Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book 39: The Buffalo Soldier

The Buffalo Soldier by Chris Bohjalian

I first discoverd Bohjalian due to his World War II era novel, Skeletons at the Feast, which is still my favorite of his.  He chooses an entirely different topic for each novel he writes, and these have ranged from a ghost story, a literary look into obsession and behavioral health, a murder-suicide in a small town, and foster parents and adoption in this one.  He has a knack for developing sympathetic yet flawed characters.

The majority of the novel takes place two years after a flood that killed Laura and Terry Sheldon's twin daughters.  They have decided to take in a foster child, and I think they are both a bit surprised when Alfred, a ten year old African American boy, comes to their house.  Alfred is hesitant, but begins to form a bond with his elderly neighbor, first bonding over the story of the buffalo soldiers and then over the horse Paul purchases to take care of during his retirement.  Laura and Alfred also start to slowly bond while Alfred's presence causes doubts in Terry, leading to him having an affair.

As the novel progresses, Bohjalian explores the ideas of family and grief.  In the beginning, Terry seems to think that Lauren is more broken by her grief than he is, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that she has dealt with her loss and is more open to the idea of incorporating Alfred into their family, and moving on.  I quite enjoyed this when I read the novel, and the way Bohjalian juxtaposed Lauren and Terry's reactions to Alfred and some of his habits as a foster child.  It has a been a while since I read this, however, and I'm a bit blurry on some of the specifics.  It is mostly a character driven novel, and like in his other novels, Bohjalian did a very good job of developing their personalities in this quiet story.

Book 38: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

I don't tend to gravitate towards YA fiction but I'm also not that much of a snob to avoid the genre.  In general, if I notice a lot of discussion about a particular book, I'll pick it up, and this especially tends to be the case with YA - I won't seek it out on my own but usually look forward to good recommendations: after all, I loved the Harry Potter series, His Dark Materials trilogy, and more recently The Hunger Games.  Even though I was still a bit skeptical about this one since it seemed to be marketed as fantasy/romance, enough people whose opinions I trust loved this book for me to give it a shot.  I'm so glad I did.  I ended up sitting in Panera for hours until I finished the novel, and then went and picked up the sequel immediately before going home to read it.  And I'm pretty sure I had productive plans for that day, too.

There were so many things I loved about this novel, beginning with the setting - Karou, the heroine, lives in Prague; its rather frank acknowledgement of sexuality (no, there aren't any graphic scenes, but Taylor acknowledges that teens have sex - I don't know why, but for some reason I thought YA novels gloss over that fact; I'll just blame Twilight); the creativity of her world; and the fact that the love story doesn't start to develop till much later and that Karou has very strong motivations for what she does, unrelated to romance.

As the novel begins, Karou, an art student in Prague, is being harrassed by her ex-boyfriend and juggling her life as a student in Prague, and as an errand runner/messenger for a demon named Brimstone.  Brimstone trades in teeth and wishes, ie people bring him teeth and he gives them wishes of different strengths.  Karou occasionally gets irritated with running errands, and also disapproves of the tooth trade (many of the hunters and teeth traders kill animals already on the endangered list).  While she was raised in Brimstone's shop and sees him and his assistants as family, she is also beginning to realize how little she knows and is starting to have more questions.

After being called on an errand prematurely because Brimstone's tooth supply is running low, Karou gets into a fight with an angel while in Morrocco, and notices that the doors to Brimstone's shop in several cities have handprints on them.  As she soon realizes, there is some type of war going on and she is about to be caught up in the middle of it as her family becomes endangered and she is unable to reach or contact them.

The war is between angels and demons, and while the demons have had an entrance into the world for a long time (the gates for the teeth trade), the angels have only recently rediscovered the portals back to the human world.  According to this series, the human ideas of angels come from some random sightings of angels thousands of years ago, but are not very factual.  The demons against whom they are at war are chimera, or several different species of chimera that have bonded together against a common enemy.  Brimstone and his assistants are mixtures of human and animal features, such as Issa, who is part snake/part human.  I'm assuming Taylor drew on Egyptian and Indian traditons for her ideas but the way she puts them together is very original.

While Taylor builds an exciting supernatural world, she also makes sure to give Karou ties to the human world, including a best friend named Zuzana.  In fact, I really liked the fact that Taylor focused almost as much on developing a best friend for Karou as she did the love interest.  As far as the love story goes, in ways, it felt like the weakest part of the story until a reveal towards the end which added a very poignant piece to the story.  While Akiva's motivations and fascination are explored more deeply, it seemed like Karou's feelings and interest in him arose rather quickly.  However, that really was the novel's only possible flaw, and since the novel had so many other strengths, it was hardly noticeable.

Anyway, the novel is incredibly well-written and detailed.  I would love to go into it more but especially when it comes to the angels, I'm a bit hazy on what I learned in this novel vs what I learned in the sequel.  I highly recommend this one - it's an incredibly engaging and creative story.  Just be prepared to start counting down for the third still unpublished novel.

Book 37: The Greatest Show on Earth

To start out, I am an atheist, and I believe in evolution. Even when I still was religious, I never really saw a conflict between the idea of God and science - I think it helps that I don't think I ever really took the Bible completely literally, especially when it came to the creation story - instead, I reconciled the two ideas with "God has a different concept of time, and evolution is how he intended things to happen."  As a result, it has always been a surprise to me how many people argue against evolution because it goes against the Bible rather than any real factual reasons.  Or why people would have a problem with teaching science in school, and religion at home.  So in ways, you could say that Dawkins was preaching to the choir in this book, but unlike The God Delusion he isn't making an argument against God in this one, just an argument for evolution, and it's a good one.  Even though I believe in evolution (it's science, it's fact, how could you not - actually I think the word "believe" is wrong here since evolution isn't a matter of faith - I don't believe that 1+1=2 nor do I believe in gravity; they simply are), I feel like sometimes I have forgotten all the exact arguments so it's good to read these type of books to refresh my memory so I can say more than simply "no one is saying we are descended from apes, only that we have a common ancestor."
For example, very early in the book, Dawkins reminded me of the definition of the word theory as it used in science.  People like to argue against evolution because it still carries the title "theory of evolution" but I had forgotten that when the general population uses the word theory, they are actually using it the same way that scientists would use the word hypothesis.  In science, theory has a much stronger meaning, and is as close as you can get to fact, though it could still theoretically be disproved - even gravity is still a theory in these terms, after all.
Dawkins begins his book with a simple discussion of natural selection and cites several rather recent experiments that show how species adapt to their surroundings as well as using artificial selection on the part of humans to show how certain traits can be bred for in agricultural crops and dog breeds, for example.  There really isn't much to argue about when it comes to natural selection, and from here, Dawkins can branch out to wider topics, showing how natural selection would lead to the development of different species in different areas with the occasional mutation thrown in.  He also cites several examples that disprove the idea of intelligent design that I found rather interesting.  For example, there is a vein or muscle or something that goes from place in the neck to another - except it passes by it and loops back around.  Dawkins argues that if this had been the result of intelligent design this would be a design flaw but with evolution it makes much more sense.  Another example were testicles.  At one point, testicles were inside the body, and at some point dropped outside (this didn't happen overnight).  This is easily seen because the tubing connecting the testicles and the penis have a round about way of connecting instead of taking the straight route.
While he does occasionally harp on a point a bit longer than necessary, it really was a great book explaining all the scientific evidence behind evolution.  As he explains, the fossils, which are some of the things creationists argue with the most, are really just the icing on the cake.  Seeing how similar bone structures are across species, the similarity in DNA structure and how elegantly the idea of natural selection works are actually more than enough to prove evolution.  If anything, the fossils give creationist a red herring to wave around, asking "where's the missing link?"  In fact, every fossil is a link of some type.
One thing I have noticed is that whenever I read books like A Short History of Nearly Everything or The Greatest Show on Earth, I tend to get a little depressed - I realize that species have always gone extinct but reading these books about nature and the world just make it all the more obvious how much humans have screwed with the ecosystem, speeding up extinction for many species.  It makes me wonder what would have happened if humans hadn't evolved the way they had and remained a part of nature, or if we had never evolved at all.  As much as I hate to say this, it seems like maybe the world would have been better off.  Still as long as one avoids existentialist thoughts, this is a great book to learn more about evolution and the scientific facts as well as a nice refresher for when one might need to argue one's stance.

