Tuesday, April 14, 2015

rant ahead - be warned. The Amazon seller who wins the WTF award for April is


This Amazon seller has the dubious honor of sending me the wrong book TWICE in a row.  I ordered a reference set of books (2 volumes) called Crime Fiction II, which I wanted for my permanent collection in my crime fiction/mystery library.  The first time I was sent a mass market paperback book by Brett Halliday.  Here's what  I actually ordered looks like (bought from an entirely different seller after the friendlybooksforyou debacle); as you can see, they are big, hefty tomes and definitely not mass-market paperbacks:

I get that a mistake was made, so giving them the benefit of the doubt,  I waited and lo and behold, I went back to the same seller, who claimed they had my book in stock and that they would sell it to me for right around $15.  Well, crap ... when it sells for $435 otherwise, $15 is a great deal, right?  I figured the first time was a fluke so I ordered it again.  The second time, I received a book by an author I've never even heard of, which wasn't even close!  Check out the label at the bottom of this book by Caroline Crane, which I received instead of the book I ordered:

 At this point, I'm like screw this. After sending an email (this time not so nice) -- I left the following feedback:

How freakin' hard is it to actually take a look at the cover?????????? I ask you!!! 


After all is said and done, I went to get the book by Caroline Crane packaged to return to these people, and this morning inside the book I found this:

So my intuition about friendlybooksforyou was correct: they had ordered a book they didn't even have in stock and it was sent to me.  I never ordered this book (I've never heard of it before).  So I do a little digging and discover that friendlybooksforyou is really one of several seller names under the auspices of Winter Ventures --


Value Promenade
Quality Bargain Mall
Slategray Books
(and whoever else) 

-- all of whom apparently use the exact same warehouse.  Wow.  Talk about misrepresentation. Well, there are four "booksellers" who will not get my business.  

today's update: 04/17/2015

Email received from friendlybooksforyou re a book I never even ordered. To be fair, and in case I'd forgotten, I did a search on all of my Amazon orders and sure enough, I was right.  This made me laugh.

"Dear Nancy,

Your order for these books should have arrived:

 - Caught Dead

We thank you for your Amazon order.

Your order number: 110-8468824-2236253

We sent you this email to see if you had received the book and were totally happy with your purchase. If you have any concerns or issues with this order please reply to this email and allow us the opportunity to resolve it with you.

If you have not done so, we ask that you please leave us positive feedback.

If you have already done so, we thank you!"

Monday, April 13, 2015

contemporary interlude: Song for an Approaching Storm, by Peter Fröberg Idling

Pushkin Press, 2015
(originally published 2012 as Sång till den storm som ska komma)
translated by Peter Graves
328 pp


I don't actually remember why I bought this novel but I'm certainly happy  that I did. It is a book that reminds me why I love small presses like Pushkin --  they don't have to take a mass-market approach and so have the space and flexibility to publish some excellent fiction. And when I say excellent, I mean it - considering that this is the author's debut novel, he's done a great job here. For people like myself, who are always on the lookout for intelligent historical fiction that rises above much of what's available on the mass market these days,   Song for an Approaching Storm is perfect -- it's intelligent, interweaves real historical events, and captures only a tiny, but extremely important slice of time on the world stage. 
 The novel transports the reader to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, just prior to, during and after the country' first election in 1955.  It is an uneasy time; it hasn't been too long since Cambodia became an independent nation and political tensions are at an all-time high. The novel is related from three different points of view: first, from Saloth Sar, who will later go on to become the notorious Pol Pot ; Cambodia's deputy prime minister Sam Sary  takes the second part, while the woman who intersects both of their lives, Somaly (based on the real-life Soeung Son Maly)   gets the final say.  While I'm not going to go into this book in any great detail, I think the way Idling structured this novel was brilliant, affording more of a three-dimensional approach from three very different people.  Each helps to underline the issues that existed in this recently-independent nation -- for example, Sar's narrative opens onto a clandestine meeting with a small circle of fellow Communists who are stuck between party rhetoric and actual practice.  Each of the three points of view have to do with the future -- as Sary notes, 
"After having been fixated on the past -- the golden age, injustices and so on -- the nation is now suddenly ready to turn and face what is to come." 
For all three of these people, "what is to come" is of paramount importance, both personally and in the context of a Cambodia free of its former masters.

