Wednesday, August 27, 2008

'Black Sheep" by Georgette Heyer

ISBN: 1402210787
Format: Paperback, 288pp
Publisher: Sourcebooks, Incorporated
Pub. Date: June 2008
Price: $13.95

I’m slowly but surely working my way through Georgette Heyer’s extensive catalogue of Regency and Historic romances. My latest read, and quite possibly my favorite, is Black Sheep which was first published 1966 but has recently been re-released by Sourcebooks Casablanca.

Our heroine, Abigail Wendover, believes that at 28 she is well past her prime. Living in Bath with her older unmarried sister Selina and in charge of her niece Fanny, the last thought on Abigail’s mind is romance. But when her young charge gets swept her off feet by Stacy Calverleigh, a known fortune hunter, Abigail turns to the rouge’s uncle for assistance.

But Miles Calverleigh, the acknowledged black sheep of the family, doesn’t really care what his good-for-nothing nephew Stacy is up to. He’s just returned from India, where he spent several years paying for a youthful mistake, and isn’t concerned with his relatives. And though he is immediately drawn to Abigail he still firmly refuses to help her in her rescue mission.

Stacy meanwhile has charmed the whole of Bath including Aunt Selina and Fanny feels herself very lucky to be the choice of a fashionable man. But Abigail has seen him for what he really is and as the young lovers prepare to elope Abigail does everything she can to stop it, with or without the help of Miles.

Of course one of the things I love so much about a Heyer Regency Romance are the wonderful secondary characters. The fussy relatives, the friends, and the place all play a huge role and add depth to the book. With stand out main characters and sharp, funny dialogue Georgette Heyer is an entertaining read from start to finish.

Over all Black Sheep was a lighter quicker read than Heyer’s An Infamous Army or Friday’s Child. While it’s defiantly shorter in length the feeling of the novel was also very different. The romance between Abigail and Miles Calverleigh, between these two older characters, is less formal than the romances in some of the other books. Abigail, sure that she couldn’t be in love, is just enjoying what she thinks of as a mild flirtation with the hopes of helping Fanny. But it hits her that her feelings are much, much more. Miles on the other hand realizes that Abigail is it from the start and won’t take no for an answer.

And the end? It’s perfect. I don’t think that I’ve enjoyed a Heyer ending more, and that’s saying a lot since they’re all good. Black Sheep is now one of my all time favorites and even though I’ve just finished it I think I might have to read it again. It’s that good.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

'Superpowers' by David J. Schwartz

ISBN: 0307394409
Format: Paperback, 384pp
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Pub. Date: June 2008
Price: $14.95

(Note: this cover is the UK one. I just like it better)

The big question with this one is: Do you have to be a comics fan to get it? Easy answer: No you don’t. But it helps. Reading this novel you can tell the author is a huge fan. Big names like The Hulk, Spider Man, and Batman are dropped pretty early on and a conversation with a comic book store clerk confirms the fandom. But even if you aren’t into the graphic side of life there’s a good chance you’ll find something to like about David J. Schwartz's Superpowers.

“It all started with a party, which is damn convenient if you ask me, and if this weren’t a true story I wouldn’t expect you to believe it.” Marcus Hatch, an ex-reporter for his college paper with a bent toward conspiracy theories, writes in his introduction. He’s the one who recounts the tale of five collage students who suddenly find life holds more than they thought it could. In Wisconsin, on a street called Mifflin, a group of average collage kids get together to celebrate the end of term. The five settle into their home brewed beers never expecting that they will wake up the next morning and everything will have changed.

All five wake up with a superpower. Jack, a farm kid going to school full time and working, brewed the beer and wakes up with speed. Charlie, who has a crush on his neighbor Caroline and always seems to be worrying about something, wakes up with the power of telepathy. Caroline, the flirt that has caught Charlie’s attention, can now fly. Harriet, dedicated to the school paper and her love of music, can now turn invisible at will. Last but not least is Mary Beth who wakes up with super strength, a power that fits her best because out the whole group she could use it the most.

What these five discover is that having superpowers isn’t all fun and games. Each character has hardships and obstacles that they must face and overcome before they can grow and truly understand themselves and the gift they’ve been given. They have to decide if they should keep this to themselves or do some good with it by sharing with the world.

Superpowers will definitely hook you if you’re a 15 and up guy. There’s drinking and some sexual situations so this isn’t a book I’d pass off to anyone younger. And the writing is styled to hit the older market for young adults and beyond. It’s bittersweet, a lesson buried in there if you want to look about morality and responsibility, and if not the story is entertaining and unusual.