Book 36: The Rook

After seeing several reviews of this novel on other CBR IV blogs, I decided to give it a shot.  I mostly enjoyed the novel though I think parts of the middle dragged a little bit or went one or two tangents more than necessary.  In that way, I think the author may have a few similiarities to Jasper Fforde.  I quite liked The Eyre Affair but felt that one or two novels into the series the books had too much quirk for the sake of quirk.  I could see where O'Malley, too, could fall into this trap but since everyone but me loves the Thursday Next series, that probably wouldn't be a bad thing for him.
As the novel begins, a woman wakes up in a park surrounded by bodies and with no idea who she is.  She finds a letter in her pocket written by herself directing her to get to safety before opening a second letter with a longer explanation.  She is Myfanwy Thomas (rhymes with Tiffany), and right now has a choice - she can go to a bank, open one of two security boxes and disappear forever, or she can open the other box, find out enough about her former life to continue to live it and find out why she is being targeted.  All set to embark on the escape, she is once again attacked, leading Myfanwy to impersonating herself as she must figure out who attacked her and why.
By choosing the second option, Myfanwy discovers that she is the Rook in a supernatural government organization for people with super powers, that she has super powers which she had already noticed during the second attack (she can control other people's bodies - the original Myfanwy could only do it when touching people, but the new version can do it just by being near them - having no memories, she isn't repressing her powers in the same way that Myfanwy appears to have subconsciously done), and that she is such a good administrator that she was promoted ahead of her peers despite her lack of combat skills.  It also meant that she was great at planning for her eventual memory loss after being forewarned from several prophecies and fortune tellers.  As a result, Myfanwy and the reader have a huge reference guide and series of letters explaining the agency and this world to them.  I think it worked great as a way to catch readers up on the world he has created without seeming too much like an information dump.  While Myfanwy learns that her former self was very quiet and a pushover, her letters also reveal quite a sarcastic and acerbic wit, even if she kept those thoughts to herself.  In comparison, the current Myfanwy is a lot more forceful, though she discovers that she shares the organizational skills.
On her first day back to the office, Myfanwy and her agency discover that one of their oldest enemies, long thought vanquished and extinct, are still around and appear to be planning some type of revenge.  Now Myfanwy is facing this extreme threat while also having to discover the mole in her agency that has already targeted her once.  Overall, I thought this was a very engaging story with just the right amount of humor, and I quite liked getting to know both versions of Myfanwy as well as the supporting characters and their powers.  My only complaint is that I enjoyed all the background and the actual work stuff so much that I was a bit distracted by a subplot with Myfanwy's personal life.  Personally, I felt it could have waited till later in the series since it is obvious that this is going to be the first of several novels.  I understand the author's reasoning, I just wasn't a huge fan of the character introduced since I didn't feel like she added much to the plot.  Still, I am definitely looking forward to reading more about the agency, especially since the novel ends in a way that could lead to some major changes in its structure.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book 35: Someone Knows My Name

Spanning several decades and continents, this novel begins in early 19th century England as Aminata Diallo takes a look back on her life.  Born in an West African village, she was a priviledged only child until she was kidnapped by slavers at the age of 11, and sold in South Carolina.  Her mother had been the village's midwife, and fortunately for Aminata, her mother had already started training her before her kidnapping.  Once she reveals these skills to her master, she gains a certain amount of freedom of movement, and gains the attention of a few others in the community as well.  Her second master even allows her to hire herself out as a midwife and continues to teach her to read (an overseer had already taken an interest in her education) so she can maintain his books.  Eventually, she ends up in New York, and works for the British during the Revolutionary War given their promise to free any slaves that work for them.  The British lose the war, and she along with many other freed men and women are given the opportunity to set up a life in Nova Scotia.  Unfortunately, the whites aren't exactly welcoming, and life is incredibly difficult in that colony so once Aminata meets a prominent British abolitionist, she decides to join him in his venture to begin a colony in Sierra Leone.
That is basically the threadbare plot of the novel, but the story is incredibly moving as it chronicles Aminata's life, losses and occasional triumphs.  She loses her parents, is separated from her husband and child, raped by one of her masters and experiences many hardships and yet, she still seems better off than many others - her role as midwife gives her a certain amount of value, so she doesn't experience as many beatings as some others, and doesn't experience quite the same physical hardships as others.  The author uses Aminata's life to showcase many important events that took place during slavery and the evolution of the abolitionist movement, such as her voyage on the middle passage, a slave rebellion, the colonies in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, neither of which was incredibly successful due to a certain lack of resources and the fact that both those places weren't exactly good land for English crops.  I actually read this book a long time ago (it was part of an African American history month display), shortly after finishing Bury the Chains, a nonfiction account of the British abolition movement.  The two pieces are really perfect companion pieces.  While one gives the facts, this novel takes those facts and uses one life to illustrate them.  It is especially interesting because it doesn't just follow the usual slave narrative accounts, but illustrates other parts of history that Americans especially may be less familiar with.  I'd highly recommend this one.

Book 34: The Kitchen House

I feel like I'd looked at this novel and put it back down at least a dozen time over the past year during Barnes and Noble visits.  I guess I felt like it would probably be a good book, but given the subject matter, I also may have felt that it would be retreading familiar territory.  One could argue that telling the novel from the perspective of the Irish indentured servant orphan would put a fresh spin on things but instead it made me think "oh look, another novel about slavery told from the white person's perspective."  I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, while I became very disappointed and irritated with the turn Lavinia's character took in the later half.  I liked most of the characters, though many could fit into certain stereotypes and stock roles.  With one exception, people tend to be good or bad with very little grey.
The novel alternates between Lavinia, the Irish white girl, and Belle, a house slave and daughter of the master, as the narrators, though Belle's chapters are only two or three pages usually, while Lavinia's are much longer.  After Lavinia's parents die on the passage from Ireland to America, Lavinia is separated from her parents, and the man that had the contract for her parents' indentured service takes her and places her in the kitchen house of his plantation.  She basically becomes part of a black family but as she gets older, her skin color starts drawing her more attention from the members of the big house.  Lavinia is intelligent, and the lady of the house takes a certain amount of interest in her, eventually taking her to Philadelphia to live with her sister and niece.  Since Lavinia is a link to his childhood and his home, Marshall, the plantation owner's son who will become the master once he is of a age, takes a certain amount of interest in Lavinia.
Overall, the novel started out good but there were quite a few issues that could have been resolved if the characters had simply talked to each other.  Due to a certain amount of innocence and naivete on Lavinia's part, she doesn't realize a rather crucial piece of information regarding Marshal, Belle and another love interest until almost the end of the novel.  A simple conversation with most of the people in the novel could have cleared it right up.  Another problem is that Lavinia simply doesn't understand the racial issues of the time or her surroundings, and her desire to still treat her black family as family ends up drawing scrutiny on them.  Instead of learning to use her position to help others, she relies on them, lashes out at others, and basically gives up for a large part of the novel.  She was in a bad situation but the few decisions she does make in those times are irritatingly bad, putting others at risk for her.  Another part of the story that is never completely explained is Belle's position on the plantation.  All the slaves know that she is the captain's daughter, but for some reason his wife and his son Marshall believe that Belle is his mistress, resulting in quite a bit of tension and ill treatment for Belle.  I honestly don't know if her treatment would have been worse if they had known that she was his daughter rather than his mistress but it certainly never made sense to me why this misconception was never cleared up, since it certainly would have saved his wife some grief (certainly, I think for the wife knowing someone had a daughter from before they met you would be more bearable than believing they were cheating on you during the marriage).
While for the most part, the bad characters are bad (drunks, child abusers, misogynists) and the good characters are good, Marshall had the potential to be a more complex character.  He certainly had many bad traits, but as the novel progresses it is easy to see how he fell under the bad influences he did, partially due to how his parents neglected him.  Unfortunately by the end, he, too, becomes just stereotypically bad and there is no real opportunity to see anything more complex.  The novel certainly had a promising start, but the last half wasn't nearly as good as the novel deteriorates into a stereotypical soap opera, with the evil husband, the abusive overseer, the crazy Southern woman, and the opium abusing wife.  It's not that I expect novels to have happy endings, but when all the bad things ever happen in a novel, it can become melodramatic.  In this case it certainly took away from the novel because I had a hard time reconciling the Lavinia of the first half of the novel with the one of the second half.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book 33: How to Be an American Housewife

