Thursday, April 26, 2018

Book Beginnings: The Girls in the Picture

The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin (Delacorte Press, January 2018). Opening lines of the book's first chapter:

Frances / 1969

Lately, the line between real life and movies has begun to blur.

About the Book:
It's 1914, and twenty-five-year-old Frances Marion has left her (second) husband for the lure of Los Angeles, where she is determined to live independently as an artist. But the word on everyone's lips these days is "flickers" — the silent moving pictures enthralling theatergoers. 
In this fledgling industry, Frances finds her true calling: writing screenplays. She also meets actress Mary Pickford, whose signature golden curls and lively spirit have given her the title of America's Sweetheart. The two ambitious young women hit it off instantly, their kinship fomented by the mutual fever to create, to move audiences to a frenzy, to start a revolution. 
But their ambitions are challenged by men and the limitations imposed on their gender — and their astronomical success comes at a price. As Mary, the world's highest paid and most beloved actress, struggles to live her life under the spotlight, she also wonders if it is possible to find love. Frances, too, longs to share her life with someone. As in any good Hollywood story, dramas play out, personalities clash, and even the deepest friendships are tested. 
With cameos from Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Rudolph Valentino, and Lillian Gish, The Girls in the Picture perfectly captures the dawn of a glittering new era — its myths and icons, its possibilities and potential, and its seduction and heartbreak. (description from publisher)

Initial Thoughts:

This is yet one more of those Early Reviewer books from Library Thing that I've been neglecting over the last couple of months. I had hoped to get this one read and reviewed back around the beginning of the year, but got a little sidetracked by a bunch of other books. (I seem to have that problem a lot these days.)

Anyway, I'm not really sure what it was that first attracted me to this book. I don't generally read historical novels about movie stars, but I'm very interested in the period of the novel. And Frances Marion co-authored the screenplay of one of my favorite classic films, Dinner at Eight. So I'm looking forward to getting started on this one pretty quick.

Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Friday.  As she says, the idea is to post the first sentence (or so) of the book you're currently reading, along with any first impressions or thoughts you have about the book, the author, etc.  It's a wonderful way of adding new books to your must-read list, and a chance to connect with other readers and bloggers.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Book Beginnings: The Cottingley Secret

The Cottingley Secret, by Hazel Gaynor (William Morrow, 2017). First lines of the book's Prologue:
Cottingley, Yorkshire. August 1921.
Fairies will not be rushed. I know this now; know I must be patient.
Hmmm. Okay. And these are the first lines of Chapter One:
Ireland. Present day.
Olivia Kavanagh didn't believe in happy endings. Life hadn't worked out that way for her so far.
These quotes are from an ARC of the book, so please note that they might be slightly different in the published edition.

About the Book:
[The Cottingley Secret] turns the clock back one hundred years to a time when two young girls from Cottingley, Yorkshire, convinced the world that they had done the impossible and photographed fairies in their garden. Now, in her newest novel, international bestseller Hazel Gaynor reimagines their story.

Initial Thoughts:

Well, my main thought on this one is that I'm really embarrassed about it. It was an Early Reviewer book from Library Thing and I've had it for months now. I just forgot I had it, and it got...sidelined. So now I'm trying to finish it up quickly and do my (very late) review.

My second thought is that I'm not generally a fan of books about fairies. But this episode has always interested me, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Gaynor handles the tale.

And here's one of the actual photos taken by the real Elsie Wright in 1917 (via Wikipedia's USA public domain photo files):

Photo by Elsie Wright (1917)

Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Friday.  As she says, the idea is to post the first sentence (or so) of the book you're currently reading, along with any first impressions or thoughts you have about the book, the author, etc.  It's a wonderful way of adding new books to your must-read list, and a chance to connect with other readers and bloggers.

Monday, April 09, 2018

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

April is more than a week old now! I find that very hard to believe, especially since our weather keeps dancing back and forth between spring and late winter. We haven't had the snow and ice that some of the country has had, but these last few days have been WAY too cold for a central Texas spring. Not happy about that.

