Dorothy Parker Drank Here, by Ellen Meister (2015)

One of my favorite things about “Dorothy Parker Drank Here” is learning that author Ellen Meister has created a series starring the sharp-tongued Mrs. Parker. Book #1 was the excellent “Farewell, Dorothy Parker.” “Dorothy Parker Drank Here” is the second installment.

Here, Mrs. Parker decides she doesn’t want to be alone for all eternity. So she tries to get reclusive author Ted Shriver—who’s holed-up in one of the Algonquin Hotel’s rooms, impatiently waiting to die from a brain tumor—to sign the famed Algonquin Guestbook. If he signs, he will be allowed to remain in The Algonquin as long as he wants.

Mrs. Parker’s problem, however, is that all of her friends seem anxious to move on into the light once they die. She’s not ready to go.

She soon finds herself helping TV production assistant, Norah Wolfe, as she tries to land an interview with the intensely private and rude Shriver. Between guiding Norah, and cajoling Ted Shriver directly, wheels are set in motion. However, the story takes twists and turns Norah is ill-prepared to handle, and in the end, she faces what could be the greatest tragedy of her young life.

The beauty of this series, of course, is that Dorothy Parker’s ghost plays such a role in things. She’s ready to tongue-lash any idiots who cross her path, and there are plenty of idiots, both in New York and the various situations she encounters. It’s almost like “Murder, She Wrote,” but with a shrewish wit helping her various new acquaintances.

As in “Farewell, Dorothy Parker,” Ms. Meister shows an encyclopedic knowledge of Dorothy Parker’s wit. Even when not using one of Mrs. Parker’s direct quotes, the author has a firm, hilarious command of what she would say, and how she would say it.

Dorothy Parker is sui generis in American letters. She could out-snark anybody, which is what makes her such a wonderful recurring heroine. It will be interesting to see whether Ms. Meister can maintain the first two volumes’ quality across a series. After all, Mrs. Parker deserves no less.

Recommended

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Dirty London, by Kelley York (2014)

London Noble is a high school senior, who—unlike most of her counterparts—doesn’t want to be popular. She really just wants to fly under the radar, unnoticed, till she can graduate and move on.

Her life is complicated by her younger sister, Jasmine, who is mentally unstable and doesn’t always take her meds. Add into the mix that she and her sister are polar opposites who have to share a room, plus London’s serious dislike of her estranged father, and you find one very stressed-out young woman.

Oh, yeah. Plus London is secretly gay.

One day, she finds herself invited to join the drama club. A girl London has been crushing on is in the club, so she accepts. While there, she meets Wade, a hugely popular stud. The two bond in drama club, and become friends of a sort.

Oh, yeah: it turns out Wade is secretly gay, also.

Their solution is a simple, if ill-advised one: London and Wade will act like a couple. They go on double-dates, carry on in school hallways, and look like a legitimate dating couple.

Where the complications arise is that few of the school’s popular girls can believe Wade would date London, who’s essentially a nobody. The only possible explanation, in their eyes, is that London is putting-out. After a night of drama club…well, drama, the rumor gets out that London has slept with another popular boy. Then another boy confesses that he, too, has had sex with London. Then another.

Eventually, London—who’d wanted nothing but anonymity—finds herself called the school slut. Her locker becomes emblazoned with the words “Dirty London,” and the popular girls are ruthless in taunting her.

Her only solace seems to be with Amber, a quiet fellow drama club student. Amber understands and serves as a friend when London most desperately needs one. The two grow closer, until London has forgotten all about the crush that got her into drama club in the first place.

Kelley York’s novel, “Dirty London,” does an excellent job presenting a troubled young girl. London just wants to escape high school unnoticed, and yet there she is, embroiled in the biggest social scandal of the year. Her relationship with her popularity-driven sister deteriorates with each subsequent embarrassing revelation, especially when London figures out exactly where Jasmine’s psych meds have been going.

London can’t believe the situation she’s found herself in, but with Amber’s help, she manages to cope. When illusions begin to dissolve in her world—when the truths out—London’s life becomes quite a bit easier.

I love Ms. York’s portrayal of London. I didn’t really want to be popular in high school, either. Let the other kids worry about it. Like a lot of teens, I just kept my head down and did my work, till I could graduate and go off to college. I had more friends than London—most kids do—but the idea was the same. Popular kids have some sort of manifest destiny to be popular, a golden ticket few of us are given.

Jasmine, too, is beautifully written. She is embarrassed by her sister in general. She doesn’t want any of her popular friends to know that London is her older sister. She cringes every time somebody could make the association. The way their relationship evolves is wonderfully handled.

I also like the way Amber figures into the story. There were no explosive meeting sparks. Amber just wants to be in the background, too. She doesn’t act in drama club. All she wants to do is work on sets and backdrops. That’s a perfect metaphor for her role in school, even as she grows to be more of a star in London’s eyes.

