Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Toussaint Louverture by Madison Smartt Bell

Toussaint Louverture - perhaps you have heard of him, perhaps not. Toussaint is the man popularly regarded as the George Washington, as it were, of Haiti, the man who made the nation a possibility.

As far as biography goes, this book was well written, enough. It must be a nightmare to write a bio like this - the first fifty years of this man's life practically don't exist, and after that, as the author quotes Wendell Phillips as saying, his tale is:
"...the story of a negro who has left hardly one written line. I am to glean it from the reluctant testimony of Britons, Frenchmen, Spaniards -- men who despised him as a negro and a slave, and hated him because he had beaten them in many a battle. All the materials from his biography are from the lips of his enemies."

The nightmare kind of shows in the writing, and this can be very frustrating. Frequently, the author will spend a page telling you one of the narratives of an event in his life, then tell you that the narrative might be completely untrue, and present an alternative narrative. Then he'll present a completely different narrative that he puts together from random clues sprinkled here and there through the documentation.

Partly, this is the nature of the Haitian revolution. The American revolution, while it was not beautiful, oftentimes, is easy to tell, historically. The men in this revolution were fairly wealthy, fairly well educated. They had, often, a military that was trained and on even footing with it's foes. And, while the British may have been angry with the colonists, they thought of them as human beings, as people who were mistaken and needed to be brough back into line.

Haiti is a different story. The Haitian revolution was not an idealistic disagreement about taxation. It was the primal uprising of a people who had been ripped from there hoomes and forced wholesale into a life cycle that was little more than torture, a world where it was cheaper to import slaves from Africa than to nourish and care for slaves well enough that they might provide free progeny, a world where *squeamishenss alert* slaves were sometimes punished by stuffing their rectums with gunpowder and lighting it off. Toussaint did some ugly things at times in his career (though nothing compared to Emperor Dessalines, his successor), but it is difficult to judge him - perhaps, as the author quotes one modern Haitian as saying, there are some sins so terrible, they can only be washed away with blood. I don't know.
Toussaint, again, was no saint. He instituted strict labor laws that forced cultivators into a state not much different from slavery (though one can argue over whether that was a neccesity to make the colony survive). He slept around. He lead a government that was awfully corrupt.

But there are two saving graces for him, in my mind - the first is that, again, I do not imagine that the records we have are impartial. They are the records of his enemies, and are probably wont to tell the story in a particular, and not a particularly nice, way. But more than this, I have never, and will never, live in a world as hellish as the one that he overturned. For all the nastiness that ensued, I cannot see that he is the worse offender - or that freedom would neccesarily come at any better price.

The book is a good introduction to both sides of his character, the saint and the demon. It touches upon the meaning behind his actions, the implications of the world he was in, the cultural significance of his dualistic character. If you want a review of a difficult man, this is an excellent, if frustrating, place to start. But, Toussaint is frustrating, to write him any other way is to write fiction of the worst sort.
Toussaint Louverture: A Biography
By: Madison Smartt Bell
Amazon Price: $27.00

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - Bill Bryson

2006; 268 pages. Genre : Fiction. Overall Rating : A.
I'd describe Bill Bryson as a kinder, gentler David Sedaris, although there is still a lot of hyperbole and caustic wit to go around. TL&TotTK is a series of memoirs about Bryson's boyhood days. He was born in 1951, so this is primarily about life in the late 1950's to early 1960's, growing up in Des Moines, Iowa.
What's To Like...
Simply put - this is as hilarious of a book as I've ever read. From cover to cover, I kept laughing out loud, which was distracting to Liz as she read.
And since I was born within a year of Bryson, a lot of his boyhood memories are also mine. Things like : silly putty and slinkies; lincoln logs and model airplanes; Sky King and Roy Rogers; bumper cars and fig newtons; wearing galoshes to school and being sent to the cloakroom; and the widest selection of comic books that any generation ever enjoyed. Last but not least, the stupidest, annoyingest, inanest game/toy that was ever invented - electric football.
What's Not To Like...
Not much, since I give this an "A". Most of the negative reviews seem to come from dittoheads who are irked that Bryson at times reminisces about the political foibles of that time period. Yes, we had hula hoops and TV dinners. But we also had a House of Un-American Activities Committee; rampant segregation, and A-bomb tests in the Nevada desert that spewed radioactive fall-out all over the country. Sorry, guys. That's part of this era as well.
The other negative that got cited a lot - and I happen to agree with this - is that Bryson sprinkles the book with a few too many 4-lettered words. I have no moral objection to that, provided it serves a purpose. Here, it seemed to be forced and unnecessary.
Finally, while those aged 50-65 will relate to this book, there may be a bit of a disconnect for anyone younger.
Where's Billy?
For a popular author with a dozen books to his credit, finding Bryson's books in a bookstore is a daunting challenge. Yeah, I could ask the help desk, but where's the sport in that?
You'd think his books would be filed under "Humor", but neither store did that. TL&TofTK was over in the "Literature" section at Borders, but that was the only Bryson book there. This past weekend, I found a stash of his other books at the used bookstore under "Travel". They're still written in Sedaris-style, but deal with living in England, hiking the Appalachian Trail, and/or traveling around Australia. He has a couple linguistic-themed books to his credit, and I still haven't found where either store stashes those.
I don't think I've enjoyed a book this much since Slaughterhouse Five. I can see me going on a Bryson kick for the next few months. If you want to get a feel for the bright side of the 1955-65 decade, this is as good as it gets. As for its darker side, well, that's what the book I'm reading now is all about.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir
By: Bill Bryson
Amazon Price: $14.95

Saturday, September 27, 2008

New Amazon Linking Script

Hi all! As Amanda mentioned previously, I've been developing a script to automatically link book reviews to Amazon, so that you can easily buy a book you find interesting. You may have seen me past in a number of manual links over the last while. The auto-linking script is now complete, so I should be able to update these more quickly, and with a consistent style. A few things for you to know:

1) In order for the script to properly link you, please make sure that your title is in one of the two following formats:

The Greatest Book Ever by Amanda Gignac


The Greatest Book Ever - Amanda Gignac

If you don't follow this format, it's fine, there will just not be a link to Amazon on that particular review.

