Our staff and associated writers, editors, and friends in the publishing/book-selling industry offer commentary on books old and new that fascinate, amuse, confound, inspire, and just plain entertain.
Anne Petty reviews Tarnished Heroes, Charming Villains and Modern Monsters, by Lynnette Porter. Read now. Download PDF.
Melissa Goldthwaite reviews Living By the Dead, by Ellen Ashdown. Read now.
Midwest Book Review, The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow, by Jesse Millner. Read now.
Midwest Book Review, Jesus Swept, by James Protzman. Read now.
Donna Meredith (Writer and retired English teacher living in Tallahassee) reviews The Moving Waters , by Mary Jane Ryals. Read review.
Anne Petty (author of dark fantasy novel Thin Line Between, and such nonfiction books as Tolkien in the Land of Heroes) reviews The Tamír Triad, by Lynn Flewelling. Read review.
Donna Meredith (Writer and retired English teacher living in Tallahassee) reviews The Madhatter's Guide to Chocolate, by Rhett Devane. Read review.
Donna Meredith (Writer and retired English teacher living in Tallahassee) reviews Thin Line Between, by M.A.C. Petty. Read review.
Linda Smith (social worker, living in Wisconsin) reviews Marley and Me—Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog, by John Grogan. Read review.
Anne Petty (author of dark fantasy novel Thin Line Between, and such nonfiction books as Tolkien in the Land of Heroes) reviews The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett. Read review.
Laura Gentry (owner, Tattered Pages Books & Espresso Bar) reviews Being Dead Is No Excuse – The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays. Read review.
April Petty (Yoga/Pilates Instructor) reviews The Pilates Body, by Brooke Syler. Read review.
Anne Petty reviews Tarnished Heroes, Charming Villains and Modern Monsters, by Lynnette Porter.
Dr. Lynnette Porter, the author of Tarnished Heroes, Charming Villains and Modern Monsters, is fast becoming the go-to scholar for thoughtful pop culture analysis, a reputation built on her earlier “Guides” to scifi series such as LOST, Battlestar Galactica, and Heroes and her insightful blog (on popmatters.com) that had LOST fans clinging to her posts for enlightenment as the series drew its final breath.
Of equal important is her work in Unsung Heroes of The Lord of the Rings: From the Page to the Screen (2007), an analysis of the secondary heroes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus. Unsung Heroes not only gained respect from the Tolkien community by turning the spotlight on the heroic nature of characters other than Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo – it set the stage for the in-depth study presented in Tarnished Heroes. Both Unsung Heroes and the current volume are of particular interest to me, to see how far the traditional notion of the hero’s quest delineated by Campbell and others has mutated to accommodate the “hero literature” of today.
Some years ago, I had occasion to review a book titled The Myth of the American Superhero, by John Lawrence and Robert Jewett. In it, the authors explored the mythic patterns behind many pop culture icons such as Superman, Batman, and others with the unsettling conclusion that the hero’s quest has been stretched and warped into an American pop culture monomyth of the invincible solitary hero who uses extreme violence in the name of retribution and the righting of wrongs. Lawrence and Jewett exposed the relentless themes in our pop culture media of demonizing the “Other” who must be cleaned up by a righteous hero with enough weaponry or superhuman powers to annihilate several universes. It’s fascinating to me to see how this superhero model has morphed into Porter’s “gray” heroes who often work as part of a shadowy ensemble and may share more DNA with the villains and monsters they hunt than the unwavering goodness of their forbears found in Star Trek and Star Wars.
The approach of Tarnished Heroes promises wide appeal, from scholars looking for rigorous analysis to the general reader hoping for some insight into their favorite scifi series. Porter’s background in technical writing shows in her clear, logical organization of Tarnished Heroes. The book is divided into two sections, the first establishing her baseline parameters and defining her talking points for heroes, villains, and monsters in current scifi media, and the second section applying these theories to signature series: the worlds of Joss Whedon, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, and Torchwood. For the detail-oriented reader, the book also contains extensive appendix material, including production information on the series discussed, a list of pivotal episodes within these series, and extensive chapter notes.
