instead. It's heartwarming to witness Guet Imm and Tet Sang reveal their secrets to each other, but I wish I had felt more of a connection to the characters. 

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
By Zen Cho
Tor.com Publishing June 2020
176 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, September 11, 2020

Review: Inland

Lurie is a man on the run--he's running from his past, he's running from the law, and he's running from the ghosts that won't leave him alone. Nora, on the other hand, is waiting. She is waiting for her husband to bring water to their remote home on the frontier of Arizona, waiting for her older sons to return after a fight, and waiting for the terrible beast that her youngest son saw to make a move.

I was captivated by Obreht's debut novel The Tiger's Wife and I have been anxiously waiting for her to publish another book. I enjoyed Inland too, but the two stories are very different. A western gives a writer a unique vantage to examine how much people need each other, and how we are often very alone. Nora finds herself holding the household together by herself and even when neighbors and friends stop by, she knows that she alone is responsible for the safety and well-being of her family. Lurie recounts his backstory to someone who is unknown for a good portion of the story. He recalls coming to the United States, his loneliness after his father's death, and his experiences joining outlaws, pickpockets, and a group transporting livestock across the Southern states. It is only then that readers learn he has been talking to a camel this whole time.

While Inland is inarguably a Western, it is also a ghost story. We love the creepy feeling of a dark house, but there is something nerve-wracking about the great expanse, when the only thing between you and your closest neighbor is the danger of the desert. The ghosts who haunt the characters in this story aren't malevolent, but there is a feeling of unease throughout--things are not as they should be, and Lurie and Nora aren't sure what they should do next.

The characters and setting of Inland are instantly familiar--we all know the vicious outlaw, the strong woman on the frontier, and the kindly town doctor. But Obreht turns every piece just a bit. It is just enough to throw the reader off-balance and make them desperate to find out what happens next. The United States lacks the mythology of older nations (at least if we are uninformed about the history and folklore of Native Americans). Tea Obreht suggests we can find a communal American story (and American ghosts) on the frontiers of the Wild West. I can't wait to read what she writes next. 

Inland
By Tea Obreht
Random House August 2019
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

World War II Mini-Reviews: Paris 7 A.M. and The World That We Knew

In June of 1937, Elizabeth Bishop travels to France with her college roommates. She is not yet a famous poet--she is just a young woman looking for adventure. She misses her mother and looks for solace from her mentor Marianne Moore or at the bottom of a bottle. During her time abroad, Elizabeth will fall in love, discover her passion for poetry, and smuggle Jewish children to safety.

Elizabeth Bishop is a poet loved by many people, myself and the author included. As Liza Wieland looked through Bishop's letters and meticulous journals, she discovered that there was no record of 1937. In this book, she imagines what might have happened during that gap. Unfortunately, it fell very flat for me. Wieland seemed to focus on the feel of Bishop's writing, instead of crafting her character. I didn't get a sense of who Elizabeth was, in reality or as the author might have imagined her. The description of the book is also a bit misleading, since very little of the plot has to do with getting Jewish children out of the country. Elizabeth Bishop was an extraordinary poet, and I hope that readers will read multiple books to better understand both the writer and her work.

Paris, 7 A.M.
By Liza Wieland
Simon Schuster June 2019
353 pages
Read via Netgalley


In 1941 Berlin, a woman knows she must get her daughter out of the country. She uses a somewhat unusual method, asking her rabbi to create a golem to take Lea across the border and keep her safe. The rabbi refuses, but his daughter Ettie is willing to bring the golem to life. Lea and the golem, who they name Ava, flee to France in the hope of finding safety. Ettie leaves home as well, and becomes a resistance fighter determined to avenge the deaths of her friends and family.

Alice Hoffman has a gift for combining myth with reality, and it is particularly vivid here. In a world where bombs are falling and children are murdered, does it seem impossible that a golem could come to life or a girl could communicate with birds? There is a lot going on here; readers follow several characters for years as they travel through Europe, but you will have the rare experience of wanting to stay with one character while wondering what is happening to another. Books about World War II are everywhere, but Hoffman's care for her characters and the intersection of history and fantasy, and cruelty and love make for a gripping read.

The World That We Knew
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster September 2019
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, May 11, 2020

Grammar Mini-Reviews: Dreyer's English and Semicolon

Benjamin Dreyer is the copy chief at a little-known publishing house known as Random House. He knows a thing or two about ensuring that prose is clear, error-free, and perhaps even delightful to read. Dreyer insists he is not writing an essential style guide (there is probably no such thing). Instead, he shares the rules that aren't quite as concrete as you might think, and the conversations he has in the margins with the writers he works with. (Don't worry, we get over our objections about ending a sentence with a preposition in chapter two).

The first half of the book is a meandering sort of meditation on how to write well. The second half is a list with explanations: what's the difference between affect and effect? How do I spell the name of that author? (It's Virginia Woolf with two O's.) Dreyer's English is a book for writers who want to improve their craft, editors who want a better handle on the why of things, and any reader who is fascinated by language. It's also delightfully funny. The footnotes alone are worth the price of the book. If you find yourself in need of a good style guide (or twelve), you might as well have one that will make you laugh while you figure out if you should be using further or farther.

