Monday, June 30, 2008

Heaven Scent by Rebecca Talley

Heaven Scent is a young adult novel written by my friend, Rebecca Talley. I met Rebecca at the LDStorymakers Writing Conference in March. I am very impressed with Rebecca because she has ten children. For me, writing is tough with my three boys.
First of all, I love the cover of the book. It's beautiful and invites you to open it up.
The novel begins with Liza's disappointment that her father does not attend her very important high school basketball game. This disappointment is quickly followed by others as her father continues to pull away from the family to devote time to his career. She hopes to gain a coveted spot on a local university's basketball team, and she does not feel her father's support. Family life continues to deteriorate for Liza as her father spends too much time at work and her mother stops finding excuses for him. Along with worries about her personal life and thoughts about the basketball scholarship, Liza now worries that her parents might be facing divorce.
Along the way, she befriends a classmate, Kyle, who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He befriends her and wants to tell her about the church. This story depicts real young adult challenges as we watch Liza struggle with increasing difficulties in her life. Tragedy strikes, and I have to say even though it clearly states that on the back cover, I was surprised. I was not expecting it. The tragedy puts things into perspective for Liza and presents further challenges. She has to find room in her heart for forgiveness and possibly for acceptance of a religion that seems strange to her.
I recommend this book for any young adult who is looking for a story to enrich their lives and give them much to think about.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Nightingale's Lament by Simon Green

Nightingale's Lament by Simon Green involves yet another case by private eye John Taylor of Nightside infamy who has a gift for finding things, though he dare not use it too often because his enemies can find him and so what does he do except continue to use it in dangerously increasing levels. Nightside, a really nasty underworld of London where nightmares and dreams can and do come true, usually for a price. In short, it's New York and Las Vegas combined without most of the glitz and glamour, a bad aftertaste, and the magic is real, though I haven't seen a unicorn yet. This is a guilty pleasure read. The writing isn't that fantastic (the author repeats himself a lot), some of the twists are okay, but he relies heavily on deus ex machina to get Taylor out of a lot of bad jams. However, in some aspects, this book was better than the first two, there might be some hope for it yet. So why do I continue to torture myself by still reading the series? I have my reasons which I'm not willing to share at the moment :-P

This case involves Rossignol (French for nightingale). Her father is extremely worried about her since she made it big time and has cut ties from friends and family. When Taylor asks about her, he learns she sings sad songs, making people not only want to kill themselves, but actually do it. She seems fine, but there's something "off" about her and she even begs Taylor to find out what it is. Off he goes into the dark, black yonder (literally at many points) to discover what her management team (the Cavendishes) have done to her. Turns out Mr. and Mrs. Cavendish are not nice people and have questionable business practices, they also have a dirty secret which was pretty easy to figure out. After going through some pretty horrible people and events, Taylor solves the case and restores Rossignol to her old self.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

1984 by George Orwell

OK, first, the picture on the left is from an American poster during WWII that I found humorous. Reading this book reminded me of this poster—it felt like a propaganda piece, although it was more of a Cold War propaganda piece. But that confused me, because Orwell didn’t strike me as the type to write Cold War propaganda. So I read his bio and found out he was a Socialist. This too was odd in a different way, since the book reams Socialism a new one (although the main character, Winston Smith, admits that the form of Socialism practiced by “The Party” is a perversion of the original Socialist idea). So I was left considering whether the whole thing was some kind of satire making fun of people’s Cold War paranoia, but the thing is…it isn’t. Unless it flew right over my head. I think the book was meant to be deadly serious. OK, so not having read any analysis of this book, that was my take on it. Those of you who have may commence with the “Of course it was a satire, Jen” posts. Or not.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Bicycle Built for Murder by Kate Kingsbury

A Bicycle Built for Murder by Kate Kingsbury is the first in the series regarding Manor House in Sitting Marsh. The setting is World War II and Elizabeth Hartleigh Compton is the Lady in charge of Manor House since her parents passed away. Being Lady of the Manor entails looking after the welfare of her residents in Sitting Marsh. One of the residents of Sitting Marsh welfare isn't so good, in fact, she's dead. Beryl Pierce, daughter of Winnie and Stan Pierce, has been found dead on the beach. Lady Elizabeth decides to take matters into her own hands as Lady of the Manor and due to the laziness and incompetence of the police department since they took all the eligible young men away and left the older, cantankerous, not-so-able men behind. Also, Winnie's bugging the hell out of Lady Elizabeth. The cherry on top of this Bloody Sundae is American GIs have been ordered to occupy her Manor as it's the only place available to house quite a few men. But Lady Elizabeth perseveres and solves the case of the murdered girl, the case of the American GIs is still pending.