Also a little upset that I only finished one book last week:

Murder in the Meadow (DI Hillary Greene #7), by Faith Martin

Haven't reviewed it yet (soon, I hope), but I did get a few reviews posted for books I finished earlier this year:

Looking ahead: This week I'm hoping to finish up a couple of Early Reviewer books from LibraryThing (I'm embarrassingly far off the track over there):

The Cottingley Secret, by Hazel Gaynor

The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin

Both of those are print books, and I've gotten very used to doing most of my reading on my iPad. I find I read much faster on an e-reader, but I do occasionally miss the physical experience of reading "real" books. How about you? Are you a dedicated "print purist" or have you gone over to the dark (electronic) side? I like both, but I certainly do enjoy being able to carry a whole library with me on my Kindle or iPad. That's a definite advantage.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is now hosted by Kathryn at Book Date. If you want to let the world know what you're going to be reading this week, head on over to her blog and leave your link. It's also a great way to discover new books and new blogs.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Mount TBR Reading Challenge: Mountaineering Checkpoint No. 1

Hard to believe April is a whole week old now, but my calendar tells me that's true. Which means it's time for Check-in #1 in this year's Mount TBR Reading Challenge. I usually forget to do these check-ins, but for some reason this year my brain seems to be a little better oiled or something.

Let's see.... I signed up for the Pike's Peak level (Level 1), twelve books from my TBR pile/s; and so far, I've finished four books that qualify:
  1. Five Children and It. E. Nesbit (pub. 1902; read in March) 
  2. Just Kids. Patti Smith (pub. 2010; read in February) 
  3. A Murder Is Announced (Miss Marple #5). Agatha Christie (pub. June 1950; read in January) 
  4. Vintage Murder (Roderick Alleyn #5). Ngaio Marsh (pub. 1937; read in January) 
All of which have been on my shelves for quite a while; in fact, I think I've had my copy of Five Children and It since sometime back in the 1970s.

Bev had a few questions for us to think about answering. One about a favorite cover — and I have to admit, none of the covers on my books this time were really anything to cheer about. I guess if I had to choose one, it would be the cover of the paperback edition of the Patti Smith memoir Just Kids:

That's Patti with Robert Mapplethorpe back in about 1970. They made a very striking pair, didn't they?

And as for favorite characters.... Well, I think I'd (always) have to choose Miss Marple. She's always been one of my favorite fictional inventions, and she's at her Miss-Marple-est in A Murder Is Announced. But Inspector Roderick Alleyn, from the Ngaio Marsh mystery series, would run her a close second.

So, at this point I think I'm on track. If I continue with at least three or four books per quarter, I should do a little better than twelve books by the end of 2018. That's what I'm hoping, anyway. I know that would only make a very tiny dent in my ridiculously enormous TBR piles/lists. But for now, I'm still climbing the mountain. No falls, no set-backs, and no reason to be seeking shelter in a cave along the way. Yet.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Coffin, Scarcely Used, by Colin Watson

Farrago, February 2018
210 pages, Kindle edition
First published 1958

Description (from NetGalley):
In the respectable seaside town of Flaxborough, the equally respectable councillor Harold Carobleat is laid to rest. Cause of death: pneumonia.  
But he is scarcely cold in his coffin before Detective Inspector Purbright, affable and annoyingly polite, must turn out again to examine the death of Carobleat’s neighbour, Marcus Gwill, former prop. of the local rag, the Citizen. This time it looks like foul play, unless a surfeit of marshmallows had led the late and rather unlamented Mr Gwill to commit suicide by electrocution. (‘Power without responsibility’, murmurs Purbright.)  
How were the dead men connected, both to each other and to a small but select band of other town worthies? Purbright becomes intrigued by a stream of advertisements Gwill was putting in the Citizen, for some very oddly named antique items… 
Witty and a little wicked, Colin Watson’s tales offer a mordantly entertaining cast of characters and laugh-out-loud wordplay.

My Thoughts:

I am so happy to have discovered Colin Watson's Flaxborough Chronicles! Coffin, Scarcely Used is the first book in the long-running series, and I'm a little surprised that I've never even heard of the books before now. It's true, they're a trifle dated today — of course, you could say the same thing about the works of any of the other classic crime writers. But the clever word play and slightly wacky humor are still very fresh, and Inspector Purbright is an absolute delight. I do believe I've found a new favorite mystery series!

(Note: I received my copy of this book from the publisher, free of charge, through the NetGalley website. No other compensation was received, and no one tried to influence my opinion of the book.)