2) Spelling in title and author are, of course, of penultimate importance

3) If a book has more than one edition out, any version of it may show up in the Amazon link. If one shows up that seems odd - say, an audio-book, or a collector's edition, or something - feel free to let me know, and point out a better one, and I'll update it by hand. As a general rule, it should choose a reasonable edition, but if not, my apologies.

Thanks again, everybody, for your patience. Hopefully this will be a fun little addition to the blog!

Jason Gignac

*Note from Amanda - if you put italics tags in your title, the automatic script running here will strip them out. This is a Google/Blogger program bug that Jason can't work around, at least at this time. He's going to see if anyone else has found a way to work around this, but at this point, the italics will be stripped out. You're more than welcome to re-add them after the advertisement shows up on your post. They'll stick after you re-add them. Hopefully we'll find a fix for this. If the whole thing becomes too cumbersome, we'll just say nevermind and take the ads off altogether. Sorry for the trouble.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pirates of the Universe - Terry Bisson

1996; 285 pages. Genre : Post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Awards : A New York Times 1996 Notable Book of the Year. Overall Rating : C+.
In an energy-depleted world, the Ranger "Gun" hopes to make one more space-harvest and earn admission into the fantasy-park retirement-community owned by Disney-Windows called "Pirates of the Universe". Unfortunately, his bank account's been frozen; his e-mail is blocked; his brother's a runaway convict; and his family's being forced out of their home. Plus someone wants him to join a revolution, although Gun's not sure exactly who, and what it is revolting against.
What's To Like...
It's set in a post-apocalyptic world; it has dimension-travel (one of my favorite pastimes); and Gunther's spaceship is the U.S.S. Penn State, named after one of my alma maters. Kewlness.
A subtle humor permeates the book. For instance, the pricey virtual ...um... pleasure girl (who is accessed via a potent opiate) is copy-protected. So you can cyber-enjoy her company, but you aren't allowed to retain her image in your memory.
You run into a host of new terms here - Peteys, Gens, Doggits, The Tangle, the Overworld, Softies, Rangers, Sierras, Fundamentals, the Protocols, The Three, Disney-Windows, et al. Bisson's style here "assumes" you are already familiar with these. Some, like D-W, are easy to deduce. Others...
What's Not To Like...
PotU is a slow-read. You spend a lot of time trying to figure out all those new terms. I'm still not sure what a gen is. Neither is Gun.
The bigger weakness is the storyline itself. It's kinda like the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The book keeps plodding along, right up until the very end. Then the "this changes everything" moment occurs, and... and... and then the book (or movie, in the case of CEot3K) ends. What a letdown. Some of us like to read/see the other side of "this changes everything".
This was the NYT's 1996 Notable Book of the Year??
Terry Bisson is the author who finished Walter Miller's sequel ("midquel", actually) to A Canticle for Liebowitz, when WM had the misfortune to pass away after spending several decades getting the midquel about 95% done. I still haven't found that one, and PotU was the only Bisson work the used bookstore had.
According to Wikipedia, Bisson mostly does short stories. He's won a Hugo and a Nebula Award. He's only written a couple full-length novels, one of which is PotU. Frankly, this would've been better done as a short story. The 225-page build-up - while amusing, well-written, witty, and oozing with satire - could've been distilled down to 50 pages, followed by a 50-page boffo climax.
Still, it is reasonably well-done, with lots of things to chuckle at and to puzzle out. And, like A Canticle for Liebowitz, PotU is done in a very unique style. That makes it a worthwhile read for Sci-Fi fans and people interested in unusual literary techniques. For everyone else, this might be an "optional" read.
Pirates of the Universe
By: Terry Bisson
Amazon Price: $12.95

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Shadow Isle by Katherine Kerr

I'iiiim baaaack...

and I don't have much time right now to compose a review. So let's see if I can succeed at a little brevity for once.

Basically, this is the most recent novel in Katherine Kerr's series of Deverry novels. I started in the series years ago and have liked it enough to stay with it, although as is the case with most sprawling series, they tend to drag at you more and more each time a new one comes out.

Hurricane Ike took out our power, but that was all I needed to get back into the habit of reading. With a good booklight and no job for a few days, I actually put away two books in about a week. Yay me. The library will be especially glad to have their book returned (and after only two renewals).

So, I see this series as more of a guilty pleasure or fanclub fiction than anything. I have really enjoyed the books, especially in the beginning, but at the same time, they have blended together so much that even after just finishing The Shadow Isle, I can hardly recall what took place in it. I still want to read about Rhodry, Jill, and Nevyn, but unfortunately, two of them have died and reincarnated into new characters by this time, and the other has been transformed into a dragon, and seems to be stuck with a dilemma of returning to human form or remain a wyrm.

So, yeah, I said that the characters reincarnate. Think soap opera, but instead of miraculous "he didn't die, his surgeons reattached his head and he's been in recovery for the last 20 years" situations, people do die, but come back quickly as a new child, strangely close enough to still be interacting with other souls from previous lives. Sometimes they remember little bits, or feel strange likes/dislikes for people they've never (or so they think) met before.

It is all Celtic fantasy, and I believe Kerr (any relation to Steve Kerr from the Spurs?) does a good job of capturing their culture, mythology, speech, etc. Then again, my knowledge of Celtic culture is about as dismal as my knowledge of most other cultures, and it wouldn't take much to fool me. About the only thing I can say to defend my belief that she's authentic is that she is quite consistent, so that it seems genuine. Plus other people say it's authentic. Personally, and this may bother some people, I'm not even sure on the correct pronunciation of the word "Celtic" thanks to Boston (two basketball references in the same post?). And is there a difference between that and Gaelic?

