Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Murder, She Wrote: Gin And Daggers by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain

I positively love Murder, She Wrote, the TV series. Naturally, I have to read the books, yet I've been slow in doing so. Gin and Daggers is the first in the series and I just started reading it. My new goal is to read one of her books for each month. There's plenty, so it'll take me a while.

I keep writing "she" when it should be "he." The books are "written" by Jessica Fletcher, but it's really Donald Bain. I know discussions are abound about gender-bending in writing and I do my best not to let the author's gender influence me on the writing. I don't think Bain does a bad job of writing from the female's perspective. I sure hope he watched the show quite a bit. He does seem to have the secondary characters down, but I've just started and I want to read a mystery set in Cabot Cove to get a better feel. I guess it'll take some getting used to. When watching the series, the story/mystery takes place from different points of view, but the book's written from first person (Jessica). It's just a little odd. Kind of like having to remember the furniture in the living room has been rearranged. There might be a lot of knee-banging on the coffee table, but eventually one gets the hang of the new layout.

In this story, Jessica takes a trip to Merry Old England for an international mystery writers symposium. While there, she decides to look up and old friend, colleague, and mentor, Marjorie Ainsworth. During the visit and the dinner party, poor old Ms. Ainsworth is murdered and Jessica's the prime suspect. But everyone at the dinner party is Jessica's suspect and they had a lot of motive. As Jessica digs deep into the mystery, she uncovers some things about her dear old friend, including the question of authorship of Ainsworth's latest book, Gin and Daggers.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm still feeling myself around this book. The writing is different from the series and this one had too many characters, I felt. There are plenty of books to get the hang of this and I do love Murder, She Wrote so I might stick this one out.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Murder is Binding by Lorna Barrett

I'm not sure how I feel about this series. I really want to like it, but the premise is reaching a tad: A tourist town of bookstores?! I love books, but a town full of nothing but bookstores and that's the main attraction?! Uh, OK. What is making me teeter about giving the series a shot are the secondary characters. I'm intrigued by Angelica. For some reason she reminds me of Andrea (Hannah's sister of Fluke's cookie shop series).

Tricia owns a bookstore in Booktown. Everything's going OK, until her neighbor, Doris Gleason who owns the Cookery, is murdered. Turns out Doris had a high-priced booklet she just bought and in the middle of a rent war with her landlord, but Tricia is the prime suspect. To add on to Tricia's woes, her sister, Angelica, swooshes into town hot off another divorce and looking for comfort. Much to Tricia's chagrin, Angelica finds it in the quaintness of the town and Bob Kelly, Booktown's landlord. In the interim, Tricia runs into Winnie and buys an old pin, some books, and information about Doris's purchase. Then Winnie dies, but the police aren't interested. Doris's murder and an article by Russ Smith, marks Tricia as the town jinx. But not everyone is keeping distance from Tricia, Mike Harris is keeping close, perhaps a little too close. And Tricia finds some living skeleton's in the Harris household. After poking her nose around, Tricia and Angelica find the answers to the murders of Doris and Winnie.

Aside from Booktown's premise, what irked me about this book is the protagonist's smugness in one scene. They find the missing booklet and Tricia proceeds to tell the sheriff the proper way to get prints off the book, after it's been handled by several people. I hadn't heard of the final procedure, but a quick Google search showed me what it was. Considering this is a small town and the sheriff could care less about the book's condition, I don't think Tricia's opinion would matter and I'm sure the sheriff enjoyed being told how to process prints. But then the protagonist didn't stop there, she kept going on and said the following: "I deal in mystery fiction. Not only do I read the classics, I read contemporary authors like Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and Elizabeth Becka. You can practically get a degree in forensics just by reading these top authors." ARGH!!!!!! I'm going for my forensic degree. Granted, it's only an Associates, but it's a start. You study more than fingerprints (which are very difficult to collect, process, and identify) and while the authors might have forensic degrees, there are a lot of liberties when writing the books and some methods are no longer used or new ones have pushed the edge of the horizon. One book I gave up on was written by two authors who had degrees in forensic. I had to give up on it because some of the things written in there were wrong and the author got away from the mystery. I don't think I could've gotten a degree from reading that series. I accept when I pick up a cozy mystery, there are going to be a lot of liberties, but to make statements like this, goodness. Maybe the next book will be better.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This is one case where I actually liked the movie better than the book. I wonder about the process of writing the screenplay for this book. It has made me more curious about what that would be like and how that must actually work. Hmm...
As for reading, it was hard for me to enjoy this book as much as I had hoped to do. The time traveling concept was a bit confusing at first for me because I couldn't grasp that he couldn't wield it. I wanted it to be more like what I always envisioned time traveling being but this completely changes that fantasy of what I imagined in my mind. I suppose that might not be a bad thing, to imagine differently, but it left me feeling disappointed. I want to go back to my old time traveling images of helping others, saving the world and enjoying it instead of how this portrayed time traveling but it will be hard to forget what and how she described it in this book. The idea is I want to forget. This is not a book that I'd feel good about recommending to others.
I don't mean to sound so negative because I'm sure there are many that have liked this book. It did receive a lot of attention. It's possible that I'm bothered by some content within the book which is quite possibly tainting my review. I didn't care for the writing style. I needed more resolution. Mostly, I struggled with the characters. Where was the growth that I felt should naturally come through some of their experiences? I didn't feel I could relate and they felt unreal or stereotypical. It didn't feel loving when needed in relationships and there was a lot of tension. Was that the point or am I missing it? I do feel like I am missing out. I'm going to have to reread a childhood favorite, A Wrinkle in Time, that seems to be embedded in my memory. Perhaps, I'll re-watch Somewhere in Time again revisiting the fact that I liked the music better than the actual movie. That's what this book is like to me, I was intrigued by the concept of time traveling more than the actual storyline itself.

560 pages, May 2004, 1.5 stars

Other reviews:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The inside of this book jacket (along with mention of it's eleven book awards with names like the Dagger) included a brief description of the contents as follows:

"A spellbinding amalgam of murder mystery, family saga, love story, and financial intrigue."

I've always loved the word amalgam. It's just fun to say. Amalgam. A mixture of equal parts. How you get that out of amalgam I have no idea. So I asked myself the question, is this popular book by Swedish author, Stieg Larsson, who unfortunately died of a heart attack right after delivering the manuscripts of the three books in this series, a fine-tuned mixture of mystery, saga, love, and intrigue?

It is, at its heart, a family saga with the main point being - What happened to 16-year old Harriet Vanger who vanished without a trace forty years ago? Her grandfather, Henrik Vanger, has hired a down on his luck journalist and magazine editor, Mikael Blomkvist, to dig up the skeletons in his family tree and find out what happened to her. But, Blomkvist has his own set of problems: his girlfriend is married to another man (must be a Swedish thing), he's been forced out of his current job and is therefore running out of money, and he's about to start a three month prison sentence after being convicted of slander against a dirty corporate industrialist that took him to court over a story he wrote. (And yes, that last sentence leaves you panting. Just like the book did..)

Blomkvist takes the job for Vanger because he needs to get away, and, of course, the money won't hurt. For help, he recruits a computer hacker with a dragon tattoo on her neck, a girl named Lisbeth Salander, who is by far the most interesting character in this series of books. Think of a tinier, craftier Laura Croft with an even worse attitude and she's your gal.

Next then, mixed in is plenty of mystery and intrigue, some of which is in the form of tons of backdrop on the world of finance (the first 100 pages or so bored me to tears), then throw in some magazine and journalist type lingo, some Nazi backstory, and lastly the occasional political statement that jolted me from the story when I started to doze off. There's also a whole lot of violence. Really terrible violence. I've heard the original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women. After reading this book, I believe that was entirely appropriate.

And love? I would never think of this as a love story. Not. At. All. For instance, our main character's girlfriend's husband has no problem that she and Blomkvist still "see" each other on a regular basis.


Really there's just a whole lot of sleeping around by pretty much everyone, married or no. It's like a magical, casual sex fairy land where condoms aren't even necessary and no one worried about diseases. Again, maybe that's a Swedish thing.

