Posts from May 2017
May 14th, 2017
Our book today is a handy pocket-sized thing from semi-pro ex-pat Evan Rice, The Wayfarer’s Handbook: A Field Guide for the Independent Traveler, new in a pretty blue-lettered hardcover from Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. Rice is a handsome young Baltimorean who early on in life discovered a deep passion for travel, and according to his book’s bio-note, he’s spent more than two years on the road, visiting 32 countries on six continents. In the pages of this little book (extra-sturdy, no dust jacket, clearly designed to be carried to the back of beyond and consulted liberally en route), Rice distills the practical wisdom he’s distilled from all that moving around, and from the interactions he’s had along the way with that peculiar sub-category of traveler that will be well-known to anybody who’s ever strayed for days or weeks from the well-lit tourist pathways of the world – the tumbleweed sub-category of Rice’s fellow semi-pro travelers, carrying their battered possessions and scuffed-but-reliable tech in sun-stained rucksacks, pausing in one place just long enough to work a bar job in order to restore funds, then scabbing up the cheapest gray-market plane or train tickets and moving on to the next place. Rice is clearly taken with his fellow vagabonds:
In seeking out these gems of nature and culture and unexpectedness, I also found a group of people who chose to experience life in a way that I didn’t know was possible. Independent travelers of all ages, who went to wondrous places for indeterminate amounts of time, driven by reasons that even they didn’t seem to understand. They were so effortless in their movements: relaxed but aware, self-reliant but blissfully aimless, improvising their own spontaneous paths through the world. And best of all, they were free. Truly, completely free, in a world that increasingly opposes that notion.
(They’re free from conventional 9-to-5 jobs, these blissfully aimless souls, but it should be noted that they’re not free from chemical addiction; they are, universally, roasting tobacco addicts)
But at the same time Rice seems well aware of the specific brand of sheep-dip these non-itineraried travelers often like to sling about, and he’s having none of it:
It has become increasingly fashionable among the backpacking set to romanticize the act of travel at the expense of others, to deride anyone less adventurous as “conformist” and in doing so subtly imbue oneself with some kind of enlightenment. This is a comforting but false superiority; to judge others based on your own goals is reductive and foolish.
The Wayfarer’s Handbook has no time for such snobbery (although “fashionable” hardly does justice to how ubiquitous that snobbery is – even on a weekend-trip dip into the Appalachian Trail’s more suburban locales, you’re sure to find a pod of backpackers who have nothing but disdain for people who don’t have eyeball-piercing body stench); instead, it’s packed with every last little detail of world-traveling that anybody would ever need to know – and plenty of stuff that nobody needs to know but that makes for entertaining reading even so. This little book is clearly intended to be a companion as well as a handbook, a source of interest and a conversation-starter for all those long, rattling train-rides our author likes so much.
Readers learn the different types of shipwreck, the ancient place-names of dozens of modern spots, the kinds of mirages, the taxonomies of various mythical beasts like the jackalope, and the best remedy for eating extra-spicey food (it’s not water – try honey or even chocolate instead). The pages are dotted with fun trivia about travel and great quotes from the vast literature of travel, and also with mottos Rice has snatched from the more sedentary world and applied to his vocation, such as a bit of instruction printed on a jar of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise: “Keep cool – but do not freeze.” Some of the items he relates will be jarring to his more stay-at-home readers, like finding the United States right alongside Uzbekistan and Iran under the heading “Enemies of the Internet” (“countries who engage in the most severe Internet censorship and surveillance”), but the ultimate effect is wonderfully mind-expanding. This is a book that will delight armchair travelers every bit as much as their more peripatetic brethren.
“The world has never been safer, easier, and cheaper to explore than it is right now,” Rice writes with the bouncing optimism that characterizes the whole book. When he does his duty and offers advice on what poor luckless travelers should do in the unfortunate event of disaster, he’s always eager to keep things in their proper perspective, reminding his readers that a little simple preparation goes a long way, reminding them of the value of a good hand-wash and a trusty roll of mosquito-netting, and, very reluctantly, giving some pointers for, say, a bear attack:
If the bear begins charging, remain still, stand your ground, and begin yelling. Most initial charges are bluffs and, regardless, attempting to run will likely have far worse consequences. If the bear makes contact or remains focused on you, clasp your hands on the back of your neck, lay facedown with your backpack on, and “play dead.” Most bear interactions with humans are defensive: they simply want to ensure you are not a threat to their cubs or food source. However, if the bear does not leave the area and begins attacking, immediately fight back with any weapons available while making as much noise as possible.
