Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book 107: Prayers for Rain

Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane

In a way, Lehane's Kenzie/Gennaro series reminds me of Star Trek: the evens are good, the odds not so much. Of course in Lehane's case, all the novels are still good but there's a distinct difference in how good. Darkness, Take My Hand and Gone, Baby, Gone (the second and fourth) are definitely the best while A Drink Before the War and Sacred (the first and third) are the weakest. Prayers for Rain falls somewhere in the middle: good novel but not the same level as the evens.

Patrick is working solo now with the occasional help from Bubba, and Angie has left the neighborhood and gone corporate, seeing very little of Patrick and Bubba. After Patrick hears of a suicide on the news, he realizes that the woman had been a client of his six months earlier, and he becomes curious as to why she would have killed herself. He also feels guilty because she'd called him six weeks after he'd taken care of the issue she'd hired him for and he had missed her call and then forgotten about it. He starts looking into Karen's life and approaches Angie for help. They soon realize that somebody had psychologically messed with Karen, destroying her life slowly to see what would make her crack, and their interest in the case soon makes them the focus of the perpetrator.

It may be that I read the last three to close together so certain themes kind of repeated themselves (or maybe those were supposed to be character flaws) - as I mentioned about the last two, Kenzie and Gennaro don't always see the big picture and as a result, occasionally let themselves be played or used. As a reader, it just also means that you are expecting there to be someone in the background pulling all the strings or something more to it than at first visible. This also reminded me a little bit of Veronica Mars - I don't think it was much of an issue in the first and second season, but in the third season it definitely seemed like Veronica was on the wrong track the first half of the episode, then had some great epiphany/ somebody showed her how judgmental she was being, and then she finally figured out the real thing. I don't think the earlier Veronica jumped to conclusions as easily, and there were also episodes where she was on the right track all along; it was just a matter of getting the necessary proof. Basically, by the third season, it just seemed like there was a certain formula to all the episodes that wasn't quite as apparent in the previous seasons. Similarly, these novels are starting to develop a certain type of formula.

On the other hand, Prayers was a tighter and more focused novel. Of course, that's maybe not the right way to say it. All of Lehane's novels are very focused, and the plot points all tie into each other; he doesn't leave loose ends. I guess maybe it's just a more intimate setting or case. For example, in Sacred, there were billionaires, cults and a trip to Florida. Gone, Baby, Gone featured a child's disappearance, cops breaking the rules, crime lords and drugs deals. In comparison, Darkness, Take My Hand, which I liked the best, was focused on one specific investigation that for the most part didn't take any large turns. It started out because a man was possibly being threatened, and turned into a search for a serial killer, of whom the man ended up being a victim. Similarly, Prayers stays focused on the search for Karen's tormentor and possible motivation with very little turns into other directions. Everything else that happens has to do with this even when the tormentor focuses his attention on Patrick.

Basically, it was a good novel though it's about in the middle compared to the rest of the books in the series. I'd definitely recommend the series, though. I can't wait till my copy of The Given Day finally arrives - I ordered it over a week ago.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book 106: Shelf Discovery

Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick

I read about this over at Pandagon, and thought it would be an interesting read. I enjoy books about books, such as Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, and I also like reading book analysis, even if I haven't necessarily read the novels (I had read some but not all the novels discussed in The Madwoman in the Attic). Also, since I grew up in Germany, I was kind of curious to see how many of the plots would remind me of the books I read between 8 and 13. There were quite a few books I read in Germany that I know were translated from English but I don't know what their original titles were so I was hoping this would be a slight memory jog. Unfortunately, I still don't know what some of the books I'm thinking of were (I read one series which I'd always thought might be A Wrinkle in Time when I heard people talk about it but it definitely wasn't - also turns out, I've never read A Wrinkle in Time). I remember reading a lot of Joan Aiken at one point so I was happy to see one of her novels brought up but that wasn't even my favorite one - granted, this book was very much focused on girls and female protagonists and my favorite one was about a young boy.

