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Bellwether by Connie Willis

Coffee shops. Statistics. Management. Sheep. Fads and trends. Anti-smoking activism. Mail delivery. Chaos theory. Rom-com. Romantic Bride Barbie. Duct tape. Post-modern pink.

All of these forces and subjects and more combine and influence and permutate and percolate to form one funny, sweet, and at the same time thoughtful, romantic comedy of a novel. I was charmed. Bellwether is certainly not as meaty or deep as Willis’s other novels, but it might be a good introduction to her work.

Sandy Foster studies fads, how they start and what they mean. She becomes acquainted with fellow HiTek corporation scientist Bennett O’Reilly by accident—a case of mis-delivered mail. As fate and the highly incompetent mail clerk, Flip, continue to throw Sandy and Bennett together, she becomes interested in his seeming immunity to fads. Bennett, oblivious to Sandy’s growing interest, continues to pursue his interest in chaos theory. Can a flock of sheep and a new office assistant help them to truly see each other and achieve equilibrium?

Connie Willis continues to be my favorite living science fiction author. I highly recommend her other novels:

Doomsday Book, reviewed at Semicolon: my first foray into the world of Connie Willis, and her first book in a series about time-traveling historians.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, reviewed at Semicolon: Comedy and time travel in Victorian England.

Blackout and All Clear, reviewed at Semicolon: one book, really, in two volumes. The time-traveling historians visit World War II England.

Passage: about NDE’s or Near Death Experiences.

Her short stories are probably worth checking out too, if you like short stories. I don’t read short stories, unless I have very good reason to believe that the story up for perusal is worth the aggravation of its being so very short. I haven’t read Ms. Willis’s short stories, but she’s such a good author that I may give them a try.

Midnight Hour Encores by Bruce Brooks

One of my favorite YA novels is The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. So, when I found another YA novel by Mr. Brooks at the used bookstore the other day, I snapped it up immediately.

Midnight Hour Encores is about a cellist, Sibilance T. Spooner, not a basketball player. And it takes place in the mid 1980′s (published in 1986) as the aforementioned Sibilance asks her leftover hippie father Taxi to take her to San Francisco to meet her mother. Taxi, despite his love for 60′s music and culture, has been the responsible parent in Sib’s life, the one who took her to cello lessons, gave her a home, and gave her plenty of space to grow up into one of the world’s most promising cellists and a very confident and prepossessing sixteen year old woman.

However, as Taxi and Sib travel across the country in an old VW bus, they find that each of them has been harboring a few secrets. And when Sib finally meets the mom who left them when Sib was a baby, things become very complicated.

This book was not as good as The Moves Make the Man, at least not as good as I remember that book to be. (I haven’t read it in twenty years, but I liked it a lot.) Midnight Hour Encores did have its moments, and the emphasis on the idea that people grow and change and that people are complicated and hard to pigeonhole—that was good. The casual acceptance of kids and adults having casual sex was a minor aspect of the book, but I could have done without the assumptions. The ending surprised me, in a good way.

If you’re interested in the 1960′s or in the world of top-flight teen musicians or in complicated family relationships, you might enjoy Midnight Hour Encores. If you haven’t read The Moves Make the Man, I highly recommend it, even if you have no interest in basketball whatsoever.

The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

“Varian Johnson lists his inspirations for this book as Ocean’s 11, The Westing Game, Sneakers, The Thomas Crowne Affair, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” I would, guessing, add the movies Star Wars and The Sting, not to mention a few pick-up basketball games along the way, but I could be mistaken about those particular influences.

Jackson Greene has reformed, changed his ways, and sworn off all scheming, finagling, conning, and pranking. When the girl you like (Gaby) sees you brush lips with another cutie and totally misinterprets the situation, and when the principal catches you breaking into his office, you had better call it quits as far as con games are concerned. Even if it’s for a good cause. Then again, maybe if Keith Sinclair, Jackson’s arch enemy and nemesis of all good clubs and organizations at Maplewood Middle School, plans to run for Student Council against that same girl, Gaby, the one Jackson kinda sorta likes—then, maybe, a small benevolent interference, just to keep Keith from stealing the election, is in order. What could it hurt?

Mr. Johnson’s middle grade (upper middle grade since it has lots of tame boy/girl stuff) heist novel got a boost on Twitter earlier this spring and summer with people using the hash tags #weneeddiversebooks and #greatgreenechallenge, the latter tag referring to a friendly competition between independent bookstores to handsell Mr. Johnson’s book. The book does feature “diverse” characters, Asian American, African American, and Hispanic, and it is a a good solid summer read. As far as kid caper books are concerned, I preferred I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora, but Acampora’s Mockingbird doesn’t have quite the same “diversity factor”. (Catholic characters and bookish characters don’t count as “diversity” the same way people of color do. Who makes up these rules, anyway?) Still, reading The Great Greene Heist was an enjoyable way to spend a summer evening, and I recommend it to fans of Paul Acampora’s book or of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society books.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer, besides authoring several Golden Age of detective fiction mysteries, also wrote romance novels and according to Wikipedia “essentially established the genre of Regency romance.” During her career,she published over thirty Regency novels, for a period of her life publishing one mystery/thriller and one romance per year.