If a bear does “make contact,” I suspect readers won’t have any trouble with the “begin yelling” part – it’ll come naturally. But here’s hoping it won’t be necessary.
May 8th, 2017
Our book today is a treat for readers (you can tell by the cascade of poorly-drawn books on the front cover, I guess): My Life with Bob, subtitled “Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues,” and it’s written by the most powerful person in the world of books, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the person who dictates all the books coverage for the Paper of Record. And as that subtitle indicates, the “Bob” in the title isn’t a person – it’s Paul’s “book of books,” the painstaking record she’s kept for decades of every book she’s ever read.
It’s an accumulation that’s in some ways more immediately satisfying, she points out, than a normal personal journal would be; “diaries contained all kinds of things I wanted to forget – unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends and angsting over college admissions,” she writes. “Bob contains things I wanted to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.”
Paul has written about Bob before, but this kind of subject is almost by its very nature inexhaustible, particularly for somebody like Paul, who’s “engulfed” in books. And of course every reader is always pruriently curious about the books that make up every other reader’s life. But the real strength of My Life with Bob, the element that gives it such a strong, easy readability in its own right, consistently isn’t the copious book-talk that fills its pages – the “Bob” part. Rather, it’s the “life” part where Paul’s considerable storytelling gifts shine to best advantage. She might protest that diaries remember things she wants to forget, but it’s pretty clear from the stories here that she hasn’t forgotten much.
This is a chronicle of failed and sometimes mortifying relationships in her dating – and marrying – life, a chronicle of constantly trying to gain some purchase on other people, some quick and reliable understanding of them, from the books they read and the books they want other people to read. That communicative aspect of reading Paul understands well from feeling it herself many times:
Sometimes you fall so much in love with a book that you simply have to tell everyone, to spread the love and to explain the state you’re in. You read passages aloud to anyone who will listen. You wait with bated breath, watching for signs of appreciation, wanting that smile, that laugh, that nod of recognition. Please love this book too, you silently – and sometimes not so silently – urge. You become insistent, even messianic in your enthusiasm.
Her own messianism has met with uneven results over the years. She recounts stories of uncomprehending boyfriends (one of them watched her finish a book and snidely said, “Hurry up, go note it in Bob”), stories of trying to align her reading with her former husband’s (they split on Magic Mountain and Paul Johnson’s Modern Times), stories of re-entering the dating life and encountering men whose favorites betray some fundamental flaw in their nature, such as the “ridiculously handsome” Abe, whose love of George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” books prompts her to savor the highly idiosyncratic joy of “hate-reading” a book:
There can certainly be a pleasure in hate reading. As with The Fountainhead, I have hated my way through several books to the last page, not always out of generosity to the writer. It’s a force of will. You will be read no matter how hard you make it. Some say reading hateful books feels like time wasted – and with so little time, so many books, why bother with the bad? But there’s something bracing about reading a book you despise, because loathing is usually mixed with other emotions – fear, perverse attraction, even occasional, complicated strains of sympathy. It’s one of many reasons I believe in negative reviews. It can be interesting when a book provokes animosity. But hate in and of itself is not a very interesting response to a book, and oh, how I hated Flashman.
My Life with Bob is generously stocked with bookish anecdotes like this, with favorite books of mine found wanting (I side firmly with the ridiculously handsome Abe on the merits of Flashman) and titles I consider ridiculous fluff sometimes granted serious consideration because they answered a particular need at a particular time – and all kinds of books in between. And Paul so skillfully braids her book-talk with her life-talk (I got the strong impression that most of her life-stories have been honed to perfection by frequent retelling) that The Book of Bob always and invitingly doubles as The Book of Pam. It’s hard to think of a more intuitive – or more honest – way to go about describing a life lived in books.