I expected not to have read many of the novels but I didn't expect to have only read about four or five of them (Laura Ingalls Wilder's two, Joan Aiken, The Clan of the Cave Bear, Go Ask Alice) - I've never even read Judy Blume. However, this wouldn't have been that big of a problem if Skurnick had engaged in more overall analysis. For some of the novels, she definitely raised some very valid points. Many of them, I felt like I was simply reading a synopsis. And based on the summaries, I could definitely see why these stories would appeal to young girls and how they could help them learn to be comfortable with themselves and develop into strong women but I could have used a little bit more of "and this matters because." If I had read the novels, I may have been happy reminiscing about old reads; since I haven't, I needed a deeper reading than she provided.

It did, however, make me start reflecting on what my reading habits were as a child. Some of the books she discusses she obviously read around 8 or so even though they were teen fiction, others she read or reread as a teenager. She mentioned that many of the novels she read had a supernatural angle. I could definitely relate to that from my reading. I remember I had lots of mysteries such as the Alfred Hitchcock series, several collections of ghost and horror stories for young adults and books on mythology. I also had a large collection of books and novels directed at teenagers about the Holocaust (I grew up in Germany after all, knowing about our past was important). I don't feel like I spent much time in the young adult section after ten or eleven, though. As far as mysteries, I moved on to Agatha Christie and I started reading Stephen King, Anne Rice and Ken Follett to name just a few.

Skurnick devoted one chapter to "dirty" books, or the books that young girls read to learn about sex, and honestly, I couldn't really relate. I know some girls read Blume to learn about menstruation. Maybe it was the environment I grew up in but I never felt like sex or menstruation were much of a mystery. As I said, I grew up in Germany. Most of the third and fourth graders I knew read the teen magazine Bravo. We, well I at least, tended to read it for the music and pop culture news as well as some of the other stories. However, there were also several pages each week devoted to sex and love. With pictures and lots of advice in addition to a weekly column entitled "My First Time." So I had access to the answers even if I skipped those pages. For the most part, I was still at that age of "ewww, gross," but obviously I knew the mechanics. And have you ever read Ken Follett? One of the few novels I read that was discussed in this book was The Clan of the Cave Bear (after we'd moved back to the States), and while that one wasn't bad, the other three in the series annoyed me (and yet I read them all because I often feel the need to complete a series if I start it; I like having complete sets) - oh my god, could we have some plot in between all the sex? At least Follett could successfully have both. Maybe I was still in my "ewww gross" stage about sex at that point . . . At the very least, The Children of Earth series and sex scenes made me feel slightly uncomfortable and awkward.

When I found out we were moving to the States, I decided I needed to start reading in English, and the only novels I found in the teen section at the PX were R.L. Stine and The Babysitters Club so I read quite a few of those when I was twelve, thirteen because that's what was available and I didn't want to jump straight into anything too difficult as I started reading in English instead of German. That phase stopped soon after getting to the States, though, and I became too snobby to read young adult novels, kind of like I refused to watch cartoons and animation for a very long time after being around 10 or 11 because I felt like I was too old and mature for that kind of stuff.

Basically, I guess part of me was hoping to be enlightened about American teenage girlhood but it didn't quite work. Some of the novels definitely sounded interesting but not enough for me try to find them or read them. Oh well.

Book 105: Gone, Baby, Gone

Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

It's hard to discuss too much of Lehane's novels without giving away several twists in the process. When Gone, Baby, Gone begins, Patrick and Angie have been having a prosperous year, sticking to lighter cases, avoiding the darkness that they witnessed and faced in Sacred and particularly Darkness, Take My Hand. After a four year old girl goes missing, her aunt decides to hire Patrick and Angie to help with the case. Despite hesitation and arguments against it (given the high profile case, the two investigators doubt they could add much to the case that the rest of the police force hasn't found), they eventually sign on due to the aunt's persistence.

