Steampunk Discovered (and rediscovered)

If you (like me) are new to Steampunk, here is a good definition : "A subgenre of science fiction, it typically (but not always) employs a Victorian setting where steam power and advanced technologies like computers coexist and often features themes, such as secret societies, found in mystery novels."

Though steampunk has been around since the 1980s, (check out these classics) there is a recent crop of exemplary new titles. A personal favorite is Boneshaker by Cherie Priest - a must-read for alternative history fan. It's the 2009 winner of the PNBA Award; and has been nominated for the 2010 Hugo and the Nebula Awards.

Seattle, 1860, rumors of gold, greedy Russians and inventor Leviticus Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine set the stage for this "impressive and auspicious genre-hopping adventure". When this machine inadvertently triggers the release of a deadly gas that transforms people into the living dead, a wall is built around the uninhabitable city to contain the epidemic. 16 years later, teenage Zeke Wilkes, Blue's son, impetuously decides that he must go into the walled city to clear his father's name. His distraught mother Briar, follows in an airship to try to rescue him.

Boneshaker is exceptionally well written. The plot credibly builds around zombies, steampunk technology, underground societies, mad scientists in a mix of horror/mystery. The fast-paced action is balanced by captivating characters, a strong female protagonist, and tender mother-child relationship. The young courageous Zeke will appeal to the YA crowd.

I first discovered the versatile YA author and an associate editor for Subterranean Press Cherie Priest in her genre-bending adult debut Fathom : a chill/thrill fantasy tale set in her native Florida. Part fairy tale, part modern gothic horror, it had me sleepless for a week.

April's Book to Film

city of your final destinationcity of your final destination

Peter Cameron's 2002 novel The City of Your Final Destination** has been adapted by award-winning screenwriter and novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala into the latest James Ivory film (official website).

"Witty, intelligent, engrossing", the novel (and the film) centers on Omar Razaghi, an Iranian-born graduate student whose financial aid for a fellowship is contingent on writing an authorized biography of the deceased Latin American author Jules Gund. Shortly into the first semester of the fellowship, Gund's estate unexpectedly denies Omar authorization which prompted his travel to Uruguay in order to petition the executors to change their minds. The executors are a delightfully odd lot, each self-possessed and deeply flawed. And it is among them that Omar finds both true love and a new home.

Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, and Charlotte Gainsbourg star. Opening this weekend in select cities. (See the New York Times review).

** = Starred reviews

Teen vampires...before Twilight?

It's hard to believe, but the incredibly popular vampire "genre" for teens existed before Twilight.

Authors such as L.J. Smith, Christopher Pike, Meredith Ann Pierce, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Annette Curtis Klause, and Mary Downing Hahn created vast literature for teens on the subject of vampires before the year 2000. While it is easy to find a score of vampire fiction written today for teens, it is very interesting to take a look back, before the apparent influence of Stephenie Meyer.

That is not to say that these authors haven't gained from the success of Twilight. L.J. Smith's Vampire Diaries series turned to television last year, and her Night World series was recently re-released. Annette Curtis Klause had one of her books made into a movie in 2007.

One of the more inspirational of these authors would be Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. She was first published--in novel form--in 1999 at the tender age of 14. She is still going strong today, too!

So, if you're looking for some good teen vampire fiction, as I know we all must be, take a look at some of their works. I'm not necessarily saying they're better than Twilight, but I might be saying that you can certainly see some eerie similarities.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #207

“A heartbreaking affair, an unsolved murder, an explosive romance: Welcome to summer on the Cape”. Beach read, you think? Oh, but Holly LeCraw’s The Swimming Pool** is much, much more. (Not to be confused with the equally scintillating French film of the same title.)

Jed McClatchey is puzzled by a bathing suit hidden in a closet at the family’ summer home at Mashantum. He remembers seeing it seven years ago on Marcella Atkinson, lounging around their pool. He was a college student then and she, part of his parent’s country club set, was exotic, beautiful and everyone’s secret crush.

