Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book 95: Cursor's Fury

Cursor's Fury by Jim Butcher

Tavi is now a cursor, and has completed his training and schooling. In this novel, he is assigned to a new legion as a junior logistics officer to spy on potential traitors against Gaius Sextus, the First Lord. Most of the unit is rather green and untrained, but the commander is fair. Unfortunately, the legion soon finds itself under attack by a Canim army, and most of the chain of command is taken out, leaving Tavi in charge. Fortunately, he is still as intelligent as ever, and has several strong NCOs to rely on during the ensuing battle, most importantly Valius Marcus.

At the same time as this is going on, one of the lords of the kingdom, Kalare (his son was the bully that tormented Tavi in the previous book) has decided to rebel because he wants to become the First Lord. He has taken several important hostages, and Amara is sent on a mission to free these hostages (one of them is the wife of another noble, and as much as he wants to fight, he is not willing to risk his wife's life to support Gaius).

Overall, it was a very entertaining read, and Butcher also gave more background on some of Tavi's friends, most importantly Max and his family. Isana and Fade were involved in an attack, so most of their sections deal with Isana desperately trying to rescue Fade during the Civil War, and her recognizing her feelings for him. While all the parts of the novel are crucial, Isana's parts tend to be the least exciting for me, usually. In this novel, Butcher finally gives the background story he has been hinting at for the last two novels.

Book 94: The House at Sugar Beach

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by Helene Cooper

I originally heard about this book on another Pajiban's blog. Beyond the fact that Liberia was originally founded by freed black Americans, and that the capital was Monrovia, I didn't know much about Liberia's history. It was definitely very educational, and I liked Cooper's writing style.

Cooper was born in Liberia in 1966, and descended from two very important families within Liberian history. Her mother's ancestors were on the first boat from America in 1820, and her father's family came over in 1829. As a result, she led a very sheltered and pampered life. Her parents owned various properties and cars, and traveled every summer. While her family decided to take in Eunice, a young girl of Bassa descent to be a sister to Helene, Helene still didn't notice the class tensions within the country that much. There was always a strain between the country people, the descendants of people that had always been native to the country, and the Congo people, the descendants of Americans and other immigrants. The Congo people held most of the power and the riches despite being a minority. Naturally, this led to unrest, culminating in the coup in 1980. Following those events, Helene, her sister Marlene and mother escape to the United States while Eunice chooses to stay. Liberia, meanwhile, is plagued by political unrest and violence for years as a result of these events.

While Helene misses her life in Liberia and has a hard time fitting in at first, she dives into her new life and becomes a journalist who travels the world. However, she doesn't return back to Liberia for years, until after she covers the beginning of the Iraq war. As a journalist, she often reports on stories that seem to mirror the world she grew up in, but it's much easier to judge these stories from a distance as an adult than as a priviledged, young child. Cooper is definitely aware of the irony, which is why she included these tidbits. And honestly, given the disparity of wealth within Liberia, it is obvious that some type of reform was needed. It is understandable that there was a revolution but unfortunately, the revolution didn't lead to reform and a better life for everyone. Instead, it led to violence, a breakdown of infrastructure and persecution.

I enjoyed the way she worked in the background and thus gave a brief history lesson on Liberia. She also gave some background on what was happening to Eunice who stayed in Liberia. While I enjoy reading the stories and memoirs of ex-patriates, I would also love to read something like this from the other perspective - one of the "country people" or someone who stayed. It seems like many of these types of memoirs tend to be written by people that were already in priviledged situation to begin with (I'm thinking of Nazar Afisi and Iran, Edwidge Danticat and Haiti - Brother, I'm Dying is a great book, by the way), which makes sense because they had the resources for an education, to leave and possibly make contacts in the publishing world, but if anyone has recommendations for a different type of view, I would love to hear them.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book 93: Academ's Fury

Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher

This is the second novel in Butcher's Codex Alera, and it takes place about two years after Furies of Calderon. As a result of events in the first novel, Tavi is now a student at the Academy in the capital, where he has made a few very close friends, and a few enemies amongst the children of the elite lords and nobels of the realm. As the one student without furies and special powers, he is naturally a target to bullies. Unknown to them, Tavi and three of his friends are actually in training to be cursors, spies for the empire like Amara.

Amara and Bernard have been together since the events of the last novel, and while Amara is visiting Bernard at the garrison he is now in charge of, they receive warning from Doroga of the Marat that an ancient evil is back and on the rise. In fact, it has already managed to take out a large part of their people. Bernard and Amara soon find themselves facing this threat in their lands. According to what is still known of the "vord," they are led by queens, and there are usually three of them, leaving one as a threat to the capital and Tavi (Tavi and Kitai were the ones that accidentally awakened the sleeping queen during the events of the first novel).

Butcher also uses this novel to introduce the Canim, a wolf-like species from across the ocean. There are also more hints about the past, and while Butcher doesn't come straight out and say it, he also isn't exactly hiding what he is going for as far as the past and its implications on the future.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Book 92: The Gargoyle

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

This is actually the second copy of this book that I have bought. A while back, I ordered the paperback when it was released, and brought it to work with me one a day that involved a trip to our higher unit an hour and half away. I had another novel with me that I needed to finish, and this was supposed to be the back up. When we got back to the office, I left this novel in the laptop bag, and then a few days later, realized that the bag had gone missing. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a hardcover version of this novel a few weeks ago at Barnes and Noble for $6 so I decided to try again.

The reason I didn't rush to replace my copy sooner is that I had read the first few pages before I put it in the bag, and I wasn't exactly sold. The narrator seemed like quite the asshole, to be honest. However, I'd heard enough positive feedback to not write it off completely. The novel really was amazing. Davidson never claims to give any answers so the reader can interpret the story the way they want at the end, which I liked.

The narrator begins his story with his crash - driving home from a party one night, high on coke, he believes that someone is shooting flaming arrows at him from the woodline, and crashes his car right off the top of a ravine. The car catches fire, trapping him inside (he had also spilled bourbon on himself right before the crash, excellerating the destruction in the lap area). Miraculously, he survives, and the next few chapters explain exactly how damaged he was, and what the healing process would be comprised of. The narrator, however, has no desire to continue living - he has no family, no friends, has lost his looks and sense of self and identity. He is a porn star and director that has been extremely burned over most of his body, and due to the bourbon, his penis was burned off. He only looks forward to leaving the hospital so that he can end his life undisturbed.

One day while in the recovery ward, a woman visits him, Marianne Engel, and she claims to know him. The narrator quickly recognizes that she is a patient on the psych ward, but is intrigued by her. She continues to visit even after her release, and the nurses and doctor that have been treating him notice the positive effect she has on his psyche and attitude.

Marianne believes that she knew the narrator in the early 1300s when he was also extensively burned (by flaming arrows). During their meetings and her visits, Marianne tells him various stories, and assists with his physical therapy. She tells him the story of her life in the monastery Engelthal in 1300s Germany, and how they ended up meeting. She also tells him four other love stories, stories about incredible sacrifice and devotion, and fires and arrows become recurring themes in the novel. At first I wondered if Marianne believed that these stories were reincarnations of her and the narrator, but it honestly didn't matter to me either way by the end. They were beautiful stories that fit in perfectly with the rest of the novel.

