Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bloodlist by P. N. Elrod

I worried about this book, especially since the cover didn't thrill me. I had been burned by vampire novels before, except for Dracula. Would this be another sex saturated vampire drivel or would there actually be a story? To my delight and surprise, there was a story and some wry humor!!! One way I think I would describe this story is for Fletch to become a vampire. Jack Fleming is a basically decent guy, he'll only take what's due to him, he doesn't like the idea of hurting people, can't lie, and he sends money home to his folks. Naturally, there's a catch, but more on that later.

Later. Picture it, Chicago, 1930s. Jack Fleming's a reporter and has just received some news. The bad news is he's dead, but the good news is he can investigate his own death because he's now a member of the elite undead, which is a heck of a lot better than being mostly dead or all dead, courtesy of Maureen (who never makes an appearance). After Jack recovers from his shock of being killed, he decides to recover his missing last four days and figure out why he was killed (it deals with a list he's supposed to have) starting with the ship, Elvira, but another mystery has popped up. Jack receives a note asking for a meeting. Jack agrees, cautiously, and meets Charles Escott. Escott's a former stage actor/makeup artist turned P.I. who has guessed Jack's condition and is curious, perhaps more curious than Jack. Jack's ex told him some of the traits of vampirism, but not all and Jack's doing some serious OJT. As Jack adjusts, he sets out to find the person who killed him. Along the way, he meets Bobbi Smythe, the first woman to make him feel alive like a man in a long time. He also meets the bad guys, Paco, Morelli, Gordy, and Lucky Lebredo, any of them who could have killed Jack. He sends Paco to the hospital after putting Paco's brain through the vampire blender and hitting "puree" (completely unintentional). With Escott's help, Fleming torments Morelli until it all ends aboard the Elvira.

Hmm… As if the weather isn't bad enough, it appears Chicago is being overrun with wizards and vampires. Don't think I'll heading there any time soon.

Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale

I know what you’re thinking –
Pec-tabulously perfect nipples!
Oh Fabio, if only you’d never uttered the word butter. That ruined you for me.
Do they still make shirts without buttons? How inconvenient on a cold day.

I thought of all these things and more when I saw this cover. I laughed and laughed. You’ve got to be kidding! And laughed some more. But I wasn’t supposed to laugh. This is a serious historical romance, not a comedy. Luckily, it didn’t take much to remove this hot-buttered Fabio from my thoughts as I imagined the tortured hero from this novel, and while only tentatively dipping my toe in at first I quickly jumped in whole-heartedly. This book consumed me.

Christian Langland, the Duke of Jervaulx (pronounced Shervoh) is London’s most notorious rake. An extremely intelligent and rich rake, but a rake none the less. Of course he is. Aren’t they always – sigh... When challenged to a duel by the husband of one of his ah, dalliances, he suffers a stroke that’s been coming on for weeks. All but his immediate family believes him dead, when in reality he’s been ensconced in a mental asylum under the presumption that he’s gone insane. Enter Maddy, a Quaker of the strictest kind and the daughter of the mathematician who’d been working with Jervaulx before he’d disappeared. Quite by accident she discovers him there, and over a period of months she strives to relieve him of his madness. Because he isn’t mad at all of course, just seriously ill. But don’t worry, all his parts are in working order soon enough. Or are they? Hmm...

What happens next is so stinking good I just don’t have the heart to spill the beans, sorry, but kudos to Kinsale for giving us a hero who can’t talk. She takes him to his barest self, almost stripped of everything; a naked spirit - See! I’m obsessed with skin after reading this book. I got a great sense of his frustration, his all out fury with his illness, and then Maddy as she wrestles with her growing feelings for him and her strict religion. It was well written. It was engaging. At times, it held me by the throat.

If you like a heady romance, this is as good as they come. You’ll be singing hallelujah before you reach the last page, no doubt, Fabio or no. You can take that to the bank. 4 stars

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

So the other day, while reading this book, I tweeted two comments:
Villette by Charlotte Bronte makes you feel hollow and lonely. In a bad way. :( #brontefail

Poor Charlotte Bronte. She must have been a very angry person. Sublimated angry, but angry.

Largely that sums up my personal feelings about this book.
I don't want to say Jane Eyre is a happy book, that would be silly. It isn't. It's a frequently sad, often scary book. But, if nothing else, there is at the end a feeling of catharsis, of closure. This book didn't have that at all. It was a strange experience, really, because the book felt too modern for Charlotte Bronte - modern novels have less of a tendency to insist on tidiness, less affection for things we can comprehend. I didn't need a modern novel, this week, I needed an old novel that I could cuddle into and feel things you aren't allowed to feel in the modern world.

That being said, my entire review will probably be insanely biased, but I will quietly make the argument that this book was not as great as I had hoped it would be, independent of my current mental state. First of all, C Bronte is not little Ms Subtle, by any stretch. You usually pretty much can guess at what it is she wants you to think. And she really seems to want you to like the main character. Only I didn't. The main character was bitter, angry, and sour, and she never really improved her temperament throughout the book. Since the main theme of the book was her search for happiness, this was kind of frustrating, because you didn't like her well enough to really want her to be happy. You don't necessarily want her to win.

Secondly, the book was very snippy. It read like a bitter, bigoted person speaking, the whole time - she makes nasty remarks about Catholics, Irish, and ESPECIALLY the French, throughout the whole book. I understand, some of this is the time period, and I can accept that. It wasn't that she had a bias, it's that she seemed to revel in it. The voice was a voice that was looking for something to hate.

Finally, and probably most difficultly for me, you kind of get the feeling, reading this book, that Charlotte Bronte doesn't like you, personally, the reader. She seems to be telling the story mostly for her own sake, and to think of the reader as a necessary evil. Some of the surprise twists in the book come through as sneering looks from the narrator, laughing at you for not catching on earlier. Some of the passages seem to irritatedly mince on through prose that the author seems tired of, as if the narrator wishes you' just keep up, and stop asking questions, so she could tell you what she really wanted to say.

All this would, again, be really interesting, if it felt like it was executed well. But it feels like it was executed on accident. I really don't think Ms B MEANT us to feel like she was an angry, bitter writer. But, the thing is, after this book, I feel like she was. And I couldn't shake that feeling, despite my sincere desire to do so.

I'm not saying I'm sorry I read it. The book was, if nothing else, a far more honest portrait of Charlotte than Jane Eyre was. Charlotte always seems to identify with her characters, and so you feel this strange frustration in this book, like she feels compelled to beat and damage herself with all the miserable pieces of life. I look back on Jane Eyre, now, and I see the voice of someone who WISHES her life had been that grand and sweeping, who was writing her dreams. This book isn't grand or sweeping. It's about the banalities of everyday, honest, miserable life, and you feel this sense of confined claustrophobia. Poor Charlotte, such a big mind, in such a small alley of life for living...

BTW - the image is of Lucy Snow, an anime character who I THINK is a fairy. Ironic.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

I have no idea why I picked this up to read now since it is July. I've never read anything by David Sedaris before. But I was looking for something quick to read that I could read in bits while I feed my baby. Suffice it to say that I don't have a lot of free hands while I'm feeding my baby.

And I don't have a lot of mindspace either because I have Mommy Brain. Turns out that's what you get when you are sleeping in stretches of no more than 2 to 3 hours at a time.

Rest assured though. The next book I picked up is Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

This book was written by David Sedaris. In case you don't know who he is, his sister is Amy Sedaris, of Strangers With Candy fame. I reviewed her entertainment/cook book several months ago. I won both these books in a Hatchette giveaway.

Anyway, I enjoyed these short stories. I wasn't sure I would when I got started. I was discussing Sedaris's humor with my husband, and I think it is fair to compare his humor to that of Larry David. If you enjoy his show (which I do sometimes) or liked Seinfeld (which I usually did), then you will probably like Sedaris (again, I do sometimes).

Sedaris's humor is the type that creates a scene like that in Seinfeld where George's fiance, Susan, dies after licking cheap envelopes that came with the wedding invitations George bought.

Let's start from the beginning of Sedaris's book [spoilers alert]:

SantaLand Diaries: Very funny tale about the trials and tribulations of being a department store elf at Christmas.

Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family: A holiday letter written by a wife angered by the announcement that her husband has an estranged daughter born after an affair during the Vietnam War. The letter and the story take a turn when the baby dies in a washing machine and dryer cycle.

Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol: A complaint about school holiday plays. Forgettable, and I wasn't sure I wanted to finish the book from there.

Lucky for you, I did continue reading.

Based Upon a True Story: A reality tv show producer gives the Holiday Sermon in a local church hoping to pursuade churchgoers to convince one of the members to sell her story to him. Apparently, she transplanted her kidney into her son in her barn with no prior medical experience.

Christmas Means Giving: Story of two families who continuously battle to see who can keep up to spend the most money buying holiday gifts turns into a contest to see who can donate the most money to charity ends only when both families are destitute and homeless.

