Monday, May 30, 2011

Book 44: The Apprentice

This is the second novel of what becomes the Rizzoli/Isles series.  The book introduces medical examiner Maura Isles, and is told almost entirely from the perspective of Rizzoli (in the first of the series, she was more of a supporting cast member).  The last novel ended with the apprehension of "The Surgeon," the serial killer that gave the book its title.  Imprisoned in a high security facility, the novel still contains scenes in italics as seen from his perspective.
While investigating a case, Rizzoli receives a call from a detective outside the Boston district, because the detective on the case feels there are similarities to Warren Hoyt.  Since Hoyt is in prison, it is not him, of course, but there are a few things about the scene that remind Rizzoli of him: the home invasion, the slit throat, the folded night clothes.  There are big differences, though; this killer is going after couples, killing the husbands and abducting the wives before disposing of their bodies at a later time.
An FBI agent joins the case unrequested, and he is obviously hiding something from the Boston PD since he knows things about the case before Rizzoli and her team do.  In the midst of this investigation, Hoyt breaks out of prison. adding to the stress level and intensity of the investigation, especially once it becomes clear that Rizzoli may have had a point in noting the similarities between the two killers.
Rizzoli isn't the most likable heroine but I liked reading about the investigation, and was eager to see the big picture and how the FBI fit into the case.  The love story was the weakest part of the novel, but somehow people always end up coupled off in these things.  My biggest complaint was the ending which seemed rushed and had a bit of a deus ex machina feel to it - I guess I would have just preferred more actual detectiving than there was at the end to discover the killers.  Still, it was free and I wasn't in the mood for something super-reflective so this was a good read for that.  I can't say I really like Rizzoli at this point, but the novels are keeping me entertained.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book 43: Stones from the River

I'm not sure why I never read this book before.  Originally, it may have been the fact that it was on Oprah's Book Club or perhaps I felt like I needed a break from World War II literature when my mom read it, I don't know.  When I looked at it later, the comparison to Gunther Grass's The Tin Drum probably would have turned me off: I hated that book.  I didn't like the protagonist at all, and thought he was oddly lecherous and devious.  However, having read this book, I believe that comparison has more to do with the fact that both of the protagonists are dwarves in small towns in Germany rather than other similarities.  Yes, both use a degree of magic realism (more so in Grass's case), but Trudi comes off as a real, normal person who happens to be a dwarf, someone who I wouldn't mind talking to, while the protagonist in The Tin Drum does not.
The novel spans from World War I era through the beginning of the post World War II period.  It takes place in a small German town near Dusseldorf, and is the story of Trudi Montag.  Conceived after her father returns home early from the war due to an injury, she is born in 1915 and her mother has a breakdown after her birth.  Trudi realizes early on that she is different, and as she grows up she comes to realize the power of secrets and relishes discovering others.  As a result, she becomes the town gossip, which is made easier by the fact that her father runs the town's pay library so there are always people coming in and out of the family business who are looking for new stories in the form of Trudi's gossip and novels.  While Trudi has a hard time making friends at school due to her difference, she is also an integral part of the town.  She may not always be well liked due to her sharp tongue, but her father is a very respected member of the community, and the women of the town are drawn to him after his wife's death, though their passions always remain chaste and unrequited.  Trudi can be a very hard person as she withdraws and distances herself from friends before they can leave her, and she does a few things that are petty.
As the Nazis come into power, all the various characters of the town begin to splinter within the community.  People that have been neighbors for ages and well-respected members of the town are now shunned because of their differences.  Many of the Jews are some of Trudi's closer friends and she sees the effects first hand.  Due to her own difference and inability to fit into the Aryan ideal, she is not drawn into Hitler's rhetoric like so many others, and she and her father end up sheltering Jews.  While there are a few that speak up, most of these are silenced early on - in some cases, one prison visit is enough, in other cases they disappear never to come back again.  Though the novel uses Trudi as its main protagonist and its eyes, it is really about a small community and the Nazi regime.  Some of Hitler's followers were opportunist while others truly believed in him.  Of course, most would claim after the war to have never agreed with Hitler and to have not known what was going on when only a few could really claim to have resisted.  As horrible as the Holocaust is, it is easy to forget the small parts: the fact that in most cases it wasn't Germans attacking Jews they had never met: they went after neighbors, people that they had known for ages, whom they had sold or bought groceries from, doctors they had visited for aches etc.