Porter pulls out all the stops in analyzing what she terms “gray” scifi series, covering all the many ways current TV tells its stories and develops its characters. Iconic heroes, villains, and monsters are established not only through dialogue and action, but also through the look and sound of the series, through musical leitmotifs, color palettes, weapons, vehicles, and much more. Thematic concepts such as “home, immortality, religion, technology, and ‘humanness’ are increasingly important” from series of the early 2000’s onward. It’s clear Porter knows these series inside and out, with a strong understanding of what drives the creative minds behind them…stellar showrunners like Russell T. Davies and Joss Whedon who are willing to let their heroes walk a dark path toward uncertain futures.
Porter spends considerable time discussing the emergence of the heroic ensemble and the way in which today’s gray heroes are more likely to depend on a hand-picked cadre of equally shady supporters than earlier heroes who were clearly King of the Hill and recognized by their colleagues as the reliably virtuous leader. Especially intriguing in this context is her discussion of the evolution of the sidekick. In place of loyal, often two-dimensional helpers like Batman’s Robin, who provided the hero with logistical aid, motivational encouragement, and occasional comic relief, we have the new breed of sidekick who often darkens the plot, brings out hidden traits of the hero, and may even ascend to murky hero status of his or her own. Porter’s lengthy chapter on sidekicks, especially her treatment of those from Doctor Who and Torchwood, is one of the book’s highlights.
Section two of the book is where Porter gets to put her considerable arsenal of analytical tools to work, and this is where the real meat of the book resides. The carefully researched post-Campbellian definitions of hero, villain, and monster are now applied to a handful of benchmark scifi series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Heroes, LOST, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Doctor Who, and Torchwood. For fans of any of these particular series, this section is a must-read.
The character traits and flaws of gray heroes such as Jack Harkness, Doctors Nine and Ten, and Angelus/Angel as exposed in these chapters go a long way toward explaining their often questionable motives and decisions as they struggle to balance the desires of the few against the needs of the many. Particularly impressive is Porter’s insightful analysis of LOST’s Man of Science vs. Man of Faith dichotomy. And clearly her heart resides in Torchwood, as does this reviewer’s. Her analysis of the Ianto Jones/Captain Jack dynamic alone is worth the price of the book.
In the chapter on how to analyze gray SF TV series, Porter neatly sums up the core of the book: “Ultimately, all these issues lead to one key question at the heart of all SF TV hero stories: What makes us human?” In our uncertain society, heroes have changed to accommodate questionable paradigms that reflect the angst of the time. “The rules have changed,” says Porter, “and heroes have to be willing to do whatever villains or monsters/aliens do if humanity is going to survive.” But as Porter warns more than once, the model may be shifting again. At the time of this review, ensemble series like FastForward and Caprica are being cancelled while a new yet very old flawed superhero with a single bemused sidekick bounds out of the shadows and into ratings gold. His name? Sherlock. Unfortunately, this series had not been released at the time Tarnished Heroes was written. Porter’s thoughts on this new/old hero would be welcome … but perhaps that’s another book.
Melissa Goldthwaite reviews Living By the Dead, by Ellen Ashdown.
When Ellen Ashdown's memoir Living By the Dead arrived yesterday, I expected to read a chapter or two and then put it in the stack of other half-finished books that I read in bits and pieces. I didn't put it down. I read this lovely, well-written memoir in one sitting. So much loss, so much love. Ashdown deals with the death of her brother, mother, father, husband, and sister--not to mention animals and strangers--all in just over 130 pages. How? Careful pacing. Some parts are understated, others are dramatic. There are necessary absences (just as poignant as what's present). The writing is careful, poetic yet direct. The sixth chapter, "Home," is especially powerful--bringing so many parts of the narrative together. The minute I finished this book, I went to the computer to email friends to recommend it and also put a copy in the mail to a friend this morning. There's no way to make sense of loss, especially all the loss Ashdown and her family have experienced; the best anyone can do is exactly what Ashdown describes: walk, stumble, walk, run, fall, and rise once more (135)--and love and share, making friends of family and family of friends.