Dinah, the Christmas Whore: One of my favorite stories from the book. Tale about David's sister Lisa who rescues a prostitute from a beating just before Christmas. Dinah, the prostitute, is a woman Lisa met while working at the Piccadilly cafeteria. I wonder if this tale has any truth to it. I was fascinated by his implication that prostitutes are people too. Sedaris began the story concerned about sameness and lack of individuality at holiday time but realized that his family was different because his sister befriended and took in a prostitute.

Jesus Shaves: Pretty funny story about trying to describe Easter and its Christian meaning in French class. Apparently, it doesn't translate into French.

Us and Them: Another story about David's family. In this one, David is mystified by a family, the Tomkeys, who don't have a television. Then for Halloween, the Tomkeys trick or treat the next day after. David's mother tries to get the kids to share their own Halloween candy and David stuffs nearly all his candy in his mouth to avoid doing so.

Let It Snow: The Sedaris family during an unexpected big snowfall. Their mother gets sick of the kids, kicks them out of the house, but then comes to rescue them in her house dress and slippers in the snow.

Six to Eight Black Men: An explanation of Christmas and St. Nicholas in the Netherlands. This one was pretty funny. As Americans, we are all told the same story about Santa Claus living in the North Pole. In the Netherlands, he is skinny, used to serve as the bishop to Turkey, lives in Spain, and travels with six to eight black men. Sedaris points out that Christmas stories also don't translate well from one language to another.

The Monster Mash: David's experience spending time in the medical examiner's office over Halloween.

The Cow and the Turkey: In this allegorical tale, the farm animals all choose names for Secret Santas to give presents at Christmas. The cow is notoriously cheap and whines about the secret part of the Santa exchange. He is the only one who knows that the turkey is to be slaughtered for Christmas dinner and so he wants to choose turkey as the gift recipient. He thinks he has gotten away with it until he discovers the turkey was to be his Secret Santa. I call this an allegory, but honestly, I'm not sure what the deeper meaning of this tale is.

Overall, I thought these stories were funny, and I laughed out loud in lots of places. Some of them, especially the Season's Greetings letter, were crude humor. Then again, I just had a baby, so I'm not into stories about babies dying at the hands of a crazed baby sitter. I do think I would read another book by David Sedaris.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

I've been on the lookout for a book that can accurately portray Alzheimer's Disease the way I remembered it from seeing my Grandpa Ted suffer from it and the way my Grandma dealt with it as well as many others of my family who helped her. I used to think that my memories were distorted from the fact that I was quite young during this time; my grandfather passed away at the age 90 years old when I was 21. Now, after reading Lisa Genova' s book I think my memories weren't all that tainted. Still Alice is by far, hands down one of the best books I have ever read about Alzheimer's disease. It was captivating, sad and interesting. I learned quite a bit and had little revelations through the main character, Alice's insights of what it must be like to have early-onset Alzheimer's Disease.
An amazing edge, for Genova, is the fact that she holds a Ph.D in neuroscience from Harvard. Her research is accurate and well-placed throughout the book. Another fact that I recently discovered is that her grandmother had Alzheimer's, which I'm sure helped motivate her to write this book. Also, many of the medications listed and that helped Alice deal with A.D. are real medicines, with the exception of Amylix, as described in the book.


At first Alice starts forgetting things like words when giving a speech or the fact that she is teaching a class, she thinks it might be because of menopause. One of the most poignant scenes for me in the book is when she gets lost jogging near her house, on a route she has taken many times, you feel so much for her in that moment and you want her to remember but she simply can't. She doesn't even realize exactly how long her memory lapses until she suddenly remembers and goes home. At this point, she realizes something is seriously wrong and seeks medical help. For the duration of the book, it remains in Dr. Alice Howland's point of view which according to her physician that she goes to visit when she thinks she is having memory problems and he tells her that since she is reporting that she can't remember things she would need to bring a friend or family member since she might not be totally accurate. Alice is almost fifty, so she is totally unprepared for the diagnosis - early onset Alzheimer's and feels unimaginable denial as does her family. As the disease progresses, Alice and her husband John learn everything they can about the disease and treatments, but Alzheimer's quickly takes its toll on both Alice and her family. Genova maintains Alice's thoughts and her heart simply unfolds throughout her journey yet I longed to know more of the thoughts from her husband and children. In the end, I came to understand why Genova may have done this which, in my opinion, was to bring awareness of the person who has A.D. that just because they can't remember doesn't mean they don't feel. One way this was illustrated in the book was when Alice finds out that there are plenty of support groups for the caregivers of A.D. persons but none for the A.D. persons themselves. So, Alice starts one of her own while she still can express herself and invite them by using e-mail. She is successful for a short time until the A.D. wins out but that is probably the time that she needed it most. It was heartwrenching actually. I also have to admit this book scared me and really made me think about the challenges you might face about getting older.
I recommend this book if you are looking for any fiction reading about Alzheimer's Disease, esp. early onset.

320 pages, Jan. 6, 2009, My rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

I love modern English lit. I love the way the characters talk. Brief, quick sentences full of meaning. For example,
“Loosen up, Sis. Mycroft is a brainbox and Polly, well, she does have a fat arse,”
or –
“Thursday!—” shouted Bowden against the rasp of the engine.

Perfectly timed and perfectly witty, this was a really funny book. The Eyre Affair is a heady amalgam of comedy and crime, and I guess alternate history, two words together I’d never heard of. Enter the world of Great Britain circa 1985 where time travel is common place, dodo’s are the pet of choice, Richard III is performed nightly with as much excitement as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and people vacation in their favorite novel. But now someone is stealing original manuscripts, kidnapping characters and permanently altering the stories. Hot on the trail of this slippery slope killer, such is a day in the life of Thursday Next, Special Operative in the literary detection division, until her beloved Jane is stolen from the pages of Thornfield Hall. Now she really means business.

Think Stephanie Plum with less hair spray and clothes that don’t glow in the dark. Instead of the rat, think dodo bird. Instead of the psycho grandma, insert time traveling father whose face could stop a clock. Landon is no Morelli (not even close), but there is a Vampire Spec Op agent who is dead-pan Ranger with dread locks and the cool shades.

Enough comparison though, I liked this book all on its own. In its own way it was original and funny, even bizarre at times. With names like Thursday Next, Captain Braxton Hicks, Jack Schitt, and Filbert Snood how can you go wrong I say. I laughed outloud multiple times.

The plot moved along rather swiftly for me, keeping me interested most of the time, with my only problem being it taking so long to actually get to the Eyre affair. A lot of weird stuff happens before then, in fact I thought it might be more aptly named The Eyre Affair, cont., but it is all wrapped up swimmingly, and like a good Bronte novel, ended with just the beginning. Be sure to read it with a cup of herb tea and a cucumber sandwich. 4 stars
Other excellent reviews of this:

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

*Note: For me, this novel was difficult to describe without possibly saying too much so it may be considered to have spoilers. I also think that if you want to read this book it may be to your advantage to just read it without knowing too much about it first. It might be best that way.
And yes, I recommend reading it obviously.

I was warned that I would not be able to put this book down after I started reading it but I read it anyway. Not only did I read it fast because it was hugely entertaining, I just couldn't put it down. This is a dystopian novel in the most terrifying sense of that word since The Hunger Games is a dangerous game where it is basically "a survival of the fittest" on live television. The last person standing, or the so-called victor, wins fame, glory and food supplies. It is promised that their life will be easier and they will live in the best housing of their district. These Games are considered the best entertainment ever produced from the Capitol's point of view and it is the only thing televised while it is taking place.
It is complex as it deals with primitive human nature much like William Golding's classic, The Lord of the Flies, which forces you to view the effects of their society that has gone horribly wrong. The difference in The Hunger Games is the adults are still in control of the government and forcing their will on the citizens by using the Games to remind everyone that rebellion doesn't get you anywhere or anything. Each district is forced to have two of their youth, one boy/one girl, participate in the Games and they are called tributes. They are randomly chosen by lottery, although the lottery is not fair at all. First, each youth's name is entered a certain number of times according to age and then the youth could choose to have their name entered in more times for a simplistic ration of grain and oil from the government in order to supplement their family's already sparse rations of food. The basic need of food and the quest for survival are two of this novel's overall themes.
Collins creates her world in the U.S. that has become corrupt and completely ruined now renamed Panem. It has been reorganized into districts that are each responsible to provide a different essential for the Capitol, the governing city of Panem. The districts know very little, if anything, about each other and what they do. All the districts have to do the task that is required of them and they are compelled to rely on the government in some way for their very survival. It is not a good system at all but this new world is their horrifying reality. Collins has done an amazing job describing it!
Not only are Collins descriptions fantastic but her characters are memorable and likable considering the setting and the virtual bloodbath the games represent I think that is quite an achievement!