In order to really reinforce this, it helps that Hegi begins her novel in 1915, thus truly showing the fabric of the town to the reader and how it gradually changed with the Nazis.  Even the end of the war doesn't fix things: no one wants to talk about what has happened, and the people want to move on, but the silence and secrets are obvious.  These aren't the only secrets the town tries to bury as the town also weaves lies and people in and out of its history throughout the novel, but Trudi remembers and digs for the truths at all times, cherishing her gossip and her stories.  The only stories she does not share are ones about herself, letting people make their own conclusions about her based on her outward appearance.  I quite liked this novel, and the rich tapestry that Hegi created in this town.  I admit that at one or two points, I thought about how many stories about Nazi Germany tend to be about the "good" Germans, the ones that helped the Jews - on occasion, it seems like if there had been as many good Germans as are described in these novels, many more Jews should have survived, but Hegi does a good job of balancing the community, showing the people that were ambivalent, purposely blind, and fanatic compared to those what were actively attempting to make a difference.  One character I thought was interesting felt like she had been a collaborator by helping to make the prisoners more tolerable.  As she believed later, she had helped the Nazis by handing over calm and docile prisoners, and blamed herself - even those with good intentions could simply become cogs in the machine of genocide.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Book 42: Regeneration

When I took "British Lit 1798 to Present," my professor made the argument that World War I had a much greater impact on Britain and the British cultural imagination than World War II.  In comparison, for Americans it was World War II that really made an impact and helped defined the ways they saw themselves.  It certainly makes sense: almost a million young British men died in the four year conflict, which would have a huge effect on a generation, with about twice that many wounded (2.13% of the population according to Wikipedia).  The Americans entered the war rather late.  The US was much more involved in World War II comparatively, and when you go to an American book store's military history section, the Civil War and World War II take up the majority of it.  It's an easy war to glamorize from an American perspective: there were clear good and bad sides, and the Americans helped achieve the victory, while then attempting to be gracious winners who helped rebuild the countries they had been at war with.  Growing up in Germany, World War II and the Holocaust obviously overshadowed World War I, so the statement that World War I would have a greater impact was an interesting idea to me.  However, World War I was the first war with casualties on such a huge scale, and certainly caused many of the things that led to WWII.  It triggered a great deal of change and disillusionment, and it is still unimaginable how the war could have gone on so long with such dramatic tolls.  I love the World War I poets, and the German novel All Quiet on the Western Front, and have definitely become more interested in the period over the years.
Regeneration is the first novel in Barker's WWI trilogy which centers around historical figures and fictional characters as its main protagonists.  The novel isn't about the front lines of the war or the battles but its effects.  The novel begins with Siegfried Sassoon's declaration against the continuation of the war.  It appears that he is already a famous figure at this point in history (now of course he is known as one of the war poets), so rather than court martial him, the authorities declare him shell shocked and send him to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh where he comes under the care of Dr. Rivers.  Originally, I expected Sassoon to be the main character, but I believe that title goes to Dr. Rivers (another historical figure), while Sassoon and Billy Prior (fictional character) are the two main supporting cast members with a few other extras to illustrate war experiences.  The hospital Craiglockhart is for officers suffering from shell shock and other mental disorders as a result of the war.
Barker uses her characters to show some of the reactions that patients had: there are a few that suffer from "mutism" and are unable to speak.  Burns is unable to eat because during an attack he was thrown headfirst into the stomach of a decomposing body.  Another officer, a doctor, can no longer handle the sight of blood but still plans to return to medicine.  The men in the novel are conflicted: they don't want to be in the war, but they don't want to leave their men behind and want to return.  Sassoon especially feels guilt for leaving his men behind.  Prior has a problem with anyone not involved in the war (they don't understand, they are continuing with their lives as normal), and even Rivers feels guilty that he was too old to be in the military.  Rivers has read Freud's theories, and believes in many of Freud's ideas and practices such as dream analysis, and using talk therapy.  Fortunately, he isn't that big on the sexual part, but he does believe that they are suppressing memories, and even uses hypnosis on a patient as a last result.  As the novel progresses, Rivers must deal more and more with the inherent irony in his position: he is trying to help his patients and get them well to send them back into danger when really by remaining ill, they are possibly helping themselves more.   Sassoon isn't ill but Rivers still has to get him to decide that he would be better off returning to his troops.
The language in the novel felt very sparse - it's been a very long time since I've read Hemingway but that's always the first thing I think of when I think of certain writing styles, even if that might not be completely accurate.  The officers are generally sent to the hospital for about 12 weeks prior to seeing a board so the novel covers a time span of about 3 months.  While the reader witnesses a few sessions that Rivers has with his patients, their healing process isn't always explained.  Some of them simply get better without completely confronting their problems (Rivers for example isn't satisfied with one patient's recovery in particular) while others end up discharged from the military or on assignments outside the war zone.  The end of the novel contrasts Rivers's treatment methods with another doctor's, who is very brutal by comparison, especially to modern sensibility.
Even in today's military we still often talk about the stigma associated with seeing behavioral health professionals and ways to combat this stigma given current suicide rates.  While the stigma has definitely decreased in the last few years (there are of course always people that think that Soldiers seeking this type of help are malingering, but Soldiers are suspected of malingering for visiting regular doctors about physical ailments as well when these appointments appear to be at a too convenient time), it is interesting to see the World War I perspective when these types of problems were only beginning to receive recognition.  I confused a few of the patients a few times, remembering them more based on their neuroses than their names since the novel definitely focused on the main characters and didn't develop some of the minor characters much beyond a collection of symptoms - I feel like these men in particular were more symbols than anything.  Barker also included a few comments on women's positions at the time by including women workers, including one who has an abortion.  Overall, it was an interesting look at soldiers' psyches as a response to the war, and I thought Barker did a good job of showing the internal conflict many of these men faced as well as demonstrating that it was the overall accumulation of war sights that caused the breakdown rather than one huge event (two men actually comment on the fact that their breakdowns happened after incidents that weren't even the worst they'd seen).  While I liked the novel while I was reading it, I don't think it made a huge impact on me - many of the things Barker describes feel like they are now self-evident or common sense, but it was still nice to see a war novel written from outside the trenches that really doesn't try to glamorize things.  I plan on reading the rest of the series but having read the book a bit less than a week ago, the characters are already starting to blend together for me, and naturally given the subject, there aren't huge plot developments in the novel but small stories of men attempting to slowly heal from the stresses of war.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book 41: The Surgeon

I heard about this author when I saw that TNT was making a show based on the series that started with this novel.  I don't watch procedurals all too often, but I like the occasional Law and Order: SVU, and figured I might as well check out if this series was any different (I also think I saw a book that was later in the series that sounded like it had an interesting premise for a killer, but I obviously couldn't start in the middle).  Having said that, it was an entirely enjoyable book given the genre it represents.  I wouldn't call it ground-breaking in any way but it had a few nice ideas.
