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Guilty English Pleasure: More Than You Know by Penny Vincenzi

English author Penny Vincenzi‘s books are like granola bars – not much more nutritious than candy, but their mini chocolate chips and tiny marshmallows or sweetened dried cranberries satisfy a candy craving, with a few nutritious oats and nuts tossed in.
None of the author’s later books have ever appealed to me as much as The Spoils of Time trilogy, a saga of the Lytton publishing family in London. (The start of the trilogy, No Angel, was the first of her books to be published in the U.S. – in 2004 – and several books later, that’s the one that’s still mentioned on the cover of this one.) But I still find her books addictive, and whip right through each new one.
In More Than You Know, fashion journalism and fashion design in the sixties (which the author had first-hand experience of) form the backdrop of the drama that plays out when headstrong career-girl Eliza Fullerton-Clark – whose shabby genteel parents are struggling to maintain their large village house, Summercourt – falls for the working-class, chip-on-his-shoulder Matt Shaw – who is well on his way to making his first fortune in property development. Money and class; marriage and career; tradition and changing times…all these make for a stormy relationship between Eliza and Matt, eventually bringing them to the brink of the vicious child custody battle alluded to at the beginning of the book.
But that’s just one of the multiple story strands that readers of More Than You Know will be following. Along with the relationship ups-and-downs of Eliza’s brother and Matt’s sister (not together), Eliza’s ex-beau Jeremy (handsome and rich, like Matt, but from Eliza’s upper-class world), and friends of Matt’s or Eliza’s, there are soaring or flattening career arcs – with Eliza caught between motherhood and her burgeoning fashion journalism career and Matt working with cutthroat competition (sometimes within his own office) – the siren call of the kinds of temptation that the swinging sixties and seventies were rife with, parenting struggles, and too many other plot threads to mention, all switching back and forth across each other.
Penny Vincenzi is a master of the sexy, literary potboiler. More Than You Know will be devoured by her fans, but it might not be the one to hook a new reader unless the London fashion scene is a big draw. I still recommend No Angel if you’re trying to decide whether you’ll like Penny Vincenzi or not.

Disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.

More Than You Know (published as The Decision in the U.K.)
Vincenzi, Penny
Doubleday
Pub Date: April 3, 2012
978-0-385-52825-2
608 pp.
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Business as Usual on the Streets of Boston: Hard Knocks by Howie Carr

From conservative Boston Herald columnist and radio personality Howie Carr, this novel of intrigue and corruption in the cramped underworld of Boston crime, politics, and law enforcement – where the three groups frequently bump up against each other or even overlap – isn’t going to win any awards from the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, but it should appeal to fans of the author’s recent nonfiction books, The Brothers Bulger and Hitman, and to readers looking for local color that has nothing to do with foliage or baseball.
Appropriately enough, the book starts off with a local, low-level gangster getting bumped off, right after involving Jack Reilly in his problem – which then becomes Jack’s problem. Jack Reilly is a disgraced ex-Boston cop and former political bag man (But don’t call him that; he prefers the term “fixer.”) turned shady private investigator, who, though down on his luck, hasn’t yet lost all his connections or used up all of his political capital (i.e. “dirt,”), but with this little problem he’s had dumped in his lap, he’ll be lucky to be alive to worry about being able to pay next month’s rent, alimony, and cable bill.
I kept thinking Howie Carr had to be writing tongue in cheek when he created the character of Jack – the corrupt ex-cop with a warped, but still present code of honor – and the many other characters who continually mourn the passing of the formerly all-white neighborhoods of Boston and spout other bigoted, provincial, and self-serving cliches about the “good old days” that you might hear on Howie Carr’s talk radio show. By the end of the book, though, I decided he probably wasn’t writing tongue in cheek, so that made the book a little less enjoyable and a lot more offensive, given that I’m not a Herald subscriber for a reason.
There is plenty of humor in the other wry asides from Jack Reilly to make any reader or listener chuckle, however, especially jaded readers who think politics and ethics don’t have much in common except their last four letters. Being a Herald columnist, the author gets in quite a few jabs at the competition, The Boston Globe, and also gives Jack an attractive female crime reporter from the Herald to spar with and trade favors with. The book is loaded with references to local landmarks, mostly of the non-tourist variety, and even has a long drive through the South Shore and down Route 18 to Brockton, my current home city!
The audiobook narration is really well done; Peter Berkrot seemed to relish the variety of Boston accents and the mob-inflected growling dialogue, and even throws in an authentic-sounding Irish brogue for Jack’s rosy-cheeked, red-nosed, and faithful politician friend, Slip. I would recommend this book/audiobook to readers/listeners with a tolerance for intolerant characters  looking for a contemporary take on The Friends of Eddie Coyle (by Brockton-born George V. Higgins) or for more crime fiction with Boston settings, like Dennis Lehane‘s Kenzie and Gennaro books. Another recent entry in this field, The Charlestown Connection, by Massachusetts author Tom MacDonald (nominated for a Massachusetts Book Award) has a nicer main character, Dermot Sparhawk, who works in a parish’s food pantry, which I don’t think you would catch Jack Reilly doing!

