As you read the reviews on Bookshop Talk, you'll notice that every review is positive. No, we're not a bunch of literary
pushovers who love everything we pick up; we just see no point in telling you about a book if we didn't like it.

December 30, 2011

PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL by Jessica Day George, 2009

Galen is a young soldier returning from war; Rose is one of twelve princesses condemned to dance each night for the King Under Stone. Together Galen and Rose will search for a way to break the curse that forces the princesses to dance at the midnight balls. All they need is one invisibility cloak, a black wool chain knit with enchanted silver needles, and that most critical ingredient of all—true love—to conquer their foes in the dark halls below. But malevolent forces are working against them above ground as well, and as cruel as the King Under Stone has seemed, his wrath is mere irritation compared to the evil that awaits Galen and Rose in the brighter world above. (Goodreads)


(We have two reviewers for this book)

Review by Rosanna Clark 


I really enjoyed Princess of the Midnight Ball. It's a retelling of the 12 dancing princesses. It answered questions that everyone has always wondered about and it's the kind of book you can't put down until its completely read. It was delightful!

Review by Amy Finnegan - writer, reader, Bookshop Talk host

Right out of the gates, I have to comment on this cover! What a dress, right?? It was one of those covers that—especially because I love fantasy and historical fiction—made me shrill with delight, as if the novel was written just for ME! And the cover was dead on—I loved this book!

Following the original tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses in remarkably unique ways, Jessica Day George still manages to keep the core plot of the fairytale intact. It’s rather mindboggling how she pulls that off. But there is so much going on outside of the midnight balls—and the requisite princes who must try to discover the dark secret the King’s daughters are hiding—that the story feels entirely fresh rather than a “retelling.”

As usual, Jessica Day George has created characters who you could swear were real. Galen is an especially enjoyable person to share your (reading) day with. Though he has spent the last few years fighting in a heated war, he still tells his part of this story with humor and endless charm. I loved that even in a “princess story,” Galen shines as the star protagonist.

But the charm doesn’t end there. Princess Rose, along with her eleven sisters, all have dynamic personalities of their own. They move the story forward with genuine emotion, each with their own sense of anxiety over their precarious situation. I loved Rose because she was the calm, level-headed sister of the bunch. She is the glue that holds them all together, and makes them feel like an actual family that could live in the castle down the street.

Read this book! You’ll love it!


Market: Young Adult
Language: None
Sensuality: None
Violence: Mild
Mature Themes: depression a little

Book Formats:

December 26, 2011

THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, by Gretchen Rubin, 2009

Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. "The days are long, but the years are short," she realized. "Time is passing, and I'm not focusing enough on the things that really matter." In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project. (Goodreads)


Reviewed by Katie Langston, reader, writer, lover of bad movies

Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project is readable, thorough, thoughtful, practical, and fun.   It’s a “stunt” memoir – a category of non-fiction that’s emerged over the past few years, wherein authors undertake a certain adventure or goal for a pre-set period of time, then write about their experiences.  (Think Julie & Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, or Eat Pray Love.)
Each month, Rubin picked several resolutions that she felt would improve her happiness.  They were far-ranging: “go to sleep earlier,” “take time to be silly,” and “write a novel” are just three of the 47 resolutions she attempted.  It was interesting to read about the research and thought processes that went into identifying her resolutions – and enlightening to discover how well they did or did not work for her.

From a philosophical perspective, I thought she tried to do a little too much – my experience is that happiness isn’t so much about doing as it is about being.  I wondered if Rubin weren’t a little too scattered in her approach, and as a result touched on several things lightly, but never got all the way into the heart.

Still, this was never supposed to be – nor was it pitched as – a deep, spiritual probe into the nature of happiness; instead, it was exactly as advertised: a fun, accessible overview of lots of different happiness-boosting tips and tricks.  There’s a little nugget of wisdom in here for everyone – one of the best popular self-help titles I’ve read in a while.

