Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia

Bellweather Rhapsody

by Kate Racculia

“A high school music festival goes awry when a young prodigy disappears from the most infamous room in the Bellweather Hotel, in a whip-smart novel sparkling with dark and giddy humor.

Fifteen years ago, a murder-suicide in room 712 rocked the grand old Bellweather Hotel and the young bridesmaid who witnessed it, Minnie Graves. Now hundreds of high school musicians, including quiet bassoonist Rabbit Hatmaker and his brassy diva twin, Alice, have gathered in its cavernous, crumbling halls for the annual Statewide festival; Minnie has returned to face her demons; and a colossal snowstorm is threatening to trap them all in the hotel. Then Alice’s roommate goes missing–from room 712. The search for her entwines an eccentric cast of characters: conductors and caretakers, failures and stars, teenagers on the verge and adults trapped in memories. For everyone has come to the Bellweather with a secret, and everyone is haunted.

Bellweather Rhapsody is a genre-bending page-turner, full of knowing nods to pop culture classics from The Shining to Agatha Christie to Glee. But its pleasures are beautifully deepened by Kate Racculia’s skill with her characters, her melancholy, affecting writing about music, and her fearlessness about the loss and darkness that underline the truest humor. This is a wholly winning new novel from a writer to watch.” (via Indiebound, minor edits for readability)

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Good Things: One of the things I liked best about Bellweather Rhapsody was how it covers a lot of literary ground without ever feeling spread too thin. It’s a murder mystery, it’s a study of grief and pain, it’s a coming-of-age story. It travels through the ensemble cast and makes them all important and worth caring about; the Hatmaker twins and Minnie were my favorites, no doubt, but I never resented spending time with Fisher or Natalie or Hastings, which usually happens when I’m reading a novel with so many characters involved. There’s a lot of drama and theatrically big emotions, many tense sequences, and plenty of personal secrets to go around, and I was in just the right mood to fall into it all happily and ride the drama waves with everyone in the story.

Besides, for all the big feelings and big moments, there are little nuggets of truth about people that can pop up on you when you aren’t expecting them: Minnie’s coping mechanisms, and Alice’s true self under all her flashiness, and Rabbit’s surprising moments of confidence. Those pieces are going to stick with me past everything else, I think, and bring me back to read it and feel understood in the future.

Also, the bit about the middle section of “Jupiter” from The Planets is absolutely real and true and maybe the best thing I’ve ever read about it:

He knows that “Jupiter” is divided into three sections–the first and third are quick and cheerful, allegro giocoso, the essence of jollity (which Fisher finds hard to believe is actually a word). The middle is not silly. The middle is not syncopated. After some leftover tootling in the winds, the middle begins with strings moving together as one sonorous beast, slowly, majestically. The theme is restated, picking up winds and brass and percussion. It soars higher and higher until all the orchestra is reaching the same climactic phrase, released from gravity for only a moment, and gently falling back to earth.

It is a hymn, a prayer.

It’s the sound of several dozen souls singing the same song, and Fisher isn’t leading them. Fisher is one of them, his skinny arms swooping of their own accord. The middle doesn’t end so much as pause thoughtfully; more ridiculous merry bullshit is coming, but this feeling, this true joy, is always there. [loc 3360-3368]

Bad Things: I can’t call anything in this book bad–there were a few things that tugged at the edge of my attention, but nothing that ever dragged it away entirely. The theatricality of the characters’ inner lives works best with the younger players, I think; it makes sense that Alice and Rabbit would be full of big feelings, but equally big feelings coming from Natalie and Fisher, who are supposed to be the adults in this scenario, do feel a little inappropriate. Of course, that’s not to say that this wasn’t intentional. After all, they both experienced some messy things in their childhoods that affected their core beliefs about themselves, and emotional immaturity is hardly restricted to the young. Still, I felt a little bad when Viola Fabian, the clearest villain of the story, told Natalie to get over herself and I caught myself thinking, yeah, seriously.

Speaking of Viola: there are obviously sociopaths in real life, but Viola felt a little flat to me, especially among the wonderfully-realized other characters. A little mustache-twirly, if you will. At times her actions felt more like a plot device to bring the other characters together, rather than the believable decisions of a real (if screwed-up) character in her own right.

Overall: I know some folks use the word “romp” to backhandedly compliment media, but I am not one of those people. This book is rompy and a little silly and a little serious, and I loved it. I’m already looking forward to reading it again in a year or two.

Full Disclosure: The author is an internet friend of mine. Nevertheless, I paid for my copy of the book with my own money (albeit on sale), and I told her in advance that I’d be objective in my review.