The Grand Sophy, one of those Regency novels, was published in 1950. It’s the story of a rather indolent and somewhat impecunious family, Lord and Lady Ombersley and their several children, including the eldest, Charles, who has become something of a family tyrant in his quest to save the family from bankruptcy. When Lady Ombersley’s niece, Sophy, comes to stay for a while while her diplomat father goes on an ambassadorial trip to Brazil, the entire household is turned topsy-turvy by Sophy’s free and easy ways and her lack of female propriety, not to mention her monkey, Jacko.

Sophy is a grand character. She’s independent, intelligent, and spirited without being obnoxious. Sophy’s cousin Charles is less well-developed as a character. At first, he seems like a petty family dictator, ruling over his parents and his younger brothers and sisters in a rather arbitrary way while planning to marry an heiress to re-coup the family fortunes. As the story continues, Charles becomes more sympathetic as a character, but I was never sure why he was so high-handed and unbending at the beginning.

Jane Austen fans and Regency romance readers should definitely check out The Grand Sophy. Ms. Heyer’s novels, including this one, are not as subtle and deep as Jane Austen’s, but as far as straight light romance novels go Georgette’s Heyer’s books rise near to the top of the list.

The Chapel Wars by Lindsey Leavitt

Setting: The Las Vegas strip, Rose of Sharon Wedding Chapel
Characters:
Grandpa Jim Nolan, owner and proprietor of Rose of Sharon Wedding Chapel, deceased.
Holly Evelyn Nolan, sixteen year old math whiz, counter of everything, inheritor of Rose of Sharon Wedding Chapel.
Sam, Holly’s best friend.
Camille, Sam’s homeschooled secret girlfriend.
Victor Cranston, Grandpa Jim’s rival and enemy, proprietor of Cupid’s Dream Wedding Chapel.
Dax Cranston, Victor’s grandson and Holly’s possible new love interest.
Plot: Romeo and Juliet, without the marriage or the suicides, transposed to Las Vegas, with the addition of a family business to save from bankruptcy.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a children’s or YA novel set in Las Vegas. In fact, maybe I’ve never read any novel set in Las Vegas. (Have you?) The Chapel Wars has a promising premise: Holly has inherited her grandfather’s Las Vegas wedding chapel, along with all of its quirky employees and money problems. For Holly Rose of Sharon is home, the only home she’s ever known. She has to do whatever it takes to keep the chapel in business, even if it means going against Grandpa Jim’s business model, dressing her friends up as Elvis or even Cupid, and trying to keep her love life and her business life separated.

Unfortunately, there were several aspects of the novel that kept this old fogey from enjoying it wholeheartedly. The comedic possibilities of the plot are obvious, and they were exploited to the full. However, the sarcasm got a little heavy at times. And the heavy, heavy disdain for any character who took romance and long term relationship (marriage) seriously (Sam, in particular, who proposes to Camille and is shot down with great scorn) was uncomfortable. This derision for marriage or a serious consideration of long term commitment for teens, even those who are old enough to get married, is a given element in a lot of YA literature these days. Teens can “suck face”, a crude and vile term used in the novel as a euphemism for the display of physical affection, or they can even have sexual relations, but heaven forbid that they should consider the even long term possibility of commitment and marriage at the age of seventeen or eighteen or nineteen. It’s the new taboo.

The novel also sported a prejudice against any serious life decision that might be made by a sixteen or seventeen year old. Holly is told, “You can’t let someone else’s dead dream keep you from finding your own.” True, as far as it goes. However, Holly believes that her own dream is to keep the chapel open, but she’s not allowed to have that dream because she’s only sixteen or seventeen. Long-term commitment, to a a person or to a goal, is reserved for old people who have nothing better to do with their time and energy. The advice for Holly: “Go hang out with your friends or make out with that boy across the street.”

The underestimation of young adults and the crude pandering to their supposed taste in terms of language and pastimes is rampant in our culture, and I felt that disrespect for teens was particularly egregious in The Chapel Wars. Romeo and Juliet were old enough at thirteen and maybe fourteen or fifteen to get married, make really poor decisions, and take responsibility for their own actions. Why aren’t sixteen, seventeen and eighteen year olds in our culture old enough to pursue a dream or a marriage commitment or even use the English language with some sophistication?

