May 21, 2019

Book Review: Escaping from Houdini by Kerri Maniscalco

 

Escaping from Houdini
(Stalking Jack the Ripper #3)

by Kerri Maniscalco

Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Romance
Publisher: Jimmy Patterson
Length: 416 pages
Published: September 18, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"In this third installment in the #1 bestselling Stalking Jack the Ripper series, a luxurious ocean liner becomes a floating prison of scandal, madness, and horror when passengers are murdered one by one…with nowhere to run from the killer. .

Audrey Rose Wadsworth and her partner-in-crime-investigation, Thomas Cresswell, are en route to New York to help solve another blood-soaked mystery. Embarking on a week-long voyage across the Atlantic on the opulent RMS Etruria, they’re delighted to discover a traveling troupe of circus performers, fortune tellers, and a certain charismatic young escape artist entertaining the first-class passengers nightly.

But then, privileged young women begin to go missing without explanation, and a series of brutal slayings shocks the entire ship. The strange and disturbing influence of the Moonlight Carnival pervades the decks as the murders grow ever more freakish, with nowhere to escape except the unforgiving sea. It’s up to Audrey Rose and Thomas to piece together the gruesome investigation as even more passengers die before reaching their destination. But with clues to the next victim pointing to someone she loves, can Audrey Rose unravel the mystery before the killer’s horrifying finale?"

Quote:

“If you wish to go, I’ll never make you stay. I might not do and say the proper thing all the time, but I do know that I love you enough to set you free.”

The Stalking Jack the Ripper series thus far

Excerpt:

"'...if, of course, legends are to be believed. Named after a character from German folklore, Mephistopheles is a demon in the Devil's employ,' Captain Norwood said. 'Known for stealing the souls of those already corrupt, he's full of magic and trickery, and he happens to be one spectacular showman. Here, look at these tarot cards he's made for the tables. Each card features one of his performers.' He held up a gorgeous set of handpainted cards. 'I guarantee you're in for a week of unparalleled magic and mystery,' he continued. 'Each night will bring a new carnival performance, never before seen. This ship will be the talk of legends, mark my words. Soon every cruise liner will host similar entertainments. It will be the start of a new era of travel.'

I raised a brow at his near-reverent tone. 'Are you suggesting you've hired a demon to entertain us and it's sure to become all the rage, Captain?'

Thomas choked on his water, and Miss Prescott shot me a mischievous grin. 'Is there a church or a chapel on the ship?' she asked, all round eyes and innocence. 'What shall we do if we're tricked out of our souls, sir?'

The captain lifted a shoulder, enjoying the mystery. 'You'll both have to wait and see. It shan't be much longer now.'"


The final installment in Maniscalco's series, out September 2019

My Book Review:

I really enjoyed Escaping from Houdini. I've read each of the three installments in Kerri Maniscalco's young adult series, Stalking Jack the Ripper, and this one is my favorite thus far.

The narrator, Rose Wadsworth, is on a ship for America. After her near escape from the Dracula case, she, her detective partner and boyfriend Thomas, and her uncle, are all ready to return to a more normal and quiet life. The ship's passengers are being entertained by a troop of circus performers, including the real-life figure, Houdini, and all are led by a mysterious, masked-man named Mephistopheles. Under his guidance, the shows promises to be a life-changing experience. In fact, aside from Houdini, all of the performers are masked and remain so during the entirety of the ship's passage.

During the first night’s events, all passengers on board the ship enter the dining room excitedly anticipating the first performance, when partway through the grand production an audience member is found murdered. Even worse, each night thereafter, a new victim is found in a cruel and horrifying death. But the question remains, are the circus performers really to blame?

Sure, the writing isn’t without flaw in spots, but overall this was a great, fun, and fast-paced young adult read. Maniscalco's plots are getting better and better with each new book and I'm enjoying seeing where she's taking these characters on this detective journey and their run-ins with Gothic characters from our collective historical and literary past. Book one featured Frankenstein and Jack the Ripper, book two featured Dracula and vampire horror galore, and I liked the surprises in this installment when Houdini is present but it's the mythical Mephistopheles running the show.