May 6th, 2017
Our book today is a bone-chilling monster story of the most intimate kind, a story about a monster who’s not only gargantuan and wantonly destructive but … kind of cute. The book is Rodzilla (new from Margaret McElderry Books, a division of Simon & Schuster), with words by Rob Sanders and pictures by Dan Santat, and it opens with the city of Megalopolis in turmoil: stomping through its streets, toppling its buildings, barfing and farting all over its innocent civilians, wobbling and drooling through its scenic parks is a towering monster known as Rodzilla.
The property damage might be typical of most monster stories, the panicked citizens and wide-eyed news commentators might be staples of the genre, but even so, there are strange differences about this particular disaster scenario. For instance, this monster never really stops smiling. And he’s got an adorable pug nose. And stubby fingers. And no teeth in his enormous grinning mouth. And how many city-stomping monsters wear a T-shirt that says “Totally Rod”?
Not that any of it seems to lessen his path of destruction. “Rodzilla has grabbed a taxi … and a bus,” we’re told. “He’s the mightiest creature to ever roam the streets. Residents can only stare at this chubby monstrosity. They gaze in horror at his toothless grin.”
Thankfully, not all Megalopolis citizens are quite so paralyzed with fear. Just as the monster’s rampage seems unstoppable, a young woman and man step forward to confront … their barfing, crying, laughing, waddling, playroom-destroying toddler, Rod – who’s a such a little monster!
It’s all utterly delightful. Elementary school teacher Rob Sanders has a fine ear for the relentless onslaught of melodrama that is the inner life of every toddler, and the illustrations by Caldecott-winning artist Dan Santat are warm and bright and full of antic motion. And despite the carnage and the mess and the toys scattered everywhere, the ending is happy – the monster is pacified. For now.
May 1st, 2017
Our book today is a new paperback original from Penguin, The Red Line, Walt Gragg’s debut novel, which tell the story – in pointillist, gripping detail – of a Russian surprise attack on Germany at the Czech border, an attack that starts with massive tank-companies abandoning their war games and advancing straight at the border defenses, an attack launched under cover of a serious blizzard, an attack authorized by the ruthless autocrat of Russia as the first step in a bid to conquer Germany – and beyond.
It’s never quite a reassuring thing when a novel of this kind immediately earns the description “prescient,” because it’s not like predicting the winning lottery ticket for yourself – it’s like predicting the losing lottery tickets for everybody else. Gragg seems comfortable with the concept, however. “Despite the fact that our relationship with Russia at the time appeared rosy, I had little doubt that given Russia’s history we would eventually find ourselves where we are today,” Gragg told Publisher’s Weekly in an interview. “So despite the fact that the book’s political scenario looks like it was written last week, its central core was actually put on paper more than 20 years ago.”
That “central core” isn’t quite exactly our current world political situation, but it’s close enough in the gist: Vladimir Putin’s successor, an even more absolutist dictator named Cheninko, has risen to power on the back of a revitalized Communist power-grab in Russia, and one of his most daring generals has devised a plan that will allow Russia to conquer all of Germany in under a week, the whole time double-talking the US and the UN until the whole thing is a fait accompli. When it comes to these broader-scope explanations of politics and international pressure, Gragg’s sheer enthusiasm can sometimes lead him astray into a king of vagueness that almost breaks the spell he’s weaving:
There’d always been that 20 percent in both the East and West who refused to accept the changes occurring at the end of the first Cold War. Instead of joining the new world order, they continued on with a policy of fear and suspicion. In the East, they seized the opportunity a struggling Russia created. A new hatred was born, stronger and more resolute than ever.
But on the small scale, the scale of individual military commanders on both sides, The Red Line downright crackles with energy – and an air of authenticity I presume comes from the author’s own military experience (service in Vietnam, including some time spent with Special Forces). For instance, in the novel’s intense opening segment, Sergeant First Class Robert Jensen observes that the Russians – still on war games as far as he can tell – have moved large groups of foot soldiers into support positions around their tanks … and draws the only possible conclusion:
For the briefest of instants, Jensen’s mind begged him to believe it was nothing more than another Russian ploy to test their American adversaries. Just that brazen general trying to see how his foe would react this time.
But the veteran platoon sergeant knew otherwise. Tanks and BMPs at the wire might be a test of wills. Moving dismounted infantry into position to support the armor, however, could mean only one thing. As much as he fought against it, there was just one conclusion he could reach – the Russians were preparing an attack.