Market: Non-fiction, self-help, memoir
Language: mild
Sensuality: none
Violence: none
Mature themes: none


Book formats:
Paperback
e-book



December 24, 2011

THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, by Alan Bradley, 2000

Great literary crime detectives aren’t always born; they’re sometimes discovered, blindfolded and tied up in a dark closet by their nasty older sisters. Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce’s bitter home life and vicious sibling war inspires her solitary diversions and “strange talents” tinkering with the chemistry set in the laboratory of their inherited Victorian house, plotting sleuth-like vengeance on Ophelia (17) and Daphne (13), and delving into the forbidden past of her taciturn, widowed father, Colonel de Luce. It comes as no surprise, then, that the material for her next scientific investigation will be the mysterious corpse that she uncovers in the cucumber patch. (Goodreads)


Reviewed by Kammy T

I love precocious, female protagonists.  I don't care if their expertise and eloquence are over the top, I like them a lot.  Flavia de Luce fits right in with my favorites! She is 11, growing up in England in a sprawling mansion, and loves chemistry. She has discovered a well-stocked laboratory from an ancient uncle, and has made it her "sanctum sanctorum." Throughout the book she interprets and relates to happenings around here in terms of chemistry.

Flavia has two older sisters, one a book worm and the other lovesick. The interaction between them is entertaining. Her mother tragically died, and her father, an avid stamp collector, is reclusive and disconnected from his daughters. The mystery begins when a dead bird is found on the back doorstep with a postage stamp stuck on its beak. (See cover illustration.) Next Flavia discovers a body in the cucumber patch. Being a child she is questioned, but not let in on much. So she begins an investigation of her own. She takes off on her bike, named Gladys of course, and solves the mystery.


The story is sometimes out there, and maybe not entirely realistic. But it is a great mystery, has fun dialouge, endearing characters, and it is nicely resolved. I liked reading it.  My 11-year-old son also tore through it too, and was excited to discuss it with me along the way. It is murder mystery, and I recommend it!


Here are some of Flavia's great lines:


About reading her first chemistry book, "Within moments it had taught me that the word iodine comes from the word meaning "violet," and that the name bromine was derived from a Greek word meaning "a stench." These were the sorts of things I needed to know!"


When she found the town library was closed, "It occurred to me that Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No...eight days a week."


"Wrapped up in the music, I threw myself into an overstuffed chair and let my legs dangle over the arm, the position in which Nature intended music to be listened to, and for the first time in days I felt the muscles in my neck relaxing."


This is gross, but she's describing the linoleum floor in a retirement house. "Whenever I stepped on one of its pustulent brown blisters, the stuff let off a nasty hiss and I made a mental note to find out if color can cause nausea."


I can totally relate to her explanation of how to solve a problem or remember something. "I could feel an answer to the question nibbling at the hook I'd lowered into my subconscious. Don't look straight at it, I thought, think of something else--or at least pretend to."

I've been unsuccessful remembering where I saw this recommended, or who talked to me about it! I thought I was the last one to read it, but it turns out no one I've talked to has read it. So if you have...tell me what you thought!


Market: Middle grade/young adult
Language: None
Sensuality: None
Violence: Mild
Mature Themes: Death, it's a murder mystery


Book formats:
Paperback
e-book

December 21, 2011

THE MAGICIANS, by Lev Grossman, 2009



Quentin Coldwater is brillant but miserable. He's a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he's still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless. (Goodreads) 

Reviewed by Laura Madsen, writer, veterinarian and mom

I read a review of THE MAGICIANS that suggested it would appeal to Harry Potter fans after they’ve graduated high school. Well, I had already graduated college by the time I read—and fell in love with—Harry Potter, but that was enough of a recommendation for me.

Awesome story. Rather dark, with some bad words and naughty escapades, but a great read for a fantasy addict like me. If you like darker, edgier fantasy like George R.R. Martin you should read it. (In fact, George R.R. Martin wrote a cover blurb: “The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea.”) Plus, there are happily geeky references to D&D, Star Wars and Star Trek; J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis. (Huh. Never occurred to me that all those famous fantasy authors go by their initials; maybe I’d have better luck getting my fantasy novel published if I went by L.L.M. Madsen?)

Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant 17-year-old but he feels like “his real life, the life he should be living, had been mislaid through some clerical error by the cosmic bureaucracy.” He escapes reality by reading and dreaming of Fillory, a Narnia-esque fantasy locale from a children’s book series. But then he is inexplicably recruited into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a weird, exclusive, magical university in upstate New York. The college is a huge mansion with hedge maze and manicured lawns, hidden by ancient spells from the prying eyes of regular people. The magical faculty is “largely dependent on Victorian-era technology. It wasn’t an affectation, or not entirely; electronics, Quentin was told, behaved unpredictably in the presence of sorcery.”

Grossman’s magic system is intriguing. “You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin.” The spells require painstaking practice, precise hand movements, and knowledge of some obscure languages like Aramaic and Old High Dutch.

At Brakebills, Quentin’s friends are brilliant but cripplingly shy Alice; flamboyantly eccentric Eliot; loud, fashionable Janet; and chronically underestimated Josh. Another classmate is a tattooed, mohawked guy with the inexplicable name of Penny, whom Josh describes as “a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking time bomb.”

During his years at Brakebills, Quentin learns to do some amazing magic. Pretty much anything you can imagine is possible, provided you have the brains and balls and perseverance to try it. But after graduation, Quentin and his friends descend into aimless, self-loathing, drug- and alcohol-fueled debauchery.

One night, Penny shows up with a magic item he’s bought from a black-market dealer. It’s real, and it allows a person to transport to the Neitherlands (“Neither here nor there”), a realm from the Fillory novels which connects to every other realm and dimension—including Fillory.

Quentin and his friends take the plunge and jump into Fillory, where they find that things aren’t quite as clear-cut as they were in the novels. Good vs. evil comes down to a matter of perspective. Friends turn into enemies and enemies into friends.

Although Quentin is 17 when the novel starts, this is adult fiction, not YA. It’s not that it’s necessarily inappropriate for older teens, but I think the complexity puts it firmly into adult fiction. With references from Karate Kid to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, I think teens just wouldn’t find it very interesting. But if you’re an adult who never outgrew wanting to go to Narnia or Hogwarts—yet you can appreciate that maybe humans, with all their foibles and prejudices, shouldn’t really wield magic—this is for you. It’s both an homage to the fantasy genre and a commentary on our non-magical society.

Market: Adult fiction (fantasy/ urban fantasy)
Language: explicit
Sensuality: explicit
Violence: explicit
Mature themes: death, betrayal, sexuality, magical violence, drug and alcohol abuse

Book formats:

December 18, 2011

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, by Sherman Alexie, 2007

With his first foray into teen literature, acclaimed author Sherman Alexie packs a punch in this absorbing novel about a Native American boy searching for a brighter future. At once humorous and stirring, Alexie's novel follows Junior, a resident of the Spokane reservation who transfers out of the reservation's school -- and into a nearby rich, all-white farm school -- in order to nurture his desire to become a cartoonist. Junior encounters resistance there, a backlash at home, and numerous family problems -- all the while relaying his thoughts and feelings via amusing descriptions and drawings. Having already garnered a National Book Award for Young Adult Literature, this moving look at race and growing up is definitely one to pick up. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Katie (who writes her own absolutely true diary of being a part-time reader)  

As Junior enters high school you can’t help but cheer for him.  He is the epic underdog.  Not only is he goofy and poor and small; but he has seizures, one friend, and sometimes nothing to eat.   He finds a turning point in his life when he gives one of his teachers a bloody nose.  Junior leaves his school on the ‘rez’ to go to a ‘white’ school where he will have a better chance to make something of himself.  As Junior enters another culture he finds himself a stranger to this new lifestyle, and also to the one he has at home. 

Being fourteen is hard enough, but add on to that losing your only friend, no one at your new school acknowledging you (except to make fun of you), family members dying, walking umpteen miles to school when there isn’t enough money for gas and no one picks you up hitch-hiking, and dad taking off for a drinking binge at Christmas.  For a boy in limbo between two worlds, trying to find an identity, Junior writes his story in a very witty and nonchalant way.  Fortunately, people stop ostracizing him when that many hard things happen in one year.  It turns out that he is a pretty good basketball player as well as a student.  People in both cultures befriend him and he finds his balance as a ‘part time Indian.’  He has an insightful perspective into a spectrum of human issues like alcoholism, poverty, racism, and even eating disorders.

