Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman

I didn't expect to be but I was immediately drawn in to The Whipping Boy. It has a colorful cast of characters from the beginning that only gets better with time.
We are introduced to the mischievous Prince Brat and an orphan boy named Jemmy who serves as a common boy punished in place of the prince a.k.a the whipping boy. From this beginning, you can immediately sense the conflict between the two boys. For me, this is what the book really shows is the transformation that takes place for these two boys through a series of problems.
It is simplistic and directly written so that a child could read this book by themselves yet an adult can enjoy this book just as easily. If you are a parent who loves to perform voices from characters in books as you read to your children than you would love this book for that reason alone. Not too mention, the sheer laughter you'll experience at times along the way.
This book won the Newbery Medal ward in 1987. I feel it was well-deserved.
I found another review of this book on a different blog that you may also like. There is a link there to some activities that go along with the book. (Spoiler Alert)
Overall, it is an enjoyable read.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

To put it plainly: I enjoyed Parable of the Sower. It was a tense, edgy book about a woman in the future struggling to survive in a world of chaos. Our heroine, Lauren Olamina, is a black woman born with a psychological disorder known as hyperempathy, which causes her to literally feel the pain she sees others in. While strictly in her mind, it causes her to become incapacitated all too often in a world where pain is everywhere. I don't know how she managed to not become a timid mouse of a person, but she'll go down fighting - she'll stab you, even if it feels to her like she's stabbed herself. She rises up where others would have backed down, and I don't know where she gets the strength to do it but it's a compelling aspect of her character.

Olamina narrates her story through her journal, where she records her thoughts, conversations, and events that happen around her. For some time, she has known that she doesn't believe in God the way others do. To her, god is change. In her poetry, we find she believes that nobody can resist god, god is indifferent, yet god can be guided and used if a person can figure out how. The trick is to learn how to accept and direct the changes that inevitably happen. Later, she names her belief Earthseed. She sees the big picture: that mankind must eventually leave the earth if it is to survive. Thus, our common destiny is to literally be the seeds of earth as we spread life throughout the universe. Otherwise, all life must eventually die out, leaving our ultimate purpose unfulfilled. While her beliefs about adjusting to change and taking control of our lives are useful to her, the Earthseed aspect of it is just a far-off dream with no impact on the story.

Our narrator sees the decline of society all around her. She plans ahead, and makes a survival pack that can be grabbed in a moment and taken with her. Eventually, when her walled neighborhood is hit hard, with their houses burning and the denizens being shot, she makes it out into the unforgiving street with one goal: to head north to where there is more water, and hopefully a job. The street is just as bad as you can imagine, but she knows how to shoot and she has a few fellow neighbors which travel with her. Her foresight has left her better off than most. As they go, her group swells in size, and they eventually start learning from Olamina about her dream/philosophy of Earthseed. She becomes a messiah of sorts, and even though her group has mixed reactions to her ideas, they realize that they have a much better chance of surviving together than as individuals.

I'm not going to give it away more than that. Personally, I wasn't interested in the narrator's philosophy, which essentially renames change as God. I understand how it is important to try to shape our own destinies, but the story didn't need the new religion. It didn't need anything, since the setting is so gritty and mesmerizing. The hyperempathy is likewise unnecessary - it is a diverting idea, but since the main character has learned to work around it so well, the overall effect on the story seems to amount to nothing.

As far as style goes, the story is mostly written in short, trim sentences. It comes across much more like a tale told in first person than as a person writing in their journal, which is fine because it was more gripping that way. In an actual journal, there would have been tons of stuff irrelevant to the story, conversations would be summarized rather than quoted, and a lot of details would have been left out since the author wouldn't have needed to explain things so much to herself. (Here I'd add a comparison to the Diary of Anne Frank, if I'd ever read it...) On the plus side, it's better as an imperfect journal because it's a more entertaining read.

I loved the apocalyptic vision in the Parable of the Sower. It's disturbing but provocative to see just how far mankind might go to survive in a world of limited resources. I found it very hard to put the book down. It kept my stomach in knots but I had to know how Olamina was going to stay alive when things were so dangerous. The book outlines a worst-case scenario, but it echoes some of my own fears for our country and our civilization. There will be desperate times, where shortages of water, food, or gas could cause a collapse of society. Like any responsible, paranoid adult, I think about what would happen if I were in that type of world. I have to admit, I would probably die quickly. As creepy as this book is, though, it is oddly reassuring. It shows us that with the proper preparation, people could still survive. It shows us that amidst all the bad, there will always be good as well. In fact, as dark as it was, I would still call it an optimistic book. I'm glad I read it, and I have high hopes for the sequel, Parable of the Talents.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Coyotes, by Ted Conover

Coyotes is the true story of a journalist, Ted Conover, who spent a year living the life of an illegal immigrant. On his quest to tell their stories, he meets and befriends a variety of people that agree to take him across the border with them. The story is divided into several sections, each with a different setting and new group of people. A lot is packed into this short book, so bear with me, because there is not much I can gloss over to explain it more succinctly.

In the first section, Conover makes a border crossing in Nuevo Laredo with his initial traveling partner, Alonso, who he met in Mexico City. They negotiate a crossing with a coyote (the human smuggler type, not the animal) and raft successfully across the Rio Grande. Conover decides to travel to Houston with Alonso to find work, but on the bus trip, Immigration does an inspection and Alonso is found out and deported, just one day after arriving in the U.S.

