Friday, May 27, 2016

665 (2016 #20). The Masque of the Black Tulip

by Lauren Willig,
read by Kate Reading

This is the second of 12 (full) books (there are also two novellas and a short story) in the Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig (whose bio sounds a bit like the Eloise character in the book).  I listened to the first in the series a couple years ago, and enjoyed it, so I decided to continue when I wanted a "light" read (or listen, in this case).

It's still 1803 (summer), but this book focuses on two characters who played a minor role in the first book, Lady Henrietta Selwick and Miles Dorrington.  They are, respectively, the little sister and the best friend of Sir Richard Selwick, the former spy known as "The Purple Gentian."  Henrietta takes on the bumbling amateur spy role played by her now-sister-in-law Amy Balcourt Selwick from the first book.  In this case, she and Miles are trying to catch the mysterious French spy, the Black Tulip.

Naturally there is romance and some steamy sex and a few cameos by real historical characters, although a bit out of context.  And naturally I figured out pretty quickly who the Black Tulip was.

Once again, framing this story is the 2003 tale of Eloise, who is continuing her work on a dissertation on the mysterious British spy known as the Pink Carnation.  She spends the weekend exploring the archives at Selwick Hall, with Richard's descendant, Colin Selwick (and of course there are hints of romance there - at least for Eloise - but not much).

Kate Reading (real name:  Jennifer Mendenhall) does a fine job with American, British, and French accents and both male and female voices in the audiobook.  I will likely listen to a few more in the series when I'm looking for something funny, easy, and entertaining.

© Amanda Pape - 2016

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

553 (2016 #19). Vinegar Girl

by Ann Tyler

Vinegar Girl is a fun retelling of Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew by bestselling author Anne Tyler (an author I am not that familiar with, as I have only read one of her books, years ago).  It's been stripped down to its essentials - Katharina (Kate in this book), Petruchio (Pyotr), and Baptista Minola (Dr. Battista).  These three main characters lack a lot of social skills - which of course makes the story funny.

Baptista's daughter and Katharina's sister Bianca (Bunny in the book) still appears, but her distracting subplot is (mostly) gone - as is (thankfully) the confusing introductory induction scene (no Christopher Sly here!).

I'm much more familiar with The Taming of the Shrew, having seen the play performed at least five times.  That made it quite easy to see the parallels in this book.  They are merely parallels, though, as Tyler has crafted a unique version of the tale, set in modern times, with an interesting twist in the plot.

The clever title comes from a comment Pyotr/Petruchio makes to Kate/Katharina that reflects his Russian's fascination with American idioms.  There's also a reworking of Katharina's (in)famous "obedience" speech at the end that's much more up-to-date.  Tyler also adds a humorous epilogue, set about six years later - perhaps as an opposite to the induction in Shakespeare's play.

Vinegar Girl is the third in the Hogarth Shakespeare series of books where bestselling authors are commissioned to retell stories from Shakespeare.  I didn't really care for the second book in the series, based on The Merchant of Venice which, like The Taming of the Shrew, also deals with a politically-incorrect (today) theme - Anne Tyler just handled it much better, in my opinion.   However, I'm interested in reading the first book as well as future titles in the series.  I do think this is a series where it is helpful to have read the Shakespeare play the book is based on, particularly if you are otherwise unfamiliar with the retelling author's work.

© Amanda Pape - 2016

[I received this advance reader edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

552 (2016 #18). An Armadillo in New York

by Julie Kraulis

Arlo is a very cute little armadillo (from Brazil - which I did not realize had armadillos), who loves to travel.  Author/illustrator Julie Kraulis' first book had him traveling to Paris, this one takes him to New York City.

Arlo's grandfather Augustin wrote travel journals that help Arlo plan his trips.  The journals refer to a "Lady Liberty" Arlo will meet, with lots of information about her.  Some of the references, though, are a bit vague ("she has had a few opera cameos"?  "often spotted at the [Yankees baseball] games"?).  The book ends with Arlo gazing up at the statue of liberty (in a double-page spread that is oriented at 90 degrees), plus a few additional facts about the statue.

This book reminds me of the old series of "This Is..." travel books by M. (Miroslav) Sasek that I loved growing up, as well as the Bluebonnet the Armadillo series by Mary Brooke Casad, featuring an armadillo traveling to interesting spots in my home state of Texas.

The author used oil paint and graphite pencil in her illustrations.  The inside of the dust jacket doubles as a poster promoting the book.

© Amanda Pape - 2016

[I received this hardbound book though the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]

Sunday, May 15, 2016

551 (2016 #17). Heart of a Champion

by Ellen Schwartz

The internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II forms the backdrop to this middle-grade novel that's more about family and perseverance.

