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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: 'Brotherhood of Shades'

By Dawn Finch
YA Fantasy (Middle school)
October 2012
Authonomy (HarperCollins)
ASIN: B0095C3J6Q

When Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the church in England and wreaked havoc throughout the country as monasteries and other religious communities were pillaged, a small group determined to remain true to traditions they deemed necessary. The foremost tradition was to have three souls to mourn another's passing.
Documents gathered by a monk who saw visions of turmoil to come were given to a boy who had survived the illness that claimed the rest of his family. He made his way to a nunnery where knowledge from across the realm was to be hidden as their world collapsed. Grievously wounded, he was still able to deliver the materials.

Several hundred years later, another young teen dies in a hospital after being found starving on the streets of London. The homeless lad had no one to mourn him. But unlike the others solaced by the Brotherhood of Shades, this boy saw the spirits moving amongst the living. Now the teen, named Adam Street for where he was found, may be the one to fulfill a longstanding Brotherhood prophecy.

This is the setup to Dawn Finch's debut YA novel, a paranormal fantasy that involves the boy wounded during the Dissolution, the boy from the modern streets and a witch whose spirit has survived in her family for generations.

Adam has a guide to help him adjust. Toby D'Scover is the Keeper of the Texts. He takes care of the ancient documents and monitors current spirit activity around the world, and is the one to whom other members of the Brotherhood report unusual phenomenom. The fact there is more activity is but one of the reasons he suspects Adam may be the Sentinel predicted of ages ago. Perhaps he is the one who, with two others to help him, will defeat the resurgence of evil. But first he has a trial to survive.

Finch is superb at world-building in this debut novel, which could serve as the springboard for a series. But for that to happen, the writing will need to be more balanced between the expository writing that threatens to overwhelm the narrative and the action scenes. However, as a bonus, Finch, a children's librarian, adds an afterword with information and links about the real-world objects and places that figure in her story.

D'Scover is a particularly interesting character, with a fully developed past and present. He and Adam work well together. As dead guys, their ability to navigate the world is augmented by the addition of 14-year-old Edie to form a trio. The potential development of a relationship between the dead Adam and living Edie is a problem it would be interesting to see how Finch develops.

A note about the publisher: Authonomy is an online community developed by HarperCollins book editors.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Review: 'Hello Gorgeous'

HELLO GORGEOUS: Becoming Barbra Streisand
By William J. Mann
October 2012
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547368924

Before Madonna, before Lady Gaga, before Nicki Minaj or any other performer of the past 50 years, there was Barbra. Hello Gorgeous is a well-structured look at how a quirky teenager who desperately wanted to become an actress became one, but not before becoming the toast of Broadway and a woman who didn't even realize the power of her gift -- that voice. That glorious voice.                        

William J. Mann, whose previous books include biographies of Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and John Schlesinger, as well as novels, has put together bits and pieces of not only the legend, but also stories from people who knew her when. The result is a coherent and cohesive narrative of how Streisand became an overnight sensation after only four years.

Mann recounts Streisand's early acting classes and compares the myth to what he can document. He takes the same approach through her tutelage under her first boyfriend, actor Barry Dennen, who encouraged her to sing and who introduced her to music she later incorporated in early nightclub appearances. Two other friends helped Streisand with her distinctive makeup and fashion sense to cultivate the thriftshop look that became an early trademark.

Throughout, there is a consistent sense that Streisand wanted to be the best and do her best, although doing the same performance night after night after night soon grew tiresome in her first Broadway show, I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Streisand made a splash in that show and captured the heart of leading man Elliot Gould in her small role. Mann recounts the lack of warmth and support from her mother without making her a monster.

Between the show and her nightclub appearances, comparisons soon began between her and Fanny Brice. The convoluted path that led to her getting the role of a lifetime in Funny Girl is described chronologically and thoroughly. Even knowing the outcome and the bare bones of the myth, Mann's account makes for compelling reading.

Mann is careful about noting his sources, but part of his writing style does grate. When he refers to how Streisand or others must be feeling or how if something didn't happen on one night it happened on a night like this, the reader can be forgiven for pausing to question, well, how does he know? Because so much of this comprehensive look at Streisand's path to stardom is documented here with credit to primary sources, these narrative tics take away from the scholarship that was plainly involved.