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The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora

by Scott Lynch

“The Thorn of Camorr is said to be an unbeatable swordsman, a master thief, a ghost that walks through walls. Half the city believes him to be a legendary champion of the poor. The other half believe him to be a foolish myth. Nobody has it quite right.
Slightly built, unlucky in love, and barely competent with a sword, Locke Lamora is, much to his annoyance, the fabled Thorn. He certainly didn’t invite the rumors that swirl around his exploits, which are actually confidence games of the most intricate sort. And while Locke does indeed steal from the rich (who else, pray tell, would be worth stealing from?), the poor never see a penny of it. All of Locke’s gains are strictly for himself and his tight-knit band of thieves, the Gentlemen Bastards.

Locke and company are con artists in an age where con artistry, as we understand it, is a new and unknown style of crime. The less attention anyone pays to them, the better! But a deadly mystery has begun to haunt the ancient city of Camorr, and a clandestine war is threatening to tear the city’s underworld, the only home the Gentlemen Bastards have ever known, to bloody shreds. Caught up in a murderous game, Locke and his friends will find both their loyalty and their ingenuity tested to the breaking point as they struggle to stay alive…” (via Goodreads)

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Good Things: Who doesn’t love a con story? Generally speaking, audiences love the dramatic irony of being in on the con, seeing how the marks get taken in, getting the behind-the-scenes action. And, of course, there’s often an added twist or extra tension that comes from a part of the con being withheld from the audience as well as the marks, and The Lies of Locke Lamora is no exception. Honestly, though, it’s not just the con story that makes this book amazing, although it’s definitely a part. I’ve read a lot of fantasy novels in my day, and the world-building in this book is honestly up there in the top ten–Camorr is Venice-flavored but has history all its own, and information about the city and the world around it is doled out with such a careful hand that there’s nary an egregious infodump to be found. Likewise, the plotting and pacing of the story is so engaging that I couldn’t read it before bedtime because a) it was too compelling and I’d be up until 2am, and b) the events were too exciting and my adrenaline would get all fired up. (I’m a delicate flower, I know.)

The characters, too, are wonderfully built and well-rounded, and as the story flashes back and forth between present-day and Locke’s youth, their motivations and personalities are revealed in an excellent show-don’t-tell kind of way. I really enjoyed the main characters’ relationships with each other–Locke, Jean, Calo, Galdo, Bug–and their fondness for each other was obvious.

Bad Things: My main complaint with The Lies of Locke Lamora is the female characters. First off, there should be more of them! I know they’re the Gentlemen Bastards, but come on. There are a few main-ish characters who are also women, but their stories aren’t as rich or complex as those of the male main characters, and we spend way less time with them. I’ve been told that this is rectified in the series’ second book, Red Seas Under Red Skiesbut here it’s a bit of a disappointment. To put a finer point on it, one character gets refrigeratored in what was the biggest letdown for me–I kept hoping that it was a trick or that something more interesting would come about, but nope, it’s a pretty straightforward refrigeration.

While I said above that the pacing and plotting are well-done, there is a point near the climax of the book that does get a bit “let-me-explain-to-you-how-this-all-went-down,” and it’s possible that it really only stood out to me because the rest of the story had so little infodumping going on. The resolution was a little rushed but still quite satisfying.

For trigger notes, it’s worth mentioning that this is a fairly violent novel. There’s a lot of death, torture, and pain inflicted, although most of it didn’t feel overdone to me, but that’s a very personal thing that you’d have to measure for yourself.

Overall: Basically, this book is compelling as shit and I was never once bored with what it chose to let me in on. To use an old cliche, it’s an edge-of-your-seater, and I’m glad that Saladin Ahmed recommended it on Twitter. I’ll most definitely be reading the rest of the series, with my fingers crossed that the women get better, and if Scott Lynch is as devious with his plotting with the sequels as he was with The Lies of Locke Lamora, they’ll be a hell of a read.

Read-a-Thon Mini Challenge Hour 13

Hey, other readers! Mia checking in. It’s nearing dinnertime around our part of the world, and Jessica and I are still going pretty strong. We’ve done a few mini-challenges on Twitter and in comment sections, but I thought I’d take a minute to fill out Lisa’s mini-challenge for this hour! My choices are as follows, with the unintentional theme of name-titles.

Best YA Book of Your Reading Year: Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. This book nearly did me in. MY HEART. Rainbow Rowell is an amazing writer and made a topic which isn’t usually too compelling to me–teenage love–un-put-down-able.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Best Fantasy Book of Your Reading Year: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I mean, this is kind of a duh, but it’s SO GOOD. It’s so good that I must shout about it. SO GOOD.

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Best Children’s Book of Your Reading Year: Anastasia Krupnik, by Lois Lowry. I just read this for the first time for the Read-a-Thon, and oh my goodness gracious. Anastasia is wonderful, her parents are wonderful. I am rendered incoherent by my enjoyment of this book.

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(This cover illustration looks nothing like Anastasia Krupnik, but that’s beside the point.)

Jessica: I’m going to be a little less cool than Mia and not find covers, BUT here goes.