Aside from what I've just mentioned, when taken as a whole, I will admit this was an interesting book. It improved as it went along until, aside from bathroom breaks, I had a hard time putting it down. It was well-written and moved at a great pace. All the characters are well-defined, complex and super meaty. Larsson had no problem weaving together the story lines, and I didn't even have too hard a time keeping track of all the Swedish names, like Gregor, Gottfried, Gerda, we're talking umlaut central here. You just have to somehow get through all the violence against women and casual sex.

Good luck!

So now I feel all Swedishized! Meatballs recipe anyone?
3.5 stars.

Another point ot view: Trixie


Be sure to check out Cym Lowell's Kindle giveaway!!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

I have been aiming to read this book all year and I promised myself I'd have it read by the end of '09 so I made it! Now, I'm thinking why did I wait so long to read a book that is near perfection? Beautiful writing, a superb pace, captivating premise, honest characters, plus a whole lot more of great storytelling. Okay, so the book is perfectly brilliant! I enjoyed it to a magnificent degree. It gripped me from the first line:

"The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit."

I also loved this simple description about a bridge:

"The old bridge stretched massively across the water, it huge iron frame as black as the sky. It had been built so long ago that it held up its own weight, without any support from hoverstruts. A million years from now, when the rest of the city had crumbled, the bridge would probably remain like a fossilized bone."

I did have to take time to mold Westerfeld's world into my brain. So, I can understand why I've heard that a reader couldn't get into this book. It might not be for everyone. I think it would make for a great discussion. For me, I like that part of setting things up in my brain then seeing how it unfolds as the story goes.
Overall, I'm happy to have read this and I'm already reading the next book in the series, Pretties, when I'm supposed to be reading a pile of other books for book groups etc...
Doesn't that say it all?

448 pages, Feb. 2005, 5 stars

Other more informative reviews:


Friday, December 4, 2009

The Girl She Used To Be by David Cristofano

This is one of those books that I checked out from the library on a whim because the premise sounded interesting then it turned out to be a book that I couldn't put down. I had to know what happened next. I really enjoy it when this happens.
One normal family trip out to eat. One curious decision to find out why the restaurant isn't open when it should be. A back door. A murder. A family's life is changed forever.
"Call me whatever name you want; it's just a name, after all."
Sandra, Karen, May or Melody was only six when this happened to her and now for the last twenty years of her life she's been constantly moving through the Witness Protection Program (WITSEC) to keep from being killed herself. Her life isn't turning out at all like she'd imagined it should and there is no way to change it either. So, she does the only thing she can when she needs a change and pretends to being found by the "bad guys" in order to move and get a whole new life.
So, what happens when they find her anyway? Or at least one of them does? Enters Jonathan. Suddenly, it seems as if she had never been in hiding all those years like it hadn't counted. What?!? This is her life after all, isn't it? Is this her chance to live the life she always wanted as her true self? Of course, that could be too good to be true also.
Plus, there is this simple issue of who do you trust with your life? Oh, Melody, what's a girl to do?
Cristofano mysteriously weaves a story of second chances where you'll feel for the "bad guys" as much as the good. I enjoyed his writing which is another plus to the whole experience of this book.
A nice whimsical choice. I'm glad I discovered it.

A couple of excerpts from the book:

"Are you okay?" I ask.
He nods but looks back down, but something in my touch, or the interaction with another caring human. brings his tears to a pour and he wipes vigorously, as though it is sand, not water, filling his eyes. I wait and finally he returns the card to its holder, glances at me, and slowly lumbers from the store as he dries his eyes and nose with his sleeve.

"On my fifth day in class, the teacher asked each of us in turn to spell our name for the other students... It sure would've been easier to spell May Adams, but wouldn't you know, without even giving it a second thought, there I was, unveiling myself to my teacher, her aide, and seventeen other first graders."


256 pages, March 2009, 3.5 stars

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Intimations of Austen by Jane Greensmith

Intimations. For the longest time I thought that said Imitations of Austen, which means to copy actions, appearance, etc., but the word, Intimations, well, it just sounds more English doesn't it? I almost travel back in time as it rolls off my tongue like liquid butter dripping off a hot muffin when I say it.



I'll admit, gulp - I had to look that one up. I suspected it held a similar meaning to its root, intimate, which means marked by close acquaintance or familiarity and that would perfectly describe how I believe the author feels about Jane Austen, but the word choice of intimation, I was happy to discover, brings Greensmith's ardor into even sharper focus.

Intimations of Austen by Jane Greensmith - A collection of short stories inspired by the words of Jane Austen. A hint, a glimmer. An inkling of Austen even. A whisper on a sun-drenched afternoon. These would've been perfect to read in summer, but winter it turns out was just as good. Better to drink it in with a hot, steaming beverage.

These stories are perfect for anyone who likes Austen even a tiny little bit. Perfect for anyone who has read these classics over and over again and wondered, what happened after the last word. Or even better, what happened before the first one! What made Frederick Wentworth return to Kellynch Hall in the first place? What if Elizabeth Bennet (holy cow gasp!) had married Col. Fitzwilliam instead of Mr. Darcy? What was going through Mr. Darcy's mind as he wrote that letter to Elizabeth after she'd rejected him? And the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet? Greensmith even tackled that one with a conclusion that brought a smile to my face.

Altogether a delight. And most importantly, she did not rehash the novels, a common complaint that drives me nuts with Austen fan fiction. All were very original and well written. But the highest praise I can give? After reading these, I had to watch and wanted to read Northanger Abbey and Persuasion again with a fervor.

So to that I say, a job well done then Greensmith.
4 stars

A special thanks to the author for sending me this book because my library had no copy. I'll pass it on to anyone who wants it.

CymLowell Also, be sure to check out Cym Lowell's Kindle giveaway on his Book Review Wednesdays! He always gives away the best stuff!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Iodine by Haven Kimmel

In this novel, Haven Kimmel again (as with The Solace...) deals with trauma, only this time in a more direct way.

In this case, the reader views the world through the eyes of Trace Pennington, a young woman with a traumatic past, as she works her way through her senior year of college. Brilliant, but also slightly psychotic (an after-effect of trauma, as I well know), Kimmel's narrator falls under the category of "unreliable," but the reader will become immmediately engaged with her and will go along for the ride. The narrator isn't unreliable in any malicious way, and is in fact unreliable even to herself.

The novel can be a bit disjointed, but I see it as a strength rather than weakness, certainly a display of the writer's talent rather than the text's short-coming.

In order to escape her horrific past, Trace, incredibly intelligent, having educated herself to the point that she has actually surpassed her professors, lives a sparce life, a life of scant circumstances, which shows a power of will and whatever-it-takes power of will I wish I had. She goes to school, returning after class to an abandoned farm with no heat or electricity, hangs out with people she could barely call friends, walks around the poor (dangerous?) part of town, all on the periphery of the priviledged, exclusive world of academia. Like her sister character from The Solace..., she (devastatingly to the reader) takes up with a professor in a torrid romance.

The story is familiar and achingly real in that the narrator's life is told in such a non-chalant way, the way many survivors of abuse live their lives and tell their stories - Kimmel's writing style is direct and to the point. This woman is healing in the way that real healing takes place - incompletely, and with scars. There is no deep breath and a sunset on the beach at the end of or anywhere within this novel. It is worth the read. Warning: Real becomes fiction becomes real. - 5 stars

The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel

Haven Kimmel is my new favorite author. There, that's said - let's just get that out of the way. I want to read all of her books and my library only has a few of them.

This is the first of her's that I read.

The main female character, Langston, is a grad-school drop-out (like myself!), a bitter, selfish, intellectual snob (like myself!) who has just returned home after a life-breaking affair with a professor. She hates everything about her small town and, if hand sanitizer warded off small-town-itus, she would be one of those carrying around a bottle of it in her purse. She is melodramatic and highly unlikeable, even though I found myself relating to her in some (truly honest) ways (see above).

Langston's mother, who is a salt-of-the-earth kind of woman whom Langston finds unbearable, has become an admirer of a local minister, Amos. Immediately, and more than likely upon principal of the thing, Langston hates him.

The impetus for the story comes when Langston's best friend from childhood dies in a domestic dispute (how small-town redneck, right?) (p.s. - I am a sarcastic person, and sometimes people don't pick up on it; I'm well aware that domestic violence occurs outside of any socio-economic status barrier), leaving two small, young terrorized and traumatized girls, both dressed in matching, ironic costumes, without a viable, long-term home.