* Definite spoilers from this point on:

The main character is Katniss Everdeen who hunts, scraps and does whatever she can to make sure that her mother and little sister have what they need to eat and survive. She is a sixteen year old teenager who after the death of her father has been forced to grow up too fast not to mention she is fighting for her life. Her teenage character was well balanced with her courage to think and and feel as smart in acting like an adult at times but then at other times be clueless and not willing to notice, believe, or trust others that come into her path. All very interesting and proved to help the pacing of the novel quite a bit because I wanted to know more about Katniss.
Other characters that stood out to me are Katniss's little sister Prim, her friend Gale who helps and hunts with her and her fellow tribute to compete with her in the Games, Peeta Mellark. Also introduced as Katniss prepares for the games are Haymitch, Cinna, and Avox girl which were each hard to forget in their own right. Haymitch is a former tribute and victor of the Games from her District, Cinna is her uber talented hairstylist for the Opening Ceremonies of the Games and I found myself dreaming about that mysterious red-headed Avox girl and what really happened to her...? A couple of the tributes that she interacts with, whether for good or evil, in the Games who also stood out for me were Rue, Cato, Foxface and Thresh. You learned only a very little about each one of them yet they still remained with you somehow.
One of my favorite lines from the book which features the pin given to Katniss by the Mayor's daughter, Madge,
"It's as if someone fashioned a small golden bird and then attached a ring around it. The bird is connected to the ring only by its wing tips. I suddenly recognize it. A mockingjay."
This is what is on the books' cover as the image matches the description of the pin.
There is so much that I have taken away from this book whether I wanted to or not, it will definitely be something I'll think about for a while. I can't wait for Book # 2!

384 pages, Sept. 14, 2008, My rating: 4.5 stars

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

Pretty much left on her own, the thirty-fourth in line for the throne decides to fully strike out on her own and take charge of her destiny. She leaves the Castle and her brother, Binky and his wife, Fig. She arrives at Rannoch house in London and settles in as she figures out her next move. Of course, the Queen has a move. If Georgie is publicly turned out, the Queen has a job for Georgie as a lady-in-wait (or something like it) for the Queen's sister, in the interim, the Queen would like Georgie to spy on her son. After visiting the Queen, she runs into an old school chum, Belinda, and the two come up with the idea of Georgie opening up houses for the well-to-do, under a different name of course. Georgie also runs into another chum, Darcy O'Mara, who's highly unsuitable, but so desirable, but is he more than that? Soon after Georgie arrives, she gets a nasty visitor, Frenchman de Mauxville. De Mauxville claims Georgie's and Binky's father left the estate to him to pay for a gambling debt and Mauxville's there to collect. Turns out de Mauxville was a gambler and a blackmailer, so Georgie thinks there should be plenty of suspects, but the police seemed to have their attention on Binky. In the meantime, Georgie's come up with too many close calls (she's naturally clumsy, but these "accidents" are too much) and wonders if she's the victim of foul play. Of course, she's correct. Eventually she figures out who's behind de Mauxville's murder and the attempts on her life.

Rather an easy mystery to solve, however, Bowen manages to rope the reader into the 30's London that I dismissed the mystery element and allowed myself to be swept into the moment. I'm not sorry I did. I found the story intriguing, Georgie lovable in her "take on the world" attitude, and her smart thinking. Even the Queen commented on Georgie's brain power. The story was intriguing, not just for the mystery, but in how Georgie will get herself out of the jams she's gotten into. If this was made into the movies, I would picture Doris Day (my favorite all time actress) as the role of Georgie (I'm sure Day could do a British accent). Georgie is rather clumsy and Day could do an adorable clumsy (as evidenced in The Glass Bottom Boat. I'm also under the impression after reading Sayer's Whose Body? and this book that the 1920s British aristocrats are completely to blame for today's slang and preppy language and the world's acceptance of it. Real names aren't used inside the social circle, instead the nicknames are dropped like silverware. They even use initials, like HM for His/Her Majesty when referring to the uber-royalty (though I doubt they would do that to their faces). I wonder what the story would have been like if they had they had the technologies we have today. Could one imagine how Pride and Prejudice would turn out if the Bennets had been able to Twitter and update their MySpace or Facebook pages?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Alternate Warriors - Edited by Mike Resnick

1993; 434 pages. Book #3 of Resnick's "Alternate Anthologies" series. Genre : Alternate History. Overall Rating : C- (below average, but manly).
This is a "what if" book. Mike Resnick asks a bunch of writers to take any historical person of reason or peace, and examine what would've happened if they had said, "the heck with turning the other cheek, I'm gonna kick some butt!"
What's To Like...
It's Alternate History, and that's a plus. There are 29 stories all told, which is about double what you get in most anthologies. The ubiquitous Esther Friesner is here. So is Mercedes Lackey, whose books I like. I also met five noteworthy historical figures that I had never heard of.
The Best of the Bunch...
Jane's Fighting Ships. Esther Friesner's contribution. Jane Austen teams up with Davy Crockett to strike a blow against Napoleon in French-occupied England. Wow.
Sam Clemens and the Notable Mare, by Mel White. Told with a Twainsian style of humor.
The Firebringers. An all-star cast of 40's Hollywood legends are the flight crew on a plane slated to drop the first atomic bomb. Destination : Berlin.
Queen of Asia. Sisygambis (who?) rallies the Persians to defeat Alexander the Great. Probably my favorite story in the book.
The Arrival of Truth. Kind of a Toni Morrison "Beloved" story, but only 25 pages long.
The whole list of bloodthirsty characters...
"(*)" indicates somebody new to me.
Julius Nyerere (*); Jane Austen; Martin Luther King; Gandhi; Frederico Garcia Lorca (*); Pope John Paul 1; King Tut's wife; Susan B. Anthony; Mother Teresa; Lawrence of Arabia; Mark Twain; St. Francis of Assisi; Leonard Bernstein; 40's Hollywood actors; Albert Schweitzer; Sisygambis (*); Moses; Marilyn Monroe; Thomas Beckett; Albert Einstein; Stephen Hawking; Tecumseh (kinda); Pope John XXIII; Neville Chamberlain; Sidney Reilly (*); Jesus; Martin Luther King (again); Jules Verne; Sojourner Truth (*).
All things Austen, always...
I had very low expectations for this book, and it lived down to them. Other than the "best" stories listed above, this was a pretty boring read. Some of the tales were silly, such as Albert Schweitzer playing Tarzan. Quite a few were banal - Martin Luther King or Gandhi or a Pope picks up a gun and goes postal. Yawn.
In the end, I think the main problem was the theme itself, not the authors. Alternate History cannot be propely done in 10-15 pages. Here's an example.
Sisygambis, the original cougar, outmaneuvers the invading Greeks, saves Persia, captures Alexander the Great, and History takes a different fork in the road. Fine. Alas, our story ends there. What we really want to know is how Western Civilization would then have been changed. And that isn't addressed.
I picked this book up solely because it had a Jane Austen story in it, and the 5-Squared mandate is to read and review any and all books written by her, about her, or with her in it. There is a lot of good Alt-History out there, and I kinda figured this would pale in comparison. I can't recommend Alternate Warriors, but I give it a C- because at least a couple of the stories held my attention. For the most part though, it was boring. Only my OCD made me finish it.

In closing we'll leave you with this Photoshopped image of our previous Pope, just oozing with machismo. For an appreciation of the Alternate Warriors task, go ahead and try to write an interesting short story about John Paul II in this alternate persona. I have a feeling it won't be easy.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Alright, bad news for Mr. Barca - I'm rereading the Anne of Green Gables series, this year, possibly the antithesis of the 'guy book' ideal that he has expressed an affectino for in the past. This is only the beginning - there are eight Anne books. But, Mr. Barca, you see I've tried so very hard to spare your feelings, so I've rolled up these first three books into one review, so there won't be QUITE so much challenge to your manhood. I will try to make this as painless as possible.

Anne of Green Gables will forever remind me of three people: my mother, because she's Canadian (thoguh she told jokes about P.E.I. folks - they're like the Canada equivalent of redneck jokes, apparently), my sister because she had the row of them on her shelf when I was little, and they looked so pretty there all in a row (right by the Laura Ingalls Wilder books), and my best friend from high school, Sarah Kortemeier, because she's the only person I ever saw wear red hair in pigtails (it was dyed for playing Annie at the time, she was more a ruddy brown, generally) and freckles (not fake, she had a healthy sprinkling of freckles). Anne of Green Gables is just like that last sentence, a series of charming, lovely, gently funny things (though much better written, older, and less given to parentheses).

In the grand scheme of things, these books shouldn't matter after 100 years. I don't mean to say they are bad books, but they aren't meant to be high literature. These books were written at the same time period, generally, as F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Joseph Conrad, after all. They were meant to be fun books, light books. And they are, they most certainly are, all of them, great fun.