Midwest Book Review, Small Press Bookwatch review, August 2009. Review of The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow, by Jesse Millner.
The author of many successful chapbooks, Jesse Millner offers his first full length compendium of poetry in The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow, a collection of poems discussing the many different aspects of life in the city and suburbs. A fresh and original work, The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow is a fine and recommended read.
From "Colorblind": “…in Miami of all places, my poet/friend sees the world in grey,/except for the time, three years ago/when he visited an acupuncturist,/had a needle stuck in his forehead,/then watched a tropical world blossom/into impossible greens, blues, and whites."
Midwest Book Review, Small Press Bookwatch review, April 2009. "Reviewer's Choice" selection, Jesus Swept, by James Protzman.
Jesus shows up in the strangest of places for some. Jesus Swept is an entertaining story filled with enthralling characters ranging from stereotypical hippies, would be messiahs, and even Jesus himself. Spiritual, philosophical, witty, entertaining, yet respectful, Jesus Swept takes the world of Christianity and turns it upside down in the most entertaining way possible.
Donna Meredith (Writer and retired English teacher living in Tallahassee) reviews The Moving Waters , by Mary Jane Ryals.
The Moving Waters, a new collection of poems by Mary Jane Ryals, sparkles with insights gathered from the poet’s travels. Ryals is the Big Bend Poet Laureate for 2008-2010.
Whether Ryals journeys to Valencia or Hanoi, or simply walks along her native North Florida shores, she unearths the sacred in the everyday. Her voice resonates with a passionate love of nature and family.
Water rains, trickles, purifies, and thunders across the pages. Sometimes the water flowing through the poems is a beautiful blue washed into green, “a color that cannot be emptied, that sounds like a harp but is made of bamboo.” Other times it is a reminder of the violent past, of the Red River in Vietnam that “no longer runs with blood.” Or it might be the substance responsible for fresh laundry, a mother paralyzed with fear of her child drowning, or the miracle of 400,000 gallons a minute pumped into the Wakulla River.
Despite their losses, the women inhabiting these poems endure. In “Water Women,” Ryals honors her ancestors, strong women who “turned men solid in their embrace.” She vows to continue the journey of these women from the Mediterranean, Ireland, and Appalachia, women who understood loss. Some of their children grew strong; some died, “the element of luck.” In other poems, Ryals exposes the ache of her own loss: a miscarriage.
In one piece, she admires Spanish women who dare to wear Mickey Mouse shirts “so tight” their “bra lines and back fat are revealed.” Women who wear spaghetti straps despite “meatball arms.” Women who refuse to despair over what age is doing to their bodies.
Even Eve is given a voice with attitude. She willingly gives up Eden because she is “so damn bored.” She wants a beer and someone to “share eyeliner with.”
Ryals demonstrates an unusual capacity to mine the smallest daily activities for meaning and magic. In “The Wash,” the speaker “attends to each holy garment” and hangs laundry on her balcony. When she takes it down, the “sun has already pulled wet sorrow from the sheets.” In the poem “Blessings,” her eight-year-old’s pockets “bulge with remnants of rocks, bird nest, throat-tightening ache of absence, his natural father.” As her son totters toward her, hands offering wildflowers, she feels blessed.
In Vietnam, Ryals experiences rice “far from porcelain plates and fine flatware.” She urges us to reach beyond our sanitized lives to the “smell of ox and fowl” so we can know firsthand the source of “earth’s cool pearls.”
Likewise, she delights in simple pleasures wherever she is: in blackberry crumble and cream, a swallow that seems like “the Lamborghini of birds,” and the “soft smell of mule ears.” The poems zing with a painter’s appreciation for color: turquoise silk, soda bottle green, hot pink bougainvillea, aquamarine beaches, orange zapatos.
Family love burns fiercely in this collection. Ryals “falls hard” for her baby daughter’s “chiclet teeth” and grows dizzy when she realizes her son is at the age where she can “no longer touch him in public.” In one of the most passionate poems, the speaker advises women to “make love as if you are the moon and he is tide at its neap extreme.”