The Red Line‘s action scenes are superbly done, and the whole thing is virtually all action scenes. I think it’s fairly certain that any 21st century reader flying through these pages will be pausing periodically to wish that they felt just a bit more fictional than they do. The author’s protestations about starting the novel 20 years ago notwithstanding, there’s scarcely a single detail in this terrific novel that doesn’t feel like it could be showing up in tomorrow’s news. And since Gragg does a resolutely thorough job describing the raw human cost involved at every stage of his version of World War III, readers are spared nothing at all. I finished The Red Line hoping two things with equally fervor: first, that the author writes a second book, and second, that the real-world version of his first one leaves anybody alive to read it.
April 29th, 2017
Our book today is a children’s title depicting an epidemic of bed-poaching. When night falls on the farm in Go Sleep in Your Own Bed by Candace Fleming and Lori Nichols (new from Penguin Random House), it finds a scene of unfolding chaos that begins when a sleepy pig crosses the barnyard headed for a blissful night of sleep:
Pig toddled to his sty,
But when he plopped down – Moooo! – Who do you think he found?
A cow has bedded down in Pig’s stall and needs to be shoo’d away. The cow drowsily makes her way to her stall and settles down … only to find an intruder of her own, a hen, who squawks loudly at being squished underneath Cow. Ordered to go find her own bed, she goes to the coop … and discovers a horse, squeezed in and comfy.
And so the progression goes, as somehow every animal on the farm managed to bed down in the wrong location. Fleming and Nichols keep the artwork very pleasantly animated, and each animal’s weary trek to find their own bed is accompanied by the kind of sound effect – cloppety-plod, trippety-slump – that’s particularly satisfying to share with little readers.
The story reaches its climax when the farm’s dog is evicted from the sheep pen and slinks off to his kennel for the night – and encounters what is surely the higest blasphemy of bed-swapping: a cat, curled up where only dogs should be. And in typically diabolical fashion, the cat runs not to … wherever a cat actually goes, but rather straight to the farm house.
And the ploy works. The porch light snaps on, and the farmer’s little girl rushes out saying “Oh, there you are! Come sleep in my bed!” The book ends with the cat snuggled warm and comfortable in the girl’s bed, and by that point children who perhaps have too strong a penchant for asking “Can I sleep in your bed?” every night will get the message that they’re perhaps making a nuisance of themselves. And readers of all ages will get the message the one useless parasite-animal in the story is the one who ends up with the nicest bed of all – a point already familiar to cat-owners, I suspect.
April 19th, 2017
As I’ve mentioned here on Stevereads before, 2017 marks the ten-year anniversary of Open Letters Monthly, the online literary journal where I have the honor to be Managing Editor. It’s naturally been an occasion to look back at those ten years – the hundreds of pieces we’ve published, the thousands of books, the writers, the editors, the breakneck problems that crop up out of nowhere and require all-hands-on-deck responses … and the sense of accomplishment that comes from managing to keep creating such a thing for so long.
So long of course being relative. The standard industry metric – most recently repeated by JC in the TLS but universal in any case – has always been that ten years is the expected lifespan of the stereotypical “little literary journal,” and yet there are the glorious exceptions, the team-endeavors that manage to beat the odds and keep producing issues even after their first decade has been survived. And I’ve found that while I’ve been basking in that private glow of pride, I’ve been more aware than usual when other magazines, things I’ve read for years, have anniversaries.
Ten years has at times felt like a century at Open Letters, in both good ways and bad ways; there were many months where the deadline loomed and we were all fairly certain it spelled disaster, and yet invariably an issue would materialize. The idea of doing that kind of juggling act for twenty years, or thirty, is a pause-inducing thing, so I pricked up my ears when I noticed that the rock-solid little digest science fiction magazine Asimov’s is currently enjoying its fortieth anniversary.
I didn’t read it in its first year or two – I suspect I was otherwise occupied back in the late ’70s, although one can never be 100% sure – but I haven’t missed an issue of Asimov’s in decades, and during the stretches where I wasn’t a subscriber, I was perfectly willing to walk well out of my way to find the latest issue on what archeologists now refer to as “newsstands.” And no matter who was helming the magazine, no matter which decade was being obliquely reflected in its pages, what I got at the end of those newsstand treks was always the same: a terrific mix.