The novel begins as Shoko, an elderly Japanese woman married to an American, reflects on her life, her relationship with her Japanese family members, and her daughter.  Having had a huge falling out with her brother, Shoko now dreams of returning to Japan, and making peace, especially given her current worsening heart problems.  Due to Shoko's illness, her daughter Sue goes in her place and meets the family she never knew.  The first half is narrated by Shoko until Sue takes up the narrative and describes her trip to Japan.  When it comes to these types of dual narratives, I always tend to prefer the older generation to the younger generation.  I don't know if that's because the older generation tends to get to speak first or if the younger characters are just genuinely boring.  Certainly when the reader knows all about their mother, and then reads about the daughter whining about how cold the mom is, it is hard to feel much sympathy.  I think that Those Who Save Us actually started from the perspective of the daughter and I still preferred the mother.  Maybe it's just that there is something about the time periods discussed that make it seem like the older generation actually faced challenges and hardship, while it is hard to feel sympathetic for someone that is simply struggling with day to day life - at least when they are set up as a parallel to someone who faced larger challenges.  Anyway, it was especially pronounced in this case.
While Shoko's story wasn't anything new, and seems to be rather typical of narratives involving Asian women assimilating to the West in general, I quite enjoyed her story.  Her life in the United States ended up being a bit disappointing and simple given the promise she had shown in the beginning and the opportunities she thought she had.  Still, she doesn't seem to have any complaints, but has accepted her life, and also knows that whatever her husband's shortcomings may be (lack of ambition), he is kind, loving and forgiving.  There is certainly a generation gap between her and her children; basically it's all the normal stuff that shows up in these narratives but Shoko still comes off as a sympathetic character.
Unfortunately, her daughter's side of the story adds little. Her daughter, a precocious tween, is annoying and loud while Sue is timid and stuck in a job she dislikes.  Their trip to Japan just reads as unrealistic and ludicrous.  Helena is loud and obnoxious for most of the trip, Sue apparently doesn't know how airports work, and their plan seemed to have been to go to the last known address of one realitve and track them down from there (Shoko and her now deceased sister had stayed in touch - I would figure somebody could have made a phone call at some point).  It just all seemed too nicely wrapped up, everybody spoke English so Sue didn't even have to rely on her broken Japanese, and they all get along.  I guess this could count as a spoiler, but really the last half of the book was just not well written, and it's not like people read these books for the surprise - they are books about relationships.  Even the "secret" the backcover alludes to is revealed in the first half of the book, or earlier.
Basically, if this had just been Shoko's story, I would have enjoyed this novel though it was similar to many other coming to America stories/mother-daughter stories.  However, the last half written from Sue's perspective soured me on the novel.  There was no drama once she took over, and she and her daughter were not appealing characters.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Book 32: So Much For That

I really enjoyed Shriver's previous novels, We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World, though enjoyed is probably not the right word to describe Kevin given the subject matter.  Her characters are not easy to like, but generally their motivations and actions are rather understandable.  I really loved The Post-Birthday World which has a similar concept as the film Sliding Doors, looking at two different routes a life could have taken based on one action or decision.  The main character of So Much for That is Shep Knacker, a man that has long dreamed of leaving the rat race, and using his nest egg to live in luxury in a third world country.  After pushing it off for years, he has decided it is time to stop delaying because he is afraid if he keeps waiting, he will never do it.  After confronting his wife Glynis with his decision, she tells him that she has been diagnosed with a very rare cancer, mesothelioma, generally caused by exposure to asbestos.  Shep, of course, feels like he has no choice but to stay behind and care for his wife during her treatment, and due to the cheap medical insurance he has through work, he watches his nest egg dwindle over the course of his wife's treatment.
Being a character in a Lionel Shriver novel, Glynis is not very likable - she is hard, she is demanding and unforgiving.  Her terminal illness doesn't make her any easier; she doesn't suddenly become this sweet person that wants to make amends with everyone.  Part of this is because Glynis firmly believes she will beat this cancer, that she can survive, and she refuses to look at the prognosis, not that her doctor gives her one beyond low, instead tending to focus on the positives.  Many of the other characters aren't much more likeable, such as Shep's sister Beryl, an entitled documentary maker who expects everyone else, ie her brother, to support her.  Shriver makes several good points about the Catch 22s people find themselves in when it comes to health care, retirement and other large systems and institutions.  While I don't completely agree with many of the characters' points, they are definitely a good starting point for discussions.  The other thing I quite enjoyed, and is something that has come up in other articles as well, is her discussion of cancer.  Cancer isn't framed as a regular disease - it is framed as something that is battled, and people that recover are labeled survivors - as Barbara Ehrenreich points out in "Welcome to Cancerland", using that type of language makes it seem like a failure on the part of the sufferer when they don't survive, not as the sometimes inevitable fate when faced with mortal illness.  Even Siddhartha Mukherjee discusses this in The Emperor of Maladies - there have been cases in the past, and presumably present, when treatment was given not because there was any real expectation that it would work, but because it would make it feel like they (the doctors and the patient) were still fighting it.  However, it is hard to ask the question - how much is a life worth?  Where is the limit, and for what?  Are a few months longer worth millions of dollars in treatment, especially when those months are spent suffering the side effects of chemo?  As a society, we seem unable to face death, and do not even know how to interact with it.  Glynis and Shep's friends all dwindle and become scarce despite grand declarations and offers to help because as Shep later hypothesizes they aren't prepared for a long, slow death.  After grand statements and attempts to set things right, there is nothing left to say even if the friend may still be alive for several months.
Besides the Knackers, the other main characters are the Burdina couple, Jackson and Carol.  The Burdinas have long been dealing with the complexities of the health care system and insurance due to their oldest daughter's degnerative genetic condition.  It actually took me a while to really get into this novel, and it wasn't because the characters were somewhat dislikable - I was expecting that.  There were a few times, especially in the beginning where I felt the novel was too preachy.  For a large part of the novel, the characters felt less like people and more like mouthpieces and types.  Jackson especially would go on repeated page long rants about the moochers (obviously people benefitting from others' work) and the mugs (the people dumb enough to work and support the moochers), and it made the novel a bit tiring at first.  However, as I said, some interesting discussion points where raised, especially later in the novel, when the novel stopped having the large rants, and instead showed small moments and short conversations between characters.  Basically, it's a rough start, but I'd still recommend it - however, if someone hasn't read this author before, this isn't the novel to start with.  Having recently read The Emperor of Maladies, I also thought this worked as a follow up, showing the topic from an entirely different point of view.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book 31: The Girl With No Shadow

The Girl With No Shadow is a sequel to the author's novel, Chocolat, although sometimes it reads more like a sequel to the film that was based on the novel.  While it wasn't a bad book, I disliked where Vianne Rocher had ended up - after all, Chocolat ends on such a positive note, with Vianne having overcome her fear of the Black Man, that it is disappointing to see her here, trying to hide behind normalcy.  While the author eventually reveals the backstory about what led to her decision, it still seemed out of character, and not quite convincing enough.