But, the thing about Anne of Green Gables is that people DO still remember it. Plenty of books have been written, since, about what it is to grow up, but these ones stay large in the popular mind, despite all of the anachronisms they now carry, despite their imperfections.

The reason for me is the enormous respect that Ms Montgomery has for any soul that proves to be a kindred spirit. Ms Montgomery writes with passionate adoration, and quiet, sincere respect about old maids, young children, teenagers, college students, young newlyweds, middle-aged housewives, rich, poor, flighty and temperamental people, overly practical people, wild-eyed dreamers, quiet hard workers - to her, all these people are equal, and each one of them has their own brand of loveliness. Anne is a wonderful girl because she has the remarkable ability to love people as equals. Diana loves people because she thinks them better than her, Rachel loves people because she thinks they need her, Anne loves people as fellow travellers in her life, with warmth and sincere appreciation for their talents and abilities- and one gets the feeling that the narrator feels the same way.

These are the early books, the ones I know best, going from the orphan Anne being adopted by the Cuthberts, through school, teacher's college, and university, through her accepting an engagement with Gilbert. IT will be interesting to reread the books as she gets older and her cup becomes a little more mixed. The latter half of Ms. Montgomery's life was sad, I know (her husband was mentally ill, and she was frequently depressed and may have, in fact, committed suicide), and it will be interesting to reread the older books, now that I'm older, and know a little (just a little) more abotu what it is to have children, grow up, etc.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Ummm... there's lots of people in love in strange directions, and at the end, noone marries the person they fell in love, but they all marry people they fall in love with later, and everybody is happy except the guy who was locked up for wearing funny socks. There's your plot summary.

That being out of the way, I didn't like this play that much. A great deal of it was wrapped up following around the two drunkards, who were not much fun (roguish maid-in-waiting on the other hand? Fun, definitely fun). Noone seemed to really have a good reason for falling in love with who they did at the end. Ironically, actually, the only moment I felt real emotion was when the lady falls in love with the mesenger who is a woman dressed as a man. Her description of falling in love felt real and sweet. Of course, she later is able to transfer that love to the messenger's brother for the simple reason that the two look somewhat similar, which kind of ruined it, but still, the lines were sweet:

How now!
Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth's perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes.

Otherwise, the whole scene where Malvolio dresses up in yellow and cross garters and smiles as wide as possible in order to seduce Olivia was right hilarious, no question. Honestly, I kind of got the feeling that the rest of the story was an excuse for the Malvolio stuff. :P. But, I DID learn where the whole line about "Some men are born great" etc came from, and that it was actually sarcastic, here, which was a charming little revelation. All in all, not my favorite play. But it could be fun if staged well.

A Lion called Christian: The True Story of the Remarkable Bond between Two Friends and a Lion by Anthony Bourke and John Rendall

For me, reading this book was a pleasant surprise and quite interesting too. The story of Christian was captivating and touching. In the late '60's, these two gentlemen from Australia found him and couldn't pass him up so they bought him at Harrods Department Store in London on a whim, a very expensive one. I was moved to read thier experiences of how they took care of him, and what they went through to help him maintain good health, keep him safe and try to provide some sense of happiness for thier lion friend. It really is remarkable the love and bond this lion had with Anthony(Ace) and John. I loved the dynamic of their remarkable friendship as well. You also grasp a sense at how dangerous it was for them to own a lion and they share their concerns. They honestly realize how lucky and one of a kind their whole experience was.
I had been wanting to read this book since I saw it in Wal-Mart when it first came out but I really didn't know much about it. So, I looked up some reviews and found that for the most part they were positive. Then I happened upon the 1971 YouTube reunion that John and Ace had with Christian and felt very moved to see of their bond with him. So, I put the book on hold at the library right away. When I received the book, I read it quite fast.
I enjoyed how their story unfolded and all of the people who became associated with Christian. I felt a sense of how they of how much Christian meant to each of them. It was so different for everyone since they were dealing with a wild animal. I'm glad that George Adamson came into Christian's life and all of his effort to rehabilitate Christian back into Africa. George was a very unique person brimming with personality that I'll find hard to forget for a long time. I also appreciated the message he was trying to share about conservation efforts and rehab of wild animals. He dedicated his life to this cause and it feels that he truly loved it.
Overall, this is a beautiful story.

256 pages, March 10, 2009, My rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Silenced by James Devita

When I first started reading this book, I wasn't sure if I would really get into it but I did. I became so enthralled by this world Devita had created and I had to read it to feel like I could understand more of it while trying to make sense of it all. I thought it had a great pace which made it entertaining to read as well.
Devita develops a dystopian society that through its own government seeks to alienate people and control huge aspects of their lives. From restricting interactions with the opposite sex to education, from reading and writing to private conversations to even the possibility of their thoughts, it seems, in order to develop perfection for their society and not necessarily for the individual.
Marena, a teenage girl, is the main character who aims to remember a life without the Zero Tolerance Party. The ZT's drastically altered her life when they took control and more than anything she doesn't want to forget what she can barely recall. So for this ability to keep a simple memory and for the hope to live a life without feeling controlled, it gives her courage to find a way to show resistance. Marena and her friends form "The White Rose" and vow that they will not be matter what. It could be deadly for them, their friends and families, but it is their reality and not a game. But the future promises to be even worse if the ZT's are allowed to remain in power any longer over everything and everyone.
This novel is loosely based on the story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. Scholl and her friends find a way to defy the atrocities happening around them during the holocaust of WWII. I want to know more about them and their activism.
This is a tragically inspiring read but most of all, this novel caused me to think deeply.
I look forward to the next book by James Devita.

512 pages, June 2007, My rating: 4 stars.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Wives of Henry the VIII by Antonia Fraser

King Henry the Eighth liked to have sex. Let’s just get that out of the way.


He thought himself the cat’s meow, a stud muffin, God’s gift to women even after his weight increased dramatically and a sore on his swollen leg reeked of disease. After all, he was King of England. But unlike other monarchs at the time whose spouses were selected from political standpoints and strategic alliances, King Henry in all cases but Anna of Cleves and even then he liked her picture, picked his own wife based on his heart. Forget the fact that he’s famous for treading over corpses; King Henry thrived on being in love. He wanted to control someone. He wanted an object of desire.

Towards the end of his life, for the women in court this was a scary business, especially as the list piled on from his previous wives…divorced, beheaded, died…divorced, beheaded, lived. No one was exactly lining up for the job. This is why I admire his last choice Catharine Parr so much. She must have been very brave considering his track record.

Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry the VIII is a faithful, exhaustive gathering of information on the political goings on at the time, the religious fervor in England, and how this played into the stereotypes and backgrounds of his six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Did they really fit the profile that has descended down through history: The Betrayed Wife, The Temptress, The Good Woman, the Ugly Sister, The Bad Girl, and The Mother Figure. By the end of this book you have a pretty good idea.

A quick overview –
Catherine of Aragon. The most royal of all of his choices, a descendant of Spain and England (both were related to John of Gaunt), Queen Catherine truly was the betrayed wife. And she wasn’t going to go quietly. He was horribly mean to her and their daughter, and her life could’ve been so easy, if she’d just have agreed to a divorce. She refused over and over again. I wanted to cheer at the end of that chapter, “You go girl!” Fraser and many others asked the question, how would things have been different in England if she’d had a son? Would the religious reformation have taken place? Fraser and other scholars agree, probably eventually yes. The conditions were ripe at the time for change. The people wanted more of a voice in their own religion, scripture in English, etc. It was inevitable.

Anne Boleyn. One of the smartest women on her age. Her story is a well-chronicled one. One of desire, one of love, one of temptation. Was she really as calculating as some believe? Fraser says probably not. Her main mistake was not having friends in the right places like Catherine did, and most of all not producing a son. Is it any wonder these women had miscarriage after miscarriage? I can hardly imagine such pressure to procreate as that.

Jane Seymour. Lucky girl, she died quickly. She was Henry’s new fresh start. A clean slate. He always claimed she was his one true wife. Why? Because she gave him his only living son. Does she deserve the title of The Good Woman? Fraser speculates she was probably just as human and paranoid as the rest of the women in his life.

Anna of Cleves. King Henry was in a very bad mood when he married her. His first choice had laughed him off. This daughter of Cleves was his second choice, based on liking her portrait, and merely a convenient political alliance. When he saw her he changed his mind, not thinking she was the least bit pretty. This was his reasoning for a quick divorce – that she was not able to rouse him. But unlike Catherine of Aragon, Anna agreed almost immediately, perhaps fearing for her neck, as long as she could stay in England. He rewarded her with her own house and money. She was still alive and rich. Not too bad I say.