Nine-year-old Kenny (Kenjo) Sakamoto lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his father, a  World War I veteran who owns a camera shop, his homemaker mother (the only family member not born in Canada), a younger sister, Sally, and an older brother, 16-year-old Mickey (Mitsuo), a baseball star. Mickey plays for the Vancouver Asahi, a (real) Japanese-Canadian baseball team that won the Pacific Northwest League championship from 1937 through 1941.  Kenny emulates his older brother, but a supposed heart murmur forces him to pursue his dream to play baseball in secret.

The book starts in early September 1941, just after the Asahi win their last championship.  Kenny gets into a fight in school when he defends his classmate Susana when she is called a Kraut by another boy.  Susana and her family, best friends with the Sakamotos, are Jewish, and fled Germany when the Nazis took over.  The parallels will be obvious to most readers.  Already, Canadian citizens of Japanese descent have to carry identity cards.

Everything changes for the Sakamotos when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor.  Keith, the same boy who fought Kenny earlier calls him a dirty Jap, and teacher Miss Morfitt uses the incident as an opportunity to show how nearly all the Japanese students in the class were born in Canada, just as nearly all of the the non-Japanese students were, except for Susana - and Keith (born in Ireland).  But this is followed by the closure of Kenny's Japanese language school and Sally's odori dancing school.

Further humiliations, such as registration as an enemy alien, turning off the light in the World War I Japanese Canadian memorial, and a curfew, lead to more serious repercussions.  Kenny's father must close his business, as no one of Japanese descent can possess a car, camera, radio equipment, or firearms.  Soon after, he is sent to a work camp, and later, the rest of the family into internment.

Conditions at the camp are dismal, but Kenny discovers strengths he didn't know he had.  With the support of a sympathetic Mountie, he takes on a project that ultimately unites the exiles.

Other books for children have been written on this subject (baseball in the internment camps), but author Ellen Schwartz has created characters the reader will really care about.  The book is appropriately aimed at grades 4-6, ages 9-12.

© Amanda Pape - 2016

[I received a hardbound copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]

Thursday, May 12, 2016

550 (2016 #16). Circling the Sun

by Paula McLain,
read by Katharine McEwan

Circling the Sun is historical fiction novelizing the early life of Beryl Markham, who - before I listened to this audiobook - I knew only as an early aviatrix.

The book's prologue and epilogue retell her famous flight on September 4, 1936, when she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, against the prevailing winds.

In between, the book covers Beryl's early life - from her family's arrival from England to Kenya in 1904, when she was two, through the death of her soulmate, pilot and big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, in 1931.  Shortly after his death, she obtained her pilot's license.

I didn't realize, until I read this book, what an interesting life Beryl had.  Her mother could not take living in Kenya (then a British colony), and abandoned Beryl and her father there when Beryl was only four.  Beryl grew up rather wild, playing with the native children, and followed in her horse trainer father's footsteps, becoming the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya, at age 18.  She also wrote a memoir in 1942, West With the Night, which Ernest Hemingway described as “bloody wonderful.”  I'm eager to read that.

What I most enjoyed about this book, however, were Paula McLain's descriptions of Kenya.  Someone close to me is moving there at the end of this month, for at least a year, and I particularly enjoyed learning more about this beautiful country.  This book makes me want to go there too.  Katharine McEwan's British voice is perfect in the audiobook for Beryl Markham, who tells her story in first person.

© Amanda Pape - 2016

[I obtained this electronic audiobook from Audible with a free 90-day trial membership.]

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

549 (2016 #15). Shylock Is My Name

by Howard Jacobson

Shylock is My Name is The Merchant of Venice retold - the second in the Hogarth Shakespeare series of books where bestselling authors are commissioned to retell stories from Shakespeare.  Howard Jacobson did this one - unfortunately, I'm not familiar with his other work.

I have to admit that at first I did not see it with this book.  But then, The Merchant of Venice is less familiar to me than many of Shakespeare's other works.  In all the years (ten!) I watched Shakespeare in the Park in the Seattle area (four different plays per year). The Merchant of Venice was only performed once. I had to re-read my Folger Shakespeare Library edition of the play to more clearly see the parallels.

Plury in Jacobson's story is Portia from Shakespeare's, and instead of the three caskets (gold, silver, and lead), she tests her suitors with a Porsche Carrera, a BMW Alpina and a Volkswagon Beetle.  Plury's suitor Barnaby is Portia's suitor Bassanio. and the art dealer D'Anton is the parallel to the merchant Antonio, the one who has to give over the pound of flesh (or maybe it's an ounce - the price here is a circumcision).

The differences?  Shylock (who, along with his daughter Jessica, retains his name from Shakespeare's play) is NOT the villain.  Instead, it's another Jew named Simon Strulovitch, who, like the Shylock of the play, has a daughter (Beatrice, a parallel Jessica) who gets involved with a Gentile.

Unfortunately, none of the characters are particularly likable, and the conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock on what it's like to be Jewish became especially tiresome.  I like the idea behind the book, though, and look forward to reading others in the series.

© Amanda Pape - 2016

[I received this advance reader edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]