Even so, Hello Gorgeous is an engaging look at a star and the era when she first blossomed.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: 'Carnival for the Dead'

By David Hewson
August 2012
Thomas & Mercer
ISBN: 9781612183985

David Hewson's Nic Costa novels of Rome feature strong plots and strong characters. Among the strongest of the secondary characters is police pathologist Teresa Lupo. However, when she goes to Venice during Carnival to search for her beloved aunt, who is missing, she may be at her most vulnerable because she is out of her element.

Teresa's Aunt Sofia has always lived as a vagabond. Even Teresa's mother doesn't know the kind of details that families usually know that prove helpful in, say, missing persons reports. When Teresa contacts the police, she is met with little sympathy. Her aunt is a grown woman with no diminished capacity and it's Carnival. The police have a lot of other things going on.
Staying at her aunt's flat, Teresa mets the neighbors, a young woman who makes masks for the other main occupant, an older man confined to a wheelchair. The owner is rarely there. The neighbors, although nice, especially for Venetians to Teresa's Roman mind, know little that is helpful. When Teresa finds an envelope slipped under the apartment door with a story, she learns that this and subsequently delivered stories are supposed to lead her to Sofia.

Hewson is a master at weaving these stories, which feature Teresa and other people she meets, with the real story of her search for Sofia. The stories include a British professor and a young Englishman who is a master baker, who both end up in Venice, and a woman who resembles Sofia's neighbor Camille, but with an odd need for nutrients in other people's blood. Carnival season and the narrow, twisty streets of Venice add layers of mystery to the novel; this is not the Venice of a traveller's delight, but rather a dark place where people's obsessions become overpowering.

The stories also feature the enigmatic Count St. Germain, who is based loosely on a real person who was as mysterious as the one in Hewson's story. Readers who know of a St. Germain through Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's groundbreaking series of historical paranormals or in Diana Gabaldon's stories will recognize this figure, even though he is not the same character.

When the stories Teresa has been receiving and her investigation merge into one storyline, there is the usual over-the-top action seen in most thrillers. But Hewson does make everything fit together without jamming it into place. And there is sweetness along with the bitter in the telling.

The main result of reading the novel, however, is to want to spend more time with Hewson's Nic Costa series and see Teresa Lupo back where she belongs.

The novel was not published by Hewson's regular publisher but rather by the Amazon imprint Thomas & Mercer.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Essay: Murakami's 1Q84 Book 3

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is one odd novel. It's one of those odd novels that is far too long but that, once the end is in sight, a reader may not want to end.

That's because in Book 3, Murakami pulls out all the stops and goes totally sentimental. The song quoted at the beginning of this massive novel is the old standard "Paper Moon" -- "but it wouldn't be make-believe/if you believed in me".                                                                                                                    

After three books and more than 900 pages, that's what it comes down to -- believing in another person. In their very existence. And in the existence of a world where two moons hang in the sky.

In Book 3, which takes place from October to December in an alternate world that the heroine Aomame has named 1Q84, a cult is after both her and our hero Tengo. They have not seen each other since they were 10 years old. They've lived separate lives for 20 years. But now, the coincidence of the cult -- with Tengo ghostwriting a bestseller that actually betrays its secrets and Aomame killing the cult leader (albeit with his blessing), an operative named Ushikawa is trying to find them both.

In Progress: Crime fiction

Two of the books I'm reading right now are in the crime fiction genre -- Laura Lippman's And When She Was Good and one of the latest in Akashic City Noir series, Kansas City.

They're both good in different ways.

Lippman's latest stand-alone is narrated by Heloise, a soccer mom who overcame an abusive father. She's not just a soccer mom, though. She's a madam with powerful clients. And another secret that threatens to overturn the double life she and her son lead. Lippman is masterful in creating voice and characters.

The Kansas City story collection, edited by Steve Paul, oozes despair the way barbecue done right oozes sauce. It's gloriously gritty, and I haven't even gotten to the Daniel Woodrell story.

And when I'm done with these, there is the new Louise Penny, more City Noir collections and a wide range of Poisoned Pen Press books. I also want to spend more time with James Lee Burke this winter. I don't see how I can go wrong.