I finished the book in just a few days and immediately wished I had the next and final installment in the series, Capturing the Devil, (due out September 10, 2019) already in hand.


May 3, 2019

Book Review: Calypso by David Sedaris

Calypso

by David Sedaris

Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Essay, Humor
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Length: 272 pages
Published: May 29, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"David Sedaris returns with his most deeply personal and darkly hilarious book.

If you've ever laughed your way through David Sedaris's cheerfully misanthropic stories, you might think you know what you're getting with Calypso. You'd be wrong.

When he buys a beach house on the Carolina coast, Sedaris envisions long, relaxing vacations spent playing board games and lounging in the sun with those he loves most. And life at the Sea Section, as he names the vacation home, is exactly as idyllic as he imagined, except for one tiny, vexing realization: it's impossible to take a vacation from yourself.

With Calypso, Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation toward middle age and mortality. Make no mistake: these stories are very, very funny--it's a book that can make you laugh 'til you snort, the way only family can. Sedaris's powers of observation have never been sharper, and his ability to shock readers into laughter unparalleled. But much of the comedy here is born out of that vertiginous moment when your own body betrays you and you realize that the story of your life is made up of more past than future.

This is beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumor joke. Calypso is simultaneously Sedaris's darkest and warmest book yet--and it just might be his very best."

Quote:

"Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave."

Excerpt:

"Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll acquire a guest room. Some people get one by default when their kids leave home, and others, like me, eventually trade up and land a bigger house. “Follow me,” I now say. The room I lead our visitors to has not been hastily rearranged to accommodate them. It does not double as an office or weaving nook but exists for only one purpose. I have furnished it with a bed rather than a fold-out sofa, and against one wall, just like in a hotel, I’ve placed a luggage rack. The best feature, though, is its private bathroom.

'If you prefer a shower to a tub, I can put you upstairs in the second guest room,' I say. 'There’s a luggage rack up there as well.' I hear these words coming from my puppet-lined mouth and shiver with middle-aged satisfaction....

Three of my sisters visited us in Sussex the Christmas of 2012, so Gretchen and Amy took a guest room each. Hugh and I gave Lisa the master bedroom and moved next door to the converted stable I use as my office. One of the things he noted during their stay was that, with the exception of Amy and me, no one in my family ever says goodnight. Rather, they just leave the room—sometimes halfway through dinner—and reappear the following morning. My sisters were considered my guests, but because there was a group of them and they could easily entertain one another, I was more or less free to go about my business. Not that I didn’t spend time with them. In various pairings we went on walks and bike rides, but otherwise they sat in the living room talking, or gathered in the kitchen to study Hugh at the stove. I’d join them for a while and then explain that I had some work to do. This meant going next door to the stable, where I’d switch on my computer and turn to Google, thinking, I wonder what Russell Crowe is up to.

One of the reasons I’d invited these three over—had gone so far as to buy their tickets—was that this felt like a last hurrah. Except for Paul, who has no passport but tells me with great certainty that, according to an electrician he met on a job site, it is possible to buy one at the airport, we are all in our fifties now. Healthwise, we’ve been fortunate, but it’s just a matter of time before our luck runs out and one of us gets cancer. Then we’ll be picked off like figures at a shooting gallery, easy targets given the lives we’ve led."

My Book Review:

I've been a fan of David Sedaris since I first read his memoirs maybe a decade ago. He has a gift for telling the absolute, exposed truth about his life--the pain, the shame, the embarrassment, and the grief--with a gift for humor that's genuine and sincere.

With his last couple of books, I had felt (maybe mistakenly so) that Sedaris had drifted from his original voice, but to me Calypso perfectly recaptured what I was so drawn to at first: a brilliant ability to combine his confessions of the painful and the profound with irreverent humor that kept me laughing throughout the entire book. Actual laugh-out-loud humor, not just smirks or chuckles.