 When I finally could put the book down I was in disbelief about all that happened.  To make it even more incredible, the book is based on real events from Sherman Alexie’s adolescents.  I was unaware that miles away from where I live someone could grow up having experiences like that.  Despite the somber nature of the many issues addressed in this book, I found myself laughing out loud and reading parts to friends.  Because this site is fairly squeaky-clean, I will give the warning that this book is not.  (See chart below).  I would not recommend it for anyone who has not hit middle school yet.  It has plenty of foul language and scenes, which perhaps endeared me to the virtue inside Junior a little more.  If you aren’t too nervous about the colorful rating, see for yourself how amazing Junior is with all that goes on around him.

 A review wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the illustrations.  From the get-go Junior declares his love of drawing and reading cartoons.  Ellen Forney is the cartoonist for the book.  Her pictures often add more to the story line, or something more to laugh about.  Think DIARY OF A WIMPY KID with more maturity.   

Market: Young Adult on Up
Language:  moderate/foul
Sensuality: PG-13 to R
Violence: I didn’t know people could get beat up this much
Mature Themes: death, abuse, sexuality, identity, racism, poverty, alcoholism

Book formats:

December 15, 2011

Mick Harte was Here by Barbara Park, 1995



How could someone like Phoebe’s brother die? Mick Harte was one of the coolest kids you’d ever want to meet. Mick was also the kid who would still be alive now—if he’d only worn his bicycle helmet. . . . (Goodreads)


Reviewed by Kelly, book lover and avid reader

My favorite part of elementary school was when our library put on a book fair. I would go every day and pick out which books I wanted to buy and then my mom would come in and let me buy a few of them. One year, she bought a book for me that was not on my list. Naturally, I refused to read anything that my mother picked out. I was that girl. One night, I decided to pick it up and read it. I read it in one sitting and then sat on my mother's bed and sobbed. It was amazing.

Mick Harte was Here tells the story of 12 year old Pheobe as she deals with tragic death of her younger brother Mick. The story doesn't hide anything from the reader- she doesn't sugar coat the death of Mick or the hurt that the family feels. Which is perhaps why I feel like this story is such a real and moving story - Pheobe is a truthful and natural narrator. She is honest and open, often time hilarious in her tellings of her memories of her brother.

Perhaps most moving of all is that the story brings to light the importance of bicycle safety. As the family deals with the guilt of losing Mick in such a tragic and preventable way, the reader is reminded of how important something as simple as wearing your helmet really is. The conclusion where Pheobe confronts everything she feels at the school's assembly is the most powerful part of the story. I am in tears everytime I read it.

Fan's of Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones series may be suprised by such a somber book coming from an author known for her hilarious children's series. She is an incredible author with the ability to make you laugh, cry and think all in the same breath. This is a gem of a book that I wish everyone would read- truly one of the best.

Market: Middle Grade
Language: Mild
Sensuality: None
Violence: Briefly mentions the death of a young boy
Mature Themes: death, losing a sibling


Book formats:
Paperback
e-book



December 12, 2011

THE PROPHECY OF THE STONES by Flavia Bujor, 2002

In a magical realm, three teenage girls-Jade, Opal, and Amber-are chosen to fulfil an ancient prophecy. Although they meet as strangers, they must learn to trust one another with their lives as they embark on an epic journey, armed only with magical stones. On the day of their fourteenth birthdays, they set out on a quest that will require them to leave their homes and families to face fierce enemies in an effort to save an enchanted land called Fairytale, where magic reigns and evil is unknown. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Natalie Gorna

Back in 2004, a small fantasy novel called The Prophecy of the Stones reached American bookshelves. One of its main attractions for me was that the original French version, entitled La Proph├ętie des Pierres, was written by a fourteen year-old girl named Flavia Bujor. The first part of the novel is the epic war in a magical, parallel dimension between good and evil forces and the just inhabitants' physical as well as mental rebellion against a corrupted government. However, the second part of that struggle is set in modern-day Paris and enacted in an actual patient's desperate survival through her overwhelming illness.

