Thursday, September 20, 2012

Jim Looks at Known Authors Writing Children’s Books

Many readers would be surprised at the wealth of fantastic authors writing juvenile fiction. In fact, I hadn’t read the renowned author Isabel Allende until I found a new kid’s trilogy starting with City of Beasts. The trilogy features twins who go on adventures with their archaeologist grandmother. After those I then read many of her books for adult audiences such as House of Spirits, Zorro, and my favorite, Ines of My Soul. To be able to successfully transfer her talents to a younger audience was so impressive that I have made a point of reading any young adult books written by similarly popular authors. The best part of this is that young readers will have an early introduction to some of today’s most prominent authors.
Here are a few other prominent authors delving into the children's book world:

Salman Rushdie at the Mandeville Auditorium on September 22 reminded my colleague Acacia of his two young adult titles, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and its sequel, Luka and the Fire of Life. These are in regular fiction but are also exciting novels for younger readers.

Elizabeth George’s The Edge of Nowhere, released in early September, features clairvoyant Becca King in the first of this cycle. George is best known for her crime novels featuring Inspector Linley.

Kathy Reichs is author of Deadly Decisions and a dozen other titles feature forensics expert Temperance Brennan. Reichs’ books are the basis for the TV show, “Bones.” Her new young adult series (starting with Virals) introduces Brennan’s niece, Tori, a teen detective. A virus gives Tori and companions several canine senses, including sight and hearing, which they are learning to control.

Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson have co-written a creative and humorous series of books. Peter & the Starcatchers (describing Peter Pan’s first encounters with magic) The story has been produced as a musical (which debuted a few years ago at La Jolla Playhouse.) There is also Science Fair, a hilarious look at sixth graders’ efforts to close down the eastern seaboard, and the foreigners who get hooked on the Shopping Network while checking in on the students’ progress.

Prolific James Patterson has the Maximum Ride series (six books and growing) about Max and her flock of siblings who have been cloned with birds, a spin-off of the more horrific adult novel, When the Wind Blows describing the creation of these unusual teens. He also has a Witch & Wizard series, among others.

Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (also made into a movie) introduced young readers to his imaginative fantasy, with The Graveyard Book being selected for top honors as a Newbery Award.

Harlan Coben’s character Myron Bolitar is the uncle of the protagonist in this riveting first teen mystery, Shelter. Philippa Gregory’s The Changeling series is popular among young readers.

 There are certainly many others, but the authors listed are some of my favorites. If you are fans of adult titles, the ones for younger audience may appeal to you as well.
Jim is a bookseller at Warwick's




Thursday, September 13, 2012

An Obsession with Ballet: Adriana's List of Must Read Ballet-Themed Books

Ever since I was a child, I’ve gone through very specific reading phases. When I was ten, all I wanted to read about was gymnastics, although this might have had more to do with the ’84 Olympics and the success of one Mary Lou Retton. Two years later I went through every book I could get my hands on about the holocaust and World War II. In my teen years, I had a Vietnam phase, and Michael Herr’s Dispatches still has a special place on my shelf. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to steer myself away from reading in such a themed way, preferring a slightly more regimented selecting of titles so as to have a little more variety. I’d say I’ve been pretty successful at pulling it off, at least until very recently. The reading phase I’m in now has come as a complete surprise, especially to myself. All I want to read right now are books about Ballet. You heard that right: Ballet. Now what could have sparked an obsession so specific, especially to a non-dancer like myself? A book I’ve had on my shelf for a long time and read sporadically here and there. The name of the book: The Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose. Towards the end is a chapter about George Balanchine and his last muse Suzanne Farrell. The way she describes the ephemeral nature of ballet and its otherworldliness, I began to think of it in a way I never had before. I needed to absorb as much as I could and fast. So began my new love affair. Below are a few of my recent favorites.