The narrator suspects that Marianne has schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or possibly both. However, he is also incredibly drawn to her. She is incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable, speaking several languages, and the narrator talks about the extremes to which she goes - for example, one evening she brings a Mediterranean inspired meal for him to eat, and she brought just about everything that would pop into someone's head at that concept (I admit that section made me hungry) - this went along with the Italian love story. There were equivalents for the Japanese love story, and the English and Icelandic ones.

I loved how this novel really isn't that easy to define and how it is part a collection of love stories and part historical fiction among other things. Marianne is a sculptor of grotesques (not to be confused with gargoyles), and, of course, the narrator is now a gargoyle come to life. As I said, the novel doesn't give answers - if as a reader, you want to believe that Marianne is crazy, it clearly wouldn't be that far fetched; however, you can also choose to believe her, and that they have known each other before. Personally, I like the idea of believing in Marianne's version of the truth.

Book 91: World's End

World's End (Age of Misrule, Book 1) by Mark Chadbourn

I'm not even quite sure how I felt about this novel. I'm not going to rush out to get the sequel but I definitely will probably order it in the near future. Is it possible to like a novel and the story and the premise but not care about the characters/dislike them/ be kind of annoyed with them? Because that's how I felt about this novel. I really didn't like the characters much for the most part.

The novel begins with Church and Ruth as they separately stumble upon the same murder scene in an attempt to help. However, when they see the killer, they both pass out and can't remember exactly what happened beyond a certain point. That night continues to haunt them, and they begin to search for answers together, though the answers seem to point to the impossible.

They soon stumble upon Tom, an old hippie while under attack by seemingly impossible beings, and he starts explaining some things to them. Very cryptically. The old gods and fantastical beings really existed, and are coming back to the world at this time, wreaking havoc with the rules of science, and bringing the potential for darkness and horror. The creatures that were most commonly associated with good (or at least not as evil) have been trapped by the evil and vicious supernatural beings so there is no one to stand against them. Church and Ruth discover that they are two of a group of five that together is supposed to stand against the rise of this darkness and free the others.

Now, I realize that if the characters begin believing in supernatural elements too quickly, it seems unrealistic. However, with everything Ruth and Church had witnessed, I got irritated rather quickly with how much they still wanted to play doubting Thomases when Tom tried to explain things to them (also since I'm purposely reading a fantasy novel, I obviously want to focus on the fantastical aspect rather than keep hearing about how it's impossible). The whole novel seemed to go back and forth between them quickly grasping what was going on and then suddenly going all Scully on the guy and the situation again.

They naturally accumulate the other three as they go, and are given a quest to search for four supernatural items, a stone, a sword, a spear and a cauldron. Of these other three, I liked Veitch the most. Laura was a character that I almost could have liked but she also irritated me. On the one hand, she was rather saracastic, which I enjoyed but the author kept trying to shove the whole "emotionally vulnerable underneath the tough girl act" cliche down my throat and it got annoying very fast. Every time she made a sarcastic comment, there was another sentence about how it showed her hope underneath it . . . blah, blah, blah. Ruth started out as intelligent but quickly became a bit of a goody two shoes, as Laura liked to point out. And I could have done without the love triangle aspect of it all.

Still, I enjoyed the way the novel incorporated old Celtic myths and the idea of the quest. Church was the one character that became less annoying as the novel progressed which was good. As I said, I like the story line and hopefully, the characters will be less one dimensional and more developed in the next part of the novel.

Book 90: Prince of Thieves

Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan

I haven't actually seen Gone, Baby, Gone, but I'm really looking forward to Ben Affleck's next directing effort, The Town. I haven't seen many of Affleck's movies but he's always seemed like a likable guy, and I've heard he is actually doing well with directing. I loved the novel Gone, Baby, Gone, so I figured even if he wasn't always good at picking scripts as an actor, he might be much better at picking novels with film potential as a director.

Prince of Thieves is the novel that The Town is based on, referring to Charlestown, the part of Boston where the Battle of Bunker Hill took place, and which later became known for its large population of bank robbers. While many of the characters in this novel will seem familiar, the book doesn't seem cliche. There is the close-knit group of high school friends, there is the driven, ambitious member of the law after them, the one member of the group that appears to be growing out of control while another is becoming weary of a life of crime and ready to move on. As I said, all more or less stock characters and story lines that have been done and seen dozens of times before. And even being able to guess what was going to happen due to the familiarity of these types of stories within film, books and television, it was still a great read. Despite being almost stereotypical characters, they seem real and developed.

The main character is Doug McRay, the brains of the operation among his four friends, and also the one who is reconsidering his life. The novel begins with a bank robbery, and after the robbery, Doug finds himself drawn to the bank manager, Claire Keesey. Claire isn't necessarily that fleshed out but she comes to represent a new life and a change to Doug. Given that he was already having doubts about his life, her kind of life is interesting to him, and as a result, he places more importance on her than he should after only a short time. He approaches her and begins seeing her after the robbery, while she is unaware of his real job. However, this relationship leads to conflict with his best friend, Jem, who becomes more and more out of control as the novel progresses.

I think this novel could definitely be a very good movie, and can't wait to see what Affleck does with it. One thing I am very curious about is the character Krista, portrayed by Blake Lively, who is about 16 years younger than Affleck. In the previews, before reading the novel, I was reading her as a young woman that was in love with McRay but whom McRay possibly saw as more of a little sister that he protected in the neighborhood. In the novel, however, they are about the same age (32), and have been off and on since high school. I'm interested to see if they are going to play Lively as an ex-flame, or if they are going to change the character due to the age difference. Now, I know this is Hollywood, so having the woman be that much younger is about normal, but it wasn't the intent in the novel.

Also, just a random side note, but I think it really is insane how a novel that is only fifteen years old can date itself simply by mentioning the internet - it wasn't a big thing at all and wasn't crucial to the novel, but it's just incredible and unbelievable how much that technology has progressed in such a short time. At one point, McRay also made a comment or reflected on the fact that bank robberies were becoming more difficult as society was becoming more and more cashless - many banks no longer had (and others soon no longer would have) a need to have a large amount of cash on hand. Frawley, the FBI agent, also lamented the fact that he was the last of his line as the future of financial crime was more likely to be identity theft than armed bank robbery.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Book 89: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

I finally get the big deal about Sarah Vowell! She was one of those authors that people kept raving about over on Pajiba, so I read her book Assassination Vacation, and while there were definitely parts of it I found amusing, I just didn't get the hype. I figured I just wasn't quite her audience and I don't tend to have a good track record with essay collections . . . I have yet to click with David Sedaris (a few of his essays cracked me up; the whole collection . . . not so much) or Sloane Crosley (same issue as above). After reading Assassination Vacation, I commented that her style might work better with smaller topics, and apparently I was right.

While her collection of essays definitely has a theme, each essay approaches this theme from a different topic. Even though it is a collection of essays, for the most part they span from 2000 to 2002, covering the Gore-Bush campaign and election, as well as a few other essays about random historical sites and conflicts. "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," the essay which gives the book its name, actually addresses 9/11 and her feelings about patriotism. I'll get back to a few of these topics in a little bit, but I figure I'll start with the funny stuff before moving on to the more reflective parts of the book.

