Book Review, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin sets her story in an independent bookstore. A wonderful setting for readers who enjoy perusing for their next readby Gabrielle Zevin.

The first few chapters both compelled me to read on and revealed mysteries I wanted answered. Although the chapters seemed disjunct at first, I trusted the author to deliver.  The first chapter introduces a book seller attempting to meet the bookstore owner but is rebuffed. The second presents us with the mystery of who stole the owner’s first edition of an early Poe work. And the third chapter leaves A. J. Fikry with an infant abandoned at his story. These three key events become the focal points around which the story revolves and from them the story is bit-by-bit fit together.

Gabrielle Zevin begins each chapter with notes written by A.J. about a book he read and what he thinks about it. I noticed that the notes become less coherent as the novel progressed, but clues to the reason for the cryptic notes and why Fikry wrote them aren’t resolved until the end of the story.

Gabrielle Zevin Ties Up the Lose Ends

All characters, mysteries and issues are tied up at the end of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Although Zevin goes out of point-of-view to accomplish this, it helped to bring finality to the story. For me, the end was too expected. Nothing particularly fresh was presented, however I must admit, I cried.

Book Review, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
on January 1st 1970
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 260
Goodreads

As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.

We are not quite novels.

We are not quite short stories.

In the end, we are collected works.

A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died; his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history; and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island—from Chief Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward him; from Ismay, his sister-in-law, who is hell-bent on saving A.J. from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who persists in taking the ferry to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, he can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, though large in weight—an unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J., for the determined sales rep Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light, for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world. Or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming.

Book Review, Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann

For anyone who likes sheep or likes an amusing twist to their mystery novel, Leonie Three Bags Full by Leonie SwannSwann’s Three Bags Full will hit the mark. From the first page, when a flock of sheep find their shepherd dead, Swann puts us into the mindset of sheep. Maple takes the lead as the flock ferrets out the person who killed their shepherd.

I’ve had the pleasure of spending time on a sheep farm, where one quickly sees that sheep are not necessarily ‘sheepish’. They have various personalities, quirks and foibles, similar to humans. Do they communicate so clearly? I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask the shepherds. Swan certainly takes liberties with how much a sheep can do. Sheep dreams may not be as insightful as Maple’s. But Swann includes enough truth to ground the sheeps’ antics and bring their perspectives to life for us.

Three Bags Full Twists our Perception

The sheep’s interpretations of human events brings levity to the morose Irish village portrayed. Some readers may be startled by Swann’s irreverent associations of God and the church, such as the garden with nice long rows where humans don’t grow anything but ‘they plant dead bodies’. The sheeps’ misunderstandings of who God is and where he lives are also amusing.

The flock make themselves at home in their Irish village, as did I by the end of the story. And I wish them well on their next adventure, which Swann  continues with book two, Garou, of the Three Bags Full series.

A list of sheep on the cover with their unique character traits helps the reader track one sheep from another. Maple, Othelo, Cloud, Ritchfield, Mopple and more. You’re sure to be entertained getting to know them. The mystery is particularly fun for anyone who knows sheep or loves the idea of the quaint Irish village.

Book Review, Three Bags Full by Leonie SwannThree Bags Full by Leonie Swann, Anthea Bell
Series: Sheep Detective Series #1
Published by Doubleday Canada on June 5th 2007
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 352
Goodreads

A witty philosophical murder mystery with a charming twist: the crack detectives are sheep determined to discover who killed their beloved shepherd.

On a hillside near the cozy Irish village of Glennkill, a flock of sheep gathers around their shepherd, George, whose body lies pinned to the ground with a spade. George has cared devotedly for the flock, even reading them books every night. Led by Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glennkill (and possibly the world), they set out to find George’s killer.

The A-team of investigators includes Othello, the “bad-boy” black ram; Mopple the Whale, a Merino who eats a lot and remembers everything; and Zora, a pensive black-faced ewe with a weakness for abysses. Joined by other members of the richly talented flock, they engage in nightlong discussions about the crime, wild metaphysical speculations, and embark on reconnaissance missions into the village, where they encounter some likely suspects. Along the way, the sheep confront their own all-too-human struggles with guilt, misdeeds, and unrequited love. Funny, fresh, and endearing, it introduces a wonderful new breed of detectives to Canadian readers.