We’ve all heard the old adage ‘write what you know’ and to an extent Schwartz has done that. Sure he might not have the superpowers (or does he?) but he lived on Mifflin Street (where the characters live) and spent a lot of time in the area he based his novel around. You can feel that while reading, that this is a real place and real time and that maybe, just maybe, this could really happen.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

'The Painter from Shanghai' by Jennifer Cody Epstein

ISBN: 0393065286
Format: Hardcover, 416pp
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Pub. Date: March 2008
Price: $24.95

After turning the last page in The Painter from Shanghai, my first thought was one of amazement. This is Jennifer Cody Epstein’s first novel and it flows off the page as if some famous historical author had penned it. Which I’m sure she will be in time.

With a deft talent, not unlike a skilled painter, Jennifer Cody Epstein brings to life Pan Yuliang a “one-time prostitute, postimpressionist, and adopted Parisian” who lived from 1899-1977. Pan Yuliang was infamous as much for her past as her nude self-portraits, and Jennifer Cody Epstein brings this woman to life on the pages. Yuliang is a character so real that once the book is closed, she haunts you.

We are first introduced to Yuliang in 1957, working in a studio in France. She’s painting two nude models, swept up in her work, but the past creeps in. In the first few pages you are swept away by the strength of the woman on the page, her view of the world. Only once we have met her as a semi-successful artist do we go back and get the rest of the story.

At the age of fourteen Yuliang is sold into prostitution in Wuhu by her only living relative, an opium addicted uncle. Soon she has adapted to life in the Flower House, becoming the top-girls protégée and eventually taking over the spot. Here she meets Pan Zanhua, a government official who buys her out of her contract at the Flower House.

Yuliang goes to live with Zanhua which causes a stir in the town of Wuhu. But Zanhua isn’t just interested in her body or the services she could perform for him. He is unexpected in every way to Yulaing, in that he speaks to her as an equal and is interested in thoughts and beliefs. The two fall in love and Yliang becomes his second wife. Zanhua is a rock for Yuliang, supporting her ambitions for education and eventually her dreams to paint.

When the gossip becomes too much in Wuhu and begins to affect Zanhua’s career he moves Yuliang to Shanghai. It is in Shanghai that Yuliang starts to really sketch and expand on her natural born talent. She eventually attends school and goes abroad to study in France and Italy. Yulaing becomes famous for her nude self portraits as well as her blend of Western and Eastern styles. Yulaing’s dedication to her art eventually leads to her becoming a target of the Chinese government.

I have no real complaints with this novel. You are treated to the high points of Yuliang’s life and not bogged down with extra information, which in turn moves the novel forward at a steady pace that never falters. From her life in the false beauty of the Flower House to the streets of Paris, and the city and people in-between, Jennifer Cody Epstein breathes life into Pan Yulaing and when the book ends she only leaves you wanting more.

The Painter from Shanghai is by turns sad and uplifting, brilliant and bright as only an artist’s life can be. But Pan Yuliang isn’t the only artist on the page. Jennifer Cody Epstein paints this painter’s life with words, leaving the mind full of colorful images and half dreams as the pages swirl by.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

'Making Money' by Terry Pratchett

ISBN: 0061161640
Format: Hardcover, 384pp
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $25.95

Moist Von Lipwig is the original con man. He’s so good at it that he’s conned the entire city of Ank-Morpork into believing he’s honest and trustworthy. The thing is that they believe in him even though he keeps telling them they shouldn’t! After all, Ank-Morpork loves a good show. In Going Postal Moist took over the dying Ank-Morpork postal service and turned into a jewel of the city. So when the Royal Bank of Ank-Morpork falls on some hard times the obvious choice is the man in the Golden Suit.

Lord Vetinari, in a very Vetinari move, lets Moist maneuver himself into the job; a job that Moist is convinced he doesn’t necessarily want. But lately the Post Office just hasn’t felt the same and Moist is missing that zing from life that lets him know he’s alive. It doesn’t help that his fiancé, Adore Belle Dearheart or Spike for short, is away hunting Golems. With her gone Moist has resorted to Extreme Sneezing and picking all the locks in the Post Office building in the dark to get that zing.

