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A Comic Interlude: Pirate King by Laurie R. King

Eleventh in Laurie R. King‘s imagined memoirs of Mary Russell — who is usually found investigating crimes related to national or international political intrigue, along with the retired Sherlock Holmes — Pirate King is a romp through Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta Pirates of Penzance and the early British silent film industry, and, so, is correspondingly lighter in tone than the earlier books in the series. So, if you’re a reader of serious literature only who doesn’t appreciate levity, doesn’t have time for frivolous pleasures, and who CAN’T TAKE A JOKE, FOR PETE’S SAKE, (Just kidding!) you can skip over Pirate King and wait for the next book in the series.
There has always been humor in the Mary Russell series (starting with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) especially in the playfully competitive relationship between Russell and Holmes (as they call each other.) Mary Russell is even on Twitter (@mary_russell). But here the author plays around more than usual with the idea that this is a fictional memoir about the fictional narrator’s life with Sherlock Holmes, a fictional character who, in the memoir, is actually a real person who bemoans the fact that he is thought to be fictional. In Pirate King, a film called Pirate King is being shot with a group of actors playing a group of actors who are filming a movie called Pirate King about The Pirates of Penzance, so Pirate King is a book about a memoir about a movie within a movie, with life imitating art, etc.
Well acquainted with disguise and artifice herself, Russell infiltrates the group of prima donnas, stage mothers, and professional actors as the assistant to the general manager of Fflytte Films. Fflytte Films is known for filming realistic films on location, and for realism’s sake, they set sail for Lisbon to find swarthy actors to play the piratical parts in the movie. Russell warns readers at the start that this escapade is so far-fetched as to be unbelievable. She begins with a playbill listing the cast of characters and inserts screen shots of random silent movie-style commentary such as “Where is Daniel?” and “Also the previous Monday…” throughout the book.
If you think that having Sherlock Holmes acquire at an advanced age a young, myopic, Oxford-educated bluestocking apprentice — who speaks multiple languages, is expert with a knife, and whose tongue is as sharp as the knife she keeps in her boot — is messing around too much with the Sherlock Holmes canon, then this series is probably not for you. But if you like novels with strong, smart characters, interesting plots, and some historical and intellectual underpinnings (and you don’t mind the idea of Sherlock Holmes meeting his female match) you should give this series a try.

Other opinions on Pirate King:
Jen’s Book Thoughts
Nonsuch Book
A Striped Armchair

Waiting on Wednesday — Clockwork Prince

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. This week’s pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read selection” is:

Clockwork Prince

Cassandra Clare

Publication Date: December 6

Second in Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices sequence, this picks up where Clockwork Angel left off. Young adult urban fantasy can start to seem repetitive after a while, but Cassandra Clare (a Massachusetts resident, BTW) is the leader of the current pack in creating smart, strong characters and casually blending breezy humor with tense action scenes. Infernal Devices is a prequel to The Mortal Instruments, set in Victorian London, and adds an element of steampunk to the mix.
If you start with City of Bones now, you can read the four books that come before Clockwork Prince and be all caught up by December 6th.

A Good Book: The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard

Joyce Maynard has a way of writing about a fluky event, crazy coincidence, or lurid crime scenario and making the plot believable — almost inevitable — given the characters she creates. (Some critics disagree with me on this.)
For example:

Labor Day — An escaped murder convict is given shelter by a single mother and her young son.
To Die For — A wife hires a contract killer on her husband.
The Good Daughters — Families of two girls born in the same small hospital a few hours apart are strangely connected.

Her taste for the sensational plot premise and toxic family secrets, her open embrace of publicity, her willingness to admit that she’ll write (gasp!) for money, the general tendency of critics to dismiss books about families that are written by women, and (probably more than anything) her daring to write about her relationship a long time ago to creepy literary darling J.D. Salinger — all tend to make her work harshly criticized or, at best, reviewed as simplistic women’s fiction. (Which I guess the publisher doesn’t mind: a blurb from Elizabeth Berg is featured prominently on the cover of The Good Daughters.) But Joyce Maynard deserves to break out and gain a wider readership.
The Good Daughters is a novel that spans five decades of two women’s lives. Ruth and Dana were “hurricane babies” and “birthday sisters” — born on the same day in the same hospital, just about nine months to the day after a hurricane blew through their small New Hampshire town. Though Dana’s flighty family moves from place to place and Ruth’s is firmly rooted in a family farm that goes back generations, both girls grow up feeling like outsiders in their families (which are both dysfunctional in different ways), wondering what is wrong with them.
Readers of The Good Daughters figure out well before the characters do what happened in the past to screw up so many lives so royally, without knowing exactly how or why until the end. Some reviews complain about this. But the author is speculating on “what would happen if…” She’s not building up to a surprise plot twist, à la Jodi Picoult. The Good Daughters explores the human capacity for denial; the natural, human desire to belong and be loved; and the nature vs. nurture debate by slowly revealing how Ruth and Dana and their families develop and intertwine over time.

