All the Wrong Questions by Lemony Snicket

cover-book1Books – Something Unfortunate has arrived.

Young adult readers who followed A Series of Unfortunate Events when it was released (more than a decade ago!), and the parents and other then-adult readers who devoured the books along with them, may already know that the smash-hit series is slated for a new small-screen adaptation to debut on Netflix next year.  That means that right now is a great time to re-visit Snicket’s (aka Daniel Handler‘s) playfully grim universe–especially because that universe has just expanded.

All the Wrong Questions is an recently-completed Unfortunate Events spin-off series, consisting of four main books (1: Who Could That Be At This Hour? 2: When Did You See Her Last? 3: Shouldn’t You Be in School? 4: Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights?) and one volume of related short stories (File Under– 13 Suspicious Incidents). Set a generation before ASoUE, AtWQ chronicles an exciting period in the life of young Lemony Snicket, the narrator/”author” of ASoUE, during his time as an apprentice investigator in a forlorn and mostly-abandoned village called Stain’d-by-the-Sea.

ASoUE and AtWQ definitely belong in the same universe.  They share the same melancholy-yet-hopeful tone, the same focus on heroic individuals struggling often unsuccessfully against a world of selfishness and corruption, and the same conviction that the surest way of telling the bad guys from the good guys is usually that the good guys love to read.  In other ways, however, the two series have significant tonal differences.  Where ASoUE is about as Gothic as a story can be, AtWQ chooses a different downbeat genre and skews heavily noir–if Humphrey Bogart doesn’t actually manage to climb through the pages, it’s not for lack of trying.  Another big difference is that, while ASoUE’s three protagonists are siblings who can depend on one another from page one, Lemony in AtWQ starts out alone and builds himself a found family in the course of the books.  Young readers who have just finished ASoUE should also know that AtWQ is a slightly more difficult read, written for an audience a few years older.

All of that said, I think that every Unfortunate Events fan should give All the Wrong Questions a try.  It’s a quick and enjoyable read with a great sense of humor–and the perfect way to tide yourself over until January 13!

Finding the Right Words for the Holidays: Festive Phrases to Personalize Your Holiday Greetings and Newsletters by J. Beverly Daniel

16170561Book–I love sending out holiday cards. Picking out the card design, gathering my addresses (fortunately, I have a small family), and sending out the cards is always a fun part of the holiday ritual. Where I fall down and get stuck is on what the heck to write in the card. I inevitably end up with something trite, or I get the cards with a pre-printed message and just sign my name to them. When I stumbled on this small book tucked away in the 800s, it was quite a relief. Finally, I have more than enough holiday phrases to write, and won’t let writer’s block stick me with a bunch of blank unsent cards (yes, this actually happened last year).

Finding the Right Words for the Holidays includes messages for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the New Year, plus phrases to tuck into charmingly smug holiday family newsletters. With messages ranging from sincere to flippant, you should be able to find something with the correct tone for your friends, family, and others. I hope you can benefit from this little book as much as I did and, as the book says, “May your holidays be filled with many treasures and surprises.”

 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

w204Book – Franny Keating falls in love with a well-known older author, Leo Posen, in her twenties. She shares the story of her turbulent childhood with him, which he publishes into a bestselling book. It stirs up the past and Franny, her siblings and stepsisters must finally face the events that led to a family tragedy many years ago. The chain of events began when Franny’s mother fell in love with a guest, Bert Cousins, who showed up with a bottle of gin at Franny’s christening. She eventually divorced Franny’s father to marry Bert, a father of four. Franny, her sister and their step-siblings were often left to their own devices over Summer vacations and holidays. Cal, the oldest of the bunch, led them on adventures and the six forged a strong bond, which endures even after the tragedy. The book traces the relationships and lives of the families over forty years and their different memories of the past. I thought this book was honest in its examination of families, their struggles and the love that prevails throughout.

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

indexBook – Pepper’s never been in serious trouble in his life. Sure, a couple of fights here and there, but nothing big. But now, out of nowhere, he finds himself incarcerated — not in prison, where he would have a right to a lawyer and a phone call, but in a mental hospital, where he’s told he’ll be held indefinitely, since he signed those papers they gave him after they gave him the Haldol. The food is terrible, the view nonexistent, and his roommate won’t stop pestering him for spare change. And the Devil lives at the end of hallway four.