Well, mix in a few races (horsekin, elves, dwarves, and otherland creatures like gnomes), a very feudal society like medieval England, dweomer (magic), and reincarnation, and you've got a different sort of tale. But it will get to be too much in the end, perhaps like remembering which Hardy Boys novel such-and-such happened in. There is a handy reincarnation chart in the back, but it becomes a tangled web anyway, and unlike other readers, I'm much too lazy to really get all the relationships figured out. Leave that for the women.

So I enjoyed it, but only marginally so. As the third book in the subset "Silver Wyrm" grouping of Deverry novels, I was hoping to find a conclusion to the battles with the horsekin, but instead I felt like the plot only advanced a little. The upcoming war is still pretty upcoming, though there was a skirmish. For now, it will have to do.

Perhaps I'm daft (a frequent adjective from the series), but I will continue reading it because I like it. On the other hand, I can't see much reason for anyone to read The Shadow Isle, because if the series intrigues you, you should go to the beginning and get what seems to be a more dramatic introduction to the lives of the people of Deverry.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Thunderstruck - Erik Larson

2006; 392 pages. Genre : Animated Non-fiction. Overall Rating : B.
Thunderstruck combines two stories - one technical; the other sensational. The technical tale tells about Guglielmo Marconi and his work to develop "wireless telegraphy". The sensational tale concerns one Hawley Crippin, a diminuitive henpecked husband who one night decided "Enough is enough", and... well, we'll leave that as a teaser. The setting for both tales is London around the dawn of the 20th century. The tie-in between the two tales doesn't become evident until about 75% of the way thru the book, but it's there.
What's To Like...
Larson meticulously researches both stories. He includes a separate Notes section at the close of the book, in case anyone wants to check his souces. The whole thing is well-written, and in a unique style. More on that later.
The chapters/subsections jump back & forth between the two stories, which some may find confusing, especially since the timelines don't exactly match up with each other. But I've read some Alt History books that try to carry a dozen simultaneous storylines or so (yuck!), so only two tales is childsplay to me.
Larson gives you a fabulous feel for life 100 years ago. This is the third book he's done in the 1890-1910 era, and they all immerse you that period. Also, his character development is top-notch. In their own ways, both Marconi and Crippen are flawed characters. Indeed, you may find more empathy for the latter than the former.
What's Not To Like...
To fully enjoy this book, you had better like both the "True Crime" and the "Technical Science" genres. That narrows the target audience down quite a bit.
It must be said that Thunderstruck is a slow-read, especially the technical parts. Oh, and a word about the 50 pages of notes. That's a lot of pulp-&-paper used up for the sake of them. Hey Erik, why not post the notes online? 99% of us don't give a hoot, and the 1% that does will hopefully be internet-literate. The Trees thank you in advance.
A unique style...
I struggled to think of an apt descriptor for this genre, until I read a review that calls it "animated non-fiction". Ça marche. I've read works of fiction where the author endeavored to make it read like it was real. This is just the opposite : non-fiction where the Larson makes it read like it's a novel. He "invents" dialogue and deduces moods and emotions. Presumably all of this is a consequence of his researching.
He employs this same style in his three most-popular books. I don't know of anybody else that uses this format. Of course, I don't read that much non-fiction, so who knows. FWIW, the intertwining tales in the other two books are : The development of the US National Weather Bureau coupled with the killer 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston (6,000-12,000 dead) ("Isaac's Storm") ; and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair coupled with a serial killer named H.H. Holmes ("The Devil in the White City"). I recommend all of these, provided that you like the disparate genres.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Finally, a magic story with, well, magic. I tried to read a few fantasy books a few weeks with witches in them, with the only thing lacking was, er, witchcraft. This is the second in the Harry Dresden series.

Harry's in a pretty bad bind. His wizard business isn't going well, Karrin Murphy (his link in Chicago PD) isn't talking to him, and there's a full moon. Don't worry, Harry, your luck is about to change, unfortunately, it's from bad to worse. Though when trouble hits Harry Dresden, it hits pretty good, lucky for him, he can hit back. Murphy finally gets in touch with Harry and brings him to the scene of the crime. Good news is, the killer left a print behind. Bad news is, it's a paw print, a very large paw print. Harry quickly surmises there's a werewolf on the loose. Actually, there's quite a few, but more on that later. Anyway, the FBI show up, sans Mulder and Scully, and quickly declare the crime scene their turf and they seem to be taking this more personal than usual. But Harry and Murphy have enough information and Murphy reveals there've been a lot of killings during the last few full moons.

Bob, the spirit in a skull which is Harry's helper, I'd guess you'd call him that. Bob instructs Harry on the ways of magic, how to make potions, and can find information for him. He doesn't always do this willingly and can be pretty snippy. I like Bob. Bob informs Harry there are several types of werewolves. One that uses magic to change into a werewolf, such as a wizard knowing only one spell. Another who uses some kind of magic object to change into a werewolf, such as a belt or a talisman. There's also another kind who turns into a werewolf due to a family curse, kind of like an heirloom. Harry discovers he's dealing with all three types of these.

After being lead to one pack going through some management hostile takeovers, Harry makes himself target for the alpha dog. Realizing they had nothing to do with the murders because they can change at will, Harry tracks down some more leads. Turns out there's a man who's family was cursed years ago, centuries, even, into turning into a werewolf. He wants a doggie park during the full moon rampages so he's been buying up lots of land. Yet, one of the people he's been buying from might have been trying to snooker him, hence the first set of victims Harry comes across. The guy's partner, Marcone (not a nice guy) might be next, who Harry dealt with in the last book. But is Marcone in on it? While tracking the werewolf down, Harry runs into the werewolf's fiancee. They had a circle to contain the werewolf, but someone destroyed it. Harry smells a setup, but not just for the werewolf. Murphy shows up at the guy's house and locks Harry up and the werewolf. The fiancee helps Harry escape and they get to the police station in time for the werewolf to change and trample the police station. The werewolf leaves the station, giving Harry, the fiancee and her pack, and Harry's friend, Susan, time to regroup. But they're not the only ones. Another pack is staking their claim and plan to use Harry as bait, willingly or not. Eventually, Harry figures things out and works his magic to set things right or as right as he can make it. He's a wizard, but magic can't fix everything.

