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I’d love to remember who got me to add Fair and Tender Ladies to my wish list, so I could give her/him a heartfelt thank you. It really struck a chord and has been the best surprise of the year so far.

I think this book is not as popular as it deserves because it’s stuck in a “romance”/“women’s lit” positioning (see the covers?), which puts so many people off with its usual associations with everything soft, guilty-pleasure-y and… womanly. To break free of these constrains would do the book and us a world of good. I was reading an interview with Smith and she says that, although she’s proud to be a “Southern writer” and a “woman writer”, she’s more accurately an “Appalachian writer”. I agree – if anything, it’s the sense of place that really stands out.

Fair and Tender Ladies is an epistolary novel of letters written by Ivy Rowe, a member of a large family of mountain farmers in the Appalachians. We follow her since she’s a precocious 10 year-old in the late 19th century, until she becomes a plain-speaking, feisty old woman.

Her life is not what you’d call extraordinary, but her smart observations of heartbreak, loss, hard farm labor and child-raising, make everything incredibly meaningful and engaging. Ivy has a great sense of humor, loves telling and listening to stories and feels strongly about her heritage – it’s impossible not to love her. It was also really interesting to see Ivy’s language evolve throughout the years.

I’ve recently read a string of novels that where really well written, but didn’t manage to connect me to the characters (Cutting for Stone, The Sunne in Splendor). Ivy got me from letter one and by the end I was crying like a baby, which also hasn’t happened in a while.

One more reason to try it: it was on the books challenged, restricted, removed or banned!

I don’t know how much of my fascination with this (audio)book is due to Kate Forbes’ most excellent narration. One thing is to listen to an Appalachian accent, the other to read it, so if you can, try it on audio.

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Other thoughts: The Introverted ReaderLiterati Mom, Like Me Too, It’s All Ali’s Fault, Books Under the Covers, Underground Nashville (yours?)

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Had my eyes on The Gracekeepers for a while now, so couldn’t resist when I found it on the Scottish section.

Finally got to see Dorothy Dunnett’s plaque in front of the Writers’ Museum. Actually, the whole trip make me want to read her, but I’m keeping my last Niccolo for a cozy winter’s night.

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Anything I should pay special attention to? Anything I should put on the back-burner?

(1/102/10, 3/10, 4/10, 5/10)

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RetributionFallsWhat I liked

The universe doesn’t deviate too much from your typical steampunk novel, but (or because of it?) it’s still good. There are airships, pirates, alchemy, a golem, daemons, high-society balls, political intrigue and other fun elements that could make it the perfect escapade read. I appreciated that Wooding tried to give a “scientific” explanation to the elements that would normally be considered magical. Maybe that’s why there’s a divide on Goodreads on whether this is fantasy or sci-fi. I’m on the sci-fi side.

The Firefly link. At points I could pin-point exactly the episode that inspired a particular scene. For instance, the opening, when Mal and Wash Frey and Crake are being held hostages, clearly came from War Stories. This worked for me and I was thankful for the nostalgic moments.

Also: that cover!

What disappointed me

Too much telling going on and not enough showing (you need to trust us more Mr. Wooding!). For instance, Frey, the ship’s captain, goes through a dramatic change when it came to his loyalty towards his crew. Through heavy-handed inner monologues, we get all his feelings spelled out: what changed, why it changed, how does if feel to have changed, his regrets, his hopes, etc, etc, etc.

And then there are the female characters. *sigh* Where to start? First, I wish that in the crew of seven there was more than one woman (navigator Jey). As Dan put it so well (such a great review!):

… having one female character out of seven is the worst possible option. Zero out of seven, and you have a setting in which women don’t fly airships, which is absolutely fine. Put in exactly one, and you suddenly have a society where women are apparently perfectly accepted on the setting equivalent of the Spanish Main, but never the less you’ve only got one in your crew. Zero is a better number than one in this situation is all I’m saying.

When I first read the book I underlined the scene where Jey is first introduced to the crew, explaining why Frey decided to hire her. Looking at it now, I’m disturbingly reminded of the recent debacle with scientist Tim Hunt. Take a look (Frey’s inner monologue):

Her features were petite and appealing but she was rather plain, boyish and very pale. That was also good. An overly attractive woman was fatal on a craft full of men. They were distracting and tended to substitute charm and flirtatiousness for doing any actual work. Besides, Frey would feel obligated to sleep with her, and that never worked out well.