This collection of essays felt very unified: a journey through Sedaris's grief and guilt after the suicide of one of his sisters, and his deep desire to draw close to his remaining family members by recreating their childhood's seaside retreat. It is here, on the coast in their new vacation home, that Sedaris sorts through his political pains from the recent election, confesses his increasing obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and examines the ebbs and flows of his family relationships through the last few years.

His messages are thoughtful, unapologetically raw, and candid, but his gift for dealing with these emotions through laughter makes the experience such a joy for his reader.

If you've never read Sedaris before, yes, his narratives contain cursing and references to sex unsuitable to some audiences. That being said, Calypso was possibly my favorite of all of his books thus far--the deepest look into Sedaris's head and heart that audiences may have ever yet had.


March 25, 2019

Book Review: Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

 

Us Against You (Beartown #2)

by Fredrik Backman
translated by Neil Smith

Genres: Contemporary Fiction 
Publisher: Atria Books
Length: 448 pages
Published: June 5, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"After everything that the citizens of Beartown have gone through, they are struck yet another blow when they hear that their beloved local hockey team will soon be disbanded. What makes it worse is the obvious satisfaction that all the former Beartown players, who now play for a rival team in Hed, take in that fact. Amidst the mounting tension between the two rivals, a surprising newcomer is handpicked to be Beartown’s new hockey coach.

Soon a new team starts to take shape around Amat, the fastest player you’ll ever see; Benji, the intense lone wolf; and Vidar, a born-to-be-bad troublemaker. But bringing this team together proves to be a challenge as old bonds are broken, new ones are formed, and the enmity with Hed grows more and more acute.

As the big match approaches, the not-so-innocent pranks and incidents between the communities pile up and their mutual contempt grows deeper. By the time the last game is finally played, a resident of Beartown will be dead, and the people of both towns will be forced to wonder if, after all they’ve been through, the game they love can ever return to something simple and innocent."

Quote:

“The complicated thing about good and bad people alike is that most of us can be both at the same time.”

The first installment in the series

Excerpt:

"Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. We'll end up saying that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that will be a lie; the violence was already here. Because sometimes hating one another is so easy that it seems incomprehensible that we ever do anything else....

People driving through say that Beartown doesn't live for anything but hockey, and some days they may be right. Sometimes people have to be allowed to have something to live for in order to survive everything else. We're not made, we're not greedy; say what you like about Beartown, but the people here are tough and hardworking. So we built a hockey team that was like us, that we could be proud of, because we weren't like you. When people from the big cities thought something seemed too hard, we just grinned and said, 'It's supposed to be hard.' Growing up here wasn't easy; that's why we did it, not you. We stood tall, no matter the weather, But then something happened, and we fell.

There’s a story about us before this one, and we’re always going to carry the guilt of that. Sometimes good people do terrible things in the belief that they’re trying to protect what they love. A boy, the star of the hockey team, raped a girl. And we lost our way. A community is the sum of its choices, and when two of our children said different things, we believed him. Because that was easier, because if the girl was lying our lives could carry on as usual. When we found out the truth, we fell apart, taking the town with us. It’s easy to say that we should have done everything differently, but perhaps you wouldn’t have acted differently, either. If you’d been afraid, if you’d been forced to pick a side, if you’d known what you had to sacrifice. Perhaps you wouldn’t be as brave as you think. Perhaps you’re not as different from us as you hope.

This is the story of what happened afterward, from one summer to the following winter. It is about Beartown and the neighboring town of Hed, and how the rivalry between two hockey teams can grow into a mad struggle for money and power and survival. It is a story about hockey rinks and all the hearts that beat around them, about people and sports and how they sometimes take turns carrying each other. About us, people who dream and fight. Some of us will fall in love, others will be crushed; we’ll have good days and some very bad days. This town will rejoice, but it will also start to burn. There’s going to be a terrible bang."