Set over four years after the events of Chocolat, Vianne and her daughters Anouk and Rosette are living in the Parisian Montmartre district, running a chocolate shop.  Vianne now goes by Yanne Charbonneau, Anouk is Annie, and the chocolates are no longer home-made, but bought and resold.  The store is struggling, and Vianne is in a relationship with the stable Thierry le Tresset, her landlord.  While Thierry seems to love his idea of Vianne or Yanne, it also becomes clear that he likes the idea of himself as the knight in white armor who comes to rescue the damsel in distress since he seems less than excited when Vianne starts needing him less and the store turns around.  Of course, as the reader knows, Zozie de L'Alba, the woman that helps turn the store around is not a trustworthy character, and Vianne should have a few doubts about her motivations.  Given events that occured after Chocolat, and around the time of Rosette's birth, Vianne has decided not to use any type of magic, and shields her children from it.  As a result, she also does not notice that Zozie uses magic symbols to entice people in the chocolate shop and to help the business along.  Since Vianne avoids the subject, Anouk becomes fascinated with Zozie, seeing in her a reminder of their time in Lansquenet which Anouk still remembers fondly.

I think one of the things that made Chocolat the stronger novel is that while the priest was set up as the antagonist, he wasn't clearly described as evil.  He simply had a very set belief structure, and was trying to work within that.  Zozie is set up as charming and seductive, but from the very beginning it is clear that she doesn't just use magic to make her life easier - she also uses it for spiteful and vengeful purposes.  The first chapter she describes how easy it is to pretend to be other people, and how the dead continue to receive mail, making it easy to steal their identities.  If it had simply stayed with the idea that Zozie makes her living via credit card fraud and small time scams, it would have made for a more nuanced novel, but it quickly becomes clear that there is something much more sinister behind her actions and motivations.  Anouk becomes fascinated with the woman and while it is understandable, it is also frustrating given the readers' additional knowledge and Vianne's blindness to the situation.

Earlier I mentioned that this novel felt more like a sequel to the film than to the novel.  The reason for this is based entirely on the portrayal of the character Roux.  Since I read the book after having seen the film a few times, as soon as Roux showed up in Chocolat, I was waiting for his relatonship with Vianne to start, and kept reading romantic intentions into their interactions.  However, Vianne describes Roux as a good man that she wouldn't be able to treat fairly, and also firmly believes that Roux and her friend Josephine are the lovers that keep showing up in her tarot card readings.  While she and Roux hook up one night, to Vianne it is simply part of the moment, and she hopes it will not interfere with his developing relationship with Josephine.  In fact, by the end of Chocolat, he has moved into Josephine's cafe.  While I wonder if perhaps there was more romantic tension than Vianne wanted to admit to that Harris then builds on in this novel, in my opinion, the fact that Roux suddenly becomes such a huge character has much more to do with the film version and the fact that he was portrayed by Johnny Depp (back before Johnny Depp started really not being able to dress himself in public).  Reading the novel, one could easily believe that Vianne and Roux had a relationship but that Vianne ended up opting out because Roux wasn't stable enough.  If anything, Chocolat's Vianne didn't think she was stable enough, and she saw Roux as a brief encounter that led to her daughter Rosette.  I can buy them staying in touch, but this whole idea of Roux suddenly being the love of Vianne's life and vice versa?  That relationship simply wasn't present in the previous novel.  Of course, this isn't the first time a novel sequel has been influenced by a film adaption.  After all, Jurassic Park's sequel was narrated by a character that had died in the novel but survived in the film (the character states he was only temporarily dead or mostly dead).

Overall, this wasn't a bad novel but it didn't have the same appeal as the prequel.  It may have worked better as a stand-alone novel since then the reader wouldn't feel the disappointment about where Vianne has ended up and could instead view it as a novel about temptation and mother-daughter relationships.  The other thing is that while this novel also contains a large cast of customers and community, none of these characters have nearly as much personality or impact as the assorted cast of extras in Chocolat.  The only characters that really seem developed are the three rotating narrators of Vianne, Anouk and Zozie.  I am still curious to read the sequel since it takes Vianne back to Lasquenet, the village from Chocolat.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book 30: The Haunting of Maddy Clare

This was one of those novels that is better while reading it than when it is viewed in retrospect.  Once I started it, I was quickly hooked, and spent the afternoon at Panera until I had finished it.  However, it is only a few days later, and I'm already forgetting the names of most of the characters.  Sarah Piper, the novel's narrator, works at a temp agency, and Allistair Gellis, a ghost hunter, hires her as an assistant for a case he is working.  Though he already has an assistant, Matthew Ryder, Sarah is necessary because the ghost he is currently investigating does not like men, and the home's owner insists that he can only come investigate if there is a woman present.
While Sarah questions the idea of ghosts, her doubt is swept away almost as soon as she reaches the village and has her first interaction with Maddy.  Mrs. Clare had found Maddy when she was about 12, brutally beaten, covered in mud, unable to speak and given her shelter.  For some reason, she killed herself after living with Mrs. Clare and her housekeeper for seven years, and now haunts the barn where she hung herself.  While Allistair is mostly interested in the manifestation of the ghost, Matthew and Sarah realize they need to know the backstory to truly understand this case, and begin to solve the mystery of where Maddy came from and what happened to her.  Maddy connects with Sarah (though this is a frightening thing for Sarah), and gives her clues and visions about what happened to her.  The twists and answers are rather obviously choreographed, but the writing was compelling enough for me to wonder if maybe there was an extra twist I didn't see coming (there wasn't), and to wonder when the characters would catch up.
However, I think the beginning of the novel was more interesting, and by the end, the stakes really didn't seem that high - Maddy ends up possessing Allistair, and Matthew and Sarah are in a rush to save him, but something about it just didn't quite seem that compelling or even necessary - I wanted them to solve the mystery for the sake of solving the mystery and helping Maddy, and really didn't care too much about Allistair one way or the other.  A large piece of the plot is also devoted to a developing romance between Sarah and Matthew.  It's not necessarily the most frightening ghost story told, nor that memorable, but it mostly holds together while reading it.  However, in retrospect, there wasn't necessarily that much to it, and it certainly didn't break any new ground.  Basically, it's a popcorn movie version of a novel.

Book 29: The Snow Child

I absolutely adored this novel.  Set in 1920s Alaska, it follows the story of Mabel and Jack, a middle aged couple who uprooted their lives and moved to Alaska a year before.  Used to farming in the continental United States, the two weren't quite prepared for the hardships they would face, and have also lost the ability to communicate with each other.  Mabel pictured them working together, sharing their triumphs and losses, while Jack still feels the need to protect Mabel and shield her from the worst of it.  Mabel and Jack married later in life, and Mabel was from a more well-to-do background, hence Jack's need to prove himself worthy.  Though both wanted children, the one pregnancy they had ended early with a stillborn child.  As a result, Mabel felt that Alaska would be the answer for them - she wanted to start over, fresh, away from the well meaning pity and sympathy of the family.  However, things are not going as well as Mabel had hoped.
One night, however, it snows, and Mabel and Jack end up having an odd night of fun, rather out of character for both, and they build a snow girl together.  The next morning, the two of them find their snow girl destroyed but both start seeing glimpses of an actual girl in the woods.  The girl hunts with a fox, seems completely untouched by the cold, and survives in the wilderness.  Slowly, the girl and the couple begin to build a relationship with each other.  Mabel, remembering an old Russian fairy tale, believes that Faina, the name the girl eventually gives them, is that snow girl come to live.  Certainly, the girl's timing coincides with that idea as she leaves with the snow and winter and comes back again after first snowfall.  Jack is more practical and believes Faina is a real girl, but either way, her presence brings a certain amount of anticipation and joy to their lives.  Mabel rediscovers her passion for drawing, and finally writes home to the family she left behind.
At the same time, due to Jack's visits to town, he becomes friendly with a local family, and despite Mabel's initial wish to avoid others, the two families begin to spend time with each other.  Esther and George have already established themselves in Alaska, and are more than willing to share advice, resources and their time to help their neighbors during hardship.  The harsh climate and gorgeous scenery of Alaska are beautifully described, practically serving as a character, and the whole novel has a bit of an other world feel to it.  While Ivey seems to answer the question regarding whether Faina is a snow girl or a real girl, she leaves it open enough that there is room for interpretation and the answer is not completely straightforward.  The development of the relationship between Jack and Mabel is well done, and seems very realistic, since it has its up and downs even after things begin to improve for them.  While the novel has its touches of magic realism, it reads as a very realistic exploration of relationships, not just of humans with each other, but also with nature and their environment.  Given the setting, it really seems like the perfect book to read during the winter with a cup of hot chocolate as the characters all slowly draw the reader in.  In fact, simply writing about the novel makes me want to read it again, or pick up a Jack London novel.