Book Review, Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Sci-fi world building

Pierce Brown’s dystopian world is built on the brutal power of classes, each with their own color designation, with Golds in charge. Born as a slave in the Red’s mining community, Darrow is set on a course to free the world. A lofty challenge and common plot-line, not unlike Suzanne Collins Hunger Games.

As the story develops, a plethora of characters emerge. Brown had fun creating plot twist after twist. Some changes I anticipated, but many ingeniously altered my expectations, such as Mustang’s allegiance. None were out of character, however.

The action ramps up when Darrow competes in a deadly game against the elitist of Gold youths in order to establish their hierarchy. Obstacles come at Darrow from all directions.

Cliff-hanger chapter ending kept me at night. I forced myself to stop reading mid-chapter, rather than be propelled to the next chapter.

Sci-fi World Building in Red Rising

This novel is often sighted as an example of world building, so I had to read it. Brown creates a multi-layered world with individualized cultures, although his world is built around socio-political issues we know. Slavery becomes a key topic, as does the abuse of power.

Brown endeavors to create not one setting, but three very different aspects of his world. The world of enslaved Reds functions deep within mines. For me, this was the best part of the book, as Darrow shows us his world, from inside a slave colonies perspective.

From there Darrow finds himself a pawn of a ‘carver’ who recreates him physically, but at the premium price of working for the rebellion by infiltrating the world of Golds. The novel really takes off when Darrow competes for his place among the elite of the elite Golds.

Although each world came to life for me, Brown used extensive first person exposition to inform his readers of all aspects of culture and environs. This interested me, because exposition is exactly what teachers advise students not to do when world building. Brown uses his explanations well however. It’s in the details he chooses to tell about settings that keep us engaged.

I’m tempted to continue with the series, but I have got other books on the shelf for now.

Book Review, Red Rising by Pierce BrownRed Rising (Red Rising, #1) by Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising #1
Published by Del Rey (Random House) on January 28th 2014
Genres: Dystopian, Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 382
Goodreads

"I live for the dream that my children will be born free," she says. "That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them."

"I live for you," I say sadly.

Eo kisses my cheek. "Then you must live for more."

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.

Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity's overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society's ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies... even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.

Book Review, The Wish Granter by C. J. Redwine

by C. J. RedwineC. J. Redwine writes with all the ingredients of her craft. She assembles protagonist, antagonist, helpers and obstacles with characters who grow within the telling.

The princess is a fun, food centric, tomboy, who’d rather not have become a princess. When her brother signs a contract with the Wish Granter, his life and kingdom are threatened. Princess Ari decides to save all, but it isn’t easy against one of the most powerful fairies alive.

I loved the food centric bits of the story. They make Ari personable, someone I’d like to know. It’s also refreshing to have an over-weight heroine, that’s compelling in all aspects of her personality.

Can use of POV thwart interest?

Redwine use of point-of-view (POV) interested me.  Writing in first person point-of-view (POV) from multiple characters proves effective in many novel. In The Wish Granter I questioned one perspective.

The story starts with Princess Ari’s POV, who introduces setting, challenges and primary characters. Toward the middle, the young weapon’s maker, Sebastian, becomes vital and his POV becomes more relevant. He introduces the reader to aspects of the world Princess Ari is not privy.

Andrews also choses to include the antagonists POV. Coincidentally, shortly after those sections, my interest in the story floundered. I didn’t care as much about Ari and Sebastion. Fortunately, I returned reading, but I wonder whether adding the protagonist’s POV, in this case, interfered with my commitment to Ari and Sebastian, hence my commitment to the novel at that point.

I particularly liked how Redwine inferred the next chapter’s POV in the wind-up of previous chapters. Although the references are often oblique, for me, they effectively set my subconscious up for the change in POV. As a writer this is worth noting.

C. J. Redwine’s attention to the craft

Redwine has a fondness for double alliterations. Rhetorical devices of this nature lighten the read and help drive descriptions forward. She uses anaphora (repeating words at the beginning of sentences), epistrophe (repeating words at the end of sentences), anadiplosis (repeating words at the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next), and the use of structural parallelism (to enhance the cadence of paragraphs) all freely.

A twist in the plot around page fifty, ramps up the tension. Andrew’s attention to full character development, in all aspects of their lives, brings new interest to this old fairy tale.