In the intervening years, Jed and Callie, his sister suffered unspeakable losses : their mother was murdered and their father Cecil, a prime suspect, died without being charged. On impulse, Jed tracks down the divorced Marcella, and sets in motion the rippling effect that will shatter the fragile veneer of stability for both families, exposing a complex web of secrets and betrayal.

This "astonishingly well-crafted, completely compelling” debut is at once intense, gripping and passionate. You won’t stop until you get to the stunning conclusion.

May we also suggest: The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand for the summer colony setting and illicit romance; and Summer People by Marge Piercy for the psychological drama and character study.

For more beach reads this coming season, stay tuned.

** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #206 : Let's meet the girls

Inspired by a real event, Heide Durrow's first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky * won the 2008 Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice.

As this measured and sorrowful tale unfolds, the girl – Rachel has come to live with her grandmother in a mostly black community of Portland, Oregon. Light-skinned and blue-eyed (thanks to her Danish mother), Rachel is the only survivor of a family tragedy – her mother having thrown her children off a roof, jumped to her death. We watch as Rachel, smart, disciplined, and self-possessed, endures her grief and confronts her identity as a biracial woman in a world that wants to see her as either black or white.

Meanwhile in Chicago, young Jamie, a witness to the rooftop incident, re-lives the horrific event in his mind constantly while enduring even worse fate in the hands of his prostitute mother.

As the child of an African American father and a Danish mother, Durrow brings piercing authenticity to this provocative "family saga of the toxicity of racism and the forging of the self”. It succeeds as both a modern coming-of-age tale and relevant social commentary. (Check out the author's amazing family album) .

In Ali Shaw’s charming debut The Girl with Glass Feet, young Ida Maclaird returns to remote St. Hauda’s Land because she is strangely, and slowly turning to glass. There she meets Midas Crook, a lonely islander who prefers to see the world through his camera lens. As Ida and Midas search for the mysterious scientist who might hold the cure to Ida's affliction, they stumble onto mysteries from the past that further bind them together.

Inventive and richly visual, a fable of young lovers on a quest, Girl combines magic realism and the conventions of a romance. Enchanting, melancholic yet whimsical. Totally captivating. Shortlisted for the 2009 Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

Ali Shaw is a graduated of Lancaster University and has since worked as a bookseller and at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

* = Starred review

April is National Poetry Month

"National Poetry Month is a month-long, national celebration of poetry established by the Academy of American Poets. The concept is to widen the attention of individuals and the media—to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic range and concern." - Poets.org

Started in 1996, National Poetry Month is celebrated with posters, events, and inspiration for poets.

Poets.org offers a listing of ways to celebrate, including reading a book of poetry, attending a poetry reading, Googling a poem, and even adding a verse to your e-mail signature.

Here at AADL, we can certainly help with at least the first of these! For starters, you could try some older poets, such as Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, and T.S. Eliot.

For the younger crowd, I would recommend Shel Silverstein, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and perhaps even Dr. Seuss.

For a more contemporary piece, you might try the National Book Award Winner for Poetry in 2009, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy by Keith Waldrop. We also have the 2008 winner, Fire To Fire: New And Selected Poems by Mark Doty.

As for me, I think I'll celebrate, in closing, with a short poem that I happen to love:

"Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay."
-Robert Frost, "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #205

Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault** is a novel that probes “the moral and emotional minefield of heroic Samaritan acts”. When forty-something divorced Clara Purdy plows into the Gage family car; she could not have imagined its impact (pun not intended).

Thankfully, no one is seriously hurt but Lorraine Gage’s medical attention reveals advanced cancer, and the rest of the homeless Gages (minus Clayton who takes off for parts unknown) are invited into the guilt-ridden Clara’s empty house and quiet circumscribed world.

Domestic chaos mixes with joy as Clara cares for the three young children and learns to tolerate cantankerous Grandma. Unexpected support from neighbors and relatives rally around her and Clara even finds the strength to begin, at least tentatively, a new relationship.

Good marks Canadian writer Endicott’s U.S. debut and is the 2009 winner of a Commonwealth Writers Prize. Reviewers considered her a talent to watch and praised her “deft and winsome touch” in handling provocative issues. For readers of Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Berg and Anita Shreve. “An enchanting and poignant novel”.