High school can be a bitch under the best of circumstances. In London’s case, it grows to seem insurmountable. But with Amber’s help and Wade’s—plus her mom’s—London can find her way through, and thrive despite her tumultuous year.

Highly Recommended

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler (2013)

Years ago, I was out drinking with a friend who was having marital problems. He was on his third marriage to the same woman, a decidedly unstable woman at that. I couldn’t help but ask him, “Dave, WHY do you keep marrying her, when it always ends up like this?”

He shook his head, and ruefully drained his Manhattan. “She’s my Zelda, Tom. She’s my Southern Belle. My Zelda.”

I knew just what he meant.

He was referring to the notoriously tumultuous relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda Sayre, the so-called “King and Queen of The Jazz Age.”

Their legend is famous: wild parties, famous friends, a relationship so vibrant it crackled from New York City to the fashionable salons of Europe. Scott was uncontrollably alcoholic; Zelda battled severe mental illness. It’s as legendary as Fitzgerald’s magnum opus “The Great Gatsby.”

But what if the reality were different from that legend?

In “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” author Therese Anne Fowler provides Zelda’s autobiography from that period.

That’s the hard part about reading this book: remembering that it IS, in fact, a novel. The writing and tone are perfect representations of what an autobiography would sound like. Ms. Fowler has researched Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald exhaustively, and that comes through in this book.

I keep calling it “a book,” because it really transcends belief as a novel. Many of the details are real, gleaned from other tomes written about this magical, tragic pair. So much was written about the two, that there is no shortage of source material, and I get the feeling Ms. Fowler has read it all.

But what she fills in are the personal details, the “behind closed doors” realities that other tomes leave behind. We see Zelda playing with the couple’s daughter, Scottie, making paper dolls and learning French together. We are a fly on the wall for horrific arguments and the odd lashing out. We see the nasty splits and the passionate makings-up.

The human villain here—the one who Zelda says led Scott astray—is Ernest Hemingway. The book is filled with references to Hemingway, and his various misbehaviors and cruelties toward both Fitzgeralds. (In his book “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway was less than kind in his portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald, so that part feels believable.)

The way Zelda narrates her life with Scott is equally believable.
For all of the majesty and hell of her ride with Scott, Zelda Fitzgerald—Queen of The Jazz Age—was really just Zelda Sayre, daughter of a Montgomery, Alabama, judge. That’s how she is at the narrative’s beginning and, having come full circle, at the story’s end.

The relationship between Scott and Zelda is truly, legendarily tragic. I’m not a Fitzgerald scholar by any means, but I’ve read about the alcoholism, tempestuousness, and constant money problems.

The couple’s relationship has to be the most storied relationship of that period, a tale of grandeur and human weakness. What Therese Anne Fowler has done in “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” is to flesh out this tale in a conversational style, to give humanity and validity to the salacious legends. Ms. Fowler’s work is an amazing achievement.
It’s just really damned hard to believe that it’s a novel.

Most Highly Recommended

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Farewell, Dorothy Parker, by Ellen Meister (2013)

Violet Epps is a famous film critic for America’s top weekly entertainment magazine. Her specialty—the very core of her celebrity—is her acerbic skewering of bad films. So arrogant are her reviews, that it’s difficult to believe how shy she is in real life. She avoids television appearances, and refuses to use her fame to get good seats at restaurants or other perqs.

Not everyone is so shy about using her fame. Violet had a reservation for lunch at New York’s famous Algonquin Hotel. She was going to break-up with her boyfriend, who was planning to move in that weekend. He loudly used her name to get seated and order drinks, mortifying Violet, and strengthening her resolve to end the relationship. When the moment is at hand, the Algonquin’s general manager comes to her table, and asks whether Violet will sign the restaurant’s guestbook. Violet looks through the book, and sees the first page. Right there is the signature of her idol, Dorothy Parker.

When Violet touches Mrs. Parker’s signature, she’s suddenly taken with a fit. It’s almost like Dorothy Parker’s spirit is possessing her. But that couldn’t happen, right? Violet faints. When she comes-to a few moments later, she slips the Algonquin register into her bag, and rushes from the hotel.

Back in her apartment, she opens the book again, and touches Mrs. Parker’s signature. Suddenly, Dorothy Parker is sitting there in Violet’s living room, asking for a cocktail.

Thus begins Violet’s incredible journey with Dorothy Parker. Mrs. Parker—she always insists on being called Mrs. Parker, and calling Violet Ms. Epps—serves as a teacher, a friend, a confidante, a nuisance, and a general befuddlement to Violet. Generally, Mrs. Parker occupies her own body (she can be corporeal as long as the guestbook is open). There are other times when she possesses Violet, generally when Ms. Epps needs a little backbone.