Best Book of Your Reading Year: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – I know Mia picked it, too, but this book is SO GOOD. I took over a year to read it and by the time I finished, it felt like a friend. I miss it. :(

Best YA Book of Your Reading Year: Goose Girl by Shannon Hale – Hale is one of my favorite authors and I had never read her debut. It was lovely. Enough said!

Best Romance Book of Your Reading Year: The Bridegroom Wore Plaid by Grace Burrowes – I’m not actually done with this one, but I love the romance between the two leads. They have very real reasons for not being able to be together and they are friends before lovers, which is a trope I love and need more of! I think I know how the conflicts will resolve and it involves a mustache-twirling Evil Dude, which is a shame because these two leads deserve a little more nuance than that. Still, I’m really enjoying this one!

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley

Relish

by Lucy Knisley

“Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe—many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions. A welcome read for anyone who ever felt more passion for a sandwich than is strictly speaking proper, Relish is a book for our time: it invites the reader to celebrate food as a connection to our bodies and a connection to the earth, rather than an enemy, a compulsion, or a consumer product.”(via Goodreads)

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Is it possible for me to review Relish without mentioning my own food-related memories? I have good ones (helping Mom make paella in her Spanish paella pan that’s older than I am) and bad ones (my brother sneaking such a liberal helping of wasabi onto my salmon-and-bagel sandwich as a kid that I still can’t stand the taste of it with sushi). Really, though, I just have a ton of food memories in general, because I think about food A Lot. Okay, basically all the time. It’s one of my great joys in life besides reading and sleeping, and if I could somehow tuck Relish under my pillow and absorb Lucy’s charming food-related memories through magical sleep osmosis, it would be my Bible.

Relish is episodic in nature, illustrating vignettes from the author’s life–her family’s Easter gatherings, her time working in a cheese shop, a trip to France and the croissants scarfed there–and some readers may find the fare a little light, but I found it perfectly tasty. (Ugh, okay. I’ll stop. I promise.) I feel like her illustration game is only getting better with time; the faces are simple but expressive, the colors are gorgeous. My food-loving roots aren’t as illustrious as hers (no professional chefs in my family, just a great cook of a mother who came from a family where they carved up the Thanksgiving turkey with a cadaver knife), but this is a case of the specific becoming universal. Anybody who’s fond of cooking and/or eating–and if you’re not, why did you pick this up?–will connect with the familiarity of the warm feelings that come off the page.

Well, that’s not wholly true. The book might alienate, say, folks who are against foie gras and the process of its creation, something I’m not personally comfortable with myself. It’s not the kind of book that really looks critically at eating habits and the impact that they have, globally or environmentally, and the author owns her love of goose liver. I don’t believe it’s particularly harmful in that way either, though, so that’s not the hill I’m gonna die on. That’s just not the book it is.

Overall, Relish is sweet and funny and pretty, and includes some recipes if you’re willing to give butterflied leg of lamb a go. I’ve only read the galley version of it, so I’m looking forward to having a bright, shiny copy of the real thing in my hands soon enough. You can read the first chapter here, and Relish will be out on April 2–a week and a half is plenty of time to go preorder it or look at her tour schedule, don’t you think? (I’m serious about that last one. Guys, she got special clothes made to match her book cover for the tour. Are you kidding me? I have to see that dress in person. Or the tunic, I’m not picky. GET IT? PICKY? I’ll go now.)

Strip Search: Episode 1

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illustration of the contestants by Lexxy Douglass

In case you hadn’t heard, a month or two ago the Penny Arcade guys filmed a reality competition show, Strip Search, with a handful of cartoonists, and the first episode is live today! I have mixed feelings about Penny Arcade and its creators, but I am a big fan of Erika Moen, who is one of the contestants, and I’m wholeheartedly ready to cheer her toward victory. (I’m also exited to learn more about the other contestants! You know, so I can boo them and stuff.) Go watch! If you need some convincing, watch the trailer:

DAMN GIRL THAT STYLE IS FAT

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I know I’ve mentioned Aimee Fleck around here before, but I don’t think I mentioned a recent zine of hers, DAMN GIRL THAT STYLE IS FAT. As you might have grasped from the title, it’s a short illustrated guide to dressing up for fat women, and is completely great. I’m straight-sized and I loved it–the illustrations are gorgeous and I think a lot of the advice is solid for plus-sized and straight-sized people.

The zine, which you can buy on Gumroad, is only available digitally, but here’s the great part: she’s working on a book-sized version that will be in print. It will be available to pre-order soon, and I’m already looking forward to my copy. I may even buy two and do a giveaway, so keep your eyes peeled!

Join In On a Name of the Star Readalong 2/24/13!

My cat is taking up precious real estate on the computer keyboard, so I’ll make this brief:

In preparation for Maureen Johnson’s book The Madness Underneath being released on Tuesday, she’s doing a Name of the Star (the previous book in the series) readalong tomorrow!

Go check out the details and follow along on Twitter, Tumblr, or via semaphore. C’mon, it’s not like you had anything better to do anyway.