Review of “Bread and Butter” by Michelle Wildgen

This is a quiet book about the restaurant business set in a small town outside of Philadelphia. The publisher’s blurb contends that this is “the story of three brothers running competing restaurants in the same small town – and the sibling rivalry, culinary snobbery, and romantic jealousy that burns among them.” I find that to be quite an overstatement.

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It is more of a book in which nothing much happens at all. It takes place over approximately a year, after which time we hardly know the brothers any more than we did at the start. Nor could I come up with more than a two or three word description of their love interests. What we do learn about, on the other hand, are some of the ups and downs of running restaurants. We don’t even get much information about the food they serve up, except for a veritable parade of the names of very obscure dishes along with a hint of some of their unconventional ingredients.

Evaluation: At the end of the book that talked about food on every page, I was left oddly unsatisfied and hungry for something of more substance.

Rating: 2/5

Published by Doubleday, a member of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014

Review of “The Here and Now” by Ann Brashares

This is a YA novel about a group of time travelers who return to the past (i.e., our present) to escape the 2090s, a time when the world has gotten wetter and hotter, and a plague spread by mosquitos has wiped out much of the population not already devastated by food shortages and massive starvation.

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Prenna, 17, is one of those who came from the future four years earlier to Westchester County in New York. As Prenna stepped through the time vortex, she was spotted by Ethan Jarves, a year older than Prenna, who was dazzled by the sight of her. When she finally shows up in his school two years later, he immediately befriends her; he has never stopped thinking about her. But Prenna and her fellow immigrants have strict rules they have to swear to live by, the twelfth of which is:

We must never, under any circumstances, develop a physically or emotionally intimate relationship with any person outside the Community.”

The ostensible reason for Rule Twelve is that the “Time Immigrants” believe they harbor the plague infection, and don’t want to spread it to “Time Natives.” Maybe they can even find a way to stop the environmental decay from happening. But that depends on whether the past can be changed, and on what steps the immigrants take to change it.

Prenna meets a mysterious figure also befriended by Ethan, “Ben Kenobi,” allegedly from her own time, who asks to speak to her alone. He tries to convince her that the Community, secretive and autocratic, has become more interested in domination and in living out their lives safely than in preventing the catastrophe to come. Kenobi tells Prenna he knows exactly when and where the ineluctable road to disaster started, and that she and Ethan must prevent it from happening.

But Prenna isn’t sure what to believe, and makes some huge mistakes out of fear and confusion. She’s not sure of anything except her feelings for Ethan. But will being with Ethan kill him?

Discussion: This book has features of the standard YA dystopia, with the world in danger, the evil adults, the stupid girl protagonist, the perfect boy, and their attraction to one another. Distinct from other books in this genre, however, there is no love triangle (thankfully), not all that much action, and a highly improbable ending in which a not-too-bright teen vanquishes all. I’m not sure if this is only the first of a trilogy, but it could be….

Rating: 3/5

Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2014

Review of “Voyager” by Diana Gabaldon

Note: Voyager is the third novel in the “Outlander Series.”  There will necessarily be spoilers for the first two books in the series.

In the first book, Outlander, Claire, a young married English nurse on vacation in Scotland after World War II accidentally traveled back in time 200 years to 1743. There she took up with Highland Hottie Jamie Fraser, and developed her skills as a healer. Claire got pregnant, and Jamie insisted she go back to the future to save her and her unborn child, thinking he was about to die in battle.

In the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, it is now twenty years later, in 1968, and Claire has brought her 20-year-old daughter, Brianna (“Bree”) – the spitting image of Jamie – with her to Scotland. They traveled from Boston, where Claire is a doctor, to find the historian Roger Wakefield. Claire wants to find out Jamie’s fate, and Roger discovers Jamie did not in fact die at the Battle of Culloden.

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Voyager begins with Jamie on the fields of Culloden in 1745, injured but not dead, possibly saved by the body of his enemy, John Randall, which is lying on top of him. Further improbably, he is rescued from execution afterwards by the brother of Lord John Grey, who, as a boy in the second book, pledged a debt to Jamie. [Gabaldon has a way of bringing back characters encountered along the saga’s way to play new and important roles later on in the story.]

Meanwhile, in 1968, Claire determines she must go back to the past and try to find Jamie. Bree and Roger help research what befell Jamie and where he might be, and in the process, grow more attracted to one another. In alternating chapters we return to the 18th Century to learn about Jamie’s activities over the intervening years.

Roger thinks he has found evidence that Jamie was working as a printer in Edinburgh in the time it would be if Claire went back, so Claire bids farewell to Roger and Bree and makes the dangerous trip through the stones at Craigh na Dun to return to 1766. Claire walks into Jamie’s printshop, and although she is now 48, she is of course as beautiful as ever, and Jamie declares he has always loved her. So her life with Jamie begins again, complete with various instances of Jamie “mastering” Claire and revisiting his favorite places on her body (which we, the readers, have become acquainted with quite thoroughly).