There’s editorial matter at the front (including a regular column by the great science fiction writer Robert Silverberg, who shares with many SFF titans an almost adamantine solipsism that’s, alas, on full display in his column for this anniversary issue), and each issue is sprinkled (littered?) with truly execrable little poems, and of course the book reviews are ignominiously herded into the very back pages, abutting with box-ads for sea monkeys and the like. And then there’s the meat of every issue: short stories, longer pieces called “novelettes,” and one novella – all of which have always been written by a perfect balance of established industry names and relative newcomers.
Ten years at Open Letters has reminded me of what I’d learned during previous managing editor stints, and what the editors at Asimov’s must know like the grooves of their own faces by now: you put together the issue you can, not necessarily the issue you want, and you hope the whole time for those one or two items per issue that really sing – the kinds of things you can actually say, over drinks once the new issue is safely launched, that you were genuinely proud to publish them. At too-great intervals, there’ll be many such gems in one issue, but usually, they’re rare, and you pack them and pad them into their issues, girding them all around with well-meaning but less luminous matter, trying, like all good parents, not to show the favoritism you very much feel.
This 40th anniversary issue of Asimov’s is a classic in just that way. There are 13 stories, and they range from gimmicky place-holders to more worthy and more turgid works to a couple of glorious gems, the kind of story that editors see as making the whole tawdry business worthwhile, at least until next issue.
This time around, one of those gems is actually featured on the cover: Suzanne Palmer’s Number Thirty-Nine Skink, about a sentient exploration vessel on an alien world, fulfilling its programming by replicating life-forms (including the titular lizard) with which to seed the world’s biosphere and maybe jump-start terraforming. But the vessel’s human crew are all dead, and the vessel is clearly experiencing a very programmed kind of grief, and the machine’s mission is very, very compromised, and Palmer writes it all so briskly and matter-of-factly that an entire world is sketched in just a few paragraphs (Asimov’s reigning short story kind, Robert Reed, does this better than anybody, but he’s not in this issue – although his story in the previous issue was the best thing the magazine has run so far in 2017) that it all feels as textured and satisfying as a novel.
Same thing goes for Alan Smale’s story “Kitty Hawk,” in which a very gentle alternate history is pursued with poetic intensity: Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur Wright, has made her way to the windy beach at Kitty Hawk in the wake of her brother Wilbur’s sudden death while testing the flying machine the brothers hoped would give mankind entrance to the sky. Katharine is grieving for Wilbur, and so, in his odd way, is Orville – but he’s determined to continue perfecting the Flyer, determined to push on to the breakthrough he and his brother dreamed about. When Katharine rolls up her sleeves to help him, the story flows smoothly out from that simple premise into something truly memorable, and all without a single alien or spaceship in sight.
In short, and maybe fittingly, the 40th anniversary issue of Asimov’s features the same kinds of peaks and valleys, in roughly the same ratio as most of the issues that have come before it. And I’m pretty sure the editors over there would agree with me that this in itself is one hell of a victory.
April 12th, 2017
Our book today is Alexander Watson’s 2014 masterpiece, Ring of Steel, now out in a brick-sized and brick-red paperback from Basic Books. In these thousand pages, Watson departs from the standard outline of most First World War histories, including most of the glut of them that came out in 2014; instead of presenting readers with a panoramic view of the conflict, he concentrates on the two European powers that started the war, committed the most resources to its prosecution, suffered the most losses in the course of its four years, and ultimately lost it. Germany mobilized nearly 86% of its male population between 1914 and 1918 in some kind of military capacity, 14 million men and boys, and Germany’s partner in aggression, Austria-Hungary, very nearly matched these ghastly numbers. One-third of the war’s total number of casualties were German or Austrian, and the war ended up devouring its two key Central Powers, destroying Austria-Hungary and bankrupting – financially and morally – the formerly bellicose German Reich. Far more so than, for instance, France or Great Britain, the story of these two powers captures the strangeness, the horror, and the maddening futility of the First World War.
