Reduced Circumstances: A Review

Reduced Circumstances by Vincent H. O'NeilVincent H. O’Neil‘s inimitable beach bum/amateur sleuth Frank Cole is back in Reduced Circumstances (2007), his followup to Murder in Exile (2006). Things have quieted down for Frank since solving the Eddie Gonzalez case in Exile. In fact as fast as fact checking is concerned, business is just about non-existent.

Although Frank’s peculiar bankruptcy case prevents him from earning too much money, he does still have living expenses. So, to deal with the light times as a fact checker, Frank finds himself working as a night dispatcher for the Midnight Taxi Service near his home in Exile, Florida.

The taxi stand is where Frank first hears about the kid. The young man was seen hailing a Midnight cab near a drug bust the night before–interesting but not exactly big news. Of course that’s before a parade of visitors drop by the cab stand trying to find the kid and the MIA driver who picked him up the night before. First there’s the private investigator from Atlanta, then the possible bounty hunters from Mobile, and finally the kid’s girlfriend–a blond femme fatale of sorts who never seems to leave a fingerprint in her wake.

Suddenly Frank finds himself a person of interest on all side of the investigation despite having little in the way of information to share. Urged on by equal parts curiosity and necessity, Frank begins to investigate the kid and his mysterious disappearance trying to figure out why exactly so many people want to find him. And who, if any of them, want to find him alive.

Murder in Exile was a lot of fun. Amazingly, and happily, this installment in the series is even more enjoyable. The narrative also provides ample yet brief recaps of Frank’s adventures in the first book for anyone who might be fuzzy on those early details. Reduced Circumstances is an interesting blend of character study and mystery. The elements for both are here and used well to create a breezy read that leaves readers with a satisfying investigation and more insight into Frank’s personality and life.

Because Frank comes to the world of investigation from a fact checker’s side of things, the novel also provides a unique look at the world of online research and a commentary on just how much information can be found online. O’Neil keeps these segments just the right length to stay interesting for the typical readers and any information professionals who should happen to pick up the book.

While the investigation wraps up nicely, the novel does still end with a slight cliff hanger that will leave readers eager for the next installment in the series Exile Trust (2008).

“I wasn’t in high school but I still find it interesting.”

As teen patron says goodbye and leaves the library . . .

Lorelai: “Oh, to be a child again.”

Miss Print: “She was born in 1992.”

Lorelai: “Pah. I was in high school in 1992.”

Bear: “So was I.”

Miss Print: “I wasn’t in high school but I still find it interesting.”

Bear: “What grade were you in?”

Miss Print [thinks for a moment]: “I was in first or second grade.”

Bear: “Oh, Miss Print, young Miss Print.”

Never half empty

I just realized I had a lot of book reviews in a row with nothing interesting for my readers (ChelseaGirl) who come to this blog for other matters.

So, some updates: As of today I am halfway through my master’s program in library science; the glass that is my degree is half full–a fact that has left me in good spirits and, as the post title suggests I hope, feeling very optimistic.

That exciting marker is also why the blog posting has been not as regular as it might have been.

Almost immediately after finishing my spring semester I started my summer semester (two courses that I am referring to jointly as “librarianship as performance art”). The first course was Storytelling which, I must say, was a lot of fun and really informative even thought the first few classes felt kind of hectic.

Some of my coworkers still don’t know what to make of the rehearsals they witnessed, but that’s okay. In the class every student had to memorize three stories. I now know “The Gingerbread Girl” (a self-created adaptation of “The Gingerbread Boy” which is quite clever if I do say so myself) and “Kate and the Beanstalk” by heart. I am especially fond of the latter for is numerous similarities to Ella Enchanted.

For my final story I learned “Cupid and Psyche”–a story I’ve been wanting to tell since, no joke, 2002. The wait definitely paid off because people really liked it. I’ve developed several “storyteller crushes” (another original term) in the class and my stories were not too badly received either. “Cupid and Psyche” had people laughing, gasping, and totally engaged–it was thrilling to know everyone enjoyed it that much. And as if that weren’t praise enough, which it was, afterward the class forced the teacher to let us have a break because no one wanted to follow me. I’m still embarassed about that, but also happy because it means that they loved the story as much as I already did.

Next week I start my young adult literature and literacy course–also very exciting. I’ve been reading like a maniac to make a dent in the class’ formidable reading list which is why my online murmurmings have been less frequent. I already have a queue of six books to review here!

