Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Blanche on the Lam

Blanche on the LamBlanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Blanche White (yes, that's really her name) has written one too many bad checks, thanks to meager wages not promptly paid, and she's facing jail time. Panic leads her to sneak out of the courthouse during a commotion and flee, ending up bluffing her way into a job for clients she'd had to cancel on thanks to the court appearance. Luckily for Blanche, the family soon heads to their summer home in another town, providing her a place to hide out while she figures out her next steps. Her employers have dangerous secrets of their own, however, and Blanche must pry into them if she is to stay alive.

I finished reading this nearly two months ago, but it's taken me a while to try and process what I think of it. I did enjoy reading it, although it was not what I was expecting, based on the blurb. For one thing, it's set in the present day (or, well, the present day of the early 1990s when it was written), but I was terribly confused at first because it felt like something out of the 1950s or 1960s. Are there really still African American maids and gardeners and other domestic workers in North Carolina who are treated like second-class citizens or worse? I suppose there might be, given all the recent racial tensions and violence in the news lately (currently the rioting in Baltimore).

It's truly a different world from the one I know. Although we can now finally afford to pay someone to come and clean our house every couple of weeks, and we just hired a landscaping service to take care of our yard because we simply can't keep up with it, we pay them well, and I cannot fathom treating any of the people doing the work with anything less than the utmost respect and deep gratitude for the time and energy they are saving us. I don't know anyone at all who has ever had "hired help" in the manner depicted in this book, and even if anyone had, no one I know would ever treat people so badly. It's an alien concept--just as much as if this were a sci-fi novel instead of a contemporary mystery.

The sad thing is, Blanche has experienced such a long history and culture of racial bigotry and inequality, that it--understandably, if unpleasantly--colors her perspective on everything. She is intelligent, even when she doesn't make the wisest choices. She loves her adopted children, and I'd love to eat her cooking, but she has a huge chip on her shoulder that keeps her from fully bonding with Mumsfield, a mentally slow sweetheart of a young man, just because he's white and related to her employers. Keeping her distance is a defense mechanism, and her bitterness and cynicism made for difficult reading at times. It was an interesting book, and I am curious to know what the next one in the series is like.

For readers' advisors: character and setting doorways. Some crude language and, strangely enough, a couple of descriptions of Blanche adjusting her underwear when it had ridden up.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the free ebook copy I received in exchange for my honest review.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Shadow Scale

Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2)Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dragons loyal to the Comonot are battling those of the Old Ard who want to depose him and return to the days where humans were food. They claim exposure to humans taints dragons, making them impure and in need of having their memories excised. Seraphina, Queen Glisselda, and Prince Kiggins know they must gather allies to help them battle the dragons of the Old Ard in order to save the humans of Goredd, so the Queen sends Seraphina as her emissary to nearby kingdoms to persuade them to provide assistance. The journey has another purpose, however: Seraphina has read of a sort of mind-net that was once created to defend against dragons in a former time, and she resolves to seek out her fellow ityasaari (half dragons) to learn whether such a thing is possible today.

Things do not quite go as planned, of course, and Seraphina learns that another half-dragon, Jannoula, who has the ability to invade and take over the minds of other ityasaari, is searching for the same people Seraphina hopes to find. Jannoula plans to use the mind-net for her own purposes, although uncovering all the twists and turns in her devious plot will be a long, frustrating challenge for Seraphina. One by one, she watches her friends fall under the spell of Jannoula, unable to save them until she learns the secret of unlocking her own mind-fire.

There are so many things to adore about this book, but I think the saving grace for me was that it was so easy to immerse myself instantly in the world Hartman has created, no matter how little time I had to read--including sometimes just the couple of minutes it took to heat my lunch in the microwave. I had to be creative in order to carve out a few minutes (or a whole half an hour!) here and there when I could read, and with Shadow Scale, I could pick up right where I left off and be transported immediately into the world of the story. Rachel Hartman's world-building skills are outstanding.

My second favorite thing was the character development, particularly of Jannoula. You really got to see and feel sympathy for how she came to be so twisted, and you understood the guilt Seraphina felt for her inadvertent role in that. I also loved the variety of characters and relationships, including that they were so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story.

I also appreciated that not everything was tied up with pretty little bows at the end. Don't get me wrong--I LOVE happy endings. In this case, though, it felt so much more real for some things to be left a little more open-ended. In a war, people are injured and die, and not just "the bad guys." This story takes place during wartime, with some battles occurring far from a traditional battlefield.

Many thanks to NetGalley for the free Advanced Reader's Copy of the ebook for this fantastic sequel to Seraphina!

For readers' advisors: setting, character, and story doorways are strong. Language, too, given the many words Hartman has invented. There is no sex, and if I recall correctly, any swearing uses made-up words or phrases. The violence is not at all graphic and mostly happens "off-screen." It's LGBT-friendly.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess BrideAs You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorite thing about listening to the audiobook version of Cary Elwes' book was hearing many of the actual people involved with The Princess Bride voice their memories of making the film. It felt like they were sitting down with me and having a nice chat about the The Good Ol' Days, telling funny stories and reminiscing. How often do you get the chance to do that with the characters of your favorite childhood movie?

I still remember going on a rare movie date with my mom when I was about 12. We went to the Sellwood Theater (that no longer exists) and saw a double feature of La Bamba and The Princess Bride. Both were good movies, but The Princess Bride...ohhhh, yeah, that was the first of about 3 dozen viewings over the years. I can't wait until my daughter is old enough to see it on DVD with me.

Elwes' book is a must-read (or must-listen) for anyone who loves the movie. I adored hearing all kinds of stories about how and where they filmed different parts, all the background context and personalities. Like, for example, that the scene when the Prince & Count Rugen catch Buttercup & Westley as they emerge from the Fire Swamp, and the Count knocks Westley out with the handle of his sword--that was Cary Elwes collapsing unconscious to the ground because Christopher Guest accidentally bonked him too hard. OOPS! :D

The only (small) quibble I have with the audiobook version is that much of the time Cary Elwes, who narrates his own memoir, somehow manages to come off sounding ever so slightly pompous. Not in what he's saying, but in his tone, which I would have preferred to be a little more conversational. I kept envisioning him in the studio reading his book, whereas all the actors and the director who recorded their own memories sounded like they were simply telling stories to friends.

Still, it's a delightful love fest of mutual admiration, which makes a pleasant change from the usual spiteful tell-all memoirs. I was sad when the book came to a close. It felt like I had to say goodbye to my friends, which is apparently how they all felt at the end of filming.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a beloved DVD to re-watch....

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