Re-reading this nice plump paperback reminded me of all the things I initially loved about Watson’s account, foremost of which is his skill at pulling back from his thorough command of the details in order to present wide-angle summaries that never fail to satisfy:
For Germans, and indeed for most central Europeans, the armistice was not quite the caesura that is remembered further west. There was no return to ‘peace’ as in France or Britain. ‘Normality’ had become a permanent casualty of the war. True, the mass slaughter of the Materialschlacht was over, but misery, deprivation and shortages continued until, and even beyond, the summer of 1919 when the blockade lifted. The violence was also not ended. Although smaller in scale, it had transferred into the homelands that men had fought to protect. The political and ethnic fault lines deepened by war were the new ‘fronts’ of the post-armistice period. Radical leftist revolutions and right-wing putsches would shake the weakened German state in the coming years. In the east, the Polish minority would rise up and fight for cession … The First World War had ended. Its legacy of suffering and violence proved far longer lasting.
Three years ago Ring of Steel stood out among the abundance of big First World War books, and it’s a pleasure to see it brought back before the reading public in its new rust-red paperback design.
April 4th, 2017
Our book today is The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D. C., a tall, jam-packed 1974 compendium, a “comprehensive historical guide” to all the public works of sculpture on display in the nation’s capital, by James Goode, who was at the time the curator of the Smithsonian Institute’s famous “Castle.” Every time I take the book down off the shelf and use it to go strolling around the streets and parks of the only Southern city I’ve ever loved and the only one I’ve ever called home, I pause at different pages and study different sculptures and group settings and think back to the boiling hot days and gorgeous nights when I saw them directly, in the company of friends.
Speaking about those sculptures to a group of tourists, one of those friends once waxed eloquently about how the capital was home to “great works of bronze and brass” – to which his imperious daughter quipped, “great works of bronze, certainly, and great asses.” She was thinking of the professional class of politicians who form the city’s indigenous population, and the association is understandable, since so many of that public artwork commemorates politicians, time-servers, and hacks of all kinds. Which is fairly predictable, given the nature of how public sculpture happens in DC in the first place:
There are four tedious steps necessary before a public sculpture may be erected in the Nation’s Capital today. If a group of citizens desires to erect a monument they must petition a member of Congress to sponsor a bill granting permission to build the memorial on federal property, generally in a park. If Congress approves, the organization then commissions a sculptor to design the work. This design must then be approved by the United States Fine Arts Commission. Next, the organization must raise the funds necessary for the execution of the sculptor’s design. The National Park Service is responsible for landscaping and maintaining the site after the sculpture has been erected.
Even so, flipping through Goode’s book, looking at one grainy black-and-white photo after another of fictional characters, animals, foreigners, backwoodsmen, orators, adventurers, presidents, Indian chiefs, and dozens of others, two things become obvious. First, a great many really moving and effective pieces of artwork are overshadowed by far more renowned works, like the Adams Monument in Rock Creek Cemetery, or the mighty Lincoln Memorial, which even the dispassionate Goode calls simply awe-inspiring. And second, ye gods, do outdoor sculptures get tagged with bird poop. It’s not just that they’re vulnerable to rust or erosion or other kinds of wear-and-tear: it’s that back in the 1970s, the aforementioned National Park Service had a honking big blind spot when it came to bird poop – or else a recession-strapped operating budget. Goode is actually well aware of the fact that he’s not exactly filming artwork in pristine condition:
The problems in the creation of these statues are more than matched by their decay under the constant attacks of rain, air pollution, and temperature fluctuation. Thus, polluted air containing harmful oxides produced by the burning of fossil fuels and motor vehicle exhausts eats away inscriptions and carved designs and can change a hard, sound, outdoor sculpture into a crumbling, flaking mass within forty years. Recent chemical research has made it possible to arrest the decay of outdoor sculpture. A chemical can be sprayed on stone sculpture to seal the pores of the surface and to preserve the original color, texture, and appearance of the surface. The high expense of this new treatment unfortunately prohibits its widespread use at this time.
It’s overwhelmingly noticeable on almost every page of the book. Turn to the great 1920 bronze statue by Ettore Ximenes of Dante, the one standing in Meridian Park – Dante’s not only covered in his doctoral robes … he’s also covered in bird poop. Look at those great heroes of the American Independence story, the Comte d’Estaing and the Comte de Grasse, from the Lafayette monument by Jean Alexandre Joseph Falquière and Marius Jean Antonin Mercié in Lafayette Park – they’re glancing at each other, and you just know what they’re talking about: merde.