Langston and Amos enter into a battle against each other, both believing that they have the girls' best interests at heart. The reader finds herself switching back and forth between sides, at once surprised by Langston's eventual and apparent isolated selflessness when it comes to the girls, and rooting for the best conclusion, though you don't know what exactly that is or how in the world it would happen. Yay for Haven Kimmel! I'm so glad I discovered her. - 5 stars

Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

If there were an official lesbian canon of literature (and I don't know that there isn't), Jeannette Winterson would be at the top of the list. Her writing just has that sort of air to it. I remember reading her Oranges Aren't the Only Fruit when I was first considering becoming a lesbian; the narrative seemed to me experimental in an intelligent, Faulkner (whose The Sound and the Fury I am struggling with now) sort of way. Really, I felt I could barely grasp it. I should probably give it a second reading.

Anyway, on toward the matter at hand, which is Jeanette's novel Lighthousekeeping. You wouldn't be surprised to hear that it is about a lighthouse, but also, and really, it is about the inhabitants of that lighthouse, an old man and a young girl. This novel is written in the same intelligent voice as the other that I described in the above paragraph. I'll have to study on exactly how she creates this voice, because it could probably do a lot of good if I applied it to some of my own writing.

The little girl in the novel is immediately, or almost-immediately abandoned by her mother, then passed along to a stern woman (a librarian or something, I can't remember, I've been hoarding/procrastinating book reviews for months now - I'm visiting my mom, which means I have some time off and am not sitting in a house I have to clean, so while mom's at work I'm finally doing this), who then passes her off to the old man in the lighthouse. The old man is a typical old man in that his wife has died (I think he was married, I think that's what happened) and now he needs someone to take care of him. He is blind, doesn't have any source of light in, oddly enough, the lighthouse, and the little girl (also her little dog, must adhere to this sort of situation.

The novel does go back and forth betwixt two (or more?) generations, and it gets confusing. The jist and focus of the novel is a) the relationship between the little girl and the old man and b) the little girl's coming-of-age.

There is also a poignant point made about the (negative) effect "progress," (or abandonment of tradition) has upon individual lives - as a result of man-free, mechanic lighthouses, the little girl is ultimately abandoned by the old man and, finally, must abandon the lighthouse.

As you can see, abandonment is a major theme (even of the subplot, which I will leave to you to read without my description here).

This is a good novel that will make you, due to Winterson's knack for it, feel like a very high-caliber reader - a suggested read. - 4 stars

p.s. - The quote for my blog comes from this novel - just an example of the sort of profound statements you can read from Winterson.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

There's something about Autumn that brings out the spook in all of us. Perhaps it's the smell of dead and decaying leaves, or the crunching sounds they make beneath the feet of our children when they race to school in the early mornings, blowing circles of frozen carbon dioxide from their mouths in round o's.

But at the same time, Fall is one of the most beautiful and colorful times of the year. Bold reds, yellows and golden browns give one last blast of fireworks before a change occurs from life to death, almost overnight. We expect it. We know it will happen besides. Maybe that's why we're so easily able to allow a little of the scary in, the supernatural. Or even the wicked, into our lives. Reminded a bit of our own mortality, our darkest fears hover a little closer to the surface. Waiting to be exploited.

We all worry about different things, every day, like money, health, what to make for dinner, etc., but our most primal fears I believe remain the same for all of us. Fears of growing older, fears for our children and their safety, and almost always, regret. Guilt. These things haunt us all don't they? Such is the theme of Bradbury's timeless classic -


Taking place within a slice of Americana in the 20's or 30's, our story begins with two 13 year old boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. Born within minutes of each other at the end of October, these two are perfect mirror images of each other, not the same, but identically different. You can't have one without the other. They know this and love each other for it.

It's one week till Halloween and a mysterious autumn carnival has come to town, but this in no ordinary carnival. It feeds off a town full of fear, regret and chaos. What I found funny is that the boys, and even most people in the town sense this, yet still they can not stay away. What the boys see while there frightens them, a mysterious merry-go-round that can reverse age, or increase it, as it circles around. The side show acts, like the Human Skeleton, the Witch, the Dwarf, and most especially, the Illustrated Man, Mr. Dark, all scare the boys out of their wits.

Will's father, Charles, a man haunted by his own demons of getting older and wanting to be young again, his regret already continually eating away at his ever growing loose skin, discovers the truth about what's going on. That the carnival means to feed off the town's regret, fear and greed, as they have done for centuries. A battle ensues where in the end, Will and Jim, and most especially Charles, must battle their own demons to overcome the temptation to have what they most desire, for what is right.

This is my first Bradbury novel, and I loved it. L-o-v-e-d it! Long before Stephen King became a master of greed and the horror's that follow, Bradbury brought us a classic tale of regret, desire and redemption.

Even though Disney made a pretty scary movie version of this, it's not a children's book. In fact, I would agree that the main character is probably Will's father, Charles, and the main point being the life's lessons he learns about what's really important for true happiness in this life. I couldn't help wondering what Bradbury's age was when he wrote this. Was he going through a mid-life crisis as well, looking for a way to cope?

Thanks to the Good Books Club for recommending it.
Despite the creepy nightmares it gave me, this is an excellent book.
4.5 stars


Friday, November 13, 2009

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I wish I knew more about art, like those cultured artsy types that frequent parties I'll never be invited to, have their clothes custom made and invariably talk with an accent from where I can never tell. More specifically, I wish I knew how to describe a painting or sketch or other art piece with the eye of a skilled master who can tell the differences between light and dark, shape and contour, color, or even symbolism. For now my untrained eyes appreciate art based on how it makes me feel when I look at it. That's it. Be it a famous Monet, or the picture of stick people my son drew of our family that now hangs on our fridge. Technique and style, or even price doesn't matter to me. It's all about subjective emotion.

For instance, this painting by Henry Fuseli titled "The Nightmare"on the cover of my copy of Frankenstein. I feel all kinds of things when I look at it. Horror. Fear. Distaste. Wonder. Even beauty. The way that woman is lying there, prostrate and dead, yet still the most alive thing in the painting. The whole thing reminds me of a Greek tragedy. Which to me is exactly what Frankenstein is: a tragedy. I felt all the same things when I read this novel, i.e. fear, horror, loathing, with a little beauty woven in between.

Having seen multiple versions of this on film, I expected the story to be one way and found it completely the opposite. Instead of feeling sympathy for Victor Frankenstein and the situation he found himself in, I disliked him for most of the novel. I thought him weak and a coward. His creation on the other hand, I found to be born neither a monster nor a saint. I found him to be a product of his environment. Frankenstein had the chips of life in his hands, he may have laid them how he chose, perhaps even in order like any well-meaning but overbearing parent, but instead threw them high into the air and let them fall were they lay, in disarray, even scattering them about with his own hands. Like leaving a child to fend for itself in a forest full of wolves.

I thought of a lot of things while reading this book, mainly the obvious question that still holds true today being, just because we can, because we have the knowledge, should we? As Frankenstein himself says,
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.

There are many modern day Frankenstein's, first in the movies, like The Terminator series, the Firefly series, The Matrix, I am Legend, and what about real life situations like Einstein and his regret over the bomb, cloning or growing babies in artificial wombs. The advances in science in what we might call creation will continue to grow by leaps and bounds every year until one day in the not too distant future, Frankenstein may not be so futuristic after all.

I thought of the whole parent/child relationship in the book and how that relates to my real relationships. In that light, I felt more sympathy for the poor creature than I ever thought I would. And finally I thought of Mary Shelley. Only eighteen when she wrote this ghost story in the company of famous people, including her husband. By twenty-two she was a widow and had lost several children and pregnancies.

And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart.

She had a sad life. Which for me made the book all the more poignant, like one long poem from beginning to end. Well worth reading at least once.
4 stars.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I have read Ms Woolf a few times. Everytime I finish with the distinct and powerful feeling that she's a genius, and a sort of yawning sense of personal failure. This is something I've groped at over time, wondering, why it is that I fail when I read Virginia Woolf. It's not that I don't understand it - I'm sure I don't completely, but that never stopped me from reading a book. It's... I don't know. In a sense it's that, upon finishing the book, I have the impression that Ms Woolf wouldn't really like me very much. There is something very lonely about meeting someone wonderful and realizing that if you introduce yourself you'll do nothing but emphasize what an idiot you are.