Helene McCready, the missing girl's mother, is less than competent as a mother. Still, in the beginning, there are no suspects in the case, there are no known enemies. Angie and Patrick, however, quickly stumble upon a link between Helene and a drug dealer who was missing some money. Now that they have a motive, an exchange is scheduled which goes very wrong.

Angie continues to obsess over the case, and when another child goes missing a few months later, the media display takes up a lot of her attention. After everything they have been through in the past few novels, Amanda's disappearance as well as the other child's case still manage to have quite an effect on the pair.

One of the things that I like about Lehane's novels is that the heroes don't come away completely clean - they, too, have moral dilemmas and don't always make the right choices. Patrick continues to let himself be used to an extent as he occasionally takes a while to see the big picture and only sees what's immediately in front of him. He and Angie have both been hurt in the past few novels, and it has its effects - he has scars on his face, nerve damage in one hand, Angie still has scars from when she was shot etc. As much as Patrick likes his job, he also tires of it, and worries that it will consume him and what it means for his future. Given the topic of the novel, it is perhaps not surprising that Angie brings up children to Patrick which he is absolutely terrified of having in the world he's witnessed. While Lehane always answers the questions pertaining to the novel's specific mystery, he doesn't have happy endings. Depending on the novel, some are definitely more uplifting than others, such as Patrick, Angela and Bubba's knowledge that they always have each other to rely on, but even if the bad are occasionally punished, the good definitely don't live happily ever after.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book 104: The Secret Scripture

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

In a word: Boring. I honestly thought I'd enjoy this novel. It sounded like the kind of plot I would usually like: an old woman looks back on her life in a diary. She has been institutionalized for over sixty years, and her diary tells her life story as well as explains why she is where she is. It also contains the diary entries of her doctor who is trying to determine her mental status and the reasons for her presence in the psychiatric hospital.

Overall, I think it's a story I would have normally liked but the doctor just bored the hell out of me. Also it just seemed so unbelievable to me. Not so much the fact that Roseanne had been institutionalized but that she has been there for over 60 years seeming perfectly lucid, and the doctor in charge never thought to question her diagnosis from over half a century before - really? Also, the writing style just didn't do it for me at all. It just went on and on, and then finally, something interesting would happen. I guess it's supposed to represent the failing of memory and so forth, but it just made the novel drag.

Also, it really irritated me that the back cover of the novel couldn't even get it right: "her turbulent childhood in rural 1930s Ireland" - seriously? The novel clearly states that she was a child during WWI and during some Irish upheaval, and that she was in her twenties in the '30s. If the people publishing the novel can't even bring themselves to care enough about the story to get the details straight, then why should I have any interest?

Book 103: Sacred

Sacred by Dennis Lehane

Amazon had referred to this novel as a modern day version of The Big Sleep - the only thing they seemed to have in common were the dying millionaire. Everything else, Lehane takes and completely turns around, ending up with a completely different story, which is much grittier and more interesting.

The dying billionaire in this novel hires Patrick and Angie to locate his missing daughter. He says that ever since her mother's death, his cancer diagnosis and a friend's death all within a short period of time, she has been struggling, and now she has disappeared. The investigator that was originally looking for her, who also happened to be the man that trained Patrick, has also gone missing. Patrick and Angie eventually trace Desiree to a cult, and from there, they end up flying to Florida to try and find out where she and their friend have disappeared to.

Things quickly get a lot more complicated as each discovery means that the whole story has to be looked at from a new angle. Lehane's novels all tend to have incredibly densely scripted plots with deeper and deeper twists and turns. In a later novel (I've been on a Lehane kick lately), Patrick says that he isn't a good chess player because he forgets to focus on the whole board, and this novel definitely shows that as well. Angie and Patrick are working with some information but as the novel progresses, they finally start to see the big picture, which paints a bleak and depressing picture of humanity.

