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Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Rain in Portugal

First of all, you have to understand that I am not normally a reader of poetry.  However, I have heard Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, interviewed several times on NPR (including one memorable episode of Wait! Wait!), so when I saw of copy of The Rain in Portugal (#648) displayed on a shelf in my local library, I picked it up on a whim.  How was I to know that it was a portent?

Suffice it to say that most of the poems did not go where I expected, and therein lays their charm and delight for this reader.  I cannot say more in praise than I have determined to possess a copy of my own The Rain in Portugal to peruse whenever it takes my fancy.  Thus a fan is born.

Oh, I did mention that this slim volume was a portent, didn't I?  Before the week was out, I had booked my own trip there.  I promise not to write poetry about it!

Burning Blue

After hearing Paul Griffin speak at BookMania! recently, I had to read the book he spoke about, Burning Blue (#647).  Although it is classified as a Young Adult novel (which might put some adults off), this is an engrossing read.  It's all too easy to put yourself in the place of the young protagonists.

The plot revolves around a real-life incident which Paul Griffin responded to as a New York EMT, adapted to a high school setting.  In a matter of seconds, the life of Brandywine Hollows' most popular, brainy and beautiful girl is changed forever when someone throws acid in her face.  She is unable to identify her assailant, and thereby hangs the tale.  When a chance encounter in the school psychologist's office brings loner Jay in contact with her, he resolves to use his hacker skills to uncover the perpetrator.  There are many suspects, and many possible motives, but I have to admit, I never saw the end of this one coming!

It's easy to see why his young adult target audience relates so well to Griffin.  He and Jay Asher, the other Young Adult panelist, held workshops at a local high school before BookMania!, and arranged to have lunch with a group of them the day of the event.  His book touched on trigger points for this group: alienation from the group because you are somehow different, questions of identity and self worth; loss of a parent through death or divorce, love and friendship, trust.  Nothing could make this book more real or compelling.  Read it and find out for yourself.  Highly recommended.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Hidden Family

The Hidden Family (#646), by Charles Stross is the second book in his fantasy series, The Merchant Princes.  It picks up right where the first book left off (See my post of 3/20/17.), and ends with an event that the reader knows will be continued in the next volume.

We now have not two, but three alternate universes; the geographies of all three coincide, but their history, technological advances and politics do not.  Miriam Beckstein is determined to not become a victim in any of these worlds, and in a bid to keep her independence in the second world, she sees a way to create her own fortune in the third universe.  If she can stay alive, that is.  One of the unfortunate features of all three universes is that there are assassins who can reach her there.  She knows who she can trust in her own world, and gradually she is coming to trust others in her alternate universes.  Those are a lot of balls to keep in the air while walking between worlds, but that's the nature of the high stakes game she found herself in.

Can't wait to read the next installment!

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

I've missed Lisa See, and her newest novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (#645) does not disappoint. 

As in her previous novels, family is paramount.  Li-yan is Akha, a member of an ethnic Chinese hill tribe in the province of Yunnan.  Her remote village revolves around the collection of tea leaves from their ancient trees.  But Li-yan's mother introduces her to a special, hidden grove of ancient trees high on the mountain.  It's her inheritance, but her a-ma is insistent that no man may visit the grove, nor learn of its location.  In most ways, Li-yan is obedient to the centuries-old traditions that govern the lives of Spring Well Village, but the day she attends the birth of twins with her mother, the village midwife, her thinking begins to change, especially when she falls in love with an unsuitable boy.

When she gives birth to a girl out of wedlock, she is forced from the village.  She takes the child to an orphanage in Menghai, where she leaves her.  Many years later, when her fortunes change, she and her husband return to Menghai to reclaim the child, only to find she has been sent to America to be adopted.  When Li-yan is forced once again to create a new future for herself, it is in the tea trade.  She becomes an expert on Pu'er tea, the rare tea that comes from Nannuo Mountain, her home.  Her life is set on a different course that will lead to profound discoveries.