It's not that I'm shy about forcing my company on genius. For goodness sake, I have had enough chats with poor, patient Emily Dickinson. And honestly, I don't think she likes me either (I'm fairly sure she doesn't). But it's different - with Emily Dickinson, I feel like she wouldn't like me because I've done so many stupid things that have disqualified me for likability. Like, in an ideal world, I would be able to maybe, in some strange little dream, be someone she smiles kindly at, anyway. With Virginia? It's more fundamental. I love her, and feel like there is just simply no way that she would ever like me in return. I'm just not the sort of person she could like, even in a hanger on, condescending kind of way. I could be her brother and she wouldn't like me, her son even. I could be her character and she wouldn't like me. I don't know why I feel this way so strongly (perhaps, in some sense, one gets the feeling that her sharp edged wit could quite easily turn one's self, but even that isn't ALL of it). But it's made it hard to read her.

Orlando... well, I don't want to say it's changed that. I don't feel like she could like me anymore now, than afterward. But, I felt like she could look politely at me if I were friends with someone she loved. Like she could not-hate me, maybe.

Orlando is a marvelous book, to start with. If you're not familiar with it, Orlando is the biography of someone who lives all the way from the Elizebethan period through the present (well, the present as of the writing of the book). It is not a story about being immortal. It's not the Orlando lives forever, Orlando just seems to never happen to die. The idea of dying never seems to cross Orlando's mind, and so it never occurs. The book is much like that in many aspects - reality seems to be firmly, if subconsciously, an extension of Orlando's own whimsy. The other central theme to Orlando's life? About halfway through the book, Orlando changes from a man to a woman.

Again, this change is perfectly natural (though the scene in which it occurs is probably one of the most quietly beautiful bits of magic I have ever read). Orlando simply ceases to be a man, and becomes a woman. In this change, we see what it is for a soul to be male or to be female. We see the ways that different aspects of Orlando's characters express themselves through the strictures of the two genders (social strictures, that is). We see, the echos of the world as it latches into him/her, drawing on whatever gender she/he is at that moment.

And that is another beautiful aspect of the book. As I said, the book travels through British history, from Elizabeth to the 1920's, and it changes, with each successive age. In each period, Orlando is filtered through the lens of the time, so that in the 18th century, we see her in the company of the great satirists (like Swift and Pope), or in the Elizabethan age, we see him trying to write poetry in the company of the bawdy days of Shakespeare. In the Victorian period, we feel a terrifying sort of cincture close around her, shutting her up and crushing her poetry into florid, explosive, meaningless prose that she cannot bring to her purposes. The book is, essentially, a portrait of what it means to be human, and what it means to be a man or a woman, and what it means to live in society. These things combine into a sort of phantasmagoric journey, all in the nimble, stately prose of Ms Woolf.

And, as I mentioned, this is powerful, deep prose, the sort of writing that invites you into yourself. I read this book for the readathon, and of all that period, this book hit me the hardest. The strange transformation wove itself into my dreams for days afterwards: strange, liberating, heartbreaking dreams where the world was more pliable. And, in the mind of Orlando, I felt as if Ms Woolf understood me. I always knew she comprehended me, that she could stare at me, and dress me down to the bone to see just what it was that I was. That's part of the terror, I suppose. But now, from Orlando, I feel like she could see the naked bones for what they were, and quietly dress me back in my flesh when she was done. I didn't cry when I read this book. But a few days later, when I woke up from the book in my dreams, I cried, on the way home form dropping off the boys, a few quiet little tears, the kind you can't use for show or sympathy, that just offer themselves up from your eyes like quiet little reminders that you're human.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Eyre Affair by Jaspe Fforde

Once upon a time, Jasper Fforde put Alice Through the Looking Glass, Jules Verne, a shelf full of Cliff's Notes, and a textbook of 20th century history into a blender, and turned it on. The result was the Eyre Affair (apparently, he couldn't drink the resultant milkshake in one sitting, though, since it's stretched into a number of sequels).

The Eyre Affair, as a horse, has been well beaten on this blog and others. I won't get into the plot too much, largely because it's difficult to summarize, and any summary I write would pale in comparison to some of the other reviewers. And, to be perfectly honest, the reason I have put off writing this review for so long, is because I just really didn't enjoy the book that much.

I know, this is a heresy. I have prayed to Librius, God of Books, and asked him to send his spirit down to enlighten me. I have beaten myself with many stripes. But revelation will not come. I just don't get this book.

This isn't to say I didn't understand it. Honestly, when one gets used to it, the book is a charmingly breezy sort of pseudo-world, so grounded in the things we know that it almost feels homelike. I will give the book that - it's a comforting kind of thing, like cake, it feels like your birthday.

But I didn't 'grok' this book. Much like that birthday cake, it's wonderful in small doses. But when you eat too much, it feels cloying, overly rich, even, a little bit, boring. In part, perhaps I expected too much. I love the Brontes, I love absurd humor, I love mythopoeic writing, and everyone said this book was so good. But it just... felt scattered. And worse, it felt showoffy. Sometimes, I felt like the author was trying to impress me with how strange he could be - which is kind of a turnoff unless you really CAN impress me. It was a clever, hip sort of book, amusing and beguiling, but in the end, I really had very little investment in any of the major characters, and was kind of relieved to get to the last page. Sorry Jasper Fforde. Sorry Amanda.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

The way an author treats those the protagonist disagrees with is a good way to understand their style. Jane Austen, for instance, treats them with a gentle sort of contempt (Think of Mr. Collins, for instance). Dickens frowns darkly at them. Bram Stoker hates them with a deep, meaningful hatred. L.M. Montgomery does the kind of 'Bless Your Heart' routine that a southern grandma might do ("Poor girl, just doesn't realize she's a tramp, bless her heart"). But, in all of these instances, it's interesting to note, that it's immediately apparent who the 'wrong' people are. If you spent some time thinking Fagan was possibly just a kind-hearted miscreant who wanted the best for his boys, you probably missed something. If you were under the impression that Dracula was really a tragic, pitiable figure, you probably mistakenly read Twilight. The bad guys are wrong, immediately, obviously wrong.

Gaskell isn't like that. It isn't like, say, James Joyce, where there simply is no right and wrong. It's that for Gaskell, every character is a tableaux of both. The person who eventually is the most hellishly obnoxious character in the whole book to me, in the beginning, seemed like they were going to be a pleasant, if imperfect, sort of friend. The man who is the most obviously bad upon his introduction never ends up being good, but as you grow into the situation, it becomes far less black and white. Her friends, in the same vein are all wicked in their ways. Every single person has a fault, every person has virtues, and all of them are who they are - really the same person at the end of the book as at the beginning for each, eve if some have grown a bit older and wiser (or deader).

In a sense, this story felt like a cross between a romance and Middlemarch. The story centers around a young girl, and follows her growing up, and eventually leads to a culmination in her love life (I am trying purposely not to be too specific). But along the way, the portrait broadens, and becomes a spectrum not just of one girls life, but of middle class society, in the same way that Middlemarch does. If you've read Gaskell before, it has the deeply loving author-voice of Cranford, and the earnest seriousness of North and South, without, from a plot perspective, being like either one.

But, my favorite thing about the book (quite unexpectedly) was the ending. Wives and Daughters was a serial novel, and Ms Gaskell wrote it throughout the period when it was being published - she had the basics of the plot sketched out, but wrote chapters as they were needed. And then, she died, before she finished. The last chapter is pretty much a sketchy synopsis of what would have happened had Ms Gaskell lived, and a very kind elegy on her life, written by her editor. Originally I thought the ending had been written by someone else, something like Mozart's Requiem. When I discovered this was not so, I'm not sure if it made it worse or better.

