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Selections for January 2008

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Territory by Emma Bull (2007)

Emma Bull's newest novel, Territory, belongs to a fantasy sub-genre that I find hard to resist, that of "alternate history." It typically starts with places and people that we think we know all about, and then gives them a subtle (or not so subtle) twist, creating a sort of parallel world which is different, in large and small ways, from the world we inhabit. The territory referred to in the title is Tombstone, Arizona. The "familiar" historical events around which the novel is built are those leading up to the famous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881. Part of the fun here is having what you thought you knew about all those events undercut. And a typical result is to find yourself, as I did when I finished Territory, half-way convinced that Bull's version has as much truth in it as the old legends do. Maybe more, in fact. Mildred Benjamin is a widow who earns her living setting type for the local newspaper. She also, unbeknownst to her neighbors, writes genre westerns, or as they might have been called then, dime novels, all filled with the requisite themes of strangers come to town, heroism, moral frailty, and much derring-do involving guns and bars. When she meets Jesse Fox, a stranger from the East who's recently arrived in Tombstone, the two realize that - for good or ill - they share an ability to see beyond the appearances of things. Their discoveries about the dark forces afoot involving Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and others leads us to reexamine all we thought we knew about the time, the place, and the people. Bull's descriptions are captivating - about Doc Holliday she writes "no amount of wanting would make Doc an upstanding member of the community. He was a fine dentist - he just wasn't a fine person. And he was so good at being bad that it seemed like a genuine gift. One ought not to waste one's gifts." I was especially intrigued by the way Bull made use of the belief so prevalent among 19th century men and women - that one can go west and reinvent themselves - one of the themes of the novel. As Millie's boss tells her, "You're whoever you say you are, Millie. That's the point of coming west." I'm eagerly waiting for Bull to write the concluding volume in this two book series.

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Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell (2007)

Readers searching for a fast-paced, yet intelligent and atmospheric mystery need look no farther than Interred With Their Bones, Jennifer Lee Carrell's impressive debut novel. When American Kate Stanley arrives in London to direct a new production of Shakespeare's Hamlet at the refurbished Globe Theater, her one-time close friend and professor, the eccentric and brilliant Harvard Shakespeare scholar Rosalind Howard, gives Kate a present, telling her that she must follow wherever the gift leads. Roz then goes on to inform Kate that she's made a mind-boggling discovery that will undoubtedly turn Shakespeare scholarship on its head. That night, before Kate has a chance to learn more, there's a fire at the theater, Roz's body is found in Kate's office, dead, and a valuable copy of Shakespeare's plays is discovered to be missing. Rosalind's death and her mysterious gift (it turns out be a Victorian mourning brooch that's entwined with all the flowers that are mentioned by Ophelia), set Kate off on an adventure that will take her back and forth across the Atlantic, from Stratford-upon-Avon to Washington, Utah, Spain, and deep into the heart of evil. In addition to being a greatly entertaining read, Interred with Their Bones is educational - it's a painless, nicely written, and entertaining way to learn more about Shakespeare, that man of mystery, and his writings.

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Lunch Money by Andrew Clements (2005)

Andrew Clements, author of Lunch Money, is one of the most reliable children's book writers around. (His best-known book is probably Frindle.) You can always count on Clements to come up with an unusual plot, realistic dialogue, and a cast of characters that will appeal to any group of eight to twelve-year-olds. For all of his young life, fifth-grader Greg Kenton has been deeply interested in money - making it, saving it and spending it on whatever he wants. Plus, he's obsessed with Maura, his classmate, next-door neighbor and would-be business competitor. So when Maura starts horning in on Greg's very successful Chunky Comics sales, it's all out war. Complications set in when their grouchy principal bars the sale of comic books in school, and Maura and Greg find themselves banding together to defeat their common enemy. The humor and sprightly writing makes this an excellent choice for reading aloud.

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A Killer's Kiss by William Lashner (2007)

Of all the lawyer-as-detective mysteries that are available these days, among the ones I most look forward to are those by William Lashner featuring Philadelphia criminal lawyer Victor Carl. How could anyone resist a protagonist who uses the exclamations "yowza" and "gad" to express his feelings? Not me. Carl is a good attorney, but not a very successful one. He always seems to be teetering on the edge of going broke, so he's frequently forced to take cases no one else will, and he's not above using deceit, dodgy ethics, and downright trickery to get his clients off. Often, his cases involve friends, or friends of friends. A Killer's Kiss marks his 7th appearance between the pages of a book. When the police come to Carl's door in the middle of the night, they have a grim message to tell him: the very wealthy and successful husband of his former fiancée, Julia, has been murdered, a large sum of money has disappeared, and all the evidence points to Julia as the killer. What the cops don't know is that Julia has recently tried (with some success) to get back together with Victor - husband or no husband. This, to put it mildly, places Victor in an awkward position. As he sorts through clues, deals with murderous thugs who have a personal interest in the absent money, and matches wits with cops who are more than willing to make him a suspect, too, he finds himself falling back in love with Julia (if he ever stopped), even if she is guilty. As in all of the Victor Carl mysteries, the plot is satisfyingly complex, making it almost impossible for anyone to figure out whodunit (and how) before the last page is turned.