The story then jumps from Nuevo Laredo to Phoenix, where the author spends time working at a citrus grove amongst undocumented workers, learning how difficult the work really is and how little a person makes at it. When the citrus season is over, he decides to follow his newfound friends to L.A., where they are going to live with family. After pooling their resources and buying a $300 car that gives out before they get 50 miles, the author offers to navigate his friends through the complexities of air travel. Their flight from Phoenix to L.A. is a nail-biter, as Conover and four illegal immigrants go through airport security and encounter such unexpected problems as unfamiliarity with the use of an escalator. He also encounters prejudices from his white counterparts in society, even getting beaten up at one point in an all-night coffee shop the first night he and his friends arrive in L.A.

After L.A., the story jumps back to Phoenix, where Conover meets up with a group from his initial citrus grove which is traveling to Florida to work in the orange groves there. After a failed attempt to acquire a coyote to transport them, the group purchases a junky used car and drives there, navigating purely from memory, Conover finds, since none of them can read a map.

After spending so much time with his new friends, the author decides to find out the other part of the story—what they left behind in Mexico. The next section of the book details his four months spent in Ahuacatlán, Mexico, a place the priest there refers to as “a parish of widows and orphans”—all the men have gone to work up north. During his stay, you get a glimpse of life in this town, where life is more simple and more humble, but people are still happy. And yet, the lure of making quick money draws almost all the men in their 20’s and 30’s away, depleting the community. It is at the end of his stay in Ahuacatlán that Conover decides to join his friends on a trek north to cross the border another time, traveling by bus through Mexico, and again faced with negotiating the services of a coyote. This time the group is large—17 people, and by now Conover is so immersed in the culture that the coyotes don’t even realize he isn’t Mexican, despite his blonde hair and blue eyes. On their way to the crossing, the coyotes are pulled over by judiciales—Mexican police. The group is taken in for questioning and several of them are tortured by the police. When they get to Conover he is forced to admit, in fear for his life, that he is American. After inspecting his documentation they tell him he can go. They take money from the rest of the group and leave them, at which point Conover, who has been hiding since his release, rejoins his friends. This time they decide to walk across the border without a coyote’s help. They walk 35 miles across the desert of Arizona until they reach an Indian reservation where they are assisted in making the rest of the journey to Phoenix. They decide to continue north to Idaho to pick potatoes, and as they are driving, they are pulled over. Again, even the police don’t realize Conover is not an illegal alien until the group is in jail. He is released, but his friends are deported so he flies back to Phoenix. He later says that his friends were back in Phoenix within four days.

This book both humanizes the plight of illegal immigrants and highlights the futility of the U.S. attempt to stop the flow of people entering the country. The research for this book was done in the mid-eighties, but it feels as though not much has changed since then in the reasons for or methods used in illegal immigration. The story was interesting, but also draining. Conover’s actions in traveling with the undocumented workers are illegal, and the story has the reader nervous at times, as he treads a fine line between danger at the hands of unscrupulous coyotes who are reluctant to bring along a white guy, even in the company of his Mexican friends, and the U.S. law enforcement, who could bring felony charges against him if he is caught traveling with illegal aliens. The story often feels disjointed, as the author moves from location to location without much explanation as to when or why. At points you feel almost like some crazy friend of yours is telling you a story instead of feeling that you are reading a serious commentary on the immigration plight. The story feels like it has been told once you reach the midpoint of the book, but Conover continues his quest until it seems that he doesn’t want to re-assimilate to “normal” society. It seems as though he has become one of them, and he is reluctant to leave his friends behind. It was an interesting read.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sonnet of the Sphinx by Diana Killian

Sonnet of the Sphinx by Diana Killian is the third and final in the Poetic Death Mysteries. My grief that the series is over is immense, it's akin to discovering the last dollop of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. Once again, Grace Hollister has managed to get herself into another Lake District Poet mystery. Yet instead of Byron, this one involves Shelley. As she's going through inventory of an estate Peter had snatched up, she runs across a note which implies a lost sonnet of Shelley. Her sense of academicness compels her to discover the truth, even after someone runs her car off the road, nearly drowning her, and setting her house on fire. But she perseveres through these tragedies and others who try to hinder her progress, because the truth is out there.

Killian did a fantastic job, yet again. There were many times I felt Grace's physical and emotional pain. The pacing is also excellent, using action when necessary and lulls at the appropriate times.

In the story, Grace is compared to Miss Marple due to her penchant for mysteries and bodies and sleuthing skills. Grace is a little offended primarily because of the age, she even wonders if any of them had heard of Nancy Drew. If I had been dubbed "Miss Marple" I might be upset because Angel of Death aura surrounding Miss Marple. She's the English version of the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome where somebody dies whenever Mrs. Fletcher comes to town. OK, I know Miss Marple was before Fletcher, but I've seen more Murder, She Wrote episodes then I've read Miss Marple stories (though I do have The Murder at the Vicarage in my TBR). I'd be hesitant to invite either one over for a visit in the off chance I'd be killed or accused of killing somebody.

I'm going to miss this tub of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, I can still taste that creamy delight on the spoon. Killian has written other books and I hope have the same wonderful style of writing in them.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hybrids by Robert J. Sawyer

I've been putting this review off for a few days now, because it's the 3rd book in the series and I feel like I've already had my say about its strong/weak points. Hybrids is exactly more of what you get in the first two books, without the allure of getting to discover a fresh new reality like you do in the beginning.