The writing is absolutely beautiful, and the book is very easy to read &  understand. Even if you know absolutely nothing about Cambodia's history, there's no way you can fail to pick up the nuances of this tumultuous period of time since the author makes things very clear. On my part, reading Song for An Approaching Storm led me to Philip Short's so-far most excellent Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, in which he uncovers the idealist Saloth Sar and slowly but thoroughly maps his eventual change as he becomes the genocidal  Pol Pot.  I'm not saying this will happen to everyone, but, well, I'm kind of a nerd so I was interested enough to buy a copy.

All I can say is that Song for An Approaching Storm is a most excellent novel, but honestly, it's probably not one of those books that's going to find its way to the general public. I can certainly recommend it to readers of serious historical fiction and to people who may be interested in the topic; I think it's one of the most intelligent novels I've read in a very long time.  To reuse the cliché, I simply couldn't put it down. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

*The Pioneers, by James Fenimore Cooper

Penguin, 1998
460 pp
[originally published 1823]


I'm of two minds about this novel and my ambiguity has to do with Cooper's writing style.  First, let me say that I'm no stranger to older works with long, drawn-out phrasing or archaic writing styles -- I figure it's a given that these are books from the past and they certainly weren't designed with our more modern, streamlined reading styles in mind.  That's not the issue here. Instead, it's more like the main threads of the narratives in this book are sort of buried under a barrage of description that tends to go on and on and on before you get back to the storylines that you're reading the book for in the first place. There is an asterisked author's footnote on p. 233 that made me think that even he seems to understand that he has a tendency to go overboard:
"The author has no better apology for interrupting the interest of a work of fiction by these desultory dialogues, than that they have reference to facts. In reviewing his work, after so many years, he is compelled to confess it is injured by too many allusions to incidents that are not at all suited to satisfy the just expectations of the general reader." 
 On the other hand, The Pioneers is very much worth reading as a novel strongly concerned with (among other things) environmental stewardship;  it is also a book that Cooper wrote, in my opinion, to offer his readers a look at the American wilderness as people began to settle there, much as in his own life, his father had played a major role in the settlement of Cooperstown. As Cooper himself notes in a preface:
"In 1785, the author's father, who had an interest in extensive tracts of land in this wilderness, arrived with a party of Surveyors.  The manner in which the scene met his eye is described by Judge Temple. At the commencement of the following year, the settlement began, and from that time to this, the country has continued to flourish. It is a singular feature in American life, that, at the beginning of this century, when the proprietor of the estate, had occasion for settlers, on a new settlement and in a remote county, he was enabled to draw them from among the increase of the former colony...the author was brought an infant into this valley and all his first impressions were here obtained. He has inhabited it, ever since, at intervals, and he thinks he can answer for the faithfulness of the picture he has drawn." (8)
 Of course, now Cooperstown is linked to baseball; few people probably know or care about how this town got started, so The Pioneers'  Templeton affords a glimpse into exactly what life may have been like in settlements such as the one Cooper grew up in.

Another thing I was struck by was Cooper's description of the law as civilization encroaches into the wilderness -- Natty Bumppo, "the Leatherstocking" has lived in the forests and in nature for most of his life before civilization had even arrived there, and he has his own ideas about the value of laws.  And for those readers who are entertained by plot and aren't really into the messages/history  woven into novels, there's also a storyline complete with  love interest that centers around a mysterious young man who is accidentally shot by Judge Marmaduke Temple in his efforts to shoot a deer.

I won't go into plot here because this book is very well known and is very well covered by scholars all over the internet and in books and other publications.  The bottom line for me is that it was a tough novel to read because in our 21st-century parlance the writing itself tends to be all over the map with long interludes of description that seem to take forever before the author returns to the narrative, but when all is said and done, the environmental issues that are brought up in this book are more than relevant to modern concerns. So back to being of two minds -- if you can make it through the laborious writing style, there's a really good story or two or three hidden in this novel.  I'm happy I read it, although now I'm thinking that maybe I'll pass on the others for the moment.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

*Hope Leslie, by Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1827)

Penguin Classics, 1998
399 pp
originally published 1827


Hope Leslie is one of those novels that could spawn an entire library of dissertations since there is so much here of interest -- not only to literature students, but to students of American history as well.  Written in 1827, the author chose to set her novel in the mid 1600s and in the milieu of the Puritans of Massachusetts in order to examine her present and America's possible future  "by way of the past."  She introduces her readers to two exceptional young women, one of whom "best embodies the new nation's potential."  On another level, it's an example of "frontier romance," a departure from my previous early American novel experience, and while the lessons/morals of this novel are easily gleaned, it's also a fun adventure sort of novel. I can only imagine a contemporary woman reading this book and getting totally lost in the exploits of the heroic women around whom the story is written, all the while wondering if such empowerment of women just might be possible.  I read it 188 years after it was published, and I was caught up in it, absolutely unable to put it down until I'd  finished it.