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Spindle's End by Robin McKinley(2001)

In Spindle's End, Robin McKinley uses the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty as a springboard into a totally original story, set in a world that's vividly evoked. Here's how the book begins: "The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.)" If there are fantasy fans who could resist that opening, I'm not one of them. And it only gets better. Out of revenge for an injustice done four centuries before, the evil fairy Pernicia casts a terrible curse on Princess Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Domina Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyneth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose's naming day: one day, some time before her 21st birthday, the Princess will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, which will cause her to fall into a deep sleep from which no one can wake her. Sounds like Sleeping Beauty, right? Ah - but here's where the differences begin: Katriona, a young fairy, determines to save Briar-Rose from this terrible fate, and she kidnaps the baby and takes her home to the village of Foggy Bottom, hoping to hide her from Pernicia's evil. Will Pernicia prevail in spite of Katriona's best intentions? Will good win out over wickedness? Will Rosie, who's grown up as a more or less perfectly ordinary girl, accept her fate as the doomed princess? This beautifully conceived and executed novel is perfect for any reader, of any age, with a hint of romance in her (or his) soul.

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Gimme Cracked Corn & I Will Share by Kevin O'Malley (2007)

You can always count on Kevin O'Malley for an entertaining picture book - his Little Buggy has long been a favorite of mine. But even by the standard of his past work, Gimme Cracked Corn & I Will Share is something special. In the spirit of the book and its barnyard setting, I'd go so far as to say that it's something eggstra-special. Although it's clearly aimed at five and six-year-olds who are just beginning to appreciate the possibilities of language and the pleasures of playing with words, this groanworthy, pun-filled picture book will delight the grownups in their lives, as well. "One night," the book begins, "Chicken had a dream. He dreamed that in a beautiful barn, buried under a great pink pig, was a treasure of cracked corn - all the corn that any chicken could ever want." When he tells his friend George, George says, "You must be yolking," and "What are you--a comedi-hen?" Nevertheless, when Chicken sets out the next morning to follow his dream, George agrees to go with him, explaining that he's been "feeling a little cooped up lately." An adventure, and further wordplay, ensues. Readers, young and old, will probably cackle with amusement as they follow Chicken and George's eggstrordinarily entertaining adventure.

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The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1 and 2. Vol. 1: Picador edited by George Plimpton (2006)

Reading the first two volumes in the The Paris Review: Interviews series (a third is to be published in 2008, edited, like the first two, by Philip Gourevitch) is like having the chance to listen in to fascinating conversations with a diverse collection of 20th century writers of all stripes. Among the interviewees are William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Isaac Bashevis Singer, T.S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Toni Morrison, Philip Larkin, and many others. The interviewers - no slouches themselves - include poet Donald Hall (talking to Eliot), George Plimpton (Hemingway and Thurber), Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson (Alice Munro), and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Nathaniel Rich (Stephen King). Time and again these interviews yield remarkable insights into the writer and his or her work. Faulkner offers an anecdote about his experience writing for Hollywood; John Gardner talks about the role of the writer in society, critiquing John O'Hara and John Updike, and quotes Robert Louis Stevenson on reading; James Thurber explains the difference between American and British humor; James Baldwin comments on his relationship to his mentor, Richard Wright; Harold Bloom confesses his longtime love for Sophia Loren and dishes on Norman Mailer, William Gaddis and Saul Bellow ("He's an enormous pleasure but he does not make things difficult enough for himself or for us."); and Alice Munro discusses how she reacts to a rereading of her older work. These splendid collections of interviews satisfied both the writer and the reader in me.

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On Agate Hill by Lee Smith (2006)

Of the many historical novels about the Civil War, only a handful take place during the period immediately following the war. Of that handful, Lee Smith's On Agate Hill stands out. Smith's protagonist, Molly Petree, is a gutsy heroine who's buffeted about by both public events (the war and its aftermath) and private ones (the strengths and weaknesses that humans are prone to). We are made aware of these events through a montage of her journals, letters, songs, poems and court records. This narrative style allows us both to see the world through her eyes, and to get a wider view of the world within which she is living. The journals begin in 1872, on Molly's 13th birthday. She's living at Agate Hill, her uncle's dilapidated plantation house in North Carolina, where life (and the house) is going from bad to worse. She's finally rescued by the mysterious Simon Black, her father's best friend, who sends her off to an elite boarding school in Virginia (and keeps a benign eye on her for the rest of her life). After spending a rather turbulent four years at school, headstrong Molly decides to become a teacher in Appalachia, where she meets, falls in love with, and marries a sweet-talking musician named Jacky Jarvis. Their life together in a North Carolina mountain holler carries her - with joy and sorrow - though middle age, when a catastrophic event turns her life in yet another direction. Smith, a master storyteller, offers us in On Agate Hill both the opportunity to share the life of a memorable character, and entrée into a world that will be quite new to all but the Civil War history buffs among us.