But when you finally get to her ending... there's a certain poignancy to it, to this abrupt, but at the same time remarkably appropriate fade-to-black. The novel is a truly intimate one, you feel a strong closeness the farther along you get, and just as you get to the crux of that feeling, there is a death - a death not of one character, but of the entire world. And the abruptness of that, in a way I don't think one coould accomplish on purpose, lays bare the beating pulse of the story, strips off the wards, and for a moment, your hand lays on the last pulse beats not of a fantasy, but of a fantasist. The death of Molly's world whispers itself quietly away, leaving for a moment, the sudden realization, of what writing really is, of the fact that the body and soul of the author are the soil that the world sucks it's nutriment from. One can know that, academically, but to see the winter of that soil come, to see it expire before the trees can spring to their fullest bloom is a sort of transcendent experience, and one, that bears it's own, strange, ghost fruit.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

No Name by Wilkie Collins

I want to preface this review by saying it was very difficult to write. Ms Eva of Striped Armchair mentioned earlier in the week that this is her all time favorite Wilkie Collins novel. And while I was pretty blaise about the only other Collins book I'd read, it was a long time ago, and I had heard wodnerful things about the recent revived interest in The Woman in White. And the subject of this book (it has to do with the laws of illegitimacy in Britain in the Victorian period) was one that really interests me.

Sadly, I really didn't enjoy this book.

I know this must be me, in part. Again, I've heard people really enjoy it. But it bothered me, and the things in it that DID bother me were too omnipresent for me to overcome.

*** SPOILERS (but I'll try to keep them minor) ***
No Name is the story of two sisters who, through a uniquely Victorian literary twist of fate, find out after their parents die that they are illegitimate children, and that as a result, their entire estate will go to the their uncle, a man with a deep and abiding hatred for their father. The elder daughter submits to this painful fate, but the younger daughter proceeds, for the majority of the remainder of the novel, to scheme against the cruel uncle and his eventual inheritors to reclaim the family fortune, and return her sister and herself to the respectability that comes with it.

My first problem is with the entire part after the parents die, and before the girl accomplishes her first big scheme (sorry, trying to avoid spoilers, but for those of us who have read the book, this section ended for me, pretty much, with the will of Mr Noel Vanstone). The story is pretty straightforward through this entire section, and much like the Moonstone reads in the same way as a modern mystery, this reads like a con-job movie - think, The Sting, or Confidence, or Matchstick Men, or Sneakers for instance. Well, that's fine. This is a genre that doesn't deeply move me, generally, but which is a fun ride while it lasts.

Well, here's the thing about a con-job plot - the thing that makes the movie interesting is the feeling that you are watching the work of a master. The Sting is fun, because you can see them laying down all the brushstrokes throughout the film, you can see the vague outlines taking shape, but when the entirety of it is displayed in the final scenes, you realize that you were in the presence of masters, that the con is so carefully constructed, so intricately planned, that even the imperfections you thought you detected were just part of the master plan. At a moral level, it's difficult to admire people who are, quite frankly, trying to cheat other people out of money. But there is a piece of us all that can appreciate genius, even when that genius is not taken to ends we appreciate.

Well, the con in No Name isn't like that. It's honestly, in some ways, probably more like real life - con men in real life, I'm sure, are kind of flying by the seat of their pants, just trying to scrape by. If they were geniuses, they'd probably find a more rewarding line of work, after all. But, watching the two conmen bumble along, making error after error, being saved by a combination of luck, their own ability to come up with outlandish lies, and, frankly, the thickheadedness of their marks, is kind of depressing, if not downright irritating. I can IMAGINE a book that was about unskilled conmen that was good - but this wasn't it. Honestly, what it ended up feeling like was that Collins simply hadn't planned out the entirety of the con, so he COULDN'T prestage the careful falling into places of the pieces. RAther, he just plopped his characters in, and every week threw up another obstacle and another razor's edge escape, and dashed it off to the publisher three hours before deadline. In a suspense novel, this is okay - in a move like North by Northwest, we can sympathize with incompetence, because we feel like the guy is stuck in the situation through no fault of his own, and we can see him learning, getting more talented, and defeating the odds in the end. In No Name it just feels kind of sickening - lurching back and forth between seeing that Collins seems to genuinely like his conmen, watching him carefully preach about the fact that what they are doing is utterly wicked, and, as a reader, suppresing the urge to shake the book, and shout at the conmen that they need to try thinking ahead more than one move at a time, and think through their decisions.

Luckily, this ended. The second attempt to con the money was equally incompetent, but DID manage to be engrossing, because A) it seemed fairly obvious that she would, eventually, fail and B) it's feels like the purpose of the con is less to impress us with her skill and more to show that she is slowly falling apart (and even so, the second con still had moments where it felt a little frustrating).

These problems are probably partly me. I'm not a huge suspense novel fan, though I can appreciate a good one - I like Rebecca a lot, for instance. And, I imagine part of it was my disappointment at realizing that what I thought was going to be a social novel about illegitimacy was turning into a crime novel. The second issue, however, it's difficult to let go of for me, and honestly perplexes me a bit: the book felt, to me, terrifically chauvinist.

Let me qualify that. I do not feel, and did not feel in the novel, that Collins had the aggressive anti-woman sort of chauvinism that some authors display. I think Collins was an honest product of his times, and that he probably FELT that he was very pro-woman. And I mean this as no personal affront to Collins, or to anyone who likes him. As a historical document, I can appreciate that Collins did not intend to write a book that was chauvinist.

But the underlying message of the book, to me was pretty simple. There are two basic types of women: women like Norah (the older sister) and women like Magdalen (the younger sister). Women like Norah are women who have learned to submit, to accept sadness, to sacrifice themselves. Women like Magdalen are talented, self-motivated, and tremendously sensitive to injustice and attacks on their rights. Well, women like Magdalen are driven by these urges to do terrible, awful things. Women like Norah quietly submit to the trials of life, and in the end, are miraculously victorious. They get what they want simply as a result of their being so 'good', of towing the line and accepting that they should let society do what it wants. Women like Magdalen? Their assertiveness and resourcefulness will, of course, bring them lower, and lower, and lower - even, in the book, make them uglier and uglier and uglier. If they are to be redeemed, they must be ground into the dust, and have all their pride and dignity driven out of them, they must learn to submit to society. In the end, when they are driven low, then, a nice man can come along like a knight in armor and save them, and grant them the forgiveness that they so desperately need. Then, they can lead quiet little contented lives, having learned to subvert their talents and ambitions into nice, quiet, feminine pursuits.

I just don't see what else to read from the book. Collins obviously loves Magdalen to death, much as the governess of the girls loves her more than Norah. But, like the Governess, he quietly submits to us that the very things that we love in Magdalen are what must be ground out of her before she can be a proper woman. The woman in the end, after her great sickness and after she is nursed back to health by the captain, is not the woman I loved earlier. Her great intelligence has been devolved into nothing but a tool to trick the captain into bragging about himself - no seriously, think about that for a minute. In the end, when Magdalen is good, the best purpose she can put her intelligence to is to get a man to speak highly of himself to her. And in the end? She is hardly discernible from her sister, quivering and looking up to her strong-armed protection, as the music swells and the fuzzy filter goes over the camera lens.

I don't mean this as a dig against Norah - I like Norah too. I like Norah because she is who she is. She lives the life she intends, and lives it well, and I feel happy for her when she gets what she wants. And I don't mean to say that the things Magdalen did in the book are right - on the contrary, it was their very wrongness that made the pursuit such an irksome one to read about - it's not much fun to read a book where you are sorry to hope that the protagonist wins, but where you hate the people she needs to lose to, just the same.

Honestly, I guess, the main reason I wrote this post (because I considered writing a tepidly subtle post saying a few strengths and quietly admitting to some weaknesses) is because I feel like I must of missed something. People love this book. Ms Eva recommended it as a good book for the Feminism challenge, recently, even. I must be off base, something has flown over my head. There were things I liked - the scene where Wragge tells about his pill company nearly had me laughing out loud, for instance, and the scene where Magdalen considers suicide was heart-wrenching and suspenseful even though you know it will end up for the best from the beginning. I just didn't get it. Hopefully you, my dear commenters, can help enlighten me

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

For those new to this book, Kristin Lavransdatter is a three book cycle by Sigrid Undset, a Norweigian Nobel Prize Winner from the first half of the 20th century. Set in Medieval Norway, the book follow the life of its eponymous heroine - in the first book of the series, following her childhood, adolescence, courting, and eventual marriage. The book ends with her marriage night. There is a wonderful readalong for this book right now, which I found out about through Ms Emily of Evening All Afternoon - this month is the Wreath, the other two books will be in November and December, respectively.