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

“Reilly Associates,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
“Is this Jack Reilly?”
“Speaking.”
“This is Bucky Bennett.” It didn’t ring a bell. “I know your brother.” The bell was ringing now. It was an alarm. “I knew him down in Otisville.” Another federal pen, in upstate New York, inhabited by a lot of Northeast organized-crime types, among them, at one point, my brother.
Marty’s friend spoke softly, but he might have been trying to lull me. “He told me to give you a call sometime.” That was mighty white of good old Martin T. Reilly. “I got a big, big problem, Jack.” Ex-cons often do. “Hello? Are you there?”
“Yes,” I said with a sigh. “I’m here.”
“Jack, you don’t know me, but I heard a lot about you. I heard you used to handle a lot of work for the mayor, the old one, and I know you were a cop, and now you’re on your own.”
That certainly was the CliffsNotes version of the life of Jack Reilly, a man teetering on that fine line between has-been and never-was. I sensed a pitch was imminent.
“I gotta talk to you. They’re looking for me. I gotta screw before they find me.”
“Who’s they?”
A hollow chuckle. “Can I meet you somewhere?”
Some people claim they can smell money. Me, I can smell no money, and I can smell it a mile away. “Pro bono” is just Latin for “deadbeat.” I decided to try to lose the guy.
I asked him, “Have you thought about calling the police?”
Another nervous laugh. “Marty told me you were a funny guy.”
“Look,” I said, staring at the two piles of unpaid bills in front of me. “I’m kinda busy right now.”
“Please, man, I’m desperate. I know what I must sound like, but I got some stuff, I gotta make sure it gets into the hands of the right people or I’m dead. You’re on Shawmut Ave., right? How far are you from Foley’s?”
Oh great. Not only was I not going to get paid, now I was going to have to buy him a drink, in my own place on top of everything else. James Michael Curley used to say that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. That’s excellent advice, I suppose, if you’re running for office, but who exactly was I trying to impress? Still, Bucky wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

Hard Knocks (Audiobook)
Carr, Howie
Berkrot, Peter (Narrator)
AudioGo, 2012
978-1-60998-772-5
9 hrs., 56 min.
8 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook from AudioGO. Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.
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A Novelist’s Novel: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Most of the events in Snow by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, take place over the space of a few days, but they are described and commented on by an (at first) unknown narrator from a distance of four years in the future. A Turkish poet known only as “Ka” returns to Istanbul, the city of his youth, after twelve years of political exile, and impulsively decides, on the suggestion of a friend, to travel for days through a blizzard out to the impoverished, backwards border city of Kars in a far-off corner of the country, where the unending snow almost immediately makes the roads impassible. Ostensibly Ka has gone there to report on a recent spate of suicides of local Islamic girls, who are being forced to remove their headscarves for school, but Ka is actually more interested in finding a former classmate there, İpek, whom he remembers as being beautiful, and he is ready to fall in love with someone from the time of his youthful happiness.
The events that happen in this time out of time while Kars is snowed-in are surreal. People are shot, Ka is followed, plots are hatched and carried out. Newspaper reports of events are printed before the events occur; the line between what is real and what is staged gets increasingly blurry. The melancholic Ka, though thoroughly Westernized, is drawn to the fervent radicalism of the Islamic fundamentalists in Kars, gets caught in the clash of religious and secular cultures. Poems come to Ka whole-cloth, as if divinely inspired, during his short stay there, and they seem to him all together to encapsulate the whole of his life, somehow making sense of it.
Ka is described near the beginning of the book this way:

Ka, you see, was one of those moralists who believe that the greatest happiness comes from never doing anything for the sake of personal happiness.

