In Chandler's Footsteps

One of the kings of California crime fiction is Raymond Chandler who created the celebrated private detective, Philip Marlowe.  Even though Chandler died in 1959, his work still resonates with readers today and is often paid homage to by today's writers working within the suspense genre.  Steph Cha and Matt Coyle, two local Southland authors, recently published debuts that paid homage to Chandler, and Marlowe, in slightly different ways.  Both authors are also going to be featured on the California Crime panel at the 8th annual Literary Orange, on Saturday, April 5, 2014 at the Irvine Marriott.{CKEY}&searchfield1=GENERAL^SUBJECT^GENERAL^^&user_id=WEBSERVER
Follow Her Home casts an aimless 20-something Korean American woman in the private eye role with interesting results.  Fearing that his father is having an affair with a much younger woman from the office, Juniper Song's best friend asks her to snoop around.  He's rather insistent because the last time his father strayed his mother tried to commit suicide.  Song has had some success in solving mysteries before, including a tragic incident that involved her younger sister.  However, as soon as she starts sniffing around the alleged mistress, Song is knocked unconscious for her trouble and wakes up to find a dead body in her car.  What would her hero, Philip Marlowe, do in this situation?  He'd keep sticking his nose where it doesn't belong, of course!  Excellent use of a rich Los Angeles tapestry that includes plenty of sunshine and seedy underbellies.  It's a refreshing twist on a classic story.{CKEY}&searchfield1=GENERAL^SUBJECT^GENERAL^^&user_id=WEBSERVER
Yesterday's Echo takes the lovely beach town of La Jolla, California and gives it a hidden, ugly face.  Rick Cahill used to be a police officer, until his wife was murdered.  He was considered the prime suspect, but the district attorney didn't have enough to make a charge stick.  With everyone, from friends to family, abandoning him, when an old college buddy offers him a job working in his La Jolla restaurant, Rick jumps at the chance.  He's always going to have a cloud of suspicion over his head, but his life is steady - until one night an attractive TV reporter walks into the bar and asks for his help.  The former cop in Rick cannot say no, and naturally our beautiful woman has a whole host of unsavory characters creeping out of the shadows.  This story features more twists and turns than any coastal highway and was impossible to put down, especially as the action starts flying fast and furious in the final chapters.  The author is a fan of Raymond Chandler's work, and his story of an "every man" with a shady past roped into trouble by a mysterious woman has all the hallmarks of classic noir. 

To learn more about Literary Orange, please visit the web site, where you will find a complete list of attending authors and information about registering to attend the event.


Saying Goodbye

We all travel for different reasons:  to escape, to learn, to find ourselves, to lose ourselves.  Victoria Loustalot travels to find her father.  When she was a young girl, he was dying from AIDS and took his life to end his suffering.  And he left behind a lifetime of trips untaken.  In This Is How You Say Goodbye, Loustalot retraces some of his steps and also takes some of the trips they would have taken together. 
Cambodia is a place her father had dreamed about visiting.  She goes there for him, as
much as for herself.  She describes Angkor Wat:  “I looked up at ceilings covered in lotus designs and others where the sky shone through cavernous holes.  Wall, roof, and floor had crumbled in places and everywhere stone was eroded and deteriorating, creating shadows and depth, ghosts, a heightened sense of two worlds almost touching.” 
Her father had studied abroad in Stockholm and the city immediately resonates with her:  “It’s urban and rural, neither diminished.  Color!  The Swedish textiles are whimsical without being unsophisticated.  […]  I love that instead of heat lamps, outdoor bars and restaurants have piles of thick blankets stashed in corners; grab one when you need it.  I love the cardamom buns and the coffee that is not messing around.  It’s like the Swedes just do life better than the rest of us.” 

A trip to Paris was to be Loustalot’s gift from her father, so when she finally goes, it is for herself, not in his memory.  In spite of years of anticipation, Paris feels distant to her.  It doesn’t have the same immediacy that she experienced in Siem Reap and Stockholm.  “Paris is tall, dark, and handsome, but it also feels a bit like walking through a museum.  Everything is behind glass, and you’re not allowed to touch anything.  Even in the summer it’s just a little uncomfortable.  A little too cold—like a restaurant.”  (For the record, I don’t share her feelings about Paris!) 

Loustalot weaves the sections about travel together with sections about life with her father.  By travelling, she fills in some of the gaps in his life story and gets a better picture of the man he was.  This is one of the many things that makes travel so amazing—even if our loved one stood in a particular spot many years ago, we can go for ourselves and literally see what he saw.  Loustalot takes this a step further and also sees what her father should have seen.