Anyway, I leave you in high spirits and hope that this post finds you in a similarly chipper mood.

Ghost Huntress: The Awakening (a Chick Lit Wednesday review)

Ghost Huntress: The Awakening by Marley GibsonSometimes, the first line of a book really does tell you everything you need to know. Such is the case for Marley Gibson‘s Ghost Huntress: The Awakening (2009):

It’s too freaking quiet here!

I can’t sleep. Not a wink.

As the story progresses, readers learn that insomnia is the least of sixteen-year-old Kendall Moorehead’s problems. After her family moves from Chicago to the middle of nowhere smalltown Radisson, Georgia, Kendall has to adjust to a new school, make new friends, figure out if her house is haunted. Oh, and she has to figure out what’s going on with her new possibly psychic abilities.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the story is basically a behind-the-scene’s expose of what goes on in those ghost hunting TV shows that are so popular of late but with teenage girls as the ghost hunters (huntresses). Even after growing up in a household skeptical of ghost hunting endeavors, the plot did sound promising. Unfortunately the writing was not equal to the task of holding this reader’s attention.

The main problem in Ghost Huntress: The Awakening is that the writing is extremely erratic. The book is written in the present tense, a technique that is very popular with teen titles, but it just didn’t work here. Instead of subtly making the novel more immediate, it just made it very clear that the story was written in the present tense and that Kendall was very, very talkative.

Kendall’s narrative voice was also very incongruous. Other characters in the book curse, but Kendall uses words like freaking in combination with expressions that her grandmother enjoyed–it just doesn’t fit with the worldly Chicago urbanite persona that Kendall is at pains to present for herself. Added to that Kendall’s brand-dropping, and constant reminders of what she would be doing were she still in Chicago become grating. For those reasons, the writing simply failed to hold my attention or evoke any kind of involvement with the characters.

A lot of readers talk about “junk food” that they read. Books that are enjoyable but not particularly enriching as literature. I hate to say it, but it seems that Ghost Huntress is destined to join those ranks.

The Last of the High Kings: A review

The Last of the High Kings by Kate ThompsonThe Last of the High Kings (2007) is Kate Thompson‘s sequel to her wonderful debut novel The New Policeman (2005). Some time has passed since J.J. was last seen visiting Tir na n’Og to discover where all the time was going. In fact, quite a bit of time has passed. J.J. is now grown with a wife and children of his own. At first, this time lapse was a jolt as was the changed tone between this book and its predecessor–there was something inherently Irish-sounding in the narrative of The New Policeman that was lacking in Thompson’s new book. At least, I thought it was. Upon re-reading it became apparent that the “Irish-ness” was equally present in both novels.

J.J. and his wife Aisling have made a fine home on the Liddy family farm even though J.J.’s music career keeps him too busy for any actual farming. The Liddy children, teen Hazel, eleven-year-old Jenny, nine-year-old Donal, and the destructive two-year-old Aiden also keep their parents busy. Jenny is particularly difficult to reign in with her willful nature and predilection for skipping school to wander the fields with a mysterious white goat.

Although at the core of the story, none of that is where the story starts. Instead the story begins with a young man, now many, many years dead, waiting on a hill of stones to learn where his future lies. Years later, on that same beacon, a ghost stands guard over the hillside for reasons long forgotten. Throughout the novel this ghost’s fate will intertwine with those of the Liddys in unexpected ways that will change the family forever.

The Last of the High Kings, as the name might suggest, integrates a lot of Irish lore into its plot. Fairies, pukas, and of course ghosts, all play important parts in the story. These magical elements work in strange contrast with the commentary on global warming and other man-made maladies that run beneath the surface of the storyline.

In terms of plot, The Last of the High Kings was not always as enchanting as The New Policeman, partly because readers will already know all about Tir na n’Og and Aengus Og but also because this book had to tread different ground and, at times, made J.J. much less clever than readers of the first book will remember. These problems became less bothersome as the plot moved forward and the story began to move along quite nicely by the halfway point.

The characters found within these pages really are just as charming as those found in The New Policeman. Written in the third person, the narrative follows many characters’ points of view. At first this might make the book seem scattered, but it gets easier as the characters become more familiar. Donal, the quiet and introspective member of the Liddy clan, is a particularly delightful addition. This technique also allows Thompson to look at the family as both individuals and a larger unit. While The New Policeman was largely about the land of eternal youth and fairy lore, The Last of the High Kings is firmly grounded in this world dealing with fantastical elements but also especially with the Liddys reconnecting as a family.