The whole book is blanketed by Ka’s melancholy and guilt for any happiness he feels. Ka is racked with guilt and pessamistic about the future almost all of the time, but he has moments of pure happiness in Kars and experiences an artist’s joy from the perfectly formed poems he is able to write. The reader feels muffled and distanced from Ka, not only by Ka’s trancelike state but also by the narrator of the story, a friend of Ka’s, who painstakingly and conscientiously reconstructs events from Ka’s notes and later conversations, but doesn’t try to place the reader at the immediate scene.
Snow is an intense read, along the lines of a classic Russian novel, with its tortured souls agonizing over how to act and where their political, national, religious, family, and personal loyalties should lie (i.e. how they should live) while at the same time they watch TV, eat dinner, and go about their daily business along with everyone else.

Snow
Pamuk, Orhan
Translated by Maureen Freely
0-375-70686-0, paperback
Vintage Books (Random House)
2005 (original English translation, Knopf, 2004)

Disclosure: I read Snow from a public library copy (two weeks overdue) as part of the 2012 TBR Pile Challenge laid down by Roof Beam Reader.
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No Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year!

No Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year! — Post from The Bluestocking Society this afternoon

I missed seeing The Bluestocking Society as part of Bloggiesta, but discovered it just now during the Twitter frenzy that there is no #Pulitzer Prize awarded for fiction this year.

More Than Satire: The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

Edgar Kellogg, the main character of The New Republic, a novel by Lionel Shriver, is a striver and a fan –the salutatorian instead of the valedictorian, the vice president, the second-place finisher. He’s tired of doing the admiring; he wants to be admired. His place near the top of the legal profession means nothing to him now that he’s made it there, so he throws it all in to take up the calling of his old English public school idol Toby Falconer – foreign correspondent for the National Record.
Author Lionel Shriver (an American woman who lives in England) has expressed some exasperation in the past with publishers who insist on putting “girly” covers on her novels, saying it’s “like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress.” They’ve finally listened with the cover of The New Republic, a book that the author finished in 1998 and couldn’t get published. (It’s not that it’s poorly written –Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin got a lot of rejections, too, but when finally published, became a critically acclaimed bestseller – it’s more because of the subject matter, terrorists and their political wing who are more inept than intimidating, and the characters, who are all flawed and unlikeable in various ways.)
The New Republic is set in Barba, an imaginary peninsula of Portugal, where a band of terrorists with the unfortunate name S.O.B. has sprung up, demanding independence for Barba, the most godforsaken province you could ever imagine, and responsible for barbarous acts of terrorism in Europe. Edgar lands his first real gig as a foreign correspondent in Barba, a backwater that only interests the rest of the world when the S.O.B. and its political arm, O Creme de Barbear, make the news after committing some new atrocity.
To his vast annoyance, when he arrives in Barba, Edgar finds himself following in the footsteps of another outsized, charismatic personality like Toby Falconer back in high school. Barrington Saddler’s English accent, animal magnetism, insider’s knowledge, and sparkling repartee, charmed the females in Barba’s journalistic enclave and had the male reporters vying for his approval, until Saddler suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. At first, Saddler’s absence makes more of an impact on the enclave of foreign correspondents than Edgar’s presence, but Edgar is staying in Saddler’s house, eating his leftover food, and becoming attracted to Saddler’s former lover, Nicole. The more Edgar learns about Saddler, Barba and the S.O.B., the more he learns about becoming larger-than-life himself.
Lionel Shriver writes unsettling books. Her characters are always human, rarely heroic. They make mistakes; some are big and disastrous ones. The New Republic is funny, as biting satire should be, but also frightening in how plausible the outrageous scenario she sets up seems.
Not recommended for fans of women’s fiction (!) but if you liked The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, you might also like The New Republic‘s portrayal of foreign journalists.

