Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book 35: Dead Witch Walking

Since I'm all caught up on The Dresden Files, and finished Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series (loved!), I was in need of another urban fantasy series that wouldn't end up derailing (I've heard all about Anita Blake's drop in quality).  I feel like I've been seeing this series a lot lately, and Malin assured me they were worth the time.
I really liked this novel as the first of the series, though I will say that the tone in the first few chapters is a bit off compared to the rest of the novel.  One quote on the cover compared it to a mix of Dresden and Stephanie Plum, but I only really got Plum out of it in those first chapters.  Once we get further into the novel, Rachel Morgan starts appearing as a relatively competent detective/enforcer/witch rather than the super ditzy and clueless person that she appears to be during her first mission in the bar.  I'm not sure if she or the publisher wanted her to keep it very light in the beginning to draw in an audience, but I definitely enjoyed it more as the novel started diving into the details of Harrison's world.
The novel takes place in an alternative timeline Ohio, where a virus wiped out a good percentage of the human population in the middle of the 20th century.  Once supernatural and human numbers were about even, the supernaturals decided to reveal their presence, and they've been living together somewhat uneasily ever since.  There are law agencies run by both sides to monitor activity, and Rachel decides at the beginning to quit her job at the supernatural law enforcement agency.  Of course this is more complicated than it sounds because it leads to her boss taking out a contract on her.
The rest of the novel deals with Rachel establishing her new life, and trying to find out a way to get the agency off her back.  Her initial plan is to do something so significant they'll have no choice but cancel the contract, and as a result she ends up pursuing the mayor, a mysterious, powerful man that seems to dabble in something dark but no one knows exactly what.  While reading I got the feeling this was going to be one of those long running villains who sometimes helps and sometimes hinders Rachel in the series.  I could be wrong, but for Dresden fans, I got a bit of Marcone vibe with more attraction.
The novel also introduces Rachel's partners, a living non-practicing vampire and a pixie.  I think it was due to the fact that that this novel starts establishing Rachel's community and support system in this novel that it reminded me more of Harry Dresden than Stephanie Plum (that and the fact that Rachel while impulsive actually shows some skills) - Dresden also is surrounded by rag-tag team of allies.  Even though I'm making comparisons, she isn't derivative.  I think most series end up with a collection of characters after a while.  Harrison also sets up quite a few mysteries for later, especially regarding the pasts of some of these characters, so I'll definitely keep reading this to see how Harrison develops her world and her story.

Book 34: Lady of Ashes

I don't remember where I first saw this mentioned, but I'm pretty sure it was a book blog, and I liked the cover as well as the premise so I thought it would work well to fill my historical mystery fix.  While the novel was entertaining enough, the mystery was rather beside the point (it isn't until page 250 of a 400 page novel that someone even thinks a body looks a bit odd, even though there are journal entries from the killer throughout so the reader won't forget this is a murder mystery), and the novel was packed with an overabundance of plot lines and historical details.
Violet Morgan and her husband Graham run an undertaking business in Victorian London, and since Victorian England was a bit obsessed with grief and mourning, business is good.  In fact it is so good that it is causing significant strains on their marriage, as her husband has let his success go to his head, and wants a wife that is focused on the household and entertaining rather than a partner in business which is what their relationship started as.  The Civil War in the United States has also had its first battle and both sides have been sending representatives to England for support and acknowledgment.  Graham has this super weird obsession with America and hates them because of what they did to his grandfather during the War of 1812, blaming all Americans for the fact that his grandfather came back a broken man?  Had a bad experience as a POW?  I couldn't quite understand the extent of his rage since his grandfather obviously survived and came back to England to run a prosperous undertaking business to pass on to his family.  This whole plot point never made sense to me because I didn't get what he was trying to get vengeance for.  At one point, very early on, he describes his grandfather's experiences, how he took a coat off a dead body to blend in with the population, and pretended to be dead when soldiers approached.  One of these "barbarian" soldiers then tried to take the coat off what he perceived to be a dead body.  When Graham's grandfather did it, it was a matter of survival, when this American does it, it means that they are uncivilized animals.  As I said, this whole vengeance scheme never made sense.  Graham's brother is all about profiteering and hence wants to smuggle things into the South so I understood that, and think it would have done wonders for the novel if Graham's motivations had been equally simple rather than having the husband be a raving lunatic.
Undertaking and Civil War plots with a dash of murder mystery would probably be enough for any novel, but there is also a runaway orphan that Violet adopts, a train wreck, the royal family, Prince Albert's royal funeral and various chapters on hiring the proper help (I still don't know why she had to hire a maid only to have her steal and then hire another one - the first maid never shows back up so I'm not sure why she couldn't have just found the good maid to begin with - too much detail for one novel) ... basically, anything that might have taken place in 1861 probably gets a mention in this novel.  Violet is even neighbors with Karl Marx after all!  The spy/smuggling plot point is mostly boring, and the murder mystery never is actually that interesting.  This may be because no one except the reader realizes there is a murder mystery!  Violet just kind of gets sucked into the drama after thinking a few of her clients' deaths look like they have a link.
Overall, it's an adequate piece of historical fiction though the author does stuff too much into the story and she tried to add too many character perspectives that weren't necessary (there are scenes from the American ambassador and Queen Victoria's perspectives), but it is less than satisfying as a mystery (especially since we know there is something suspicious about one character the first scene they are in).  I would also say there are a few cases of characters doing things merely for the sake of the plot, and acting dumber than I would expect of them - Violet particularly went back and forth between being a compentent character and unable to put two and two together.  And I would really be curious if there was a great hate of America in England as portrayed by Graham in this time period, because it just didn't seem accurate to me - I would get condescending, but not vengeful.  This was definitely more of a 2.5 for me than a 3, and I don't feel much desire to see what happens next.