** = Starred reviews

Get out your hammocks

It may be a bit rainy this week, but last week's weather reminded me that summer is near at hand, and accordingly I started thinking about what books I want to read out in the backyard under the warm sunshine. As a kid, I loved to read books about magic during summer vacation. One of my favorite authors was Edward Eager, whose Magic series can still make me feel like magic may just be waiting for me around the next corner I turn. I was also a fan of Susan Cooper, whose book, The Dark is Rising, inspired the movie The Seeker. Cooper's books are full of British folklore as well as magic of her own imagining. I read Joan Aiken's The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase over and over in elementary school and I just recently discovered that it is the first in a wonderful series of books set in alternative history, in which wolves rule England's wilderness and the King of England is constantly threatened by revolutionary plots.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #204

This spring, a pair of debut novelists from the Midwest offer fictional biographies of two beloved 19th century literary figures, and breathe romance into their lonely lives.

In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O'Connor McNees draws on biographical information to imagine a young Louisa at Walpole N.H. in the summer of 1855, where she finds that her growing affection (which she tried to deny) for charming (and wealthy) Joseph Singer is eagerly returned. Their romance is cut short by the announcement of Joseph’s engagement to an heiress. Family tragedies, disappointment and a desire for independence take Louisa back to Boston where eventually her literary career blossoms.

Kelly O’Connor McNees is born and raised in Michigan. She now calls Chicago home. A most apropos quote from her website beautifully evokes her heroine's lament:

“Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns.”
~ Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)

Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael captures the emotional life of Charlotte Bronte during the last decade of her life, and shortly after the publication of Jane Eyre. Remaining lonely in spite of her literary celebrity, Charlotte Bronte endures unrequited love, first for her French professor and later for her publisher, while caring for her aging father. When his brash curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, reveals his long-time secret love for her, Charlotte must decide between a marriage lacking the passion displayed in her novels or a single life.

“Gael makes a valiant attempt to blend fact with fiction as she transports readers to 19th-century England”, capturing the passions, hopes, dreams, and sorrows of literature’s most famous sisters. The author was raised in the Midwest. She has lived abroad for more than fifteen years, primarily in Paris, where she worked as a screenwriter. She now makes her home in Florence, Italy.

For further reading, may we suggest:

Louisa May Alcott : the woman behind Little Women by journalist Harriet Reisen - an account of the life of LMA in context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. (Reisen also wrote the script for the PBS documentary on Alcott).

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler, - a beautifully imagined tale of the Bronte sisters and the writing of Jane Eyre.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #203

"Even as the Vietnam War recedes into the past, the despair, confusion, and mythology it generated retains a grip on our culture" writes the Library Journal reviewer. This spring publishing season, two big, bold and marvelous debut novels about the war deserve a spot on everyone's reading list and they couldn't be more different or more compelling.

Chronologically, Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn : a novel of the Vietnam War** comes first. The narrative unfolds on the front line in 1969 Vietnam as Waino Mella, a young lieutenant leads his squad to take out an enemy gun nest. New orders send the squad on jungle missions murderous for the deprivation, incessant monsoons, treacherous terrain, endless ambushes and the deadly exposure to Agent Orange.

This "realistic, in-the-trenches look at war", by a decorated veteran (30 years in the making) is dense and vivid - especially the excellent battle scenes. But what is memorable are the characters - their personal struggles and divisions. magnified by their environment while trying to stay true to their purpose. A grand addition to the genre.

Debut novelist Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters** captures the wrenching chaos of war as an American combat photographer finds herself torn between the love of two men.

In 1975, as the North Vietnamese army advances on to Saigon, Helen Adams must take leave of a war she is addicted to and a devastated country she has come to love. In a drama of devotion and betrayal, Helen is caught between her lover Linh, a Vietnamese who must grapple with his own conflicted loyalties, and Sam, her fiercest competitor and true friend. " A stunning novel of passion, duty and ambition among the ruins of war".

** = Starred reviews

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