Other opinions about The Good Daughters (mixed), some from a recent blog tour:
Beth Fish Reads
Book Addiction

Jo-Jo Loves to Read
The Lost Entwife
S. Krishna’s Books

Waiting on Wednesday — The Night Eternal

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. This week’s pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

The Night Eternal

Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Publication Date: October 25

The Night Eternal is the third book in The Strain trilogy, a horror-laced vampire-pandemic thrill ride that started with The Strain and The Fall. Co-written by the director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy, these movie-ready books will keep you reading well into the night (wondering what that sound downstairs might be.)

In a Child’s Mind’s Eye:Room by Emma Donoghue

Am I the last person to get around to reading Room by Emma Donoghue? Probably, but in case you are actually the last person, please be aware that this review contains some spoilers after the first couple of paragraphs.

Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and was on many of the Best Books of 2010 lists. It took me so long to read it because of the subject matter: a five-year-old boy’s knowing nothing about the outside world because he has grown up imprisoned in a single room for his entire life. The author has been quoted as saying that the idea for the novel was triggered by news reports about the actual case of an Austrian woman, Elisabeth Fritzl, imprisoned by her father along with three of the seven children he fathered by raping her, so that led some to believe that the book would resemble a sensational true crime story. But while the initial idea may have come from the news story, the novel is the author’s imagining the internal dialogue of a boy who experiences such a dramatic upheaval in his life. Here is author Emma Donoghue in an interview with The Guardian:

The newspaper reports of Felix Fritzl [Elisabeth’s son], aged five, emerging into a world he didn’t know about, put the idea into my head. That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me.

Five-year-old Jack — who is deliberately given the name of the hero of so many folk tales — is the hero of this story, and events are all related from his point of view. The narrative voice reminded some readers of the autistic boy-hero of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It reminded me of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, in which the narrator also enters a whole new world and becomes progressively better at interpreting it as the book goes along.
It’s horrifying to think of how Jack’s mother has to endure her captivity and raise a child, but seeing her through Jack’s eyes removes any whiff of creepy voyeurism or true-crime titillation. To Jack, his mother is just Ma, who is always there. Of course, she is always there. He doesn’t see anything strange about their situation; to him it is normal. But at the start of the book he has turned five, and Jack is finally old enough to play the key role in his mother’s dangerous escape plan.
When it works, suddenly they are in the Outside, that Jack didn’t even know existed, and they are separated for the first time. Jack’s structured routine and rituals fall away, although they and Ma were so recently his whole world. He worriedly watches his mother adjust to a new life outside their exclusive circle of two and cautiously learns his own way forward in this brave new world.

Other opinions about Room ( mostly good):
Bibliophile by the Sea
Jen’s Book Thoughts (audiobook review)
John’s Blog
Steph & Tony Investigate!
A Worn Path
Read The New York Times review of Room.

The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate

In her fourth novel, Martha Southgate creates a narrator who is only truly happy underwater and doesn’t realize the depths of her own sadness.
As a senior scientist both black and female, Josie Henderson is an anomaly in the field of marine biology — the only one among the white, male presenters at every conference — but she had always been drawn to salt water, despite growing up in Cleveland, far from either coast.  Her love of the water spurred her on from being a scholarship prep school student to get degrees from Stanford, aquarium jobs, and then research fellowships in her research specialty, the behavior of marine mammals.
Now 36, Josie works with her husband Daniel, a white marine scientist, at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. She dives when she can, reads scientific monographs, talks to her mother long-distance, postpones starting a family with Daniel, and congratulates herself on escaping her estranged father’s legacy of alcoholism that her beloved brother Tick has struggled with since he was a teenager. When she is drawn back into the messy family problems of the world she left behind and finds herself attracted to a new Woods Hole colleague (an anomaly like herself, only male), Josie’s carefully constructed defenses weaken. In her narrative of what has happened, she finally allows herself to question her own dispassionate, self-contained way of dealing with human relationships.
If you liked Michelle Huneven’s Blame for its understanding treatment of a recovering alcoholic or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout for its portrait of a woman keeping emotion strictly in check, try The Taste of Salt, or one of Martha Southgate’s earlier books, The Fall of Rome.

I received a review copy of The Taste of Salt from an Algonquin Books blog contest. The Taste of Salt will be published September 13, 2011.

Waiting on Wednesday – All About Emily

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. This week’s pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

All About Emily

Connie Willis

Publication Date: December 28

This novelette is being published in a limited print run by Subterranean Press in December; no cover image is available yet. Connie Willis is one of my must-read authors, so I am looking forward to this. Here’s what she says about it on her Web site:

I finished my story, which is called “All About Emily,” and which is about a robot who wants to be a Rockette.  It’s going to be in the December issue of Asimov’s and then Subterranean Press is bringing out a special limited edition, like they have with Inside Job and D.A.  I loved writing this story because it gave me an excuse to do all this research about the Rockettes and Radio City Music Hall, which came this close to being torn down.  But not all stories have unhappy endings, even in real life, something I find I need to remind myself of now and then.
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