It doesn’t matter what the subject is – buffalos, bears, dinosaurs, Daniel Webster, even an anteater, they’re all coated in bird poop, to egregious, tourist-disappointing extents that probably wouldn’t happen today. This time around, thumbing my way through Goode’s book, I was reminded again of my time living in DC – but I was also reminded of all those you-are-there photos of the New York City subway in the 1970s, covered in filth and graffiti.
I’ll keep my eye out in publisher catalogs for 21st-century update to Goode.
April 3rd, 2017
Our books today form just the kind of sprightly, colorful, optimistic trio of reading experiences you very much want when your April commences with a blinding blizzard of sodden slop and howling winds: we have three new Regency romances of exactly the type to put a smile on my face regardless of what the weather is doing outside.
I Dared the Duke by Anna Bennett (St. Martin’s)
The first our trio is Anna Bennett’s new “Wayward Wallflowers” novel, following up My Brown-Eyed Earl from 2016. The alleged wallflower this time around is Miss Elizabeth Lacey, the lady’s companion to the kindly old Dowager Duchess of Blackshire, and she’s perfectly content with her position until Alexander Savage, the young Duke of Blackshire, threatens to disrupt it with a seemingly outrageous demand: that his gregarious grandmother uproot herself – and her companion – and remove to the Blackshire country estate, far from the hustle and bustle of London that the old lady loves so much.
Elizabeth is outraged by the demand, and she’s also in a perfect position to thwart it, since the demand is technically a request, and she has a great deal of personal influence over the Dowager Duchess. The Duke quickly realizes that, as Bennett puts it, she has him by the bollocks … and he has no choice but to agree when she drives a hard bargain: her agreement – in exchange for three wishes. They seal the deal with a drink:
He guided her to the settee in front of the fireplace where they both sat, the blue silk of her gown almost touching his trousers. He thought for a moment, and then raised his glass. “To ostrich feathers, which are far more utilitarian than most people realize.”
Grinning, she raised her glass as well. “To leprechauns. Who are far more real than most people realize.”
He clinked his snifter against hers qand met her sultry gaze as the brandy slid down his throat. Damn, but those blue eyes of hers bewitched him.
She certainly wasn’t acting like a wallflower. And in that moment, as a saucy smile played about her pink lips, he knew without a doubt that he’d rue the day he’d foolishly labeled her and her sisters the Wilting Wallflowers. Yes, his offhand, jocular quip had saddled the Lacey sisters with the epithet they hadn’t been able to shake for three seasons – and it would come back to haunt him. Maybe it already had.
As with any story involving three wishes, the plot of I Dared the Duke playfully complicates as it moves along, and no reader of Anna Bennett will want it to end.
Last Night with the Duke by Amelia Grey (St. Martin’s)
This slim, breezy book is the first “Rakes of St. James” novel from Amelia Grey, following her “Heirs’ Club of Scoundrels” series that concluded last year with Wedding Night with the Earl, and in this opening installment, the rake involved is the Duke of Griffin, who has never before especially minded his reputation as one of the infamous Rakes of St. James. But now his sisters are preparing to debut in society, and he’s worried the low-key scandals of his reputation will start to smear their good names before they’ve even had a chance to establish them. He decides he needs to provide them with an unimpeachable chaperone for their coming-out season, which leads him to Miss Mamie Fortescu’s Employment Agency – and eventually to the entrancing presence of Esmeralda Swift, the manager of the establishment.
She’s certain she can find him a perfect chaperone, and she’s surprised when he wastes hardly a moment before announcing that he wants her. He’s very handsome and very sure of himself, but, as Grey skillfully unfolds throughout the novel, Esmeralda has ample personal reason to dislike the great lords and ladies of the land. So right there in the moment of his decision, their battle of wills begins:
She couldn’t deny that she found everything about him pleasing, from his powerful good looks to the tone of his mellow voice. It was maddening that she was attracted him [sic] – a peer. Considering her dislike for them. And yes, she could ward off any advance from him, but first she would have to want to. That would take reminding herself that it was because of a title gentleman that her mother’s life had changed so dramatically. Esmeralda had no desire to ever become a member of Polite Society again.
“You are the one I want watching over my sisters.”
What nerve he had to continue up this path, she thought. Even for an arrogant duke!