I caught this series on SciFi last year and really liked the show. Naturally, the show's been cancelled, so I decided to read the books and see with this series came from. I am not disappointed. Butcher does a real good job of creating Harry's world and sticking to his guidelines. Harry faces many challenges, professionally, personally, and wizardly. This is one of the few series I've read that actually uses magic and the magical creatures aren't caricatures or a rehash of what the author thinks is funny or stupid in society. Butcher is also good at keeping up the tension, which I tend to have little patience with, so he gets high marks on that. I knew Harry would get out of the situation, but to do it sans deus ex machina takes imagination and skill. Butcher has plenty in the series, so I've got plenty to look forward to.

Death is in the Air by Kate Kingsbury

It's back to Sitting Marsh and Manor House to see how Lady Elizabeth Hartleigh Compton is faring with the American GIs. Apparently, not so good, especially with an enemy German pilot who parachuted to safety or not, through in a murder for good measure and you'll smell Death in the Air.

While Lady Elizabeth is getting her hair done, a German pilot's plane crashes and he lands near the woods, Elizabeth and company watch and ponder what to do with the pilot. Yet, the war is tough on everyone and soon one of the ladies figures his parachute is made out of silk, real silk. These ladies have their priorities in line and instantly attack … the parachute. The German runs off into the woods while the ladies are otherwise distracted, he saw what they did to the silk and figures he'll be next in line if he sticks around. Elizabeth returns home to her own troubles: plumbing problems (the Manor's not hers), the Yanks staying at her Manor, and now her butler believes Elizabeth's father's ghost is roaming the halls. As if the Lady of the Manor doesn't have enough to deal with, the body of one of the land girls turns up dead. The village firmly believe the German pilot is the guilty party and sees no reason to look further for suspects, but Elizabeth feels otherwise. Confident in her sleuthing skills from the first book, Bicycle Built for Murder, Elizabeth decides to poke around. Also, in order to improve relations between the Yanks and the Brits, she decides to throw a dance, which ultimately results in a brawl. Needless to say, Elizabeth solves the case, the German is caught and turned over to the proper authorities, and Elizabeth is awarded two Basset Hound puppies for her troubles.

Reading Kingsbury is a delight. The story flows so smoothly, I zipped through the book and was finished before I realized it. Reading this series is like watching an old television show. I get involved with the characters so much, the story just floats by and I have to remember if I read anything. Looking forward to the next one in the series.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

question for everyone

Hey guys. Sorry for the totally non-book review post. Normally I wouldn't do that but I have a question as moderator to ask everyone. Jason (my husband for those who don't know that) is in a class in school this year that requires him to work on a "distributed system" project. Don't ask me what that means. It's computer related. Anyway, one of his choices is to build a program for webpages to interact with Amazon and he thought about making a code to put in each book review, so that a link to the book on Amazon as well as the list price would appear at the bottom of the review. That way viewers can click on the link if they're interested. The program has to be fully functional for his grade and all, and I'm real sketchy on the details - I think that after you guys post, he'd have to go in and add the code at the bottom. Anyway, I didn't want to give it the go ahead without everyone's permission. Would anyone mind if we do that? If Jason put a code at the bottom of your book reviews? If anyone objects, he certainly wouldn't touch your reviews. Please leave me a comment to let me know how you feel about this (good or bad, okay or not okay). And it's okay if you're against it - he can always make the program for school and set it up on a false webpage instead of this blog. He just thought it might enhance our blog, too, if we liked the idea.

If you want the technical explanation of what he's doing, ask in the comments and Jason will give you the run-down. It's completely over my head.

He made me this example based on the technology Amazon already has. Jason's program would interact with their current technology, and what would appear on our blogs would look something like this:

And in completely unrelated news, Rebecca Reid has given us a Book Blogger Appreciation Week should-have-been-nominated nomination shout-out. Uh, yes, that's convoluted but I don't know how else to phrase it. See the post here. She says about us: "5-Squared is a group blog, which means there are a variety of book reviews by a number of different people. I really enjoy the variety of reviews." Anyway, I just wanted to let all you guys know and to give a public thank you to Rebecca for her support.


Added later - it seems just about everyone thinks this school project of Jason's is fine, so we're going ahead with it. The ads will change over time as he works on more of his project to customize it. If you have an issue with him going into your particular posts to add this (in other words, if you haven't already left an objection here), please leave a comment and I will get it. We'll make sure he won't touch your posts. Thanks.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

reviewed by Amber Shockley

If ever there was an example of a cautionary tale, this is it.

In her 1985 novel, Atwood imagines a society in which an extreme set of religious values have taken over. Women are categorized according to their economic status and/or the viability of their ovaries. The latter are scant due to some apocalyptic event that is not described in any detail. Drawing on stories from the bible, thus defending their actions as based upon biblical principal, the society essentially forces women who are fertile to serve as baby producers, handmaids, for women of a higher standing who are not. The handmaids are stripped of all identity, even forced to take the names of their "commanders," for example, "Offred" (of Fred), the heroine of the novel.

It is difficult to name Offred heroine, however, because she is in such an impossible situation. By the end of her account, the world has not been saved.

Atwood has created a feminist dystopia, an antithesis to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland published seventy years previously. Even today, or especially today, Atwood's Tale is sure to spark thought and debate, as it should.

As a feminist and a person of faith, I can imagine that religious conservatives, especially fundamentalists, would be offended by the accusation that modern day life which mimics biblical events could result in the total subjugation of women, yet I find that this work illuminates for us all exactly how religion, especially religious texts, could/can be applied with horrific results.

Perhaps the most chilling part of this novel is the last few pages, wherein a group of academics living even further into the future look back on the events described in the novel in much the same way that we treat history today - with detachment and arrogance. This is a necessary read. - 5 stars

Lilith, by George MacDonald

"Our life is no dream, but it should and will, perhaps, become one."

