Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Long Live the Queen of Mystery!

Quick! Name a book genre!

Did you guess mystery?  If so, then you picked the second most popular genre of fiction books (it just cannot beat that steamy ol' romance genre).  Mysteries range from espionage mysteries to fantasy mysteries to themed mysteries to horror mysteries; the sub genres go on and on. However, in the end, there is no mystery like the classic mystery, with a plucky, eccentric sleuth coming upon a problem (almost always murder) and then proceeding to solve said problem with cunning and little outside help.  This is the tried and true method for writing a mystery and it has endured since the debut of the mystery genre.

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However, no one has quite mastered the art of turning the simplistic formula into a complicated and articulate story like Dame Agatha Christie.  Born in 1890, the English author began her lengthy career during the "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" (1920's and 1930's).  However, where many, many others quit, lost steam, or faded into obscurity, Christie continued to be a roaring force of mystery fiction, producing some her best works later in life.  Her personal life read as a mystery/romance novel as well, from her vastly publicized disappearance in 1926 (the stress of her husband's affair and demand for divorce left her distraught, thus prompting her flight), her eventual marriage to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan (she loved him because "the older I grow, the more he appreciates me,"), to the international whirlwind success of her writing career.  Christie was not only confident in her success, she also served as a figurehead for female authors breaking into the mystery genre, a book form which has been previously dominated by men.  Christie wrote books that appealed to both men and women, both in England and abroad. Her books have been published in at least 103 languages. 

Christie came onto the literary scene in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  The novel also marked the debut of Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head, who brought Christie international literary fame and remains today what she is best known for.  Poirot starred in thirty-nine of Christie's novels.  The novels were marked with a flair of international jet-setting and class; the mysteries revolved around the rich and the famous, those desperate to keep their crimes and secrets to themselves.  However, as Poirot reminds the reader again and again, "Papa Poirot" sees everything. Everything about Poirot is lovable yet antagonizing; he is able to deduce solutions from his keen sense of awareness and his brilliance at being able to tailor a situation to work in his favor.  Despite the fact that the ingenious but often haughty detective vastly annoyed Christie towards the end of her career, her last published book during her lifetime was Poirot's final Curtain in 1975; early on she had recognized the fame of Poirot, thus had written his ending book early on, while she was still physically able.  By the time the novel debuted, Poirot had become so internationally popular, his literary death received an obituary from The New York Times, the only fictional character ever to receive such.

Christie did the same for her other literary sleuth, Miss Marple, an English spinster whose quiet observations of her English village give her great insight into the human psyche.  Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, the year of Christie's death.  However, Christie did not live to see her favorite sleuth's literary journey end.  Marple was the star of twelve novels, starting with The Murder at the Vicarage (1930); yet, to some readers, Marple's legacy as the amateur sleuth is overlooked most mystery readers. The tone of the Marple novels are different that the Poirot ones; these are more simple, quaint, and tend to less complex plots, yet retaining their signature Christie twists and turns.  There is a much greater cosmopolitan sense in the Poirot novels, yet the Marple novels exude a distinctly English feel, luring the reader into the eccentricities and dangers of countryside English life.  Miss Marple is the perfect English gentlewoman; however, she is cunning, sly, and uses anecdotes and her deep understanding of the human condition makes her a different sleuth than most.  She is not worldly or fancy.  Yet, in her simplicity lies a genius that makes her more interesting to read about than Poirot.

So, yes, I am telling you to read mysteries from the 1920's to 1970's (Christie kept busy).  Why? Several reasons.  There are no modern frills with these novels; the lack of modern communication and technology makes the mysteries very exciting and twisting. Without technology dating the novels, the stories are able to be timeless, with the crimes and solutions based entirely on human emotions, passions, and folly.  It is solely up to the smarts and observations of the sleuth to deduce the solution, therefore bringing forth the quintessential strength of Christie's talent.  The context in which Christie was writing is also worth the attention.  The life of England past is filled with servants, mansions, manners, class distinctions, and speech that is indicative of times past.  The reader is transported to a world and lifestyle that reigned not even a hundred years ago, yet is so different from modern times it nearly seems fabricated.  The historical aspect of the novels is also interesting.  The publications span from the end of World War 1 to past World War 2, offering glimpses into how people lived and thought during Christie's time periods.  Clearly, real life and culture are infused in fiction, so it is only natural to connect with history through Christie's characters and settings.  Lastly, and most importantly, Christie's novels are intriguing.  They remain relevant in today's world.  The whodunit is almost always a surprise (READ THE BOOKS!), yet Christie manages to engage the reader in the cat and mouse game that is and will always be the classic mystery.  She is a writer for the ages and her books, although short, will thrill to the very end.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Enchanting World of Sarah Addison Allen

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Books that randomly appear.  An apple tree that promises to show you the most important moment in your life.  Promises that cannot be broken.  Women whose emotions can leave tangible traces on objects. A lone peach tree that guards an untimely end. Alligators with secrets. Families whose magical tendencies are the talk of the town.  Seven books, seven different sets of magic, hopes, dreams, and perseverance to overcome obstacles grace the novels written by American author, Sarah Addison Allen.  With five stand-alone books (The Sugar Queen (2008), The Girl Who Chased the Moon (2010), The Peach Keeper (2011), and Lost Lake (2014)), and a budding series stemming from her debut novel (Garden Spells (2007) and First Frost (Jan. 2015)), Allen has managed to infuse magic and mysticism in her novels about everyday people and the lives they lead.  However, these are not fantasy novels.  They are novels about life, love, loss, and the eccentricities in people that make humanity diverse and wonderful.  Allen's work is delightful simply because the reader can be enchanted by the magic and beauty of life and its nuances.