I noticed right away that The Prophecy of the Stones is very profound and similar to The Lord of the Rings and theHarry Potter series, the storyline complex enough to justify that the novel is for readers older than children. Jade, Amber, and Opal share many traits with Joa's character, a clear sign of the author's efforts to demonstrate the parallelism of Joa's narrative and the three Stones' story. Redemption, friendship, and the power of hope are the story's prevalent themes. For example, Elyador, the Chosen One, is a man who underwent evil trials in his life. He has turned away from the Darkness and faced the Light again, but all his memories have been erased as a strange punishment for his desertion from evil. This strange twist of fate helps Elyador reach his destiny—to be the temporary king of the Realm and the warrior-king who must lead the ultimate battle against the Darkness. His character can be compared to Christ's in some ways, although Elyador is scorned and despised for different reasons. On one hand, Elyador's past history makes him a hated figure throughout Fairytale (the land where “nothing is impossible”); on the other hand, it is his amnesia and lack of identity that have given him the chance to start anew and fight for the Light, earning Fairytale's admiration and respect for his noble deeds.

The author’s innovative magical creatures, magical beings, and the settings themselves contribute to the mystery and depth of the prophecy, which is so crucial to the outcomes of the story and the main characters. The three girls' different personalities add life and color to the tale, just as the impending war, incomplete prophecy, and the uncertain futures of all characters create suspense and action. The wisdom in The Prophecy of the Stones is very thought-provoking, while the romance between several of the main characters is not banal and concentrates on love and hatred, two opposite emotions that radiate from the novel. Fear, anger, vengeance, and despair clash with hope and forgiveness, thoroughly describing human weakness, virtue, and the fact that every person must face his/her own dual nature of good and evil. However, the author emphasizes throughout that human life and society will never exist without the presence of both good and evil, a resounding truth. Reality and fantasy may intertwine in Bujor's work of fiction, but she still encourages the reader to never give up hope like Joa. I only know that I never gave up hope on The Prophecy of the Stones, because this is simply a splendid read worth making time for.

Market: Young Adult Fiction (fantasy)
Language: None
Sensuality: Mild
Violence: Moderate
Mature Themes: death, war, destiny, love, hatred, independence

Book formats:

December 11, 2011

Daffy for Dime novels!

By Kim Thacker, Writer, Mommy, and Bookshop Talk Host

The Facts:

Dime novels are the pulp-fiction of the American frontier.  Often called “yellow-backs” (because of the early dime novels’ characteristic yellow covers), or “blood and thunder literature” (due to their sensationalized content) these novelettes were exceptionally popular from the 1860s until the first World War.  Because the books were generally small (the earliest dime novels were about 6.5 inches by 4.25 inches), they could easily be stowed in a saddlebag…or in a lady’s handbag.  They were printed on the cheapest paper, so the books themselves are quite rare nowadays.  A dime novel’s cover usually depicted a stirring scene from the book—a scene like the one on the left.

Most of the topics of the earliest dime novels were highly romanticized adventure stories about some aspect of the settlement of the frontier, particularly the West, but later dime stories (which often came in the format of “story papers” or magazines) included mysteries and far-flung adventure series.  Some even delved into science fiction.

While dime novels were popular in the expanding United States, they were also favored in England, though they were considered by some of the “upper crust” in both countries to be an inferior, vulgar example of literature.  Some historians claim that the government of the United States encouraged the printing of dime novels because the books promoted the expanding of the West and painted Western settlement in a romantic, adventurous (and, as the modern reader might discover, a totally sensationalized) light. Most dime novels were written for the adult reader, though a cheaper, more kid-friendly version called a “nickel-back” arose in the latter end of the 19th century.