Rating: ★★★★

Notable Quotes:
The waitress drifted near, eyed them with sad disapproval, and retired to lean against the further wall like a martyr turned down by fastidious lions. (Loc.550)
'...The remark stuck in her mind. It's a very narrow mind,' Love explained. (Loc.645)
'...We're rather badly off for crime round here. Nastiness is as much as most of them can rise to.' (Loc.1720)
Since the war, the excitements of the place had dwindled to routine drunkenness at the week-end, the odd fight or two, and a little listless wife-beating in such households where that indulgence could be enjoyed without endangering a television set. (Loc.1865)

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Just Kids, by Patti Smith

Paperback cover
Ecco, 2010
304 pages

Patti Smith's memoir of her life in NYC during the late 1960s, early 1970s, and her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

Publisher's Description:
Bound in innocence and enthusiasm, they traversed the city from Coney Island to Forty-second Street, and eventually to the celebrated round table of Max's Kansas City, where the Andy Warhol contingent held court. In 1969, the pair set up camp at the Hotel Chelsea and soon entered a community of the famous and infamous — the influential artists of the day and the colorful fringe. It was a time of heightened awareness, when the worlds of poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual politics were colliding and exploding. In this milieu, two kids made a pact to take care of each other. Scrappy, romantic, committed to create, and fueled by their mutual dreams and drives, they would prod and provide for one another during the hungry years. 
Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy..... A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists' ascent, a prelude to fame. (--from the dust jacket of the hard cover edition)

I really didn't know a lot about Patti Smith and was never much of a punk rock fan, so I had a few qualms about starting this one. But I knew it had won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010, and my husband read it a couple of years ago and was impressed enough to recommend. So I put it on my TBR stack and finally managed to get to it this year.

And I'm happy to say it turned out to be an extremely accessible and interesting book, and really brought back memories and vibes from "back in the day" (even though I didn't live in New York at that time). Smith's writing style is effortlessly poetic and yet very down-to-earth. And she's an impressive memoirist, with what seems like perfect recall of her early years in NYC, and brings those times back to vivid life — the excitement and also the pain and confusion. A very moving and enjoyable read.

Rating: ★★★★

Notable Quotes:
I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me. (pg.25)
Long-haired boys scatting around in striped bell-bottoms and used military jackets flanked with girls wrapped in tie-dye. There were flyers papering the streets announcing the coming of Paul Butterfield and Country Joe and the Fish. "White Rabbit" was blaring from the open doors of the Electric Circus. The air was heavy with unstable chemicals, mold, and the earthy stench of hashish. The fat of candles burned, great tears of wax spilling onto the sidewalk.
I can't say I fit in, but I felt safe.
I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can't say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. (pg. 59)
Yet you could feel a vibration in the air, a sense of hastening. It had started with the moon, inaccessible poem that it was. Now men had walked upon it, rubber treads on a pearl of the gods. Perhaps it was an awareness of time passing, the last summer of the decade. Sometimes I just wanted to raise my hands and stop. But stop what? Maybe just growing up. (pg.104)
Original hard cover edition

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Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit

Faber Children's Classics, Book 17
Faber & Faber, 2014; 109 pages (Kindle edition)
First published 1902

The stories that eventually became Five Children and It were written by English author Edith Nesbit and first appeared in serial form in the Strand Magazine in 1900. Put together in one volume and expanded a bit, they were published under this title in 1902. The book was a huge hit and (so Wikipedia tells us) has never been out of print since that first appearance.

This is one of those classic early-20th-Century children's books that everyone should read, and it's been on my TBR shelf for several decades. So glad I finally got around to reading it — it's lots of fun and I definitely enjoyed it (with a few reservations).

It's the story of five English siblings (Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and their baby brother, the Lamb) who discover a sand-fairy (a "Psammead") in a gravel pit near the house they've just moved into. The children are of course thrilled, and even more so when they find out that the marvelous ancient creature is able to grant them wishes, although the magic wears off at sunset everyday. Unfortunately, none of the wishes the children make go exactly the way they expect (or hope) they will; mostly they end in embarrassing chaos. Well, embarrassing for the children, but pretty hilarious for the reader. And along the way, the kids learn some very good lessons about watching what you wish for.

As I say, I enjoyed this a lot and probably would have loved it if I'd read it as a child. As an adult, I got a little impatient with the slightly moralistic tone of the book (although it never really gets "preachy"). And I also got quickly fed up with that irritating "Lamb" who was (I suppose) meant to be cute and precious and lovable, but only came across as extremely annoying. (But I guess most babies are pretty annoying, now that I think about it — in real life as well as in literature.)