On the plus side, Patrick and Angie finally get together in this one, both because and despite their shared past: they've known each other forever, Patrick's been in love with Angie most of that time, he married her sister, her ex-husband died in front of Patrick. A lot of complications, obviously. It was nice that they finally acted on their feelings, though, and had time for some actual happiness.

Book 102: Fingersmith

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I'd originally read Affinity by Sarah Waters after a friend of mine recommended the author. Affinity was good but I didn't quite connect to the narrator. I figured I'd give this novel a shot as well before completely making my decision about Waters, and I'm glad I did.

It was a fun read: a dark gothic house, characters and settings in London that seemed very Dickensian like (if I actually read Dickens but he's a bit too preachy for my tastes) as well as set ups and intrigues. Susan Trinder narrates the first part of the novel. She grew up in the seedier part of London as an orphan, though she lives with Mrs. Sucksby, who makes her living by selling babies, and Mr. Ibbs, a man who sells stolen goods. When Sue is seventeen, the Gentleman, a con artist everyone knows, enlists her help in one of his ploys: she is supposed to go to the country to serve as the lady's maid of Maud Lilly, a heiress. Maud can't inherit unless she is married, so the Gentleman plans to marry her and then leave her in an insane asylum while he takes off with her money. Sue is supposed to help gently prod Maud to accept his proposal in exchange for a small part of the fortune.

Sue ends up falling for Maud but still goes through with the plan. Of course, there is a lot more going on than Sue originally recognizes, and as the novel progresses there are several revelations and double crosses.

Waters does a great job of bringing the seedy parts of London to life and describing the insides of a insane asylum of the 19th century. All the characters are incredibly colorful and lifelike, and nothing is as it seems. While Affinity was a good book, it was also darker; in comparison, this is much more fun and enjoyable.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book 101: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Even though I've already hit a hundred, I figured I'd just keep tracking how much I'm reading for the year until the next round.

I'm not really sure why it took me so long to get around to this: I kept hearing about, and how great it was but I just wouldn't pick it up. Maybe I just figured if it was so popular, it probably wasn't necessarily that good. I was pleasantly surprised and happy to be proven wrong.

The title character is Lisbeth Salander who works as a freelance investigator for a security firm. She and Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter specializing in economic and business, both end up involved in a case investigating a forty year old disappearance. Larsson manages to tie many different stories together in this novel: Mikael is first introduced while on trial for slander against a corrupt capitalist. After the guilty verdict comes in, Mikael needs to disappear for a while to let his reputation recover some. Henrik Vanger takes advantage of this to hire him to investigate his niece's disappearance, and possible murder. Close to death, he wants to give it one last shot to find answers. In addition to promising Mikael a ridiculous amount of money, he also implies that he has information and hard proof regarding the capitalist that just put him on trial. Despite his initial hesitation, Mikael agrees to take the job.

Against all odds, Mikael ends up finding some new evidence, and in his search for an answer to a forty year old case, stumbles upon something older and darker that continues into the present. Salander was originally hired to do a background check on Mikael, and once he gets deeper into the investigation, he convinces Henrik to let him hire a research assistant. Lisbeth is somewhat anti-social, and the narrative alludes to a terrible event in her past several times. Some of her past is revealed but not all of it, which given that Larrson wrote three novels makes complete sense.

Larrson begins the different sections of his novels with statistics about violence against women, and uses Salander to explore power, helplessness and gender. Salander also finds a column on unsolved crimes against women helpful while doing her research. Larrson talks about hatred of women and crimes against women but I don't think he does it in a way that is sensationalist or exploitative. In fact, with the exception of an early scene with Salander, most of the violence committed against women occurs off the page, and isn't described in too much detail, just enough to know that the person committing these crimes is a sick misogynistic bastard.