Neanderthal man is still nobler, smarter, faster, stronger, healthier, more environmentally-conscious, and more peaceful than we are. Another flaw is that characters sometimes do things I don't believe likely, especially Jock and Cornelius. Then coincidence strikes when Mary learns what Jock is up to and is, against all odds, right there to challenge him near the end. Similar to that, I find myself a bit irked that whenever something needs doing that exceeds our own technology, voila! the Neanderthals have invented it in their world. Therefore we find quantum computing, a DNA maker (you input the string of DNA you want, and it can create it, like a printer only for genetic material), the laser decontamination device, the companion implants, and other essential plot-advancers that I'm not recalling at the moment.

Two other things need mentioning, and each should get its own paragraph. The first is the topic of the Neanderthals' sexual practices. I don't know if research has shown that they were predominately homosexual and lived in a gender-separated society, but that's the way it is in the book. They spend all but 4 days a month with a same-sex partner, and come together with their opposite sex only at a time when copulation will not result in pregnancies. Every ten years, they change it around to come together when they will have children, resulting in specific generations born every ten years. This keeps the population size constant, and their separation prevents problems that could be caused by pheromones and their highly developed sense of smell. Fine. It worked for me when it was their way. But in the relationship between Mary and Ponter, the difficulty quickly arises when she wants to be with him all the time, but all he wants is to see her during her four days and be with Adikor the rest of the time. The solution was for her to adapt to their ways. And when Mary finds herself living with a lonely Neanderthal woman, she, um, embraces their way of doing things. That I found awkward, even though I really do try to accept such things. I suppose my two objections are that it doesn't really seem like the correct solution for her (she was pretty straight up to that point), and the fact that it happened so fast (a few days, I believe). For a rape victim with a recent marriage annulment and then an inter-species relationship with a Neanderthal man, it just seemed a bit odd. At least it wasn't as bad as Piers Anthony's Blue Adept series, where the main character Stile has at least 3 partners (or more?) - an android, a unicorn which can turn into a human, and the widow of his mirror-self. Ugh.

The other aspect I haven't really mentioned before is religion. See, in their society, religion never existed. A part of our brains that enables us to believe in god(s) is completely missing from theirs. Basically, they are incapable of being religious. I believe the author is showing us once again how they are superior to us, except that sometimes he does make faith look like a good thing. In the end, though, rational and honest thinking apparently is the superior position, as it gets the final say, with believers causing harm due to their faith. Well, if I believed there were good things about religions, I might have been offended :). Instead, all I got was the idea that the author seems to be making a supporting argument in favor of a "god gene," something I find a bit unrealistic. For instance, what happened to mine when I lost interest in religion? The converse for that would be a valid objection as well. From my highly biased standpoint, it appears that the real reason people are religious is that they are emotionally attached to the comforting idea of being watched over, have a strong desire to conform, combined with the lingering incredulity of childhood. A god gene could account for the beliefs of some, but it doesn't take into account how much experience plays a factor. When you pit nature vs. nurture, I always go with the latter as the dominant factor, even though both are plausible stances.

Back to the book, read it if you've started the series, to find out how it ends. I would not advocate picking it up cold, though. Too much depends on the previous novels to be able to appreciate it without a good foundation in place. There are many creative, interesting things to be found within the Neanderthal Parallax, and it has its humorous moments. But overall, I would say it's only suitable for sci-fi audiences, and for those who want a less hefty read.

Killer Insight by Victoria Laurie

Killer Insight by Victoria Laurie is the fourth in the series of Abby Cooper, Psychic Eye. This series is a little like a guilty pleasure. Laurie creates believable characters with believable problems, except for one tiny detail: Abby's life seems full of coincidences. So far, the coincidences haven't gotten in the way of me enjoying the series. What I find morbidly humorous is Abby's and her boyfriend's penchant for unintentional painful chaos, which I'll explain later.

Abby is a professional psychic who, unfortunately, seems to recently have run in a lot of bad luck. In this adventure, one of her dearest friends, Ellie, is getting married - Hoorah!. But one of Ellie's bridesmaid's, Gina, has gone missing and Abby has broken up with her boyfriend, Dutch - Boo! Actually, it's open season for bridesmaids. Maybe one bridesmaid had to wear that horrendous outfit one time too many and has sought revenge or solace. Either way, Gina has gone missing. According to wonders of technology, the average citizen thinks Gina has skipped out to California. Abby senses something much worse. One of Abby's unique gifts is she can look at a picture and tell if the person is alive or dead. I take it she'd find scrap booking a chore. She immediately knows something is off and enlists the aid of Duffy, Ellie's brother. Then Sara seems to take a preemptive trip (perhaps she senses a bridezilla in the making) and disappears. So does the next bridesmaid, Christina. In the interim, there's a serial rapist on the loose, who may or may not be connected to all this. Also, to throw a wrench bigger than the mother-in-law-to-be, Ellie's groom, Eddie (Eddie and Ellie, there's got to be a joke in here somewhere), is thrown in jail on suspicion of murder with the same serial rapist. See what I meant about the coincidence?