The second essay in the book probably had me laughing the most, which was about her family coming to New York for Thanksgiving, and included this quote:
It is curious that we Americans have a holiday - Thanksgiving - that's all about people who left their homes for a life of their own choosing, a life that was different from their parent's lives. And how do we celebrate it? By hanging out with our parents! It's as if on the Fourth of July we honored our independence from the British by barbecuing crumpets. (12)

It also included a description of her father as "a man who moved us sixteen hundred miles away from our Oklahoma relatives so he wouldn't have to see them anymore" (11) which I loved because I think my family could definitely relate to that. My parents and I first spent 8 years in Germany, then two years in Seattle before my parents finally decided to move to Illinois to be near my dad's family, only to stop speaking to them after a few years.

Mostly though, I loved the fact that Sarah Vowell loves history, and is in fact a huge nerd about it as she would tell anyone, but is also conflicted about it (and, of course, the Buffy references make her awesome as well). She describes working in an antique map store, and how a customer would be looking at an old map of South Carolina and how pretty it was, and while she would agree, she would also immediately think "slave state." I really appreciated reading about someone that clearly loves history and their country but also can look at how nuanced and complicated it truly is simply because I often have the same feeling. America's history is not simple by any means but so many people try to simplify it that I often feel like a spoil sport for not being able to look at the story of American westward movement and progress without thinking, but what about the Native Americans? Or the slaves? Or the Japanese internment camps? Just as a few examples.

She also took a look at the election between Gore and Bush, and discussed the fact that at some point in America, being knowledgeable became something to hide or be embarassed about. Gore was clearly the more intelligent of the two candidates but Bush won on a platform of the "average guy" - do we really want an average guy in charge? I mean, why do we want someone in the White House that gets us rather than someone that not only gets us but also might have an understanding of how to solve our problems? Or recognizes that problems even exist?

The last essay I wanted to mention was "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," written in December of 2001. Vowell explains that in the first few days after the attack, she thought seeing flags everywhere was a cheering sight but as time progressed, she felt like the symbolism changed. And I really understand what she meant there. In her view, "the true American patriot is by definition skeptical of the government . . . so by the beginning of October, the ubiquity of the flag came to feel like peer pressure to always stand behind policies one might not necessarily agree with" (159). I also am occasionally skeptical about seeing the American flag hanging everywhere . . . on the one hand, it can be nice to see but sometimes I wonder if people are just hanging it to be cool. Or to say they are patriotic. And like Vowell, I wonder, who is more patriotic, the person that hangs a bunch of flags up and says, "America, fuck yeah!" or the one who knows and loves the history of America with all its contradictions and tries to make sense of it? Personally, I prefer the one that involves some thought. I have never described myself as a patriot because it feels like such a loaded word, it feels like it's been appropriated by people who think they represent the true America and I don't agree with their views, and I don't have an uncritical view of our country and its past. Yet I know many people would probably describe me as a patriot or assume I am one simply because of my job. I think part of this might be due to the fact that I spent K-7 in German schools so when I learned American history, I was already older and more likely to look at it critically rather than learning to love America in second grade (trust me, I was proud to be the American in my class of German students in elementary school but I just didn't grow up with American history the same way as many of my peers; instead, I grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust, which definitely teaches people to be critical of their past rather than simply proudly embracing it).

Also, this whole idea of patriot and patriotism reminded me a bit of the current debate regarding the cultural center, which is being played up as a mosque, and some comments that Jill at Feministe made:

5. Republicans who hate on New York City 364 days of the year, and how use the evils of New York (sex! gays! immigrants! Jews! elitists!) for political gain, don't get to suddenly claim to care when September 11th is involved.

I feel like this basically describes the people that say they are patriots and wave a flag around a lot but don't necessarily think about the topics more (not that I'm saying all Republicans are like this, I'm quoting her). Actually, since I'm on that article anyway, there was other point, I really liked:

6. Don't even get me started on the people who now call the World Trade Center site "hallowed ground," but have had no problem coming to NYC and snapping smiling photos in gym shoes and fanny packs in front of the site, like it's another attraction between Century 21 and Times Square. It is hallowed ground. Act like it . . .

I just really liked that point because I have felt similar about people visiting the Concentration Camp at Dachau. I admit, when I was in Manhattan in May, I ended up going to the site and taking a picture of the flag flying overhead, but I wasn't planning on going originally because I didn't want to treat it like a tourist site. There's a line between treating something like a tourist site and going due to genuine interest or to show respect, and I feel like it can sometimes be hard to tell which side of the line one is on during a particular visit. I ended up going when I realized I was a block away but as I said, I'd originally meant to avoid it because I didn't want to turn it into something on a "Things to See in New York" check list.

Anyway, in case it isn't obvious, I really enjoyed this book. It was thoughtful but also humorous and I agreed with much of what she said, and I am definitely looking forward to reading another one of her books. I just hope it's similar to this one in its set up, and not like Assassination Vacation.

Book 88: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir

I was first introduced to Eleanor of Aquitaine by the German historical fiction novelist Tanja Kinkel in her novel Die Lowin von Aquitanien. Unfortunately, I don't think she has been translated into English (as usual, it seems like everyone is more than willing to translate out of English and import American films but less so the other way around), and she had some very good novels. Anyway, I'm also a big fan of Alison Weir so this book definitely had two things in its favor. However, I've had this book for at least two or three years, and every time I looked at it, I'd think, oh I should finally read that, but then get distracted by something else. I was interested enough to pick this as one of the unread books that went into my car and suitcase with me rather than into a box with the packers with many others so it's not like I wasn't interested in the topic. However, my recent interest in Henry II, her husband, is what finally pushed me to read this.

Eleanor of Aquitaine lived from 1122-1204, and was married to two different kings, first the king of France, Louis VII, and then Henry II, King of England and ruler of Normandy. Given this time period, it is of course very hard to get a completely accurate view of what was going on. Sources survive, but women weren't deemed important enough to really be made much fuss over, even the wife and mother of kings. Still, enough references to her survive in history for Weir to give an overview of her life. Some of her sources are in fact lists of expenses, showing what she was spending (thus giving an idea of how much she was traveling/where she was) or what she was contributing to charity/the church. Still, there are large chunks where she is barely mentioned, if at all. As a result, much of this book explains what the men in her life were doing over various periods of time, and how this affected her. Given that I was interested in Henry II, I was actually happy with this, since Weir portrayed him quite a bit and was fair to him, even if he was the man that imprisoned the subject of her book for several years of their marriage (if I were writing a book about someone, I'd probably be a bit biased in their favor).

With such old sources, it can be hard to tell who to believe. Like Cleopatra, Eleanor was a rather controversial figure. During her marriage to Louis VII, she accompanied him on a crusade, and according to rumors of the time, cheated on him with her uncle Raymond, and Geoffrey of Anjou, her later husband's father. Some of the sources see her an adulterous, ambitious whore, while others respect her ability to rule. Especially in her later years, after being imprisoned by Henry II for a few years, she appears to have mellowed with age, and the sources that knew her only in this later period of life, have only good things to say about her. Her son Richard II left her in charge of the realm when he went off on the Crusades. Overall, I believe Weir portrays Eleanor in a very fair manner. She loved her sons, especially Richard, but supported them in rebelling against their father, hence her imprisonment. I think she appears to have been a capable ruler, especially with age - I got the impression that she could be a bit too impulsive on occasion when she was younger.