To go cliche, this was a page turner - very good, I'd definitely recommend it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

At Least They Don't Glitter

The last few weeks have been kind of busy - London for Labor Day, last weekend my parents visited and I took them to Prague, and I also finally caught up with Season 4.5 of Battlestar Galactica (awesome!).

I also watched True Blood to see what all the hype was about. Not quite sure how I feel about that one - I like how much more of a role Lafayette had in comparison to the first novel, I thought Sam came off as a bit of a jerk, Jason was definitely shown as more of an idiot. I liked the Tara story line which wasn't in the novel, though. I'm not sure how I feel about Sookie - honestly, in the novels, they address the fact that some of her friends, such as Arlene and Tara, have a tendency to slightly use her (well, a lot in Arlene's case). However, I didn't think Sookie was that good of a friend to Tara in the show - it seemed like Tara was always there for Sookie, even if she was judgmental of Bill. When Tara needed Sookie, she didn't seem to care/was annoyed because she had other issues at that time (which granted she was dealing with Bill's possible death, but Tara didn't know that). Of course, most of the raving about the show has been more recently, so I guess it picks up in the second season. Kind of makes sense since Eric should start playing a larger role, and he was always a lot more interesting and exciting than Bill.

I also liked how they already started setting up things that would happen in later novels, such as Eric referring to an edict when with Bill. Easy comment to forget about while watching the show but if you've read the novels, it's a nice set up for later.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Cannonball Read

I came to the Cannonball Read rather late in the game. When the initial challenge had started, I was still in Iraq, and I was tracking everything I was reading anyway (OPSEC and Army make for slightly limiting blog topics). As a result, I knew that 100 books in a year wouldn't really be an issue for me. I'd also just started a Buffy/Angel marathon to end the deployment on, so with 12 seasons of television to watch in a month and a half, I obviously didn't have much time to read.

I ended up signing up for it on 1 January after seeing a post that said it was the last chance to participate. I'd been back in Germany since the middle of October, and I was less than happy with the amount of reading and blogging I'd been doing in the previous few months. Being back in Germany, there were a lot of distractions, of course: friends to see, alcohol to drink, not to mention my television had a much larger screen than the laptop downrange. I figured the Cannonball Read might be a good way to get back into reading, and maybe inspire me to blog a little bit more.

I don't tend to get too competitive when it comes to sports. However, when it comes to things like Trivial Pursuit or Cranium, I am. My competitiveness did kick in slightly with this challenge (another officer recently made fun of me after he made the comment that a friend of ours had more books than I did, and I defensively said, "no, she doesn't"). I wanted to see how many people I'd be able to catch up with despite my late addition. As a result, I admit my reading may have been a little different than it normally would have been but not too much. Downrange, I had tried to incooperate nonfiction and classics every once in a while just so I could feel like I was still mentally challenging myself. However, these also tend to take me a little bit longer to read, so I read less from those genres than I might usually. There are also a few books on my shelf right now that are almost a thousand pages that I didn't read because I was afraid they would be dry. However, I'd also say that most of the books I read were between three hundred and five hundred pages, so it's not like I was going for the bare minimum.

I was very impressed by how well-thought out some of the other participants' reviews were - I may be able to read quickly, but those people could write. I know Sophia mentioned that she had originally hesitated about joining because of the reviews. I admit I was always excited when I'd written something that was interesting enough to get posted on Pajiba.

I would do it again, although since I was on a compressed timeline, I think I focused on reading a little bit more than I normally would have. The second season of The Tudors and the last part of Battlestar Galactica have been sitting on my DVD player for a few weeks now. However, other than that, I had my normal distractions - I still went out, I still went to the movies the two or three times the AAFES movie schedule showed something I wanted to see on days that were good for me, I still traveled to different countries every four day weekend, and I still had some long ass work days (not quite as long since I got moved up to battalion). Basically, I doubt I'd repeat the 100 books in 8 months next time, but 100 in a year? No problem.