To date, Abby's been stabbed, beaten up by the mafia, smoked out (literally), attacked by a ghost, choked, and now shot. I'm sure I'm missing one or two, but it's been a while since I read the other books. It appears every time she has a disagreement with her boyfriend, she gets seriously injured. Sometimes, Abby lets her pride get in the way of her relationship with Dutch, talk about a deadly sin. Dutch will do something manly and Abby will overreact, somehow throwing herself into danger. This is actually one of the things I like about Laurie's stories. The characters are real. Abby is a real person with real problems. She's not perfect, she has mars and flaws. So does Dutch and their relationship. The next one in the series, Crime Seen, should be interesting and I look forward to reading it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine was an enchanting book. The story is set in an imaginary kingdom called Frell. A fairy gives Ella's mother the gift of perfect obedience for her daughter. The gift is in fact a curse as Ella is compelled to obey any command ever given her. She cannot refuse and must obey.

There are some that take advantage of Ella's inability to not obey. She goes on a journey to find the fairy who cursed her with the gift of obedience. Ella is witty, independent, and kind. She's also clumsy which I found endearing. Ella is an authentic character and very well-written. The story unfolds into a retelling of the fairy tale, Cinderella. I loved this interpretation because Ella is given an active role in seeking out her future.

I highly recommend this fun book. It's a quick read and a beautiful story.

Bhagavad Gita, translated by Stephen Mitchell

I became interested in reading the Bhagavad Gita when a small group of friends talked over the idea of reading a variety of religious texts in order to view them from each of their strengths. The first one we proposed was Bhagavad Gita, the core text of the Hindu tradition.

Bhagavad Gita is written in syllabic verse—I think the translation by Stephen Mitchell does a good job in making it very user friendly. It is Book Six of India’s national epic poem, the Mahabharata, which I discovered in the introduction is eight times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. Luckily, the Gita itself is not quite so unwieldy.

It begins as a battle is about to take place between two clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The leader of the Pandavas, Arjuna, takes his chariot to the center of the battlefield to survey the scene, and begins to have doubts about the wisdom of going through with this battle that will kill many of his kinsmen on both sides. It is at this point that Krishna, his charioteer, who turns out to be THE Krishna, Hindu God incarnate, begins to counsel him about life.

From the beginning of Krishna’s part in this story, I immediately was enveloped in the influence of this powerful text. Despite my lack of religious leanings, I still find things of value in many religious texts and the Bhagavad Gita is no exception. Emerson and Thoreau have both praised the Bhagavad Gita; in fact it was one of the books Thoreau took with him to Walden Pond.

In the first two quatrains, you already feel lulled by a sense of well being:

Although you mean well, Arjuna,
Your sorrow is sheer delusion.
Wise men to not grieve
For the dead or for the living.

Never was there a time
When I did not exist, or you,
Or these kings; nor will there come
A time when we cease to be.

As the teachings of Krishna go on, you learn about the benefits of releasing your selfish tendencies, meditating on a higher power, and how to attain the Self that is separate from the physical self—more like the soul, that in their tradition continues to reincarnate until joined with God in perfection. With my Western, and more problematic, agnostic viewpoint, I could argue the inconsistencies of some of the views purported. For example, throughout the Gita, Krishna propones nonviolence at the same time as he encourages Arjuna to go to battle. In an Appendix to Bhagavad Gita written by Mohandas Gandhi, Gandhi writes that “under the guise of physical warfare it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.” Not being a scholar of Hindu beliefs, I will graciously defer to Gandhi, for whom I have the utmost respect.

In a text this old, just as in the Bible, I find there are inevitably some ideas that one should overlook in order to grasp the greater picture. I had some issues with the idea of a caste system, as well as the idea that women are a sub-incarnation to men. Overall, however, I think that the Bhagavad Gita reveals much to guide a person in self-improvement and definitely holds its place in the annals of religious texts.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

I finished reading Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt for the second time on May 28, 2007. I know, because it is an entry in my journal. It took about a week to read. Frank McCourt teaches by telling his class stories about his miserable childhood.

Why is he telling stories? Do they work? According to Frank, he tells them because the students con him into it, so he won’t do “real” teaching. It’s probably not effective for teaching English grammar, but anything is grist for the creative writing mill. He doesn’t teach creative writing at McKee. It’s a vocational high school. My Aunt Bridget went there. He teaches creative writing at Stuyvesant and Seward.

How is it he knows Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and can’t tell a student why Shakespeare wrote the way he did?

Owens and Sassoon are war poets. They were relevant to McCourt’s experience. Shakespeare wrote in Elizabethan English. McCourt doesn’t seem to be well grounded in the history of English literature before the Modern era.

In what way does Teacher Man extend and develop our image of Frank as a person? What are your feelings toward Frank as a child?

Frank the child is at the mercy of adults. In Frank the teacher, the roles are reversed. He finds that Frank the adult is at the mercy of the children and his supervisors. He is caught in the middle. He succeeds. I can identify. In my career, I’ve had to define success for myself. I’ve never won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, but I survived. I decided survival is success. I look back at the fate of others I knew in graduate school. Not all survived. It isn’t easy. Frank’s ultimate success was as a writer, rather than as a teacher of writing. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Angela’s Ashes. He was in his sixties when he made the big time, retired from his thirty-year teaching career. Most writers he knew peaked in their thirties. In an interview, he said, “If I had won the prize earlier, I would have been dead by now of alcohol and fornication.”

What do these terms mean: amadauns, acusula, seanachies?

