Monthly Archives: March 2011

Maid to Match, by Deeanne Gist

via goodreads.com

My mum handed me Maid to Match (Bethany House Publishers, 2010) back in early February, right around the time I started this blog. I was working on other darker things at the time, so the fluffy romance got pushed to the back burner. I know romance novels (and their authors) often get a lot of grief for being what they are, but I’m firmly rooted in the camp that they have their place and purpose and are just as important as anything you’d find on the literary fiction shelf. For me, TRNs (trashy romance novels) are equivalent to dessert or a piece of Vosges Haut-Chocolate in the middle of a stressful work day. Sometimes I like picking up a book with strong female leads and sexy men and knowing that everything is going to turn out alright! (Though I have to amend right off the bat that Gist and Bethany House take the T out of the TRN!)

After finishing a dark, disturbing young adult novel, Maid to Match was exactly what I needed. Set in stunning North Carolina, on the Biltmore Estate in 1898, the story begins with the introduction of Tillie Reese, our immediately likable heroine. Tillie, the head parlormaid, is on the brink of becoming a lady’s maid to the Mrs. Vanderbilt. She craves the elite position and everything that goes with it; books, baths, fashionable dresses, travel and better pay (“so she could help her family and others in the community who were in need”). Tillie’s big heart and level head make her a shoe-in for the position, not to mention that Tillie’s over-bearing mama has been grooming Tillie for the position all her life.

Enter Mack Danvers, the rugged mountain man with a heart of gold. His handsome countenance, plus the fact that his twin is currently a Vanderbilt-employed footman, kick him right onto the fast track of servitude. After all, anyone in the upper echelon of turn-of-the-century society can employ a handsome footman, but think of the prestige that would come with employing a matching set.

via biltmore.com

The heavy responsibility of de-mountain-manning Mack somehow falls on sweet Tilly and of course, sparks (squeaky clean sparks) fly. Tillie does her best to avoid Mack’s advances because one does not engage in inter-service romance, especially if she wants to be come lady’s maid. However, the more time our hero and heroine are forced to spend together, the more Tillie learns about the real reason Mack has emerged from his mountain home and the more her heart softens toward him.

What I enjoyed the most about this book was that it introduced me to a setting and time in American history that, in retrospect, seems to be overlooked in the romance genre in general. Gist’s well-researched storyline waltzes the reader through the lush Biltmore Estate with its modern swimming pool and bowling alley, shady orphanages run by dodgy characters, and the beautiful Carolina mountains and their clans. Gist outlines in her author’s note just what was historically accurate and what she stretched for the sake of the story, which I thought was pretty cool.

Let’s talk about S-E-X for a sec. Bethany House is a publisher of Christian fiction and romance, and when I started Maid to Match, I wasn’t aware of the fact. Being much more accustomed to the bodice-rippers of Stephanie Laurens and others like her, I felt a little, well, frustrated that all that sexual tension between Tillie and Mack never had an outlet, or rather, that the outlet was merely alluded to. It makes more sense upon my discovery that the book came from a Christian publisher, but was odd and, er, anti-climactic at the time.

Bottom line: If you are looking for a light-hearted romance with a sweet, likable heroine and some fascinating American history lore, Maid to Match is a good one to pick up. Just be aware that this is no titillating TRN!


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dreadfully Ever After, by Steve Hockensmith

photo via Quirk Books

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the monster mash-up that started it all back in 2009, has inspired an entire sub-genre of literary classics (and the lives of the writers who penned them) that have been infiltrated by the dark side. Now, after a New York Times Best Seller prequel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dawn of the Dreadfuls), Quirk Books delivers the actual chronological sequel to the original mash-up, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dreadfully Ever After.

The beginning of Dreadfully Ever After picks up the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy four years after the original mash-up ends. The zombies (or as they’re referred to in polite Regency society: the dreadfuls, the unmentionables, the sorry stricken, or the zed words) are still terrorizing the country, but finding herself now the wife of a respectable gentleman, Elizabeth has hung up her katana and throwing stars to lead a life of quiet wedded bliss. It would seem, however, that our favorite kung fu couple are experiencing a problem of their own in the form of Elizabeth’s unshakeable, unplaceable discontent. Deep into a long walk and serious discussion, the pair run into a boy from the estate and fail to notice the “odd tilt to the boy’s head and the gray palor of his skin and the smell of death and feculence that drifted with him onto the road.” Consequently, Mr. Darcy is bitten and infected.