“I appreciate that you are a duke and – ”
“That I’m used to getting my way,” he interrupted, finishing her sentence for her.
“Yes.” Her voice was a mere whisper. “That’s exacty what I was going to say.”
“And it’s true.”
In classic Regency fashion, Griffin and Esmeralda will change each other’s hearts in ways that aren’t at all surprising – Grey is much more interested in telling a vivacious story than breaking new narrative ground – but that are nevertheless mighty satisfying when done this well.
Bedchamber Games by Tracy Anne Warren (Berkley)
Tracy Anne Warren follows up 2016’s Happily Bedded Bliss with another installment in her “Rakes of Cavendish Square” series, and in Bedchamber Games, the rake in question has a name to conjure with: Lord Byron! But as Lord Lawrence Byron is at pains to point out to anybody who asks (and everybody wants to), his family isn’t that family … although Lord Lawrence does fairly well for himself in the Lothario department, as evidenced by the reaction of our heroine, barrister’s daughter Rosamund Carrow, when she first lays eyes on him, after accidentally colliding with him on the steps of Lincoln’s Inn:
She drew in a quick breath, heart leaping, and not just from the collision. He was quite simply the handsomest man she had ever seen. One might even describe him as beautiful, with his thick golden brown hair, eyes that were a stunning blend of gold and green, a straight, elegant nose, strong chin and refined mouth, it was almost as if nature had formed it expressly for kissing – though why she would think such a thing when she had almost no experience in such mattters, she hadn’t the slightest idea.
She can’t actually express even a hint of her reaction, however, because at the moment she’s dressed like a man: Ross Carrow, the cousin of the recently-deceased Elias Carrow, here at court to help finish out his cousin’s open cases. This is Rosamund’s mission, and in Warren’s cleverly-fashioned mash-up of Witness for the Prosecution and The Merchant of Venice, that mission is of course complicated when the courtroom adversaries begin falling in love. But as usual with this author, there were also well-done quieter moments scattered throughout the book, including the first moment that Lord Lawrence brings up Rosamund’s father:
An odd combination of relief and pain arrowed through her, the abrupt reminder of her father hard to take. Her hands trembled as she fought a fierce wave of grief, for try as she might, she still had trouble accepting that he was gone. Even now it seemed impossible that she would never again hear the commanding persuasion of his voice or have the pleasure of debating history, politics, literature and the law with him.
Part of the enjoyment of Bedchamber Games comes from watching the oncoming inevitable happy ending gradually dispel all such somber moments, which made the book particularly enjoyable to read on a Spring afternoon that was doing its best to look and feel like winter. This was true of all three of these books, a perfect trio of brisk, cheerful Regencies to remind me that Spring is eventually on the way – once the ice thaws and the snow melts.
April 1st, 2017
Our book today is the latest whimsical masterpiece from the great childrens book writer and illustrator Jon Agee: Life on Mars.
The story begins with an intrepid young space explorer arriving on the planet Mars. He leaves his spaceship on a very definite mission, and it’s not just to find life on Mars. It’s also to salvage his own reputation back home on Earth:
Everybody thinks I’m crazy.
Nobody believes there’s life on Mars.
But I do. And I just know that I’m going to find it.
He’s come prepared: he not only has his trusty space suit, but he’s also brought along a box of chocolate cupcakes to present to the Martians he’s certain he’ll find. But the more walking around he does, the more frustrated he becomes: all he sees are rocks and barren wasteland! No Martians!
Thanks to Agee’s playful artwork, we share his frustration – because our space explorer always seems to be looking in just the wrong direction to spot the gigantic Martian who’s watching him in clear befuddlement! Even after our little explorer has temporarily misplaced his spaceship and climbed a hill to get a better vantage point to look for it, he fails to realize that the hill is in fact the ample backside of the Martian.
The mission is a failure, and the explorer is headed back home. But just near his spaceship he finds what he’s been looking for: life! A lone green plant is poking up from the hard Martian soil! The little boy proudly takes the plant onboard his ship, overjoyed that he’ll be able to tell the folks back on Earth that there really is life on Mars. The goofy-looking Martian watches his strange visitor leave without making a sound.
Agee is a master of creating these adorable parables of gentle confusion, and Life on Mars is his simplest and most effective to date. I loved it, and I think I know the perfect little recipient.