Book 28: Live by Night

Dennis Lehane may very well be one of my favorite authors, and I always look forward to his novels.  While I started reading his thrillers and mysteries, I also loved The Given Day, which was historical fiction (though it still focused on cops and crime).  I was very excited to see that he had written another historical fiction novel, though I was surprised to see that this one would be leaving his usual turf of Boston, and take place partially in Florida.  While I loved The Given Day, it has been a long time since I read it, so I didn't even realize until almost halfway through that this was one of those sequels that isn't a sequel.  The main character, Joe, is the little brother of the main character from The Given Day (I didn't remember his last name and therefore didn't make the connection until he actually showed up in the novel for a brief scene).
While his father is a police officer, and his older brother was one, Joe has chosen to make his living on the other side of the law.  He is mostly involved in petty crimes, but as the novel begins, the crime world in Boston is about to experience some major transitions and upheaval.  Joe's been loosely attached to one crime syndicate, and White, a former cop turned gangster, has decided to consolidate power and take over Boston.  Since White and Joe are both in love (or lust) with the same woman, and on opposing sides, things quickly turn bad for Joe, ending up with him in jail in Charlestown.  In order to survive, Joe must make questionable alliances that eventually lead to his placement as a mob boss in Tampa, Florida, working out of the Ybor section of town.
While Joe likes to think of himself as an outlaw rather than a gangster, as time progresses and he becomes more powerful, he realizes that that statement is no longer accurate due to the compromises he has made.  While the novel starts with Joe as a young man that holds up a card game, it soon becomes a much more sweeping story, involving mob warfare, bootlegging, and empire building.  There's even interactions with Cuban freedom fighters and revolutionaries once Joe establishes himself in Florida.  Overall, while Lehane touches on a broad spectrum of issues and historical events, it felt like a lighter read than The Given Day, more of a thoughtful fast paced ride while The Given Day explored a few issues more deeply.  There is also a sideplot regarding Joe's relationship with a police chief in Tampa.  While it begins from a position of mutual respect, Joe ends up using questionable means to justify the ends, even admitting to himself that he acted that way because it was easier and faster.  Unlike some of his peers, Joe is better at long term planning, and this too helps him remain successful.  While there are few moments where Joe's luck just seems a bit too good and some of the situations seem almost too crazy, Joe is an easy character to root for, and I was more than willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of being swept along with the story.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Book 27: Chocolat

Chocolat by Joannne Harris

As much as I like the movie, I never even realized it was a book until recently. Harris has written a sequel (actually, a third novel in a series now) to Chocolat, and the fact that the novel is related to Chocolat has naturally been prominantly printed on all the copies of Peaches for Father Francis. Since I was so used to the idea of this novel as a movie, it was of course rather difficult to separate the two while reading the novel.

For the most part, the movie is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the novel. I mean, Johnny Depp doesn't have red hair, and the novel has a darker undertone than the movie ever reached, but other than that, and the addition of one small subplot in the film (the dog owner does not start a late in life romance in the book, unfortunately), it was basically the same story.

My view may have been influenced by the film in this as well, but the novel seems incredibly timeless. When reading about life in a small village in France, dealing with changes and outside influences, it is so easy to imagine the story taking place in the '50s or '60s, but later, it becomes clears that the novel is in fact set in a much more modern time frame given references to certain technology.
For anyone that hasn't seen the film, the novel tells the story of Vianne Rocher and her young daughter Anouk who move to a small village at the beginning of Lent and open a chocolate shop. Vianne soon gets on the village priest's radar who believes that she is a bad influence due to the fact that she doesn't go to church, and that her chocolates are an unwanted temptation during Lent season. While it seems like the novel covers a much longer time period, it actually takes place between Lent and Easter.
While the priest, Francis Reynaud, discourages the community from visiting her, her friendly attitude and spirit attract many of the villagers, especially the outcasts, that have not felt welcomed by the unbending piety of Reynaud. This includes Guillame, an elderly retired man who is incredibly attached to his aging dog; Armande, an old woman who refuses to go to church, is in a bit of a feud with her daughter, and has knowledge about the priest that no one else remembers (portrayed by Judi Denche in the film); and Josephine, a kleptomaniac whose husband beats her, something that the community laments but ignores. There are a few other villagers as well, but these are the main ones that develop friendships with Vianne. In addition to their disagreement about chocolate and Lent, the priest and Vianne also challenge each other in their treatment of the boat people or "gypsies" that pass through the village.
The chapters alternate between Vianne and the priest's perspectives. Just like the movie, the novel doesn't completely villanize the priest, but shows him as someone who feels his way of life threatened, and based on their preconceived notions, Vianne and Francis do occasionally misinterpret each other's intentions. Still, the film version of the priest was more sympathetic (I'm sure the actor had something to do with that as well). Also, while the film implies that there is something magical about Vianne and her daughter, for the most part, they are simply treated as having a different, more bohemian life style. The novel straddles this line as well, but gives more credence to the idea that Vianne is a witch. Certainly her mother (there is a lot more back story in the novel) believed that she was a witch even if Vianne chose to focus on a more material type of life, and chose to make chocolates and foods rather than spells.
I definitely enjoyed the novel, and look forward to reading the rest of the novels in the series, and exploring the rest of the author's books. I'll also definitely watch the movie again soon - since I'd already seen the film, I was imagining all the actors in the novel. They really did get a great cast for the film adaptation.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Never Thought I'd be Defending 50 Shades of Grey

I saw this link on a blog yesterday, and had reactions that couldn't quite be summed up in a Facebook link, so I figured I'd actually write something that is slightly book-related but not a book review.  Basically, a women's shelter asked for donations of 50 Shades of Grey so they could burn them in a bonfire.  Once they received them, they decided to dispose of them in a different way (they appear to be considering using them as toilet paper).  I've never read 50 Shades of Grey, I don't really plan on reading the novel or the trilogy, but I have read a few different things about it online.  When it comes down to it, I think 50 Shades of Grey is probably horribly written, unrealistic, and ridiculous.  If the shelter were somehow receiving donations of the novels, I would entirely understand their desire to get rid of them - I'm not sure if abused women really need to be reading inaccurate and badly portrayed S&M.  However, the shelter went out of their way to request copies of this book so they could burn them because they are "horrible for women" (paraphrase).  And that just rubs me the wrong way - yes, I have on occasion felt the desire to throw a book in a fire or the trash because it was that horribly written, and I have the feeling this might be one of those that would cause that type of reaction in me - but calling for a public book burning?  When has that ever been a good idea?  Also, who are you to tell me what is or isn't good for me when it comes to reading choices?
Now from what I understand, 50 Shades of Grey's portrayal of BDSM (Bondage Discipline Sadism Masochism) is less than accurate of what actually accurs in those types of communities (other articles, not personal experience).  I think there is definitely a lot of discussion that could be done about the ideas of consent, female fantasy and sexuality, and BDSM using this series as a starting point, and discussing where it gets it wrong vs how maybe it does do it right, by at least acknowledging that women are sexual and aren't necessarily interested in plain old vanilla.  I can also understand the possibly misguided desire to protect women who have been in abusive relationships from reading these novels and possibly being reminded of bad, nonconsensual experiences.  However, when it comes down to it, BDSM on its own is not abusive.  Domestic violence is not the same thing as practicing S&M.  While the quote is out of context, one of the shelter's representatives describes the "themes of S&M" as vile.  Somehow, I don't get the impression from that quote that she is trying to say that the portrayal is inaccurate and therefore vile; instead it gives the impression that she is judging the life style, and mistakenly demonizes it as leading to or being part of a cycle of abuse.
Basically, I'm all for mocking badly written novels, and using them as a means to open discussion.  However, don't call for a public book burning, and don't demonize people's sexual preferences because you disagree with them.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Book 26: Sister Queens