Mostly, however, I quite enjoyed reading about the men and the kings of the time. It's interesting to compare actual history to what one actually thinks of when hearing certain names and the way they have been portrayed in Hollywood or preserved in the imagination. For example, Henry II, I simply knew as the man who was seen as responsible for Beckett's murder and who locked up his wife. However, Henry II brought peace to England after almost twenty years of civil war and under his rule, England controlled the largest part of France it ever would due partially to his strategic marriage to Eleanor. Beckett tends to be remembered as a saint and martyr that fought against the power of the king and for the people, but really, he simply fought for the power of the church. One of their main disagreements was over which court should prosecute clerks and clergy for crimes - Henry believing they should be seen by a regular court like everyone else to prevent them from achieving leniency, while Beckett wanted them to remain within the Church's authority. However, not only did Beckett disagree with the king, after their disagreement he was letting the clergy off with no punishment . . . that's just flaunting the church's authority rather than trying to find a way for people to be treated fairly. Richard II is another king that I haven't thought of much but when I do, I feel like he was brave and a good ruler . . . after all he was called Richard the Lionheart. Of course, being brave and courageous and a good military man doesn't exactly translate into being a good ruler. Shortly after taking his father's crown, he went off on a crusade for three years during which time his younger brother kept conniving to take the crown, and others in the realm were constantly threatening to rebel. Call me crazy but as a ruler, it's more important to make sure your own realm is squared away before gallivanting to the East to be part of some glorious Crusade for the church.

Also, I was very surprised by Henry II's relationship with his sons. All of his sons were constantly going to war against him because they were tired of waiting for him to trust them and give them some power. They wanted to be king and didn't want to wait for him to die to achieve this goal. This also made me think of Cleopatra and Antony . . . there was a reference to one of the eastern kingdoms (the Parthians perhaps) where the ruler had killed about forty family members to assure his accession, and of course, the Ptolemies themselves were constantly scheming against each other and killing each other for power. Yet, I kind of have to respect that - at least they weren't necessarily raising armies and making a bunch of random people die to achieve their desires. I guess I was so surprised because now it just seems so natural - monarchy, the old king dies, the new one is crowned, that I couldn't believe that Henry's four sons would be straining against this so much.

Overall, it was very informative. There are a quite a few chunks where little mention is made of Eleanor as Weir is explaining exactly what is going on in the realm, but given the few resources remaining on the subject, it is completely understandable. In addition to explaining as much as is known about Eleanor and her character, the book also gave a rather balanced view of some of the influential figures in her life, and as I said, I especially enjoyed reading about Henry II, a leader that was misunderstood in his time and only truly appreciated after his death.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book 87: A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

As I said while discussing A Game of Thrones, I love this series, and it is interesting rereading them, and seeing how well I remembered the novels. While A Game of Thrones had some very defining events in the novel, in comparison, I couldn't quite remember how far this novel went within the series. While there are very important things that occur, I found myself waiting for things that are obviously going to happen in later novels. If A Game of Thrones documents the different events that set the action in motion, this novel deals with the aftereffects. As a result, I guess it is understandable why the following three novels would blend together for me in certain ways, though I'm not saying that this novel is weaker in anyway.

As the novel begins, the realm is split after Robert's death. Both his brothers and his son have declared themselves heirs to the kingdom, and Rob of Winterfell and his followers have declared him King of the North, opting to once again be an independent kingdom. The men of the Wall are on a reconnaissance to the north to find out what has been going on up there with both the wildlings (men that don't want to fall under the rule of any man) and were the blights are coming from (the walking dead). Dani is trying to put together an army and power base to take the throne that is rightfully hers, while dealing with desertion of most of her dead husband's former men and the weakened position she is currently in. Her three dragons are fortunately a draw for powerful men, but still too young and weak to be of military use, and most of these men are more interested in gaining a dragon than helping Dani.

With the realm torn apart by civil war, the roads have becoming very dangerous, and different people take advantage of the chaos and confusion to gain power while the nobles battle it out amongst themselves. By the end of the novel, more men have risen to claim power for themselves while other contenders for the the throne have been taken out of the equation. One of my favorite new characters was Davos, a devoted follower of Stannis, the elder of Robert's remaining brothers who watches his master choose a path he can't agree with but has no choice but to follow.

For the most part, there is no such thing as black and white in these novels. There are of course one or two characters that seem to be just bad (Joffrey being one of them), but for the most part, even the villains are portrayed in a way that is complex, and even if they aren't sympathetic, they can be understood.

Book 86: Mother Night

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those authors I've always thought I should like but I've never really been able to get into. I didn't like Slaughterhouse-Five when I read it in high school, even though I haven't forgotten the "so it goes" quote, and Breakfast of Champions just didn't quite pull me in, either (oddly enough, I didn't really like The Lord of the Flies in high school either but I fondly remember the message, and actually think I would enjoy it quite a lot if I reread it . . . that's another one with a quote I still remember, "kill the beastie"). I've always assumed that maybe high school wasn't the proper time to read Slaughterhouse-Five, and if I just got the right book, I'd finally get it. After reading a fellow CBR participant's review of this novel, I thought maybe this would be the one.

Sadly, no. There are certain things I like about Vonnegut but he just gets too absurd for me at points. The narrator of this novel is Howard Campbell, Jr who is writing this memoir while waiting on his trial for war crimes. During the war, he was a Nazi propagandist, though he used his position to spy/work for the American government. There are no records of this, so instead he is reviled for his racist, anti-Semitic work. Vonnegut states in the preface that the moral of this novel is "we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." I was drawn to the idea of looking at the public man vs. the private . . . the way society perceives him vs. the way he perceives himself and his actions.

There was some of that, but there was also a lot of random stuff . . . I mean it made sense in the story eventually, but for the most part Campbell just seemed like a man that let himself go along with whatever tides were pulling at him. He ends up discovered fairly early in the novel by some white supremacists and though he doesn't agree with them, he somehow ends up with them. Maybe this is why I can't get into Vonnegut - his characters often don't seem to make that many decisions. Billy of Slaughterhouse-Five certainly just seemed to go through the motions (it's been eight years, I could be wrong). I don't know why I would find this off-putting, though, because I've read other novels with characters like that, and I still enjoy them.

I think if it had just focused on the wartime parts and the way Campbell sees himself I would have enjoyed it more but it was the addition of the crazy white supremacists among others that made it too over the top for me. At least Vonnegut's novels are quick, short and easy to read, so even when I end up wondering what the big deal is about the man, I don't really feel like I've wasted time.

Book 85: The Children's Book

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

I kind of loved this book. I mean, there were a few parts I skimmed, and I was a bit skeptical at first about the characters, but I ended being completely drawn into the story and the people. It seemed like there were a bunch of books that came out last year that sounded incredibly interesting but I didn't want to buy them in hardcover, and now they are slowly starting to appear as paperbacks. I think half the reason I even wanted this novel to begin with was the original cover. It was just so pretty - that's a great shade of blue.

The novel begins when Tom Wellwood and Julian Cain discover that Philip Warren has been living in the South Kensington Museum, and making sketches of the artwork. Fortunately for him, they are rather well done sketches, so when the two boys bring the newly found boy to Major Prosper Cain, the Keeper of Precious Medals, and Olive Wellwood, a children's book author, who is visiting the museum for inspiration, he receives an invite to come home with the Wellwoods.

