Thursday, December 7, 2023

Fantasy novella 'The Singer' encourages us to treasure simple things, tend our gifts, and kindle hope, however small

 Title: The Singer

Author: Hûw Steer
Published: Nov 23, 2023
Pages: 151
Genre: Fantasy

My review:

We read books for many reasons, but one is to inhabit other worlds: to escape the monotony, chaos, or loneliness of everyday life and experience a place that's more exciting, more gentle, or more beautiful.

Some books make us feel as though we've lived in that other world for a time, granting us rest and rejuvenation, and when we emerge (if it's a truly good book), it's with a sense of greater reverence for the world we do live in, and a resolution to live more nobly in it.

Hûw Steer's novella The Singer is one of those books. It's short and sweet, but it's beautifully written and made me feel as though I had somehow escaped to a quiet countryside village where life is simpler, and where small things---a shared meal or a pint between friends, a much-needed rainstorm, a blossoming tree---are deeply treasured. It was, in short, a welcome break from 21st-century life.

At this point, I should probably note that I've read several books by this author (and given pretty enthusiastic reviews to all of them). While The Blackbird and the Ghost was probably my favorite thus far, I believe he's reached a new high with this book: The Singer just feels perfect from beginning to end. The writing is simple yet masterful, and it feels effortless.

The story is about a farmer who lives in Quern: a small, rustic village where you can patch someone's roof in exchange for a bunch of apples, where everyone knows everyone else's business, and where no one is ever too busy to lend their neighbor a hand.

Tom lives alone with his faithful dog, working to bring forth a crop of apples with the help of a magic song his mother taught him. He's the latest in a long line of men and women who have inherited this gift, and as the oldest child, it's his duty to move far away from home, find a barren patch of land, and make it grow.

Tom is quite happy tending his apples and occasionally walking into town to see Mary, the village apothecary he's very casually courting. But when a border war breaks out and soldiers come to Quern looking for recruits, the village's peaceful way of life is disrupted.

Though The Singer is ostensibly about a simple farmer working his land and courting the woman he loves, it's very engaging. And though it's only about 150 pages (it was actually closer to 80 in the pdf version I read), it's about many things. 

Most of all (I think), it's about the importance of living a life that enriches the lives of others. Quern is a tightly knit community in which everyone helps each other out. And though Tom has an incredible gift that he could exploit for his own ends, he uses it to help his fellow villagers: always in secret, never for recognition. 

Rather than force nature to yield before its time, he simply prods it along, gently inspiring it to grow. He sings down rain when a drought threatens Quern's crops, and he sings a dead, abandoned field into a beautiful, bounteous orchard. If everyone lived in such a way, it would be a merrier world indeed.

So what can we bring back into our world from Quern? I'd say, the resolution to try and sing the world back into tune, however we can, and however small and insignificant our efforts may feel. To paraphrase Miep Gies, anyone can turn on a small light in a dark room. And to quote from The Singer itself:
"There seemed just a little more hope than there had been before. And in the end, sometimes that was enough."


Thursday, April 20, 2023

'One More Seat at the Round Table' is a delightful fictionalized account of Camelot's long journey to Broadway

Title: One More Seat at the Round Table

Author: Susan Dormandy Eisenberg
Published: 2023
Pages: 358
Genre: Historical Fiction

What Goodreads has to say:

What if the most conflicted lovers in Broadway’s Camelot aren’t Lancelot and Guenevere?

Set backstage during the out-of-town chaos of Lerner and Loewe’s now-classic 1960 musical, One More Seat at the Round Table portrays the struggles of feisty drama school grad Jane Conroy, who lands a plum Gal Friday job, and Bryce Christmas, a gifted, if insecure, actor on the verge of his big break. When Jane and Bryce fall helplessly in love during Toronto tryouts, their relationship is tested by mistakes they make and endless work woes: Camelot’s four-hour length, poor reviews, the illness of librettist Alan Jay Lerner, and the near-fatal coronary of director Moss Hart who quits.

As Lerner, composer Loewe, and their stars, Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, trudge on to Boston, doubts besiege Jane who hopes to buck convention and skip marriage and Bryce who wants a wife. They also discover hidden strengths as Jane gains agency backstage and Bryce takes charge of his talent. But will Jane’s commitment phobia derail their future? Will Camelot become a glittering hit? These questions create a tense roller-coaster ride to the end of Susan Dormady Eisenberg's wise and witty novel, a story about the transformative power of love and the luminous pull of Broadway as it casts its spell on performers and fans alike.

What I have to say:

In the 1967 film version of Camelot (a movie I adore), there comes a moment when Arthur senses that the presence of his illegitimate son, Mordred, together with the forbidden passion shared by his beloved Queen Guenevere and his best friend Lancelot, have put his Round Table in jeopardy. 