I was actually surprised by one thing about the novel: given that the rest of the series is the Rizzoli/Isles series, I was expecting one or both of them to be the main character in this novel.  In fact, the novel is told from three perspectives (well, four when you include the pages in italics in the killer's voice), and Rizzoli is the one that receives the least attention.  She wasn't even that likable, and while she had some good insights in the novel, she also made a huge mistake and didn't want to own up to it.  The main characters are Thomas Moore, one of the other detectives on the case who is part of it because he investigated a murder with the same profile a year before, and Catherine Cordell, a surgeon and victim of a serial killer two years before.  Cordell had escaped and shot her assailant, but even though the man that attacked her is dead, these current crimes are incredibly similar, and the new killer begins to focus on her.
The novel begins with a scene from the killer's perspective as he plots a murder, and then starts with a detective over a year later when a second body is discovered killed in the same manner: in both cases, the killer broke into the victims' apartments, incapacitated them with choloroform, tied them to their beds and immobilized them before cutting their uterii from their bodies while they were alive and conscious only to finally slit their throats.  It ties to a case in Savannah that was closed two years before although in that particular case, the women had been raped prior to the other violence.  Rizzoli and Moore are two of five detectives on the case, and they slowly find connections between the victims with some assistance from Cordell, who it soon becomes obvious is a target herself.
Since one of the main characters was a surgeon and worked at a hospital, there were a few scenes that read like a scene from E.R.  I have to say medical talk like that is much more fun to watch than to read, but other than that, it was a good enough novel for what it was.  It's entirely forgettable, although I liked the side trip to Savannah (I live/am going to live there).  I don't think I'd really necessarily spend money on more from the series but considering that the MWR's book room is half full of these types of novels, I wouldn't be surprised if I could find the rest of the series there - this series would work pretty well on the stair master.

Book 40: About a Boy

My 1SG has a theory on relationships.  She believes that there is no one person that will be 100% perfect for someone else, and that the most anyone can hope for is to meet someone that meets 80% of one's expectations.  However, she also believes that people are attraced to the new and always looking for the new, and that usually whoever this new person is will meet the 20% that the first person cannot.  As a result, I obviously had to share this quote with her:
In the end, the thing that swung it for him in his affair with Angie was that he was not Someone Else.  That meant in this case he wasn't Simon, her ex, who had problems with drink and work, and who, with a cavalier disregard for cliche, turned out to be screwing his secretary.  Will found it easy not to be Simon; he had a positive flair for not being Simon, he was briliant at it.  It seemed unfair, in fact, that something he found so effortless should bring him any kind of reward at all but it did: he was loved for not being Simon more than he had ever been loved simply for being himself.  (24)
This is actually only the second Hornby novel I've read, which is honestly a bit surprising since one of my friends loves him (especially High Fidelity) and Hornby is rather popular with the Pajiba crowd.  I decided to make this one the second because I haven't seen the movie, and kind of want to since I like Rachel Weisz (I'm only, what, ten years behind the rest of the world?)
Hornby tells the story from the perspective of Marcus, a 12 year old boy who is both old for his age and naive, and Will, a 36 year old man-child to say it in simple terms.  Marcus is the child of divorce, and he and his mother Fiona have recently moved to London.  His mother struggles with depression, and Marcus understands that things aren't quite normal.  He also doesn't fit in at school because his mom is a feminist, vegetarian hippie who is opposed to most new popular culture and has raised her son on Joni Mitchell in the time of Nirvana and Snoop Dogg.  Being the new kid, he gets picked on quite a bit.
Meanwhile, Will's friends are growing distant from him as they become more mature and have children.  Will doesn't want children, but when he realizes during a chance meeting with Angie that he has a chance with beautiful women that would normally never give him the time of day simply because they are single mothers, he feels like he has hit a gold mine.  Unfortunately, he doesn't know any other single mothers, so after Angie breaks up with him, he pretends to be a single father to join a group for single parents.  Suzie, one of the mothers in the group, is friends with Fiona, and Marcus and Will meet during a single parents' outing.  Suzie had invited Marcus to give Fiona a break but when they drop him off at the apartment, they find Fiona unconscious on the couch after a failed suicide attempt.
Marcus finds himself drawn to Will, and begins to spend time with him.  While Will is not a father figure, he understands high school, bullies and pop culture, and both of them learn things about themselves and the world through their interactions with each other.  Will becomes involved in the messiness of human relationships since Marcus pulls him into his world, and Will finds himself interacting with Marcus's parents as well.  Marcus begins to make relationships in high school as he learns about modern culture, and how to fit in.  At first Will doesn't understand these people, and he also says he would never want to kill himself because he doesn't care that much about anything.  Fiona in comparison cares about everything so much that it is obvious that she would be disappointed and overwhelmed by life.