The novel then spends quite a bit of time introducing all the different characters that will play a part, which includes the large Wellwood family, Olive and Humphrey's clan, the other Wellwoods, Humphrey's brother Basil and wife Katharina, the potter Benedict Fludd and his family, to whom Philip who wants to make something will be apprenticed, some of their more socialist neighbors, and the Cains. At first, I found myself wondering who these people were, especially the Wellwoods, who seemed to live in a kind of fantasy world, having Midsummer parties with perfomances of Shakespeare, while debating socialism. It seemed rather unreal to me. Charles, one of Tom's cousins, begins early in life struggling with the fact that he comes from money but wants to help the poor and sees how it seems odd the way the rich have time to dabble in socialism and such as a hobby almost. Philip also doesn't enjoy this type of talk since he feels like they are talking about him, or how they want to see his past.

Since the descriptions of the novel had said that is spans from 1895 to the beginning of the First World War, I was starting to wonder how all that was going to work when I was three hundred pages in and still in 1895. However, Byatt makes time flow in a logical way once the reader has a grasp on all the characters. She didn't decide to just suddenly jump 20 years into the future as I feared she might.

There isn't a huge plot to this novel by any means. Family secrets are revealed as the novel progresses, but mostly, it just follows the children that attended the Midsummer party as they grow up, witness the end of the Victorian England, and transition into Edwardian England, and finally the War. The women/girls all struggle with what they want to do with their lives, feeling that they want something more than just marriage but having a hard time determining what their alternatives are. Dorothy Wellwood wants to become a doctor, for example, while her cousin Griselda enjoys studying but doesn't know what she hopes to accomplish with it. The boys/men also struggle to grow up and find themselves, Tom having an especially hard time with this.

It's a long novel, and occasionally, Byatt breaks up the narrative to give historical background, explaining her character's circumstances. These were the parts I occasionally found myself skimming because some of her background went on for almost a chapter. Still despite some minor weaknesses, I really liked this novel. However, I can definitely see where this would not be for everyone - it's a story of a family and their friends, and the dynamics between them as well as how the times change them, but there isn't a huge plot per se. I, however, while often shaking my head at some of these people, enjoyed temporarily witnessing the world they lived in.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book 84: Cleopatra and Antony

Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World by Diana Preston

While I was in Philadelphia, there was a presentation in the Constitution Museum on Ancient Rome and the comparisons to America (some of these similarities were a result of the fact that the Founding Fathers were using the Roman Republic as both an example and a warning), and the Franklin was having a special exhibition on Cleopatra. As a result, I really felt the urge to watch Rome again and reread Margaret George's The Memoirs of Cleopatra which is one of my favorite novels, but instead opted to read an actual history.

Overall, this book does a good job of explaining the historical context and politics of the time. She spends a few chapters breaking down the situation in Egypt during the reign of the Ptolemies, and then uses several chapters to discuss the way the Roman Republic had been changing in the past few decades, and how great men had been taking more and more power for themselves to the detriment of the republican ideals, using examples such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and putting Caesar's rise into context. This, of course, leads to Caesar and Cleopatra's eventual meeting and liasion.

Preston does a good job of trying to see through the propaganda that was written against Cleopatra both during and after her lifetime, and explains why certain rumors and slanders are probably untrue based on when they first started becoming popular (for example, the idea that Cleopatra hoped to survive or receive mercy by delivering a dead Marc Antony to Octavian was something that wasn't alluded to till years after her death, and as result, is rather unlikely). And Preston usually attempts to explain why Antony and Cleopatra acted in the ways they did even when in hindsight they must have known they would be alienating people that could be very important allies to them. Still, I didn't always feel like their actions made sense, but they were human so that probably explains it. Plus, it's been over two thousand years and unfortunately things get lost over time.

Still, while it was a good general history of Rome and Egypt of that particular time period, I was a little disappointed. For example, the title is Cleopatra and Antony but the period of time where they are a couple seems to take up the smallest part of the book. Also, since Preston gives Cleopatra precedence in the title, it would have been nice to hear more about her reign within Egypt when on her own (there's some but I wanted more). Instead, the focus was definitely on Rome which, of course, makes sense since Rome had the power to determine Egypt's future, but I still would have liked to hear more about other topics as well.

I hate to admit this but a lot of my knowledge of Roman history (at least the superspecific stuff) comes from historical fiction (and a college class or two). And honestly, it seems like both Margaret George's novel and Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series were very accurate . . . I can't say I liked McCullough's characterization of Cleopatra that much (she's definitely a Octavian fan) but the basic historic details were right. In fact, I'm not sure if I really learned that much from this book other than getting a quick refresher of Roman history, and getting justification in not liking the way Rome portrays Cleopatra, either - though I definitely like that series. Basically, it's good overview to Roman history as the republic transitioned to an empire but it doesn't necessarily spend as much time on Cleopatra and Antony as one might hope from the title (obviously context is important, though).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book 83: The Strain

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

First off, I definitely had fun while reading this even though it was a bit flawed. But since this is me and I'm super-good at complaining, I'm probably going to spend more time explaining those flaws, even though, as I said, I enjoyed reading this and read it in about a day.

I'm assuming the authors were fed up with sparkly vampires, because I know I am, and decided to go back to the "these things are evil, let's kill them" type of mindset. To be honest, it's been forever since I read Salem's Lot, but the novel actually reminded me quite a bit of that one, particularly how quickly the disease/condition spread, and the overall pacing. Not that that's a bad thing at all but there were similarities. There were definitely a few things that required a suspension of disbelief (yes, I know it's a vampire novel) such as the old man with a heart problem that seems to have almost superhuman strength and speed given his age. I quite enjoyed the beginning when the scientists were attempting to figure out the mystery of the plane, and its passengers - how had they died? What had killed them, why weren't they decomposing normally? However, at some point, it felt like there were too many descriptions of how the four survivors were changing since it lengthened the novel unnecessarily. At one point, someone asks the questions why the four were left conscious when everyone else was dead since it raised more questions. If there was that option, wouldn't it have made more sense to leave everyone conscious rather than have this huge "oh my god, an entire plane of dead people" press spectacle? It definitely wouldn't have caused all the scientists to be called in . . .

I thought some of the things that were alluded to in the story were interesting but it seems like those will be saved for the next two novels in the trilogy . . . the fact that there is a human helping the master vampire make this happen (though, honestly, that point wasn't even that exciting to me when they got further into it . . . you realize the vampire is going to turn on you, right?) and his web of supporters, for example; basically, the next two novels sound like they will focus on the other ancient vampires that had a falling out with Sardu, the one who is currently causing all the chaos in Manhattan, and their reaction to his invasion of their territory.