Raised in the Red Hills, Ryals earned degrees from FAMU, UF, and FSU; and is now is a research associate in Business Communication at FSU. She has published four previous books, including short fiction, poetry, and an intercultural communication textbook. She has won numerous awards for her writing, including a Pushcart nomination.
“The Moving Waters,” published by Kitsune Books, can be purchased from www.kitsunebooks.com and www.amazon.com for $14.
Anne Petty (author of dark fantasy novel Thin Line Between, and such nonfiction books as Tolkien in the Land of Heroes) reviews The Tamír Triad, by Lynn Flewelling.
Lynn Flewelling’s Tamír Triad is some of the most inventive and emotionally gripping fantasy to come down the pike in years. Flewelling's muscular prose has matured like fine wine over the decade since her first Nightrunner novel, Luck in the Shadows, was a Locus First Novel Award nominee in 1997. Flewelling has honed her craft, and her history of the restoration of the Skalan queens, set centuries before the events of the Nightrunner books, is an epic feast. That history comes vividly to life as the Tamír Triad, so named for Tamír the Great, a warrior queen who is equal parts Joan of Arc and Celtic Boudicca.
The crux of the trilogy is the Oracle of Afra’s prophecy that “So long as a daughter of Thelátimos’ line defends and rules, Skala shall never be subjugated.” From that point onward, as long as the rule remained matriarchal, the country flourished. But whenever a usurping prince managed to take the throne, the land became blighted with plague and famine. Such is the state of affairs when the Tamír Triad begins. Cursed kings have made certain that no females who might inherit the throne have survived ... until now. In a collusion of wild earth magic with intellectual Orëska wizardry, the current king’s newborn niece (daughter of his sister, the deposed rightful heir, the doomed Princess Ariani) is secretly saved by changing her into a boy at the moment of birth.
The saga opens on a note of dread, as one of the attending wizards recounts his memory of that terrible moment long ago: “An infant’s cry, cut short. You might think after so many years that it would be easier to accept; that one necessary act of cruelty could alter the course of history like an earthquake shifts a river’s course. But that deed, that cry, lies at the heart of all the good that came after, like a grain of sand at the heart of a pearl’s glowing nacre.”
Flewelling’s writing is both intelligent and visceral, with an unflinching detail that compels readers to turn pages in wide-eyed fascination, riveted by scenes they might wish to look away from but can’t. At the same time, however, a strong sense of poetry runs through her narration, filling the mind’s eye with images of great beauty amid the terrors of war and personal cruelty. Immersing readers in sensory detail, her description of desolate rural keeps haunted by spirits and stinking teeming cityscapes redolent of medieval London reveal the breadth of her imagination. By the end of the trilogy, we know Skala as if we had lived there.
Book 1, The Bone Doll’s Twin, begins on familiar ground for fans of her Nightrunner series, opening with the graying wizard Iya and her young apprentice Arkoniel, on their way to the Oracle at Afra in the mountains of Skala. But readers don’t need to have heard of Plenimaran necromancers, Skalan warrior women, or Aurënfaie magic to be immediately and completely pulled into the plight of Tobin, the ensorcelled child on whom the hopes of a civilization ride. Character development is Flewelling’s strength, and the terrible dual nature of young Tobin, who is male in body yet female in soul, unfolds with gentle humor and disturbing psychological drama. We watch in fascination as he moves toward his destiny – to shed his boy’s skin (in an incredibly rendered scene) and become Tamír II who will restore the line of queens and heal the land.
characters in recent fantasy fiction. Brother is Tobin’s male twin, whose body and soul are sacrificed in order to return a female heir to the throne. Brother’s shadow life, attached by magic gone awry to his living twin, is by turns sorrowful and hateful in the first two books. But in Book 3, The Oracle’s Queen, Flewelling pulls out all the stops. We are equally sorry for and repulsed by him, as is his sibling Tobin/Tamír. It’s Brother’s haunting of and eventual revenge upon the wizards, the hill witch, and everyone else who helped create his pitiful state that fully reveal Flewelling’s dark-fantasy style.