So, three and a half stars. I might have given it four stars if I hadn't already read (and loved) Edward Eager's "Magic" books that were inspired by E. Nesbit's work. Even though he was definitely building on something Nesbit started (and even pointedly mentioned her in his books), I really think his stories are more readable for a modern audience.

Rating: ★★★½

Notable Quotes:
It is very wise to let children choose exactly what they like, because they are very foolish and inexperienced, and sometimes they will choose a really instructive thing without meaning to. (pg.37)
...I heard father say the other day people got diseases from germans in rain-water. Now there must be lots of rain-water here — and when it dries up the germans are left, and they'd get into the things, and we should all die of scarlet fever.'
'What are germans?'
'Little waggly things you see with microscopes,' said Cyril, with a scientific air.
'...You can't be really scalped or burned to death without noticing it, and you'd be sure to notice it next day, even if it escaped your attention at the time,' said Cyril. (pg.91)

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Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, by Ed McBain

Thomas & Mercer edition published December 2011
First published 1960
204 pages (Kindle edition)

About the book:

He dresses in black and stalks the streets of the 87th Precinct. He is a shadow, always searching for his next victim. And when he finds it, all that will be left is a severed hand.

For Detectives Carella and Hawes, this new killer is an enigma. He leaves no trace of his crime—no evidence at all. Even the severed hands have had their fingertips sheared off. With nothing much to go on, the detectives work off the hunch that the black-clad killer has a grudge against the 87th, and begin a frantic manhunt before any more of his handiwork appears on their streets.

One of world-renowned crime master Ed McBain’s most grisly and intense novels in the famed 87th Precinct series, Give the Boys a Great Big Hand is a finely tuned build-up of brooding malevolence and frantic desperation… (--Amazon UK)

My Thoughts:

Give the Boys a Great Big Hand is no. 11 in the 87th Precinct series. It's been quite a while since I dropped in on "the boys" of the 87th Precinct in Ed McBain's fictional city of Isola. I remember reading a bunch of books in the series back in the 1970s and really enjoying them, but didn't know how I'd feel about them today. After all, they are very much of their time, with all those bad old attitudes and assumptions. (In fact, the books are so un-PC now, they're actually sort of refreshing.) But I should have known better than to worry — Ed McBain (a pseudonym of novelist Evan Hunter) was an absolute master of the hard-boiled police procedural and definitely knew how to hold a reader's interest. The books hold up, even after all these years.

In this one, detectives Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Bert Kling, Meyer Meyer (yes, that's the name, not a typo) and all the rest of the boys are presented with a seemingly unsolvable case when an airline bag is found, containing just a severed hand with the fingertips removed. Forensics being what they were in the early 1960s, the medical examiner can tell them that it's male and give them a blood type and an approximate height and weight, but that's it. Now they have to find a body to match the hand. And that mission sets them off on one of their most intriguing investigations, including the interviewing of some very intriguing stripper ladies.

All in all, this was a quick enjoyable read. A little gory, of course — but not as bad as some of the more recent crime fiction I've read. I'm only giving it three and a half stars, though — mainly because it doesn't quite come up to the level of some of the other books in the series. Although, that might not really be a fair comparison.

Rating: ★★★½

Notable Quotes:
The diminutive "Meg" did not exactly apply to her because she was five feet seven and a half inches tall with all the cuddly softness of a steel cable. 
Even conversation seemed to concern itself primarily with the fantasy world, and not the real. Did you see Jack Paar last night? Have you read Doctor Zhivago? Wasn't Dragnet exciting? Did you see the review of Sweet Bird of Youth? Talk, talk, talk, but all of the talk had as its nucleus the world of make-believe. And now the television programs had carried this a step further. More and more channels were featuring people who simply talked about things, so that even the burden of talking about the make-believe world had been removed from the observer's shoulders — there were now other people who would talk it over for him. Life became thrice-removed.
You are hooked because she can change her face, this woman, and change her body, and all that was warm and tender can suddenly become cold and heartless — and still you are in love. You will be in love with her forever, no matter how she dresses, no matter how they change her, no matter who claims her, she is the same city you saw with the innocent eyes of youth, and she is yours.

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