Facepalm

I also wish all other women weren’t Frey’s whinny or crazy exes. His relationship with Trinica was especially cringe-worthy. She’s the captain of a much bigger ship than Frey’s, a renowned pirate, feared and ruthless, “a dread queen of the skies“, so it means she’s just about ready to be brought down by her womanly feelings.

Once upon a time, before her pirateering begun, Trinica was just the daughter of a rich aristocrat and was engaged to Frey. But then she got too clingy and Frey abandoned her at the altar. Pregnant. In a conservative world that did not look kindly on single pregnant young women. Trinica tries to commit suicide and survives, but her unborn child doesn’t.

Many years later she and Frey meet again and that scene made my eyes roll all the way to the back on my head. Frey accuses her of murdering their child (an accusation that neither the text nor Trinica contest) and calls her a coward for attempting suicide. Trinica’s self-assured mask quickly crumbles and Fry admits to himself he’s also partially to blame for the death, because after all, he allowed her to stifle him and make him a coward, leaving him no other option but to run away.

Look, I know it’s often tricky to distinguish between the characters and the author’s own assumptions, so I might be wrong here, but my experience with Retribution Falls is that Frey’s douchebagness was something we should relate to, especially because we’re told over and over that He Changes. This apparently means he no longer hates Trinica, but now forgives her for making him abandon her, and while we’re told his attitudes towards his crew go from zero-cares to full-fledged charismatic leader, from the first to the last scene he continues to risk their lives unnecessarily.

When I first started this post I was on the fence about whether to continue the series, but the more I wrote the more I realized I had serious problems with the book. So I’m afraid the Ketty Jay series are not for me.

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Other thoughts: Ferret Brain, The Book Smugglers, Asking the wrong questions, Eve’s Alexandria, Sandstorm Reviews, The Lightning Tree, Fantasy Book Critic, SFF Book Reviews, The Wertzone, Graeme’s Fantasy Reviews, Neth Space, The Mad Hatter’s (yours?)

Previous mini-reviews in the mystery category: Malice (Kyoichiro Kaga #4) by Keigo Higashino, narrated by Jeff Woodman and Hounded (Andy Carpenter #12) by David Rosenfelt, narrated by Grover Gardner 

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The Dead Will Tell (Kate Burkholder, #6) by Linda Castillo, narrated by Kathleen McInerney

An Amish family is murdered after a botched robbery, but no one is brought to justice. Thirty-five years later, a series of mysterious murders all have in common a connection to that almost forgotten horror. Chief of Police Kate Burkholder is chosen to investigated and the case will strike a chord with her: many years ago she was also part of the Amish community before deciding to leave.

The story was interesting, mostly because of what I learned about the Amish. Castillo really captures the tension between them and the “English” community in what (I thought) was a realistic way. The book also had good pacing and characterization, especially for a relatively short mystery, but the actual plot was less catching (whodunnit easy to figure out). Don’t have much to say about it – it’s one of those books that get a solid three-star because it was good but don’t produce any strong feelings. I’m afraid I’ll forget all about it in a year or two…

When books are told in the first person a good narrator is essential, and in this case Kathleen McInerney discreetly but confidently became Chief Burkholder. She was a good choice for this book – her voice is expressive but calm, which suited the Amish theme, but could also handle the action scenes. Also, she was comfortable with German words and sentences. I’ve added a couple of books to my Audible wish-list because of her, so that’s a good sign!

MissingYou_Coben_lgMissing You by Harlan Coben, narrated by January LaVoy

Yes, that rarest of things: a stand-alone mystery book. But one that was not my cuppa. The story revolves around Detective Kat Donovan, who’s persuaded by a friend to enter an online dating site. On her first time browsing profiles she comes across one with the photo of her first love, but under a different name.

This triggers a plot that involves kidnapping, live burials, mafia, prostitution, closeted parents, mental illness and I don’t know else all wrapped in coincidences that should be confined to Dickens. And don’t get me started on the romance *eyes rolling to the back of my head* Sorry to be this blunt but it’s a short post and it’s that kind of day and that kind of book.