The warrior within dictates that Elizabeth should promptly behead her beloved and burn the remains. Instead she turns to her nemesis and Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, one of the most renowned zombie slayers in the country. We learned in the first book that Lady Catherine was working on developing an antidote to the evil plague. To help save her nephew (in spite of the fact that he once spurned her strange, sickly daughter), she sends grief-stricken Elizabeth, still-silly Kitty Bennet and a happily wife-free Mr. Bennet to a dreadful-infested London and the source of the fabled cure. Mary Bennet, unwilling to be left out of the excitement, shows up in London to join in the fray.

Add an eccentric, fiery tempered Scotsman with access to the cure and his handsome, idiotic dandy son to the cast, along with a mysterious Man in a Box, a couple of mangy dogs, a sneaky ninja with an eye for Kitty and a very important bunny, and you’ve got Dreadfully Ever After.

The story lines—both the Bennet family’s quest for the cure and the intrigue abounding back at the residence of Lady Catherine, where Darcy is being held, er, healed by his aunt and creepy cousin—moved at a clipping pace. Dreadfully Ever After spotlights characters who were previously thrust into the shadows, as Anne de Bourgh has a pivotal role in the book. I also really enjoyed the development of Mary and Kitty as they each broke from the static, typecast roles thrust upon them in the original, the mash-up and its prequel. I was impressed with how author Steve Hockensmith went beyond simply writing a goofy, fun monster mash-up to including actual character development and ending the book on, dare I say, a didactic note? I won’t give away the ending, but I will say it was one with an unmistakable moral lesson.

The creativity with which Hockensmith built up a Regency London society plagued with dreadfuls had me giggling, snorting and oversharing with my poor mother, who has absolutely no interest in anything dark or, well, dreadful. But as a die-hard snobby Brit-lit enthusiast, even she was chuckling at some of the excerpts I read aloud. For example, the book opens with Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, back-to-back, surrounded by a herd of recently unearthed unmentionables. “As his beloved Elizabeth shattered the nearest zombie’s skull with a perfectly placed axe kick, Fitzwilliam Darcy saw in her eyes something that had been missing for a long, long time: joie de vivre… Although one couldn’t say the creatures had joie de vivre, both joie and vivre being long beyond them, they were undeniably enthusiastic in their quest for succulent flesh.” Such little quips are sprinkled heavily throughout the narrative, making the book much more light-hearted than your average zombie infestation.

Bottom line: The newest book in a well-established series, Dreadfully Ever After, is undeniably fun, well-written and engaging. I definitely recommend it, even if you’re not typically a reader of zombie lore.


The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

 

via Random House

Sometimes a book, let’s say a seemingly innocent young adult novel, comes along and sucks you in. It enchants you with real, faulted characters and beautiful descriptions. It chews you up, peppering the story with loss and grief, and soothes your wounds with stories of friendship, acceptance and love. Ultimately it spits you out, tears sliding down your cheeks, and you realize that the standard to which you hold literary fiction has been irrevocably raised.

The Book Thief’s back cover sets it up as the story of a young girl who steals books in Nazi Germany. The danger comes when her foster parents decide to hide a Jew in their basement. The simplicity of the blurb is deceptive, and you realize this right off the bat when the story is introduced and told by none other than Death himself.

 

As is only appropriate when the narrator is Death, the style of storytelling is a bit unorthodox. Surprises in the plot are leaked before they actually happen, but I was surprised to find that those leaks, while shocking, just drove me on in my reading, rather than spoiling the story. Things within the text are described in a way that is wholly unfamiliar. Zusak had a tendency to turn words into objects; “Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel’s feet…” Death gave life to things as ordinary as the sky; “The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.”

All of these things added to the beauty and complexity of the story, and I haven’t even told you about the plot yet. The story of Liesel Meminger begins on a train. Death has just taken her younger brother en route to their new foster parents. In the first 30 pages of the book, Liesel loses her mother and brother, is thrust into the arms of a strange new family (the Hubermanns), and steals her first book, though she can’t yet read.