Amadauns are fools. We had a teacher in high school, Brother P. We gave him a hard time, at least that’s how he felt about it. We probably treated him the same as we did all of the other teachers, but he perceived it as hostile. He called us amadauns, but each student is an individual. The boy who sat in front of me in Brother P’s English class was Tom V. I read in the alumni newsletter that he is a drummer and a DJ. He plays what are now oldies, but were contemporary rock and roll back then. I should phone him. He still lives on Staten Island.

Acushla is a heartbeat. Listen to the sound. I can hear the heart valves opening and closing. It’s a term of endearment. The dictionary translates it as “darling,” but I feel “my heart” captures it better.

Seanachies are storytellers. They taught in the hedgerow schools in Ireland, preserving the Irish legends when the English were insisting that everyone speak the King’s tongue.

Whose side of the pedagogy question are you on?

I’m for what works. What makes one a better mechanic, teacher, scientist, citizen, soldier, parent or writer? What makes one a better friend? That’s what we have to learn and teach. We’re still finding the way. Frank did some experiments. Sometimes they worked; sometimes they didn’t.

Even when I was small, eight or nine, I wondered why people won’t stop bothering people and I’ve been wondering since.

That’s Frank’s recurring theme, his mantra. It’s why “Little Bo Peep” is his favorite poem. “Leave them alone and they’ll come home…” He can recite a litany of insults from years gone by and agrees with most of them. This parallels the examination of conscience, in which the list is the ten commandments, to which Catholics have added lesser offenses. The mere thinking about sinning is a sin in itself.

Do you believe his stories?

In a class on memoir that I took at Gemini Ink, Naomi Shihab Nye, the instructor, asked, “Does memoir have to be all true, or can you fill in the missing parts with whatever fits?” I said, “You have to be true to the story.” That’s the extent to which I believe Frank’s stories.

What would you have done if you had taught his first class?

As I recall, it was on sentence structure. I would have diagrammed, because that’s what I was taught. Since then, I’ve had a course on linguistics, so I would talk about context-sensitive and context-free languages. I would use Groucho Marx’s example, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” What is the subject, the predicate, the object? Which words are nouns, verbs, modifiers? Today we have naming of parts.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Verse of the Vampyre by Diana Killian

Verse of the Vampyre: A Poetic Death Mystery by Diana Killian is the second in the Poetic Death Mystery series. What can I say about this book, other than I love it; I love the author and I love the series. Brilliant descriptions, excellent pacing, and believable characters. This author doesn't waste one syllable. Everything written has a purpose. Killian is extremely reminiscent of Mary Stewart (my favorite author of all time).

Verse of the Vampyre picks up a year after High Rhymes and Misdemeanors. Grace Hollister is on sabbatical from teaching, working at Peter Fox's establishment to supplement her income while she writes a book on her favorite poet, Lord Byron. Peter Fox is an ex-jewel thief turned antiques dealer who's past is not too far behind him. It's in the heart of fall and hunting season when the story takes place when the newcomers, Ruthvens, decide to waltz in and do a play on Polidori's The Vampyre. Grace is brought in as a consultant due to her academic ties, but she later feels there might be something more involved. Also, there's a rash of burglaries of the well-to-do. Throw in a few bodies for an excellent mystery. The ending is filled with so many twists and turns, it provides for a thrilling ride in the English and Scottish countryside.

What makes this story so delicious is the right blend of characters, Grace's romance with Peter, her love of Byron, the backdrop, and the detail which Killian throws in about Byron and company. Just excellent. The only difficulty I had was reading the book because it seemed no one wanted me to read it, but I persevered to the very last word and I look forward to the next in the series, Sonnet of the Sphinx.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

This was going to be the one! At 50 pages in, I was sure it was the one I would find myself recommending to all of you regular, non sci-fi readers out there. It wasn't too futuristic, too weird, or too alien. Unfortunately, it gradually slipped that way until I realized there would be a disconnect for most of you at one point or another, and I finally admitted to myself that it will still be a long time before I encounter the book that crosses from my area of interest into one of yours'.

In 2000, Darwin's Radio took the Nebula Award and was a Hugo nominee. My list of books continues...(as it will for quite a while). On the surface, it looked like a very different book than it turned out to be. I thought it would be a spin-off of Outbreak or The Andromeda Strain. Only instead of a disease caused by another species, this time it's a virus which is fragmented and embedded in several different sections of our own DNA, millions of years old, but finally awakening due to some unknown factor. Great hook. I didn't realize that such a thing could happen: useless information in our own DNA, potentially harmful yet replicated and passed on to our offspring. Makes me wonder if scientists could some day purge all of the useless and harmful stuff from our DNA and make it a lot more compact (and I suppose less likely to mutate). Kind of like running disc cleanup and defragmenter on a hard drive, only in our genes.

So that's what the story seems like it's going to do. There is a mystery illness, a team of specialists who are the only ones capable of stopping it, mass hysteria, everything right in place. Except that it turns out the virus is not necessarily a disease. What it turns out to be, I won't say, because that tosses the entire mystery of the story out the window, but it could have been part of why I slowly became less satisfied with the book, as well as the fact that it got harder to share as it went.

