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The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne
The Ballad of a Small Player

SAH, May 17, 2014

The Ballad of a Small Player
by Lawrence Osborne
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published April 3rd 2014 by Hogarth

In Lawrence Osborne’s Ballad of a Small Player we meet “Lord Doyle” a British expat lawyer living in the shadowy sub culture of Macua’s gambling dens. A man of dubious character, he doesn’t dwell on his past or how he embezzled his money from a trusting elderly widow, rather he indulges his penchant for punto banco, a version of baccarat which relies solely on luck which Doyle has doesn’t seem to have much of. Doyle himself is a bit of a ghost of a man, a lonely hard drinker with nothing to lose, he meanders his way from casino to casino, ultimately not caring whether he ends up in the black or the red. Externally affected and pretentious, he plays the dissolute British Lord stereotype to the hilt; the nonchalance of a man without a care, who squanders money as though he has a river of it running behind his home who gambles it all with a shrug and elf aggrandizing statements like “Everyone knows you are not a real player,” he observes, “until you secretly prefer losing.” While he is internally tormented by demons of his own making
Things change, however, the day he meets an ethereal young Chinese woman, Dao-Min and inexplicably begins to play hand after hand of perfect Nines- lucky Nines- so improbable the locals begin to whisper of superstition and ghosts and our story becomes layered with complexities as Doyle’s frenzied rise to even further riches conflicts with his internal battle and self-destructiveness. In the end we are left wondering what kind of story this is. Osborne’s gloriously succinct and elegant prose evoked a timeless atmosphere allowing me to envision the 40s of Bogey and Bacall alongside the Bond of Casino Royale days. Beautifully told, Osborne manages to weave a swirling story of multiple layers about love, addiction, truth vs façade with undercurrents of the supernatural. I read this book twice and on the second read was struck even more with the imagery Osborne’ words evoke and the smoky, dark noir atmosphere he creates. A truly a riveting and wonderful read.
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The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

SAH, April 18, 2014

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street: A Novel
by Susan Jane Gilman (Author)

• Hardcover: 512 pages
• Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (June 10, 2014)
• Language: English

Like so many families around the turn of the century, Malka Treynovsky’s dreamed of a better life. Fleeing Russia, the family plans a new life in South Africa with a relative until Malka’s ne’er do well father entices the impressionable six year old to join him in tricking the family to America.
Amidst the squalid tenements of New York’s lower east side Malka’s life is irrevocably changed. Run over by the Italian ice vendor’s horse, Malka is left with a crippled leg. Abandoned by her parents she is taken in by the ice vendor, Mr. Dinello, who feels responsible and put to work. It is here her destiny is shaped. Smart, sarcastic, fueled by grief and feelings of abandonment, the unattractive, crippled little Malka begins to redefine herself and her life. She adopts her host family’s Catholicism, changes her name to Lillian, excels at school and learns all she can about the family business. When she meets and marries the gorgeous, kind, illiterate Albert Dunkle, the two set off make their fortune.
Savvy, shrewd, tenacious and driven, Lillian creates an empire. Taking Dunkle’s ice cream from dusty roads in a broken down truck to becoming a household name, brilliant and complicated Lillian Dunkle reinvents herself and becomes to the world the “Ice Cream Queen of America”; a fun loving mothering type with her own Saturday morning TV show. But beneath the persona, Lillian is still the crippled outcast Malka, ostracized, abandoned, bitter and driven. She does whatever she needs to do to survive and assure that her company remains on top. Playing the caring, motherly Ice Cream Queen in the public while scheming, lying and drinking too much in private can only last so long and these worlds collide, forcing Lillian to take a good hard look at her life or risk losing it all.
Author Susan Jane Gilman has created in Lillian a moving, complex character the reader can understand. While we may not like her actions, we certainly appreciate where she is coming from, why she is the way she is, does the things she does, and can’t judge her too harshly. With the ever changing back drop of an evolving nation, the reader is taken through the perfectly paced, tightly woven events of the last century as Lillian and Albert struggle through poverty, world wars, McCarthyism, the youth movement of the sixties and Reagan’s trickle-down economics with creative tenacity.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and feel Lillian embodies the ‘rags to riches’ American dream in a way that is realistic and sympathetic. My thanks to Grand Central Publishing for the ARC.
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The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr
The Winter Horses