The New Republic
Shriver, Lionel
HarperCollins
March 2012
978-0-06-210332

Disclosure: I read most of this book as an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley, but it expired before I finished, so I read the ending from a public library copy of the book.
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Waiting on Wednesday – Storm: The Elemental Series #1 (YA)

“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:

Storm

Brigid Kemmerer

Publication Date: April 24, 2012

I’m reviewing Storm, the first in the new Elemental series by Brigid Kemmerer, for VOYA Magazine, but I have to alert YA paranormal romantic suspense fans out there to this upcoming publication, if they haven’t already heard of it. Storm is a fast-paced, edgy, debut paranormal that I think is going to be big with a lot of teens, as well as those adult readers of YA lit that Joel Stein criticized in the New York Times recently.
“Four hunky guys on the cover? Isn’t that going a bit far with the whole love-triangle thing?” was my first thought on seeing the cover of Storm, but the female lead, 16-year-old Becca holds her own pretty well, practicing her new self-defense techniques and hiding her fear when she gets caught up in the dangerous and mysterious events involving the three Merrick brothers she knows from school, including freak storms, fires, and earthquakes they’re somehow able to control. Becca is drawn to Chris Merrick, who is vulnerable under his bravado, but the sexy new guy in school, Hunter, also has his attractions, and is a lot nicer and less prickly than Chris…
(So, it’s actually just a love triangle, not a love pentagon. This book is edgy, with some “adult” language and underage partying, but it’s not that edgy!)

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Food equals Love, Parisian style: Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe

The title of Chez Moi, a novel by Agnes Desarthe, refers to a restaurant of sorts that the main character, Myriam, decides to open with no help, no business experience, and not much money. Forty-three years old and estranged from her family, her husband, and her only son Hugo for reasons she doesn’t reveal, Myriam pours her whole self and all her passion into cooking, a conduit for the love she can’t give her son. Her sole passion is to provide her new restaurant customers with the experience of home-cooked meals, but she doesn’t have the first clue about how to run a restaurant.
Chez Moi is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, and was published in English in 2008. (The French title is Mangez-Moi, which didn’t get translated literally as “Eat Me” due to its connotations.) It has a je ne sais quoi (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?) quality about it that’s hard to describe, like A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé. Chez Moi has what I imagine to be Parisian reserve; it doesn’t try too hard to win the reader over. On the other hand, Myriam is a very down-to-earth character, unpretentious; she describes herself as the “biggest f**ker-upper the world has ever brought forth.”
Readers have to accept Myriam as she presents herself: evasive, eccentric, lonely, depressed, gnawed by guilt, grieving lost love, and doomed to fail dramatically in her restaurant experiment if she doesn’t get help fast. She is in a fog much of the time when she’s not drinking herself into a stupor – avoiding thinking about her life beyond the need to make food for customers who may not even show up, given Myriam’s erratic restaurant hours, unconventional menu, sketchy table service, and nonexistent marketing skills.
There’s not much action in Chez Moi, and some of what does happen is surreal, as in a French movie with strangers walking in and out saying cryptic things. Myriam slowly reveals her past, musing philosophically whenever she’s not succumbing to despair, but she has a caustic wit that slices through her fatalism often enough to keep readers from getting too bogged down, and she also has that irrepressible love of food to keep her going.
To sum up the review, if you’re looking for a psychological novel set in Paris about an imperfect woman with a past; you enjoy sensual descriptions of cooking (including meat); and you aren’t expecting magical realism because you saw this book compared to Like Water for Chocolate in a review, then pick up Chez Moi and let me know what you think!

Read an interview of Agnes Desarthe here. [WARNING: Interview contains some spoilers.]

Other opinions of Chez Moi (mostly good):
Books on the Brain
Fleur Fisher in her world
Urban Domestic Diva

Disclosure: I read a public library copy of this book.
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