Book 33: The Disappeared

Oddly enough, this is the second novel I've read this year about Cambodia, and neither one were recent purchases.  Unfortunately, I didn't find either one completely satisfying, and think I might need to move on to some non-fiction to get a better picture.  Having said that, In the Shadow of the Banyan was the better of the two novels, but I think sometimes it used art too much to escape.  I can see that as a valid coping method, but it is also kept me at a bit of a distance.
This novel, on the other hand, was just mostly irritating.  There were parts later on that almost get close to explaining the impact and the horror, but I didn't enjoy the style or the narrator.  The novel was basically written as if addressed to the narrator's dead lover, and if the novel had maybe started off in journal or epistolary format, it might have worked for me better, but I spent the first few chapters waiting for it to change.  Fortunately, it was a short novel.  I think the main reason I didn't connect with this is because I didn't buy the love story.  The narrator has spent the last thirty years pining over a man she met when she was 16, and remains obsessed with for the rest of her life.  They met while he was a student in Canada but he returns home to Cambodia to find his family once the border reopens.  After that, she doesn't hear from him for ten years, but decides to travel to Cambodia on a lark after she sees him on TV.  I can see where given his background and circumstances, he would make a greater impression than a normal first boyfriend but not enough for her to be mooning over him ten years later.
I feel like this could have been played in a different way and worked but instead it just read as obsession, and made me want to yell at her that a few months at sixteen don't make the guy the love of her life.  For example, if her interactions with him had inspired her to become a journalist, and they reconnected while she was on assignment in Cambodia - I totally would have bought that story and wouldn't have wanted to strangle her for acting like a selfish love sick teenager for the entire novel.  Seriously, she later puts people in danger because of her inability to let go or grasp the severity of situation.
I think what happened in Cambodia is a story worth telling but instead in this novel we only get glimpses of the tragedy filtered through someone else's ramblings.  I also read a novel earlier this year which tried to do a magic realism take on the Holocaust, and I think for me, I prefer straightforward, simple narratives for those types of tragedies to being distracted by beautiful or convoluted writing that obscures the events.  Rather than providing new insight or illuminating the tragedy in creative ways, they can easily diminish the reality of what actually happened.  The Book Thief works because the story is still very much grounded in reality, even with its untraditional narrator.  Just to clarify, this novel doesn't use magic realism, but it and the Holocaust novel tried approaches that didn't work for me.