I actually quite enjoyed the novel.  I wasn't sure how I'd feel about Will, a man that has no job due to family money, but he develops depths as the novel progresses.  I quite enjoyed Marcus, and his realizations about life.  This novel was set in '93/'94, so I enjoyed the throwback to the grunge era, and Hornby created flawed but likable characters.  It was a light read without being fluff, so I'm glad I finally got around to this.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Book 39: Half Broke Horses

I read the author's memoir, The Glass Castle, several years ago and quite liked it.  Now, I barely the details of the book, though it was about Walls's upbringing and childhood with her less than stable parents.  Her parents were erratic which led to both fun exciting adventures as well as poverty.  In this book, Walls takes the family stories about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, and weaves them into a "true life novel."
Walls uses the stories that she and her mother remember about her grandmother to create this woman's life story.  Since it is based on family myth, Walls doesn't title the story as a biography.  The book reads very much like an oral history - it is told in Lily's voice in chronological order, but as a reader I could easily imagine that all the chapters were individual stories told at varying times to her daughter who then helped her own daughter place them in order.
In many ways, Lily feels like a portrayal of the quintessential (and possibly even stereotypical) frontier woman.  She grew up in Texas and New Mexico; it was a tough life but her family had a roof (except when the tornados or flash floods took them away) and food.  Still, there wasn't enough money to send her to school for more than a semester due to her father's schemes, though he made sure to home school his children with his strong views.  Her mother tries to be a genteel lady in a tough environment, leaving Lily her fair share of responsibility early on.  However, this clearly helps her since she is very strong-willed and independent as a result, leaving for Arizona to teach at fifteen (there was a teacher shortage due to the First World War) despite her lack of degree.  Upon the return of the soldiers from the homefront, Lily finds herself out of a job and enroute to Chicago for better opportunities.  While she attends night school and receives her high school diploma in Chicago, for the most part, it seems like an interlude in her life that kept her off track.  She develops a close friendship with a factory worker who dies in an accident, and marries a man that turns out to already have a wife and family.  Eventually, she returns west to take a teacher certification course, and finds her place back in the more rough and tumble life in Arizona.
While at first things go well in her new position, she soon finds further hardship before marrying and settling down with Jim Smith, which eventually leads to her running a cattle ranch.  Lily definitely thinks of herself in the right in most things, and is portrayed as someone with strong beliefs that occasionally get her in trouble (or fired).  No matter what difficulties she faces, she simply bucks up and continues to her new venture.  This portrayal as well as the various occupations she faces make her seem both ordinary and extraordinary.  On the one hand, her strength and determination are admirable and seem even more commendable for a woman in that time but based on other depictions (both fictional and non-fictional) of women in the West, it seems like her work ethic and adventures are far from unique.  While she generally feels like she did the best she could and is unapologetic for any mistakes she may have made (she doesn't reflect on too many), Walls also portrays the parts of her grandmother that a modern day audience would easily frown upon such as her use of corporal punishment as a teacher.
While I remember little of the details of The Glass Castle, it does cast clarity on the lives her descendants lived.  With such a strict and demanding mother, it is easy to see why Rosemary would choose a more hippie-like and unsettled life style in rebellion.  Despite this, since much of the information for this book came from Rosemary, it is clear that Rosemary and Jeannette admired Lily, a strong feminist woman, even if she didn't want to be her or agree with her.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book 38: Neither Here Nor There

I quite enjoyed Bryson's book A Short History of Everything.  Not only did he show a great curiousity for the world around him, but he displayed a sense of humor as well as compassion.  He discussed many scientists, their discoveries and quirks, and showed a certain amount of respect for their accomplishments, even when the individual in question was not a good person.  He would poke fun at arguments, but it all was mostly focused on sharing what he learned about the planet's creation and past.
While I have since browsed for other books by Bryson, I have never really read much in the genre of travel writing, and it just didn't seem that reading about the Appalachian Mountains would really be my cup of tea.  I was therefore pleasantly surprised when my friend sent me this book, focusing on his travels in Europe.  I lived in Germany for eight years a child, and another three after graduating college, and have also been to a few of the places he visited.  I figured it would be a perfect way to reminisce about places I've been and see what other places in Europe I should go.
Unfortunately, this book was nowhere nearly as well-written as A Short History of Everything.  I don't feel like I learned too much about the places visited (I thought maybe he'd share random knowledge like in A Short History of Everything, but there wasn't very much) - for the most part, it felt like he simply reiterated stereotypes.  I guess in some cases stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason but I expected better from Bryson.  Also, having never read a travel book before, I wasn't sure what to expect - was it supposed to be a tour of the city, was it supposed to be about random mishaps the author encounters, a bit of both?  Mostly, it seemed like Bryson walked around, ate, and pretty much didn't seem to enjoy himself very much.  He seemed very negative about many things, and Copenhagen was the first place he described that he seemed too truly enjoy, enough to make me want to visit.  He also loved Rome (who doesn't?) but hated Florence (which was one of my favorite trips).  He became more positive towards the last half of the trip but he had lost me by that point.