Book Bomb - Teen and Tween reads

Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch XFICU

In a world decimated by a war with China and then a virulent plague, life as a scavenger is hard.  15 year old Stephen and his father have always been guided by his tough-as-nails grandfather.  Take care of yourself, avoid others, survival is paramount.  When his grandfather dies, Stephen and his dad have to figure out if they’re going to follow his isolationist ways or look for a different way to be.  On his path of self-discovery, Stephen must deal with slavers, suspicious villagers, and the possibility of true love.  Can he ever hope to leave the road and have a true home? Good, quick, easy read.

Temptation of Angels by Michelle Zink Teen

Helen Cartwright’s mother wakes her in the middle of the night and tells her to flee their quiet Victorian home.  The only explanation Helen is given is a pair of names and an address. When she arrives in her nightdress, she is greeted by two young gentlemen and their skepticism if she is “the one.”  So begins her journey into the world of the Keepers.  Unbeknownst to her she one of the last three on earth.  Their job is to keep the world in balance and battle the forces of darkness.  Once there were 20 of them, but someone has been murdering them and their caretakers. Pretty good book.  A little rote and obvious with the plot.  No forbidden love, no matter what it says on the back cover.

Prodigy (Legend series) by  Marie Lu XFICU

Having escaped the Republic’s hands, June and Day run to Las Vegas hoping to find help from the Patriots.  When the Elector Primo dies, and his handsome son takes charge, the Patriots decide that having June re-infiltrate the Republic to assassinate him is the only way to spark a revolution. But the new elector isn’t what June expected.  Will she re-join the Republic in truth or stay loyal to Day and the Patriots?  Or is there a middle road?

 Maze Runner by James Dashner -XFICU

Thomas awakens in a black box/elevator with no memories but his name.  He’s taken up to the Glade, into a society of boys.  None of them remember anything before the Glade.  In two years they’ve created a community with farm workers, cooks, animal slaughterers, and police.  The most prestigious position, however, is maze runner.  Those young men explore the ever moving maze that surrounds the Glade and have to make it back before dark.  Though he’s not sure why, but Thomas is sure that he needs to be a runner.  The day after he arrives, however, the unthinkable happens.  The box brings up a girl holding a note that says “Everything will change.”

Bitter Kingdom. (The Girl of Fire and Thorns fantasy trilogy). by Rae Carson XFICU

Elisa, the young queen, must go into the kingdom of her bitter enemies to save her kingdom and her true love.  Once a pudgy, unwanted princess, Elisa has evolved into a strong queen who must now discover the champion within herself  as prophecy has foretold.   This series is great for people who like Tamera Pierce or like rooting for the underdog.

Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan XFICU

Jason, Percy, and Annabeth finally team up to take on Gaia.  In this book the gods have gone crazy.  Now that the Roman camp and camp half-blood have met and worked together, any god with a dual aspect is dealing with a split personality.  Athena seems to be the worst. When Annabeth sees her and tries to ask advice, her mother rejects her and speaks nonsense.  All Annabeth knows is that she has to follow the Mark of Athena to find something stolen long ago from Greece.  By locating this object, the division between the Roman and Grecian aspects of the gods will be overcome.


Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross XFICU

This book is an exciting addition the Steampunk genre.  Although the cover and back make it seem like a steamy romance, the text is definitely adventure.  Set in Victorian England, the heroes of the book are “unlikely gathering of special young adults” who come together to fight the Machinist.  Sam, with his spectacular strength, ability to heal, and half metal skeleton; Griffin – Duke at a young age after his parents untimely death who is able to move about the Aether and see ghosts; Emily – an Irish super genius with a talent for the mechanical; Jasper a super-fast American cowboy, and Finley- a working class girl cursed with a dual Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde nature.  It reads a bit like a comic book, but still draws the reader into the story.

Dualed by Elsie Chapman Teen

Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 22, everyone in Kersh faces a challenge.  They must dual their physical twin to the death.  In an effort to create the strongest society they can in this post-apocalyptic, the rulers of Kersh take the genes of two couples, splice them together and impregnate both couples with identical zygotes.  No one is given full citizenship until they are “complete” and have killed their double.  West’s family hasn’t done well in the trials.  Her younger sister and eldest brother both were the “lesser” twin.  Her parents were collateral damage to other completions.  Now alone, West has to figure out how to survive and be the last one standing.


Buddha in the Attic and Everywhere Else

When my sister sent me a copy of Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka for Christmas I knew it was time to read this book that had been on my list because she had been excited about it, because it had good reviews, and because it has an intriguing title.  I was not disappointed.