Now that you know all about dime novels, I would like to share a few reviews of some diverse dime novels with you.  I generally review books because I love them, and because I hope that my review will persuade someone to pick up the book I read and love it as much as I did.  These dime novels, however, are a bit different.  I have been utterly fascinated by all of the dime novels I have read so far, but I can’t honestly say that I love them in the same way that I love other kinds of fiction.  Reading dime novels feels somewhat like reading for college literature courses, where the purpose is to think critically about the text.  My literary horizons are a bit broader thanks to these strange, often outrageous books.  So, if you’re looking to read something entirely different from the norm, give dime novels a try! 

Please take note that the purpose of this gab bag post is to introduce the dime novel genre, so there are plenty of SPOILERS in the reviews. 

On to the reviews!

THE PRAIRIE BRIDE OR, THE SQUATTER’S TRIUMPH, by Mrs. Henry J. Thomas (first published by Beadle & Adams in 1869; the version I read was reprinted by The Globe Pequot Press, 2006)

(From the back cover)  Tired of her controlling stepparents, headstrong heiress Annie Howard goes west and encounters a series of adventures–including a blazing prairie fire, a sinking riverboat, the kidnapping of her beloved servant, and, of course, romance.

The synopsis on the back cover of this book was written, I assume, just prior to the book’s reprinting.  The tone of the synopsis shows that you can expect certain constants in dime novels, including adventure and (“of course”) romance.

THE PRAIRIE BRIDE was the first dime novel I read, and it was very adventurous and exciting and full of romantic promise…but then the author gave everything away with some ultra heavy-handed foreshadowing.  In a nutshell, Annie (the “headstrong heiress”) runs away from home and goes West with her relatives because her stepfather wants to set her up with his son, Charlie Norris, whom she has not met.  Later on (but not much later—dime novels are short), a handsome stranger saves Annie’s life and makes himself indispensible to Annie and to her relations.  Annie resists his advances (of course—she is the independent heroine, after all) but soon enough, he ends up proposing marriage to Annie.  Once she accepts, he tells her that the name he has been using is actually his nickname, and that his real name is Charles Norris.  Gah!  The author actually appears to expect the reader to either not realize the coincidence, just dismiss it, or worse, to giggle along with Annie, who has planned a silly way of revealing to her new beloved that she and he were meant for each other all along.

But in the spirit of the synopsis, I just shook my head at the heavy-handed foreshadowing and said, “of course.”

This book is also very racist, which is, I suppose, to be expected given the year it was written.  It was jarring to read so much racism, especially the “well-meant” pet names and that kind of thing.  Annie’s black servant, who is also her dear, life-long friend (or so the author would lead you to believe), is treated more as a favorite mule than a human being.

However, there was a lot to enjoy about this book, too.  It was a very quick read, very fast-paced, and highly enlightening.  I also enjoyed the written dialect, which, while sometimes ridiculous, was fun to read.  I felt like I learned a lot about dime novels in reading this particular book, which was a bestseller in its time.

DASHING DIAMOND DICK OR THE TIGERS OF TOMBSTONE, possibly written by Theodore Dreiser (first published in 1889; the version I read was found in a Penguin Classic anthology, entitled DASHING DIAMOND DICK AND OTHER CLASSIC DIME NOVELS, 2007).

(From the introduction)  The plot is filled with melodrama and elements that are typical of many dime novels: a hero with a mysterious background and nearly superhuman powers, the eternal battle of good versus evil, a tragic love story with the loss of a loved one, and an ending that promises more to come as the hero sets out on a trail of vengeance.

This was my favorite of the dime novels I’ve read so far.  It was gripping, I tell you. Gripping!  Diamond Dick was the ultimate hero: handsome, brave, and raising his son all on his own.  Ya gotta root for a guy like that, right?  And Tornado Tom, the villain, was the ultimate villain: handsome, lecherous, and powerful.  The first scene of the novel (well, apart from some serious stage-setting) showed Tornado Tom brandishing a whip and ordering an unfortunate German man to dance for Tom’s entertainment. Ooo…villain.  Herr Schwauenflegle, whose accent is written into the text (a commonality in the dime novels I read), was saved from dancing by the very timely appearance of the stagecoach, which had been set upon by bandits in ferocious feline costume—The Tigers of Tombstone.  The single occupant of the stage was a young woman, and—oh, I just have to quote the description of her.  It’s too fun:

And then a sudden, breathless hush fell upon that throng of rough humanity, for out from the semi-darkness in the coach came the bonniest face that mortal eyes had ever gazed upon.