I really enjoy Kate Kingsbury's writing. She has another series involving the Cecily Sinclair, widow and owner of Pennyfoot Hotel, which also takes place in war-time England. In the Manor series, she introduces some pretty quirky characters, Violet and Martin, the Manor's housekeeper and butler, respectively. Violet is a lot outspoken and Martin is showing his age, even if he doesn't admit it. Lady Elizabeth is too sentimental and broke (due to her ex-husband squandering their money) to let either one of them go and bring in new people. These people have been with her since her parents died, giving her great comfort and they are characters. There's also a hint of romance with Major Monroe, the leader of American GIs.

I'm amused by coincidences. I picked up A Bicycle Built for Murder and The Cruellest Month. In this case, both books had a similar theme (aside from murder). A Bicycle Built for Murder takes place during World War II. The Cruellest Month doesn't, but there are events referring to war-time women writers and the woman reads a journal of a woman who worked on a farm during World War II. Each of these points involves a young girl who gets pregnant by an American GI and both girls are murdered. Kingsbury and Holt are British authors, though they are not the same person. I just find this amusing how I picked two books to read back to back and how similar they turned out to be. Just like my current coincidence, where I'm fixing the screen on my laptop and my desktop monitor has become possessed.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

I hope this is her worst novel, because I’m having trouble getting into it, the same trouble I had with Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America. I’m resorting to the same trick that got me through that one. Read the first hundred pages. Then skip to the last hundred. Go back and read the middle hundred after you get to the end, if you care how it got there. Yes, I rarely read a book that’s over three hundred pages. I can handle three hundred in a month.

Isabel is doing things I tell writers in my group not to do. A basic writer’s mantra is, “Show, don’t tell.” Let the story tell itself through the action and the dialogue of the characters. Mostly, the teller is Ines Suarez, Conquistadora of Chile in the 1500s, but the author switches to omniscient narrator when the story involves events the protagonist did not witness. The narration is wordy and repetitious. By the end of the book, Ines is saying, “I don’t know if I’ve told you this before, but…” I want to scream, “Then why don’t you go back and edit the manuscript.” It makes me wonder if she was paid by the word.

Perhaps Isabel feels constrained by the historical part of a historical novel. After all, history takes place in the past. The story is the conquest of Chile by the Spaniards. The Conquistador is Pedro Valdivia. Ines Saurez is his mistress. It is the classic person on a quest story, but Isabel spends too much time on the Spanish Conquest and too little on the relationship between the characters. When the characters are presented, it is in the past tense recollections of Ines, recounting her adventures as the last survivor of her generation, so the bodies stop short of coming alive.

There is some magic realism in the tale. Ines’ servant, Catalina, is an Indian woman who can foretell the future. Yet even the future glimpsed by Catalina is in the past by the time it reaches our eyes, sort of like the light from the stars, billions and billions of light years away.

It gets better as it goes on. The penultimate chapter is the best. My favorite scene is the one where the Spaniards are being overrun. Ines orders the Indian prisoners beheaded and throws their noggins at the attacking warriors. They land facing their former brothers in arms, a truly grisly multiple cadaver ojo. It turns the tide. The attackers flee before the fury of the witch. There’s nothing like an act of maniacal mayhem to focus the narrative. It tops even the battle where Saint Iago rides out of the clouds to repel the native hordes and save the day for the marauding Spaniards.

What do I like about it? I learn a little Chilean history. I get to meet a fascinating woman. I discover that severing heads may work when negotiation doesn't have a chance.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Cruellest Month by Hazel Holt

The Cruellest Month by Hazel Holt is the second in the Mrs. Malory series. Sheila returns, this time heading to Oxford to do research on her latest article. Yet before Sheila arrives, a woman, Gwen Richmond, took a nasty tumble down the stairs resulting in death. Tony, Sheila's godson, doesn't feel quite right about it and *cue sleuth* tells Sheila his suspicions. Turns out Gwen Richmond was a disagreeable woman who left a lot of misery in her wake, in short a witch and if it had a "b" in front of it, it would stand for blackmail. She loved to blackmail people and hang that power of their head the way clowns like to torment little children until they wake up in a puddle of nightmares. But the problem with blackmailers is eventually someone gets tired of getting blackmailed or thinks s/he's beyond blackmail and strikes back. This is what happens with Gwen. Sheila discovers who she was blackmailing and why it was worth killing.

The author gets the title from T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land", because the story takes place in April and it's also a triple meaning. First, for the time of the year. Second, for Gwen's actions and death. Third, for what Sheila learns about a fellow from her past with whom she had a relationship.