As their relationship wears on, Violet does grow stronger. With Mrs. Parker’s help, she’s able to dump her boyfriend, find a new boyfriend, improve her standing at work, and—best of all—fight for custody of her niece, Delaney.

The transformation from the shrinking Violet to the strong Ms. Epps is a striking one, and it’s one of the great joys of “Farewell, Dorothy Parker.” At the book’s core, though, is the beautifully realized friendship between the two women. Dorothy Parker was famous for her biting, frequently harsh wit, and we are privy to that. I laughed out loud at a bunch of her bon mots, and my Kindle is filled with highlighted quotes.

There are tender parts, too, where Violet helps Dorothy deal with her insecurities and her own fears. Their relationship is hardly just teacher and pupil.

By the book’s end, both Violet Epps and Dorothy Parker are redeemed, and ready to move on with their life and afterlife, respectively.

It’s been a long time since I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed a book like this. The characters are wonderful, especially author Ellen Meister’s portrayal of Dorothy Parker. I recently had the pleasure of reading the biography, “Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?” by Marion Meade, and Ms. Meister does an excellent job of capturing Mrs. Parker’s essence. It’s always dicey when an author mixes real characters into an otherwise fictional novel. “Farewell, Dorothy Parker” does this seamlessly.

This is one of those novels that ended long before I was ready for it to end. However, it wraps-up at the right time, and on the right note.

All in all, “Farewell, Dorothy Parker” contains periods of pure joy, interspersed with serious patches. In short, it’s the same rollercoaster ride most of our lives are.

Pity we all can’t have Mrs. Parker to guide us.

Most Highly Recommended

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William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return (William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, #6), by Ian Doescher (2014)

If you’re a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy–as well as a fan of Shakespearean prose–you will find perhaps no greater treat than Ian Doescher’s “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” trilogy.

The premise is simple, if painstakingly difficult to execute. Doescher took one of Hollywood’s most-beloved film series, and wrote it as William Shakespeare would have.

Well, or might have, if The Bard knew anything about Death Stars and androids.

All three films are reimagined in beautiful Shakespearean language. This takes some serious skill on the author’s part. Not only did he need a firm grounding in William Shakespeare’s writing style, he also needed an expert knowledge of the Star Wars saga.

“The Jedi Doth Return” is the third installment, and it’s a good one. We follow Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia–and loyal droids C3PO and R2D2–as they battle “Jabba of the Hutt” for their freedom. Then it’s off to the forest moon of Endor, where they have to disable the newly renovated Death Super Star’s energy shield, in order that the rebellion can destroy it. Then–huzzah!–peace will reign throughout the Universe.

Ah, if only it were that easy. The evil Emperor Palpatine and his dark henchman, Darth Vader, have other plans. The forest moon housing the energy shield generator is full of Imperial troops. Forsooth! The Rebels were tricked! Thus, Han, Leia, Chewy, and the droids have to team up with small, teddy bearesque creatures called Ewoks to defeat the Imperial troops and disable the shield.

Even worse, Luke Skywalker is bound to face off with Darth Vader, who we know from “The Empire Striketh Back” is actually Luke’s father. Luke’s plan is to turn his father back from the Dark Side, and restore him to his destined place as a Jedi Knight.

If you’re one of the three or four dozen people on Earth who hasn’t seen “The Return of The Jedi,” I won’t spoil the story.

All I can do is tell you that this installment of “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” is an amazing ride.

One small note, though. I think the first two episodes translated slightly better to the Shakespearean treatment, for they worked better at conveying the visual aspects of each film. The entire scenes on the forest moon, Endor, were harder for me to imagine strictly based on the description. I don’t think this was any fault of Ian Doescher’s at all, just that “The Return of The Jedi” had settings far different from the more easily described space sets in the first two. (Even the desert scenes in the first novel were more readily translated to prose)

I remember feeling the same way watching “Return of The Jedi” in the cinema. When it got to the forest moon, I shook my head: What the hell is THIS doing out in space? It was like Star Wars had moved to a redwood forest.

That small observation aside, reading “The Jedi Doth Return” kept a smile on my face, just as the first two installments did. The stories are so familiar to me–and, I imagine, to literally millions of others–that this revisiting was a joy to read.

If you hated the Star Wars films, I doubt you’ll like this book. If you loved Star Wars, but you’re iffy on Shakespearean prose, you might still like it. The language here is not as foreboding and impenetrable as much of Shakespeare’s work, and the narrative construction often cracked me up.

For example, R2D2’s dialogue is, true to the film, a bunch of beeps and blaps and whistles. However, when R2 speaks to the audience in an aside, he’s surprisingly sarcastic and funny.