For a short version of Rumpelstiltskins click here. For other wonderful fairy tale retellings, check out Elle Enchanted or The Goose Girl.

Book Review, The Wish Granter by C. J. RedwineThe Wish Granter (Ravenspire, #2) by C.J. Redwine
Series: , ,
Published by Balzer + Bray on February 14th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult
Pages: 432
Goodreads

An epic, romantic, and action-packed fantasy inspired by the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, about a bastard princess who must take on an evil fae to save her brother’s soul, from C. J. Redwine, the New York Times bestselling author of The Shadow Queen. Perfect for fans of Graceling and the Lunar Chronicles.

The world has turned upside down for Thad and Ari Glavan, the bastard twins of Súndraille’s king. Their mother was murdered. The royal family died mysteriously. And now Thad sits on the throne of a kingdom whose streets are suddenly overrun with violence he can’t stop.

Growing up ignored by the nobility, Ari never wanted to be a proper princess. And when Thad suddenly starts training Ari to take his place, she realizes that her brother’s ascension to the throne wasn’t fate. It was the work of a Wish Granter named Alistair Teague who tricked Thad into wishing away both the safety of his people and his soul in exchange for the crown.

So Ari recruits the help of Thad’s enigmatic new weapons master, Sebastian Vaughn, to teach her how to fight Teague. With secret ties to Teague’s criminal empire, Sebastian might just hold the key to discovering Alistair’s weaknesses, saving Ari’s brother—and herself.

But Teague is ruthless and more than ready to destroy anyone who dares stand in his way—and now he has his sights set on the princess. And if Ari can’t outwit him, she’ll lose Sebastian, her brother…and her soul.

Book Review, How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

Louise Penny does it again. In this story Chief Inspector Gamache investigates the death of Myrna’s by Louise Pennyfriend. Because Myrna is the Inspector’s neighbor, Gamache works with caution. To solve the murder, he must delve into the past of a very public yet secretive family. Meanwhile, he faces his own demise within his department of Quebec’s sûreté. With his trusted personnel gutted, he attempts to prove himself free of blame, while ferreting out where the true source of corruption resides.

Louise Penny Plays with Sub-plot

Louise Penny mastered the layering of subplot in this novel. Her intriguing characters possess distinct personalities, along with histories and motives to unravel and caste suspicion. 

While Penny writes in third person, her characters compel readers. We care about them. Not just the Chief Inspector, but his assistant, his wife and the people living in Three Pines. They all become as real as our friends and neighbors. We want to know them.

Having read several mysteries by Louise Penny, I’ve been interested in the manner her writing style changes. In early works she wrote with a more conservative attention to sentence structure, while in later works sentence fragments enliven the telling. Her use of phrases add immediacy to story events and personalizes the narration.

Book Review, How the Light Gets In by Louise PennyHow the Light Gets In (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #9) by Louise Penny
Series: Chief Inspector Gamache
on January 1st 1970
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 405
Goodreads

The stunning, ingenious and sinister new novel in the internationally bestselling Inspector Gamache series.

A DETECTIVEAs a fierce, unrelenting winter grips Quebec, shadows are closing in on Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Most of his best agents have left the Homicide Department and hostile forces are lining up against him.

A DISAPPEARANCEWhen Gamache receives a message about a mysterious case in Three Pines, he is compelled to investigate -- a woman who was once one of the most famous people in the world has vanished.

A DEADLY CONCLUSIONAs he begins to shed light on the investigation, he is drawn into a web of murder, lies and unimaginable corruption at the heart of the city. Facing his most challenging, and personal, case to date, can Gamache save the reputation of the Sûreté, those he holds dear and himself?

Evocative, gripping and atmospheric, this magnificent work of crime fiction from international bestselling author Louise Penny will stay with you long after you turn the final page.

Book Review, The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny

Quebec MysteryIn this Quebec mystery with Inspector Gamache the inspector has retired to the village of Three Pines, however, when a boy is killed he is compelled to find the culprit. The boy’s tall tales become clues. A gun, bigger than a house, sends the Inspector into the woods, where a dark secret comes to light. All the old favorites of Three Pines play their parts. Jean-Guy Beauvoir leads the sûreté team who come to investigate, while a bit of international intrigue adds spice.