Katherine Howard. Half his age, and a cousin to Anne (that should’ve been the first bad sign), Katherine was not too bright, but she must’ve been very pretty – according to Fraser we're not sure if there's a picture of her. It’s widely guessed that the king was quite taken with her, but therein lies the thorn on the rosebush: He wasn’t the only one. This rose had been plucked before, poor girl. I believe Katherine’s only crime was being so young and na├»ve. Whom would you pick between if you were nineteen: an old, really large man with a smelly leg and a general air of importance, or a young dashing rogue who told you everything you wanted to hear? Not too tough of a choice.

Catherine Parr. Finally an older (she was in her mid-thirties), wiser widow. No more questions about whether or not she’s had sex before. This woman was safe. She definitely spoke her mind on occasion, was a stand in mother for his children and probably just as Protestant as Anne Boleyn, but knew her limits. She wasn’t stupid after all. Nothing was worth death.

So, along with this being a fascinating read, there are wonderful pictures of the king and his wives and offspring, as well as key political figures and places at the time. I recommend this to anyone interested in this period of history and women studies.

I’ve seen The Tudors on Showtime and have often believed, besides the fact that the casting of Henry was way off base as far as looks go, they made some of the storyline up. It’s just too much of a soap opera to be true. I don’t think that anymore. What came around really did go around. Who would’ve thought? I loved it, but I love the National Enquirer too, so it wasn't much of a stretch. 4 stars

Sunday, July 19, 2009

If Not, Winter by Sappho (trans. Anne Carson)

(image by motionblur)
This is the sort of book that strikes me cleverness dumb. So I will simply begin by telling you what the book is.

If Not, Winter is a collection of all of the known works of Sappho - almost entirely fragments. Sappho was, in ancient Greece, considered one of the two greatest lyric poets, alongside Pindar. However, probably in part because she was a woman and in part because she appears to have been bisexual (her home was Lesbos, and the words lesbian and sapphic come from her), only one complete poem of hers survives, and then a series of fragments. The book, then, is a collection of those fragments, some salvaged bits of papyrus, some quotes (sometimes just a quoted word) from her contemporaries.

Of all the books I've ever read, as a physical book, this is probably the number one most beautiful, in terms of words, I've ever seen. The concept and layout is beautiful, sparse, and extremely powerful - it is a book that proves that books themselves are still pertinent and meaningful. The beautiful thing is, without the layout, honestly, most of these fragments would feel meaningless and orphaned. The way the fragments are presented conveys the feeling of loss, the frustration of something we can never have in ways that description cannot. Fragment 107 is a good example. Each fragment is composed of facing pages, the left in Ancient Greek, the right an English translation. Fragment 107 is an empty, white page, with 107 on the top, and simply the fragmented sentence:

"do I still yearn for my virginity?"

Similarly 126 just reads:

"may you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend"

Sometimes there is more, as in 104, where there is enough to get a fleeting echo of a voice in it:


you gather back
all that dazzling dawn has put asunder:
you gather a lamb
you gather a kid
you gather a child to its mother


of all stars the most beautiful

Of course, in isolation like this, that seems silly. But it isn't! I saw a review that likened it to trying to hear a poorly tuned radio station. To me, it's more like sitting outside of a concert, slowly realizing that they're playing something beautiful, and then having the concert end before you can get in the door. Ther are lines, sometimes:

138: stand to face me beloved
and open out the grace of your eyes

sometimes, there is even enough to catch the gist of a tune:

I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me

with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.

And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.

But if not, I want
to remind you
] and beautiful times we had.

For many crowns of violets
and roses
] at my side you put on

and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.

And the brackets! I ahve never had a relationship with a piece of punctuation like I've now developed with the square bracket, which signifies, in the text, a lost block of text, illegible or destroyed:

] heart
] absolutely
] I can
] would be for me
] to shine in answer
] face
] having been stained

And so it is, the entire book. Whenever you read a poem in translation, there is a certain feeling of loss - in this case, Carson takes that loss and uses it as a tool, instead of an impediment, uses it to show it what it actually means to be blind to beauty, or even worse, to destroy it or prevent it. Every frustrating break, every meaningless half sentence after a beautiful unfinished metaphor speaks in this powerful white space, whispering, "This beauty was and is no more. A man, like you, destroyed it. History is a damaged cloth, and we, we men, are moths..."

By the end of the book, the fragments have sheared themselves into single words, it's like listening to the broken soul of a mad person, these bursts of meaninglessness, meaningful only because we wish they were, empty, but pregnant with impossible loss:








of the Muses










gold anklebone cups

And that's the end. gold anklebone cups, and the book of history closes, a woman is put into a little book (it take about two hours to read), and tucked away into a mass of whitespace, and the shreds of what she was. If you love poetry, and you want to remember why you love it, and what life would be without it, read this book.

Watchmen - Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

1995; 416 pages. Comics originally published in 1986-87. Genres : Graphic (in both senses of the word) novel; action. Awards : One of the NYT "100 Best novels"; Update : 1988 Hugo Award for Best Other Form. Overall Rating : A-.
Watchmen has already been reviewed by 5-Squared's Nikki here and Jason here. It is nigh impossible to discuss the plot without spoilers, so here's the ultra-condensed version : the brutal slaying of a retired superhero leads to a plan underway that threatens the fate of the whole world.
What's To Like...
A fantastic storyline; in-depth character development; breath-taking artwork. A cool alternate history setting where the US wins the Vietnam War due to two of our heroes' involvement, and Richard Nixon gets to be President-for-Life.
The term "superhero" is a misnomer here, since only one of the group has superhuman powers. That's Dr. Manhattan, who through personal ineptness turns himself into a walking, talking Star Trek transporter. This fascinates the US government, but generally irritates everyone else, particularly Manhattan's Vonnegutian view of time.
The group also includes Ozymandias, the world's smartest human. But face it, right now, someone's walking around on earth with that same distinction. And Nite Owl creates some fabulous Batmanesque gadgets, but nothing unbelievable. The rest of the group seem to be ordinary people with a sense of vigilanteism and a fetish for capes-&-spandex.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
One of the charms of Watchmen is that it examines a number of situational ethics themes. Here are two of them; albeit modified so that spoilers are avoided.
Theme #1 : What if your superheroes aren't?
Yeah, Spiderman may have to occasionally confront his dark side; and Batman might have a moment or two of psychological self-doubt. But in the end, they always emerge as all-American good guys, that little boys can idolize when they read the comic books.
But what if they had some permanent character flaws? Suppose Superman felt compelled to get a sex-change, or Batman physically abused Robin, or Underdog got insanely jealous of all other superheroes. Would we still hero-worship these world-savers if they weren't perfect?
Theme #2 : The Hiroshima Syndrome
For all the nuclear-weapons-in-terrorists-hands phobia nowadays, the fact is - only the USA has ever detonated an atomic bomb on another nation. And we did it twice, and against civilian, not military, targets. At Hiroshima, roughly 70,000 people died on the day of the blast; then another 40,000 a few days later at Nagasaki. After another three months, those numbers double; and another equal number of deaths occurred due to long-term cases of cancer, etc. All told, more than a quarter million lives lost.
Even today, the debate still rages about these bombings. In school, the teachers always justified the action by saying the bombs were dropped to "save American lives that would have been lost if we had actually invaded Japan" and to "destroy the will for warfare of the Japanese people."
Watchmen gives you its opinion of the Hiroshima Syndrome. I won't spoil it for you, instead I'll lay out a similar scenario.
Suppose a swine flu epidemic arises. It has a 95% mortality rate; is highly contagious; and spreads rapidly. For now, it is confined to Iran. In another week, it will spread throughout the world. Question - do we nuke Iran for the sake of the rest of humanity?
Now what if the point-of-infection was, say, Texas (or your home state)? Does your answer change? And who makes the decision? The US Government? Would their answer be different if the point of infection was Washington DC?
Halt! Hugo's there?
I give Watchmen an A-. It is a genre-changing opus and redefines the depth that a comic can have. It is complex, with a lot of food-for-thought, and held my attention. Plus I'm a sucker for situational ethics.
OTOH, is not one of the 100 best novels of all time. While the ending is superb, the final steps in getting there are a bit clunky. Jason gives a much more spirited and detailed opinion about this.
Nor should it have won (update : nor did it win) the Hugo Award for Best Novel. As beautiful as the artwork is, I am more in awe of somone who can give you just as vivid of a scene, using only text. Like Sylvia Plath, for example :
"The wind has blown a warm yellow moon up over the sea; a bulbous moon, which sprouts in the soiled indigo sky, and spills bright winking petals of light on the quivering black water."
Oooooh, that's sensational! It's not a matter of which is better, it's a matter of what constitutes a novel. Thankfully, the Hugo folks came to their senses, and have since established a separate Awards category for Graphic Novels. As for me, although I can't say I won't read another Graphic Novel in the future, I will say that they'll never replace a good, text-only book.