The growth of Tobin and his squire Ki from solitary children in the isolated hill fortress of Book 1 into seasoned young warriors who face death together in Book 3 is wonderfully wrought. Even the peripheral characters who surround them are given complexity, so that we get to know them as people rather than two-dimensional figures of the supporting cast. For example, the villainous wizard Niryn is given a backstory that softens his wickedness and Machiavellian depravity. His manipulation of King Erius and his ill-fated son Korin make sense, as much as we may despise his methods.
Tobin’s cousin Korin, the king’s teenaged son, appears on the surface to be a charismatic wastrel whose appetite for wine and women is eclipsed only by his skills as a swordsman. Even so, he’s basically good-natured, and his Royal Companions look up to him and see him as the future king, brave and true. As Korin’s life turns sour, however, we begin to discover other aspects of his personality. In The Oracle’s Queen, we see his best traits turn to cowardice, guilt, envy, and self-doubt even as he begins to show some genuine regret over the way his second consort, Nalia, has been used to ensure his claim to the throne. The final moment when he meets his old companion Tobin, now Tamír, on the battlefield for control of Skala is genuinely tragic.
Flewelling takes the stock trappings of the sword and sorcery genre – good and evil wizards, a hidden heir to the throne, the loyal sidekick, war between rivals, invasion by barbaric hordes, a sacked city, and a coming-of-age tale – and turns them into a riveting epic story that is unique, disturbing, and enthralling. The mark of a successful work of fiction is that it effortlessly pulls you into its world and stays with you long after the last page is read. Flewelling’s Tamír Triad does this in spades.
Review previously published in MYTHPRINT, Vol. 44, No. 4, 2007.
Donna Meredith (Writer and retired English teacher living in Tallahassee) reviews The Madhatter's Guide to Chocolate, by Rhett Devane.
Chattahoochee, Florida, where small town residents come together like an extended family, sparkles as the setting for Rhett Devane’s first novel, The Madhatter’s Guide to Chocolate. The citizens squabble, criticize, defend, love, and support each other. Just like any family, they include eccentrics and black sheep.
In the prologue, Max the Madhatter, a resident of Chattahoochee’s State Hospital for mental patients, has “town privileges.” He regularly visits Mr. Davis’s store, where he receives chocolate bars and is treated kindly by the owner and his daughter Hattie. Chapters begin with excerpts from the Madhatter’s notebook, a legacy Max has bequeathed to the now-forty-year-old Hattie. The excerpts reveal insights into the townspeople and into life itself, as well as recipes using chocolate—Max’s passion.
On the occasion of her mother’s funeral, Hattie returns to the town she couldn’t wait to escape from as a teenager. She reconnects with a high school friend, Jake Witherspoon, who has moved back from New York. He tells Hattie his mother discovered he was gay and asked him to leave town. When she died, he moved back and opened a florist shop. Since his return, Jake hasn’t had a relationship with anyone although he has a male dinner companion he sees occasionally in nearby Tallahassee. He seems content with his new life.
Aunt Piddy tells Hattie false rumors have circulated through town that Hattie, too, is homosexual because she hasn’t married. Hattie worries the rumors hurt her mother, but Piddy assures Hattie her mother didn’t care what “floated [Hattie’s] boat as long as [she was] happy." Her reaction stands in stark contrast to Mrs. Witherspoon’s. Partly to tie up loose ends in her mother’s estate and partly because of her renewed friendship with Jake, Hattie now spends half her time in Chattahoochee. Three days a week she performs massage therapy on the empty side of Jake’s flower shop. The rest of the week she lives in her townhouse in Tallahassee.
Jake’s mother was not the only one who finds Jake’s orientation unacceptable. A couple of teenagers vandalize Jake’s shop and write “faggot” on the walls. They beat him unconscious. Afterwards, the oldest cousin, Marshall Thurgood, takes Jake into the woods and violates his body in unspeakable ways and leaves him nearly dead. In a demonstration of love and compassion, the townspeople rally around Jake by flooding his hospital room with flowers and restoring his shop to its former condition before he comes home.