Holt trades the idyllic countryside for the idyllic college setting. Once again, things aren't what they seem. The story's filled with a lot of charm and romance for Tony (I'm really a sucker for romance). The book drew me in and was a quick read and a series I think worth keeping up.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz

Ok, wow. This book was amazing. It chronicles the true story of the conquest of Mexico as told by Bernal Díaz, who traveled with and fought beside Hernando Cortes in 1519. Rarely—well, never before—have I read a work of non-fiction with the same avid interest as I would a work of fiction. I literally could not put this book down. The story was interesting from beginning to end and there were many points where I just had to set it down, look at Don and say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” He probably got tired of me reading him passages. There were even points where I gasped in astonishment and the kids would look at me and ask, “What’s wrong, mom?” That kind of a book.
Díaz is a good story teller and seems to represent multiple sides with fairness. Cortes comes across as both a man of mythic bravery and wisdom, but also as a man who reserves most of the gold and women for himself. Montezuma is portrayed as both bloodthirsty and backstabbing, while at the same time intelligent and endearing. And La Malinche, the Indian woman who is fluent in both the language of Tenochtitlan and Vera Cruz and who serves as Cortes’ interpreter, to me is the most interesting of all. When I spoke to a friend of mine about La Malinche, who I had never heard of in any of my high school or college history classes, she immediately knew who I was talking about and said she was looked on as a traitor by many Mexicans. This is a completely different viewpoint than is represented in this book, but I am interested in reading other material about her and the conquest.

One of the other things I liked about this book was that Díaz interspersed it with interesting anecdotes. There is one point where he tells of how Cortez stepped off their boat and lost his sandal in the mud, so he had to fight with one bare foot. Díaz later says the sandal was recovered. I found myself wondering how that story made it into the memoir, but it is stories like this that make this book so much more than a history text. As W.H. Prescott said in The Conquest of Mexico, “[Bernal Díaz] introduces us into the heart of the camp, we huddle around the bivouac with the soldiers, loiter with them on their wearisome marches, listen to their hopes, their triumphs, their disappointments. All the picturesque scenes and romantic incidences of the campaign are reflected in his page as in a mirror."

So, in contrast to the last book I read on the Aztecs, this one is much less textbook and much more readable. I would have liked to read this in a college class.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is always good for a lighthearted yet surprisingly intricate plot. Sure there are ridiculous scenarios and bizarre characters; tons of wordplay and humor on nearly every page, but there is still a lot of quality (almost seriousness) to his novels. There are many diverse characters, but they are consistently like they ought to be. Do not assume that just because the story has many silly twists to it, that all of the characters must be simple-minded or ridiculous. Instead, there are many keen minds in Pratchett's stories, and observing their verbal interplay can be quite rewarding. I suppose what I'm trying to get across is the fact that there is a lot more to these novels than you might expect.

The setting is mostly within the city of Ankh-Morpork. It has a rich history, being used in several books before Going Postal, and it shows. Our hero, Moist von Lipwig, (there are always plenty of silly names) is a refreshing character. He is a criminal, a very smooth thief and swindler, who begins the book in a prison cell awaiting hanging. Instead of death, however, the self-proclaimed dictator, Lord Vetinari, has a form of redemption in mind for Moist, and sets him up as postmaster for the city. The post office is unfortunately in a miserable state, due to the competition of the Clacks, a telegraph sort of operation involving tall towers with lights and shutters, as well as a slow but steady backlog of mail that permeates the place. The mail hasn't been delivered for a very long time, and it appears to have a staff of about two members, Jr. Postman Groat and Stanley.

Moist is supervised by Mr. Pump, a golem assigned double duty as his parole officer and to appear to all others as his bodyguard. He attempts to bring the post office back to a place of prominence in Ankh-Morpork, and slowly but surely seems to be making it work. He starts actually delivering some of the old mail, which brings mixed results from people depending on how the news affects them. However, his efforts bring attention, first from the local paper, The Times, and then from the corrupt businessman and owner of the Clacks, Reacher Gilt. From then on, a bitter rivalry escalates, and the book takes on a frenetic pace as Moist, using his keen mind and silver tongue, attempts to stay one step ahead of disaster.

I won't give away any more of the plot. I would say that the trials he faces, and especially the manner in which he overcomes them are a lot of fun to read about. He crafts miracles on a daily basis, and winds up doing a lot of good that he never thought possible. There is a romance with one of the prickliest women ever, Ms. Dearheart: "Would you like to have dinner tonight?" "I like to have dinner every night. With you? No." There are countless other interesting people, from Gilt and Vetinari to Mr. Grout and Stanley, not to mention Miss Cripslock, the wizards, the carriage drivers, and the mysterious men on the roof.

I'd say Going Postal was a good read. Still not my favorite Pratchett novel, but I didn't find much to complain about either. There are plenty of witty, thinking moments that keep it from being too simplistic, and solutions to problems are reasonable and don't involve too much coincidence or luck to believe in them. You don't have to begin with the first Discworld tale and work your way forward, either (a daunting task that would be). Going Postal works just fine as a stand-alone novel, and is a good introduction to Moist von Lipwig, who appears in at least one later work, Making Money. It is a very good parody of the fantasy genre, but also so much more than that. Give it (or any other Pratchett book) a try if you're interested in something that will stimulate your mind while also putting a smile on your face.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn introduces Daisy Dalrymple starting her career as a writer and amateur sleuth (watch out J. B. Fletcher). It's the 20s and Daisy is an independent woman, refusing to live at home or get married to the first Tom, Dick, or Harry who asks. She takes a job as a writer and proposes to Town and Country to write about these sprawling mansions because she can get into them through her connection, her father was a count and she knew plenty of the well-to-do growing up. All seems to be going well. It's right after the new year, everyone's skating and having a grand old time. Everything would be picture perfect, except for the despicable Lord Stephen Astwick, but don't worry, he'll die soon enough. The poor Wentworth's are the new line of crime victims under the watchful eye of Daisy Dalrymple. At first, it appears to be a skating accident, but Daisy senses something wrong. The Chief Inspector Detective Alec Fletcher takes Daisy into his confidence and employment as a note taker, more than he should, and she quickly decides she can help solve the case. But as it turns out, Lord Stephen didn't die in the pond, his lungs were full of bath water. Daisy digs a little deeper and uncovers the truth.