Although this is billed as a horror novel, and it kind of is, I’d say it’s not scary so much as disturbing. LaValle does a terrific job of shining a bright light on the systems that dehumanize people, making them nameless and disposable That’s not just the way the police can have someone institutionalized when they don’t feel like processing the paperwork to arrest them, but also the way people desperate to keep their jobs learn to cut corners and avoid speaking up about problems, and the way people are put into categories that make them easier to ignore. And with his wonderful characters, Pepper and Dorrie and Coffee and Sue and all the others, he makes us see them as people again.

Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer

SpontaneousCoverBook – Imagine this: you are sitting in your pre-calc class and suddenly, without warning, your classmate a couple rows ahead of you spontaneously combusts. Blood and guts are everywhere. For a second, nobody moves, still in shock over the event. Then panic. Police are called, questions are asked. A funeral is held, everyone cries and mourns the loss of young life. Then everyone turns to moving on, healing. But then someone else blows up during a group therapy session. Then another a few weeks later. Nobody has an answer. All anyone seems to know is that it for some reason its only seniors from this small suburb of New Jersey that are spontaneously combusting.

Now you may be thinking: ‘Why in the world should I read this book? That story line sounds dark and depressing. I do not want to read about teens dying!’ I’ll tell why, cause its one of those books that you will stay up till 2 o’clock in the morning in order to finish. The narrator Mara draws you into the story of the worst year of her life. You WANT and NEED to find out what is going on with the teens. Yes, the story line is dark and kinda of depressing, but it really touches on death and living each day. Spontaneous is a book that you will soon not forget.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

indexBook – The Signature of All Things is an epic saga of the Whittaker family that takes place in the late 18th and early 19th century, the Age of Enlightenment and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. This work of fiction is a new venture for non-fiction author Elizabeth Gilbert author of Eat, Pray, Love and will delight readers.

Henry is a wealthy American import tycoon whose ambition left behind his life of humbleness and poverty in England. His daughter, Alma is bestowed with all the benefits of money; a good education and fine material possessions. Though she is scholarly and has a passion for learning about the natural world, especially botany, she is rather plain in her looks and socially awkward. Having lived a sheltered life, she is thrilled when almost middle-aged, she meets Ambrose Pike an artist, spiritualist, and dreamer who shares her love of flowers and plants that he expresses in his artwork. They soon get married and Ambrose whisks Alma, who has never been out of Philadelphia, on a ship to exotic Tahiti. Though the story reveals insight into the couple’s relationship, it mainly focuses on Alma’s love and impact on science and emerging theories on evolution. Well researched, this is a fascinating story, not to be missed about a woman who was well ahead of her time.

When asked about the title, in an interview the author explained, “The Signature of All Things is the title of a 16th century botanical/divine theory posited by a German shoemaker-turned-mystic named Jacob Boehm, who believed that God so loved the world that He had hidden in the design of each plant on earth some clue for humans as to that plant’s usefulness. (For instance: Walnuts are good for headaches, and are also—helpfully—shaped like brains).”

 

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

indexBook–  Daisy is crushed when, on the anniversary of three years free of cancer, she receives a surprise stage four diagnosis, with a life expectancy of 4 months. This is especially galling for Daisy because she did everything ‘right’– ate healthy, cancer-fighting foods, got all of her scheduled follow-ups, and exercised regularly. Rather than dwelling on her own mortality, Daisy is worried about her husband Jack. Jack is a brilliant airhead who relies on Daisy to take care of him.

Oakley does a great job at characterizing both Jack and Daisy:  we get a clear picture of Daisy the type A, detail-oriented organizer and list-maker and her partnership with Jack, the big-picture, charming, dreamer type. Daisy comes to the conclusion that she should spend her last few months finding Jack a new wife/caretaker. With the help of her best friend, she frequents dog parks and coffee shops looking for her replacement, even making a dating website profile for Jack. However, once one of the prospects she’s scouted for seems to be getting too close to Jack for Daisy’s liking, and she begins to re-evaluate how she’s planned to spend the final months of her life.