SAH, March 7, 2014

The Winter Horses
By Phillip Kerr
Age Range: 12 and up
Grade Level: 7 and up
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (March 25, 2014)

15 year old Jewish Kalinka, whose entire family was slaughtered in a German pogrom, has been running and starving for a very long time. It’s freezing and lonely but when she finds a nature preserve on the Ukrainian steppe she finds some refuge in the form of Max, the old keeper of the preserve, two rare Przewalski's horses and a Russian Wolf Hound. But the Germans have come and Kalinka must flee. With Taras the dog and the horses, Borte and Temujiian, Kalinka must once again brave the freezing weather, the lack of food, the hostile villagers and the relentless pursuit of a cruel SS officer to try to survive the war and save the last of the horses immortalized in ancient cave paintings.
The Winter Horses is a captivating story of survival, kindness and faith in the midst of atrocity. Our protagonist, Kalinka, has learned to trust her instincts and her instincts tell her to trust the horses. The relationship between this quartet; the girl, the horses and the dog will captivate young readers in the way such magical bonds have inspired children since the beginning of time.
Well researched and tightly crafted, The Winter Horses is a taut, suspenseful story for the young reader. This book has been designated for twelve and up, however, I feel as though it will be of more interest to younger readers of the YA group who, while they may need help processing some of the more violent passages, will more readily identify with Kalinka who comes across as younger than her stated age. A younger reader may also be more willing to accept the horses’ truly uncanny abilities. Written in the third person, I was reminded of the stories my Greek grandfather used to tell me in that the dialogue between the humans was somewhat abrupt and I heard it in my minds ear with a heavy accent as though it was being translated into English- which for me was great, but perhaps not as compelling for the older YA group.
I received an advance reader copy of this book from the publisher and had I read this as a child, I’ve no doubt it would have been one of my favorites and one that I would have subsequently read with my own children- as I was I thoroughly enjoyed it and will recommend it to children of all ages.
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A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
A Snicker of Magic

SAH, February 24, 2014

Felicity Juniper Pickle, Frannie Jo, Biscuit and Mama are moving again! They’ve been moving since her Dad left five years ago and Felicity is tired �" her Mama whose “story voice is like nothing I’ve ever heard, like something between a summer breeze and a lullaby” is tired too, although she doesn’t see it. This time they’re going to stay at her Aunt Cleo’s in Mama's home town of Midnight Gulch, TN. A town that used to have magic, a town where people used to “sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers.” until Midnight Gulch lost it magic when the curse of the Threadbare Brothers fell on the town.
But Felicity has magic of her own; she collects words. Words that have shapes and colors and tastes and when she enters Midnight Gulch her heart pounds “yes, yes, yes” and she sees her first word of the day: “Believe…the letters were made of melted sunshine. They dripped down the window glass, warm and tingly against our faces. Believe is a powerful word to see and to say.”
“I live in a town that used to be full of magic. I think there’s still magic here. It’s just been playing hide-and-seek for a very long time. This town is also full of sad stories and sweet people. I like it here. I want to stay forever.”
With her friend Jonah, the town’s secret do-gooder, Felicity determines that Midnight Gulch is “Home” and sets out to find the “snicker of magic“ left in Midnight Gulch, break the curse and cure her Mama’s “wandering heart.”

A wonderful, wonderful story about faith, love, forgiveness and “sweet amends”. In a town filled with small town folks carrying baggage of their own, through Felicity we see the power of words and deeds and the ability of an open heart to see magical connections in everyone:”By our shadows and sunlight. By pounding hearts and a starry maybe. By the nearly silent flutter of our broken wings”
Natalie Lloyd has brought us a town full of warm, eccentric people and a heroine who shines as she learns:
“Maybe sometimes the words I say are as powerful as the words I see.”