What troubled me about this mystery was when Daisy solved the crime and how she handled it. I could believe the explanation to a certain point, but I felt there could have been more. My fascination with forensics told me there should be more, but there wasn't. Lord Stephen drowned, that's simple enough, but then he drowned in a bath tub not in the lake. No question about it being murder now. When the killer is eventually found it, I didn't find the explanation plausible. He had been knocked out and drowned himself. I know it's not true, he would've had to been hit pretty hard in order to do that and he was hit enough to knock him off balance and daze him and if he had been knocked out the water would have brought him back to consciousness. I kept hoping someone else had finished him off and the real killer would be revealed. Evidently, Dunn thought this was enough and left it that way. Also, I was a little disappointed with Daisy. When the killer was discovered, rather than turn the person over to the police (and the death was considered justifiable/accident), Daisy concocts a plan to get the person out of the country (the beauty of being rich and privileged). This disappoints Detective Fletcher as well, but not enough to stop him from asking her out, and he smartly informs her law. Of course, being rich and privileged allows the person to skate free and Lord Stephen's death is ruled as a skating accident. I wonder if things like that really happened in the English countryside. I'll still give the series a chance (I'm such a romantic) and see if the author improves over time.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Vitals by Greg Bear

After finishing Vitals, I was quite confused. I have a habit of skimming through parts of books that I'm reading. Say a paragraph begins to provide details that I couldn't care less about, Bam!, there I am at the beginning of the next paragraph. If the next one or two seem to be more of the same, Zip!, I arrive at the next set of quotation marks. Occasionally, I wind up backtracking to figure out what important detail I've missed, but it usually doesn't affect my overall understanding of a story at all, and it helps me to get past the unimportant stuff quickly. So when I finished this novel and wondered what on earth had happened and why I was so confused, I wasn't sure whether it was just me and my sloppy reading style, or if everyone felt the same way about it. It was very validating, then, to find my dissatisfaction echoed by so many other reviewers over at I wasn't the only one confused!

Now, I don't want anyone to think this means I'm giving up on Mr. Bear. His novels have creative, fascinating plots. He shows large amounts of scientific knowledge, explored in ways I've never considered before. He is adept at adding an element of uncertainty and danger. But, for whatever reason, Vitals just wasn't what it could have been.

In the beginning, I was really excited by what I found: A mysterious phone call, a deep ocean dive to uncover some of the most primitive cells still in existence, and a sub pilot that starts exhibiting some really uncomfortable, bizarre behaviors. Right off the bat, my imagination was reeling with questions! And they kept piling up. So many strange things were happening, and I thought it would be a lot of fun eventually making sense out of things. Unfortunately, as you may well know, the more answers you have, the more questions you tend to uncover.

One of the devices which keeps the confusion up is a bacteria that causes people to become highly susceptible to brain tampering. Apparently, it causes people to remember things and experience things that aren't real, and a lot of times people, including the main character, don't know which bits are real and which ones are not. The bacteria is used liberally by the enemy (whoever that really turned out to be) to prevent our scientist, who goes by the name of Hal, from finding the key to unlocking immortality.

Eventually it gets to the point where you can't trust anybody, even the thoughts of the main character. Everyone is chasing all over searching for clues to what is really going on, while narrowly avoiding death numerous times. In this type of story, I'm always annoyed at the number of people that seem to know the truth but just haven't really explained it to the main character. And the same thing for the friends which aren't really his friends. You know they're there; it's more surprising to find a friend that really is loyal in the end. My question about these turncoats, though, is why they humor our hapless hero and guide him through so much when they should just cap him right in the beginning. Do they want some information from him? In this story, I can think of nothing he knows that would be useful at all. And they are always trying some roundabout way of killing him, that you have to wonder if they're trying at all. It reminds me of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery:

Dr. Evil: Scott, I want you to meet daddy's nemesis, Austin Powers.
Scott: What, are you feeding him? Why don't you just kill him?
Dr. Evil: No Scott, I have a better idea. I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.
Scott: Why don't you kill him now? I mean, come on, we can shoot 'im together. It'll be fun. Bang! Dr. Evil: One more word out of you and you are grounded, mister, and I am not joking!