Fairies in Tradition and Literature by Katherine Briggs & The Golden Bough By Sir James Frazier

So, it's not that I'm being lazy, but I'm rolling both of these reviews into one. I was going to write two, but the subject matter is so similar, and I really don't know if it's subject matter that will interest other people at all, and it just seemed easier, since I finished them a few days apart.

My nerdery is in full, giddy bloom with these two books! Quick synopsis. Both of these books are nonfiction, classics (more or less) in the field of folklore and mythology studies. Golden Bough is the older of the two, and one of the first really indepth studies of myth, and many of the ideas Frazier made in it (sympathetic vs imitative magic, for instance) are still (I think) very influential. The book studies a particular tradition, and travels deeply through world mythology and folk tradition to try to to purport a reasoning for it. Fairies in Tradition and Folklore (which should, by the way, be required reading for any fantasy writer who wants to write about fairies, I think) is a survey of prevailing folklore and literary references to fairies, elves, etc throughout the British isles, from the time of Shakespeare onward (for before Shakespeare, Briggs wrote another book, talking about the traditions that lead to Midsummer's Night Dream, The Tempest, and other Fairy Shakespeare, which I'll have to read eventually, too). It begins with talking about the general groups of fairies (fairies that represent the dead, for instance, or fairy plants), then discusses prevailing story types (the fairy midwife, fairy lovers, brownie stories, etc), and finally talks about how these have been integrated into literature (homily stories, 'whimsy stories', thoughtful poetry, etc).

Both books were E for excellent. Both authors have a lovely gift for taking what could be a very dry, academic study, and infusing it with a distinctive voice and character of their own. Their essentially several hundred page long research papers, but they don't read like it. Frazier has a fascinating gift for corollary, for taking a thousand differentideas, and drawing conclusions about their similarities (too much at times, but he was practically inventing the field from scratch, so you have to give him a little break). Briggs has an eye for fascinating details that draw you in, and illuminate the generalities of her categories with a vividity that makes you want to read more fairy tales (and how bad a compulsion can that be, really?).

Frazier feels dated, however, as well he would given the amount of time since the book was written (Edwardian period). While he does a remarkable job, considering the circumstances, of pointing out that European folk traditions are as savage and heathenish as any other continent, he cannot fully escape the ethnocentric mindset of the day - if I read this book and were an Australian Aborigine, for instance, I'd be pretty offended. From the part of my brain that knows a bit about the time period, I can appreciate that the book was leaps and bounds an improvement over it's contemporaries, but it's definitely written by a 20th century British white man.

Briggs' work, partly perhaps because it confines itself to the British Isles, does not suffer from this fault - in fact, her impartiality and open=mindednes were so powerful that, quite frankly, I wasn't sure by the end if maybe she believed in the Fairy Folk herself, which offered a very sympathetic and beautiful way to collect the folk tales from people who obviously DID believe in fairies.

Most fascinating, however, is the two opposing conclusions of the two books. At the end of Frazier, he discusses how Magical thinking progressed into Religious thinking, and Religious thinking has progressed into Science, and man continues to advance from there - his final supposition is that eventually something more comprehensively correct and wise than science will come and supplant it, which was a fascinating idea to me. Briggs, on the other hand, doesn't see folklore as a slow ascent from the savage to the civilized, but rather cyclical, and points out how, all through history, men have told stories of how the fairies are dissapearing, but how they always bloom back and reappear. In the Puritan period, for instance, fairy belief was quashed, and fairies were presented as demons and witch's familiars, but as society moed on, people did not forget the fairies, they bloomed them back in the same way they always have. It made me wonder deeply about our own day, not if people will find a way to wonder about the invisibile world, but rather how they'll do it.

All in all, both of these books were beautifully done, and well executed, and I'd recommend them to anyone interested in religion, mythology, folklore, or anthropology.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fantasy Gone Wrong edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Brittiany A. Koren

Sixteen fantasies messed up. Like Terry, only a few of these impressed me. I loved "Battle of Wits" of course it included all my favorites, writer's having difficulties with characters not cooperating and unicorns - what's not to love? Then it had my favorite humorous fantasy writer, Esther Freisner in "Crumbs" who thrilled me with this story. Terry mentioned about many of the "Jack in the Beanstalk" versions whereas I seem to find more "Hansel and Gretel" and "Little Red Riding Hood" versions.

"The Poisoned Chalice" by Brian Stableford. An elf keeps getting thwarted as he tries to rid himself of an evil chalice. What was the point of this story? If it was a movie, I'd lay odds it would have been on MST3K (Peter Graves would have to be in it, of course), it had elements of The Beginning of the End and The Giant Spider Invasion or The Horrors of Spider Island or both wrapped in a warped, senseless story, take your pick, but if you do, please watch the MST3K version. In the words of Monk, "You'll thank me later."
"Battle of Wits" by Mickey Zucker Reichert. A Pegacorn takes offense. Loved it!
"The Hero of Killorglin" by Fiona Patton. A fire-cat enlists the aid of a hound to help ride the world of a giant weasel and rodents, much to the objection of the faery-hound.
"Goblin Lullaby" by Jim C. Hines. A goblin is sick and tired of her nursery and sleep constantly being interrupted by the sounds of battle so she takes matters into her own hands, perhaps destroying a fairy tale (though through the long windedness of the champion, I doubt he'll be missed) and finally getting some shut eye.
"Crumbs" by Esther M. Friesner. The descendent of Hansel (from Hansel and Gretel) find something dark going on in the Dark Woods after he's sent there by Good Donald, but a word with the enchanting Bezique causes him to have a change of heart. I really like Friesner as she never fails to entertain with her subtle wit.
"Fellow Traveler" by Donald J. Bingle. Barbarians and a wannabe entertainer travel. Too much potty humor I think spoiled this story.
"Food Fight" by Alan Dean Foster. Food speaks to Morty and Morty speaks to Erin. I liked Morty, I just didn't care for Erin, I guess because I couldn't figure out her motives or they were too selfish.
"Moonlighting" by Devon Monk. A pixie looks for work and finds an odd arrangement with an ogre.
"The Rose, the Farmboy, and the Gnome" by Phaedra M. Weldon. A farm boy, gnome, and dragon trade wishes for hearts' desires and everything manages to work out in the end, but the lesson to be learned is not to make deals with fairies.
"A Day at the Unicorn Races" by Christina F. York. Unicorn jockeys fight their raging hormones and lose. I was rather disappointed in the fact the story focused more on the jockeys nor did I like the constant talk about sex and frustration at not getting any.
"Dragonslayer: Being the True and Terrible Tale of a Fearsome Meeting Between a Man and a Monster" by Jana Paniccia. A con artist runs a ruse, but turns out to be duped and get what he richly deserves. Rather boring story and the main character, Hamster, annoyed me.
"The Murder of Mr. Wolf" by Josepha Sherman. Beep and Sheep solve the murder of Mr. Wolf through the fairy tale land. Kind of a reminiscence of the movie Hoodwinked.
"New Yorke Snow" by Susan Sizemore. A sorceress, unicorn, prince, and prostitute equals a happy ending. Unicorn story naturally appeals to me; though, while it wasn't my favorite, it does rank in the top three.
"Meet the Madfeet" by Michael Jasper. A wizard's duped into working for goblin's and giving up his magic stone.
"Finder's Keeper" by Janny Wurts. A rat/dragon/wyvern whatever wreaks chaos on the Netherworld and the Prince of Darkness doesn't like it. I really wanted to like this story, it had good elements, just a tad confusing in some places.
"Is This Real Enough" by Lisanne Norman. Virtual Reality takes on a reality of its own.

Ashley and Tiana, by Jessica Dreistadt

Set in the early 80's, Ashley and Tiana are two 12 year old girls from very different worlds: Ashley is a punk rocker Jew from Greenwich Village, and Tiana is an African American hip-hop fan from the Bronx. They meet at a summer camp, both of them sort of oddball outcasts at the (it sounds like) preppy-rich-kid gathering of kids, and become close friends. The book follows the first summer of their friendship through the lens of their family traditions, personal experiences with intolerance, and most of all, the binding power of music

I actually won this book from the author, on Goodreads - it is a new book, and I think it is her first, though it's difficult to confirm that. The book LOOKS like it's being self published, but it is available from Amazon.

I should also preface this review by saying I don't think this book was really intended for me as a target audience. The writing reminded me of when we used to have reading textbooks, in elementary school - simple, straightforward, sparsely described. I think this was intentional. The impression I get from the book is that it is intended for children from about 8-12. I think my oldest son would probably enjoy it, and that it would be a great book to read in class in, say, fourth or fifth grade, when kids are just getting into their tweeny years.