I know Miss Susie, my fellow mystery category armchair judge, disagrees with me, but I felt that LaVoy’s narration was often over the top – she positively purred at some points (see her interpretation of a drunk guy trying to pick up women at a bar). On the positive side, LaVoy’s narration style really matched the book, so she was a good casting choice. I guess?

17910157Providence Rag (Liam Mulligan #3) by Bruce DeSilva, narrated by Jeff Woodman

A bit like Malice, Providence Rag puts a twist on the typical sequence of a mystery plot, which made him stand our from the other books.

During the start of his career as an investigative reporter, Liam Mulligan helps police arrest one of the youngest serial killers in recorded history. The community wants him in jail for life, but a loop-hole in Rhode Island’s law dictates he must be free at 21. Through a series of fabricated charges the killer has been kept in jail, but now one of Liam’s colleagues decides to report on these illegalities, igniting the anger of the justice system and general citizens against the newspaper. While Liam’s colleague pursues a story that will likely release the killer, Liam goes after a legal way to keep him behind bars.

It’s an interesting premise and ethical dilemma that actually sparked a good debate at my dinner table one night. I had fun with the different characters and the way the story was told, with different POVs and with interludes, although I wouldn’t mind a more fleshier characterization of the main people.

Providence Rags probably has the biggest number of speaking parts of all the books in this category and Woodman really does an amazing job in distinguishing each one of them. Often it’s a very subtle different, but just enough for the listener to easily follow a dialogue without getting confused about who’s talking. He managers several different accents, intonations and pitches, which is a hard thing to pull off and a sure indication of the narration’s quality. My first audiobook by him, but definitely not the last.

18214414The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2) by Robert Galbraith, narrated by Robert Glanister

The only book in the list that I listened to before Armchair Audies started, and by far the story that gave me more pleasure to follow. I like to think I’d feel the same if it wasn’t so famous, but who knows? The fact is: JK Rowling is an amazing story-teller and her characterization is on a different level from any other on the mystery list.

This second novel sealed the deal and I’m now completely engaged in the lives of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacot (and shipping them hard!). It’s also one of those books where you can tell the author is having fun in writing about the publishing business, exposing its dirty little secrets.

As an narrator, Glanister started off with an advantage because I can’t resist a British accent 😉 He doesn’t get as many opportunities to shine as Woodman (see above), but for such a deep voice, it’s pretty impressive the range Glasnister managers to pull off. He doesn’t make women sound too whinny or childish and is the perfect voice for Cormoran (rough with teddy-bearish glimpses). There were some characters that could easily come out as stereotypes if read by a less professional narrator, but Glanister keeps them well under control.

My perdition for the 2015 Armchair Audies mystery category

I’d say it’s a call between Jeff Woodman and Robert Glanister, but since I have to chose one, I’ll go with Woodman. Mostly for his flexibility and creativity in creating so many distinct characters in Providence Rag.

The best of luck to all nominees!

ExcellentWomenWhenever I think about escapist fiction, fantasy is always the first genre to come to mind, but lately I’ve come to realize that my ultimate comfort reads might be Persephone-style books: mid-20th century stories about women, where at first glance nothing much seems to happen.

Mildred Lathbury is a 30-something single woman living in London in the 1950s. Between church affairs and a part-time job at a genteel women’s support association she leads a quiet and contented life. The novel starts when the flat below Mildred’s is rented by an exotic couple, so Excellent Women is sort of a gentle version of the stranger-walks-into-town plot.

Mildred is the personification of the “excellent woman”: capable, nice, practical, dependable, part of the background until someone needs a favor (cooking a piece of meat, instructing movers, organizing a jumble sale, writing notes to estranged husbands). Pym is fantastic at kindly exposing the quirks of these excellent women as well as those who take advantage of them.

I really loved Mildred, mostly because, against all odds, she’s not naive and has an acute understanding of her social standing. Together with her wit, this makes for a sarcastic and self-deprecatory internal commentary that’s great to read. She’s also (internally, at least) proud of her slightly drab and genteel independence. Ultimately, Mildred is someone I’d love to be friends with and someone I’d likely be if I’d been born 60 years earlier.

‘Now, Julian, we don’t want a sermon,’ said Winifred. ‘You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish.’

I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.

