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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.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

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 Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson is one talented guy. I’ve been a big fan of his songs for quite a while now, but I haven’t read any of his Wingfeather Saga books because, well, I just didn’t want to commit myself to a big, huge, sprawling, saga series of books. And the idea that the man could sing and play and write songs and lyrics and write fantasy books for children was a little too much to be believed. So, sometimes God gives a wealth of talent to one person.

I should have taken the plunge and made the commitment with the first book in the series, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness. Then I could have read the second and third books, North! Or Be Eaten and The Monster in the Hollows, and all of the characters that I came to love in The Warden and the Wolf King–Janner and Kalmar and Leeli and Arthram and Podo and Sara and Maraly— would have been old friends already. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the fourth and final book in the saga even more if I were equipped with the background and history behind it, but I really enjoyed The Warden and the Wolf King anyway.

Even the one book is a saga, and it is a commitment, 519 pages worth of commitment. Obviously, I recommend starting at the beginning of the sage with Book 1, which makes it even more of a commitment. However, dare I say that it’s worth it? Definitely influenced by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, this series is nevertheless no Tolkien imitation and no Lewis copycat. There are lots of battles and adventures and hair’s breadth escapes for those who like that sort of things. But the themes and characters are what drew me in. I loved reading the description of Janner’s battle with the jealousy and mixed motives and sin that tears his heart apart as he tries desperately to be the strong, courageous and protective older brother that he is called to be. I liked reading about the “cloven”, creatures part human and part animal or insect who struggle to deal with their dual natures and their disturbed memories of the past. Oood the troll provided some comic relief and a few moments of heroism and rescue. And the ending to the entire book, and the entire series, was pure genius. Enough said.

The Silence of God is one of my favorite Andrew Peterson songs, and I would say that it pairs well with the themes of The Warden and the Wolf King. Several times in the book the “good guys” just have to grit their teeth and keep going, without answers, without a clear word from the Maker, just persevering and hoping and working toward the best goal they know.

I find that the Christian life is a lot like that song and a lot like Janner’s and Kalmar’s journey in this book. “What about the times when even followers get lost? We all get lost sometimes.” “The aching may remain but the breaking does not.”

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.)

Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

“I can claim to be tolerably detached on the subject of ghost stories. I do not depend upon them in any way; not even in the sordid professional way, in which I have at some periods depended on murder stories. I do not much mind whether they are true or not. I am not, like a Spiritualist, a man whose religion may said to consist entirely of ghosts. But I am not like a Materialist, a man whose whole philosophy is exploded and blasted and blown to pieces by the most feeble and timid intrusion of the most thin and third-rate ghost. I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. But I am not at all certain that they succeeded even in that; and I suspect that their greatest successes were elsewhere. For it is my experience that the village idiot is very much less credulous than the town lunatic. On the other hand, when the merely skeptical school asks us to believe that every sort of ghost has been a turnip ghost, I think such skeptics rather exaggerate the variety and vivacity and theatrical talent of turnips.” ~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, May 30, 1936.

So if GK (and Shakespeare) were willing to suspend disbelief and leave a little room for ghost stories, so can I. And Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase is an entertaining sort of ghost story. I’m not saying Mr. Stroud’s middle grade ghost novel is a true ghost story, but it is, within its own rather odd universe, believable and amusing and maybe even thought-provoking.

Lucy Carlyle leaves her provincial village after a ghostly disaster to go to London to find a job with one of the prestigious Psychic Investigation agencies there. She ends up accepting a position with Lockwood & Co., an agency staffed and run entirely by children. The three investigators at Lockwood & Co. are Lockwood, the owner of the agency, George Cubbins, his sloppy and nerdy assistant, and the intrepid Lucy herself. The subject of their investigations is The Problem, an infestation throughout Britain of ghosts, haunts, spirits, ghouls, specters, and other psychic phenomena. Only young people have the ability to sense and possibly eradicate these hauntings, but everyone is endangered by their ghostly presence. In fact, being touched by a ghost is usually fatal.

A bit of mild cursing (h—, d—, and the like) mars the otherwise excellent writing and subtle humor woven throughout the story. Lucy is a versatile and insightful narrator, and Lockwood himself, while somewhat enigmatic, is an engaging character. Since this novel is Book One of a series, the author preserves some mysteries about both Lockwood and about The Problem itself, presumably to enliven other books in the series. In the meantime in this book, we are introduced to a London in which children use iron chains, silver seals, and salt-bombs to fight off malevolent spirits bent on righting old wrongs and harming the still-living.

The book ends with the following hint (from a captured ghost) about where the story might be headed in terms of plot and theme:

“I can tell you things, you see. Important things. Like this: Death’s coming. . . . It’s nothing personal. Death’s coming to you all. Why? Because everything’s upside down. Death’s in Life and Life’s in Death, and what was fixed is fluid. And it doesn’t matter what you try, Lucy, you’ll never be able to turn the tide—”

I am definitely curious enough to read the second book in this series, Lockwood and Co. The Whispering Skull, due for release in September, 2014. Lockwood and Co. The Screaming Staircase was the winner of the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction for 2013.

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.