I admit, while I've read a few books about Henry VIII, his wives and the Tudors in general, my favorite has always been Anne Boleyn.  Even though Katherine was married to Henry longer than the other five wives combined, she just seemed boring to me - too religious, too pious, too self-righteous.  I also knew very little about Juana since she is only mentioned in passing if those books even bring her up.  I had attempted to read a fictional account of her life recently but it was so boring that I stopped midway through.  However, it made me more interested in the reality of Juana's life, and the idea of examining these two sisters side by side appealed to me.  It helps that I read a book called Victoria's Daughters last year, which talked about Queen Victoria's five daughters, their lives and influence on European politics.  In that way, Victoria and Isabella have at least one thing in common - both seemed to have had a ton of children and grandchildren through whom they ended up having relatives in dynasties throughout Europe (Juana and her six children were actually a key part of that in Isabella's case).
While Juana outlived Katherine by several years, there is also much less documentation on Juana and her life, so the book is primarily focused on Katherine.  Given that the two women only saw each other once after they each sailed to their respective future husbands and countries, this book isn't about their relationship - instead it shows the different challenges these women faced, and how their personalities and upbringing affected their reactions and the outcomes.  I definitely gained a new found respect for Katherine after reading this.  In a book with her as the subject matter, she no longer seems like the overly pious, boring woman that occasionally seems to come across in other Tudor histories compared to whom Anne Boleyn appears exciting and sparkling.  Fox shows that Katherine learned the political game early, and that she did in fact have a temper.  Of course, she had her flaws - she kept grudges, and once her opinion was formed regarding a person, it rarely changed.  She sometimes misjudged people.  While she saw herself as the English queen and her number one loyalty was with her husband, she also still felt ties to Spain which sometimes would affect how she wanted foreign policy to proceed.
Juana, on the other hand, seems much more naive than Katherine despite her status as the older sister.  All sources seem to agree that Juana and Philip, her husband, had an intense physical connection at the beginning, but Philip was a philanderer, so their bliss wouldn't last.  Unlike Katherine, who quickly learned to turn a blind eye her husband's infidelities (Anne was far from the first), Juana let her temper get the better of her.  Fox argues that Juana wasn't actually mad, but that certain behaviors of hers were cast as the behavior of a madwoman so the men in her life could justify pushing her to the side (or locking her up, more accurately) and ruling in her name.  Personally, I think it is a convincing argument.  Juana was supposed to be third in the line of succession for Spain but due to various deaths, she became the queen of Castile (Isabella was the ruler of Castile, and Ferdinand, who outlived his famous wife, the ruler of Aragon).  While I don't think Juana was mad, she was also not at all prepared for this status: while Isabella ensured that her daughters were well-educated, they were still mostly groomed to be consorts, not the rulers themselves.  While Katherine ended up picking up enough of the political game while waiting to marry Henry after Arthur's death to be formidable, Juana doesn't seem to have ever quite gotten it.  She didn't understand the complexities of certain situations, trusted the wrong people, and then, unable to get her way, she would throw tantrums, which would then be used as a sign of her madness.  It also doesn't help that neither of these women married men that were looking for an equal partnership, as Ferdinand and Isabella's relationship had been (in fact, given that Isabella brought more territory into the alliance/marriage, she could arguably be seen as the senior partner).  While Henry VIII would turn to his wife for advice in the beginning of their marriage, once others, such as Woolsey, had proven their worth, he became less interested in her as a political partner.  Philip never seems to have had any desire for a partnership with Juana, and early on, her household was dictated by him, leaving her more or less surrounded with strangers in a foreign land.
While Juana's failures were a combination of a sexist society and her own lack of political cunning on most occasions, Katherine's downfall was due to her inability to bear a heir.  Ironically, this was one thing Juana was very successful at.  If Katherine had born Henry the heir he so wanted and desired, Anne Boleyn would have probably been yet another on a list of conquests but since Anne could entice him with the idea that she could bear him the son he wanted, he parted with the church.  Katherine fought tooth and nail to maintain her status as Henry's wife, and the book lists three reasons for this: she truly believed that their marriage was just and right, she didn't want to jeopardize her daughter's future, and she felt like the attack on her marriage was an attack on the church since it questioned a dispensation already granted by a previous pope.  The ironic and tragic piece here is that in Katherine's desire to defend her faith, and seeing her marriage and her faith as interlinked, she actually probably ended up hurting her church much more than if she had simply agreed with Henry and let the annulment be granted.  If Henry had received the annulment he wanted, he probably never would have declared himself head of the church and split with the pope, despite Anne's own more protestant leanings.  Maybe he would have let Anne influence him, but I doubt it would have been nearly as drastic as what happened just so Henry could get his way.
One reason I am so willing to believe the idea that Juana wasn't mad and instead was simply not prepared to be a ruler and easily manipulated is because it reminds me of another queen that would appear on the scene in that same century: Mary, Queen of Scots.  While the situations aren't exactly the same, and no one ever doubted Mary's sanity, only her judgement, there is a bit a of a parallel. Neither woman was at all prepared for the turns that her life would take, both being groomed for the roles of consort rather than ruler, and both ended up making bad judgement calls (at least when Juana had the opportunity to make decisions), eventually leading to their imprisonment.  Both, however, fulfilled their duties in providing heirs, and Mary's son would become the king of Scotland and England, while Juana's son also followed her to her throne (both of these sons were also rather ambivalent about their mothers and showed no desire to see their mothers released from their prisons).
I highly recommend this book.  It made me see Katherine of Aragon in a new light, and it also revealed some of Juana's story, which is of course difficult given that she spent over half her life imprisoned, and either didn't write or wasn't allowed access to writing material.  Katherine, on the other hand, is incredibly well documented, and I quite enjoyed reading about her as compared to her sister, and in relation to her family background rather than in comparison to Henry's other wives.  I think occasionally the author tried to tie the sisters together more than she needed to.  Especially towards the end there were a few comments along the lines of "it's not clear if this sister knew of her sister's situation" or "she may have thought of her sister" but other than that slightly forced attempt to incorporate the sisters into each other's lives, I thought the book was great.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book 25: A Meeting at Corvallis

It is rather unfortunate that a series with such an interesting premise ended up becoming so repetitive and boring.  I definitely don't regret reading the trilogy/series, but I am relieved it is over.  The previous novel, The Protector's War, chronciled all the events leading to war, and in this novel the war actually takes place.  The novel begins with Juniper Mackenzie and Mike Havel attempting to form an official alliance or treaty with the other communities, including the city of Corvallis that would basically call up the other communities to go to war if attacked by another community.  Juniper and Mike believe that due to their proximity to the Protectorate they have basically already been fighting for Corvallis's safety without any support or additional man power.  However, there is a minor political incident, so the Bearkillers and Mackenzies don't get their wish at this point, but they know a war is coming.
The communities prepare for war against the Protectorate and eventually fight, using ambushes and tactics to win against larger forces (while this would obviously work once or twice, I'm not sure it would work every single time like it did here . . . ).  I think part of the problem is not that Stirling is unwilling to kill off his heroes (though many of them do tend to have a knack for survival), but the fact that some of them are so annoying or flat that I don't care if they die (and for some, I may have even preferred their death to their self-righteous musings).  The other issue, and it is one that I addressed regarding the previous novel as well, is that Stirling just can't stop repeating himself and hammering things into the reader's head.  There is a fine line between giving a recap to jog people's memories and treating them like idiots.  Stirling basically writes as if his reader remembers nothing at all about the previous novels, or as if he is writing for the few people that accidentally started the trilogy with the third novel.  I completely understand getting repetitions of basic character outlines, but I don't think minor anecdotes necessarily need to be repeated every single time, such as how Juney inherited the farm, or how Havel, though of Finnish background, has a Czech name.  Sometimes it's nice to treat the reader with some respect.  Given that, I actually find it incredibly odd that Eilir keeps thinking that it's ridiculous that 24 year old Astrid is a virgin even though in Dies the Fire, Astrid was almost raped and then had to watch her would-be rapist brutally kill her mother (granted she may have not shared all the details with her best friend).  I'm sure I would have some sexual hang ups after that, too.  Yet that entire incident seems to be almost forgotten while Stirling keeps reminding us about non-essential things like Mike's last name?
Stirling introduced a few new characters in this one, showing even more from the Protectorate's side than previously.  I mostly enjoyed Tiphaine, one of Sandra Arminger's assassins, though she was a bit much at times, and actually quite liked Sandra Arminger, the Protector's wife.  It was kind of nice to have a character that was intelligent, cunning and not quite so sanctimonious and good.  She does things for her own self interest and because she likes being in power rather than talking about the gods and nature and spouting Gaelic sayings all the time.  This novel is better than The Protector's War, and the addition of the new characters certainly helped; unfortunately, I just couldn't get myself to care that much about Juniper Mackenzie or the Dunedain Rangers that much (apparently, Americans speaking Gaelic and Elvish irritate me), and they took up a large part of the novel as well.

