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All Clear by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is one of my favorite writers, so I was ready to accept her word that the story she started in Blackout (Feb. 2010) of time travelers stuck in the London Blitz needed to stretch over two books (500+ and 600+ pages, respectively) and would be continued in All Clear (Oct. 2010). Having just come to the end of All Clear, I’ll concede to the few complaining, online customer reviewers that the two-book saga could probably have been edited down to one long book, but some of the reader’s sensation of total immersion in the day-to-day of Londoners living through the Blitz — not knowing which way the war would go — would have been lost.
For most of the two books, a few young time-traveling historians from 2060 are bravely facing down the fact that they have no way of getting back to their own time, yet still try frantically to rescue at least the others. Even more alarmingly, their meddling in the past may have changed the future irrevocably, including the outcome of World War II, as well as whatever events led to the discovery and invention of time travel at Oxford University.
As for the two-book story, if you’re a fan of Connie Willis’ writing, her light touch with the most serious of topics and her haplessly heroic characters, the more words the better.
Here’s how Michael Dirda, writing in the Washington Post, recommended Blackout to readers:

If you’re a science-fiction fan, you’ll want to read this book by one of the most honored writers in the field (10 Hugos, six Nebulas); if you’re interested in World War II, you should pick up “Blackout” for its you-are-there authenticity; and if you just like to read, you’ll find here a novelist who can plot like Agatha Christie and whose books possess a bounce and stylishness that Preston Sturges might envy.

And here’s what Julie Phillips writing for the Village Voice, says about Connie Willis:

Not all science fiction looks like science fiction. Connie Willis has won more Hugo and Nebula awards than almost anyone in the field, but her books are often set in the past, while her style is more Dorothy Sayers than Neil Gaiman. Still, she belongs in genre more than in literature, because genre fiction—SF, YA, mystery—is the traditional home of narrative pleasure, and Willis can tell a story like no other.

I should mention that Oxford University time-traveling historians and even a few characters from Blackout and All Clear appear in earlier books and stories by Connie Willis, most famously in The Doomsday Book (1992). Click here to read an eloquent post about The Doomsday Book by a book blogger at Things Mean A Lot.

Beastly by Alex Flinn

Teens can shamelessly continue to read new takes on fairy tales after outgrowing the Gail Carson Levine and Vivian Vande Velde stories they enjoyed when they were younger with Beastly by Alex Flinn. With Beastly, edgy YA author Alex Flinn turns the tale of Beauty and the Beast into an urban teen fantasy — the story of Kyle Kingsbury, a stuck-up, selfish Manhattan teen who turns into a hideous beast and tells how, from his point of view. His inner transformation from snarky to smoochable is long in coming, but we all know the story has a happy ending.
As Kyle, narrator Chris Patton does a great job with the humorous and dramatic twists in his spell-breaking quest to find a girl who will love him despite his outer beastliness. (Listen to a audio sample on Chris Patton’s Web site.)
Beastly has itself been transformed into a movie, in which, in typical Hollywood fashion  — judging from the trailer –everyone is beautiful, even Linda, the girl who is supposed to be so average-looking Kyle doesn’t even know her name at the beginning of the book. Even Kyle after he turns into a beast.
In the book, Kyle actually turns into a real-life, great big, ugly, hairy beast. In the movie (coming March 4th) he’s a bare-chested, tattooed, and shaved-bald, but still ripped version of Alex Pettyfer, a former teen model. I guess Hollywood couldn’t trust girls to flock to a movie where he spent most of his screen time in a gorilla suit.

Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton

Some of the marketing of Mr. Toppit, a darkly comic first novel by an English author, led me to expect an element of fantasy in this story of Luke Hayman, a boy coming of age in the public eye as the alter-ego of Luke Hayseed, the intrepid young hero of his father’s children’s books who takes on the shadowy evil figure who rules the vast Darkwood looming behind Luke’s house. But this story is creepy in a non-supernatural way, with just about every dysfunctional human behavior — from celebrity worship and obsession with fantasy worlds to the more common substance abuse and forms of self-injury — making an appearance. Mr. Toppit will appeal more to readers of The Magicians by Lew Grossman, than to the readers of Harry Potter it seems to be marketed to. (For the creepiness of a ghost story, try The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.)
Luke’s father, Arthur Hayman, dies suddenly before finishing The Hayseed Chronicles. The Hayseed Chronicles is a series of relatively unknown children’s novels published by a struggling company in England run by an old family friend when word of mouth, helped by the American publicity machine, turn the books into a literary phenomenon and merchandising juggernaut much like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the end of Book 5, Mr. Toppit has emerged from the Darkwood for the first time, leaving readers speculating, writing academic papers, and obsessing over about the true nature of Mr. Toppit and the true meaning of why he comes. (The last sentence of Book 5 and the first sentence of Mr. Toppit: “And out of the Darkwood Mr. Toppit comes, and he comes not for you, or for me, but for all of us.”)
Like The Hayseed Chronicles, Mr. Toppit ends abruptly and leaves much for readers to speculate about. We learn little about Arthur Hayman, for example, and what he would have thought about the psychological damage he (unintentionally?) committed by using Luke as a character in his books and by leaving his daughter Rachel out completely. The father/author is as shadowy a figure as Mr. Toppit himself.

Read the November 19, 2010 New York Times review of Mr. Toppit here.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

Like the summer peaches on the cover, the love story in The Cookbook Collector ripens slowly. The Cookbook Collector is the story of two sisters, Emily and Jess — East Coast transplants to California whose mother died young, and whose father remarried and started a new family and whom they fly back to Massachusetts to visit occasionally.
Emily, the older sister, is a financial wizard heading up Veritech, a successful Silicon Valley start-up, and Jess, the younger sister, is a dreamy, bookish, philosophy student at Berkeley. The novel is set in the late 1990s’ boom time, before the 2000 dot-com collapse, when young people just out of college owned tech stock that suddenly made them millionaires. While relating the ups and downs of the young women’s work lives and romantic entanglements, the novel captures this time period for a segment of American society perfectly: the heady, guilty feeling of being rich, the sense of missing out by older people who weren’t part of it, the disbelief when the stock market began to crash, the shock of 9/11.
The two different sisters make different choices in life and love. Not always good ones. Emily, as CEO for a tech start-up, is a woman in a world dominated by men, but so is Jess, working for a rare book dealer. The author dwells on the time-consuming minutiae of these two fields, giving readers an inside look at them and at women and men trying to balance demands of career and family/personal relationships.
The men in The Cookbook Collector are also fully fleshed-out characters. Imperfect creatures, but – as required by the conventions of a love story – they are also as handsome as the sisters are beautiful. And they are rich. As rich as Mr. Darcy (in U.S. dollars and adjusted for inflation), which is always nice in a love story.

Brockton Public Library Reader’s Advisory has moved.

The Brockton Public Library Reader’s Advisory blog has become the Bay State Reader’s Advisory blog. Please move over with us to talk about books and audiobooks.

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