It was like a vision, framed as it was by the door of the coach–a thing of unearthly beauty–such a face as some of the old masters saw in their dreams, and dimly pictured in their waking moments.

Purity sat enthroned on that low, polished brow, where the hair clustered and coiled back and fell in a cascade of reddish gold; and truth looked fearlessly out from the clear depths of the hazel eyes.

A brave face it was too albeit that hardly seventeen summers had blossomed there and left their buds in gleeful dimples on cheeks and chin.

A smile played like a sunbeam about the pretty mouth as the girl surveyed the uncouth beings struck dumb by her rare loveliness.

“What is it?” she said, her voice sweet as the music of the psalms.  ”Have we arrived at our destination?”

Isn’t that wonderful and over-the-top and ridiculous?  I love it!  And so did Tornado Tom, apparently, because he fell instantly in lust with her and vowed he’d have her for his bride.  But before he could yank her from the carriage, Diamond Dick showed up with his sharpshooting ten-year-old son and engaged Tom in a duel–which was then thwarted by one of the tiger-costumed renegades who had attacked the stagecoach!

Anyhow, much excitement ensues…and then the girl gets shot and dies.

I read Louisa May Alcott’s thrilling novel, A LONG FATAL LOVE CHASE (written in 1868) several years ago, and don’t ask me why I was surprised when, at the end, one of the main characters died.  You’d think the FATAL would’ve clued me in.  But I digress.

Diamond Dick survived the battle in which his beloved (who shared the same first name as his first wife–go figure) died, not at the hand of Tornado Tom, but at the hand of Dick’s jilted lover, the leader of the feline bandits!  Thankfully, Diamond Dick can ride again. And when he eventually dies, we don’t have to worry, because his son will be Dashing just like his pa.

Really, I loved it.  I totally did.  Gimme melodramatic stuff any day of the week, and I’ll laugh myself silly and take loads of notes.

MALAESKA; THE INDIAN WIFE OF THE WHITE HUNTER, by Mrs. Ann S. Stephens (first published in dime novel form in 1860; the version I read was found in a Bedford Cultural Edition anthology, entitled READING THE WEST: AN ANTHOLOGY OF DIME WESTERNS, edited by Bill Brown, 1997).

(From the introduction)  Though the historical setting of the novel is vague, its events clearly take place when the Six Nations of the Iroquois still controlled the Mohawk Valley, sparsely settled by Dutch and English pioneers....Mrs. Stephens...extracts her plot out of history to concentrate on the fate of her heroine in a sentimental tradition....[Mrs. Stephens] tells the...story of a “forlorn wanderer” (p. 94), an Indian woman denigrated by both the Dutch and the Indian populations, “the heart-broken victim of an unnatural marriage” (p. 163)....Intermarriage was a fact of frontier history....Effectively avoiding any treatment of intermarriage itself, Mrs. Stephens concentrates instead on the transcultural price of maternal devotion:  “It was her woman’s destiny, not the more certain because of her savage origin.  Civilization does not always reverse this mournful picture of womanly self-abnegation” (p. 103).

Known as the first dime novel, MALAESKA was actually a reprint of a three-part serialized story that originally appeared in The Ladies’ Companion in 1839—twenty-one years before it was printed as a dime novel.  There were a few changes made for the dime novel debut.  “Mrs. Stephens complicated the plot, amplified the descriptive passages, added epigraphs to the chapters, and streamlined the punctuation” (Brown 55).  Mrs. Stephens was, at the time of its printing in dime novel form, a well-known and celebrated writer.  In other words, MALAESKA was the perfect story to introduce the dime novel genre.

Having read several dime novels before I picked up this one, it came as no surprise to me that the story was exceptionally racist, both in the writing and in the behavior of the characters.  Prejudice is a theme in this book, but it simply exists—it is not dealt with.  Malaeska, the Indian wife, is portrayed by the author as a simpleton at best, and an animal at worst.  At the beginning of the book, she speaks in halting English and never refers to herself in the first person.  When angry or excited, both she and her son (who is also the son of a white man) are described as animal-like in appearance:

The boy started up—his eye brightened and his thin nostrils dilated, the savage instincts of his nature broke out in all his features. 