I liked the way the exterminator used rats (or more accurately the fleeing of rats) to realize that something was wrong and find the lair. The main issue with this novel for me was really that it was a bit longer than it needed to be . . . something could have been trimmed making a shorter, and better paced novel or they could have incorporated more of the things they are saving for later in the trilogy (maybe a two part series would have been sufficient). I'm curious enough to pick up the sequel, and would like to see where they take it from here. However, it isn't a great new vampire novel that redefines the genre by any means. It's simply going with an old approach that hasn't been as popular lately - less sex, more gore.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book 82: Tears in the Darkness

Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman

Recently, I was at Barnes and Noble with a friend of mine. She was looking for a copy of Black Hearts in the military history section, and since we were over there, I remembered that this book, which I'd been eyeing in Germany at the PX and had heard overall great things about online, was probably out in paperback by now. I couldn't even remember the title or the author but when I saw the cover on a display table, I knew this was what I'd been searching for.

Personally, I really enjoyed the way they framed this book to tell the story. They choose one particular Soldier, Ben Steele, who experienced the death march, a work camp, and was sent to Japan to center their story around while also sharing anecdotes from many other Soldiers, discussing the big picture tactics and presenting both the Japanese and American sides. They give quite a bit of background to explain how the Bataan Death March came to be, including the loss of the Philippines, miscalculations on the Japanese sides, and then after the events of the Death March itself also explain what happened to the surviving American POWs and the eventual war crimes trial against the Japanese commander at the time of the March.

As I said, I think it was a great mix of historical fact with personal story. They also demonstrated the type of culture the Japanese soldiers were coming from, and the brutality within their own ranks. While this of course doesn't excuse anything, it helps shed a light on how this could happen. They interviewed a few Japanese, but, of course, for the most part, the Japanese that shared their stories were the ones that didn't want to kill prisoners etc. While I'm not doubting them, I'm sure the men that actively participated would be less willing to talk to interviewers so it makes sense that it seems like we get a bunch of Japanese that didn't participate and simply watched (kind of like after Hitler's demise, all the Germans were good people, and naturally none of them ever turned in a Jew and even gave them bread) - the question is whether these men or the sadists were more representative of the Japanese Army at the time. Also, it is clear that Japanese politicans and higher-ups were way too involved in the decision-making process and didn't allow for even their senior leaders to raise concerns or decide on the best tactial plans. LTG Homma was told he would have fifty days to take the Philippines and felt extreme pressure from higher when it took him five months (he was basically put into a type retirement after the campaign). One of his staff foresaw that Bataan would be very tough land against which to conduct an offensive and said it was more important to block the Americans from escaping to Bataan than winning Manila first but the Japanese Empire was more concerned with the symbolic victory of the capital city.

I also thought their portrayal of GEN MacArthur was rather interesting. I knew that at one point MacArthur's ego got to his head during the Korean War, and I'd also read a historical fiction novel that critiqued the way he handled the war crime trials after the war, saying that the men executed were pawns and scape goats. As far as the trials are concerned, they were shows. The verdict was decided way before the trial as seen by the differences between the defense and the prosecution's make-up and resources. Additionally, MacArthur had ultimate authority to change any decisions, and as someone else said, he was judging over a man that defeated him in battle - there's no way to be objective, as demonstrated by MacArthur's comment on the death warrant: "the proceedings show the defendant lacked the basic firmness of character and moral fortitude essential to officers charged with the high command of military forces in the field" (385) - not exactly necessary on a warrant that lists charges and court findings.

Mostly, the stuff about MacArthur I found interesting had to do with his preparation for the invasion of the Philippines. While I don't argue that he was a competent general, in this case he had quite a few missteps, some of which may have been a result of his famous ego. He sent false reports to the federal government about the preparedness of Filipino troops, he didn't expect the Japanese to attack until 1942, and as a result, all the Soldiers went about their duties rather complacently, and then he didn't react quickly when the Japanese did strike at Pearl Harbor. He didn't send out an airraid to Formosa soon enough so the entire air force was grounded and an easy target for the Japanese hours later. Additionally, even though Bataan was the obvious defensive position, MacArthur at first planned to defend all the islands, and as a result didn't move enough supplies south for a defensive campaign. As a result, the Americans were already weakened and starving before they even started the death march or arrived at the prison camps. Obviously, anyone can make a misstep but I just thought it was fascinating to see all these issues listed so specifically, especially given how popular MacArthur was with the American people and in the public imagination. It seems like everyone remembers him as a great general and his men thought he could do no wrong. Of course, this book also demonstrates that the man knew how to spin the press and press releases (then again, in the book, the Normans talk about how all the press releases said things like "General MacArthur and his troops . . .", "General MacArthur launched . . ." but I can kind of understand his side on this: yes, give your subordinates their due and acknowledge them but I also know that when I have to write evalution reports, they are written in a way to show that anything the Soldier that falls under the person being evaluated does reflects positively on the person being evaluated: "Soandso's squad completed . . . missions and drove . . . miles in support of . . ." - the idea being that it was Soandso's leadership that made it possible or inspired them).

While all this added depth and insight into the big picture (for example, the US government expected the Philippines to be an early target and knew they would be unable to hold it), the book's main focus is on the Soldiers, and what they saw and experienced. It was incredibly moving and educational, and there were quite a few men that stood out from the crowd (at one point, I was afraid I was going to start crying in the middle of a Moe's - the closest I've been able to get to a Chipotle in the Savannah area). Additionally, Ben Steele started drawing while he was a POW and pursued an education in art, so the book has several examples of his drawings dispersed throughout. I know I've spoken mainly about the men in charge in this review but I think that might be because that is the more analytical stuff that it is easy to talk about. Much of the rest of this book discusses things that are very violent, and emotional, detailing atrocities and how men survived. In some cases, it brought out the worst in them, and in others it brought out the best (could I sound anymore cliche). It is also written in a way that would appeal to people that aren't necessarily that interested in history books/nonfiction. Also, it's been years since I read this, but for anyone interested in the topic, I also remember being rather impressed by the book Ghost Soldiers. I think it focused more on the POW camps after the Death March than the march but it would probably still make a good companion to this book.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Book 81: Things I've Been Silent About

Things I've Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter by Azar Nafisi

I remember I quite enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran (it even inspired me to read Lolita, which I enjoyed much less), but I can't remember much about it. I have a tendency to enjoy books that talk about books and I enjoyed how Nafisi related the Western novels she and her students read to the oppression they were experiencing on a daily basis.

While books and certain characters play an important role in Nafisi's life, this memoir is about her growing up, her relationship with her parents and the political changes in Iran. I especially enjoyed the beginning of the book, though I lost interest in the middle - I'm not even sure what it was - were the politics becoming too distracting from the personal story or vice versa?

Nafisi and her mother have a very strained and difficult relationship. In fact, the entire family seems to have a strained relationship with her mother. In the beginning of the book, Nafisi also makes comments about betrayals from her father and how they hurt her, but other than a few scenes were she is clearly put in the middle during an argument between her parents, I don't feel like she elaborated or dwelt too much on any of her father's betrayals.

Nafisi's extended family was huge so I had a hard time keeping track of some of the characters, and couldn't always remember if this was the first time they were appearing or if they'd already been introduced previously. A family tree or an index would have been helpful with that, but most of these were minor characters and simply used as examples and for anecdotes so it wasn't necessary to keep all of them straight. The ones that are important appear often enough to be memorable.