My Book Review:

In the series' first installment, Beartown, readers meet the men and women that make up the die-hard hockey community of a small town struggling for its identity. Extremely powerful but also breathtakingly painful to read, it is the story of what happens when the hockey team's star player rapes the coach's daughter, and what happens when the community isn't willing to hear the truth. Both Beartown and its sequel, Us Against You, are very difficult to read: the language, sex, and violence make it hard to digest, but also very truthful to the violence in the world around us. Be advised these books are not for all readers--I absolutely love Fredrick Backman and at this point I'm either close to or have finished reading everything he's published thus far, but I'd be wary of recommending these  books to someone without first considering the impact of the triggers within them.

When starting Us Against You, I admittedly struggled with some repetition from Beartown during the first third. Having not read it very long ago, it was still freshly burned into my mind, but it's also part of Backman's narrative style to write cyclically, repeating the past as it evolves throughout the present.

After I got past the first-third of the novel, I was hooked. Backman has a true gift for characterization. I cared so much for Benji, Maya, Kira, Leo, Ana, Bobo, and Amat. Truly cared. My heart broke for each of them in individual ways. At the same time, though he wasn't exactly a villain in Beartown, I intensely despised Peter in this book for his inability to make one single, unselfish decision. I mean despised him. He was so frustrating. I wanted to shake him by the shoulders and yell at him. This is the gift of good writing--it made me care deeply and feel like this fictional failure of a father was in actuality a real person.

Like Beartown, Us Against You is filled with the violence and tension within Beartown and its rival Hed in a way that felt very honest with its depiction of raw hatred and trauma. Backman doesn’t shortchange his readers with trite, happy endings when the truth is far more weighty, complicated, and heartbreaking. To me, his themes are greatly reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s novels and he’s definitely my current favorite author-in-translation.

If you've never read Backman before and you're looking for a place to start, I'd recommend A Man Called Ove or My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry. I love this Beartown series, but do feel that some audiences need to consider the trigger warning before diving in.


March 22, 2019

Book Spotlight - Wordsworth and Evolution in Victorian Literature

 

Wordsworth and Evolution in Victorian Literature:
Entangled Influence

by Trenton B. Olsen

Genres: Academic, History, Science, 19th-Century British Literature, Poetry 
Publisher: Routledge
Length: 194 pages
Published: November 30, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Official Book Summary:
"The influences of William Wordsworth’s writing and evolutionary theory—the nineteenth century’s two defining visions of nature—conflicted in the Victorian period. For Victorians, Wordsworthian nature was a caring source of inspiration and moral guidance, signaling humanity's divine origins and potential. Darwin’s nature, by contrast, appeared as an indifferent and amoral reminder of an evolutionary past that demanded participation in a brutal struggle for existence. Victorian authors like Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thomas Hardy grappled with these competing representations in their work. They turned to Wordsworth as an alternative or antidote to evolution, criticized and altered his poetry in response to Darwinism, and synthesized elements of each to propose their own modified theories. Darwin’s account of a material, evolutionary nature both threatened the Wordsworthian belief in nature’s transcendent value and made spiritual elevation seem more urgently necessary. Victorian authors used Wordsworth and Darwin to explore what form of transcendence, if any, could survive an evolutionary age, and reevaluated the purpose of literature in the process."

Author Bio:
"Trenton B. Olsen completed his PhD in English Literature at the University of Minnesota and is currently Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University–Idaho. His work has appeared in Victorian Literature and Culture, The George Eliot Review, and The Journal of Stevenson Studies. He received the 2017 Idaho Humanities Council Research Fellowship and the 2018 George Eliot Essay Prize."