Outside of the endnotes, this book is 371 pages long with a story filled with twists and turns so even a synopsis is not really possible, but the story takes place first in early 17th-century England, where the principles of religious freedom and civil liberty have attracted young William Fletcher to the colonies.  His refusal to give up those principles costs him the love of his life, but William marries, goes on to America and his family settles in what is then the frontier outside of Springfield Massachusetts.   Native Americans are a concern in this "savage howling wilderness," but domestic issues with Fletchers are also a growing concern, especially in light of two events. First, the Fletchers are to be the caretakers of two "Indian" children, a boy Oneco and his sister Magawisca; second, it seems that William's first love Alice has passed away and her daughters Mary and Alice Leslie coming to live with him in America at Fletcher's home called Bethel.  The girls are baptized and their names changed respectively to Faith and Hope Leslie; they arrive with their aunt and their tutor and are all happy together even though Mrs. Fletcher is concerned about her teenaged son Everell's growing interest in Magawisca.  Sadly, while William is away on business and taking Hope and her tutor off to Boston, Magawisca's father, a tribal chief who had lost the rest of his family in a horrific massacre by the English, decides the time is right for revenge and slaughters everyone at Bethel except Faith and Everell (Fletcher's son), whom he forces to go with him back to his camp. There, Everell, who is very much loved by Magawisca,  is saved  by her in a move reminiscent of Pocahontas; Faith, however, is left to the mercy of the chief while Everell makes his escape.

Seven years go by, and Everell has returned to Boston from England and Hope Leslie is a grown girl, now a companion/friend to Governor Winthrop's niece Esther, in the very midst of the Puritans.   Unlike the bulk of the Puritans though, Hope is not content to blindly submit to religious or scriptural authority -- she has an independent and often rebellious spirit that is often frowned upon by others in the community (with the exception of William Fletcher, her aunt and her tutor), and it is this independence that she comes to rely on. It is also her free spirit, matched with Everell's somewhat relaxed views after having been away for some time, that is at heart of this story as she and Everell try to fight a serious injustice done to someone they both love and care about. In the meantime, there are a number of subplots that help move things along, bits of romance, and a few cliffhanger moments that keep things lively and interesting.

I can't possibly tackle all of the issues that Sedgwick raises in this book --  serious reflections on the roles and futures of women in America, the presence of women in the public sphere, their submission to male authority, the ethical treatment of Native Americans, the rigidity of the Puritans, the historical record vs. an alternate theory re what really happened as far as Puritan-Native American interaction, whether or not tolerance can exist between Native Americans and the people who continue to move further out into the American frontier -- all of these subjects would demand much more time than I can give to them.  To me, though, the characters of  Hope and Magawisca stand as two incredible heroines, each in their own right, each able to use her own good judgment and sense of moral right to better an entire community even though  their actions are at odds with prevailing authority. Each lets her own moral code guide her in her actions,  each strongly speaks out against injustice, and each is a strong representation of what all people, not just women, can aspire to as individuals in a quickly-growing  and changing America of Sedgwick's time and beyond.

Hope Leslie is an amazing book on several levels and I have no hesitation in recommending it even to the most casual of readers who may want something very different.  The only issue that people unacquainted with novel writing of this time period might run up against is in the way Sedgwick writes, which is sort of bulky and complicated while we're used to more streamlined prose; despite this minor impediment, though, the story flows nicely and very quickly over the nearly 400 pages.  It is another book I'm very happy to have discovered.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

April: still hovering in America of the 19th century; March wrap-up

Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables

I suppose I sort of lost track of my main reading objective for March, which is still 19th century American novels, but I spent the month with some incredible books, so it's okay.  Now I'm going to get serious again and get back into Hope Leslie, by Catherine Maria Sedgwick, which I've barely touched.  So far, it's pretty good, and takes the reader away from the main colonial cities and off into what was considered the frontier at the time, complete with Native Americans and personal hardship.  What got in the way of my goal, one might ask? Well, here's the rundown.

*Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush
The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion 
Song for an Approaching Storm, by Peter Fröberg Idling (thoughts coming soon - in the meantime, I felt it was an excellent novel. Kudos to Pushkin Press for publishing it.)

A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes
The House of Wolfe, by James Carlos Blake
Swimming in the Dark, by Paddy Richardson
Harriet, by Elizabeth Jenkins (obscure crime writer project)
The Big Clock, by Kenneth Fearing
The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

strange/weird/horror fiction:
Nazareth Hill, by Ramsey Campbell 
The Feast of Bacchus, by Ernest Henham ( haven't posted about this book yet, but it's exceptionally good)
The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink (another not discussed -- coming soon)

Currently reading:
nf: Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse, by Stanley Meisler
crime: A Cold Coming, by Mary Kelly
literature: Hope Leslie, by Catherine Maria Sedgwick

--- other stuff

  • the book group read The Rosie Project, which is something I normally wouldn't have read on my own, but I felt the group deserved an easy, light read after last month's The Night Guest. One of the group even said "this definitely isn't a Nancy book." To me, it read like a romantic screwball chick-lit comedy that was hoping to become a movie. And it did. Not my cuppa.
  • ...and the books keep coming to the door, thanks largely to Valancourt Books, whose work in bringing back old novels is beyond outstanding.  Every time they post about a new book they've published, I cringe because I just know I'll have to buy it.  They're that good. I now have a dedicated Valancourt shelf in my dark fiction/horror/weird fiction shelves. 
  • I gave away a TON of novels this month due to lack of shelf space.  My house is mostly huge windows and wall space, therefore shelf space, is at a premium, so there will be plenty more to come. Right now: I have a hardcover copy of The Rosie Project  that needs a home. Anyone in the US who wants this one, it's yours.  Maybe you want to read it ahead of the movie release -- just leave a comment and it will be on its way to your home - free.
that's my March - looking forward to getting back on track in April. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

*Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush

Oxford University Press, 1992
originally published 1812
194 pp


This story may have just been the Mommie Dearest of its day.  Forget evil stepmothers -- the mother in this book is about as nasty as they come. If ever there was a time when I wanted to reach into the pages of a book and slap someone, it was while reading Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush.  The truly awful thing is that I can actually understand why she did what she did, given the context of the time.

Kelroy is set in Philadelphia, and begins with a woman (Mrs. Hammond) who finds herself in bad financial straits when her  husband dies. Emigrating earlier from England to America, he had become quite successful and tended to live well beyond his means, having more of a reputation for wealth than actual wealth. After his death, his wife took stock, and paid off the debts he'd left behind (no more than "two thirds of the property which she held,"), paid off what she owed and found herself left with six thousand pounds and the house she lived in. Mrs. Hammond was all about appearances, and feared poverty more than anything else in life.She rented out the house and moved to the country, where she bought a "small, but elegant residence," seemingly overwrought with grief, but in reality, she was cutting back on expenses to use her money to realize a plan designed to marry off her daughters to wealthy, upper-class husbands who will provide for them (and for herself) in an upper-class lifestyle. Her daughters' looks were her insurance policy against poverty --  and everything she did from her husband's death onward had one single purpose -- to make the best, most advantageous matches for  daughters Lucy and Emily.  She has them educated at home by a governess and "masters" from the city, but she also has her own lessons to deliver:

  1. the "pleasures of wealth,"  offer "deference" to those who have it,
  2. romantic attachments --  "involuntary love" -- are an "unpardonable folly," and 
  3. last but not least, and probably most importantly, unfortunate people were in that situation because they'd brought it upon themselves and so "deserved" to be "universally shunned and forgotten."  