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Her debut novel, Garden Spells, remains her most popular novel.  The novel centers around the Waverly family, a quirky, tiny family unit that has survived heartache, stigmatization, passion, and depression.  Infused with the subtle magical abilities that all of Allen's characters have, the Waverlys have struggled to find their place in the community and even in their own family.  Allen captivates the reader with her characters: Claire Waverly is a caterer who has a renowned 'magic' touch when it comes to food; Sydney Waverly is a lost soul, struggling to find beauty in life and herself.  The story swirls around the two sisters, accompanied by relatives, friends, and enemies who are also trying to find themselves.  Seven years later, Allen picks their story back up in First Frost (due out January 20, 2015).  Once again, the reader will find that the Waverly sisters are once again struggling to find their place in the world, as well as finding out where exactly their 'powers' fit into the mix.  Allen introduces new characters, both to the Waverly family fold and to their community.  The new novel centers mostly around Bay, Sydney's daughter, who was a small child in the first book.  Bay is struggling to come to terms with her gift and with her family's quirky reputation in the community. First Frost has a very different tone than Garden Spells, with the desperately lost feeling of many of the characters having been settled in Garden Spells.  There are several forces that have disrupted the quiet lives of the Waverlys, throwing their settled, happy lives back into confusion and self-doubt.  It is a quintessential coming-of-age novel; however, Allen takes it a step further and delves into the coming of age into middle age.  Both Claire and Sydney are hitting middle age blahs while Bay is coming into turbulent teenage hood.  Allen delicately parallels the self searches these women undergo as they try to adapt to their new life phases.  While not as powerful as Garden Spells (one of the most refreshing novels I have ever read), First Frost is a fun read, and makes you review your own views on age and adapting to change.

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My personal favorite is The Sugar Queen.  Allen's second novel, a stand alone, The Sugar Queen revolves around Josie Cirini, a sweets loving, painfully shy woman, whose domineering mother (not to mention her own insecurities) keep her from living life to the fullest.  To me, this novel is Allen at her best.  The ancillary characters keep the story moving forward, and Allen gives us glimpses (both brief and extended) into their lives, making them an integral part of the novel.  It is set during the winter time at a mountain resort town; the chilly background provides a stark contrast to the fiery emotions that drive the characters towards a satisfying conclusion.  The Sugar Queen is truly a novel about forgiveness, whether it is the characters forgiving others or mainly, themselves.  Allen illustrates how punishing oneself for misdeeds past and present can do nothing but prolong the misery in our lives.  The magic in this novel is subtle but alluring.  Each character has a trait that impacts their lives and how they interact with the world.

All of Allen's works have the same underlying character themes.  Her main characters, first and foremost, are women.  Allen beautifully depicts women who have or are trying to make their way in the world, despite their pasts, their reputations, and whatever else has plagued them.  All of her female characters are acutely aware of themselves, almost to a fault.  However, they do not shy away from their eccentricities or personalities; they embrace them and find lives, careers, friends, and partners that best accentuate who they are as women.  Allen does not write about women who shy away from life or who accept their fate.  Her novels ultimately are about strong women and the magic that comes from accepting yourself.

These are not huge books, yet Allen manages to pack in a novel that will leave you wondering about the characters.  Allen has a simple writing style.  She uses a clipped, yet flowery prose for her writing.  The descriptions are precise, yet thorough.  Nevertheless, she manages to convey powerful lessons in her novels.  The quick paced storytelling, the inter-generational stories that Allen manages to weave together, and the dynamic characters is what makes Allen one of my favorite authors.  There is romance, but nothing ridiculous or bawdy; just plain love, with characters radiating their happiness and contentment.  There is mystery to a certain degree; mysteries that unravel as the characters find out more about themselves and their loved ones.  From Garden Spells to the highly anticipated First Frost, Allen has created non-stop beauty and happiness in her novels.  Her memorable characters is what places her above most "chick lit" dramas; they are easy to relate to and, by the end, you are immersed in their lives.  It is the simple things in life and in yourself that Allen makes magical.  It is the characters' interactions with themselves, their self-awareness to a fault and their peaceful, but determined self-acceptance, that make Allen's works worth reading.

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Thanks to St. Martin's Press for my ARC!  

Friday, January 2, 2015

What You Should Do For 2015 (According to Your Librarian!)

Life is crazy.  Life is hectic.  It is busy, straining, and exhausting.  Yet, now more than ever, people need to make time to just chill out and relax.  What better way to de-stress and disconnect than to cozy up with a book?  This year, 2015, everyone should make the effort to read a book.  Grab an old favorite or, better yet, try something out of your comfort zone.  You will never know the worlds and stories you are missing until you pick up a book and immerse yourself in it.  Reading can help us better communicate, better relax, but most of all, better expand our imaginations.

Set some reading goals for 2015!
Check out a list of ideas!
Come by the library for some books!  We would love to see you!