Excerpt (from Chapter One):
"Darwinism raised fundamental questions about nature and its relation to human identity, origins, and morality. Wordsworth was inextricably associated with these issues, and his work took on new meaning and urgency in Darwin's wake. Victorians from orthodox Anglican ministers to agnostic scientists drew on Wordsworth to respond to evolutionary theory. Biologists T.H. Huxley and Ernst Haeckel used Wordsworth quotations as epigraphs to their scientific books and journals even as their religious opponents enlisted Wordsworth against evolution. John Campbell Shairp described Wordsworth's poetry as the 'surest antidote' against Darwinian theory, and a contributor to The Edinburgh Review read Wordsworth's poetry as 'a protest against belief in evolution from beneath.' For others, Wordsworth's writing was an anticipation of Darwinism rather than its antithesis.... Wordsworth's poetry and evolutionary theory were so interconnected that, for these Victorian authors [Arnold, Eliot, Stevenson, and Hardy], responding to Darwin required revisiting and rethinking Wordsworth. They tested the poet's ideas against Darwinism and vice versa in their writing both to determine which Wordsworthian principles could survive the new age and to resist those elements of evolutionary theory they were unwilling to accept" (Olsen 3-4).

Book Spotlight:
This book analyzes the influence Wordsworth's writings had on post-Darwininian Victorian authors. Over the course of five chapters, Olsen examines this dynamic, first establishing the connection in Chapter One: Wordsworth in the Age of Evolution, and then applying this framework to the works of four key Victorian writers: Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thomas Hardy. Olsen concludes by showing how their texts and reflection on Wordsworth's relationship to Darwin's findings moved toward the Modernist period. If you're a student or scholar of Victorian literature, interested in history or science, or a fan of Wordsworth's poetry, definitely consider checking out this new contribution to literary scholarship.

March 15, 2019

Book Review - Art and the Artist in Society

Finishing my series, here's another scholarly volume for which I've served as a contributing author. Details below! I hope to have more publications to share someday soon.


Art and the Artist in Society

Edited by José Jiménez-Justiniano, Elsa Luciano Feal, and Jane Elizabeth Alberdeston

Genres: Academic, Nonfiction, Art, History, Literary Scholarship
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Press
Length: 325 pages
Published: August 1, 2013
Purchase Links: Amazon, Cambridge Scholars

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (how can you not give your own book 5 stars?)

Official Book Summary:
"Art and Artist in Society is a compilation of essays that examine the nexus between artists, the art they create and society. These essays consider how art has changed its form and role both to accommodate newer trends and to fully participate in society. Divided into six thematic sections, the book examines the works of a diverse group of artists working in a range of art forms, such as writers Milan Kundera and Judith Ortiz Cofer, filmmakers Humberto Solás and Walter Salles, performers/photographer Daniel Joseph Martínez and feminist-activists Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz. The analyses of the work of these artists and other artists offer readers an opportunity to explore a number of important issues in art today, such as the representation of the Other, the exploration of alternative sources of knowledge and the construction of the self. For the array of works it analyzes, this book offers fascinating insights into the art and the artists of the 20th and 21st centuries." 

Others' Reviews:
"Whether the issues revolve around ‘art for art’s sake’ in the writings of Baudelaire and Wilde, the ‘disgusting’ use of corporeal presences and excretions in body, action, installation, and performance art, or the trash, used or recycled materials of Richard Tuttle’s graphic creations, . . . [Art and the Artist in Society] lends itself to a recasting of multidisciplinary studies." – Dr. Lowell Fiet, University of Puerto Rico

“The collection immediately brings to mind . . . what it means to create seditious writings that trouble national governments as well artistic canons. Art and the Artist in Society covers similar ground – especially in the section that deals with art that meets uncomfortable and unfavorable public reception.” – Dr. Donette Francis, University of Miami 

My Contribution and Endorsement:
For this volume, I contributed the chapter titled "Rewriting Female Representations in Girl with a Pearl Earring & Girl in Hyacinth Blue: Historical Female Portraiture, Human Subjectivity, and Johannes Vermeer's Work." In the chapter, I examine these two novels which utilize Vermeer paintings in order to recast fictional women of the past in order to empower them with greater subjectivity than might be rendered in the original artwork. The volume is a great resource for scholars, art historians, or readers who are interested in how both art and artists have influenced literature during the last 120 years.



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