However, I don't think it will be read, in mainstream schools - the book is very peculiar. Despite it's textbook style, the content has moments that some parents will have a conniption fit over - probably particularly, the grandmother who grows medicinal marijuana for glaucoma. I didn't have any moral issues with this book, but then I'm not Mr. Traditional either. From a marketing perspective, I'm not sure how the book will catch on, simply because teachers won't like to be troubled with the ramifications of these conversations,a nd parents seem to think it's trouble to have a 10 year old actually think in class, despite the fact that four years later they expect them to be qualified to understand, say, Lord of the Flies. Overall, this book would be perfect for kids who are 8-12 and are working on their reading skills, but need something with a bit more meaty content than, say, Nate the Great.

As a final note - parents who want to read something with their kids, home schoolers, etc, may find this a particularly attractive choice, because the book (while it's definitely not aimed at adults) does give the chance to connect with kids. If you liked the Clash or Blondie in the 80's, or early Hip Hop (sorry, I don't know anything about hip hop or I'd offer some names here too), this'll be a fun way to talk to your kids, and show them that, once upon a time, you were cool too. And 10 is the age when a kid should first hear 'London Calling', I think ;).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers

2000; 437 pages. Awards : NY Times #1 Bestseller; nominated for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize (General Non-Fiction). Genre : Memoir; Fictional Non-Fiction (yeah I know, that's an oxymoron). Overall Rating : B.
This is David Eggers' break-out book, giving his reflections on about an 8-year period of his life, starting around age 22. His parents die within a few weeks/months of each other, leaving their four children orphaned. Dave's older brother (Bill) has a full-time job, and his older sister (Beth) is just starting law school, so it falls to our author to be the family guardian of 8-year Christopher ("Toph"), despite having no parenting skills. It's a coming-of-age tale, as Eggers struggles to be both a mentor and a buddy to Toph, while also starting up an off-beat magazine ("Might", patterned after "Wired"), holding down various jobs to make ends meet, and somehow finding time to pursue the opposite sex.
What's To Like...
The literary style is unique. Eggers deftly weaves stream-of-consciousness and techniques like the "Fourth Wall" into the narrative. There are philosophical musings - the Might crew strives hard to adhere to a "we're doing this for Art's sake, not for financial reward", all the while knowing that without readers and advertisers, the magazine is toast.
There's a gentle self-deprecating humor running throughout the book. Eggers recounts the foibles of his love life, dealing with his Mom's ashes ("cremains"), baby-sitter anxiety, and his I'm-gonna-die experience which turned out instead to be passing a kidney stone.
The writing is polished (see below), which seems surprising, given that Eggers was still in his 20's when he wrote this. Last but not least, be sure to check out the "dull" sections of the book - the copyright page, the acknowledgements, etc. Eggers' wit is there as well.
OTOH, Eggers can get quite wordy at times (the contrived transcript of the MTV interview being a salient example). Lots of people found AHWOSG to be too self-indulgent (but isn't that what a memoir is all about?). By his own account, Eggers also takes substantial "literary license" with the facts here (but isn't that what an 'authorized' memoir is all about?).
Finally, I suggest skipping the 40-odd page prologue, in which Eggers self-analyzes himself and his book, and go directly to page 1. If at the end, you've been thrilled by the story, you can always go back and read the intro.
Excerpt (first two sentences, actually)...
"Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic. Exhaust from the dryer billows out of the house and up, breaking apart while tumbling into the white sky." Sigh. I wish I could write like that.
You'll like AHWOSG if...
The style reminded me a lot of A Confederacy of Dunces, or perhaps a David Sedaris book, but with mellower humor. I'm not big on reading biographies and memoirs, but I liked AHWOSG. The Americana descriptiveness is nice, and I can see how this would appeal to the Pulitzer peeps. So I'll give it a "B", and wonder just how good of a write Eggers will be when he's gotten a couple decades of experience under his belt.

Witchcrafting: A Spritual Guide to Making Magic by Phyllis Curott

I am doing a no-no. I'm reviewing this book before I've finished it. I'm less than 70 pages away from the end, but I just can't continue without getting my gripes out. It's hindering my reading.

First, I should say that if you know me you know that I am very open to the ideas and beliefs of any religion, at least any that I have encountered so far, with the exception of full out devil-worship (I haven't come across that religion specifically, or anyone who has claimed it, but have come across some who have practiced it without knowing it). Anyway, I very much apply the "live and let live" concept in this respect.

However, I am bothered by what seems to be the fact that the only thing that all religions have in common is that, if you listen to many of the practitioners, each one seems to hold the other in disdain.

Phyllis Curott is no different. Though she tries to seem to do it in a kinder, gentler no-I-really-do-accept-everyone way, you can read between the lines that she is putting down traditional, patriarchal religions (Christianity, primarily) in favor of her Wiccan path.

I am sure that each person prefers their own religion, that's why they picked it after all, but why can't our beliefs be stated without the snootiness of negating other beliefs? Why can't we make positive statements about our own beliefs without making overtly negative statements about others'? I very much believe in comparison and contrast, but it can be done in an objective way that doesn't hold your nose against everyone who doesn't agree with you.

As for myself, I am an active agnostic. What that means to me is that I definitely believe there is a God, and I have my own personal ways of dealing with that, only I don't believe that any of us, any one religion, is really right, perhaps because of the fact that they are all so segregated. Maybe all of us are all right, in which case we all have a lot to learn from each other. Each religion, and practitioner, needs to take a more humble attitude, in my opinion. Look at all of the Gods and Goddesses we have (we have created?), from the beginning of time on. The plurality of our Gods - even, for some religions, the personalities of our Gods - reflect the plurality and diversity of ourselves as humans.

In any case, from the very beginning of this book, I was disappointed with Curott's self-righteous attitude as "Wiccan High Priestess," as she names herself, not only in respect to her own religion, but even in her own practice of her religion as opposed to other practitioners of her same religion. It put a chip on my shoulder, which made the book difficult to read.

Now on to some more specifics of the book.

From the title on, this book purports to be a more spiritual guide rather than a recipe book of spells. Curott herself makes this point plain throughout. However, if you just flip through it, you can see very readily that she does indeed include various "exercises" and "practices," complete with instructions and suggested scripts, labeled for "basic" to "advanced." Again with the hierarchy. Again with the idea that one person could possibly know God more than another person, could be more advanced, and that any of us has the right to instruct anyone else in this regard. Instead of the more humble act of sharing beliefs and thoughts and rituals, we are confined and narrowed down to this religious hierarchy. Plus, Curott just does the complete opposite of what she said she wanted to do by providing recipes and scripts and labeling them "exercises" and "practices."

Maybe I'm just a buck-the-religious-system kind of person, but I do not like recipes, or spells, or what have you. Plus, what if I don't have 4 white candles and 2 green? What if I don't feel like going diosel or windershins, or window chickens, or whatever the hell? What if I want to do what I feel led to do, for me? I'm okay with the concept of ritual, I believe the need for ritual is universal, and is a beautiful and creative expression of our back and forth communication with God, and I don't need anyone to tell me how to do that. I'm open to suggestion, to study of the ancient beliefs, religions and rituals - I think we have a lot to learn from our religious history and would very much be open to applying that to my own (for example, I do like the charts that Curott provides which list oracles, tools, correspondences (pg. 78) and other information rather than instruction)), but I don't like the idea that if I turn the wrong way I'm opening myself up to the Wrath of the Ages. I simply don't believe that's true. I believe that, ultimately, and primarily, God, or Spirit, or Divine is of Grace, and that we will receive grace and blessings even if we don't lay down on a mat and face East. Now, if that's how you feel closer to God, fine, but, for me, it might just hurt my knees. I don't care how "advanced" you consider yourself to be, or how "basic" you consider me to be, I have the right to form my own rituals and human ways of connecting to God, and they will "work" just as well as yours. I don't think the human need for power and our weak little struggles for self-esteem wrapped up in the better-than-you, I'm-a-Shaman-Highest-Priestess-to-the-Millionth-Degree syndrome should enter into our relationship with the Higher Power(s). In fact, I think that that is the last place it should enter in. You may know more incantations and have more candles, but my beliefs are led by the heart, and are just as good as yours. I don't like Pentagrams. Big whoop.

Another thing about recipes/incantations/chants/spells: I don't like the word "spell" because, again, it opens us up to the idea that any person can be more powerful than another person. I much prefer the word "ritual," because it connotes something that any of us can do, on a level plain, which is really the way I think things work. None of us has any more power than the other, but we are all powerful in our own respect at equal levels, when we connect with, listen, and try to act accordingly to what our God/s/esses tell us.

Spells connote something we do to affect something outside of ourselves, ritual connotes something we do to affect something inside ourselves, which is what I believe has to take place for anything outside of ourselves to happen. When we connect with the spiritual and are therefore affected ourselves, that is when we have true power to change or affect anything else. I don't believe that spells have any affect on anyone or anything other than yourself, allowing you not to "make" magic, but to go out into the world and be the magic.