All is not totally well, however: Claire learns some of the unexpected things Jamie was up to while she was gone (and has the gall to be mad over it, even though she was for all intensive purposes gone forever). Additionally, Jamie’s life is full of upheaval as usual. The two end up chasing nephew Ian – who has been captured by pirates, to the Caribbean. They find Ian just as he is about to be made a human sacrifice by an unexpected old acquaintance; get waylaid by a tropical hurricane; and get blown all the way to Georgia, where they already know that in under a decade, they will be in the middle of another war yet again, if they survive that long.

Discussion: In spite of the fact that Claire generally behaves more like she is from the late-20th Century than the mid-20th, she acts positively 18th Century when it comes to attitudes toward non-Christians, non-whites, and non-heterosexuals. Although her “best friend” in her (future life) Boston hospital was a black surgeon, Claire even ascribes to him stereotypical looks and behavior that would not be likely in a man who attained his position. But people she meets in the 18th Century fare much worse. The author portrays a Chinese character – whom Claire refers to as “The Chinaman” – with every bad caricature one can imagine. There are also a couple of men who come into the story, each of whom is referred to (contemptuously) by Claire as “The Jew.” One is a slime ball, and one is nice enough, but daffy and definitely not “manly.” The blacks in the Caribbean are depicted as, and thought of by Claire, in what can only say is a “cringeworthy” manner.

Claire also spends a great deal of time comparing her own assets to other women of the time, being ever so thankful that she has taken care of her teeth and has not succumbed to the worst of all possible fates: gaining weight. (Her last words to Brianna before leaving her presumably forever were “Try not to get fat.” And no, don’t assume because Claire is a doctor that this obsession has anything to do with health, because it is all about looks.)

As for the appeal of this series, I think several factors come into play. One is that Gabaldon is a competent writer. I don’t imagine she will be taught alongside Joyce and Shakespeare, but the quality of the prose in her books doesn’t make you want to throw them across the room.

A second reason is that generation-spanning romantic sagas have great appeal. Many people, including me, like to fantasize about love and family that goes on forever. Her characters are good (well, at least if they are white and Christian and straight) and often quite memorable.

When you add the historical backdrop of Scotland, you win over a large number of American women. (If you doubt the popularly of this niche, check the number of books on Goodreads labeled “Highlander Romance.”)

Evaluation: If you enjoy sagas, sex, and Scotland, this is a series consisting of immensely long books that will occupy you for many days and nights!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 1993

Review of “Dark Eden” by Chris Beckett

Dark Eden tells the story of a small group of space explorers from Earth who landed on another planet and only two survived: Tommy and Angela. Although they weren’t particularly fond of one another, they started a new “family” of humans to populate this new “Eden,” taking incest to new heights (or depths) out of necessity. Now, one hundred and sixty-some years later, the family has over five hundred members, and is plagued by a number of genetic disorders from inbreeding, especially club foot and cleft palate (which they call “bat face”).

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The entire raison d’être of The Family has been staying in place in case rescuers from Earth come for them, but some of the younger members of the group (“newhairs”) aren’t convinced that they wouldn’t be found even if they spread out a bit. Living space around the original settlement has gotten more crowded and food more scarce.

John Redlantern, only fifteen, challenges the elders to open their minds to change, and when they refuse, he sets out with his sometime girlfriend Tina and his own group of followers, to develop other parts of the planet. But one of the bat faces, David Redlantern, is jealous of John (especially because of his success as a mating choice), and vows to destroy him. The Family, having spent all its previous years dedicated to remembering the founding story and observing the rules left by Tommy and Angela (including a prohibition against murder) now must confront the new world order created after John and Tina metaphorically took a bite of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. The original Family splinters into antagonistic factions, and an era of sin threatens to overwhelm the planet.

Discussion: The story is told from multiple points of view, though mostly from that of John and Tina. However, the narrative never settles on one character long enough for us to get to know him or her well, or to get an understanding of the motivations behind his or her actions. We know that John is fully conscious of the importance of communal memory and narratives, and wants to figure prominently and positively in them. But we only get hints of his other concerns and worries from Tina’s impressions, and she doesn’t seem to know John any better than we do.

In addition to the Biblical creation story, this book may remind readers of Russell Hoban’s 1980 science fiction novel Riddley Walker. In that book too, folk tales and periodic performances are used to sustain origin mythology; language has deteriorated along with knowledge in general; and the motivation to create and innovate has been stifled by the obsession with the past. In some ways it was also reminiscent of Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, with its dystopic elements, linguistic roughness, some of the metaphorical allusions, and even its exile and journey of the young male and female protagonists. But with Ness, we absolutely come to care about the characters, and the underlying story itself has many more layers.