First, some positives: Greg Bear did his research. The science is well-thought-out, and the speculation that forms the premise of the novel is pretty wild, but I suppose it is possible. Just be warned - there is quite a bit of scientific terminology to wade through. The author is adept at leaving the reader wondering about a lot of things, which is great for building suspense and curiosity. A lot of the secondary stories are interesting, and most of the characters are likable, even some of the misguided, ambitious ones. And overall, I did enjoy the book. But that won't stop me from listing a few things I disliked:

1. I felt like I missed a whole lot of what was happening. That same writing style that was great for my curiosity also left me feeling like I was not keeping up with everything that was going on. I think it mostly is a result of letting the reader discover things at the same time as the characters in the story. The POV switches back and forth between major characters, usually spaced far apart both in time and location (which is thankfully provided at the beginning of chapters). The knowledge comes in fragments, from various sources, and ultimately a lot of things are left to be guessed at and filled in by the reader. We are kept in the dark as much as the main characters are, so that even at the end I feel like I'm missing things that were just too well concealed between the lines. I want to go back and find out what I'm missing, but I'm not sure there are holes or not. It's that same unsettling feeling I get when watching a Blu-Ray demo, that there is so much information to be glimpsed at each moment that I'm probably missing half of what's there.

2. The main characters are just too stinking lucky. Sure, not everything was roses, but in the end they had their freedom, plenty of money, a healthy child, and buckets of optimism where so many others didn't. Their hunches always turned out right. They started late but were still among the first to succeed in a race where everyone basically goes the same speed. So while I liked them at the beginning, I felt resentful towards them by the end.

3. Humanity seemed a bit too stupid and panicky to me to be realistic. It was great for the drama, but considering the virus didn't kill people (it caused miscarriages, some slight superficial disfiguring, and mysterious pregnancies), I thought the rioting, religious fanaticism, and martial law was overdone. The government also felt distorted into a very heavy-handed and suppressive entity. While again, sure, I don't trust the gov't. much, I do sort of believe that politicians are smart enough that they would handle the crisis better than they do in the novel. Our gov't. may be pretty ruthless and diabolical, but in the end it protects itself and us citizens pretty well. Or maybe I'm just an optimist (hah!).

4. I don't really agree with the choice made by the main characters at the end. To put it vaguely, they embraced a change that I don't feel comfortable with myself. I understand why, I suppose, but I disagree with their choice because it's creepy, and I'm not at all certain it is right. As a result, the book ended on a very dissonant, unsettling note that didn't feel right to me. Maybe that means it is a great book, because it forces me to consider a different viewpoint. I just don't know. But thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that there is a sequel, entitled Darwin's Children, which came out in 2003. Perhaps the resolution I seek can be found there. I'll let you know.

Well, I griped and inferred that it was a letdown, but I still enjoyed Darwin's Radio quite a bit. It was gripping, provocative, and creative. A fast-paced book, even if frustratingly slow to bring answers. I was disappointed by some illogical behaviors and dazzled by some scientific insights, annoyed at the main characters while still liking them in all their quirkiness. A mixed bag of contradictions, like something frozen that gets cooked in the microwave and winds up scalding in places with ice still floating in others. But overall, I believe I liked it, and I do plan on looking into that sequel sometime soon.

Murder at the PTA Luncheon by Valerie Wolzien

Murder at the PTA Luncheon by Valerie Wolzien is a murder-mystery book, the murder of a story and the mystery of how it got published. Sounds scathing, I know. But let me explain, no it'll take too long to explain, let me sum up: The characters are one-dimensional, the plot is non-existent, and with the two over-worked, underpaid, and ego-warring detectives, it's a wonder the case gets solved. The author misses many opportunities to actually have a plot and decent twists. However, when the characters try to interject a plot into the story, she smartly dismisses them. The beginning was slow and the ending seemed rushed, but the alcohol flowed freely which is perhaps what I needed to fully enjoy the story.

I like murder-mysteries, especially cozies. It's not just the murder and solving the puzzle that draws me in, it's the story and the people. If a story doesn't have strong characters, then the story's not going to go anywhere. The characters in this book are more focused on gossip, sex, drinking, and "what the neighbor's will think" then the case. The author got more involved in the mundane tasks of the main character, Susan, then I felt comfortable with. I don't care about Susan worrying about cooking dinner for the family and how "experienced" she is running her household, which even she later questions if she's doing a good job of it or not. The two detectives, Brett and Kathleen, are too busy arguing with each other to make me like either one of them and I don't care how good they look. At this point, I'm rooting for the murderer. But, alas, the writer rushes to the end (here's a hint for future stories - pacing!) and the killer is caught. It's the only spoiler I'll give.

This is the first in the series, but I'm having reservations about reading anymore of the books. I've got another first in the series Shore to Die, but I'm going to wait in attempting to read that one.

Monday, May 12, 2008

North and South, by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Alright, alright - so. Leaving aside the fact that Cleghorn is a most unfortunate name, let's go on...
This, actually, was a really enjoyable read! Not that I mean to sound shocked, mind you, I mean, it was originally published as a serial by Charles Dickens. You know, like Charles Dickens. So, it can't be THAT bad. But it was really an enjoyable read, and felt like England in a way that I, an uneducated, inexperienced Yank, loved.
Now, understand, oh gentle reader -

Wait, quick aside. I was talking about this with Amanda the other day. Don't you love books where they use the old 'O Gentle Reader' thing? To wit, this quote from Wordsworth:

61My gentle Reader, I perceive,
62How patiently you've waited,
63And now I fear that you expect
64Some tale will be related.

65O Reader! had you in your mind
66Such stores as silent thought can bring,
67O gentle Reader! you would find
68A tale in every thing.