Dr. Evil: Begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism.
[Guard starts dipping mechanism]
Dr. Evil: Close the tank!
Scott Evil: Wait, aren't you even going to watch them? They could get away!
Dr. Evil: No no no, I'm going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I'm just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?
Scott Evil: I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I'll get it, I'll come back down here, BOOM, I'll blow their brains out!
Dr. Evil: Scott, you just don't get it, do ya? You don't.

Anyway, I was sure the ending would be enlightening. There's a big showdown on a luxurious cruise ship, and I thought that at the end of that, answers would be forthcoming and the cognitive dissonance that built throughout the novel would finally dissolve. I'd know who and why, if not how. Instead, the enemy escapes, the attack is a muddled mess, and in the end our Hal is explaining his insights at the same time he's experiencing the symptoms of the mind-altering bacteria, making even the conclusions from the final two pages suspect. Aargh! Why weren't there 200 more pages so that it could all be tied together as a coherent whole? Why hadn't Hal been killed so much earlier? Who is Banning, and how does he tie in to anything? What about Lissa and Shun? Did I just read a novel, or have I been deceived as well? Did Rob really die?

So the final verdict is: don't read Vitals. It will not satisfy you. Unless you come across an annotated study version of the book, with all the hidden things revealed, it will be too frustrating. Or perhaps a doctoral thesis giving an in-depth analysis of the plot lines contained within Vitals. I've searched the Internet. I know the questions, but I'm afraid there will be no answers.

Murder in Scorpio by Martha Lawrence

I started out liking this book, nominated for an Agatha, an Edgar, and an Anthony (all prestigious awards). Yet the author broke a Cardinal Rule in cozies (which I felt was a cozy) and I'm debating on whether or not I should let her slide on this one. A little rant on that later.

Dr. Elizabeth Chase is a paranormal investigator, meaning she uses intuition a lot in her investigations. Her first touch of intuition was seeing the ghost of a dead girl. Ever since then she has devoted her life to understanding her gift, earning herself two doctorates and a practice in Escondido. Enter Tom McGowan, who's high school friend recently died in a car accident. He's not too sure it was a car accident and wants Elizabeth to look into further. So she does and figures out the girl was murdered and why.

I have several contentions about this book. It started off very good, well written, good characters, nice pace, etc. Yet the further the book got, the more it fell apart. Elizabeth is supposed to be psychic, but there's very little evidence of her intuition or maybe Abby Cooper's spoiling me. I didn't "pick up" much on Elizabeth's intuition, she didn't even know when she was heading into dangerous territory. It could almost have been a mystery without the psychic element and yet that's what it sold as. Another element in the story which just fell apart for me was the language. Murder at the PTA Luncheon did the same thing. In the beginning there was an occasional curse word here and there, but towards the end, curse words were dropped like Krishna leaflets at an airport in the 80s. There was no need for that language in Wolzein's story and I can see the language being used in the drug world Lawrence set up, but she could have kept it off the pages.

The Cardinal Rule in cozies that Lawrence broke is she killed an animal (cat) in the story. A sane person might tell me: It was just a fictional cat, you read stories about people getting killed and you're upset over a fictional cat? True as that may be, there was no reason for the cat to be killed. What's even worse? The cat had been pregnant, gave birth and some jerk flushed her newborns down the toilet. The main issue is this wasn't necessary. I think Lawrence did it to show what a vile person the antagonist was (which she already had done) and to make the cat a martyr of sorts (which she had another potential unwilling "martyr" in the wings). I don't care if the main character mourned the kitty's death. Why did kitty have to die? Why? There was a six-year-old in the story in the same living conditions as kitty. If the girl had been killed or severely abused (she was neglected), there would have been outrage even though it's fictional. There was no reason for kitty to die.

I still debate on whether or not I should resume this series. I have a lot of books in my TBR and a lot of hurt to go through, so it might be a while if at all.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Kilmeny of the Orchard by Lucy Maud Montgomery

After reading Waverly last (subtext: heavy, long, full of an author who obviously thinks a good deal of himself), it is nice to read a nice, old-fashioned love story. Given, slight emphasis on the old-fashioned at times - Ms Montgomery apparently held little esteem for Italians, for example, and bore no scruples about having an adopted boy showing his 'natural Italian blood' at one point by being criminally, violently insane - but I'm sure in 50 years we'll look just as ridiculous in current lit, so, I'm liable to give the poor lady a bit of slack on the subject.

Being a general fan of good old-fashioned love stories, I will endeavour not to belabor the review too much with moony-eyed sighs or teary-eyed comments on the fate of the main characters. It was not a perfect book, but it was lovely, that's just the word, more than pretty, and of a different cast than a quote-unquote 'beautiful' book. Perhaps it could have been 'beautiful', but it would have lost it's dear charm if it had been, so I don't regret it's imperfections.