Book 32: Under the Wide and Starry Sky

I absolutely loved Nancy Horan's previos novel, Loving Frank, a book I randomly stumbled upon in the book store (browsing for books used to be a bit different because it seems like now when I go to a book store I have at least heard of most novels I look at due to CBR and various book blogs and if not, I can look them up on Goodreads).  I actually remember that trip to the bookstore, because I was visiting a friend, and we had once been to see a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house in Springfield, IL, so it just seemed fitting that I would buy this novel while at the bookstore with her (that Springfield trip is actually the topic of my very first post on this blog).  Naturally, when I discovered she had a new novel coming out I was very excited, even if the initial reviews were not exactly enthusiastic.  Having completed the novel, I have to generally agree.  It's a good piece of historical fiction but it didn't make nearly the impression that Loving Frank did.
Having read both novels, there are certainly seem to be themes that the stories share, and I'm guessing these similarities are the things that draws Horan to her topics.  Both novels deal with women who already have children, and are somewhat disillusioned with their partners who discover second chances at love and have to find a balance between what is right for them and for their children.  In both cases, their new paramours happen to end up very famous and successful though they have financial struggles throughout the relationship.
Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne has packed up her children and moved from San Francisco to Europe to get away from her philandering husband.  While she is in France, she meets and eventually develops a relationship with Robert Louis Stevenson, a man ten years her junior, who will become famous as the author of pieces such Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (unfortunately, that's the only thing of his I've read).  Their life and their relationship ends up being very determined by his poor health as they spend much of their time traveling in search of the proper climate for him.
I thought their relationship was rather interesting, but I didn't always take to Fanny because some of her decisions seemed a bit impulsive, and her personality could be a bit harsh and caustic at times, even though the novel describes her as charming.  While she got along very well with Stevenson's family, her relationship with his friends was more complicated, and I thought the parts that went further into Stevenson's relationships with different people and their reactions to him were illuminating, and a bit sad at points.
Honestly, I found the novel very informative and Horan did a great job of chronicling the couple's life and journey but I also feel like this is where she misstepped.  It just got a bit long and too detailed at various times.  One instance that stands out most in my memory is when she discusses them moving to a town in France only to move again because of illness; even while I was reading I thought we could have just skipped ahead to where they ended up actually living to begin with.  Horan had already demonstrated the difficulties the couple faced due to Stevenson's health, so this didn't seem necessary.  However, a while back I read The Paris Wife and a biography of Hemingway's first wife and realized that sometimes just because someone's a good author doesn't actually mean his life (or his wife's) is that interesting or that he is a good subject of a book (since these books in particular were from Hemingway's first wife's perspective, they don't actually focus on many of his journeys given the time frame, or they occasionally mention that Hemingway went somewhere while focusing on Hadley's time alone).  In comparison, I found the life Stevenson and Fanny lead much more interesting, and this was a much better book than The Paris Wife, but certainly some of the novel could have been streamlined and made for an even more engaging read.  After all, it's historical fiction not biography, so I don't expect all the gritty details, and understand if timelines are compressed for the sake of entertainment.

Book 31: The Book of My Lives

I actually first saw this book on a list for new releases in 2013, and though it peaked my interest, I didn't hear much of anything else about it, so I decided to wait.  I finally picked it up recently, and thought it was a pleasant enough read.  Some of the essays were incredibly moving, while a few others didn't quite work for me though they were well-written.  I just don't tend to pick up short fiction or non-fiction that often, and when I do, it tends to be humorous essays so this was a bit outside my normal reading selection.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if I'd spaced the essays out, reading one or two a day rather than simply reading through from one to the next.
The essays are arranged in more or less chronological order, and address Hemon's childhood in the former Yugoslavia, the atmosphere before the war, and his life in America while his country is torn apart.  Some of his friends remained in Sarajevo, and he shares some of their experiences as well, and that was actually one of the most powerful essays in the entire collection.  I also really liked the soccer one - for some reason, it just stands out to me even now.  Other essays that stood out to me include one dicussing a former professor that ends up playing a huge and monstrous role in the government as well as one about him putting his life back together post divorce.  Almost every single essay in this collection has been published before, in magazines such as The New Yorker, and as a result, some essays end up referencing the same event but from different contexts since he probably didn't originally plan to have them together.
For some reason, I thought he was younger when the war started, since the cover of my book simply said something about school, but he was actually in his mid to late twenties, which adds more perspective and awareness to his surroundings than an eighteen year old freshman would have had.  I particularly love the title of this collection since it is such as fitting description, as the essays cover his childhood and adolescence in Sarajevo, as well as his life as a refuge until finally he sees Chicago as his home as well.  Of course, I think that title could aptly describe any one's biography, but he actually addresses the idea of the title in one of his essays (the same one with the professor).
I enjoyed his writing, but I tend to prefer longer narratives.  As a result, I think I will have to add his fiction to my list for later to make a true determination about how I feel about him as an author.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Book 30: Cut to the Quick