This book was the winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the Best Science Fiction novel of 2013. Frankly, I was kind of surprised. It doesn’t actually end either, and apparently a sequel, to be called Gela’s Ring, will be out later this year. I probably won’t be reading it.

Evaluation: This science fiction allegory of a future Eden has been extremely well-received. Personally, I did not find it so compelling, but it appears I am not in the majority.

Rating: 3/5

Published in the U.K. by Corvus, and imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd., 2012; Published in the U.S. by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, 2014

Sunday Treat – National Poetry Month – The Graphic Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

sundae2How wonderful that my very favorite poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, is now out in a comic-book adaptation by Julian Peters. I have posted about this poem several times, including one in which I embedded a lovely video of Michael Gough performing the poem.

Poetry resembles performing art, but also visual art; it is to a great extent the result of turning words into images. Thus it is fitting that someone should turn that idea around, and render poems as graphic art. Peters has done an excellent job. I especially love the the box for the line “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

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You can see more sample pages here.

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To celebrate National Poetry Month, Serena from Savvy Verse and Wit has called on fellow bloggers to participate by profiling a poet or poem. Be sure to stop by Serena’s blog every day this month to see more profiles of poets and poetry by participants from around the blogisphere!

National Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream” by Kristy Dempsey

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While this book is not strictly categorized as “poetry,” the author is a poet, and the text of this book reads like free verse, as with this description of a ballet performance:

When she glides onto the stage,
I don’t know
if I am dreaming,
if I am even breathing,
because she doesn’t seem to touch the floor.
She twirls and
my heart jumps up from where I’m sitting,
soaring, dancing,
opening wide with the swell of the music.”

The story is narrated by a fictional young African American girl in New York in the 1950′s who dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. Her mother cleans and sews costumes for a ballet school, and the little girl dances in the wings as she waits for Mama. The Ballet Master lets her join lessons from the back of the room, but she is not allowed to perform on the stage with white girls.

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One day she catches bits of a story in a newspaper about Janet Collins: “first colored prima ballerina… Metropolitan Opera House.”

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Mama uses half the money she saved for a new sewing machine to take her daughter to see Janet Collins perform, and they are both inspired:

Mama and I dance our way home
under the night sky,
and I don’t even try
to catch a glimpse of the first star.
no need to waste my wishes.
I’ve got dreams coming true.”

The award-winning illustrator, Floyd Cooper, known for his use of warm tones and historical accuracy, is the perfect choice for this story. His technique of “subtraction” to erase shapes from a background of paint, softens the pictures and gives them a gauzy quality, adding to the sense that this is a story from the past.

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Discussion: Before you get to the Author’s Note at the conclusion of the book about who Janet Collins was and when she danced, there is no indication this story takes place in the early 1950’s. The Note provides brief background information on Ms. Collins, born in 1917 in Louisiana, who became the first African American to be hired full-time by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, initially performing in November, 1951.

Ms. Collins experienced a great deal of resistance in her attempts to perform in professional classical dance troupes. In 1932, for example, she was asked to join the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but she would have been required to paint her face and skin white to appear on stage. She turned down the offer. She was also not allowed to be on tour with the rest of her ballet company in parts of the Deep South. She retired in her forties and joined a Benedictine community.

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Janet Collins

The poetic prose is quite nice, and Cooper’s illustrations are lovely as usual, but I think it would help understanding of the story to know at the outset that it takes place in an earlier time.

Evaluation: Any story is enhanced by the outstanding artwork of Floyd Cooper, and the integration of ballet is a topic not often covered by other books.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2014

Review of “Dog Gone, Back Soon” by Nick Trout

This is an adorable story about Cyrus Mills, a veterinarian in his late thirties who returns to northern Vermont after his father’s death to run his father’s veterinary practice, The Bedside Manor for Sick Animals.

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There’s a subplot about the Evil Corporate Competitor, a national chain called Healthy Paws, and one involving Cyrus’s romantic interest in a local waitress named Amy Carp (presumably a hat tip to the author, Nick Trout). But the real appeal of the book is the wonderful collection of anecdotes about pets.

Evaluation: This is apparently a sequel to The Patron Saint of Lost Dog. I did not read this book, and thought the author did a fair (but not excellent) job of filling in new readers, mostly about how Cyrus got interested in Amy. But it didn’t really matter much. The book has loads of humor, charm, and great pet stories by a guy who knows what he is talking about. The author is a graduate of the veterinary school at the University of Cambridge, a Diplomate of the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Surgeons , and a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. If you love pets, you’ll love this book!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Hyperion, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2014

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