(Spoiler alert for however many words are left in this review)

But that's not what I want to talk about, I want to talk about Kristin's big turning point - when she falls in love with the man she eventually marries. In particular I want to talk about the way he treats her - and the way she allows herself to be treated.

So, here we go. I warn you that the rest of my thoughts are not the most attractive thoughts in the world, and they're not totally formed, either. So please, take my words with a grain of salt.

Kristin and her gentleman meet by accident, when he saves her from some random ruffians. Yes, that's right. She's a damsel in distress, and he is (actually fairly literally) her knight in shining armor. This relationship is, in fact, presented without a sneer, er even really a tut-tut. It is, quite simply, what it is. The love is quick, sudden, and fierce. They go to a dance together, and Kristin kisses him letting her feel her up along the way, then sleeps in his lap for a while in the garden. Eventually, the two are caught in a storm and he takes her to a barn to hide from the rain.

Here's the thing. The guy is not some wide-eyed innocent. He has just gotten out of trouble for having an affair with a married women, with whom he fathered two children. Shortly after this point of the story, it is revealed that she is living at his manor, in fact. And, frankly, the encounter sounds about two steps short of a rape. At very best, it's a 30 y/o man taking advantage of a teenage girl in the bloom of her first love. And here's the thing - she likes it. In fact, she seems totally okay with him taking her in a barn on a rainy day, even sort of subconsciously complicit with the whole affair. And, I could deal with that. She's 17. She has never been in love, she is doing something stupid, and that's not totally unrealistic. He is seducing her. This happens. It's ugly, but it happens.

But, here's the thing about that - as Ms Emily mentioned in her review, the title Kristin Lavransdatter is terribly appropriate, because this is, in many ways about Kristin, the daughter of Lavrans. The father (Lavrans - Scandinavian names were traditionally patronymic, hence Lavransdatter) and daughter relationship is the guiding spectre of the first half of the book. The second half is a conflict between that and Kristin's desire to be with her new lover. And that's the thing. Everything in Kristin is pretty much the reflection of a man in her life. Kristin is a daughter, a lover, a wife later on, she is a student of a monk who plays a large role, she is a subject of a very male God, and the citizen of a very patriarchal kingdom. Daughter, Lover, Wife, Student, Subject, Citizen. But never just a woman. Never Kristin.

I don't say that to belittle relationships in our lives. I know they are important. But, in a relationship, a healthy relationship, both members should be people. It should be the relationship between two independent people, not the sublimation of one person into another.

And that's just it - Kristin's relationships are never, ever healthy. She is never a person, she is never a soul. And this is a haunting way to read a book.

I do not mean to say that this is a problem with the book. Indeed, depending on the way the other two books are written, this may become an integral, important element of the story. Nor does it feel unrealistic. Honestly, that was the design of society for a large piece of human history - a great machine meant to produce subservient woman to serve their husbands, subservient peasants to serve their fief lords (or slavemasters, or factory owners, or gentlemen squires, or whatever), subservient fief lords to serve their king, and a subservient people to serve their God. The world was designed to sublimate identity into a power to fuel society. So, in the end, Kristin in the book does not know how to rebel. She never learns to choose. I never felt like she chose to love her husband, simply he was there and compellingly worded enough that love happened on it's own. She did not choose not to love her arranged husband - indeed when he was the only partner presented, she did begin to love him. In the end, she ceases to love him because he presents the question to her - do you love me or not? Because he asks, she can answer, because she is in a place where she has no choice but to choose, she chooses what her lover has taught her to choose. And in the end, you feel that she loves against her will, that in the end, she chooses to be married even though she is miserable with the whole prospect. Whenever she meets her lover, the feeling is not one of passionate ardor, but of wild abandon - that is an abandonment of the self, into a comfortable and comforting nothingness, where she is simply the palette her lover paints his love across.
But it's painful, very painful, and for me, this is what was the biggest success of Ms Undset - that she creates a woman who is essentially a doormat for all the men in her life, while at the same time, ever so gently and ever so subtly whispering out little flashes of something that, if not so effectively quashed, could have been a personality. Little edges of selfdom, that make us wish she could have been the queen she had within her, instead of the empty shell she has begun to devolve to by the end of the Wreath. The 'wreath' itself, is a crown, presented in different ways at different times, each wreath a symbol of a powerful woman Kristin could have been: The wreath of the Elf-queen at the beginning, symbolic of the wild, Dianic power of the primeval countryside, the wreath of the nunnery, symbolic of piety (and piety, independent piety, was a really powerful thing for a woman in Medieval times), the wreath of the virgin, symbolic of maidenhood. The wreath is transformative, like a coronation, it is the acceptance of a proferred power. And in the end? The wreath she takes is the tattered flower wreath of self abandoning love. In the whole book (aside from the end scene with her mother and father), the moment that most haunted me, speaks to this idea, and is the words I felt, at the end of the book:

"I have often prayed that you might have yearning for the convent life," said Brother Edvin, "but not since you told me what you know. I wish that you could have come to God with your wreath, Kristin."

Which God, hardly matters, the God of Christ, the Goddess of the Elfin Fields, the God of Love, even the Dark Lady Death. But I wish she could have come to her God with her wreath.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

It's official! Jane Austen has no doubt rolled over, and over, and over again in her grave. In fact, she's probably kicking and screaming, pounding the walls of her underground wooden solitude using words like, it is not merely this affair on which my dislike is founded!

Perhaps to make her works more appealing to MEN, her tales of love and romance have been mercilessly invaded by first, the brain-eating, the scab-forming, walking corpses of gray loose and rotten flesh. Now it's muscular green Stretch Armstrong sort of men with tentacles where they shouldn't be, and I have no doubt aliens will be landing with Anne and Captain Wentworth in Lyme by this spring.

I'm not the first to notice this modern manification, or shall we call it - the "Horrification of Jane Austen", Misfit Salon also has a great link on this here, and I really can't complain because I gave the first offshoot 4 stars for crying out loud, but this one...well, I'm sorry to say it was hard for me to finish. Painstakingly hard. Not because of the writing. Ben Winters is a good writer, by my standards anyway. Maybe my normal tolerance level to B Movie Austenite violence was breached like the hull of a sinking ship after Zombies.

Illustration by Shane Harrison

Maybe I just didn't find the idea of sea monsters, such as man-eating octopii, hammerhead sharks, giant clams, amoeba-ish creatures absorbing unsuspecting humans whole, etc., trying to kill all the main characters, again and again, interesting enough after the first 100 pages or so.

Maybe not enough of the original story was included in this sea monster dance of death to hold my attention throughout. I believe this was mainly the case. I've read the original novel numerous times, and although it's not my favorite, not even close to being as witty as her others, I still enjoy many elements of this story, and I absolutely love the movie versions. The romance, the betrayals, they play out well on the screen. Here, although initially fun, it got old after the first ten deadly encounters or so.

If you like this sort of thing, then this book is for you. For me, it just wasn't a good fit for this particular story.