(This book will stand alone without its prequel, however to get the full picture it is really vital to read both titles.)

Possible Pairings: The War of the Oaks by Emma Bull (slightly older target audience), The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, Lily’s Ghosts by Laura Ruby,  The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Murder in Exile: A review

Murder in Exile by Vincent H. O'NeilWhen Frank Cole’s business went belly up, he had hoped bankruptcy would provide him with a fresh start. Instead, thanks to a bizarre court decision, Frank’s future earnings above a certain level are attached to his past debts. Partly to wait out an appeal and partly to spite his creditors, Frank moves down to the small town of Exile, Florida to begin his own exile of sorts until his appeal is resolved one way or another in Murder in Exile (2006), Vincent H. O’Neil‘s first Frank Cole mystery.

Still wary of his time as a company head, Frank doesn’t much mind the easygoing, low responsibility lifestyle he’s created in Exile working odd jobs as a fact checker and playing the odd chess game with Gray Tolliver, a local retiree. In fact, the mellow pace is a nice change from the hectic life he left behind.

When an insurance company hires Frank to do some fact checking on a hit-and-run, he expects a routine case. But the more Frank investigates, the more obvious it becomes that there is more to this case than meets the eye.

O’Neil’s writing is refreshingly original. On top of that, he’s created a really fun protagonist in Frank Cole. The narrative is breezy, light, and willing to crack a joke when necessary. The premise that brings Frank to Exile is not, it is true, the most probable. But it is most enjoyable, as is  Murder in Exile itself–a quick, delightful read that delves into the world of fact checking and research just as easily as the world of murder and mystery. On top of that, this novel was also the winner of the Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Press Best First Traditional Mystery Contest.

Franks adventures continue in Reduced Circumstances (2007).

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine HoweThe Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (2009) is Katherine Howe’s first novel. Find it on Bookshop.

Given the plot, comparisons between the author’s life and her fictional heroine are inevitable, so they might as well be addressed sooner rather than later.

Howe is herself in a PhD program for American and New England History. Based on various family member’s genealogy research, Howe’s ancestors are also Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor. Anyone familiar with Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible will likely recognize the Proctor name. If not, let it be said that both Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor were accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts during the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 (the event at the core of The Crucible).

In her postscript Howe notes that, in writing The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, she decided to take the Salem villagers at their word and create a novel that answers a simple, not often asked, question: what if witches and witchcraft were really present in Salem? That is also, perhaps, the most important thing to remember while reading this book in order to keep the blend of realism and magic in perspective.

One of the most compelling scenes from The Crucible came when Giles Corey was pressed to death under a great pile of stones. The villagers asked Corey to admit that he was guilty of witchcraft. But each time Corey refused, instead only saying, “More weight.” It’s an intense moment. It is also the first thing readers encounter in Howe’s novel which begins with an epigraph from an actual letter fragment describing the circumstances of Giles Corey’s death. Perhaps this is a naive statement, but it seems to follow that if you read and enjoyed The Crucible, Howe’s novel will prove equally enjoyable.

The actual story follows several tenacious women beginning in 1681 straight through to 1991–the present time period of the book. The protagonist, Connie Goodwin, is a PhD student much like Howe herself. That is possibly why the academic aspects of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane ring so true. This novel spends a fair bit of time dealing with academia and also academic research, providing and informed and detailed window into both. This may prove uninteresting to some. To actual academics/research professionals it might prove profoundly interesting.

Studying Colonial American History at Harvard, Connie Goodwin has just passed through her orals unscathed, able now to advance to candidacy for her PhD and begin work on her dissertation. Connie’s plans to begin work on her dissertation, specifically on finding a new and exciting primary source for it, are derailed when her hippie mother calls from New Mexico and asks Connie to uproot her life to clean out her grandmother’s long vacant house near Salem.

Upon arriving in Salem Connie finds a seventeenth century house requiring its own research. At the same time, with the help of a local preservationist, Connie realizes that magic is a pervasive aspect of life in Salem. Soon a mysterious key leads Connie to the name Deliverance Dane and mention of an elusive “physick book” that could change everything previously known about witchcraft in colonial America. As her personal and professional lives merge in pursuit of the book, it becomes clear that more is at stake–for Connie and those closest to her–than a primary source for her dissertation.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane has a lot of appeal for a variety of readers. It is also a gripping story with a very interesting plot. (At times Connie is a bit too stiff and analytical, but as the book moves forward she does evolve.) The story follows not only Connie’s story but also Deliverance Dane and her descendants in interludes that mirror Connie’s research about the book and shed some light on the women who passed it down from generation to generation.