In ways, I feel bad for disliking this book and his negativity.  Having traveled myself, I'm sure I have shared a few of his thoughts on occasion.  I thought Paris had a few too many tourists, and agree that the Mona Lisa really is barely worth seeing because you can't get closer than 10 feet to it, there's a huge crowd around (all of whom are trying to get a picture of themselves with the painting) and it's kind of small.  I'm sure I have also regretted certain modernizations when looking at gorgeous old architecture.  And I think I would have been fine with some complaints if they had also been accompanied by more genuine enthusiasm.  I may not have enjoyed the Louvre as much as I would have expected, but I loved the Cluny (the medieval museum, it goes by a different name now).  Don't even get me started on Florence (of course, I would be less favorable of Venice, so I definitely understand that not all cities appeal to everyone, but it just felt like this was all negative).  I guess I just figured if you are going to write books about traveling it should be because you love it and the places, and reading the stories should inspire readers to follow in your foot steps.  I didn't want to follow in his foot steps; some of his problems seemed to be due to lack of planning and preparation.  Then again, it's admirable that he could just travel Europe day to day, and see where things took him.  I'm going to be in the British Isles for the month of July, and I already have all my hotels booked, theater tickets, and the only thing that will be on the fly are the train tickets to get me from one city to another.
And that's another reason, I find it hard to judge Bryson completely (well, I totally am, but why I feel bad about it) - this book was published in the early '90s.  How did people travel and plan trips before the internet?  I mean, I know we took family vacations, and my mom called hotels and reserved them ahead of time, while my dad would then map everything out with giant folding maps, but where did she get the phone numbers?  The back of travel guides?  I have no clue.  Also, visiting the cities I loved twenty years ago may have been a completely different experience - I don't know how much money cities have invested in restoration since this book was written.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book 37: The Gathering Storm

I can't remember the last time I zipped through a book in this series quite so quickly.  Don't get me wrong, with all books in the series, I felt a need to know where it was going and what was going to happen so they kept me engaged, but there were also quite a few chapters that were a chore to get through.  Sanderson, however, has definitely breathed new life into the series.  Now, I feel bad saying this since the only reason he took over the series is because Jordan died, but this book is the best one in a long while.  Jordan, of course, gets the credit for creating the storyline and the plot, having carefully drafted his vision ahead of time, but Sanderson actually made the novel engaging and quick paced.  I wonder how Jordan would have handled the last novel in the series, and somehow I feel like he may not have done as good with the prose aspect.  Originally Jordan had intended one final novel which Sanderson broke into three separate novels - I wonder if Jordan eventually also would have decided to do this if he had the opportunity to continue writing - if he hadn't, the final novel would have felt very rushed as he finally tied all the plot lines together, and he probably still would have spent too much time talking about clothes and then breezed over the important plot developments as he did in a few previous novels.  I also liked that Sanderson didn't feel the need to incorporate a chapter for every character - while I have complained before about Mat or Egwene not being in a novel that's because they were cut out after cliff hanger endings.  It was a wise choice to leave Elayne out of this novel - she gained the crown after way too long of a discussion about it at the end of the last novel, and there was really no need to talk about her pregnancy.  As I said in my last review, I had hoped that separating Aviendha from Elayne would lead to some more development for Aviendha rather than simple side kick, and there were a few chapters from her view (she was a bit dense, but ends up enroute to Rhudean for her test to join the Wise Ones).
A large chunk of the novel is devoted to Rand, and while some of Rand's attitude about needing to be hard (confusing strength and hardness) is getting a little old, his chapters are still much more interesting than they have been in a while.  Still, with all the women plotting to keep him from getting too hard (they fear if he is too hard, he will only be worried about the battle, and not what he leaves behind for the survivors), it seems like if they had just sat him down a few novels back and tried to reason it out with him, it might have worked better than attempting to manipulate him, thus making him untrusty and harder.
Mat had a few chapters but not too much plot development for him.  His army is enroute to Caemlyn, and he encounters different adventures on the way.  He definitely added some humor - some of it was cheesy, but still enjoyable compared to the overall seriousness of the book.  He has promised Thom to help him rescue Moraine so that will probably be one of the main plot lines in the next novel.
Now as annoying as some of the Aes Sedai are, some of my favorite characters are Siuan, Verin, and Egwene, and Egwene completely owns this book.  Her quiet and dignified stand against Elaida in the White Tower continues and her poise and logic gain her the respect of many women in the tower.  Gawyn finally wakes up from whatever hill he was under, and discovers that Egwene is the Amrylin Seat for the rebels and that he is fighting on the wrong side (he also finally gets news that his sister is properly sitting on the throne).  In the past few novels, Gawyn has annoyed me because he keeps picking the wrong sides - instead of trusting that all the women he loves are doing the proper thing, he stayed on the opposing sides, and only now switches over.  One thing that quite amused me about the Amazon reviews, is that while most of them think Sanderson is doing a good job, others complain about his prose and how it took them right out of the narrative.  I admit one of the lines they mentioned wasn't quite fitting, but as for the rest?  One particular line seemed particular fitting for a character view from Gawyn because he is a whiny brat, and it's not like Jordan was a master of prose.  Run on sentences, repetitive description - yes; master of beautiful phrasing - not so much.