Anyway, The Chapel Wars is funny and cute, if you ignore the implications of treating young adults like overgrown children who should spend their time sucking face and sowing wild oats.

QOTD: If you were offered a free trip to Las Vegas (free plane ticket, free accommodations), would you go? Why or why not? If you did go, what would you do while you were in Las Vegas?

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora

“The very first spark for I Kill the Mockingbird began with a conversation about summer reading lists that started on blogs including Pam Coughlan’s Mother Reader, Colleen Mondor’s Chasing Ray, Leila Roy’s Bookshelves of Doom, and Elizabeth Bird’s A Fuse #8 Production among others. Barely a day goes by that I don’t learn something new and also laugh out loud because of these fantastic writers and their peers in the incredible community of kid lit bloggers.” ~Acknowledgments by Paul Acampora.

Set during the summer between eighth grade and high school, this middle grade on the cusp of YA novel was absolutely a great read, but you have to know going in that it’s very meta-book-lovers with lots of inside jokes about first lines of novels and interpretations of To Kill a Mockingbird and nominations for the Great American Novel. Mr. Acampora must love kid lit and adult literature and books in general, and his characters do, too.

Those characters are a trio of friends, Lucy, Elena, and Michael, who have attended school together at St. Brigid’s Catholic School since kindergarten. Lucy’s mom has just miraculously recovered from a bout with a “rare, aggressive, and generally fatal” cancer (“sometimes it just happens”). Her dad is the principal at St. Brigid’s. Michael is a neighbor, a friend, and Lucy’s newly discovered crush. Elena is “certain that high school is going to swallow us up, spit, us out, and crush us like bugs.” Elena lives above a bookstore with her Uncle Mort since her parents died in car crash when she was a baby. I Kill the Mockingbird tells the story of how these three created a conspiracy to make Harper Lee’s famous novel into the hottest property on the shelves of all of the libraries, bookstores, and other book distributors in the state of Connecticut, maybe the whole U.S.

“Even in kindergarten, Michael, Elena, and I obsessed about books. Not only that, the three of us believed that characters like Winnie the Pooh and Ramona Quimby and Despereaux Tilling actually existed. We fully expected to meet all our favorite characters in person one day. Books carried us away.”

As I said, it’s a very bookish book, a fact which made the story twice as endearing to me because I, too, am carried away by books. In fact, I had a couple of good friends in junior high who planned a date and a time to go through the wardrobe to Narnia. They were serious, and although I was skeptical, I did call them that night to make sure they were still in Middle Earth, rather, on our Earth.

The book is, by the way, also very Catholic, in a cultural sort of way. The teens who are the main characters pray to saints and to Jesus, discuss books and religion, and generally behave themselves like good Catholic kids. They aren’t perfect, and they aren’t overly pious, but they are definitely Catholic. THey also discuss theology and the after-life with parents who are also very Catholic, but who hold their Christian beliefs rather loosely. The general attitude in the book is that religious devotion can’t hurt and Christianity may even be true.

The three friends in I Kill the Mockingbird get themselves into some trouble when their conspiracy/project grows beyond their ability to control it due to the power of the worldwide web. But everything ends well, and the summer ends well, the trio head into high school with the courage that a huge summer adventure can give to three friends who are willing to try Something Big. There are worse ways to spend a summer than obsessing over books and bonding through shared adventures.

I read an ARC of this novel, obtained from NetGalley for the purposes of review. The release date for I Kill the Mockingbird is May 20, 2014.

Q(uestion)O(f)T(he)D(ay): Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird? Have you seen the movie version with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? (Atticus Finch is my Hero. I want a T-shirt that says that.)

Favorite Poets: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,—
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour.”

~Dante Grabriel Rossetti


Hidden Harmony

THE thoughts in me are very calm and high
That think upon your love: yet by your leave
You shall not greatly marvel that this eve
Or nightfall—yet scarce nightfall—the strong sky
Leaves me thus sad. Now if you ask me why,
I cannot teach you, dear; but I believe
It is that man will always interweave
Life with fresh want, with wish or fear to die.
It may be therefore,—though the matter touch
Nowise our love,—that I so often look
Sad in your presence, often feeling so.
And of the reason I can tell thus much:—
Man’s soul is like the music in a book
Which were not music but for high and low.

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Mary Lee Hahn is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup at A Year of Reading.

Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi

For the second book in a trilogy, Through the Ever Night is not bad. It has a beginning that brings readers up to speed fairly quickly (although it would be better to have read the first book in the series, first and recently), and it has an ending, sort of.