I found this book very interesting, although a bit disjointed.  I thought the information about how the hill tribes in China lived until fairly recently was fascinating.  Also, as a tea drinker, I was intrigued to learn about a variety that I will make it a point to try in the future.  I hope Lisa See is correct in her prediction that a tea boom is coming the United States.  I never order tea when out because nobody here seems to know how to make it properly.  Warm water with a tea bag on the saucer beside the cup just don't make it.  No wonder Americans don't appreciate tea!  However, when Li-yan's daughter grows up, the switches back and forth between the mother and daughter aren't always smoothly handled, with several techniques being used: letters, medical records, school assignments, narratives, etc.  But still overall, this book gets a big thumbs up from me.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Portal of a Thousand Worlds

Dave Duncan is a new author for me, but I can guarantee that I'll be looking to read more of his books after finishing Portal of a Thousand Worlds (#644).  Although this is classified as SciFi/Fantasy, it's set in a Victorian Age thinly-disguised China.  Like Guy Gavriel Kay's outstanding Chinese fantasy novel River of Stars, it's grounded in a recognizable setting and culture.

The story moves from the shadowy world of the Gray Helpers, where we meet the orphan boy Tug, so desperate to survive he offers to kill for the Gray Helpers if only they will feed him.  Far away, we meet another boy locked away in a fortress and tortured by his imperial captor.  In this life, he is known as Sunlight, but he has lived many, many lives.  The distant court seeks his knowledge of the opening of the Portal of a Thousand Worlds, predicted to be coming soon.  In the capital itself , Heart of the World, the Empress Mother controls the court with an iron fist and her personal assassin.  No one is allowed to see the Emperor Absolute Purity, and rumors abound that there is something wrong with him, or that he is actually dead.  Meanwhile a rebel army has arisen in the south under the Bamboo Banner determined to drive the Empress Mother from the throne.

Mr. Duncan has taken these threads and woven them together into an enthralling tale of power, lust, betrayal, adventure and illusion across a sweeping landscape, building to the climax of the Portal's opening.  I found it hard to put this book down,but alas, as with all good things the ending came much too soon.

Clownfish Blues

My favorite Florida serial killer, Serge A. Storm, is back in Tim Dorsey's Clownfish Blues (#643), and this time he's skewering the Florida Lottery, worm grunting and the town of Cassadaga.  Okay, Cassadaga is a target for a lot of people who enjoy poking fun at Florida, but nobody does it like Serge and his faithful sidekick.

This time Serge is paying tribute to one of his favorite TV shows - Route 66.  I must admit, that's not a series I know a lot about, so I didn't realize that in its last season, a number of episodes were shot at Florida locations.  Apparently the series stars found a job at each location, so Serge sets out to emulate them, meeting the usual cast of crazies along the way.

Of course when one of the families he meets tells him about a problem with an elderly aunt, Serge does deal out a well deserved end for the caretaker who has cut off all contact with his client's concerned family, and put his name on all her bank accounts.  Unfortunately, that's all too common here.  It's nice for once to imagine that someone so callous actually gets what they deserve!  Of course, that's what keeps me rooting for Serge.  That, and the lists in each book of interesting places to visit here in Florida.  I think I'll give Cassadaga and its mediums and New Age mumbo jumbo a miss, though.  Always a fun read.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Family Trade

How can a day go so wrong?  Miriam Beckstein covers the bio tech beat for a small Cambridge-based trade journal.  Her research assistant Paulie has just given her evidence of money laundering at two of the biggest firms in the country.  It promises to be the scoop of her lifetime.  So why does her boss on the executive floor hustle her and Paulie out of his office and have them escorted out of the building by Security?  And why does her adopted mother insist on today, of all days, on presenting her with a battered locket and a box of clippings about her birth mother's unsolved murder?  All Miriam was looking for was a little sympathy.  She certainly never expected to end the day with threatening phone calls, or worse yet, being chased through the woods by medieval knights on horseback shooting at her with machine pistols!

Fantasy writer Charles Stross grabs your attention in The Family Trade (#642), Book One of the Merchant Princes.  By the time Miriam figures out that her mother's locket allows her to pass between alternate universes located in roughly the same geographical area, her presence has been detected by forces on the other side.  In that universe, she is heir to a title and a huge fortune as a long-lost member of a powerful merchant family moving goods between the two worlds.  Needless to say, where money is involved, not everyone is happy with Miriam's sudden and unexpected reappearance.  In fact, at least two factions are determined to see her dead...

Action, romance, suspense and humor are all part of this fun read.  As Miriam fits together the pieces of her new world, while maintaining a foothold in the equally perilous world she left behind in Cambridge, the plot keeps twisting until Miriam is no longer sure just who she can trust on either side.  She's safe for the moment, but I know that will only last until I get my hands on Book Two!