Jake’s beating brings love into Hattie’s life with the arrival of New York writer Holston Lewis. Holston is writing about the hate crime and also about the way the town rallied around, as Jake calls himself, “our queer.” Similarly, when Hattie gets colon cancer, her illness brings a special nurse, Jon Presley, into Jake’s life, and we are left feeling he’s not going to be a “no-mo’-sexual” any more. That good can come from bad events, that we live in a world where divine order prevails, is the conclusion Jake and Hattie come to, and the novel makes us want to believe it too.
Jake’s character is well-developed, making it easy to understand why Hattie would bond with a man of his sensitivities. In one of his best moments, Jake sends an elaborate sympathy bouquet to his attackers’ family when one of the boys commits suicide. We admire not only Jake’s courage through his ordeal, but also his ability to forgive. However, Jake’s habit of calling Hattie “sister girl” seems overdone. Less would have been more, in this case.
One other place that rule should have applied is Hattie’s visit to a psychic. As the psychic spoke of her “energy field” and “spirit family,” he aroused my skepticism, and I wanted Hattie to roll her eyes along with me. Other than this one moment, Hattie stands as an engaging character: intelligent, witty, compassionate.
The Madhatter’s Guide to Chocolate is a feel-good novel loaded with Southern humor and eccentric characters. It would be hard not to laugh when nonagenarian Aunt Piddy confesses her husband had hairy “balls like a Chia pet” or when she tells Holston her daughter’s pound cake had killed stronger men than him. Also uplifting are the light touches of magical realism in the form of two prescient characters: a Chinese orphan named Ruth and Max the Madhatter, who perhaps wasn’t as crazy as people thought. Devane leaves us believing in magic again, if only momentarily, and who doesn’t want to believe a little magic is at work in our lives?
By the time we turn the last pages, the town’s residents have shared recipes, belched, passed gas, nagged, and joked. They have nosed into everybody’s business at the Cut and Curl Beauty Parlor and kept loving watch over each other in the hospital. Chattahoochee feels like our town; the characters, like people we know. They feel almost like family.
Donna Meredith (Writer and retired English teacher living in Tallahassee) reviews Thin Line Between, by M.A.C. Petty.
The use of Australian mythology makes M.A. C. Petty’s Thin Line Between a top-shelf fantasy novel, much the same way Navaho myths elevate Tony Hillerman’s mysteries above the ordinary.Readers will scurry to their computers to google Dreamtime myths and aboriginal art. It’s impossible to learn about the various styles of paintings and the swirling colors without wanting to see them. Cave paintings of Wandjina—the spirit caretakers of life in Australian creation mythology—and shapeshifting tricksters called Quinkan provide the impetus for events in Petty’s novel.
In the first chapter, a Quinkan in lizard form kills a little boy, showing how real the danger from these creatures can be. When we learn the evil creature is linked to protagonist Alice Waterston and her daughter Margaret, we know trouble is coming. The isolation of the Waterston’s house in the woods heightens the atmosphere of fear.
The novel covers a four-month period in Alice’s life. As curator, Alice has been instrumental in acquiring a display of Australian artwork for the Hardison Museum. In her spare time she is writing an historical mystery inspired by a summer camp legend her daughter shares with her. The legend centers around a hanging that occurred in a local church. Somehow, the conjunction of these events causes the line “where imagination stopped and cold reality existed” to be breached.
Even as workers uncrate the art, an inexplicable accident occurs. A man’s hand is severed. Then at the opening reception, glass shatters and injures a patron, reinforcing rumors that the exhibit is haunted. Both Alice and her daughter Margaret begin to hear and see mythological creatures from Dreamtime, as well as characters from Alice’s novel. At first Alice brushes off her daughter’s nightmares as delayed reactions to divorce or perhaps an over-active adolescent imagination. The precocious child is quicker to acknowledge what is happening than her mother, who rightfully fears that “if you couldn’t tell where the thin line between them [imagination and reality] was, you were judged insane or deluded or, in the old days, possessed."