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The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (1996)

Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief is one of the most satisfying books for kids ten and up that I've read recently. It's the first in a trilogy, followed by Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia. The eponymous protagonist is Gen, imprisoned deep in the King of Sounis's dungeons after stealing the King's gold ring. His chance at freedom comes when the King's magus takes him along on a dangerous journey that requires Gen's talents to succeed: he must steal Hamiathes's Gift (a precious stone that reserves for its owner the right to rule) from its well-guarded hiding place. If Gen succeeds, he'll be rewarded; if he fails, he'll die. And there will be no escape from the magus, who promises to track him down from one end of the earth to the other if he tries to get away. There are many adventures and not a few surprises in store for both Gen and readers alike before the last page is turned in this extremely satisfying novel. Gen is a terrific hero, a mixture of bravado and cunning, and the well evoked settings - three warring kingdoms, Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis, which loosely resemble the city-states of ancient Greece - will ring true to readers.

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Tight Lines: Ten Years of the Yale Anglers' Journal by Joseph Furia, editor (2007)

I have never actually been fishing, but I know people who have, some of whom even refer to themselves as "anglers." For them, it's hard to know if the activity is a sport, a pastime, or makes up their entire life. But the anglers I know, of all stripes, sizes, and devotion to the rod and reel, are always eager to read about other anglers' love of angling. For them, and for non-fisherfolk who, like me, just enjoy reading about anything and everything, check out Tight Lines: Ten Years of the Yale Anglers' Journal. The reader should be forewarned that the journal in question is literary, not instructional. It was conceived of, and is still edited by, Yale undergraduates. What I found so enjoyable about this collection of offerings is its diversity of contributors. There's a memoir by Jimmy Carter, a selection of poems by William Butler Yeats, and 48 other poems, essays, stories and reminiscences that will introduce readers to writers, young and old, who are much less well-known. I particularly enjoyed Mark Spitzer's humorous essay, "Gittin' Myself a Garfish," which begins with the tantalizing line, "Still, it's frustrating not to git a garfish"; Robert Tisdale's lovely poem, "At Home in the Midwest"; and two accounts of fishing in foreign waters: Peter Fong's "Scratching the Surface, in Borneo" and "A Tale of Talau" by Richard Kenneth Stoll, both of which, to my surprise, made me contemplate the most unlikely possibility of me actually taking a fishing vacation.

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Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols (1998)

Gardeners will love reading Beverley Nichols' Merry Hall, as well as the two books which complete the trilogy, Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn. (They were originally published in the 1950s, in England.) Fans of British fiction of the sort written by E.F. Benson (as in Mapp and Lucia), Barbara Pym (my favorite is No Fond Return of Love), and even P.G. Wodehouse's tales of Bertie and Jeeves - that is, lovingly humorous descriptions of people and places - will also adore these. And if you count yourself as both a gardener and an anglophile (and you know who you are!), then you have a double treat in store. Just from the first few sentences, you can get a feel for Nichols' style and wry sense of humor: "Some fall in love with women; some fall in love with art; some fall in love with death. I fall in love with gardens, which is much the same as falling in love with all three at once." He's always happy to share his opinions on people and plants. For example: "Begonias are not flowers," he states, "they are a state of mind, and a regrettable state into the bargain." His tale of redoing a decrepit 200-year-old house and its gardens in post-World War II England all the while coping with the ghosts of owners past, and the descriptions of his encounters with the people around him, including Oldfield, the estate's ancient gardener (whom he tries to persuade to plant the "boolbs" he so despises), his Wodehousian factotum, Gaskin (who believes strongly in "first things first" and bemoans his employer's diversions from the task at hand, whatever it may be), and the vegetarian Miss Emily Kaye (who refuses to take no for answer), are simply delightful.

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Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (2002)

It's impossible for me to choose my all-time favorite book, but if I were pressed for my top ten, say, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is certainly among them. He's probably best known for his über-cyberpunk science fiction novel, Snow Crash (first published in 1992 and the inspiration for the online virtual world, Second Life), but it's Cryptonomicon, published in 1999, and often mis-shelved in libraries and bookstores alongside Snow Crash in the science fiction section, that I press on friends and strangers alike who are looking for a book that's a page-turning adventure that will teach them things they didn't know before (theory of randomness, and many facets of cryptanalysis, for two), and make them think. This wildly ambitious, brilliant novel is difficult to describe briefly, both because of its complexity and the large cast of characters; it's set in various times and places, including the Pacific Theater during World War II, Bletchley Park in England, home to the men and women working on decoding Nazi transmissions, as well as a fictitious country called Kinakuta, where a group of contemporary computer geeks are attempting to set up a data haven. Stephenson's main protagonists are invented, but they mix and mingle with historical characters like Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Douglas MacArthur, Ronald Reagan, and Alan Turing, among others. Stephenson deftly moves the action back and forth among time periods, locations, and the lives of his sundry characters, several of whom I developed a huge fondness for. Perhaps Stephenson's closest literary compatriot is David Foster Wallace, whose writing - like that of Stephenson - also reveals a deep intelligence, prodigious imagination, and a sly sense of humor.