She also does a good job of explaining the political situation, and how some of the more liberal people were so ready for change, that they ignored some of the things that Ayatollah Khomeini would mean for the country, and it didn't become obvious until it was too late. While she herself protested against the Shah, she also portrays him kindly. Since her father was the mayor of Tehran for four years, Nafisi grew up with politics. Sometimes, I didn't quite understand the family dynamics. Considering my views of what Iran now is like, I was surprised by how openly her mother seemed to complain to everyone about her marriage. She also seemed to have quite a following in the pre-revolutionary days.

There was one page or two in the later part of the novel that I thought was particularly well-put. She talks about how many of her friends don't agree with all the rules, but rather than protest them openly, they slyly break them at home, such as drinking or reading Western literature. However, she feels like this makes it a dishonest society. She also talks about how even for the most open-minded and liberated man, it can be hard not to fall into temptation, and live with their priviledge while not doing anything about women or asking them why they can't just wear their veil without complaining or trying to make a statement.

While I enjoyed this book, and I also liked reading about the family dynamics, I can see where this wouldn't be for everyone - if someone is looking for a straight-up memoir, they might find the politics too much. If they are more interested in the history of Iran, they might get irritated with all the mother-daughter drama. However, if someone wants a personal story that takes place during an important political moment, this would work. However, it is of course the story of someone priviledged and educated, and probably doesn't represent the average Iranian. Nafisi studied in England and the States, and had the option of leaving Iran.

My Weekend So Far

This weekend was my first real weekend in Savannah. I wish I could say I spent it exploring the historical Savannah area or downtown but for the most part, I was more concerned with finding a good internet connection . . . the wireless in my hotel has been down the past two days, so I've been hanging out in Barnes and Noble and Panera (I finally found it - I knew it was near Barnes and Noble since I saw two people walk into B&N with Panera pastries). Although, I always feel so much more productive when I take my computer somewhere and do things. You'd figure the internet is the internet so I'd still have the same distractions regardless but I just tend to actually write and get things done when I'm at a cafe. I was actually talking to a friend of mine recently and we were joking about ways we see ourselves, and I said when I was a kid, I'd always imagined myself sitting in a dark study behind a wooden desk with a glass of scotch, smoking, behind a typewriter (not that I wanted to take up smoking but it was part of the image). You know, the stereotypical view of a writer. Now, when I feel like I'd love to be a writer (not that I have anything to write about, I've never even written a short story), I see myself with a shiny laptop and a white chocolate mocha at Starbucks.

Friday was a training holiday so I spent it at Barnes and Noble, a local Wildlife Center (most of the animals were too smart to actually come out in the heat), and explored downtown a little bit. There are a ton of restaurants down there I can't wait to try, and I also had a chocolate praline at a local candy store. I'd never actually had one before since I don't generally like pecans (wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that I couldn't even pronounce the word properly for a large part of my life?) - it was very good.

For the most part, I agree that the Savannah area is very nice, even if I'm disappointed by the fact that some of my favorite chain restaurants are nowhere in the area (such as Chipotle and Red Robin). Unfortunately, Savannah is still about a 45 minute drive to base. Now, in general, the towns right by Army bases aren't exactly famous for having that much to do or being very metropolitan but I'm a bit surprised by how little there is to do in Hinesville. There isn't even a Starbucks (excluding the one on post, which I do, because they have a smaller selection, meaning none of the sandwiches, and they don't accept my Starbucks card). Or a Panera. Yes, I know, these are all little things and it's not like I had them in Germany. Also, the movie theater is cash only. I generally don't like to carry cash on me but fortunately I had some on me for once, and they have an ATM inside anyway (I saw Salt on Wednesday or Thursday - it was fun, but I totatlly saw one of the twists coming due to a storyline from Lost and had some good guesses about other twists just in general - still fun, though).

Book 80: Dead and Gone

Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris

This is the ninth of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and as usual, it was a nice quick read when I couldn't focus on deeper novels due to distractions. The novel begins as the shapeshifters decide to come out of the closet, assuming that if the vampires could get a pleasant reception, then they should definitely have no issues being welcomed into society: after all, they are human most of the time.

While things go well on the actual night in Bon Temps and at Merlotte's, Sookie becomes distracted with other things in the next few days (vampire politics, FBI agents wondering how she was able to help save people after an explosion in a previous novel), and only starts noticing some of the more negative effects of the coming out a little later. Her brother's pregnant, and soon-to-be ex-wife, is found dead and nailed to a cross - a possible hate crime against shifters?

Meanwhile, there is a war going on among the faeries - between those that think there should be a connection to the human world which include Sookie's great-grandfather and those that oppose him. Sookie and her friends soon find themselves targets in the middle of this.

She is also still trying to sort out her feelings for Eric and her blood bond with him, and Quinn the tiger also attempts to get in touch with her (honestly, I felt like they had a clean break, and I saw no reason to reintroduce him to the plot).

Overall, it wasn't bad but I have my usual complaint: Harris doesn't have to mention every single character in every novel . . . yes, it's nice to see old favorites but I'd rather see a lot of them less often than a few paragraphs each novel. MINOR SPOILER: Also, I feel like in some ways Harris was cleaning house in this novel, which isn't bad, but I wish all the deaths of actual characters could have had a bit more time devoted to them. While I like the Sookie of the novels much more than the Sookie of the books, I still don't quite understand why everyone is so willing to die for her . . .

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Book 79: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

I read this series for the first time about four years ago after a friend of mine sent me this (he also sent me The Winter King, the first in a King Arthur trilogy that I loved, so he definitely has my confidence when it comes to any recommendations). After I read the first five novels in Butcher's Codex Alera (yes, I should probably write those up eventually), I realized I was in the mood for some more fantasy but wasn't sure where to go next. I feel like I've heard that there is one other really good fantasy writer in particular but I'm not sure if it was Terry Pratchett or Terry Brooks or Terry Goodkind (is there a rule that if your name is Terry, you must write fantasy?), and I feel like I've heard one of them described as a hack so instead I decided to fall back on an old favorite.

It still was an absolutely amazing novel. I remembered rather well the main plot points of this novel since they are such huge turning points but not all the smaller details. My favorite characters continue to be Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. Since the novel is told from so many different characters' perspectives, the readers generally know more than the rest of the characters, and several times, I wanted to shake certain characters and tell them to stop being so judgmental, and stop trusting the wrong people or at least reevaluate their feelings about some characters.

The novel takes place in the fictional land/island of Westeros (when my friend gave me this book originally, he said it was similar to England during the War of the Roses), fifteen years after many of the royals led a rebellion against the mad King of the Targaryen dynasty. Since then, Robert Baratheon has been king and now he asks his best friend, Edward Stark, Lord of Winterfell, and the northernmost part of the Kingdom, to come south to the capital to serve as His Hand, or advisor. Honest and loyal, Ned complies, even after one of his sons has an accident and lies in a coma. He suspects that the last Hand, his friend and mentor Jon Arryn, was murdered, and he finds himself ill at ease with the political intrigues and backstabbing at the court.

While all of this is going on, there is another threat in the North that is introduced in the first pages. The men of the Wall, who have defended the realm against invasions from the north for milennia, are depleted, but it seems they may soon be facing a more important challenge for the realm and its people than they've seen for a while.

And lastly, on the mainland, to the west, the last surviving Targaryens still think of their lost throne and think of ways to get it back. The heir to the throne more or less sells his sister Daenarys into marriage at the chance of getting an army to help him regain his throne. However, as the novel progresses, and Dani grows up some, she realizes that she is stronger and more fit to be in charge than her brother who is a bit of a bully and unwilling and unable to compromise or understand others.