Alice has always been a little unusual. For example, she believes she might have the ability to think about things and make them happen, usually small things, like finding parking spaces. But now the dark characters she creates in her novel are haunting her real life. She and Margaret have developed a ritual of putting up a light shield for protection, but no shield is enough to protect them from the creature mauling the cats in the woods near their house or from the evil Reverend Harrow, whom Alice has evoked from the grave through her writing. For as long as she can, Alice denies the paranormal events happening to her daughter and herself. Finally they jot them down in a list, and she reluctantly acknowledges their accumulated weight. One friend she confides in advises her to see a psychiatrist. Unable to cope with anything science can’t explain, her live-in lover Nik moves out temporarily. All alone, Alice and Margaret must use their wits to defeat the forces aligned against them.
The story is told primarily from Alice’s viewpoint, but occasionally shifts to Margaret’s. Petty handles the transitions skillfully. The voice of a slightly insecure woman approaching middle age is convincing, and Petty nails the language and tone of a preteen girl, capturing both the snarky and innocent aspects of her character.
One small weakness is the viewpoint shift to Nik in Chapter 17, which comes off as a bit jarring, partly because it arrives so late in the story and partly because it doesn’t seem necessary. Near the end of the novel, Nik’s voice briefly returns, but again, the shift is brief, not long enough to let us really inhabit the cool Scandinavian’s skin.
The most fully rendered relationship in the novel is the mother-daughter bond between Alice and Margaret. The love and respect they demonstrate for each other are endearing. More complicated is the relationship between Alice and her mother Suzanne, a connection hampered by long-held resentments and tension. The warmth of Uncle Hal, who helped raise Alice, a friendly ex-sister-in-law, and the mystery behind Alice’s missing father round out the family picture. Interactions between Alice and her colleagues at the museum also add realism to the novel. Many readers will recognize the competent, considerate museum director, the beautiful friend who ignites Alice’s jealousy, and the overly touchy male co-worker as members of their own workplaces.
The fast-paced novel pits a modern woman against ancient evils, too dark to be fully comprehended. As Alice experiences a moment of epiphany with the forces of light, we wish to taste “a bit of that knowledge” with her, but it eludes us, just as it did her. Petty’s descriptions in this scene are nothing less than beautiful poetry.
Thin Line Between is Book One of the Wandjina Quartet, so more of Alice’s story will unfold in future offerings. A trip to Australia to see the caves in person and learn what happened to her father? Further development of Alice’s relationship with Nik? More channeling between parallel worlds? These we can hope for, and maybe—just maybe—this time we will understand something “radically important” about our place in the universe, knowledge that seems so close, yet remains just out of our reach.
Linda Smith (social worker, living in Wisconsin) reviews Marley and Me—Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog, by John Grogan.
Books that leave a lingering feeling are generally good books; Marley and Me is one of these. This book leaves you with a resolved sense of loss and love and with a happy little glow that life is pretty funny after all. Dog lovers and parents are most likely to enjoy the humor and insight of the author, John Grogan. Grogan is a columnist and former editor-in-chief of Rodale's Organic Gardening magazine. His writing style is easy to read as he flows from one life adventure into another with his "undisciplined, recalcitrant, non-conformist, politically incorrect, free spirit" dog Marley. Grogan's humor brings grins and chuckles to the reader who can relate to the out-of-control dog and his owner's heroic efforts to live with the chaos and destruction that Marley generated almost daily. Anyone who has owned a retriever like Marley will particularly relate to the hilarious and ultimately frustrating struggles of Marley management.
This is also a story of marriage. It is a funny and insightful autobiography of a man in love with this dog and his wife. It is a story of a man's perspective on procreation, career changes and socio-economic observations on culture that always has a place for Marley. It explores the mysterious comradeship between a dog and his family. It is a love story and well worth the read.
Anne Petty (author of dark fantasy novel Thin Line Between, and such nonfiction books as Tolkien in the Land of Heroes) reviews The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett.
I have never met a Pratchett book that didn’t make me laugh out loud. This one’s no exception, even though it’s generally geared for a younger audience. In fact, it’s the kind of book I would have howled over as a snarky pre-teen. My first loud guffaw occurs on page 10: “ The screaming monster, leaping out of the water, met the frying pan coming the other way with a clang. It was a good clang, with the oiyoiyoioioioioioinnnnnnggggggg that is the mark of a clang well done.”