Having been a tremendous fan of some of Madame Montgomery's other works (yeah, yeah, yeah, yet another Anne of Green Gables fan), it was a strange plot to read, altogether, sort of the comfortable small-town flavor of Anne of Green Gables meets the highly charged, gothic intensity of Wuthering Heights. Only Heathcliff ends up running away to sea. Kilmeny, though, is a beautiful, if impossible, soul, pure and kind and so terribly lonely, by the circumstance of her family, and by the fact that she is mute, that I could not help but love her. There was no challenge of love, none of the defiant impetuous beauty of Wuthering Heights, just a quiet remindrance of beauty and sorrow, and how they sometimes quietly meet in dark and silent spots, and how really, we wish the sorrow could be healed without hindering the beauty. I don't know if it's true, but if it isn't, I'm glad to be told it anyway. The auxilliary characters are charmingly eccentric and warm, in true Gables style. The love story is genuinely beautiful, and everything works out without it feeling glib or insulting. It was, definitely, a lovely book, and it was nice to read somethign that just plain made me feel all warm and happy and childlike for a change.

The Aztecs, by Richard F. Townsend

The Aztecs, by Richard F. Townsend provides a look at the Aztec civilization from its formation through the Spanish Conquest. This is the sort of book I would recommend only if you are interested in in-depth research of the Aztec civilization. I found this book to be thorough and interesting, especially the information about the Aztec religion and way of life. The parts about the military expansion of the empire over the reign of several tlatoanis (kings, basically) was more difficult to get through, especially due to the complex nature of the Aztec names. An example sentence can be found on page 74--I read this several times before retaining any of it:

“Enlisting the help of Netzahualcoyotl (the future tlatoani of Tetzcoco who, for the moment, still resided in Tenochtitlan) and Totoquilhuaztli, tlatoani of the allied Tepanec town of Tlacopan, the Mexica leader conducted successful campaigns against Culhuacan, Xochimilco, Cuitlahuac, Mixquic, and several smaller dependencies.”

Once I slogged through the people and places related to the Aztec expansion, the rest of the book was quite interesting. I knew the Aztecs were a bloody people, but I always thought somehow that the tales of their sacrifices had been exaggerated for use on the big screen. Not so. Apparently, Ahuizotl, the most violent leader of them all, rededicated the Great Pyramid with non-stop sacrifices for 4 days straight. No wonder the Spanish were horrified. But if you can overlook that, they really had an advanced civilization, with a complex system of agriculture, elaborate trade routes, and amazing skill with metal-work, pottery, weaving, etc. Anyway, I don’t expect anyone to go out and pick this one up unless you have quite an interest in the Aztecs. Still, since I am doing research on the Aztecs, I thought it was a valuable resource.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Just Ella

I was so enchanted by Ella Enchanted and was in the mood for more fairy tales, so I read Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix. It is also based on the fairy tale of Cinderalla, but it's a different author and a different character, both named Ella.
It is a fun take on Cinderella and takes place right after the Prince has asked Ella to marry him. She is now living in the castle, learning the ways of royalty, and bored to death.
She has servants taking care of her every need, so unlike her previous life where she played the part of the servant. She has a mass of tutors who instruct her about things she has no interest in. And, the Prince? She realizes he is a bore and she's not in love with him after all.
There is no one to turn to, but two friends. A young servant and one of her tutors, Jed. As the wedding approaches, she realizes she can't go through with it after all.
I found this book enjoyable, but did not like it as much as Ella Enchanted. I thought the characters were a little flat. I think the character of Jed could have been explored more. He becomes her love interest, but I didn't see any sparks. I did like Ella's down-to-earth, independent personality. Although not as good as Ella Enchanted, I still recommend it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Waverly by Sir Walter Scott

My friends, a piece of advice from the reader of Waverly. Leaving aside any personal feelings on subjects that produce some degree of discomfort in circles of mixed opinion, let me say, it is unwise under any circumstance to mock a man in tartan kilt. Bad plan, all around. Just don't do it. Please, I beg of you. I know, he carries a purse (dinnae, my friends, CALL it a purse, though). I know his hat is called a bonnet. I know these things, believe me, I do. But, temper your tongue. As an added bit of advice, NEVER do a google search for the word 'kilt' unless you wish to be visually educated on the proper manner of dressing beneath one's kilt. Which... hrm... if one asks, let us just say, the answer to waht one is wearing beneath ones kilt is apparently most properly and soberly responded to by 'Me shoes and socks, missus' (although, notably, this would not have been an appropriate response in the time of good captain Waverley. Seriously, there's an entire section in which his friend the Baron of Bradwardine discourses on the difficulties attendant to ceremonially removing the boots of a prince who dresses in highland fashion, where boots are not worn.)

Sir Walter Scott, my friends, would NEVER laugh at a man in a kilt. He in fact, when the English Captain who is hero of our novel first dons the tartan and plaid, proclaims that the Highlander's traditional garb serves to stengthen the slight effeminacy of his figure.

Alright, I promise no more kilt comments.