One other good thing is that Sanderson tones down on the sexist portrayal of women.  Yes, Nynaeve still pulls her braid but that's a character quirk so he couldn't completely get rid of that, and of course he had to have the women sniff here and there, but a lot less crossing of arms under breasts.  Also, even though there wasn't much of Perrin and Faile, she didn't come off as shrill, and instead was portrayed as an intelligent woman that has to make tough decisions.  Finally, a woman that can't wield the Power that might actually be well portrayed.  Basically, if Sanderson keeps this up, the series is definitely going to end on a high note.  He actually made me start caring about the characters again.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Book 36: Knife of Dreams

While the novel has a slow start, it actually ends up picking up the pace and finally sees the conclusion of a few separate plotlines.  The prologue starts with three characters I really don't care about at all, so that was just about the worst part to get through.  First, Galad challenges a leader of the Whitecloaks to a duel, and then there are a few pages from the perspective of Rodel Ituralde (he's been making appearances in a few prologues but I honestly forget about him as soon as they are over so at this point his character doesn't have much of a purpose - yet another guy involved in battles in the West with Seanchan and the Prophet etc.).  Suroth's pages weren't that exciting, either, despite a meeting with Semirhage and the announcement that she has killed the royal family in Seandar.  After that the novel picks up as it returns to the White Tower and some of the things going on there.  The rift between the Ajahs continues, and news of the events from the past few novels and Elaida's failures are starting to trickle in.  Additionally, the Reds are still considering their plan to bond the Asha'aman as warders, while Alviarin begins to suspect some of the Aes Sedai that are searching for the Black Ajah.  Finally, the prologue ends with Egwene, captured by the White Tower.
While the rest of the novel has a few chapters that aren't that interesting or exciting (Rand and Elayne, for example), for the most part, Jordan's plots finally show some forward momentum.  Perrin has made an alliance with the Seanchan to rescue Faile, and has his battle planned out.  Tam al'Thor even shows up, asking if his son is really the Dragon Reborn.  Mat continues his journey out of Seanchan controlled territories while still wooing Tuon.  Thom also reveals to him that Moraine is alive, and in order for any rescue to be successful, Mat must be a part of it.  He also finally links up with elements of his army, so Tuon has a chance to witness him in his element.  Egwene uses her position in the White Tower (Elaida believes that Egwene is too young to be responsible, and instead tells her she is a novice once again - while Egwene obeys orders, she also maintains that she is the Amyrlin) to gain support and create dissonance in the Tower.  She orders the Rebels not to rescue her since she believes she can fight more effectively from within, and sees how bad Elaida's leadership has been.  These were the parts of the book I enjoyed the most.  Perrin started getting interesting again and slightly less emo.  I can only hope that this also the last of Sevanna.  In fact, it seems that Jordan may have actually tied up the Shaido storyline.  About time.
As far the weaker aspects, Rand just isn't that interesting a character.  He is possibly more emo than Perrin, with his big burden.  There is a battle with an army of Trollocs and while Lews takes control and introduces some new weaves, the struggle barely seems to be with the Trollocs.  Instead Jordan focuses on the conflict in Rand's head.  He has cleansed saidin, but still feels sick when he reaches for it (I guess nothing can ever got right for him).  Shit, there is a confrontation with a Forsaken in this novel, and I didn't get too excited.  And Cadsuane's approach to Rand is just obnoxious while all the women around Rand continue to confuse him.  Meanwhile, Elayne is still trying to gain her throne, and discovers that the head of her bodyguard is working with Darkfriends and members of the Black Ajah.  The pregnant woman decides to confront them on her own (well, with three others, one of whom she suspects to be Black Ajah as well).  At one point, Dyelin, one of the other nobles of Trakand, compliments Elayne and tells her that the worst thing that can happen to Andor is to have someone incompetent or foolish on the throne but that she is neither.  I would hate to see what is considered foolish then.  I liked Elayne in the first few novels, but she has gotten progressively more annoying as the series progresses.  I think that basically applies to all the women in love with Rand.  Aviendha left Caemlyn, but I'm hoping that maybe her character will start being interesting again now that she is no longer simply Elayne's sister and side kick.  Of course, she would have had to appear in the novel again after leaving Elayne for that to happen.  There was also a chapter about the Windfinders and Seafolk.  When first introduced, these people also had potential, but have been reduced to bickering xenophobic women like everyone else in the novel that simply cannot believe it when people don't understand their customs.  I want more of Logain.  Can't he be the Dragon Reborn instead of Rand?
Still, overall, the novel showed quite some progress compared to the others.  Jordan even did something with Lan's storyline and the fact that he is the surviving heir of Malkier.  Some of the flaws from the series still remain, but it is wrapping up.  The next three books are the ones that are cowritten by Sanderson so I'm looking forward to seeing where he takes them.
My favorite part of this Amazon review is the description of the cover art.  I hate the covers on these - they look so cheesy, I almost feel weird reading this series in a public place.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Book 35: Bite Me

 If you've read Christopher Moore before, you know the type of humor to expect from this book - sometimes funny, sometimes on the juvenile side, almost always bizarre.  This is the third part of Moore's vampire trilogy (at least I think this is it), and begins about five weeks after You Suck ended.  Chet is a vampire cat and has accidentally created an army of vampire cats that hound the streets of San Franscisco and threaten the homeless of the city.  Jody and Flood are still bronzed, and unable to escape.  Jody can turn herself to mist and ignore her surroundings, but Tommy never learned that trick so he has been sitting there for five weeks, hungry, unable to move or speak, going crazy.  The cats have caused enough havoc to make headlines so that the vampire clean up crew once again has to return to San Franscisco to take matters into hand, while the two detective and the Animals are trying to engage in their own attack of the vampire cats.