Doesn't that just have a charming, outdated mixture of paternal superiority and generic love? It's like Ward Cleaver reading a poem. Only... with coattails, and foppish curly hair. Anyway, I told Amanda I think I should write an entire book of letters written to 'Dear O Gentle Reader'. Love letters, sort of. Anyway, take that for what it's worth. So, back to Ms. Gaskell.

Now understand, O gentle reader (Don't worry, June, I'll have a talk with the Beaver...), I am not saying that our friend Ms Gaskell is entirely perfect in her sense of the realistic and genuine - to be entirely fair, any honest soul who has read anything by Charles Dickens might be forced to admit that he wasn't neccesarily so worried about having characters that actually acted like REAL human beings. Only, that's the charm of this book! When you read, say, Oliver Twist, there is a bit of a twinge of guilt, as you realize that all this 'good guy, bad guy' black and white world is really designed to make it easier for us mere mortals to pretend that we can make decisions without pricking at our conscience. It's sadly the sort of thing that makes men, say, think of Jews as all 'Dirty hook-nosed Fagans', and that will make us all ashamed (as a side note, Mr. Dickens felt extremely bad, later in life, about the anti-semitic tone of this particular chatacter). It's ugly business, even if it's well written, sometimes.

But that's just what's so wonderful about this book - it has the caricatured humanity of a Dickens novel, the ardent search for truth in worlds where there isn't neccesarily truth to be found, mixed with the a bit of almost Austen-like sensitivity to the impartial humanity of everyone in the whole wide book. The poor and the rich, the petty and the overly grave, everybody in this book is really a human being, even if they are a caricatured human being, and nobody is entirely bad. Even people who are bad. I love, for instance, poor Boucher, who's really, indeed, a putz without much moral courage, or really, brains, who really does want to feed his family more than anything, and loves his kids like his own life, then *SPOILER* drowns himself *END SPOILER*.

Anyway, it really was an interesting book, and particularly because it ties in with some of what I've been writing. The contrast between the country and the factory town is, if a bit confused, extremely poignant, and I love that, in the end, Ms Gaskell can out and out admit that really, there is no perfection, that progress crushes some under it's wheels, but that tradition is irresistably linked to stagnancy asmuch as it's linked to stability.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth is the story of Wang Lung, a simple farmer who lives in pre-revolutionary China with his aging father. The book follows the course of his life beginning when he marries a slave girl from the rich House of Hwang since he is unable to afford the dowry for a bride of higher standing. His bride, O-Lan, toils by his side as they farm their land and bears him two sons and a daughter who turns out to be mentally retarded. The family lives happily for awhile, making enough money to buy a little of the land that is being sold by the House of Hwang to support the decadent lifestyle, opium use and gambling of its inhabitants. But the prosperity of Wang Lung's family is short lived, as famine strikes the land and they, along with their neighbors, begin to slowly starve, resorting to eating “goddess of mercy earth”, which is basically dirt mixed with water. They won’t resort to cannibalism, as others in the town have begun to do, but during this time, O-Lan bears another girl, which she immediately smothers, as they are unable to feed the three children they already have. On the brink of death, the family spends the last of their coins to travel to a southern city, where O-Lan and the children beg and Wang Lung carries a ricksha for pennies a day. But as quickly as their fortunes went downhill they are returned as the revolution rises up in the city and the commoners take over one of the rich palaces, ransacking the place. Wang Lung and O-Lan, swept up with the crowd, take part in the looting, making off with enough money and jewels to return to their land rich. This windfall fortune enables Wang Lung to buy yet more of the Hwang estate and he prospers as he now has enough land to rent out to others. O-Lan bears twins, a boy and a girl, and the older children are sent to school to become scholars. Wang Lung grows rich enough to buy the House of Hwang and move into it, along with his uncle’s degenerate family, which he feels obligated to provide for due to his new-found wealth and a sense of family responsibility. But even through their prosperity, there is constant unrest and the seeds of the family’s decline begin in the same way they began in the house of Hwang, with his sons spending money frivolously, his uncle and aunt’s opium addiction, and Wang Lung’s own taking of a mistress, an action that wounds O-Lan deeply but she is powerless to prevent. The course of Wang Lung’s life is followed as his children are married, grandchildren are born and his wife and father die. In the end, he is only comforted by the land, the one thing that he sees as valuable above all. In the final pages of the novel, it is clear that his sons do not share his feeling and that they will sell the land after his death, completing the cycle that occurred to the House of Hwang before them.

Pearl Buck lived in China for 40 years, daughter to a missionary couple who brought her to China when she was only 3 months old. Despite her missionary background, the book is almost devoid of Christian influence. Wang Lung and his family burn incense to a variety of local gods, and his only exposure to Christianity in the book is when a missionary hands him a picture of Christ on the cross and he does not understand the English writing. He assumes it must be the picture of some criminal, and O-Lan uses the flyer to stitch into the soles of their shoes. Pearl Buck is famous for saying that 100 years of missionary work in China had no more effect “than a finger drawn through water”.

I found The Good Earth to be an interesting and valuable read. It is the only book I have read on life in China at the turn of the century, and it is interesting how a culture half-way around the world would share the common values (such as the value of land-ownership) and common troubles (such as the plight of women) that our country did during the same time period. Pearl Buck poignantly shows what life is like for women in China primarily through her portrayal of long-suffering O-Lan, who Wang Lung always looks down on due to her large, unbound feet, and treats like one would a beast of burden. Throughout the novel girl children are referred to as slaves, and Wang Lung’s oldest daughter remains unnamed throughout her life. Even the rich women of society live with the degradation of their husband’s mistresses and must accept it silently.