But once Moist takes over the Royal Bank life is crackling again. He’s got a lot of work ahead of him if he’s going to convince the city that paper money is just as good as gold. Especially when the bank vaults turn out to be empty and oh-so-serious Mr. Bent, manger of the bank, decides that Moist isn’t the right kind of man for the job. With Cosmo Lavish, part owner of the bank, dreaming of being Vetinari and a man from Moist’s dark past creeping up from behind, Moist has a lot on his plate.

There are always a few supporting characters that steal the show. I’ve always been partial to the Igors when they show up, in whatever incarnation, and of course the Golems. In Making Money my hands down favorite was Mrs. Lavish. How fantastic is a gin-swilling, silver-cross-bow-toting old woman? Fantastic I tell you! Of course the Chairman was good too. How can you not love a dog that is partial to the kind of goodies kept in a bedside drawer? My one complaint with this whole wonderful book is that I felt Pratchett could have gone into more detail with the Royal Mint and the men who actually make the money, The Men of the Sheds. Instead these aspects were glossed over, mystery hinted at but never uncovered. I hate to complain (says the complainer) but I wanted more damnit! More!

However when I’m feeling a bit down and need a laugh I pick up my well loved paperback copy of (insert title here). You can’t go wrong with any of the Discworld novels. But, like his characters, Prachett is well rounded. He’ll make you laugh and think, possibly even tear up before a book ends. (Usually with laughter) Pratchett uses his humor to comment on the world today and the relevant issues we face. But he’s never preachy about it and he doesn’t let it get in the way of a good story.

If you are going to read Terry Pratchett for the first time I wouldn’t start with Making Money. You’ll get more out of this title if you’ve read Going Postal (especially since both books contain the same set of characters) and you’d get even more out of it if you’ve read the rest of the Discworld series.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

'The Thirty-Nine Steps' by John Buchan

ISBN: 0141033738
Format: Paperback, 148pp
Publisher: Viking Penguin
Price: $10.00

First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is John Buchan’s first book in which Richard Hannay has one of his many adventures. This newest edition is part of Penguin’s Great Books for Boys collection, which focuses on celebrating the adventurer within every boy. It’s not just boys who have an inner adventurer. The series, whether you’re young or old, male or female, will appeal to those who enjoy a thrilling edge-of-your-seat read.

Set just four weeks before World War I, The Thirty-Nine Steps is the story of Richard Hannay and his entanglement with international spies and a German plot to steal British military secrets. He is bored with London life and is considering moving on when he meets his seemingly normal upstairs neighbor. The man, who begs to be let into his apartment, soon tells a tale too grand to be a lie.

He is an American spy with knowledge of an assassination to take place on June 15th and that will rock Europe. Upon hearing the truth in the man’s words, Richard decides to help him. When he arrives home one evening to discover the spy’s body with a knife sticking through the heart, Richard realizes how entangled he has become. With one man murdered and the killers after him, Richard decides to run - and stay on the run until the 15th comes around so he can try to prevent the murder of another innocent man.

Through the wilds of Scotland, Richard is chased by a dark, unknown enemy, as well as his own country’s police. Between frantic chase scenes and thrilling escapes, Richard tries to unlock the secrets held in the murdered American spy’s diary. The diary is the key to it all, and Richard could save the day if only he could discover what “the thirty-nine steps” means before it’s too late.

One of the things I loved so much about this book was the feel for the era. It helps that it was written about the time the novel took place. I just don’t think, no matter how meticulously you do your research, that a modern author could have hit the same chords or achieved the same feeling. From the language and settings to the places and people, The Thirty-Nine Steps is perfect entertainment.

The book is short, just 160 pages, and you’ll want to read it all in one go. From the moment you first meet Richard as he becomes embroiled in a plot that covers nations, you just can’t put the book down. Honestly, why would you want to?

Monday, June 9, 2008

'Friday's Child' by Georgette Heyer

ISBN: 1402210795
Format: Paperback, 432pp
Publisher: Sourcebooks, Incorporated
Price: $12.95

If you’re looking for a good laugh with your Regency romance, look no father than Friday’s Child, another of Georgette Heyer’s engrossing and unforgettable novels.

Lord Sherrington - Sherry for short - is exactly the kind of young man any woman would be lucky to have; rich, well bred, and dashing, he has any number of nice qualities to recommend him. Or so he thinks, and when the Incomparable Beauty Miss Milborne, a childhood friend, refuses him in marriage he can’t understand why. On top of that, she accuses him of being a libertine and a gambler who doesn’t love her anyway. But Sherry isn’t going to give up on marriage that easily; it just might not involve Miss Milborne.