Book 24: The Last Letter from Your Lover

I was actually very pleasantly surprised by this novel.  I was looking for a light read, because otherwise the title and description would have probably driven me off (even though I really liked the cover photo).  Dual narrative novels seem to be rather popular, and sometimes, they are very well done.  Usually, however, one of the narratives, usually the one set in the past, is much stronger, and the second narrative in fact detracts from the story (Sarah's Key is a prime example).  This isn't completely untrue in this novel, either, but fortunately the one narrative is very strong, and the secondary narrative is not so weak as to take away from that.  In fact, the secondary narrative was probably closer to that light novel I thought I was getting, while the primary narrative was a moving love story.
The other thing that helps this novel's dual narrative is that it isn't done in the traditional manner of alternating between past and present day occurences - the modern story doesn't even begin until the novel is over halfway through.  The novel begins in a hospital room in 1960.  The patient, Jennifer Stirling, has been in a car accident, and doesn't remember her life, her husband or who she is.  Upon her release, she tries to reconnect with her old life, and remember who she is, but she doesn't feel comfortable.  Additionally, her family and friends seem to be expect her to just act normally again, adding to her pressure to remember and to pretend that she does.  While trying to rediscover herself, she stumbles upon a love letter signed "B," thus realizing that she had been involved in an extramarital affair.  She isn't completely sure how she feels about this and her deception, but she is soon looking for answers to the man's identity and the passionate love affair the letter testifies to.  At this point, the narrative flashes back and forth between Jennifer, and a reporter named Anthony who meets her while doing a story on the French Riviera.
Eventually the narrative moves forward to the present with a few stops along the way, and Ellie, a young journalist, stumbles upon one of the letters while doing research for an article.  Ellie has been acting as the other woman in an extramarital affair, and quickly feels a connection to the mysterious letters.  This affair has also caused her to be incredibly distracted and careless, so that this article may very well be the key to keeping her job.  Ellie is not necessarily very easy to like, not even because of the affair, but due to how stupidly she acts because of it, ditching friends, work etc for last minute meet ups.  While it was easy to feel sympathy for Jennifer, Ellie was a bit too self absorbed, and let the affair control her life.  I guess that when it comes down to it I'm really not that much of a romantic because I don't think I could ever imagine letting myself become unreliable and incompetent due to a relationship.  Fortunately, while Ellie isn't exactly that great, she is only in the last part of the novel, and her research does lead to some answers regarding the fate of Jennifer and B.
As I said above, it's definitely a much stronger and better novel than I would have expected from the title, and Jennifer's story is definitely good enough to make it worth the read.  While Ellie isn't an entirely sympathetic character and some things about her seriously bugged me, I don't think her presence weakens the novel.  In fact her story shows just how extraordinarily rare the type of passion Jennifer and B experience actually is. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Book 23: Dark Echo

I picked this one up based on Siege's review and I wasn't disappointed.  Martin is the narrator for the majority of the story, and his rich, successful father has recently announced his retirement to focus on his goal: sail the recently bought Dark Echo across the Atlantic to the United States.  While Martin and his father don't not get along, they aren't necessarily very close: Martin's comparatively sheltered life  has meant that he hasn't had to work as hard as his father, so his father has a hard time relating, and Martin feels he is a disappointment to his father.  As a result, he accepts his father's invitation to join him on his maiden voyage.  Between all the prep work the two men have to do to become competent sailors, and the restorations on the 80 year old ship, Martin has six months to prepare himself for this trip, and to start feeling trepidation.  As it turns out, there is something off about the ship, and its original owner, Harry Spalding, also doesn't seem to be all that meets the eye.  The official story is that he was an American playboy that hung out with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, before killing himself.  However, it quickly turns out that there is a dark side to all of this.
Suzanne, Martin's live in girlfriend, is a researcher for BBC documentaries working on a piece on Michael Collins.  However, she too starts to feel the weird vibes coming from the Dark Echo and finds time to do research on the ship, and its owner.  Mishaps and accidents at the boatyard slow down the reparation, but Martin's father is undeterred.  Cottam eventually weaves a tight background story, and it is obvious from the beginning that Spalding is evil since the novel starts out with a mysterious raid on a cathedrale during World War I.  Spalding was in charge of an elite and savage troop during the war, and their story ties into Spalding's history and flirtations with the dark.
I quite enjoyed the background story that Cottam developed for this novel, and how it slowly builds up.  I actually was more interested in the events that had happened in the past than the present day parts of the novel concerning the ship, but it was very well plotted.  It seems like ghost stories often just loose their steam somewhere, and I definitely don't think that applies in this case.  As much as I enjoyed the story, I wasn't really that scared.  I was hoping for a nice spooky story for Halloween (especially since I was too chicken to see Sinister by myself), and while it was a nice, moody story, I also wasn't jumping at shadows after reading it.  It may have helped if I'd read it at night.

Book 22: Joss Whedon

While in college, I wrote a paper on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for my "Girls and Culture" class, and a paper on prostitution in Firefly/Serenity for my Gender Studies senior seminar.  Obviously, I've read a few critical pieces on Whedon already, but I was still excited about this book.  As it says above, it focuses on all his work, including comics, Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog as well as the usual suspects.  Though it was compiled last year, it even includes short articles on The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers, though these obviously deal less with analysis of at the time unseen pieces, and instead basically mention their existence, and Joss Whedon's skill at working with ensembles.
Overall, I definitely enjoyed reading the analysis, and the different articles.  I especially enjoyed the analysis on Dollhouse, and certain aspects of Angel since most of the analysis I've read so far has focused on Buffy.  As a result, I quite enjoyed reading perspectives on these other works of Whedon.  The editor tried to give voice to a large range of readings, and while this definitely was nice, it also left me wanting more since several articles were a bit short.  There were also a few articles that were drawing conclusions before I even knew what they were trying to argue.  Overall though, it was a good collection and nice intro to the analysis of Whedon.  I wasn't quite as interested in some of the articles that dealt less with the text and more with the behind scenes work.  It is not that some of that wasn't good to know, it just didn't grab me in the same way.  However, since all the articles were rather short, that also meant that topics I was less intrigued with were handled quickly.  I also was mixed on the articles on the comics, mostly because that is the area on Whedon where I am weakest.  I haven't read any beyond Buffy Season 8, which I didn't necessarily enjoy that much.  However, I think the editor realized this would be a weak spot since most of those articles read more as intros to the work rather than deep textual analysis.
I find it hard to say much about this book since it is a collection of such a large variety of short pieces.  I certainly enjoyed many of the essays but I can't say that one in particular stands out as a favorite (there were, however, one or two where I wanted to tell the author "I don't think that's what the line of dialogue meant/was referring to").  They all emphasize Whedon's ability to develop characters, and how he goes for the unpredictable, and will show how people aren't static, showing growth, development, and blurring the lines between right/wrong, moral/immoral, good/bad.  For example, his heroes occasionally do the wrong thing for the right reasons and don't always win.  I also liked the articles that vindicated Dollhouse.  Now, I know the show had its flaws, but apparently there were some complaints about it being sexist.  Obviously, the women weren't empowered like Buffy was (especially in the beginning) but it seemed like that was the point.  By focusing on their oppression, Whedon shows the sexism of the system.  I mean, it's not like people are going to say Mad Men is sexist - the characters and the time period were, but I don't get that impression regarding the actual show.  While there are several books already devoted to Whedon and his works, this is a good one for including all his projects, and includes a bit of a "where to go from here" section at the end.  I would say that while there is honest assessment in this book, and the writers admit when certain seasons etc. didn't work, this is probably a more celebratory guide than some of the other available Whedon-studies books which include some articles with more negative interpretations.  I'm not saying the negative ones are right, but they certainly add a different view.  I would definitely recommend this for any Whedon fans, though.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book 21: A Monstrous Regiment of Women