All in all, Ian Doescher’s “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” series is a joy to read, a true tour de force of writing skill. More importantly, though, it’s an inspired piece of storytelling from an author who’s also–quite obviously–a huge fan of these epic tales.

Highly Recommended

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store, by Robin Sloan (2012)

It’s perhaps ironic that a book about books and a bookstore is so damn hard to write a book review about.

Clay Jannon lost his job at an upstart, high-tech bagel chain. Desperate for cash, he ends up getting a job at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in San Francisco. What soon becomes a bafflement to Clay is that very few of the customers on his overnight shift seem interested in the store’s small new book selection. They ask for volumes from “the wayback” shelves, towering shelves of books with obscure names. Moreover, they don’t pay for the books: those patrons of the Wayback books all have library cards. They bring in one book, and leave with another.

One night, Clay opens one of the books, only to find that it’s gibberish, strings of letters that make no sense.

In time, he meets a young Google programmer named Kat Potente, who helps unlock one mystery of the shelves. This leads to a greater mystery, one involving Festina Lente,a secret cabal of book decoders hidden deep beneath New York City. Clay’s link to Festina Lente comes from Mr. Ajax Penumbra himself.

The Festina Lente group are trying to crack the code of a centuries-old manuscript that may–just may–contain the key to immortality.

Add in a common, though mysterious, font called Gerritszoon, and the entire mystery grows as thick as San Francisco sea fog.

My description doesn’t do this novel justice. The story is so wonderfully quirky and unusual, that it defies easy summation. The characters are unusual, yet so fully drawn, that you can’t help but fall in love with them (well, with MOST of them, anyway).

Clay comes off as being the most normal character in the book, and as such, he’s a perfect narrator. He seems to accept the eccentrics he encounters in stride, and he works with the information he’s given, regardless of how bizarre it may seem.

Author Robin Sloan has created a beautiful mythology living just below our workaday surface. Stir in the aforementioned eccentrics, and you have the recipe for a truly entertaining read.

Most Highly Recommended

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Reading, Writing, and Being Blocked

Most anyone who’s tried to write has experienced writer’s block. Whether it’s a brief college paper or a full-length novel, you sit there, staring at a blank screen, the cursor blinking at you almost mockingly.

I’ve discovered something equally nefarious in my life: reader’s block.

For the past few years, I’ve suffered from severe bi-polar disorder. One of the more difficult symptoms for me has been lack of concentration. Sadly, with this lack of concentration has come the inability to focus long enough to read a novel. Hell, sometimes I can barely get through a magazine article, much less a 300 page book.

We heal, though, and with the help of various medications, I’ve gotten my focus back.

I can’t tell you how liberating it has been to start a book, then actually read it through to the end. Even better, to read, then be able to write a cogent review for Goodreads or my book blog (BooksAndMoviesAndCrap.com)—sheer bliss.

My book-blogging Maven went through a period of reader’s block a while back. She devours a book a day, and she hit a wall, too, so I don’t feel bad.

Where I feel bad is that it was almost six months between book reviews—I hadn’t posted anything this year. I may as well have just shut down my blog altogether.

Happily, the reader’s block has been lifted, at least for now. The fog has cleared, and I’m once more free and able to participate in one of my greatest pleasures: reading.

As a book blogger, I have a bunch of review copies, both in my Kindle and stacked on my desk. To some, plowing through them would seem like a daunting chore. To me, it’s a challenge of love. I want to read and review them, and finally, I am able.

I’ve always taken reading for granted, all the way back to when I was nine and devouring a Hardy Boys mystery every day. I’ll never take it for granted again.

The reader’s block has been intermittent, retreating and attacking over the past three years. This past bout was the longest and worst yet. I’m hoping it’s been vanquished once and for all. In the meantime, I plan to spend my free time with my nose in a book (or staring at my Kindle screen).

Reading has always been my friend. Girlfriends have come and gone, and I’ve had close friends leave my life so thoroughly that I can neither recall their names nor visualize their faces. But books have been steady companions. Sometimes, I’ll see a title somewhere in my blog or on Goodreads, and I won’t remember what the book is about. Once I read the first few sentences of the review, the whole story comes back to me, as rich and real as it was the first time. My real-life memory should be so acute.

I guess this is just a paean to my love of reading, and my lament that it left me for so long. Be the Gods of Literacy willing, this will never happen again.

I’ve also neglected both of my blogs. With the lack of focus came the inability to write anything longer than a lame-ass Facebook status, or the occasional pithy comment. I promise I’ll use some of this renewed focus to do more than drabble out some nonsense every few months. I used to be a reasonably good blogger—at least, I was reasonably frequent. Lately, I’ve had nothing. Here’s hoping that, too, can change going forward.

Anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this. And thanks for your patience. I plan to be back doing what I love to do, and doing it anon. Happy Wednesday.

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