In addition to the charts, here is another part I like, my favorite paragraph in the book, interestingly enough in italics, so it must be important to Curott too:

"My own perspective is that spells and rituals are a gorgeous form of spiritual expression and, when done from the right heart space, they are charged with divinity and creativity. A spell or ritual is a process of discovering and expressing the deepest truths about the world, and yourself, through the highest human faculties - our aesthetic and devine sensibilities. It is the art of transforming ourselves and the world into something sacred."

If a "high priestess" in your "coven" who has her periods in sync with the full moon casts a spell for "Prosperity" and she strikes the lottery the next day, and you do the same and the guy who clears the tables at your restaurant steals your tips, that doesn't mean that you're a less-advanced or less "powerful" witch (I don't like the term "witch" either, for the same power connotation as "spell"). It simply means that you work with a son-of-a-bitch. Go do a ritual and meditate on how God/s/esses want you to deal with it.

Finally, I just have to say that I do not like the concept of "working" within any religious context Wiccan/witch/Pagan or otherwise. Christianity purports that man is not saved "by works alone," in fact is not saved at all but by Christ. Supposedly we need not to anything other than accept Christ, and then we will be given Grace (after which you are expected to work to produce "Fruits of the Spirit" in order to prove to ourselves and others that Christ-is-in-our-lives, and in order to receive more grace in our daily lives rather than just after-life insurance, but they don't get into that until the second Sunday school class). But, as Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori (thank you, Raekan!) points out, taking the words right out of my brain, accepting Christ is a work. So, ultimately, Christians have a script to repeat, an incantation, too (Believe me, in my past lives as a Lutheran, a Baptist, etc., I've seen it in black and white form many times. You probably have too. Also, Catholics use incense and have those little stand-up-and-down-in-unison things and repeat-after-me-from-this-book-of-scripts thing, and the monks chant and plus some other stuff they integrated into their celebrations that they stole from...hey Wiccans - any of this sounding a little bit like anything else???). In any case, I do not believe that we need to work in any respect to receive anything from God/s/esses. I think blessings are freely given, and that we receive both good and bad to grow us as humans into people that are closer to God/s/esses, our only truly righteous Guide, and that any ritual we perform, spell we cast, chant we say or prayer should all just be each of our own ways to connect to that God/s/esses and know that blessings are true, that both blessings and trials are coming (they always are), and that we are/will be okay.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Harry Potter 3, 4 and 5 - oh, and that little movie coming out on Wednesday

I've plotted. I've prepared. I'm almost ready. Books 3,4,5 read. Finished. How were they? Wonderful. I listened to them, which was really fun by the way. Jim Dale must be a national treasure. I love his voice. It's so animated and fun, so well done it played through my head like on a movie screen. I highly recommend it, since the movies do leave out a ton of great stuff. I'd forgotten alot of the original stories. Do I really need to discuss them? Is there one person on the planet who hasn't read these books? Really? I don't believe you. Book 3 - short and to the point. The first one I really liked in the series. Book 4 - way too long, but entertaining with a great plot twist in the end. Book 5 - Pretty good actually, but the point was a little muddled. I expected a bigger climax sort-of ending, other than just "the prophesy". Holy adverbs, but whose counting. Not me.

Just started Book 6. And the movie, ah, yes, but I'm starting to sweat in unusual places. Will I be done with it before the movie comes out? Will I be allowed to get away for 2.5 hours? Will I be able to sit through it without having to take someone to pee? I swear I miss half the movies I see with my kids because I give them too much to drink. This time no water for 5 hours before!

I couldn't find that new trailer anywhere. Looks like they yanked it. Idiots. Here's an old one. In the words of Ron, "Who cares!" Boy it looks like it'll be creepy. Ya-hoo!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Let There Be Suspects by Emilie Richards

It's Christmas time in Emerald Springs, OH. The Wilcox's are eager to put the last year's murder behind them and enjoy the festivities with her family and sisters (Vel and Sid), until her mother, Junie, invites an uninvited guest, Ginger (their foster sister). Ginger rubs into her foster family's face about the success she's become and, once again, puts herself front of attention. Sid reacts horribly and Ginger winds up wearing eggnog and Aggie's lost another punch bowl. That alone is sacrilege. Christmas Eve arrives along with the huge ceremony, but the plans take a bad turn when Ginger is found in the manger, dead. Aggie takes it upon herself to find out who did Ginger in, especially after Sid's under suspicion for the crime. As Aggie digs deeper into Ginger's past, she finds no shortage of suspects and uncovers things about Ginger that are very unsavory, but worth killing over? At least one of the secrets.

A quick read with good characters. I like Aggie Sloan-Wilcox. She's not too witty, she seems very believable, especially the interaction with her family, she just happens to run across bodies and murderers. This is the second in the series and it's been awhile since I've read the first, so I can't really go into too much about the beginning. The first book introduced Aggie, Ed (her husband), Deena and Teddy (their two daughters), Lucy (who's Aggie's best friend, partner in crime solving, and business partner in house-flipping), and a gaggle of the women who support the church Ed is minister for. While I figured out early who did it, I was off a little on the reason the murder occurred although I had a different reckoning (all those Forensic Files shows will be the ruin of me). Still, it's good enough to continue the series.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I spent a long time trying to think of a way to write a clever review of this. But, I'm going to try to just be sincere and honest about this book. That's becaues it's really, really great.

Nymeth, who writes sincere, honest reviews I could never DREAM of equalling in sincerity or honesty (and features an Arthur Rackham picture in her title bar - yay!), already reviewed this book. If I didn't feel supremely stupid just pasting in the text of her review, I would - because the central point I'm going to make is more or less identical: This book is beautiful, and I can't tell you anything about it, because that would take away part of it's beauty.
I guess, what I can do is try to dance around the book and tell you without telling you why you should read this book. Do you remember reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier? Or seeing The Sixth Sense? How about the Snape chapter in Harry Potter 7? You know how in each of those books, you have that moment where you KNOW that something is going to surprise you, but you nonetheless are COMPLETELY surprised when you find out what it is (unless you're Amanda, who figured it all out in, like, book 4)? Alright. In this book, that happens several times. Now, if that was the only difference, honestly I wouldn't have much to say about this book. A story that throws you for a loop is fun, but nothing you need to write home.

The difference is this: you know how when you DID figure out the end of Harry Potter, you felt all excited, and like you wanted to go out and tell people that you figured it out? Or like, when the Sixth Sense scene happens (I'm trying not to ruin any of these comparisons for people either, sorry for the vagueness), you know how you think "Wow! I was totally fooled! I totally didn't see that coming!" Stories with a twist in them tend to keep the reader at a distance. The relationship that is manipulated, producing that little thrill, is the relationship between the author and the reader. And that's cool. I'm not saying anything against it.

But Fingersmith, is special, because the expose doesn't offer you any sort of cathartic escape. By the time you get there, you're so in love with the narrator, you identify so closely with, that you don't get the thrill of a surprise, you get the same sickening thud of a surprise that the character gets. You feel what it feels like to have everything you know suddenly not be true, in the real world, in the world where that is a very, very painful thing. I have never read a book, even in all the classics I've read, that teaches you so much of what it feels like to be betrayed, as this book, or what it feels like to feel suddenly, irrevocably unmoored. (I've already said too much!)

But, that's the other thing - the reason that the plot is so effective is that this book is so much more than a plot. Reading Fingersmith is like reading Great Expectations, except every single character is as intense and striking as Ms Havisham. The writing is gorgeous, the characterization is beautiful, and when you complete the book, you think and think and stew and think in ways that most books don't leave you doing.

But, for all that, that's not what I loved most about this book.

This week, we went up to Borders, and I decided that, for once, I was going to buy a book. I know, that sounds stupid, but it's actually a big deal for me. I have a lot of trouble buying new, off the shelf books (this is why I can still remember the first book I ever bought new - Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, softcover, the Johnson edition). There's somethign about the broad shelves of a book store that terrifies me (it's even harder now that I'm married for some reason. Before I was married, it took me hours, but I could, in the end, pick a book to buy or checkout from the library). But, I wanted a book, I wanted somethign new, something, as I told Amanda, Slooshy (romantic, something that makes you feel warm and happy and sublime at the end, and ready to accept that the world can be beautiful again). I didn't buy Fingersmith (we already had it on our shelf), I bought a different book (which I'll be reading at some point), but the mood remained. I really needed a book that could make me feel like it is possible to live beautiful things, this week.

This. Book. Was. It. The central love story of the book, was one of the most beautiful, invigorating, sensuously pure love stories I have read in a book, in a very long time. It is the kind of love stories that gently peels back your callouses and reminds you of the holes you make in the hearts of those you love, the kind that lets you feel the invigorating pain of what it is to live. It is the sort of book that I will reread if I ever think that I would want to die.

Between this book and William Blake, it's been a beautiful, beautiful year to be alive. Thanks, Sarah Waters.