"We must not let our passions destroy our dreams," he says, a plea to his queen and friend not to succumb: if not for his sake, for the sake of their shared dream.

In the end, Jenny and Lance's passion does destroy their dreams. The dream of Camelot: a civilized place where justice prevails and might is used only for right, endures for no more than "one brief, shining moment." 

There was a time when the musical Camelot itself seemed destined for as short a life. During its pre-Broadway development, the show was a whopping four hours long, and full of problems. Then two of the creatives--librettist Alan Jay Lerner and director Moss Hart--suffered alarming health complications that threatened to put the whole production on hold. Once it finally played for an audience, reviews were absolutely brutal. 

Yet in spite of its many problems, and beyond all expectation, Camelot went on to become one of the most iconic--and in my opinion, greatest--of all American musicals. (Thank you, Ed Sullivan and Jackie Kennedy.)

Susan Dormandy Eisenberg's One More Seat at the Round Table traces the story of Camelot's journey to Broadway as seen through the eyes of two fictional characters: production assistant Jane Conroy and ensemble member Bryce Christmas. 

Jane is an eager, ambitious young woman pursuing her dream career of working behind the scenes on Broadway. Bryce is a would-be star with a gorgeous voice and a day job waiting tables at Sardi's. As Camelot finds its groove, Jane and Bryce find each other. What follows is a highly entertaining look at a pivotal moment in Broadway history, balanced with a stormy but ultimately delightful romance. I adored every minute of it.

As a Broadway aficiniado, long-time Julie Andrews admirer, and lover of all things Camelot, I enjoyed the feeling of being a fly on the wall throughout the musical's development process. Jane and Bryce act as stand-ins to offer us peeps at stage and screen legends like Richard Burton, Robert Goulet, and, of course, Julie Andrews, whom Jane manages to befriend (not jealous at all). 

With glimpses of backstage drama, the creative process of Lerner and Loew, and the trial-by-fire ordeal of mounting a Broadway production, One More Seat at the Round Table is bound to appeal to theatre fans like me, especially if they have an interest in theatre history. (I guess this is the time to admit that one night when I was bored I just watched every internet clip I could find from the original run of Camelot.)

But this book is more than just a lesson in theatre history. At its heart is a compelling love story fraught with almost as many challenges as Arthur's and Guenevere's. As Jane and Bryce grow more and more attached to each other, they begin to realize that a relationship and a life in theatre are almost mutually exclusive. Bryce wonders if Jane could be persuaded to give up her Broadway dreams for a life with him, while Jane wonders if a relationship with Bryce will sabotage her career. Like Lancelot and Guenevere, perhaps Jane's and Bryce's passions will destroy their dreams.

I won't spoil the ending by answering my own question, but suffice to say, I was rooting so hard for Jane and Bryce that I couldn't stop reading. I had to find out if they would make it work or, like Arthur and Guenevere, part ways, and like the Round Table, sink into the oblivion of history: "less than a drop in the great, blue motion of the sunlit sea." 

While the dream of Camelot itself may have sunk into that sea, the musical did not, and neither does One More Seat at the Round Table. It sparkles.


Friday, March 31, 2023

Back to school with Rob Keeley's new collection of funny, heartwarming stories

Title: The Boy Who Disappeared and Other Stories
Author: Rob Keeley
Published: March 28, 2023
Pages: 184
Genre: Middle Grade

What Goodreads has to say:

Ellis is annoying Isla... but suddenly he isn’t there...

Oscar’s written what he thinks about everyone... and left the paper in a library book...

Fletcher becomes a hero to Suzie...

Tessa takes action when her school bans hugging...

Holly Class wind up Pine Class on Transition Day...

Paul really doesn’t want to go to big school...

Myra hates her new school... until she meets Shane...

And more...

A brand-new collection of short stories from award-winning children’s and YA author Rob Keeley.

Includes Guess What? – shortlisted for Best Short Story 2022 at the Searchlight Writing for Children Awards – and two new Liam and Justin stories. Suitable for the 8-12s, and with primary and secondary school stories, this collection is fast, funny and packed with twists and turns.

What I have to say:

Oh, to be in elementary school again--or as it's known in England, primary school (I think I got that right, to be honest, I still don't understand the British school system). 

JK. I'm fine. While it was a good time and all, I think if someone told me I had to do it all again, I would simply run away from civilization. Then again, there's something to be said for the structure and familiar safety of those early school days. Maybe that's why I symphathized with Paul, a boy who really really REALLY doesn't want to graduate to "big kid" school. So much so that he fakes his identity and manages to attend the class one grade down from his for a surprisingly long time before anyone realizes the truth. I'm with you, Paul. Stay a kid as long as you can.