Maybe it's because I don't like to eat sushi, or shrimp, or lobster, or any other poor sea creature! But I would love to learn to knit! That counts right? Maybe?
2.5 stars

Helluva Halloween Challenge
Everything Austen Reading Challenge

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Storm Front - Jim Butcher

2000; 322 pages. Genre : Urban Fantasy (so sez Wikipedia), or Semiautomagic (so sez Butcher). I like Butcher's choice better. Book #1 (out of 11, I think) in the "Dresden Files" series. Overall Rating : B-.
Harry Dresden is a Wizard. He's in the Yellow Pages, where his ad reads : "Harry Dresden - WIZARD. Lost items found. Paranormal investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment."
Harry's main activity is finding enough money to pay the monthly rent. Today's his lucky day. A woman wants to pay him to find her husband. And the Chicago police want his professional opinion as to whether any magic was used in a double homicide. Where the hearts of two lovers exploded out of their chests (shattering ribs on the way out) and splotched all over the ceiling. Yeah, there might be a tad bit of paranormalcy involved here.
What's To Like...
There's a vampire or two. There are black mages and white wizards. There are pizza-loving fairies, and a wise-cracking spirit caged in a skull on Harry's desk. There are slow-witted demons, 6-foot-tall scorpions, some hookers, and some mobsters. There's a strong female police detective named Karrin Murphy.
It's a murder-mystery, but with AD&D-ish magic blended in. Spells are cast, but one is never quite sure what they'll do and how effective they'll be.
Buzzword for this book : "Thaumaturgy" (pg. 19).
Magic. It can get a guy killed.
Storm Front
is Butcher's debut effort, and it shows. There are some trite metaphors, some "roll your eyes" scenes, and some telegraphed plot twists (is that an oxymoron?). For example - he concocts two potions - an Escape Potion (which he has plans for), and a Love Potion (which he has no discernible plans for). Things go awry during a battle with a demon, and he calls for his female companion to drink the Escape Potion. Yeah, guess which one she drinks.
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there isn't an invisible demon about to eat your face.
I picked up this book after Christina reviewed Books #3, #4, and #5 of the series here, here, and here. You can nitpick the storyline to death, but that misses the point that it is meant to be a light-hearted read with an entertaining stream of humor running throughout. Several reviewers say that Butcher gets a lot more polished with each book, so I'm looking forward to reading more from this series.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Methods of Madness by Stephanie Black

Methods of Madness by Stephanie Black is very suspenseful and keeps the reader guessing until the last few pages. It has been three years since Emily Ramsey's sister was killed and her fiance disappeared. She is now engaged and trying to move on, but still suffers from sadness due to the loss of those 2 important people. She keeps having the feeling that she will lose her new fiance, Zach. Then Zach's ex-girlfriend, Monica, begins to show interest in him again.

Emily gets a troubling note, a bloody photograph, and begins finding strange objects in her apartment. Part of her thinks she's going crazy and then someone is murdered. Everyone is a suspect-Zach, Emily's friends, someone from the past. Emily even begins to doubt herself. She doesn't know who to trust and feels that she, herself, is in danger.

The book kept me guessing the whole time. I had suspicions, kept thinking one person did it and then my opinion would change. Black expertly weaved clues throughout the whole book, and I doubt anyone was able to figure out the ending. All of the evidence and clues came together in the end to create a thrilling conclusion. I highly recommend this book, but make time for it because you won't want to put it down until you figure out who did what. And, trust me, you will not be able to figure it out. Each character is vividly portrayed unique. I really love the cover and think that it adds to the intrigue of the book.

Friday, October 16, 2009

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

I became so enthralled with the setting of this book. The very atmosphere of it, I think, held me captive and I loved the relationship between the sisters, Merricat and Constance. It is very simple and felt familiar somehow. At times, my mind kept drifting off to think of those black & white classic mystery films that it reminded me of watching. This lends to a nice supernatural feel instead of a chilling ghostly haunting.
Merricat is a simple girl with small desires of not being treated badly or bothered by others. She worries about her reclusive sister, Constance, and imagines herself into being nicer to her old Uncle Julian. She aims to keep her familiar lifestyle together and out of the realms of being broken up by those who feel well-intentioned to help or so they think. So Merricat finds ways to protect what she holds dear.
This novel follows what happens at the Blackwood Estate after a tragic arsenic poisoning takes place and kills off the family members who lived there, at least all but three of them, Uncle Julian, Constance, and Merricat. Although Constance has been acquitted from committing the poisonous crime, they live alone, keeping to themselves which allows the nearby villagers to make their own assumptions. Each of the three deal with this tragedy differently which lends to the mysterious atmosphere. As time continues, their cousin Charles enters into the household and his own underlying intentions come into play. Anger overwhelms Merricat and her sense of reality becomes overshadowed by it. The motives of each character are never fully explained but this also adds to the creepiness of the inability each character faces as they are unable to live a so-called normal life.
The only drawback is that there is no clear resolution. Otherwise, it's a timely read for this atmospheric part of the year. Just right for the R.I.P IV Challenge.
I feel the pure gem of this book is the simplistically taut writing style. Here are a few of my favorite passages: (Spoilers, perhaps?)

First, a perfect beginning:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. With any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead." (pg. 1)

"Today my winged horse is coming and I am carrying you off to the moon and on the moon we will eat rose petals."
"Some rose petals are poisonous."(pg. 86)

"Like children hunting for shells, or two old ladies going through dead leaves looking for pennies, we shuffled along the kitchen floor with our feet, turning over broken trash to find things which were still whole, and useful." (pg. 177)

160 pages, Originally published 1962, Penguin Classics 1984/2006, My rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut

1961; 268 pages. Genre : Contemporary Lit. Overall Rating : B.
On the surface, Harold W. Campbell is a World War 2 "Lord Haw-Haw", an American who broadcasts propaganda for Nazi Germany to the Allied soldiers fighting in Europe. Only a select few know he is actually a hero, a double-agent transmitting vital war secrets via coded phrases in his radio diatribes.
What's To Like...
It's Vonnegut; it rocks. There's a fascinating storyline, superior writing, and a bunch of interesting characters, most of whom turn out to be not what they seem.
Vonnegut gives us the moral on the first page of the introduction : "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." A couple pages later, his dedication to Campbell reads, "a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times."
There's a brief reference to a great, obscure historical figure - Tiglath-Pileser (pg. 4), and a cameo appearance by one of my favorite words - susurrus (pg. 177). Oh, and I swear each of the 45 chapters ends with a storyline "twist". Try pulling that off every 3 or 4 pages.
Underneath all the absurdity, Vonnegut examines a fundamental question - what constitutes the "real" you? Is it your innermost being, or is it the summation of the effect your actions have on Humanity?
If the theme of Slaughterhouse Five is the senselessness of war; then Mother Night is its sequel, with a theme of the senselessness of post-war. MN is not quite up there with S5 and The Sirens of Titan, but it's still a superior book, and highly recommended.
Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile. (pg. 160)
"Any news of my parents?" I said.
"I'm sorry to tell you-" he said, "they died four months ago."
"Both?" I said.
"Your father first - your mother 24 hours later. Heart both times," he said.
I cried a little about that, shook my head. "Nobody told them what I was really doing?" I said.
"Our radio station in the heart of Berlin was worth more than the peace of mind of two old people," he said.
"I wonder," I said.
"You're entitled to wonder, " he said. "I'm not." (pg.187)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason

I'm sitting here watching Star Wars with my youngest son, and trying to think of a way that it relates to this book on the dynamics of men who fight for their country and those they leave behind, all woven within the melodious sounds of trumpets blaring and lasers blasting. Nothing inspires war like a rousing soundtrack.

I thought this book would be about England in the 18th and 19th century and their quest to dominate Africa and the surrounding countries, but truly it was hardly about war at all. Not war itself anyway, but the effects of war on its soldiers and their loved ones.

Harry Feversham is the child of many glorious war heroes. Much is expected of him when he joins the British Army, but when actual war in Africa is imminent, the newly engaged Harry opts out to relieve his fiance from having to be without him for several years, and because basically, he believes himself unequal to the task. In a nutshell: He's afraid.

Three of his Army friends find this unacceptable and they answer his resignation with the universal symbols of cowardice: three white feathers. His fiance Ethne, upon finding out he has resigned from the Army, breaks off their engagement and gives him the fourth feather. Harry is crushed, and upon his shame reaching its pinnacle he makes a decision: He means to redeem himself and restore his honor by saving the life of his three friends who are currently serving in Africa.

I haven't mentioned a fourth friend, Captain Jack Durrance. On the sidelines he is Harry's greatest ally and also in love with his fiance, Ethne. Unlike the recent movie version with Heath Ledger remaining the hero throughout, the bulk of the actual story is from the point of view of Captain Durrance who has no idea why Harry has resigned, nor that anyone has accused him of being a coward as he is steadfastly defending England's interests in the Sudan until he becomes permanently injured and must return home where he and Ethne reunite. While recovering from his injury, he begins to piece together what has happened to Harry who seems to have disappeared, and with the help of some of Harry's remaining friends, makes a steadfast resolve to hear news of him in Africa and help him however possible from England.