Penny uses plenty of dialogue, fragmented sentences and a mix of descriptions, while not adding too much lengthy expositions to tell her story. As a writer, this is a good book to analyze chapter endings. How they conclude, while driving the reader on works well.

A Quebec Mystery

The Ottawa Review of Books provides another perspective on this Inspector Gamache Mystery worth reading.

Although I enjoy Penny’s series, Donna Leon’s Italian Commissario Brunetti in Drawing Conclusions is equally compelling.

Louise Penny’s next book

Check out the July 9, 2017 interview with Louise Penny on CBS News about herself, her books and her loyal followers. Her willingness to share her personal life is refreshing.

Book Review, The Nature of the Beast by Louise PennyThe Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #11) by Louise Penny
Series: Inspector Gamache Mystery #11
Published by Minotaur Books on August 25th 2015
Pages: 376
Goodreads

Hardly a day goes by when nine-year-old Laurent Lepage doesn't cry wolf. From alien invasions, to walking trees, to winged beasts in the woods, to dinosaurs spotted in the village of Three Pines, his tales are so extraordinary no one can possibly believe him. But when the boy disappears, the villagers are faced with the possibility that one of his tall tales might have been true. And so begins a frantic search for the boy and the truth. What they uncover deep in the forest sets off a sequence of events that leads to murder, leads to an old crime, leads to an old betrayal. A monster once visited Three Pines. And put down deep roots. And now, it is back.

Book Review, The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman writes historical fiction to her own drummer. The Marriage of Opposites draws from the painter Pizzarros’s family’s by Alice Hoffmanlife, but it brings a depth of compassion in the telling. Not until the end of the book did I consider the historical implications of her story.

As with any good fiction, the lives of the story become bigger than our own, if for only those few hours we read. In this case, we walk in the shoes of a Jewish girl, raised on St. Thomas. We learn about the Danish openness to Jews at a time when the world shut Jewish people out. We learn about the heat, the colors of the ocean, the Fragrance tree, the restrictions of religion, the trials of love and family and friends and the making of witches.

Descriptions are full. One never knows when you’ll miss a bit of important information if you skip them, but I must admit, I did skip some of them and still enjoyed the story immensely.

Alice Hoffman Plays with POV

Writing style defines great authors. Hoffman’s style plays with the reader by presenting her character’s story in a mash of point-of-views (POV). Although the POV changes, we never loose sight of Rachel’s story. We see solidly through her eyes for the beginning third of the book, at which time Hoffman steps back. She then writes several sections in third-person. At first the third person narrator introduces us to her son, Jacobo’s views, but it isn’t long before the narration goes into an omniscient perspective that gives the reader a broader perspective of the environment and the people in Rachel and Jacobo’s lives.

For writers, the study of Alice Hoffman’s use of perspective is a worthy endeavor. She slips from one perspective to another bravely and brazenly. Still the story flows. The reader tracks events without a miss and, ultimately, the novel is enhanced by her technique. Only a skilled writer can pull this off with such finesse.

I finished the story wanting to eat molasses on toast with Rachel.

My Rating five-starsBook Review, The Marriage of Opposites by Alice HoffmanThe Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
Published by Simon & Schuster on August 4th 2015
Genres: Historical Fiction, Romance
Pages: 371
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things: a forbidden love story set on the tropical island of St. Thomas about the extraordinary woman who gave birth to painter Camille Pissarro; the Father of Impressionism.

Growing up on idyllic St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel dreams of life in faraway Paris. Rachel's mother, a pillar of their small refugee community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition, has never forgiven her daughter for being a difficult girl who refuses to live by the rules. Growing up, Rachel's salvation is their maid Adelle's belief in her strengths, and her deep, life-long friendship with Jestine, Adelle's daughter. But Rachel's life is not her own. She is married off to a widower with three children to save her father's business. When her husband dies suddenly and his handsome, much younger nephew, Fréderick, arrives from France to settle the estate, Rachel seizes her own life story, beginning a defiant, passionate love affair that sparks a scandal that affects all of her family, including her favorite son, who will become one of the greatest artists of France.

Building on the triumphs of The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things, set in a world of almost unimaginable beauty, The Marriage of Opposites showcases the beloved, bestselling Alice Hoffman at the height of her considerable powers. Once forgotten to history, the marriage of Rachel and Fréderick is a story that is as unforgettable as it is remarkable.