The thing I love about this series is that even though it is fantasy, there really isn't that much magical or supernatural stuff going on. Don't get me wrong, I like that kind of stuff as well, but I just like how much this novel is rooted in characters and political maneuvering. It is only as the novel progresses that more magic starts becoming a part of the series and it is as surprising to the characters themselves as to the reader. In the next novel, someone says that suddenly their spells started working again, better than they had in centuries, and that magic is returning to a world that had already given up on it and abandoned it.

Book 78: A Taste of True Blood

A Taste of True Blood: A Fangbanger's Guide edited by Leah Wilson

I'm not nearly as obsessed with True Blood as many other people are. I haven't even seen any of the third season, and will patiently wait until it's on DVD so I can watch it all at once. I think it's fun, if slightly trashy, and I also think it's interesting how different the characters have been portrayed compared to the novels in some ways. My favorite (other than Eric) is probably Lafayette, and yes, while Tara has her moments, I think I am more partial to her than many other viewers. Sookie can get rather annoying sometimes, and I don't always think she acts like a very good friend to those around her. I felt this in the novel with her friendship with Sam, but it's even worse in the TV show with everyone she knows.

Still, I love reading the discussions online about the show, and some of the feminist blogs that like to dissect it afterwards. I wasn't even going to buy this originally, but I read a few essays at the bookstore, and decided to take it home with me. Some of them were definitely better than others. There was one about being a Christian vampire which just irritated me. Some tried to be more analytical and used more research and sources, while others were lighter (though they were all rather light). I think one of my favorite ones was "SOOKEH! Bee-ill! and the Downfall of William T. Compton," just for the title alone.

I also enjoyed one which discussed the usage of color in the show, and a few other essays that focused more specifically on Jason Stackhouse and Tara since their storylines are the ones that diverge the most from the novels.

Overall, entertaining but nothing super-deep. I'm sure everyone that likes that show would find at least one essay they agreed with.

Book 77: Grave Goods

Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin

After reading The Serpent's Tale, I was rather pleasantly surprised by its sequel. I feel like Grave Goods avoided some of the missteps of The Serpent's Tale, and had an interesting, if somewhat formulaic, mystery. Yes, Adelia still plays the worried mother, but her daughter is a few years old now, around four or five, and she is no longer quite as frantic about her daughter. For the most part, she has dealt with her relationship with Rowley, or at least her feelings, since they do not see each other.

In this novel, Henry II has been dealing with the rebellious Welsh, who believe that Arthur will come back and lead them. As a result, when a Welsh captive tells him that his uncle had a vision of Arthur being buried in Glastonbury (formerly Avalon . . . and suddenly, I had a strong desire to read The Mists of Avalon again, or Bernard Cornwell's trilogy on the king), he is very interested in finding the body and getting rid of this symbol. A team soon finds two bodies in the graveyard at the directed location, and Henry wants Adelia to do her magic - if she can't prove that the bodies are Arthur and Guinevere, at the least, he wants her to demonstrate that there is no way to prove that they aren't.

Rowley is in the Glastonbury area to investigate the recent fire that destroyed the abbey, naturally leading to some tension (but nearly as bad or annoying as during the last novel). The townsfolk, and the innkeeper, Hilda, in particularly, keeps pointing towards one particular person, and soon Adelia finds herself involved in that investigation as well. Most of the locals are rather peculiar and less than friendly with few exceptions.

I felt like the first hundred pages of the novel were a bit slow . . . it started with the uncle's vision, and then Henry II, but after that, it took a while for Adelia to get in the action. She was traveling with her friend Emma from the previous novel before she finally gets involved with the actualy mystery. Emma, however, ends up disappearing after Adelia is summoned by the king. Eventually, all three investigations end up being solved, sometimes in ways that are connected or at least partially overlapping. Fortunately, it mostly didn't feel like there was too much going on, either, as is sometimes the case with several plot lines.

My favorite character in these novels continues to be Henry II. I've been looking in the history section to see if there are any biographies on him every time I'm in one, but no luck so far. The only result I got on Amazon was one written in the '70s.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Book 76: Still Alice

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

When I saw this recently at Barnes and Noble, I remembered seeing it on Nicole's list of top ten books of the past decade on a discussion on the CBR's FB page. Otherwise, I am not sure if I would have picked this up since I don't know anyone with Alzheimers and don't necessarily have an interest in the topic. The novel was incredible, though. I've noticed sometimes it's harder for me to review and write about novels that I really liked, especially when they address deeper topics, because I never feel like I will be able to properly communicate just how impressive they were. As a result, I actually finished this two weeks ago but I've been a little intimidated to write about it.

Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, a fifty year old professor at Harvard. After noticing that she is becoming more forgetful in odd ways, and finding herself lost on Harvard Yard, a place she has walked by every day for the past thirty years, she becomes rather frightened that there is something wrong with her. While at first she wants to believe it might be menopause, her disorientation makes her fear something more serious, and she tells her regular doctor she wishes to see a neurologist. She is quickly diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer's (Genova says she tooks some liberties here for plot-purposes - often men and women suffer from the disease for several years before it is diagnosed because doctors tend to think of other reasons for the symptoms rather than Alzheimer's for people in their forties and fifties).

Her family cope in different ways, and have different views of how she and the disease should be treated. There is a sense at the beginning of the novel that even though Alice and John love each other, they have grown a bit distant - they no longer walk to work together, for example, and later Alice thinks that she wishes she rather than his work had been his passion. Alice is very intelligent: after all, she is a cognitive linguistics professor at Harvard, and the idea of slowly losing her entire identity and what has defined her scares her. As a result, she comes up with a set of five questions to ask herself daily to determine if she is still mentally capable or if she should commit suicide - the Alice at the beginning of the novel does not want to be around for the very end, but doesn't want to kill herself at this point and lose what time she does have left as herself with her family. I thought it was incredibly interesting to watch her answers as the novel progresses because I don't think it's quite what the Alice that came up with the questions had in mind. What Alice determines to be an appropriate answer changes over time. If, for example, she orginally asked for an exact date, by the end, Alice considers the response of a season enough.

In ways this reminded me of some debates I've seen online about quality of life and disabilities. While some people might think they would rather die than be disabled in a certain way, it actually disregards people who live with that disability and still find happiness. Or what they would actually do in that situation. Obviously, with Alzheimer's, it's much more complicated, but what Alice once defined as the necessities for happiness are no longer the same by the end. Even though Alice can no longer do most of the things she once did by the end of the novel or recognize many people, she still feels moments of pleasure and happiness. So at what point does life stop being life or become not worth living? Late in the novel, John asks Alice if she still wants to be here, and she says, "yes, I'm not done. I like sitting here with you." They are talking about completely different things, but even in her deteriorated state, Alice can still experience pleasure.

The novel is told from Alice's perspective, though in the third person. As the disease progresses, the writing becomes simpler in some cases. The reader sees things the way Alice sees them but remembers them better, such as when she meets a person twice in the same evening. I thought it was incredibly well done, and as I said, I don't know anyone with Alzheimer's but this felt very realistic to me, and it also didn't feel like the novel was being too heavy-handed or sentimental despite the topic.