There’s no talking down to the audience here; in fact, they’re challenged to keep up, which is a good thing. So many puns, so little time. The story starts out with a bang (the Nac Mac Feegle warn Tiffany, daydreaming on the riverbank, about a horrible menacing creature and suddenly it’s leaping out of the river at her) and never lets up. Hooking the reader in the opening pages and then deftly setting that hook so that you turn pages as fast as you can read is just one of Pratchett’s many wordsmithing talents. Another is vivid characterization. With the skill of a quick-sketch artist, he creates Tiffany, her toddler brother, the witch Miss Tick, the Wee Free Men, and a host of Fairyland denizens in just a few well-chosen sentences and phrases that tell you exactly what you need to know to see them clearly. Tiffany is the type of clever, no-nonsense child similar to Alice of Wonderland fame, and her exploits to rescue her brother are no less extraordinary than Alice’s sojourn among the weirdness beyond the looking glass (you might want to brush up on your Lewis Carroll so none of the nods and parodies are missed).
I loved the sense of satisfaction produced by the ending wherein Tiffany bids her witch mentors goodbye and returns to the farm as an empowered, confident witch; I had to read the last chapter twice just because it felt so good. The message the witches leave with her is simply that you can accomplish much if you are willing to make a modest start and be patient and believe. Observes Tiffany, “Things would be different one day. But you had to start small, like oak trees."
Review previously published in MYTHPRINT, 2004.
Laura Gentry (owner, Tattered Pages Books & Espresso Bar) reviews Being Dead Is No Excuse – The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays.
This month’s review is on an absolutely funny book I found while looking for southern humor titles. The book has many fabulous recipes, and stories about the rules and rituals for “tasteful” southern funerals. I know you probably think it’s a little nutty to propose that a book which calls itself Being Dead Is No Excuse – The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral is something you will laugh out loud about, but trust me, it is definitely worth reading – it will charm, it will entertain, and it will give you all the ingredients for the perfect “Southern” send-off.
This book is written by Gayden Metcalfe (a lifelong Southerner and founder of the Greenville, Mississippi Arts Council) and Charlotte Hays (a Delta native and recovering gossip columnist). In this deliciously entertaining slice of Southern life (and death), inveterate hostess Gayden Metcalfe explains everything you need to know to host an authentic Southern funeral, such as: Can you be properly buried without tomato aspic? Who prepares tastier funeral fare, the Episcopal ladies or the Methodist ladies? And what does one do when a family gets three sheets to the wind and eats the entire feast the night before a funeral?
Each chapter includes a delicious, tried-and-true Southern recipe you’ll need if you plan to die tastefully any time soon, including Pickled Shrimp, Aunt Hebe’s Coconut Cake and the ubiquitous Bing Cherry Salad with Cocoa-Cola, and of course – Tomato Aspic! There are so many wonderful recipes in this book; I am keeping it on my cookbook shelf for those occasions when a truly Southern dish such as Bourbon Boiled Custard, Pecan Tassies, or Ham Mousse and Avocado Mayonnaise is called for.
As Gayden says in the book, a funeral reception “is one of the three times a Southerner gets out all the good china and silver: the other two are christenings and weddings.” I laughed at the many stories she related about the “rules” surrounding a Southern funeral. You get to know all the quirks and secrets of the many ladies and gentlemen of Greenville, Mississippi, and I could certainly recognize the antics of many of my friends and relatives.
There are so many funny parts of this book – I can't decide if I like it because of the humorous stories or the great recipes! You have got to check it out for yourself.
April Petty (Yoga/Pilates Instructor) reviews The Pilates Body, by Brooke Syler
The Pilates Body is a concise discussion of the Pilates method, including information on Joseph Pilates, how the Pilates method was created, and how it can be put to use by people of all fitness levels.
This is by far the best Pilates book on the market. I always recommend it to all of my Pilates students. The information is very accurate and very effective. The visuals in the book are clear, and the posture descriptions are easy to follow. There are modifications of the exercises for extreme beginners through advanced students. If you want to practice Pilates the right way, read this book.