As the story progresses, tentative bonds are formed and strengthened, friends are found, and Liesel begins to grow more confident in her new life. The story is full of darkness but its redemption lies in the strength of its characters. Liesel and her friend Rudy could have been kids in my neighborhood growing up. They resonate a believable familiarity that keeps the book relatable in the  midst of incredible events.

A Jew, Max Vandenburg, shows up at Liesel’s house in the middle of the night. The reason, we learn, has everything to do with Hans Hubermann’s stint in WWI, his friendship with a Jewish soldier, and a promise made to that soldier’s widow upon Hans’ return to Germany. Max is the son of that Jewish soldier, and he is now in need of the help promised to his mother so many years ago, and so the Hubermans take him in, hide him in the basement, and Liesel’s education begins in ernest.

Liesel learns more important lessons in the basement of her foster parents’ house than she does at school. It is where she learns to write, it is where she begins to identify with a Jew while his brethren are being marched through town on their way to Dachau, and it is where words ultimately save her life.

Bottom line: In spite of The Book Thief‘s technical categorization of Young Adult, I would recommend it to anybody who is looking for a book full of beauty and struggle. I will warn you: I read the end of the book through a blur of tears, but it was definitely worth it.

Listen to Markus Zusak talking about the book here:


One City, One Book Spring 2011: Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Hey fellow Chicagoans! Listen up, yous guys.

You may or may not know of the Chicago Public Library’s One City, One Book initiative, which  “seeks to cultivate a culture of reading in our city by reinforcing the importance and fun of reading and highlighting the benefits of reading together as a community,” but the program is one pick short of celebrating 10 years in action.

This spring, the One City, One Book pick is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. In addition to recommending a book each spring and fall, the CPL provides resources, such as author bios, discussion groups, discussion questions (if you want to lead your own group), further reading suggestions and more on its website. There are also planned events related to the book, including a talk with Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger (who wrote one of my favorite Chicago-centric novels, Time Traveler’s Wife) .

Gaiman himself is the creative force that brought us the fabulously creepy novel-turned-graphic-novel-turned movie Coraline and other works including American GodsAnansi Boys and  Good Omens.

Read about how Chicago played a part in inspiring Gaiman to write Neverwhere here, pick up a copy (you can reserve a Chicago Public Library branch copy here), and get out there and attend some events!

 


What They’re Reading

There’s a woman over there, on the other side of the El car with a book in her hands. What’s she reading? I know you’re dying to know. Go ahead… Slide down in your seat for a better look at the cover. Or maybe you want to lean to the side for a little voyeuristic peek at the Nook next to you. Feel a bit like a perv? Well, now you don’t have to. One of the daily newsletters I’m subscribed to, ShelfAwareness, recently distributed a list of top-selling books in Chicago and Milwaukee. Here you have it, a peep-free guide to what everybody else is reading:

Top-Selling Titles in Chicago and Milwaukee

The following were the bestselling books at independent bookstores in and around Chicago and Milwaukee during the week ending Sunday, February 20:

Hardcover Fiction

1. Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
2. Swamplandia by Karen Russell
3. Room by Emma Donoghue
4. While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut
5. Fadeaway Girl by Martha Grimes

Hardcover Nonfiction

1. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
2. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
3. Hey Buddy by Gary W. Moore
4. Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
5. A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

Paperback Fiction

1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
3. The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
4. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
5. True Grit by Charles Portis

Paperback Nonfiction

1. Just Kids by Patti Smith
2. Nurtureshock by Po Bronson
3. The Big Short by Michael Lewis
4. Awkward Family Photos by Mike Bender
5. Country Driving by Peter Hessler

Children’s

1. Silverlicious by Victoria Kann
2. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
3. Papertoy Monsters by Bri Castleforte
4. When I Grow Up by Al Yankovic
5. Little White Rabbit by Kevin Henkes

Reporting bookstores: Anderson’s, Naperville and Downers Grove; Read Between the Lynes, Woodstock; the Book Table, Oak Park; the Book Cellar, Lincoln Square; Lake Forest Books, Lake Forest; the Bookstall at Chestnut Court, Winnetka; Women and Children First, Chicago; Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee; and Next Chapter Bookshop, Meqoun, Wis.

[Many thanks to the reporting booksellers and Carl Lennertz!]