Imagine, for a moment, that Pilgrim's Progress was rewritten by JRR Tolkien in the meandering style of Charles Dickens. You'd get Lilith. Sort of. Even that is not a perfect comparison, I don't think I've ever read anything quite like Lilith.

The story is based on the old myth of Lilith - for those who never heard it during the Lilian craze of the mid-90's - is fairly simple. Adam's first wife was not Eve, but Lilith - Lilith, though, in a sin whose exact nature varies, but which is usually of a prideful nature, often having some sexual nature, is not cast from the Garden of Eden, but willfully leaves it, and her husband, behind. In some myths, she is then the serpent who tempts Eve to eat the fruit, in others she marries Satan, but in almost all, she becomes a demoness, a vampire, usually. Google Search for Lilith brings up so many images of busty succubi that I finally gave up, and just searched for Eden instead...

MacDonald is widely acknowledged as the father of modern fantasy, but this is fantasy far different than what we've come to know. It was, however, a huge influence for people like Tolkien, CS Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, and others, and it shows - there is a sense of epic sweep, a certain idolization of the magical, and a lush drama to the characters that feels familiar to this reader. But, there is something else, here, something that hearkens back to the old morality tale, a sense of the blatantly symbolic that is passe now, but that in the book is powerfully felt, because it's clear that the author believes it.

MacDonald was a theologist, and it shows in his work - it's this sens of theology that makes him, probably, the first of the great Mythopoeist novelists. There is a richness of world to this novel that speaks to the work of a careful creator, and a very deliberate sort of author. It is one of the only books I've read that I felt like was really convincing in it's resolution of the question of why an endlessly loving god would allow suffering in the world.

The book is not perfect. It's certainly rather confusing at the beginning, and eventually one just starts glazing over mysteries, because there are so many. I at one point, just assumed that not everything would be explained, but I think it all was, which is both a triumph, and a weakness. The novel, though, is lovely, inasmuch as it makes you dream of things in the grandest of ways, it makes you dream at the edges of the dreams of God.

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

reviewed by Amber Shockley

Following on the heels of her recent debut Garden Spells, we have Sarah Addison Allen's new novel The Sugar Queen. Allen uses her same recipe of strong-willed female characters, with a little sugar, a little spice, and a good dose of magical realism thrown in. The time, Allen moves into a slightly darker realm with what, despite its sticky sweet title, is ultimately realized to be a ghost story.

Josey is the wealthy, lonely daughter of an aged, controlling mother. She has no social life beyond her mother's hair appointments. Josey starts to spread her wings when a rough, worn woman named Della Lee shows up in her closet to teach her, ironically, a lesson about living. Along the way, a cast of supporting characters provide proper diversion from the main plot.

Allen seems to have found her niche with magical realism, which she blends into her stories effortlessly, elevating them above what could otherwise be classified as romance or possibly chick lit. Readers can expect another engaging experience with Allen's sophomore novel, yet I was somewhat disappointed to be served the same ingredients mushed up to bake a different story. Sometimes when an author finds a formula or gimmick, it works. It works again, and again, to critical and reader acclaim. I like to see a writer expand past what they have done and put something new on the menu.

In this case, Allen seems to have planted herself firmly in place. Granted, that place is not a bad place to be. I don't regret reading the novel; it was enjoyable. I guess this time I just wasn't as excited because there wasn't anything new to get excited about. -3 stars

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Traveler - John Twelve Hawks

2005; 480 pages. Genre : Dystopian Sci-Fi. Overall Rating : B.
The plot is easy to summarize : The Orwellian Big-Brother types (the "Tabula") are trying to exterminate the Dimension-Hoppers (the "Travelers"), who are protected by Highlander-type Ninjas (the "Harlequins").
Actually, the Tabula have pretty much won already. There are only 3-4 Harlequins left alive, so we follow one of them - a young, beautiful Ninja babe named Maya - as she tries to keep two sons of a Traveler alive long enough to determine whether they inherited the gift.
What's To Like...
There's lots of action; there's decent character development; and there's some nasty mutant killer-animals called "splicers". There are some good points about how thoroughly we are monitored nowadays (surveillence cameras, credit cards, and hey, even library cards), and it is interesting to see what steps Maya takes to avoid detection.
Although the bad guys are pure evil, Maya isn't your perfect Mary-Sue. And of course, there's dimension-travel. Twelve Hawks apparently uses a Buddhist model for this. There are six dimensions here - Gods, Demi-Gods, Humans, Animals, Hungry Ghosts, and Hell.
What's Not To Like...
The storyline is fairly obvious. It turns out this is Book One of an intended trilogy, and I can pretty much tell you how the relationship between Maya and the two brothers is going to end. BTW, Book 3 isn't out yet, and Book 2 is reportedly lots of action and no plot-advancement, so my fear is that Twelve Hawks is setting this up to be more than a trilogy.
Considering it's a central point in the book, there's not a lot of dimension-traveling here. The only other plane that is visited is the "Hungry Ghost" one, and that world is given only shallow treatment.
Twelve Hawks is a pseudonym, and apparently there is much speculation as to his/her identity. This seems like publisher's hype, or maybe J12H just doesn't want to do the endless promotional stuff that goes with hawking one's novels. No matter. The story may be compelling, but the writing itself feels high-schoolish. Like something James Patterson would pen. And that's not a compliment.
Personal Security vs. Privacy
I watched a commercial yesterday - by Duracell, I think. Mother and child are at the park, when Mom suddenly realizes that Junior isn't around. She panics, then realizes that she's got a GPS locator, powered of course by a Duracell battery. She presses the button, the GPS gives her the location of Junior, and there's a happy ending as she goes to the indicated place and finds him.
I wonder if there was a subtler message being given in that commercial. The GPS thingy (IIRC) hung around Junior's neck. But we already implant GPS microchips in pets, and I predict it won't be long before a movement is made to do the same to/for our kids. The premise will be that if someone snatches him/her, they can be traced and rescued. The kidnappers can easily detect and dispose of a GPS worn around the neck. But locating it under the skin - not so easy.
That sure sounds parentally praiseworthy, but the flipside is that any child with an implanted locator can then be monitored and tracked for the rest of his life by anyone with access to the GPS signal. Like the parents. Or the government. Or one's employer. Which leads to the question - how much privacy are we willing to forego in order to have more security? And in the end, do we really gain any more security at all?
But I digress. The Traveler is a decent book, and beyond the story itself, gives us some chilling insight into how easily we could find ourselves in a world where we are constantly monitored. However, it won't be displacing Brave New World or 1984 when it comes to the standard in dystopian novels. It held my attention okay, but when I saw Book 2 (The Dark River) at the used-bookstore yesterday, I didn't have any great urge to buy it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Wild Nights, by Joyce Carol Oates