Honestly, this was an excellent book, and I really don't understand why noone ever thinks of Sir Walter Scott anymore. He sounds like Jane Austen, only a traditional Regency male. And Scottish. And able with impunity to make the occaisional wry comment about the voluminous amount of liquor one is required to imbibe in a scotch household (beware the Cunning Bear of Bradwardine, my friends, for it is followed by a stirrup cup!). Much like an Austen masterpiece, it swings wildly from serene to wild, from hilarious to solemn, with a natural grace that belies his vintage as a poet. The good Baron aforementioned is perfect example: hillariously pedantic, but stoically loyal, you laugh at him the entire book, but feel awed by his courage in so simple a scene as him crawling into a hole in the rock to hide from the British advancers.

An thrilling revelation of Scotch/English history, a wonderful character sketch, and a crash course in reading Highland Brogue dialect in print, I highly recommend Waverly to anyone who likes Jane Austen, wonderful characters, or bagpipes. I can best close with the words of Ms Austen herself:

"Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones - It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking bread out of other people's mouths. - I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it - but fear I must."

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

I enjoyed Parable of the Talents for the most part, but I didn't think it was as good as its predecessor, Parable of the Sower. There is a lot to recommend it, and it did win the Nebula award while Sower was merely a nominee, but for whatever reason, perhaps the bar being set so high, it wasn't quite everything I had hoped for.

Talents starts out quite slowly. Trudging, plodding through placid communal life in their safe haven of Acorn, I wasn't sure I would be able to finish the book. I was a little tired of the constant threat of danger with very little happening. I'm sure the first 168 pages were setting the stage, and some interesting things do happen, but I had trouble with it. Then, as though it were a roller coaster that just topped the first rise and plunged downward, the book becomes a frantic mess.

The memory of the Branch Davidian compound must have been fresh in Butler's mind when she was writing Talents, because there is a lot of similarity in the destruction of Acorn. Instead of being burned alive for their beliefs, however, they are rounded up, collared, and "reeducated" by Crusaders. Olamina's two-month old daughter is taken away from her, and then they spend around 18 months in a concentration-camp-type setting. When a fortunate accident finally frees them, they are in really bad shape. Her dream of Earthseed has been smashed down, and rather than let it happen again, she and her followers separate and try to reestablish themselves and find their family members that have been given up for adoption and worse.

So once again, the story slows down. Without the constant threat to survival, it sort of lags. I think that every time the focus shifted to building up the idea of Earthseed, and the religion of "God is change" and "let's go live in space," I got a little bored. I hated watching all these nice people getting sucked into this movement as though it were more than a simple idea being turned into something large and unnecessary. Like the beginning, there are some interesting twists that move the plot along, but the pacing was definitely slower. I was really surprised, then, when the most poignant and devastating thing in the book happened just before the ending, actually in the Epilogue. It wasn't someone dying. There was no blood. Instead, it was the discovery of a betrayal that had taken place years before. It was so simple and basic, but it provoked the strongest emotional response of anything that I read.

My final regret is the ending. To me, the technology to become a space-faring people is still hundreds, if not thousands of years in the future (I don't mean little jaunts to the moon here). Yet the dream that Olamina has of seeing people beginning their voyages to the stars is realized during her very lifetime, even though in the first half of her life mankind makes a severe regression in many ways. It's almost like it's tacked on to make the ending more palatable, rather than the dismaying letdown that it seemed to be. Personally, I'd rather see people clean up the earth and become a lot more civilized before they begin taking their habits and corruption across the universe. Even though I've known since I was a kid that eventually we need to leave the earth or be destroyed like the dinosaurs were, I was never crazy about Earthseed, and I derived no joy from seeing it succeed.

I always seem to say this, but read Talents if you read the first book, at least so you can find out what happens. There are surprising twists in the lives of the characters that are worth finding out about. However, if you wouldn't like to watch the lives of good people destroyed by the worst things that could possibly happen to them, then maybe this isn't your book. Similarly, if you dislike watching mankind so easily duped into hating one another by their ignorant fears and prejudices, or if you hate religion being portrayed once again in a science fiction novel as a negative development of humanity, skip this one. But if you do like a dark book, or at least one that is primarily bleak and filled with senseless violence, where main characters aren't spared their share of the pain in the world, this could be a good book for you. Not counting, of course, the optimistic ending tacked on in the final pages.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Disclaimer and Spoiler Alert: I'm new to book reviews because I really haven't written many for about 16 yrs. I'd like to think I did this book review a bit different this time so I hope you'll understand why & bear with me.
When I read, I tend to become emotionally involved in the book and I become part of that world. Perhaps, this happens to everyone but I thought I'd share with you my emotional thoughts as I journeyed through the story. So, there are spoiler's contained in this review but overall I hope you'll get a sense of what I was feeling as I read. Well, here it is:

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë

At the beginning, reading this book was too sad for me and quite painful to imagine how the Reed family around Jane Eyre treated her so cruelly and yet did not seem to realize how it affected her. Jane explains her mistreatment best just prior to her departure from Gateshead for Lowood School as she says: “You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity.” This comment really struck my heart and stayed inside me to ponder it for a while.