The story is narrated in the first person in a number of voices, mostly by taking rapid turns in sentences, of the seldom told stories of Japanese mail-order brides in the early twentieth century. These women, known as a "picture brides," came from their homes in Japan to San Francisco because of ads promising them a husband, a home, and exciting opportunities in a new land.

Beginning with the images of their miserable voyage by ship in steerage quarters, the first calls of the woman reveal that they were not alike in background. They were from different islands, had varied reasons for wanting to come to America, and of varied appearance and personality. The one thing that they had in common was that they were Japanese woman full of wonder and hope or worry and sadness when comparing pictures of the men who would meet them and their new homes in an unknown land. And of course so many became not only dreadfully ill or sea sick but sick at heart at leaving home.

After this harsh reality their experiences vary in the rush of voices that the story presents in each chapter.  Often the pictures that they they had of the men or homes were false. A few fared well but there were mostly unhappy or tragic images woven among them. From their reception in San Francisco they were scattered to a number of locations in California or other states in the west. Mostly they were wanted for exhausting work and abuse of every sort was common. One common theme seemed to be that these woman were often valued as workers because so often they could patiently and competently outwork others and didn't need much food.

And then came the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the beginning of the Second World War, and the sad relocation of so many Japanese Americans when those who had finally built their own farms or businesses so often lost everything. What moved me so often in this rapid-fire chorus of voices is the theme of dignity and perseverance of this group. Otsuka's previous and equally acclaimed novel When the Emperor Was Divine focuses on the the path to internment of Japanese Americans during the war, a story still too seldom told. Another companion for learning about this period of history would be Jeanne Wakatsuki Houtson's classic Farewell to Manzanar.

Among many awards this novel was a National Book Award Finalist, winner of the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction, a New York Times Notable book, and listed as a Best Book of the Year by the Boston Globe.  


Curtsies and Conspiracies

In addition to being an incredibly witty writer, Gail Carriger has the ability to make really well written stories appear simply fun and easy, yet beneath the surface there is always an intelligent, well-researched story line. In Curtsies and Conspiracies , Sophronia and her friends continue their adventures at Miss Geraldine’s,  that began in Etiquette and Espionage . There are kidnappings and clandestine spying and stealing of inventions, and confrontations with vampires and werewolves, Picklemen and mechanimals.

The intrigue in this book involves a valve invented to allow fast travel through the aether. The vampires, Picklemen, and the Queen's own Shadow government, all want to control it. As expected, Sophronia in the middle of it all, is trying to find out what the valve does and who wants it. Especially intriguing are Sophronia's budding romances, amid the underlying exploration of social order.  The author does a wonderful job showing that her characters are both accomplished young spies, and teenagers navigating the torrents of youth.
The story’s two subplots have to do with growing up. They  involve  Sophronia promising Vieve she would help get her into the rival boys' school for evil geniuses. This requires orchestrating the removal of a teacher at the school, who would recognize Vieve's  gender, making her admission impossible.  Sophronia's resulting guilt as she begins to understand the effects of her actions, is the author's way of demonstrating Sophronia's budding maturity. The other is her confusion when she starts attracting attention from both Soap and Lord Mersey, the son and heir of a Pickleman Duke.  Sophronia loses some of her naiveté, as she ponders the possibilities of romance.

As with Conspiracies creative thought, brave girls, and crazy adventure, and other quirky, intelligent characters abound in this book.  It is great fun to see the past of some of the characters in the Parasol Protectorate, especially Lord Akeldama, who allows a glimpse when he makes a mysterious, but memorable appearance, with the promise of more to come.

A fun story that builds on the first novel but would do well on its own, too. Although generally classified as YA, this a perfectly enjoyable read for adult fans of steampunk urban fantasy fun.


Israel Armstrong: Bumbling Mobile Librarian, Amateur Detective and Londoner in Northern Ireland

I haven’t read many cozy mysteries, but I think I might just have been charmed back into the genre.  For my book club this month we read The Case of the Missing Books, the first installment in Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library Mystery series. 

Israel Armstrong, an Englishman in his late twenties, is trained as a librarian yet has never had more than a short-term employment contract in any library.  This also means that he has very little money to his name.  Therefore, when he arrives in County Antrim, Northern Ireland in response to an offer of employment as a librarian, only to find that the library has been closed and that he will instead be the “Outreach Support Officer” of the mobile library (basically a beat-up van), the only thing that convinces him to try it for a while is a promise from his new boss to pay for his travel home to England.