Well... Ms Oates is one of the greatest writers that writes the way she writes. A lot of people write this way, but of the ones I've experienced, she's one of the best. It's a shame I don't really enjoy this style of writing, because if I did, I'm sure I'd be able to more effectivel rave.

As it is, I will say that Ms Oates obviously knows her stuff. the artistry in these pieces is well done, the research is obviously exhaustive, she spent along time making a very authentic, convincing imitation of some of the most well known voices in American History. There are five stories in this book, each telling, in turn, about the 'final days' of five famous writers: Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. Some stories are better than others, or at least I enjoyed them more than others, but all are fairly well assembled.

Perhaps 'enjoyed' is not neccesarily the right word. Oates's stories are not 'enjoyable.' They're enjoyable in a lurid, voyeuristic kind of way, like staring at someone with a terrible birth defect is 'enjoyable', inasfar as people choose, voluntarily, to do it for no noticeable reward. But, they're messy, unpleasant stories, and they leave you feeling messy and unpleasant. That can be a good thing, I don't mean to imply that it isn't. The Dickinson story (which is how I was introduced to this book) is exceptionally chilling, and tells me, at least, a lot about the wayy that we treat Dickinson in specific, and the idea of the mysterious feminine in general.

But, the problem is, again, this is a very specific type of book, they type where even on a secluded island far away from any other human beings, a story about isolation, Edgar Allen Poe will somehow end up having sex (and we'll leave it at that). It's the kind of book where we get a description of Henry James mopping up human offal off a hospital floor. And it's more than that, because I don't mind reading about unpleasant things. It's that... I don't know, it's hard to place. It's like, underneath the narrative voice, you can almost feel the author's luxurious sort of sneer, waiting for you enjoy the book so it can smirk at you. Like Lolita without the sense of humor.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Meet Your Match

Meet Your Match by Stephanie Fowers was such a fun book. It takes place on the campus of Brigham Young University (BYU) where I went to college. It brought back a lot of fun memories of good times.

There is a lot of lingo associated with the BYU culture, and it is a central part of the book. Reading this book reminded me of lot of that lingo, but there is also a lot of new ones I'm not familiar with. I guess a lot changes in 13 years!
The story revolves around Jacqueline who wants to prove that nice guys can finish first. This leads to a wager with Britton who thinks that jerks always come out on top. This results in a series of manipulations to prove their point. It's a really fun book, and for me it was a trip down memory lane. However, it might not be as enjoyable for someone to read if they're not familiar with all the lingo and unique cultural references.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

To close the cover of this little book
Is tantamount to falling back asleep -
You've just undreamed the vision you were in,
And claw your way back into Morpheus hall,
To seek a one amongst the mass of all,
Like Orpheus, in Hades, and like he
You cannot help but stop and look behind
E'en though it leaves you staring at a loss
That could have been a gain.
I read this book,
First through when I was newly giv'n a son,
(My third to be precise). I read aloud,
The slow sweet cant of iambs, as I rocked
To put the child asleep. Some nights I strained
Against Ms Barret's bit. Some nights I thought
How nice 'twould be to do more important things
Than whisper in that newly fashioned ear.
I cannot say I read it with my heart -
My wife and mother in law one day remarked
It had the droning rhythm of a chant
Of Catholic priest, in oft-repeated mass.
The mother I cannot say, but as for wife
I do not think she meant a compliment.

But even so, it swept me up at times
In a time when I took care to not be swept
And I remembered dearest Marian Erle,
And knew enough to think the naming odd
Of Voldemort, and Lady Waldemar -
Are v's and ld's and ar's so fraught with ill?

But reading it again, I peeped across
The startling vista of a novel of verse -
A tale of love, perhaps? A tale of love!
As if Midsummer's Eve were a tale of flowers!
As if the Bible were a tale of sand!
The horse is there, without the fiery brand!

Aurora Leigh is 'daughter of her age'
A phrase I borrow from Virginia Woolf
Who uttered it, and promptly was ignored
To leave the book behind perhaps to rot -
The memory of the wife of someone great
(For Robert Browning kept her for a wife!
If keeping is the word for such a love)

It was recovered - I will not say how
Suffice to say, that politics came in.
As lovely as the cause, I like to dream
That such a pretty creature, lived, herself
To find a home in bookshelves like my own.

To read Aurora Leigh is to regret
That you have ever written a conceit.
To read Aurora Leigh is to be glad
That others wrote, and told you how to truth.

It isn't perfect. Daughter of it's age
It wears a petticoat with too much flounce
It buttons up it's neck a bit too high
Sometimes it dreams too long and moves too short.
But somehow, all it's faults render it whole
A less imperfect piece would be less sweet.
The starch bears symbolism far too deep
For any poet to grasp out consciously.