After four years, Mrs. Hammond makes the great "sacrifice" for her daughters and moves back to the city, where they move about  in upper-class circles.  Elder daughter Lucy by now is vain, very much into the idea of money, and thinks little of anyone but herself.  Her dear Mamma has circulated rumors here and there of her great fortune, although the expenses involved in getting her daughters ready to be married off to suitable husbands (elegant parties, dinners, dresses, the best of everything more designed for appearances sake)  has left her little ready cash to her name.  Lucy is chosen by a young English Lord Walsingham, and finding him beyond suitable, a marriage is arranged.  Emily, on the other hand, falls for one of Walsingham's friends, a young poet named Kelroy, definitely not the kind of man Mrs. Hammond believes she can profit from through marriage to her daughter.  After Emily falls hard for Kelroy, the rest of the novel follows our Mommie Dearest,  who refuses to stand idly by and watch her own plans go awry.

To me, Kelroy serves in large part as a commentary on social class and on class pretensions. For example, there's one very nicely-composed scene depicting an interaction between Emily and her friends and a nouveau-riche, formerly working-class family named Gurnet.  The Gurnets have absolutely no concept of gentility, yet when Emily and friends come to visit, they try to impress upon Emily's party that they too know their manners, are educated in the arts, respect nice things -- and in doing so accomplish exactly the opposite.  Mrs. Hammond herself has a place among the upper class simply because of her dead husband's fortune, but because of his debts, finds herself in a position where she has to fight to keep her status.  Her daughters are her investments and are treated as such by her.  All of the money she's put into the girls and,  more importantly to her, into  keeping up the appearance that she actually belongs in this class, has led her into debt and a decline in her cash situation and the shopkeepers are literally knocking at her door. In all fairness, after giving this book some consideration, considering how limited her prospects and those of her daughters would have been if she had not gone to such great lengths, I can sort of understand her reasoning.  On the other hand, one would think that Lucy's marriage to an English lord, and a later change in her own fortune would have relaxed Mrs. H's  grip on Emily's future, but it does not turn out that way -- and this is what makes her truly a greedy and beyond-hypocritical villain in my eyes.

I loved this book and I am grateful that it's been reprinted and made available.  My copy is a part of a series of publications called Early American Women Writers from Oxford University Press and there are many others in this series I want to get my greedy little hands on. Of all of the books in my American novel survey so far, this one has been by far the easiest to read and to understand, and even though it was published in 1812, there's so much going on in here which, in my opinion, has some relevance for our own time.  Definitely recommended.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

March: moving into the 19th century; February wrap-up

With Alonzo and Melissa, I got pushed into the 19th century and I'm staying here for a very, very long time. I am sort of getting tired of women protecting their virtue against rakes and libertines, but  I'm enjoying the Gothics even though by today's standards they're pretty tame.  The current read is Rebecca Rush's Kelroy -- and this is a little different than the previous Gothics I've read -- where before the one person a woman could turn to for support and guidance was her mother or female guardian, in Kelroy, it's the social-climbing mother who uses her daughters as tools to maintain her own self interest.  I've just barely started and I'm totally hooked.

Looking back over the month, here's how things played out:

*Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, by Charles  Brockden Brown
*Julia and the Illuminated Baron, by Sally Sayward Wood
*Alonzo and Melissa, by Daniel Jackson Jr.
Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Eckback

Pop. 1820, by Jim Thompson 
The Punt Murder, by Aceituna Griffin (obscure women crime writers project)

Miasma, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (obscure women crime writers project)
The Girl Who Wasn't There, by Ferdinand von Schirach
The Long-Legged Fly, by James Sallis

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

strange/weird/horror fiction:
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson -- if you have not read this yet, go get a copy. NOW.          -- I've earmarked this one for the book group for October 2015 .--  
At Crichton Abbey and Other Horror Stories, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Currently reading:
The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink
Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush
A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes

--- other stuff

  • the book group read The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane. Everyone was depressed by the time we finished discussing it, but without exception, it was a winner with the group.  Next up is The Rosie Project, which I haven't read, but since it's funny I chose it as a needed antidote to The Night Guest.  I'm more looking forward to April when we read Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier.  Yowza!
  • Next Saturday I get to meet Hampton Sides, who wrote one of my favorite books from last year, In the Kingdom of Ice. I hope it's a good crowd so whoever's behind this will realize that contrary to  popular belief,  here in Florida there are a few of us who don't limit our reading to  Carl Hiassen or the latest Southern romance novels. Mr. Sides will speaking about his book and doing a signing -- I'm there. Early. Like an hour early. With coffee. Front row. Eyes ears glued. First in line to get book signed. All that nerdy stuff.