By the end of the book, Malaeska is described as “white in education, feeling, every thing but color.”  She no longer has an aversion to the word, “I,” and “habits of refinement had kept her complexion clear and her hair bright.”

The writing was also full of heavy-handed foreshadowing, melodramatic monologues (people talk to themselves an awful lot in dime novels), and depressing bits.  Lots of people die.  This book is not a happily-ever-after kind of story.

But.

I was absolutely fascinated by the long passages of landscape description.  Setting is very important in dime novels, and Mrs. Stephens sets up nearly every scene with copious amounts of description of her characters’ surroundings.  To some extent, the natural world, while affording serenity for her characters (white and Indian), also represents a descent into “savage” or “wild” or even “un-Godly” realms (Malaeska leaves her home in the woods and travels to the city in order to accept the white man’s god, so she can be with her dead husband in his heaven.).  That the natural world—particularly the forest—represents evil was not a new idea in literature when Mrs. Stephens wrote MALAESKA.

Also, while part of me detested Malaeska, who seemed to me to be a sniveling weakling (despite her “fierce” looks), I also totally rooted for her.  It has been a long time since I’ve experienced a character who played to so many of my emotions.

MALAESKA was, by far, the most dramatic of the dime novels I read.  I thought it was very similar in style and themes to James Fenimore Cooper’s THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS.  Heavy stuff.

If you’ve read any dime novels, I’d love to hear what you thought of them. Also, can you think of any books that might be considered the dime novels of our day?

Note:  If you would like to read more of Kim’s reviews of dime novels, click here

December 10, 2011

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS PICTURE BOOKS



Reviews by Laura Madsen

As a follow-up to my post on favorite Halloween picture books for kids, here’s a list of great children’s Christmas books.

Dragon’s Merry Christmas, by Dav Pilkey (1991). This early reader is divided into four chapters following Dragon (a cheerful, blue, horned beast) as he makes preparations for the holiday. In “The Perfect Christmas Tree,” Dragon searches for the perfect tree, but once he finds it he can’t bear to cut it down, so decorates it where it stands. In “Merry Christmas, Dragon,” he buys himself some presents but gives them away to creatures in need: food for hungry raccoons, a coat for an elderly rhino, and a birdhouse for a pair of lovebirds. This sweet story teaches the importance of giving.

Olive, the Other Reindeer, by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh (1997). Olive is a cute little terrier who mishears the song lyrics, “All of the other reindeer” as “Olive, the other reindeer.” She figures she is meant to go to the North Pole to join Santa’s reindeer. Santa and Comet aren’t sure why the small dog is there but give her a chance, and she saves the day by using her super-sniffer to guide the sleigh through the fog.

Snowmen at Christmas, by Caralyn Beuhner and Mark Beuhner (2005). In this gorgeously illustrated picture book, while people are asleep on Christmas Eve night, snowmen gather in the town square for dancing and tree-trimming. The snowy scenes glow with light and color, and each illustration has bonus hidden shapes for kids to find.

The Night Before the Night Before Christmas, by Natasha Wing and Mike Lester (2002). In this very funny riff on the classic poem, the narrator, a clever young girl, comments on the ironic, hectic preparations for a modern American holiday celebration. One of my favorite passages:

“Things will get better, I thought, as I crawled into bed.
Maybe visions of sugarplums will dance in my head.
Instead, I lay wondering, gazing up at the moon.
What on earth is a sugarplum? Is it a candy or prune?”

Everything is a disaster, as Mom gets the flu, Dad nearly falls off the ladder hanging lights, bulbs burn out, the cat knocks over the tree, and little brother pees on the mall Santa’s lap. Mom despairs that the holiday is ruined but Dad reminds her of the true meaning of Christmas:

“No, it’s not, sugarplum,
These things are just stuff.
Christmas is about love.
And we have quite enough.”

Have a happy holiday season from Bookshop Talk!