This book, in all actuality, is about sacrifice. Durrance's physical sacrifice for the country of his birth, as well as giving up the woman he loves for his best friend. Harry's sacrifice of giving up six years of his life for Ethne and the three friends he feels he must prove his worth to. It is also about honor in war. There once was a time, probably up until the end of WWII, that service to one's country was of paramount importance. If you did not jump at the chance to live, and die, at your nation's defense, you were looked down upon. Not just in England. I would say here in America too. Having seen the pictures of the lines of people cheering along homeward bound railways, being at war was a national effort, a means of pride and ownership of the task at hand.

Does it seems that way now to you? Here in America, serving in the military is no longer a requirement, and if you chose not to do it, no one really cares. Why is that I wonder. Are we different as a nation? As a world population? The answer is obvious. Yes. We are a different generation, who up until recently haven't had to give up much for our country, and it shows.

Even Star Wars isn't just about war between the Alliance and the Empire, or how cute Han Solo is, or Princess Leia's cinnabon hair (although that stuff is important!). It's about people. It's about what friends will do for each other in a time of crisis. Even that show is about honor. No matter what we do, we can't quite get away from it. Do we want to?
4 stars

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Feet Of Clay - Terry Pratchett

1996; 357 pages. Genre : Fantasy Satire. #19 in the Discworld Series (out of 36, oops, out of 37, since "Unseen Academicals" just came out this week). Overall Rating : A-.
An old priest and a dwarven baker are murdered; someone is poisoning the Patrician in a very slow fashion; amd no one is sure how. This would be a typical day in Ankh-Morpork, except that the Assassins Guild isn't involved in any of these dastardly deeds. So it's up to Sam Vimes and the City Watch to find and arrest the miscreants. The trouble is, those pesky things called clues keep getting in the way of blind justice.
What's To Like...
This is Pratchett's nod to mystery stories in general, and Sherlock Holmes stories in particular. We are introduced to a number of cool chartacters. There's Cheery Littlebottom, just one of the dwarven boys, until he starts wearing lipstick, earrings, and a kilt. There's Wee Mad Arthur; a ratter by trade, 6" tall, with the fighting power of a stick of dynamite. And for us techno-geeks, Sam is equipped with an unorganized organizer; consisting of an imp in a small pocket-sized box, who can manage his calendar, alert him to appointments, take memos, and give him inspiring daily quotes, but can't do any of this competently. Oh, and there's also a bit of synesthesia; see an excerpt of it below.
There are always themes in any Discworld book after about #5. Besides murder-mysteries, the themes here are The Monarchy (Pratchett finds little use for it), Racial and Gender Prejudice, Labor Unions, and Evangelists (meet Constable Visit, short for Visit-The-Infidel-With-Explanatory-Pamphlets). Pratchett also tackles the question of what constitutes Life itself.
The storyline in Feet Of Clay is well done, and all the threads get tied up nicely. Sam is gradually coming to grips with his inter-species bigotry. By the end of the book he decides that Golems and Zombies can now be part of the City Watch, although Vampires are still excluded.
The story is formulaic, but that's okay for a series of this genre. The characters evolve from book to book, and Pratchett comes up with new themes each time.
Afterward, she always remembered the odors as colors and sounds. Blood was rich brown and deep brass, stale bread was a surprisingly tinkly bright blue, and every human being was a four-dimensional kaleidoscopic symphony. For nasal vision meant seeing through time as well as space: man could stand still for a minute and, an hour later, there he'd still be, to the nose, his odors barely faded. (56)
The barman leaned over to Sergeant Colon. "What's up with the corporal? He's a half-pint man. That's eight pints he's had."
Fred Colon leaned closer and spoke out of the corner of his mouth. "Keep it to yourself, Ron, but it's because he's a peer."
"Is that a fact? I'll go and put down some fresh sawdust." (145-46)
"Slab : Jus' say 'AarrghaarrghpleassennonononoUGH'." (Slab is an illicit drug in Discworld) (26)
"T'dr'duzk b'hazg t't!" ("Today is a good day for someone else to die!") (311-12)

Volsungasaga by Anonymous

Holy freakin' crap. Vikings? They were Messed. Up. People. Not kidding even a little. Messed Up. The Volsungasaga is one of the old sagas of Scandinavia, holding some of the central myths of the ancient Pagan beliefs of the Scandinavians, particularly centering around the history of the Volsungs, a royal family, king of the Huns (yes, those Huns. Like Attilla). It includes, most well known to people like you and me, the story of Sigurd and Brunhilde, Brunhilde being the lady with the horned helmet that Bugs Bunny dresses up as in the old 'What's Opera Doc?' cartoon.

But Gravy, I don't know if it was all the snow, or the constant raiding and battling, or what, but these folks imagination? Vivid! If the bible had these stories (and the bible is spicy enough), you wouldn't take kids to church. Incest (at least twice), women heroically murdering their own babies as revenge against their husbands, a man covers his face and fills his mouth with honey, so that when an evil wolf tries to lick the honey out of the inside of his mouth (and yes, what you're thinking about is implied) he can bite down on the she-wolf's tongue and rip it from her maw. Yeah, kind of makes the whole Battle of Jericho thing seem tame, doesn't it? I honestly, after reading this, was a little embarrased for being of English speaking descent - I mean, the best we could do was the rather straightforwrad Beowulf, while our cousins up North were making stories that described their special word for Right-facing snowdrifts as being because that's the best place to hide corpses (and now you know, in case you're ever in need). And Odin? Odin is one scary god, showing up in his slouch hat and one eye, and stuff, all creepy and calm.

Anyway, it's difficult at this point to extract a redeeming social lesson for everybody (my first attempt: if you force your girls to marry men they don't like, they will produce children that come back to murder you). But... holy cow! No wonder the Brits were freaked out when the Vikings showed up! And how the heck did they get from here to Hamlet being the Prince of Denmark? If Hamlet was an OLD style viking, he wouldn't have spent so long worrying about killing people.  Hopefully the upcoming reading of the Poetic Edda sits back a wee bit more...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

Oroonoko is a 17th century novel about an African prince who falls in love, is betrayed and is eventually sold into slavery in the colony of Surinam. It is one of the earliest English novels written by a woman, and one of the first novels to include a positive black protagonist. And, the best thing about it? It isn't really boring. I say that because I tried the old-old English novel thing before with Defoe's Journal of the Plague Years - BO-RING! It was like, what if you took a first-person novel, and removed all semblance of human emotion from the narrator? It was interesting to read, but NOT an interesting read. At the time I figured this was simply it's age - people hadn't figured out how to write novels yet. Well,  apparently, Mr. Defoe should have gone, say, 40 years back in time and taken some lessons from Ms. Behn.

Because, again, this story wasn't boring! It was plotted, and mobile, and despite it's length (VERY short) the characters are sympathetic and interesting. Following Oroonoko is an emotional, instead of an intellectual experience, and the end - abrupt, cold, and tragic, feels sickeningly casual in a very powerful, intentional way.

Now, here's the thing - this novel is old. Not only does this mean that Aphra Behn had fewer giants to stand on teh shoulders of (she had to be giant all on her own) and that there are things that feel outdated and incomplete, it also means just some of the information feels... hrm. Well, grossly inaccurate is the word. In fact, a little condescendign, in context of today. Which was actually a really interesting thing about reading this book. Ms Behn lived in Surinam for a while as a British spy (she had a really fascinating life!), but had never been to Africa - and even if she had, this was a time when most of the world was still a mystery, where 'reliable' sources of research reported back total balderdash on new places. The Africa and South America in this story, then, is very much a part of her imagination more than a part of geography. And her handling of African people even more so.

But that was what was so interesting! Africa was so foreign to Behn that, in spite of shortly meeting slaves during her stay in Surinam, it was like another planet, and Africans truly another 'race' in a sense that we can't understand any more. Behn knew bits and pieces, but most of her depiction of Africans was the result of two simple facts in her mind: 1) People in Africa are much different culturally than People in Europe and 2) Human beings everywhere are the same, and can be great or terrible, noble or cruel, without having any particular race. This makes Oronooko a horrible representation of history, but a beautiful representation of the protospirit of racial equality.  The book isn't perfect even at this - there's still a bit of a feeling of condescension, a sort of 'oh, those dear AFrican people, they can be noble too!' But the nobility of the idea that she expressed shines through and is still powerful over all the intervening years.