Sherry is determined that he should be married before his 25th birthday so that he might come into his inheritance sooner. Of course, it doesn’t help that he has a number of gambling debts hanging over his head, nothing too deep mind you, but just enough to make a gentleman a bit nervous. Sherry swears as he leaves Miss Milborne that he will marry the first woman he meets. Fortunately for him, that woman is Miss Hero Wantage.

Hero, another childhood friend of Sherry’s, has worshiped him from day one, and when he sweeps her off her feet in a run away marriage she feels just like Cinderella. Of course Hero might not be as beautiful as Miss Milborne or as refined and educated, but she has her charms, namely among them her innocence and complete trust in Sherry. So when Sherry says that it will be a marriage of convenience and he won’t interfere with her life if she doesn’t interfere with his, she agrees. However, going from a quiet country life as a poor relation to the bride of one of the more eligible men in London, Hero is sure to get herself into a few tight spots. Between Sherry’s wonderful friends, who take it upon themselves to look after Hero and of course Sherry, they manage to pull her out of each one with only a few minor scrapes and her reputation intact.

The premise for Friday’s Child is one that has been done a million times before and will be done a million times again. Girl and boy fall in love without realizing it or meaning to, and after a few slapstick mistakes, they live happily ever after. However, Georgette Heyer puts a smart spin on it, and with her secondary characters (here for comedic relief), the story comes to life. With each problem that Hero faces, you will both cringe and laugh. When Sherry finally realizes that he loves his wife above all things, you have to smile.

Friday’s Child is a cut above the rest, which is saying quite a lot since this is Georgette Heyer we’re talking about and all her books happen to be fantastic. Friday’s Child is filled with likable characters that stick with you and witty dialogue that will make you laugh out loud. This was one I simply couldn’t put down, and I even took it to the gym with me and turned pages while I cycled away to nowhere. It’s just that great.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

'Window on the Square' by Phyllis A. Whitney

Danger, romance, and suspense! All these things can be found in Phyllis A. Whitney’s Window on the Square. Published in 1962, this classic novel of romantic suspense was called a “haunting absorbing suspense” by the Columbus Enquirer and “a superior whodunit” by the New York Morning Telegraph.

The scene is late fall in New York in the 1870’s. The weather is just starting to get colder, leaves falling to skitter across the pavement, and the smell of snow is in the air. The women are wearing long gowns complete with bustles, and Megan Kincaid is all alone in the world. She recently lost her mother and only sibling, a younger brother with a disability, in a runaway coach accident. Megan, armed only with her inferior dressmaking skills, is facing the unknown.

Megan’s salvation comes in the guise of Mrs. Brandon Reid. At one time Leslie Reid had been married to the prominent New York District Attorney, Dwight Reid, the golden child of the city, who was gunned down in an unfortunate accident involving his seven-year-old son, Jeremy. Now Mrs. Reid is married to Dwight’s older brother, Brandon, and the house in which the murder happened is filled with the echoes of a single gun shot.

Asked to the house under the pretense of making Mrs. Reid a new gown, Megan knows her paltry skills would in no way please the coldly elegant beauty that is Leslie Reid. Once at the house on Washington Square, Megan is interviewed not by Mrs. Reid, but Mr. Reid. He apologizes for the false pretense and quickly explains he had heard of her wonderful success with her disabled brother and wonders if she would be willing to work with his nephew Jeremy.

Jeremy, he explains, is troubled and is heading down a path in which he could be lost forever. Megan, seeing the need of the small child, quickly agrees and moves into the house on Washington Square where she is installed on the third floor - but things in this elegant house filled with elegant people are not as they ought to be.

Observing Mr. and Mrs. Reid’s relationship, Megan notices the chill and reserve they both wear at times; the masks they use to hide whatever burning emotions lurk beneath. Mrs. Reid’s old governess, and now the keeper of Jeremy’s younger sister, Selina, Miss Garth instantly dislikes Megan and viscously attacks her character on several occasions. The children’s tutor, Mr. Beach, warns Megan that Jeremy is a lost cause and that she should escape the house as soon as possible, least something horrible befall to her.

What really happened that night so long ago between Jeremy and his father? Why does Miss Garth so viciously dislike Megan? What is it that Mr. Beach is so afraid will happen? Why does Mrs. Reid stay closed away in her room? And why, oh why, is Mr. Brandon Reid going out of his way to please Megan?

You will be kept on the edge of your seat as the story unfolds and Megan comes closer and closer to a truth that will destroy the imagined peace at the house on Washington Square.