“Factofabulous: some dream really do come true”
The term “heartwarming” was coined for stories such as this.
I loved it.I received an ARC from the publisher and am happy I did so that I can tell others what a 'splendiferous' story this is.
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Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Dark Eden

SAH, February 23, 2014

Three astronauts disobey orders and prepare to jump through a worm hole. When the two space cops chasing them get sucked down the hole with them, they find themselves in a valley on a sunless planet whose core provides heat and light in the form of geothermal trees and bioluminescent plants, forming a sort of psychedelic oasis surrounded by dark, snowy mountains of “cold, cold, cold.” Three decide to try to make it back to earth in their damaged craft while two, Tommy and Angela, remain, naming the planet Eden.
Some 165 years later the 532 descendants of Tommy and Angela’s inbreeding; “One Family, all together: all cousins, all from one single womb” classified by traits; “slow wit”, “smart, smart, smart” and deformity; “batface” “clawfoot”, and ruled by the “True Story”; “Family” lives in the small area surrounding the crash site. Their sole purpose in life is to survive in an area of dwindling resources until they can be rescued and ‘return’ to Earth- the fabled land of horses, cars, Telly Vision, Rayed Yo and lecky-trickity. “Oldest” constantly reminding them, “we must stay here and be a good Family and wait patiently [...] so that they will be pleased with us and will want to take us all back home to Earth.” (p.77) Clinging to the teachings of “First Angela, Mother to them all”, the eight groups of “Family” stay close to the “Circle “, in a forested valley surrounded by the unexplored “Snowy Dark” mountains where the “Landing Veekle” touched down for fear that if they venture too far , Earth will not find them - even as they slowly starve to death. Regressed to a Stone Age existence, Family adheres to the set of rules put forth by their Mother; ritualizing their history in the retelling of half remembered, convoluted truths and stories in an idiosyncratic, devolving language every “AnyVirsry”.

Enter John Redlantern, an attractive boy of “twenty wombs”, or fifteen years, old who wrestles with the interpretation of Family’s teachings that is so readily accepted by others. Struggling with his inability to reconcile opposing views: Mother Angela instructed Family to stay close and await rescue/ Angela was an explorer of space - Earth is populated by people who invented and explored/ Family won’t venture further than the valley and rely on ancient ways - causes John to become “restless, restless, restless.” “Never mind drowning or starving from lack of food, though. I was going to starve inside my head long before that, or drown in boredom, if I couldn’t make something happen in the world, something different, and something more than just this.” (pg. 33) “…in the back of my mind a little thought came to me that there were other worlds we could reach that weren’t hidden away in Starry Swirl, or through Hole-in-Sky, but here on ground, in Eden. They were the places where the woollybucks went, the places they came from.”(pg.11)
In his frustration with the Family’s inability to do anything new to stave off imminent starvation, John becomes the Serpent in Eden- nurturing seeds of discontent in his sometime girlfriend, the strong, desirous Tina and his friend, the thoughtful, innovative “clawfoot” Jeff. Moving unilaterally, John commits a divisive and emotionally violent act; changing and complicating life for everyone around him. Banished from the circle of Family, he leads a small group of discontent “newhairs” Moses- like out of their world in the forest valley. When a Cain and Abel like event sets the stage for violence never seen on Eden before, he and companions cross the “Snowy Dark” to find a home free of persecution and stagnation.
Our protagonist’s motives are clearly dualistic; he sees the need to change in order to survive, but also needs to prove himself a visionary leader- becoming what First Angela warned her daughters of when she instructed them to relay the message : “ ‘Some men want the story to be all about them’ to subsequent female generations. As a female companion observes: “It was so true of John…as soon as things got quiet, and everyone was getting on with things, he got uneasy because life stopped being a story about anyone in particular, and not certainly about him.”(pg360) In his quest, he lies, brings murder and war to Eden yet leads his followers on a hopeful quest for fulfillment.
A well-constructed study of human nature, Dark Eden is an allegory told through the narrative voices of several characters, each with his own perception of the situation -and almost more importantly of John- in a series of smoothly flowing chapters. With interwoven themes of theology, patriarchal ascendance and political machination, author Chris Beckett creates a multi-leveled, complex parallel story of Earths construction of history: “There are lots of different stories branching away all the time from every single thing that happens. As soon as a moment has gone, different versions of it start to be remembered and told about.” (p.370) and the rise of modern civilization.
Despite its obvious parallels to many other stories; the Bible, Clan of the Cave Bear, Earth Abides etc. , Dark Eden does not come across as a contrived re-telling of age old parables but instead Is a journey into a ‘strange new world’ whose future remains as wide open as the “Wordlpool” John discovers.
I received an Advance Reader’ Edition of the book from the publisher and have to say that I found Dark Eden to be really, really cool story. Thought provoking and entertaining, I’m looking forward to the next in the series to see what our little band of intrepid explorers show us next.
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