As the novel opens Perry and Aria are reunited, but there are obstacles to their romance and threats to their survival. Aria is being blackmailed by Hess, the ruler of Reverie, which is the virtual reality home of her childhood. In the Real world, Perry is now Blood Lord of the Tides, but along with great power comes great responsibility (where have I heard that one before?). The Tides don’t like Dwellers from Reverie, like Aria. And Aria must find the Still Blue, a storied land of calm and safety, in order to free Perry’s nephew, Talon, from the clutches of the evil Hess. Perry also needs to find the possibly mythical Still Blue as a last refuge for his people from the Aether storms and the marauding bands of displaced people who will eventually destroy them.

By the end, they still haven’t found exactly what they’re looking for, some people have died, others have betrayed or been betrayed, and all is still not well under the never sky. But Perry and Aria are together, which is what most readers will have been rooting for all along. This fantasy adventure romance is mostly romance, with a touch of female empowerment and a brooding, wild man hero. Teens will love it, and I found it definitely readable and good enough to keep me on the hook for the third book in the series.

Semicolon review of Under the Never Sky, the first book in this series.

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

This YA novel by well-known author Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Twisted, Wintergirls, Chains, and Forge) is what I call “an ABC after school special” work of fiction. For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember the after school special movies that were featured on the ABC network back in the day, they were usually dramas (sometimes comedy or documentary) aimed at middle school and young adult audiences about issues that the producers thought were relevant to teens: drug abuse, teen pregnancy, popularity, cancer, sexual harassment, blended families, racism, alcoholism, anorexia, etc. Each drama usually focused on one or more of these teen issues and gave guidance to viewers about how to handle the problem in the form of a story or parable or panel discussion.

Well, The Impossible Knife of Memory is a problem novel about the issue of having a parent who is a veteran suffering from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. As the novel opens, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been traveling the country for the past five years, running away from Andy’s recurring nightmares and violent outbursts in response to his time as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. Andy is a mess, but he’s decided that Hayley needs a more stable life and a chance to graduate from a brick-and-mortar school. So, the two of them move back to Andy’s hometown.

For the rest of the book, Andy, the dad, messes up: marijuana, fights, alcoholism, suicide attempts, incoherent and dictatorial behavior, criminal associates, and general irresponsibility. Hayley tries to take care of her father and live a “normal” teen life at school at the same time. She acquires a boyfriend, Finn, who is cute and sweet, mostly, but has his own dysfunctional family. In fact, all of Hayley’s friends and acquaintances seem to come from seriously messed-up families. Does Ms. Anderson mean to indicate that all teens deal with some form of parental misbehavior and irresponsibility, or is it just that Hayley picks the ones with dysfunctional families to be friends with?

The title indicates that the book will be about the double-edged sword that is memory: how our memories can both strengthen us and capture us in a web of hopelessness, depending on how we see and process those memories. I’m not sure that the theme indicated in the title came through clearly; I was too distracted by “cute little puppy-dog-like” Finn and by Hayley’s need to get away from her borderline abusive dad. I couldn’t think about the larger themes and issues that the book was trying to illuminate. Maybe if ABC made it into an after-school special, the script writers would hone the focus. As it was, I felt sorry for Hayley, liked Finn, couldn’t stand Gracie (best friend) and her boyfriend, and wanted Andy to go a hospital and get some help.

And that’s about all I gleaned from this particular after-school special novel. I prefer Ms. Anderson’s historical fiction. The book, and maybe the TV special, would be rated PG for some language and “adult” situations and discussions, such as drug abuse, suicide, and adultery.

Dangerous by Shannon Hale

“Shannon Hale as you’ve never read her before!” screams the back cover of my ARC. I would concur. If you’re a fan of Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and its sequels or her other fairytale-ish stories for middle graders or her take-off on Jane Austen for adult readers, Dangerous might feel a little, well, like new and dangerous territory for Ms. Hale and her readers.

Dangerous is very sci-fi and it’s very much a super-hero story, like Superman(Girl) or Batman or (fill-in-the-blank). The author makes use of lots of common super-hero tropes: a team of superheroes with different powers that work together, hero who dies but is not really dead, the love triangle, big business is evil, superhero needs to save the world from evil aliens. However, and this is where it gets interesting, some of the cliches Ms. Hale turns inside out. Our protagonist, Maisie Danger Brown, who ends up being the only one who can save the world, is a girl. She has loving parents who play a large role in the story. She quotes poetry to express her emotions; however, she’s really into science and math, but not geometry. The team turns out to be not very team-like, with traitors and brokenness abounding.

I read the ARC back in November of 2013, and I’ve found that the outlines of the story stuck with me. Ms. Hale is a skilled writer, with some solidly good ideas. I highly recommend her latest.

Publication date: March 4, 2014.