Also, it is a truth universally known that an excellent women must be in want of a husband. Everyone assumes Mildred’s in love with every unmarried men in her vicinity, especially the vicar, and some of the funnier scenes happen when he gets engaged and Mildred is comforted as if she missed her final chance at married and a happy life.

Mild spoilers ahead

Reflecting back, the ending prevents Excellent Women from being a Happy Novel. It’s charming, no doubt, but in some ways sad. There is humor in Mildred, and fierce independence, but also fatalism. For a moment I though she’d have a happy ending with Everard because I let myself imagine that he really liked her (was the meeting at the church really just a coincidence?). I was ready to describe Excellent Women as a gentle love story.

But then that final dinner happens, and Mildred doesn’t leave in a burst of righteous indignation. And I realize that Pym isn’t that sort of author. There will be no miraculous make-over, no over-heels-in-love knight in shinny armor, the austerity of daily life continues and her “excellent-womaness” persists. If they eventually get married (as a follow book of Pym suggests) Mildred will likely just become a married excellent woman.

End spoilers

It’s one of the best books of the year so far, so if you like quiet stories with thoughtful, rich characterization, you won’t go wrong with this one.

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Other thoughts: Vulpes Libris, RA for All, Meet Me in the Library, Hogglestock,  A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook, Lakeside Musing, Lizzy’s Literary Life, The Indextrious Reader, Booklust, Shelf Love, Desperate Reader, Book Snob, Girl With Her head in a Book (yours?)

quizPicture round: movies by Richard Attenborough

… the worst ever. I only got 2 right (TWO!). And I call myself a booklover…

  1. Who was the feminist author of “The Women’s Room”, “The War Against Women”, “Women’s History of the World” and “From Eve to Dawn”? [Answer: Marilyn French]
  2. How many days did it take Phileas Fogg to get around the world? [79]
  3. What was the title of A. A. Milne’s second collection of stories about Winnie The Pooh? [The House at Pooh’s Corner]
  4. In which novel by Tolstoy does Konstantine Levin appear? [Anna Karenina]
  5. What is the name of the omniponent head of state in 1984 by George Orwell? [Big Brother]
  6. In which Charles Dickens novel does the character Alfred Jingle appear? [The Pickwick Papers]
  7. What did George Eliot described as “Snowy, Flowy, Blowy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy, Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy? [The months]
  8. To which literary figure was Anne Hathaway married to? [William Shakespeare]
  9. From which former province of Spain did Cervantes’ Dom Quixote come from? [La Mancha]
  10. Which well-known children’s story was written by Swiss author Johann Weiss? [Swiss Family Robinson]

How many would you’ve gotten right?

20604350I was a fan of Alan Cumming even before he become a household name with The Good Wife, but this memoir make me respect him even more a person and an artist.

If it was a physical book, it’d be a page turner, but I’m almost sure it’s even better in audio. He narrates this himself and just how good he was didn’t surprise me – I’d already listed him as a favorite narrator after listening to the Leviathan series.

Don’t expect Not My Father’s Son to be lighthearted. It does have its hilarious moments (his ode to Eurovision was perfection), but mostly it’s about growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive father. Half of the book is about his childhood and the other half about him dealing with his past as an adult. This last part of the story is divided between an episode portraying his father’s ability to still disrupt his family and the other follows Cumming’s cathartic participation in the Who Do You Think You Are show. I don’t usually watching it, but by chance caught his episode when it first aired on the BBC and clearly remember how emotional it was (see it here, have the Kleenexes handy).

Some scenes were really hard to hear and made me hug my son extra hard. They weren’t overly dramatized, but the child’s voice was clearly there, all frightened and confused. Not My Father’s Son was really a roller-coaster ride of emotions we take along with Cumming. It’s impossible not to share his joy, amazement, pain, hope. This not only testifies to his writing and narration skills, but also his willingness to be open and genuine.

If Not My Father’s Son was a piece of fiction it would probably end with redemption or vindication. But it’s real life and I must be satisfied with admiration for human courage and our capacity to overcome adversity and make it a strength.

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Other thoughts: Books in the City, That’s What She Read, Boston Bibliophile, A Musing Reviews, Bookfolery, bookchickdiScuffed Slippers and wormy books (yours?)

Anything I should pay special attention to? Anything I should put on the back-burner?

(1/102/10, 3/10, 4/10)

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