The plot itself has action, suspense, pathos, some humor, and it must be said a fair dose of the fantastical–but somehow it all works. Howe has created a fascinating commentary on one of America’s most compelling and most infamous periods in history with this debut novel.

Possible Pairings: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman, The Crucible by Arthur Miller (or the play or the movie), Murder in Exile by Vincent H. O’Neil, The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

What I did with my weekend

The weekend was good for the blog. Lewis Harris, the author of a A Taste for Red found my review online and commented on it thanking me for the kind words. I email authors to tell them about my reviews, but it’s always fun when the authors find the reviews before I tell them about it. I don’t know why, it just is. Also, earlier this month, I emailed Susan Juby a link to the review I wrote for Alice McLeod, Realist at Last. Juby thanked me for the review and asked if I would like her or he publisher to send copies of her book as they come out. I, of course, said I would absolutely love that. This Saturday a shiny new copy of Getting the Girl arrived in the mail from Harper Collins with a letter saying that the book was being sent on the authors behalf since she had requested I receive a copy. And that might be the coolest thing that happened to me this week.

On Sunday I went with my mom to the flower district to buy a tree for our back terrace area. We are now the proud owners of a cypress tree (possibly Italian) that is around my height. Getting it home was not so bad since it fit in a taxi cab with us, although motion sickness and nausea were unforeseen side effects for me.

Later on Sunday, after potting the tree, I ventured to the garage with Mom’s retiree neighbor friend to steal some plants. Yes. I do not know the names of the purloined potted plants, but they look lovely in our recently purchased urn.

Sunday night ended on a low note with my being up until approximately three in the morning in the throes of a sneezing fit. I was cured by Monday–except for feeling draggy and too exhausted for work–and able to tell “Kate and the Beanstalk” to my Storytelling classmates with style and flair before also taking part in a “peppy” group presentation on variants of Little Red Riding Hood. All in all, a promising start to the week.

“We both fail. A lot.”

When a patron inquired about a library near 100 Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

Bear: “I don’t know. Do you Miss Print?”

Miss Print: “No I do not.”

Patron leaves.

Later:

Miss Print: “Did she mean the library branch we were at last week for that training program.”

Bear: “Yeah, she probably did.”

Miss Print: “We both fail. A lot.”

A Taste for Red: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Taste for Red by Lewis HarrisSvetlana Grimm, the protagonist of Lewis Harris’ debut novel A Taste for Red (2009) (find it on Bookshop) is not your average eleven-year-old. Even after starting at Sunny Hill Middle School in California, after years of being home schooled in Texas, Svetlana is just not like the other sixth graders in her class. Svetlana has a penchant for black clothes that is almost as strong as her preference for red foods. She sleeps under her bed. She can sometimes read, and influence, people’s thoughts. And she thinks she might be a vampire.

When Svetlana realizes that her enigmatic science teacher Ms. Larch can also read thoughts, Svetlana thinks she might have found another of her kind. But the more Svetlana learns about Ms. Larch the more obvious it is that the two are nothing alike. Suddenly instead of an ally, Svetlana might have a very dangerous enemy on her hands.

A Taste for Red is a humorous, sometimes suspenseful, always fun book that takes the conventions of vampire stories and throws them out the window. At the beginning of the novel Svetlana spends a lot of time cluing readers in about the reality behind those silly vampire myths–sleeping in coffins? Pah.

Other reviewers have drawn parallels between this book and the Buffy TV series and even Nancy Drew. Both comparisons are well-founded. This book (series hopefully!) is not, however, strictly for girls.

Svetlana quickly recruits two boys in her class to act as her sidekicks. The tone of this novel is also gender neutral. Svetlana walks the line between “girly girl” and “tom boy” to become a character that will appeal to everyone. That is not to say she doesn’t have a sharp tongue. Indeed, Svetlana’s narration borders on the surly at the beginning of the novel with a tone reminiscent of Stewie from “Family Guy”–she mellows with time.

Harris has created a really fun, original plot here with a new take on vampires without any annoying romantic entanglements. At first it was unclear if Svetlana would be equally likable, but she totally is. Provided you like fantasy, this book really will appeal to everyone.

At 176 pages, A Taste for Red is also excellent for reluctant readers looking for a fast, exciting read and younger readers who want to read about the vampires they keep hearing about everywhere.