I received this book from Siege as part of the Pajiba gift exchange, and it really was the perfect read for me - I'm quite a fan of mysteries, especially ones set in the past, including the Mistress of the Art of Death series, and Stefanie Pintoff's works.  This novel is actually came before many of the ones I've read recently, and is the first of a four part series starring Julian Kestrel.  I will definitely be picking up the next three at some point in the near future.
While to the general public, Kestrel seems like just another dandy (a term and type of person that really started becoming a thing in the late 18th century), the reader quickly learns that there is more to him, and he is not just another self important, shallow narcisist.  Since no good deed goes unpunished, Kestrel soon finds himself wrapped up in the Fontclair family drama after he helps the heir, Hugh, out of a minor scrap.  Invited to a weekend in the country with the family, Kestrel finds himself in the middle of a very tense situation.  Hugh has recently become engaged to the daughter of a former employer, and no one in the family is happy about the situation, especially since the proposal is the result of black mail.  Hugh's fiance wants to know what power her father holds over the Fontclair family, and finds an accomplice in Kestrel.
As if things weren't bad enough in the house, Kestrel returns from a ride in the country only to discover a body in his bed.  The head of the family is also in charge of the investigation, and Kestrel's servant Dipper finds himself under suspicion.  Kestrel becomes an essential part of the investigation as he tries to clear his servant while also making sure no one is cleared without reason.
Ross did a really good job with keeping the story going, and answering questions throughout without giving too much away at once.  The different strands came together nicely, and even the red herrings provided good information.  Kestrel also develops relationships with some of the other members of the community, and while the novel shows that there is much more to Kestrel than meets the eye, she could definitely still develop his past in future novels (or keep it simple - either way would work).  I'm glad to have discovered this series thanks to Siege!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book 29: Karl Marx

I picked this up since I'm doing one of my final papers this term on something related to Marx.  It's still a bit hazy - doesn't help that I thought I was in a "special topics" class called "Societal Contract, Wealth and Class" for half the term only to realize it was a great books class ... yes, I realized the great books featured heavily on our reading list and syllabus but I guess I thought they were to provide the historical context rather than the pure focus of the class.  The joys of online programs!
Anyway, this was a very approachable book to Marx's life and to an extent, Friedrich Engels and Jenny Marx.  I definitely appreciated that this wasn't very dry, and that it was a relatively engaging read.  However, I felt like I wanted something deeper.  I think the author did a good job of explaining what Marx was doing and how his life progressed, but I am not sure I always understood the why.  Why did this middle class German who was connected to aristocracy by marriage become the revolutionary he is now known as?  Wheen discusses Marx's interest in the philosopher Hegel in college and how that influenced him, but I can't say I quite understood how that led to his later ideas (apparently, no one really understands Hegel?).  He also mentions that Marx knew little about communism when working as a newspaper editor in Cologne, but sat down to learn more about economic theory while in Paris.  It was after this study that he went from liberal to Communist, and started tracing the root of everything back to economic disparity.  I feel like I got the basic understanding of the man but not a deeper look into what made him tick.
In the first part of the book, I got the idea that Wheen didn't like Marx but by the second half he was listing his accomplishments and achievements that people tend to ignore or not give him credit for.  Early Marx is portrayed as a very volatile and abrasive man, brilliant but uncompromising, leading to several arguments and feuds within communism itself to ensure it was properly defined.  And yet Wheen also showed a man that could draw back when required, so I'm not sure if the author overemphasized Marx's harshness.  Once is a noteable exception; more than that, and I start doubting your argument.  Either way, it is clear that Marx could be very demanding and unforgiving.  I had no idea before this how instrumental Engels was to everything - he wrote articles for Marx when Marx was unable or ill and financially supported him.  Despite the amount of money Engels gave Marx, the Marx family still spent quite a bit of time in dire poverty, and this seems to be less because Engels didn't give them enough, and more because they couldn't manage money that well, having a bit of a "enjoy it while you have it" attitude.  And they of course were also concerned with keeping up appearances.
Marx appears to mellow later in life, and in the book he comes across as a deeply flawed, brilliant but sympathetic man.  However, since the book didn't focus as much on what Marx wrote as who he was and how he lived, I'm not sure what specifically made him brilliant.  He appears to have had a great memory, and great insight even if he didn't always take everything into account.  Wheen basically compares Marx's theories to his chess strategy - he could see brilliant moves, and could see what would happen as long as his enemy didn't do anything.  Basically, Wheen argues Marx was correct in predicting where the working class was headed if the aristocracy and bourgeois did absolutely nothing.  However, the proletariat wasn't acting in a vacuum and the revolutions he foresaw didn't occur because the upper classes adjusted.
This isn't a bad place to start to just learn about the man, but I think there may be other biographies that go more into depth, and place things into a greater historical context.  For example, we get hints of what is going on in Prussia/Germany and Europe throughout but in some ways, I felt like I could have used a bit more background and insight into the political situations of the time.