The picture, by the way, is not my own
(Who knew I wasn't female, narrow-necked
or pretty when I sleep?) It bore a line
That broke my heart when I read it as well:

Earth's crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries

And after Good Ms Brownings better feet
Of iamb, I perhaps had best conclude
Content to say, that poetry - or faith -
Is best restored by Browning - and a line
or two, or maybe seventeen

The heavens were making room to hold the night,
The sevenfold heavens unfolding all their gate
To let the stars out slowly (prophesied
In close-approaching advent, not discerned),
While still the cue-owls from the cypresses
Of the Poggio called and counted every pulse
Of the skyey palpitation. Gradually
The purple and transparent shadows slow
Had filled up the whole valley to the brim,
and flooded all the city which you saw
As some drowned city in some enchanted sea,
Cut off from nature, -Drawing you who gaze,
With passionate desire, to leap and plunge,
And find a sea-king with a voice of waves,
And treacherous soft eyes, and slippery locks
You cannot kiss but you shall bring away
Their salt upon your lips.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops? - George Carlin

2004, 295 pages. Genre : Stand-up Comedy. Overall Rating : D+.
WWJBTPC? is the last of three books that Carlin put out between 1997 and 2004. It also happens to be his last book period, since he passed away last June. It is the first Carlin book I've read, and is also available as an audio book, with Carlin himself doing the reading.
WWJBTPC? is a plethora of Carlin sketches, some of which are transcribed from his recent stand-up acts. It is less witty than I remember his performances. Wikipedia claims that he chose the title because it offends three major religions. Somehow, that seems to sum up the tone and intent of this book.
What's To Like...
If you have ADD, this is a great read. The maximum length per sketch is about three pages. If he wants to expound on a longer theme (for instance : "euphemisms"), he breaks it down into smaller parts and distributes it throughout the book.
There are some funny parts. One of the best is the recurring "Bits & Pieces", which is simply a couple pages (each) of one-, two-, and three-liners. Here's one of them :
"When it comes to God's existence, I'm not an atheist and I'm not an agnostic. I'm an acrostic. The whole thing puzzles me." Good stuff from the man who invented the term "frisbeetarian".
Oh yeah, Wal Mart initially refused to sell this book because it was too offensive. And the fundies are disturbed by it. Those are two good reasons to read it.
What's Not To Like...
Frankly, 95% of WWJBTPC? isn't funny. Or even witty. It's just bitter. I know this is "shock comedy", and I know Carlin was heavily influenced by Lenny Bruce. But to be honest, I never found Lenny Bruce to be funny either.
Here's an example :
"Incredibly, there was no Hitler. There is no record of any such person. It's true, there was a little German man with a small moustache who combed his hair to one side and started World War II. He also killed six million Jews. But he was not Hitler. He was, in fact, a shoemaker named Hank Fleck."
If there is redeeeming virtue and/or humor in that little diatribe, I can't find it.
Maybe the audio book is more humorous. Other reviewers say his earlier two books, Brain Droppings and Napalm & Silly Putty, are better. I guess I picked the wrong book to get introduced to Carlin.
In the end, too much of WWJBTPC? just isn't funny. And reading a stand-up comedy book that isn't humorous is like watching Pamela Anderson do a Baywatch episode wearing a burqa. Both are pointless. Skip this one, but if you come across either of his other books, they may be worthwhile.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Spare Change by Aubrey Mace

Riley is tired of making New Year's resolutions, but with the insistence of her mother, she makes a resolution to put her spare change into a jar every day and buy herself something at the end of the year.
She works in a cancer treatment center and soon finds a better place to put that spare change. So, she begins saving her money to donate it to the cancer treatment center. Her small resolution grows as others become aware of her idea. People start giving her jars of change which she puts toward her fund. As the year progresses, more and more people become involved and soon she has amassed a large quantity of change. Changing the coins into bills becomes a challenge with the grouchy, but cute bank teller. And there is also a secret admirer that leaves pennies and notes for her to find.
Overall, I really liked this book. It was charming and fun to read. I liked seeing how her small act of kindness grew and others were eager to join in. The unfolding of the romance between Riley and Paul, the bank teller, occurred naturally. The story and characters were well developed, but I think there could have been more details in unfolding the storyline. For example, during their first date, it says, 'our conversation was lively,' and I think this could have been expounded. What did they say? How was it lively? Also, I found too many adverbs describing how things were said-cheerily, sincerely, dramatically, angrily. I would have liked to see half as many adverbs.
Those things aside, I really enjoyed the book. I was willing to look past those small flaws and enjoyed the telling of a really fun story.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

True Believer by Nicholas Sparks

Nicholas Sparks is a best-selling author--New York Times Bestselling author. This is only the second Sparks book that I've read, and I was not very impressed. Jeremy Marsh is a successful New York journalist who has uncovered supernatural hoaxes. He's sent to a small town to investigate mysterious lights in a cemetery that many people think are ghosts. There, he meets the town librarian-Lexie- and is intrigued by her. Basically, it's the cliched big city guy meets small town girl and they clash. Can they get past that and still get together. Who will sacrifice if neither wants to live where the other one does?
I thought the characters were very cliched. It was a slow-moving story and the explanation for the mysterious lights was a let-down. The writing itself was not very good. There were many cliches, showing, not telling, and a large amount of adverbs. Also, there were perpetual POV changes which really bugged me. I don't think I'm a big fan of Nicholas Sparks and really can't figure out why he's such a best-selling author. I have another book checked out by him and am debating whether I will read it.
Also, I was somewhat expecting a sad ending because Nicholas Sparks tends to do that to you, at least in the movies I've seen. So, I was glad that there was no sad ending, but I did find out there is a sequel which I am in no way going to read. And, there is a sad ending in that one, from what I've read on Amazon.

Books by Melissa Senate

So, Amanda guilted me into doing book reviews for some books I've been reading lately. I've hesitated to post my reviews because while some of you are reading books like Of Mice and Men, I've been reading books with titles like See Jane Date. Really, that's the title. See, I've been on a big 'Chick Lit' reading kick. I know that Chick Lit can be inane, and self-indulgent, and shallow, but I just love that stuff. It's like candy, and I love candy. So, here are 2 titles I've read recently--See Jane Date and Love You to Death, both by Melissa Senate.