Israel quickly discovers that the 15,000 items in the mobile library’s collection are in fact missing.  Tasked by his supervisor with finding these materials, he comes up with and follows up on several wrong hypotheses and eventually is forced to request the assistance of a local taxi driver and friend of the mobile library, a man whom Israel had slightly alienated on his first day in town.   In the course of his search for the missing items, Israel meets many of the residents and business owners of the county, some reticent and curt and others warm and welcoming.  He witnesses the striking Northern Irish vistas of sea and sky, the residential evidence of economic hardship and the occasional surprise of a lovely garden or cup of espresso where they are least expected.  Although not focused on at length, the casualties of political upheaval are mentioned now and again; many in the county have lost relatives or have been injured themselves in bombings.

The Case of the Missing Books is a light and very enjoyable mystery with an identifiable main character who, while not always astute, really tries his best to “give it a go”, growing on the reader in the process.  The novel’s setting is quite distinct and County Antrim is an actual place in Northern Ireland which you can learn about on the Antrim Borough Council’s Web site.  I recommend the Mobile Library Mystery series to those who’ve enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books.  Both depict the atmosphere of a particular place quite memorably and with much humor, acquainting us with down-to-earth amateur sleuths who are learning as they go, as most of us would need to do if plunged into similar situations.  For fun and a little armchair travel, “catch yourself on” and pick up The Case of the Missing Books.  For your further reading, in March 2013 one of my fellow bloggers provided a great list of mysteries involving libraries and books.


All Things Elvis

January 8th is Elvis Presley’s birthday.  Born in a two-room house in Tupelo Mississippi, Elvis changed the face of American music with his distinctive voice and style, an electrifying mash-up of blues, rock, country and gospel, only to succumbed to the ravages of fame and years of prescription drug abuse.  The world mourned his early death at age 42.

Being a cultural icon, a tremendous number of books have been written about “The King.”  Here are some noteworthy titles:
Peter Guralnick’s masterful two-part biography of Elvis Presley has been called the “finest rock-and-roll biography ever written.”  Part one Last Train to Memphis chronicles the first 24 years of his life, from early childhood to rising stardom.  Part two Careless Love starts with his stint in the Army and continues to the tragic end.  This definitive biography pierces through the layers of super-stardom and finds the essence of Elvis, a man full of ambition and humility, whose love of music became sidelined by the growing demands of celebrity-hood.
If a two-part biography that clocks in at over 1,200 pages sounds too daunting, a good alternative is the 178-page Elvis Presley: A Life by Bobbie Ann Mason, a Southern novelist (In Country is a personal favorite) who grew up listening to Elvis on the Memphis radio stations.  This brief book is an engaging read for those who just want the highlights of Elvis’s life.

Watching clips of Elvis’s frenzied performance on the Ed Sullivan Show is just as captivating now as it was in 1956. Elvis: The Great Performances is a two-disc DVD of Elvis performing his best-known hits.  This set also includes documentary footage, home movie clips, interviews and additional “bonus” commentaries with Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

All Shook Up:Collected Poems about Elvis edited by Will Clemens and published by The University of Arkansas Press is a true delight. Even readers who aren't poetry fans will find much to enjoy in this collection. For the most part the poems are imaginative, emotional, thought-provoking, and witty. Contributors include Charles Bukowski, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Fulton and Thomas Gunn. Reading a poem is a great way to commemorate Elvis's birthday.


Happy New Year!

This year I rang in the New Year by watching a great film. I spent some time looking up “New Year’s Eve Themed Movies” and came up with a movie I had never seen. It came out in 1960 so it definitely isn’t a new film, but it was new to me. The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. This film features love, scandal, comedy and fabulous mid-century sets, outfits and décor.
Jack Lemmon plays a lowly clerk in a busy office in New York City. He uses a unique plan to get ahead and earn a promotion. His plan backfires when he falls in love with his boss’ girlfriend, elevator girl for the office building Shirley MacLaine, and has to decide between love and his job. You will feel so bad for Lemmon’s character, C.C. Baxter, as he gets stood up by his date, punched in the face, and forced to deal with difficult and often ridiculous situations. Baxter is a genuinely nice man with a good heart who just wants to succeed in the corporate world. He stands out as a true gentleman who in a world filled with deceit and infidelity and a man who didn’t know how lonely he really was until he found a companion. This movie is a comedy but it also has serious elements. The final scenes of the movie take place on New Year’s Eve making it a great movie to watch during the holidays and on New Year’s Eve. But don’t be sad if you spent your NYE doing something different, this film can be enjoyed anytime!
Filmed in black-and-white, this movie was released in 1960. The Apartment won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1961. If you haven’t seen this classic film, check it out or place it on hold next time you are in the library. Several branches own readily available copies.