Abbie Normal and Steve, the genius PhD student, also play parts in the novel - Steve's main role seems to be to explain things, and provide a scientific reason for everything.  Abbie first made an appearance in You Suck, and while she was irritating, she also wasn't that bad.  In this novel, however, Moore makes the unwise decision to give her too much face time.  The first twenty or so pages of the novel were a diary entry from Abbie with a quick summary of the previous novels of the series.  While it was a good way to refresh readers' memories of the previous novels, I also couldn't handle 20 pages straight of Abbie-speak.  Fortunately, she doesn't get that many pages at one time for the rest of the novel, but there isn't too much new about Jody and Tommy, and they aren't even together most of novel once they are freed from the bronze casting.  While I would have like to see Jody and Tommy more, I also feel like their story has been told: at the end of You Suck, they realized they were in love but wanted different things (to be vampire vs. to be human).  This issue still remains in this book.
Overall, it was entertaining, but not as good as the previous ones - too much Abbie, not enough about the cats, and really, Moore could have either left the series the way it had ended before, or simply had Jody and Tommy make their decision in the last novel instead of dragging it out another novel.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Book 34: Scandalous Women

This book arrived in a birthday package from my best friend along with a 12 pack of cherry coke (it's unavailable on bases in Iraq).  It's not something I would have necessarily picked up on my own since I'm always afraid titles such as this will be rather shallow treatments of history.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the book.   Not only were the short biographies well written and engaging, but it also introduced women I have never heard of/ discussed women whose names I recognized and put them in context.  She also had a nice list of references at the back, so I have added a few biographies to my wishlist.
One other thing that I think is very awesome is that this book was the result of a blog which I have already added to my feed ( - make sure you keep woman singular, otherwise you end up on a swingers website).  This obviously isn't the first author I've read who got a book deal as a result of a blog, but I really think it is awesome that someone is using their blog to discuss little-known figures in history.  The blog also includes book reviews of historical fiction and non-fiction, and since historical ficion is a genre I generally like, it will be nice to get someone's opinion on some of those novels.  Like fantasy, it's a genre that can be well-done or take a turn to ridiculous and trashy.
The book is broken down into seven parts or categories entitled Warrior Queens, Wayward Wives, Scintilatting Seductresses, Crusading Ladies, Wild Women of the West, Amorous Artists, and Amazing Adventuresses.  Within each of these parts, Mahon then tells the stories of a selection of women.  Some of the women were rulers, intellectuals and famous in their own right.  Others became famous due to their sex lives and the famous men they slept with.  However, as Mahon points out in her introduction, all of these women stepped outside conventions and made news as a result.  Many of them ended up being very good at marketing themselves, and others used the powerful men in their lives to make a difference or gain power of their own.  I enjoyed reading most of the stories, though there were definitely women I didn't agree with (Carry Nation, for example).  In other cases, it completely changed the myth that surrounded the woman in popular culture (Mata Hari as a spy - not quite so accurate; nor was Calamity Jane a scout).  My least favorite section was probably the one about Wild Women of the West, though I liked the section on Margaret Tobin Brown in that part.  Say what you will about the movie Titanic, but I liked Kathy Bates in it as Molly Brown, and I quite enjoyed the real story behind the woman (who never went by Molly in real life, and was a great philanthropist).  I also loved reading about Camille Claudel, a sculptor, who was Rodin's lover and model at one point.  Unfortunately she became very paranoid, and suffered a breakdown.  Some of her work is on display at the Rodin Museum, so now I feel like I need to go back to Paris, since I didn't even know about her last time I was at the museum.  Other favorites were Emilie du Chatelet (genius, beauty, and involved with Voltaire), Gertrude Bell (spent much time in the Middle East so my interest is definitely influenced by my job), and Jane Digby (also due to the Middle Eastern conclusion of her life).
Overall, it's definitely a good introduction to many of the women discussed and points the way to resources for further reading.  My one complaint is that the book is very Western-centric.  Most of the women discussed are British or American with only very few other nationalities (Frida Kahlo is the only Mexican, for example).  I don't know if there will be a follow up but if so, I hope it includes some women from Asia, Africa and South America, since many of their stories are probably even more obscure to a Western audience.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Book 33: We Two

 I was barely even tracking the Royal Wedding so it had nothing to do with the fact that I was reading this book the same week as all the hype.  I stumbled upon this in the bio section of Barnes and Noble in January, but was slightly distracted by The Wheel of Time series, and as a result only recently started it.  One of the reasons that the book appealed to me is that while I know about the Victorian Era, and the current stereotypes of the era's norms, I really didn't know too much about the woman who gave her name to the era besides that she was grandmother just about all the royals at war with each other during World War I and that she looked a bit grumpy in her pictures.  I knew even less about her husband beyond that fact that I had seen his memorial in Kensington Park, and that the Victoria and Albert is named after them, and that I intend to go there next time I'm in London (two more months!).  I also thought the last line describing the contents of the book sounded appealing since it said that Victoria was able to create a fairy tale of their relationship due to Albert's much earlier death.