See Jane Date is about a woman named Jane who works for a publisher and is put in charge of editing her old-high school nemesis, Natasha's memoir. Along with having to put up with the Gant (as she calls Natasha), she has been invited to her younger cousin's lavish wedding and can't help but feel a little jealous. She hopes to snag a date for the wedding, so her friend proceeds to set her up with an assortment of really bad dates.

What I love about Chick Lit is the funny, self-effacing characters and the quirky circumstances they find themselves in. This was an enjoyable read. It was a little slow moving, but kept my attention. Jane was a likeable character you could root for. And, in the end she finds she's misjudged a few people. No deep message here, just a fun read.

The next book by Melissa Senate I read was Love You to Death. Abby's ex-boyfriend turns up dead and she's the main suspect. Several of her exes have also been threatened, and all the evidence points to her. All of the exes have been huge jerks, like dating her to get her to write a story about their business in her magazine or like stranding her in a department store while pretending to try on clothes.

As she is being investigated, her family and friends begin to doubt her. What makes things worse is the lead investigator is the guy she had a huge crush on in high school. I liked this book because it blended Chick Lit with mystery, and that was fun. Again, just a fun read and more candy. Did I mention I like candy?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Days Of Infamy - Harry Turtledove

2004; 520 pages. Genre : Alternate History. Overall rating : C
In DoI, Turtledove examines an alternate timeline where Japan, instead of just raiding Pearl Harbor on 07 Devember 1941, successfully invades and occupies the islands of Hawaii. DoI is the first of two books on this (does that make it a 'bilogy'?), covering the invasion and about 12 months after that.
What's To Like...
Turtledove is at his best when he's describing military stuff - the planes, the ships, and the strategies that would be involved in conquering Hawaii. But beyond the fighting, he also looks at a number of other topics. Among them are : the racial stereotyping that both the USA and Japan were guilty of; the Hawaiians yearning for their own sovereignty again; the pull that one's homeland has, even when one has lived for decades somewhere else; the role that oil played in Japan's decision to attack the US, and how transient basic supplies are when 99% of life's necessities and luxuries are imported from overseas.
Turtledove creates some interesting characters to follow. There's a Zonker-type surfer dude who doesn't let something like a war interfere with his catching that perfect wave. There's a Japanese father who finds an insurmountable generation gap between him and his two Americanized kids. Also, the Japanese fighters are not mindless zombies; nor are the American soldiers John-Wayne clones. Even the lackeys are shown to have redeeming points.
What's Not To Like...
The characters may be interesting creations, but they don't progress at all. The surfer and the fisherman go out to sea. And catch fish. Again and again. And again. Then there's the haole civilian woman who is forced to plant a turnip garden. Follow her adventures as she rakes, hoes weeds, battles bugs, and eats turnips. Again and again. And again. What fun.
Also, while Turtledove does a good job examining the Japanese and American psyches, he doesn't create any Hawaiian characters, outside of a few royalty figures making cameo appearances. That's a significant omission, given that the setting is Hawaii.
To steal a punchline from Ambrose Bierce, "The covers of this book are too far apart." Only about 20% of the book is Alternate History. The rest is character study. Hey Harry, if I wanted character study, I'd be reading Tolstoy or Hawthorne or Steinbeck or something.
What if Japan had conquered Hawaii?
Well, I suppose I'll have to read the sequel to this to get Turtledove's opinion. But I'm betting Harry has us Yanks tossing them war-crimes-committing, Japanese so-and-so's back into the Pacific to become shark-food.
And frankly, that would be my take on this Alternate Timeline as well. The dynamics of the Pacific fighting in WW2 would've been different, but not the outcome. In the long run, America's industrial might, larger population, and safe homeland means that we wouldn't lose.
Personally, I think Japan could not have made a bigger mistake than attacking Pearl Harbor. If the Axis were going to win World War 2, instead of attacking the USA possessions, Japan should've invaded Siberia. Make the Russians fight on two fronts, and keep (or at least forestall) America from entering the war. After Russia and Great Britain fell, who cares what the USA does? But this is speculation for some other time.
In summary, this is a typical Turtledove book. The concept is great, but there's too much drama, and not enough Alternate History. The plusses pretty much balance out the minuses here. And I'm beginning to come around to Amber's way of thinking - that certain literary genres are inherently only worthy of a "C" rating.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

I met a dead man laying in Massa lane
Ask that dead man what his name
He raised he bony head and took off his hat
He told me this, he told me that

To see at night one must look to the side of an object.

The reviews will tell you that the protagonist of this story is Henry Townsend, a slave who purchases his freedom with his earnings from his skill as a boot maker. He himself becomes an owner of other humans. What does he want? He wants to be the best master ever. What are his obstacles? They are everything and everybody in Manchester County, Virginia, the embodiment of the Ante Bellum South. If Henry is the protagonist, the story starts at a strange time, his death.

I read the first chapter. I read the last. I read the second. I read the next-to-last. I use this trick when I read troublesome books to know the beginning and the end and decide if I want to know how the writer got there. I decided I wanted to know.

Henry comes back again and dies again. This is not a resurrection because the author does not bind the narrative by time. The story is episodic, revealed slowly, somewhat as the American South is revealed to those who were not born and raised there.

It is a basic principle of the contemporary storyteller’s craft that the story be entered at the last possible moment. This dogma is driven by television, has harnessed cinema and dominates every other art form of this age. I did not feel that I entered this story until chapter four. But, I knew when it ended. By then, I knew what it was about.

I learned why it is a sin to tell a lie. The author never lied to me, but what he didn’t tell me led me in circles in the woods. He taught me there’s more than one way to tell a story, but to learn it, I had to be patient.

This story is about the known world, but I won’t tell you about it. You’ll have to learn for yourself. I did and I wasn’t disappointed.

You might want to read the reviews first. They’ll help lure you into continuing, but they won’t really tell you what it’s about either.

I met a dead man… he told me that.