This book has a definite downer ending, but that’s what you expect reading a book about terminal cancer. I especially liked that, even while near death, Oakley did not make Daisy become a  caricature of the brave cancer patient:  she retained her personality, flaws and all. This is the author’s first novel, and it will be interesting to see what she writes next.

 

The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson

51eCqp7J8OLBook – When Vellitt Boe settled down as a professor of mathematics at the Women’s College of Ulthar, she thought that her wandering days were over. In her youth she’d traveled the Six Kingdoms of the dream world and even met dreamers from the waking world. And now she is forced into traveling again, when her student Clarie Jurat, a daughter of one of the College’s Trustees, runs off with a dreamer, putting the future of the college – and perhaps much more – at risk.

If the title sounds at all familiar, it’s because this novella is a kind of inversion of H.P. Lovecraft‘s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” in which a dreamer from our world travels the mysterious and dangerous realms of the dreamlands – and these are the same dreamlands, from the gugs and ghouls of the under-realms to the mad and unpredictable gods. You don’t need to know that to enjoy this story, though; Vellitt Boe stands comfortably on her own two feet without the need to stand on anyone else’s shoulders.

This is a tremendous amount of questing in a very small package; if you like epic fantasy novels like those of Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, or J.R.R. Tolkien, but you don’t have time for another thousand-page tome, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe packs a whole world’s worth of strange beauty into fewer than 200 pages.

Lost in Austen (2008)

51h8cwyC6nLTv Mini-Series– Long a fan of movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice, I absolutely adored the 2008 British Tv Mini-Series, Lost in Austen.  This film follows the Jane Austen obsessed Amanda, who lives in present day London with her boring boyfriend who just doesn’t hold up to her precious Darcy.  A girl in love with the romance and time period of Pride and Prejudice, Amanda is in for the shock of her life when she finds herself trapped in a real life world of her favorite Jane Austen novel.  There she stays with the Bennett’s, meets the sobering Darcy, and manages to ruin relationships while making a mess of the entire plot.  Will she ever return to modern London or is she forever fated to live her life in a broken edition of Pride and Prejudice?

Amanda is such a wonderfully quirky, cute character full of sass and spunk; I immediately adored her.  She speaks her mind, which often backfires on her, but makes for a good laugh.  Lost in Austen’s Darcy (Elliot Cowan) does not disappoint the eyes, and is definitely in the same ranks as Matthew Macfadyen (Pride and Prejudice, 2006) and Colin Firth (Pride and Prejudice, 1995 Tv Mini-Series).  The story itself is fun and magical, taking a step into your favorite fictional world.  It was whimsical twist on the classic tale of Pride and Prejudice, and I loved it.

I would recommend it to Jane Austen enthusiasts and romantic comedy lovers alike.  For more fun Austen adaptations, check-out Austenland The Jane Austen Book Club, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies*! *All three films are based on novels of the same titles.

 

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

6174e2-23JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Sometimes, it’s easy to know from the outset whether a book will be a good fit or not.  Such is the case with The Gentlemen, a book about a vain Victorian poet who meets the Devil at a masquerade ball, accidentally sells his wife’s soul in exchange for poetic inspiration and consequently launches an expedition (peopled by his bluff adventuring brother-in-law, his scandalous sister, a shy mad scientist and a stalwart butler) to Hell to retrieve her.  If that premise sounds as delightful to you as it did to me, you’ll love the book; if not, don’t bother.  Simple as that.

Forrest Leo’s language in The Gentleman is perfectly Victorian, his parodistic humor is spot-on for the absurd, over-the-top story he’s looking to tell, and the steampunk elements of his universe are used sparingly and well.  While reading, there was a moment when I feared I would feel cheated by the ending, but I was happily mistaken in that.  If I had to quibble, I wouldn’t have minded a little more swashbuckling action.  Overall, however, The Gentleman was a delightfully silly, light, fast-paced, fun first novel, with a great and original premise, from a clearly talented young writer.  I can’t wait to see what he writes next!