Dreyer's English:
An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style from the Copy Chief of Random House
By Benjamin Dreyer
Random House January 2019
256 pages
Read via Netgalley



Ceclia Watson used to glory in the rules of grammar and punctuation. She knew that there was right way and a wrong way to use the comma and the semicolon. But as she researched the history of usage, she discovered that things were not as clear cut as she had believed. In Semicolon, she breaks down the origins and history of the much-beloved and much-maligned mark. She examines the ways grammar can become a weapon and how it could change the meaning of a law, and analyzes the much-beloved prose of writers like Raymond Chandler, Herman Melville, and Rebecca Solnit.

This book is well-researched and easy to read (two things that don't often co-exist). Watson's passion for language, grammar, and punctuation make the reader very interested in this tiny symbol that has both furious detractors and fierce advocates--a tiny dot and curl from a pen can change everything. If you are the kind of person who is interested in how language evolves and how it affects the people who use it, this is the perfect book for you.

Semicolon:
The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
By Cecelia Watson
Ecco July 2019
213 pages
From the library

Friday, January 24, 2020

Mini-Reviews: The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes and The Great Unexpected

Masha goes to the community pool every morning and considers going under and not coming back up. She is consumed by grief after the death of her son. One day, she decides to open up just a little to the local eccentric who spends her days at the graveyard. Another woman is consumed with grief as well, although her grief is for something that hasn't happened yet. Alice doesn't know if she will survive after being diagnosed with cancer, and she is desperately looking for some way to care for her teenage son after she is gone.

The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes is a sweet story about community carrying us through grief and pain. While tragedy can be isolating, this book reminds us that we can reach out and find people who are willing to be with us in our darkest moments. It didn't draw me in quite as much as Hogan's debut novel The Keeper of Lost Thingsbut we still get to meet quirky characters and experience a story that deals with difficult issues without devastating its reader.

The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes
By Ruth Hogan
Crooked Lane Books June 2019
320 pages
Read via Netgalley


Joel was able to bear the nursing home when his wife helped him through each day. When she dies, Joel can't see a reason to continue living. He hates having no control over his life and being told what to do when. His new roommate Frank is a retired soap opera star who loves to charm the people around him. The two men frequently clash, until Frank suggests that they might make some bold choices and take a trip outside the nursing home. Frank and Joel become unlikely friends and decide to have as many adventures as possible in the time they have left.

Dan Mooney does an excellent job of showing the pain and frustration of losing control over your own life. The staff at Joel's nursing home are not cruel, but they are people who are overworked and have to ensure that certain things happen each day. The story was somewhat predictable, but it's always wonderful to read a book that focuses on                                                                                friendship, especially when those friends are                                                                                     septuagenarians! 
The Great Unexpected
By Dan Mooney
Park Row June 2019
368 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review: Furious Hours

Rev. Willie Maxwell was suspected of murdering several members of his family and cashing in on the insurance money. He got away with it until a relative shot and killed him at a funeral. Even though 300 people saw Robert Burns shoot Willie Maxwell, he was acquitted. Harper Lee was fascinated by the story and decided to write her first nonfiction book. But modern readers know that Harper Lee never published this work. What happened to this tale of poverty, murder, and injustice?

I picked up this book because I adored To Kill a Mockingbird when I read it in high school. A decade and a half later, with an English literature degree under my belt, I can see Lee's talent as well as the ways she protected herself as a white woman. Casey Cep does a masterful job of presenting Lee as a woman who did the safe thing--while she may have believed that racism and discrimination were wrong, she never publicly condemned them.

While Lee is carefully rendered on the page, readers hoping to read 300 pages about her may be disappointed. She shows up only briefly until the last third of the book. The first two sections focus on the man suspected of murdering his family members, and the white lawyer who defended both the reverend and the man who killed him.

Cep is a truly excellent writer. The best nonfiction teaches you and shows you connections you didn't expect; Furious Hours accomplishes this in every chapter. This also may be one of the few books that actually caused me to laugh out loud, and I was surprised to find that I was chuckling about the history of life insurance.

This is a book about individual people--the small town minister who wanted money even at the expense of his family's lives, the lawyer who fought for equality before Alabama was ready for it, and the writer who fell victim to the power of alcohol and fear of failure. But Furious Hours is also a larger look at the cost of success, the victories and corruption of Southern politics, and the power of telling a story.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review: Orange World and Other Stories

Karen Russell is a highly awarded author whose stories are both beautiful and unsettling. Her newest collection, Orange World and Other Stories, is full of tales of worlds that are just a bit more bizarre than the one we live in.

The book starts with a pair of friends hoping to take advantage of a few marks at a fancy hotel, only to discover that the party they've crashed is attended only by ghosts. In The Bad Graft and Bog Girl, characters spend time in nature as a woman pricks her finger on a Joshua tree and a young man falls in love with the body of a woman pulled from the bog. It's not the only pairing, as men consider their purposes in The Tornado Auction and Black Corfu (although careers raising tornadoes and preventing the undead from rising are as different as can be). The final two stories may have been my favorite, though. In The Gondoliers, sisters traverse the dangerous waters of a post-apocalyptic Florida by singing and in Orange World, a new mother encounters a devil who preys on her fears and demands to be fed.

The stories are often funny and always dropping you into strange, new worlds. Russell is a literary wizard who imagines scenarios that could never exist in any other writer's head. Somehow in the midst of ghosts, zombies, and devils, she makes us think about the most vulnerable moments of our humanity and how we make decisions for ourselves and the people we love.  I can't wait to see what strange and beautiful places Russell will take us next.

Orange World and Other Stories
By Karen Russell
Knopf Publishing Group May 2019
288 pages
From the library