Rob Keeley's latest book, The Boy Who Disappeared and Other Stories, is delightful, sweet, and funny. Am I surprised? Not one bit. At this point, I'd be surprised if I read a Rob Keeley book that was anything less than that.

Written for a middle grade audience, all but one of the stories center around school in one form or another: whether it's making friends, standing up to bullies, breaking ridiculous rules, covering ridiculous blunders, or just dealing with the whole messy tragicomedy of growing up.

Aside from the story about Paul ("The Real David Ashwood"), some of my favorites were "Guess What?" in which a simple accident of spilled eggs launches a plethora of out-of-control rumors; and "A School Knight," in which a girl develops a huge crush on an older boy who turns out to have a lot of other admirers as well....

These stories, all of them fun and thoroughly enjoyable, brought back to me those days at school when everything was so simple and yet so complicated, when teachers were the prime arbiters of justice, hugging someone of the opposite sex was the leading cause of cooties, and a friend moving out of town was the end of the world. 

I remember that, like Tessa and her friends who decide to protest their school's ban on hugging, my friends and I once "went on strike" (though we had no idea what that meant) when our school removed one of our favorite pieces of equipment from the playground. I remember, like Myra and Suzie, thinking that the older kids were so cool and so grownup, that when they deigned to take notice of me, it was a high honor. I remember, like Paul, being terrified of having to leave the classroom and teacher I'd gotten familiar and comfortable with. And when I had to go to an entirely different school, it was just too much to expect one kid to deal with.

In short, I smiled my way through this humorous and heartwarming collection of stories, sure to delight both the young and young-at-heart. 


Thursday, March 30, 2023

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About James Leipfold


Title: The Leipfold Files
Series: Leipfold Mysteries
Author: Dane Cobain
Published: 2022
Genre: Mystery

My Thoughts: This third installment in the Leipfold Mysteries, is a collection of short stories from the life of James Leipfold starting with his first meeting with Jack Cholmondeley. Leipfold has lived a tough life, nothing ever seems to go quite right for him, but every time he tries to give up, life puts him back on his feet. The world needs James Leipfold. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was touched by some stories, and angered by others. I found Maile's "side quest" engrossing, and the hunt of the gnomes ridiculous. These stories add a depth and perspective to the series as a whole which helps to round out side characters, and explain main characters' motivations. 

Definitely a must read for fans of Leipfold and Maile. 


Monday, March 27, 2023

Dating Fears Justified


Title: The Tower Hill Terror
Series: Leipfold Mysteries
Author: Dane Cobain
Published: 2020
Pages: 236
Genre: Mystery

Goodreads Blurb: Meet private detective James Leipfold, computer whizzkid Maile O'Hara and good-natured cop Jack Cholmondeley in the Leipfold series.

Putting their differences aside, and brought together by a shared love of crosswords and busting bad guys, Maile and Leipfold investigate. But not all is as it seems, as they soon find out to their peril.

My Thoughts: Big fan of Leipfold and Maile here. Cobain could write a book where they do nothing but crosswords, and I would read it. With two main characters so well established that they almost seem to step off the page, this story could be nothing but brilliant. And it was.

Definitely a grittier, more horrifying mystery. This time Leipfold and Maile, with the aide of Cholmondeley, investigate what seems to be a serial killer with a penchant for body mutilation. It's gross stuff. And when Maile's own roommate goes missing, it becomes downright terrifying. Thankfully, Leipfold and Maile are on the case.

As it becomes clear that the killers (yeah there's two) are choosing their victims from dating sites the mystery begins to feel a little too close to home. This could actually happen, and I don't have a roommate who works for a detective. 

Leipfold manages to save the day at the last possible second (best scene in the book), Maile and Kate can go back to living their "normal" lives, and the reader is forever scared of dating apps.

Highly recommend to fans of adult mysteries who don't mind the occasional swear word. 


Thursday, January 5, 2023

Solid Mystery, Superb Detective


Title: Driven
Series: Leipfold Mysteries
Author: Dane Cobain
Published: 2017
Pages: 247
Genre: Mystery

Goodreads Blurb: Meet private detective James Leipfold, computer whizzkid Maile O'Hara and good-natured cop Jack Cholmondeley in the first book of the Leipfold series. A car strikes in the middle of the night and a young actress lies dead in the road. The police force thinks it's an accident, but Maile and Leipfold aren't so sure. Putting their differences aside, and brought together by a shared love of crosswords and busting bad guys, Maile and Leipfold investigate. But not all is as it seems, as they soon find out to their peril...

My Thoughts: I love a good mystery. When I was young I read every Nancy Drew I could find. As a teenager I sped through all of Sherlock Holmes, and later in college I started to appreciate Agatha Christie. Yet, for some reason over the last few years I have forgotten my love of mystery and snappy detectives. I'm happy to report that Cobain's Driven has rekindled my interest in the genre, and given me another grumpy-yet-endearing detective to love. 