1. Ballerina Swan by Allegra Kent. One of Balanchine’s ballerinas, Kent had many important ballets created for her. She is also the author of her own exceptionally written memoir from a few years back entitled Once a Dancer. Now she has written an enchanting book for children ages 5-8, wonderfully illustrated by Caldecott-winning artist Emily McCully. Lovely and sweet, Ballerina Swan is about a swan named Sophie who lives in a pond in Central Park and loves to watch the ballerinas in Madam Myrtle’s Dance Studio. She wants to dance though, not just watch. She tries to join the ballerinas in their class but keeps getting shooed out by Madam Myrtle. One day, Madam Myrtle is replaced by a nicer teacher named Miss Willow, who lets Sophie join her class. Sophie does so well that she is asked to perform in the class’ end-of-year performance of Swan Lake, as the swan no less. Give this to the budding ballerina in your life.

2. Bunheads by Sophie Flack. No relation to the television show on the ABC Family, but definitely in the same age bracket. Slightly superficially, I was immediately drawn to the striking cover, ballerinas in giant tutus dancing in a circle on a stark black background. Now I’m not normally drawn to books in the teen section, but this book gave me pause to take a look, & Flack definitely knows of what she speaks. At seventeen she was accepted into the New York City Ballet and danced with the company for nine years. Her protagonist Hannah is nineteen and dancing with the Manhattan Ballet Company. She thinks she wants to dedicate her life to ballet until she meets a musician named Jacob who makes her question whether she really has what it takes to make it. Beautifully written, it’s definitely a great crossover book for teens as well as adults looking for a good love story, with all the hope & angst that goes along with that age, and definitely appreciated by those of us a lot older.

3. The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey. I was not expecting such a tour de force from this one, especially from an author I’ve never heard of. The story centers around two talented sisters, Kate & Gwen Crane, both belonging to a prestigious New York City Ballet company. When Gwen suffers a breakdown and returns home to their parents’ house to recuperate, Kate, alone for the first time, must deal with the guilt and pain of what has happened to her sister. Similar in theme as the movie Black Swan, The Cranes Dance is unflinching in its portrayal of the harsh and painful life dancers lead. It’s written in such a way as to make you feel a part of the company, a witness to backstage happenings you wouldn’t normally see. Long, detailed exposition on certain ballets almost proves too much, and yet doesn’t when all is said and done. Surprisingly dark, Howrey leads us by the hand into a dark tunnel only to see the light at the very, very end. I could not stop thinking about this one, long after I’d finished.

4. The Master’s Muse by Varley O’Connor. This is very much in the vain of The Paris Wife, and one of the best books I’ve read this year, ballet not withstanding. Its center is Tanaquil LeClercq, Balanchine’s fifth and final wife, who tragically contracted polio at the young age of 27 on a European tour in 1956. Smartly told in the first person, you feel every ounce in your body ache for her as she lies in the iron lung that enables her to breathe, only days after dancing on stage for the very last time. O’Connor has definitely done her research. Her novel feels more like a lost journal than something crafted at someone’s desk. LeClercq’s essence is there, even down to LeClercq’s own words, thanks to the few interviews she gave for various newspapers and dance magazines. Despite such a tragedy at such a young age, and in spite of Balanchine’s betrayal of her years later, Le Clercq was able to lead a fulfilling life, later on even teaching ballet. Don’t be discouraged by the apparent darkness of this book. It is supremely inspiring.

Further reading:

Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans

Holding onto the Air by Suzanne Farrell (currently out-of-print)

Chasing Degas by Eva Montanari

I Was a Dancer by Jacques D’Amboise
Adriana is a bookseller at Warwick's

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Classic Hollywood Revisited

Iconic Hollywood stars have frequently been the subjects of books. There is always a new bio or photo book featuring the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, or a new biographical look at Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, or Joan Crawford; even Hedy Lamarr got her intellectual due in Richard Roades’ Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. In Fiction, there too have been glimpses into the possible lives of these larger than life figures; from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ look at Errol Flynn in Glitter Baby, Marilyn Monroe in multiple books, including Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde and the current The Empty Glass by J.I. Baker, Louise Brooks in Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, to Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason in Don DeLillo’s Underworld. The point is, celebrities, particularly those from the halcyon days of yesteryear are frequent subjects of the written word. Many of these works are interesting and informative, some preposterous and maddening, but mainly they are a type of book that draws readers looking for sensationalism or a glimpse at an era that never ceases to fascinate. So, I was not too surprised to come across several books this summer that dealt with the classic Hollywood scene, but I was surprised by their quality, particularly that of two novels, Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. The books are incredibly different in context and presentation, deal with two different eras of Hollywood, but both are well-written snap shots of a time and people that continue to fascinate us.

While Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures does not feature a real-life celebrity, it does perfectly recreate the feeling of the studio-machine driven age of cinema. From the height of the studio system in the 30’s and 40’s to the revamped look of the late 70’s, this is a novel that brilliantly evokes the life and times of a studio-made star. Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures follows young Elsa Emerson, a girl raised within her parent’s Wisconsin theater company who plots her way to Hollywood and is remade for eventual stardom as the glamorous Laura Lamont. This is more than a novel, it plays out like a 1950’s film, or even one of those epic studio stories (some true, some fabricated) of how someone became a star. In fact, I had a hard time not picturing someone like Lana Turner in my mind while reading this novel. It unfolds like a brilliant melodrama—a suicide, teen marriage, divorce, marriage to a studio head, stardom, age—and yet, this novel is wonderfully written, not a dramatic soap opera, but a sort of love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood and its products, the movie stars. A deceptively simple story, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is surprisingly gripping in its honest humanity, and cleverly written characters. Straub’s obvious love of this time period within the movie-making world helps to round it out presenting a well-thought out, interesting novel with remarkable understanding of the era, Hollywood studio system, and what it meant to be an aging female film star during this time period. In all it’s a fresh and charming new novel, perfect for classic movie fans.

Beautiful Ruins is an entirely different beast. Unlike the linear third-person limited narrative of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Beautiful Ruins is told via a multiple third-person narrative that bounces not only between characters, but also through time, place, and at points leaves the primary story to show excerpts from fictionalized books and screenplays. From 1962 Italy and the filming of Cleopatra (the most expensive US movie), to current Hollywood, with sections in Scotland, London, Seattle, and Idaho thrown in; Walter’s unique style creates not only a touching story of a love that could have been, but also a deftly drawn portrait of the demise of the movie star as an untouchable god (pre extreme-paparazzi), and the transition from epic films to reality garbage, lacking any sense of prestige and glamour. It adroitly shows the inner workings of film publicists and producers looking to exploit everything and anything to sell their products, the turmoil created by the desire to be famous, post-traumatic stress, and the general narcissism and technological dependence of the current generation. On the Hollywood front, actor Richard Burton is takes a co-starring role—his actions literally spur the plot of the entire story—his drunken escapades, remarkable talent, and on-set affair with co-star Elizabeth Taylor (prior to their 2 marriages) are imaginatively recreated, using much of the lore and fact that fans have come to associate with the couple’s tumultuous relationship. The addition of an ill actress (a fictional character who is part of the Cleopatra cast), an alcoholic former solider/writer, a canny and amoral publicity grunt, and a young Italian trying to save his dying hotel, help to create a setting that is almost film-like itself in its capture of drama and occasional bouts of comedic flair. The sections taking place in current times are less thrilling, far more irritating in view of the younger characters’ self-absorption—one is looking to sell a ridiculous screenplay based on the Donner Party, the other is a production mogul’s development assistant/lackey with a dependence on data fixes and a porn addicted boyfriend—but Walters uses them effectively in bringing together the threads of the story as it bounces between decades and characters. In all, Beautiful Ruins is intriguing, very stylized in its presentation, and a wonderful look at Hollywood’s transition from its Golden Age.

There are so many books published dealing with this theme that it can be daunting to take on the task, particularly for a fan of classic films, not looking to see their favorite star/era/movie diminished in stature, but taking up either of these novels, whether it be the stylized Beautiful Ruins, or the homage to the studio system of yesteryear within Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, readers are sure to find pleasure within their pages. Great reads for readers of varying styles and a love of interesting characters.