The book is divided into three parts, beginning with the story of Victoria which has been rather well documented, and the circumstances that led to her becoming heir to the throne despite being a daughter of a fourth son.  The second part concerned Albert's childhood and upbringing, and much of it focused on his family and their small kingdom since there are not many documents remaining from Albert's youth.  As a result Gill chose to bring his surrounding world to life to explain his background.  After Albert's death, Victoria wrote a biography of him, and Gill argues that Albert didn't necessarily give his wife a complete view of his childhood.  Also, being in England, Victoria did not have access to many things, and several key personnel didn't contribute to the book, possibly because their views would have disagreed with Victoria's.  As a result, her bio became the definitive word on her husband, but as an enamoured wife she was missing some of the context.  These two sections were the best part of the book, and Victoria's story was written in an incredibly engaging way.
The third part dealt with Albert and Victoria as a couple with a concluding paragraph on Victoria's forty years as a widow.  I enjoyed learning about the royal couple even though in some ways I had a hard time quite understanding their purpose.  With parliament and prime ministers and the such, it rather seemed like there wasn't much point to the monarchy.  In fact, Victoria took reign after rather weak kings and she and Albert hoped to see the monarchy restored to its rightful place.  As a result, they were allies determined to regain some of their power.  Gill also makes the point that the couple's, particularly Victoria's, popularity with the common people probably played a huge role in saving the monarchy while in many other countries, rulers faced rebellions (not that there weren't assassination attempts on Victoria).  Since Gill focused Albert and Victoria, a few things were slightly glossed over, such as assassination attempts.  However, while the book was informational, it just didn't seem quite what it promised.  For example, Gill's subtitle contains the word "rivals," but I didn't feel like she really portrayed them as rivals.  Yes, Victoria on occassion seems bored or unhappy with having lots of children, Albert disliked some of Victoria's confidantes and got rid of them, but I don't feel like they were really in a power-struggle.  Victoria seemed to more or less happily give way to Albert in most things.  Additionally, the book focused more on Albert than Victoria.  Victoria is portrayed as completely in love with Albert, while Albert is more concerned with work and power.  The last few chapters also dealt with different themes, such as their daughter Vicky, their son Bertie, the Crimean War, but all these things overlapped so sometimes this means it was hard to see how things truly progressed.  For example, Gill makes a comment about Albert's steadily deteriorating health, but while she had mentioned he was sapped of energy after the 1851 Exposition, she didn't mention too many other health problems until the chapter on his death.  Additionally, she says that the relationship between Albert and Victoria had been changing since 1857 or so, but I don't feel like I quite saw that, or maybe she had portrayed that but then gone back in time for her next two chapters so it didn't make the impression it should have.
For the most part, however, I liked reading about the era.  When Victoria first came to the throne, it was after several monarchs had lived in complete excess and accumulated debts.  Victoria actually attempted to live within her means, and upon their marriage, Albert assisted with this.  Victoria had been raised to be pure and moral because Conroy, her mother's advisor, saw that this would endear her to the people, and Albert's family that wanted him to be Victoria's betrothed from early on, raised him with the same goal in mind.  While this definitely worked to make the new royal family popular with the people, it didn't make them popular with the English royals, especially since Albert was so unforgiving and sanctimonious.  Once he arrived at the court, he would not let anyone with even a whiff of scandal near Victoria.  Victoria was more forgiving (or naive) when taking the reign, but she quickly agreed with Albert's ideas.  Still the prudishness of the Victorian Era is more Albertian than Victorian.  Gill portrays Victoria as fun-loving, outgoing, passionate, and quite the drama queen.  Her portrayal of Albert is more complicated since Gill herself doesn't even seem quite sure how she feels about him - on the one hand, he was often influenced by the fate of Germany and his family's kingdom when making foreign policy, but he also did quite a bit for England and the monarchy.  He argued with the wrong people, was incredibly strict and did not learn to make allies among the aristocrats but helped his wife win and keep the love of the commoners.  He was a hard-working fish out of water, but also ambitious, power-hungry, and judgmental .  His daughters loved him, his sons had complicated relationships with him.  Overall, he didn't seem like the type of guy that it would be very fun to be around.  His work and efforts helped the Empire, and Albert and Victoria's values reflected the growing middle class.  However, this also means they are also less fun to read about then the people from previous reigns since there are fewer entertaining scandals.
Overall, I would say this book is a good beginning for the subject, and there are a few topics I would like to read more about a few topics as a result now.  The chapter in which Gill addressed hemophilia was particularly of interest as it showed how this dirty secret affected generations of Europeans over the next few years since Victoria's descendants married into just about all the royal families of Europe.  I feel like I still need to read a biography of just Victoria to truly understand what she did since she seemed more like a figurehead in this book, guided by ministers and her spouse.  I'm not sure if I want to spend more time with Albert at this point, though.  He was a bit boring for me.  I've also found a few promising titles on Amazon, one about her three grandsons that were the reigning monarchs during World War I, and the other about her five daughters - Vicky's story in Prussia and as mother to Wilhelm sounds like it would be particularly enlightening.  I also thought the author's style was engaging and very easy to get through for non-fiction, so despite my minor issues with the later half, I would definitely pick up another book by Gill.