One of the most defining times in Jane’s life is at Lowood School. It is not because life is pleasant there but that she notices contrast in the character of people, perhaps for first time, through Miss Temple, who is kind, and Miss Scratcherd, who is quite unpleasant. Jane meets Helen Burns and a beautiful friendship develops. I enjoyed their exchanges and felt as Jane did about Helen that I could’ve listened to her for unlimited amounts of time. I also felt that Helen’s views on life were quite different from Jane’s and that was a learning point for Jane. Helen understood the difference between religion and spirituality. Helen brought this to Jane’s attention and it was something that I also pondered upon. I loved this amazing contrast. I loved this unique bond of friendship between them.

One of the most compelling although quite confusing moments for Jane at this point in the book was when Helen took ill and Jane had to go about her daily life without knowing or understanding just how sick Helen really was. Finally, Jane couldn’t take it and went to see Helen who was now upon her deathbed. I found this to be such an endearing scene and one mark of the true love of friendship when Jane is able to tell Helen how much she means to her and then falls asleep beside her. When Jane wakes up, she is in her usual circumstances in her own room and isn’t told until two days later than Helen passed away beside Jane during that night. I just found that to be remarkably sad yet hauntingly beautiful. It’s something I’ll not forget easily after reading it.

After this experience, Jane continues her life as best she can until Miss Temple marries and leaves Lowood School. At this point, Jane is restless and applies to be a governess. She is hired and travels to Millcote where she is employed at Thornfield, where finally life is pleasant and comfortable for the most part. Adèle is the eight year old French girl that she will be tutoring. It was a lovely scene when Jane meets Adèle and finally interacts with her. I thought Adèle was so charming when she recited poetry and full of life to sing to Jane in spite of being what must’ve been a lonely child inside the walls of Thornfield.

I loved Brontës’ introduction of Mr. Rochester without Jane realizing who he was. I could almost see Jane’s surprised face when she discovers Pilot – the dog in Mrs. Fairfax’s room.

Soon after this Jane gains strange insights into Mr. Rochester and then she is placed in a unique position to save Mr. Rochester’s life. I found it predictable yet necessary that soon after this Jane realizes she is gaining feelings for Mr. Rochester.

Then the potential relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester develops and the plot thickens with its tensions, irregularities & obstacles as Blanche is introduced. The women are completely different and I felt that Mr. Rochester never had feelings for Blanche so that she wasn’t really a threat. The real threat is Mr. Rochester himself and the secrets of Thornfield Hall.

I loved the dream sequences of Jane and knew that conflict was coming. So, the events before the wedding didn’t surprise me. I hated how the events unfolded before the wedding but I was glad they happened in the time frame that they did.

After this incident, I felt it predictable that Jane would move on. This is where you learn the depth and true grit of Jane’s character. Through the rest of her conflicts, you gain a sense of her integrity. I’m glad that Jane had this time, even through her conflicts, and I did enjoy the ending. I’m rather easy to please though and hopeless romantic.

Overall, the book has some magnificently beautiful scenes and I felt it is rather thought-provoking at times. I learned a lot more vocabulary through reading it which helped me feel intelligent. I had a hard time understanding the French contained in the book because I don’t know the language but I was still able to understand what I read in spite of this. I’m glad I read it and I would recommend it because it is a classic.

Mrs. Malory Investigates by Hazel Holt

Mrs. Malory Investigates by Hazel Holt is the first in the series. Picture the English coast side during the holidays where everyone is exchanging pleasantries; so quiet, so quaint, so…deadly. Sheila Malory is an English matron, widowed and staying busy volunteering her time to various needy organizations. She also has a friend Charles who is relationship-challenged, the fact that he's a workaholic doesn't help matters. Yet, he brings good news with the New Year; he's found someone to marry! Okay, so it's not true love, but the next best thing will do. However, when Sheila meets Lee Montgomery, it's a very icy reception, and it's not just the weather outside that's frightful. Nobody likes Lee. Everyone in the little circle thinks she's a gold digging tramp, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. After the holidays, Charles calls Sheila because Lee is MIA. Sheila agrees to check into it *cue ominous music* A day or two later, Sheila finds Lee, dead and unwell. Sheila feels compelled to dig a little deeper and ask a few questions until the murderer is revealed.

This book was everything Murder at the PTA Luncheon wanted to be. I literally zipped through this book. I picked up book, turned to page 1, and before I knew it, I was at the end of the book. It's similar to turning on your favorite show, becoming so engrossed with the story and wondering why the ending credits are rolling. Luckily for me, it's the first in the series and if the author keeps up like this, I've got a good series ahead of me. The writing style is pretty good and the setting is delightful and the characters realistically done. There were just a few areas where the story became predictable. When I watch Murder, She Wrote, it's easy to figure out the killer because s/he drops that vital clue or makes that verbal slip in front of Jessica Fletcher. When will they learn? I figured out the murderer fairly easily, though the motive was a nice twist.