The Good Earth was an eye-opener when it was first published for portraying the life of a Chinese family with realism, as opposed to the stereotypical portrayal of the Chinese that was common at the time. Although the characters’ actions are not always honorable, the reader can empathize with them and recognize the same work ethic and love of the land that is still valued today.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!: Cartoonist Ignores Helpful Advice by Scott Adams

I went into Scott Adams' collection of short musings not sure what to expect except humor. I enjoy his Dilbert comic strip, but this book is not about Dilbert, except for a few short sections that talk about the politics of censorship in the comic strip world (which were actually quite interesting). For example, I wasn't aware that you couldn't draw a cop (or anyone for that matter) shooting a gun in a comic, but you can draw a cop shooting with a doughnut.

The book reads like his personal blog (which most of it is drawn from), only it's funnier than the average blog. It's a combination of random observations, political commentary, and personal stories. Adams isn't as funny as my personal favorite humor writer, Dave Barry, but he did make me laugh out loud several times during the book. Scott Adams is a smart man, but many of the short pieces become unfunny purely because they come across as arrogant and self-congratulatory. Then again, he admits that he's arrogant in the book.

Since there's not really that much analysis to be drawn from this book, I'll leave you with a few funny quotes:

"I've never seen anyone change his mind because of the power of a superior argument or the acquisition of new facts, but I've seen plenty of people change behavior to avoid being mocked." --Scott Adams
"I might be dumb, but I'm not dumb enough to express my true opinion about anything important. The one thing I've learned about freedom of expression is that you really ought to keep that sort of thing to yourself." --Scott Adams

"There's a fine line between evil and underpaid." --Carol the secretary, from the Dilbert comic strip

"Dance like it hurts. Love like you need money. Work like people are watching." --Dogbert

Monday, May 5, 2008

Hunter's Run by Martin, Dozois, and Abraham

I've always wondered how books get co-authored when there are two writers involved. Perhaps one person writes the dialogue, and the other handles descriptive passages. Maybe they take turns with each chapter, paragraph, or sentence (word or letter would be impressive). It reminds me of games I played in my youth where we'd tell or write a story one paragraph, or if we were really daring, one sentence at a time. And of course, when we were finished, we'd had a hilarious time but amazingly enough fell short of writing something Pullitzer-worthy.

Well, Hunter's Run has 3 authors, somehow. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois are both highly experienced, while Daniel Abraham appears to be a talented new author. Still, like Il Divo, a superbly talented cast doesn't guarantee anything. Especially where, in my experience, one person typically does a better job than three. I suspect this book has to do with fulfilling contracts - when creative output dries up, share the burden. Three people get credit for one book, and as I would guess from my experiences working in groups, the young guy probably had to do most of the work. Pure libelous speculation on my part there, but it sounds right to me.

Anyway, I found out about the book from Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice blog, where I occasionally search desparately for any news about the second half of the book he published in 2005, which followed the preceeding book from 2000. Well, it's not ready yet, but in the meantime, why don't we try out this book that he was a part of? A recent 2008 release. I couldn't help myself. I love Martin's fantasy, so I took his recommendation.

What about Hunter's Run, you ask? Is it a book about someone's daughter? Well, not quite. Actually it is about Ramón, a tough latino colonist with an obvious ghetto upbringing just trying to survive two alien races, the law, a crazy girlfriend, and a trek through the uncharted wilderness of São Paulo. There were some neat twists that kept it interesting, and plenty of action. I didn't mind the language, the violence, the sexual references, or the crudeness that show the reader how tough life is for the colonists. It was done convincingly, or as well as it needed to be, since I have no earthly idea what coming from that kind of background would be like. Yet in the end I was only marginally satisfied with the book.

One downside was the lack of resolution in so many areas. I felt like the situation at the end was nearly the same as the beginning: nothing changed for the aliens, Ramón heads out into unknown territory with potential for good things to happen, there's still a crazy girlfriend and bad blood between him and the law. What did he struggle so hard to acheive? The end hints at good things happening, so I guess I'll have to decide that's what comes next: he gets rich and the hiding aliens won't be discovered for a long time. Not that that settles anything with the Enye, really, just prolongs the inevitable. And I wouldn't have minded some justice or revenge against the child-eating, enslaving lying manipulators. And I wouldn't have minded knowing why they are so intent on eradicating this one particular alien civilization. Was it because they could sense the "flow" of things and align themselves to it? WHY?

The action seems thrown in to keep it interesting, as do the elements meant for shock value, such as the barfight murder, the sensory deprivation chamber, and the neck leash thing known as a sahael. I also found it strange that the aliens could translate to English to communicate with Ramón, yet certain words remained in the alien's own tongue. Yet I could work out an equivalent with no problem, so were the words left untranslated just to make them seem more, well, alien? Lastly, I felt a bit annoyed at the gradual return of Ramón's memory, where his memory of that crucial night of the fight returns near the end. Too much like being baited, I didn't care for the tease that it was throughout the book. And a conveniently timed recall, too, twenty pages from the end!

Nobody who's a part of this blog group is going to read this novel, I'm fairly certain. If some Sci-fi fan ever comes across my review, I'd say give it a shot if you want a quick, easy read. Just don't expect an epic tale involving a creative use of our most current scientific knowledge. This book was too ordinary for that. I don't regret reading it, but I don't highly recommend it either.