This mystery was woven together with great skill. In true Agatha Christie fashion, no one is quite what they seem, and everyone has motive. Throughout the story several themes prevail, I'll focus on three. First, desperation can drive anyone to recklessness; second, appearances don't necessarily belie personality; and third, humans are not solitary creatures.

In my experience reckless or rash behavior is often the result of someone who feels they have no other options. However, I have also found that there is usually always more than one option, you might just find it uncomfortable or degrading. For example, the death of Donna Thompson was the result of several people who were not willing to "work things out" due to their own selfish natures. Likewise, the kidnapping of a certain assistant, was the work of a desperate man who didn't fully process or problem-solve his situation. 

When Leipfold first sees Maile he makes a guess of her character based on her appearance, which turns out to be completely wrong. Throughout the story characters such as Donna's mother and the theater manager portray themselves as prim and proper out in public, but become quite different in their personal lives. In a similar way Leipfold sees himself as a sort of curmudgeon, toxic to other people, and best left alone. However, as both the reader and Leipfold warm up to Maile, we learn this isn't the case. Which leads us to theme four.

Leipfold works alone. Possibly due to his rather prickly exterior, possibly due to preference. But, it isn't going well, his business is failing, his health is degrading, and he isn't happy. It isn't until he "hires" Maile that his life takes a turn for the better. Maile's computer skills alone could have saved the business, but she doesn't do anything halfway. I loved the interactions between these two as a competent yet unusual crime solving duo. Sometimes just because you can do something alone, doesn't mean you should. 

The only off-putting part of this book was the cursing. I recognize this was the author's choice and that swear words have different functions depending on location. I, however, could have done without them.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed Driven and look forward to reading the rest of the Leipfold Mysteries series. I would recommend to adult mystery lovers.


Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Patricia Morais' 'Tides' is a fun and scary read

 Title: Tides - Ada Hughes Novella

Author: Patricia Morais
Published: June 8, 2022
Pages: 80
Genre: YA Fantasy

What Goodreads has to say:

Years before Lilly Ashton was recruited, Ada Hughes had already caught the eye of the demon hunters. But what led Ada, the quiet and sweet girl from Diabolus Venator, to be recruited to fight supernatural creatures?

When children start to go missing in a fishing town, Ada Hughes starts to fear for her two little brothers’ safety. Tide Springs was never really safe for them but she has a plan to escape their toxic family environment.

While battling her own loneliness and ignoring her forbidden love, Ada is faced with one more unexpected twist. Mythological beings and an ancient demon-hunting order will change her life forever.

She is suddenly afflicted with questions… Is this a new reality or just a hallucination? Will she be able to face this new world while being confronted with the secrets of her hometown?

What I have to say:

Who loves a good spooky read? Me! (And hopefully you too.) 

This year I got to kick off spooky season in just the right way: by reading a creepy book about monsters! (And also visiting the best cemetery ever, aka, Sleepy Hollow, but that's a story for another day.)

I'll start with the obvious: this does not look like a spooky book about monsters. From the cover and the tagline, I'd guess it's a coming of age story featuring some family drama and messy love triangles. 

Now the book does indeed have all those things, but it also has a vampiric sea creature, a disturbing murder, and a pair of sassy monster hunters. The author manages to weave all these threads together in a seamless, suspenseful narrative I couldn't put down.

At the start of the story, Ada Hughes is dealing with an abusive father, trying to save enough money to fight for custody of her two younger brothers, and feeling conflicted about her feelings for her best friend's boyfriend. This is all pretty engaging by itself, so I definitely wasn't bored. But the real action didn't pick up until a few chapters in. Then things really got going, and from that point on, my eyes were basically glued to the page. 

While I did feel the final climactic battle scene could have lasted a bit longer, overall I have no solid complaints about this story. It was fast-paced, fun, and just the right amount of creepy. 

I also appreciated the complex characters and their equally complex feelings and dynamics. Ada's conflicted emotions about things like her father and her friends' relationship made her feel very real, and I was rooting for her from pretty much the first page. There was also some real tragedy that never got reversed, which, again, made it feel very real and valid as an origin story. 

In my opinion, those are some of the elements that make for a really good horror story, whether on the page, stage, or screen: characters with complex psychology and real tragedy in their past.

And, of course, scary-as-heck monsters.

On that note (MINOR SPOILER ALERT): I do love a good lamia and was very excited when one showed up in this book. 

So all around, kudos to the author for a good monster story well told.

Postscript: yes, this is a prequel and no, you do not have to have read any of the other books in the series to understand or enjoy it. I hadn't and I loved it.