The second novel in the Mary Russell series begins right as Mary is about to turn 21, reach her majority and have access to her inheritance which up until now has been in trust.  While the first novel of the series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, didn't necessarily have a great mystery, I figured it was due to the fact that King was setting up a series and introducing the characters.  However, the mystery in this novel is even weaker, and I couldn't get much a grasp on Mary as a character.  She just seemed so all over the place.  One minute she is spontaneously going to see Sherlock Holmes, then she is dressed in men's clothes to go to London, then she is going on huge shopping sprees with her newly received inheritance after barely showing an interest in clothes.  She cites the fact that her allowance is so small as the reason that she doesn't have newer clothes before this, but given her freedom of movement and the fact that she can borrow money from Holmes when convenient, the lack of money doesn't quite ring true, even though she also mentioned it in the previous book when her actions seemed in accordance with it.  And apparently some of her shopping is to portray herself in a certain way as part of her investigation but honestly, her actions were just too conflicting too me, or maybe I just didn't have a good enough sense of the geography of London and its surrounding areas.
While in London, Mary runs into a friend from college that is involved with the New Temple of God, a group of women that do community work to help impoverished women, and are under the leadership of Margery Childe, mystic and feminist.  Mary, a theology student who has just completed her thesis, comes along out of curiosity.  I understand that Mary is supposed to be skeptical but I did get rather annoyed with how much she seemed to doubt Childe's intentions, thinking she must have an ulterior motive of some sort or some plan to try to get more power.  Can't the woman just want to help others and raise awareness?  However, I think this may have been King showing how her character has been influenced by her past.  And yes, later Mary discovers that it seems like a comparatively large amount of women from the congregation have died.  I admit I also was very irritated with a line early on in the novel, which may have also made me a bit judgmental.  When Mary first meets Margery, she mentions that Margery, a feminist, actually has a sense of humor, something that is generally lacking in feminists.  This may have even been tongue in cheek, but after all the articles about how women can't be funny, and the stereotype of the humorless feminist, I was irritated.  Why not just say, she has a sense of humor if you're trying to prove a point?  As I said it may have been and probably was tongue in cheek but it didn't strike me that way (if it is about proving a point say something like "despite common belief," because as I said the lack of humor sounded like something the narrator believed, not something she was making joking about).  Anyway, for the most part, I actually enjoyed the interactions with Margery, even some of the biblical discussions.  Mary is shocked that Margery was able to come to certain conclusions without the scholarly training she had had, but also illustrates to Margery why it is important to not just come at it from a layman perspective since being able to read the original texts also assists in finding prejudices in the text based on the translation choices made.
Honestly, if this hadn't been a mystery novel, I would have mostly enjoyed the parts in the beginning, especially from a slightly different narrator (something about Mary was just off in this novel).  Unfortunately it was a mystery, and not even an interesting one.  It really doesn't even start to develop till more than halfway through, there are at that time only one or two possible suspects to be investigated which eventually lead to more.  I'm also kind of irritated with the fact that in both novels in the series, Mary has to be nursed back to health after certain incidents.  Seriously?  Can we not victimize the heroine?  I also wish the author hadn't felt the need to change the relationship between Holmes and Russell since much of the book also addresses Mary's confusion and avoidance of certain feelings.  I actually picked up the third novel when I bought this since I thought I'd enjoy them, so I will see if the third improves.  I'll still read it, but I'm not in a rush - this novel wasn't necessarily that bad, but it definitely wasn't as good as I hoped it could be, or even expected it to be.

Book 20: Clara and Mr. Tiffany

While I liked the author's previous novel, The Girl in the Hyacinth Dress, it also made me hesitant to pick up this novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany.  I've seen Tiffany glass at a few museums, and it is absolutely gorgeous.  However, while I enjoyed The Girl in the Hyacinth Dress, it wasn't exactly a gripping piece - it was a series of vignettes, most of which were moving and had strong characters but I wasn't sure if I really wanted to read an entire novel told at that pace rather than a series of related stories.  Overall, I would say I probably got exactly what I expected.  It seemed like it took me forever to finish this novel, not because it was bad, but it was paced rather leisurely so I wasn't in a hurry to find out what happened next.
Clara Driscoll was the head of the Women's Department for Tiffany Glass, run by Louis Comfort Tiffany (son of the jewelry store Tiffany).  In recent years, it has come to light that Clara created the original Tiffany lamp design, or was at least a very crucial part of the creation process.  Of course, she didn't receive any public recognition for her part, and people assumed they were a Tiffany creation.  While I can understand her frustration with this lack of recognition, I also feel like this would be normal.  Even today, just because a certain dress has a designer label such as Oscar de la Renta doesn't mean I assume he designed the dress - instead, I would believe that it was designed with his vision in mind by people he hired because their talents and vision were in line with his.  However, I am sure that the person actually behind the dress would appreciate some recognition.  And today, Tiffany & Co has different lines of jewelry named after their designers, so occasionally the designers can get some recognition.  In this novel, Clara greatly admires Tiffany's vision and creativity, but also feels conflicted for the reasons above.  Additionally, Tiffany has a policy not to hire married women, so the book's description makes it sound as if Clara has to make a choice between professional and personal fulfillment though I don't feel like that was portrayed as that much of a conflict, especially for the majority of the novel.  Clara has already left the women's department once to marry but returned upon her husband's death.
The novel basically follows Clara's life from her return to Tiffany Glass after the end of her first marriage around 1892 through around 1909, covering almost two decades.  While there are some obvious conflicts, the novel is written in such a way that they barely seem like conflicts.  To be honest, the characters seemed a bit flat to me.  Clara becomes engaged at one point, develops friendships with various people at her boarding house, and guides and mentors many girls and women in the art of glass cutting, selecting and designing.  At one point, the women's department also comes under attack from the men who feel like the women are threatening their jobs.  Additionally, Clara is often irritated by the money making aspect of the job, feeling that the men in charge of the budget are too concerned with quick reproducibility rather creativity and thus impede on her artistic vision.
However, I wish the novel had been accompanied by pictures - Vreeland gives amazing and detailed descriptions of the lamps and glasses that they make, and has definitely done a lot of research into the glass industry.  While this makes for some very nice and interesting passages, it doesn't lead itself to a very plot driven or exciting narrative.  Basically, if someone is interested in the process behind Tiffany lamps, this book definitely has the information.  If someone is looking for a plot driven novel, this isn't it.  I'm pretty sure you could skip several pages, and it wouldn't exactly matter to the understanding of the story.  In a way this is unfortunate, since from what I understand Clara was rather unconventional, and while the novel certainly hints at it, it seems to lack a certain amount of energy.  This doesn't make it a bad novel at all, but it does mean it took me forever to finish since I was easily distracted by other things such as Facebook and DVDs rather than my need to see what happened to Clara since it didn't feel like anything really happened to Clara even though this isn't true.

Book 19: The Protector's War

This novel is the sequel to Dies the Fire, the first in a trilogy that explores what would happen if all man made power and energy simply stopped working.  When starting a new series or trilogy it can be nice to know that the entire series is already published, but this can also lead to other issues.  For example, when reading the novels back to back rather than having to wait a year or two between novels, certain flaws become more obvious, or certain things suddenly get a bit annoying.  It is obviously necessary to remind readers of the events that occurred in previous novels but how much of a reminder is required depends on time between novels.  In the case of this series, I occasionally felt like I was getting hit upside the head with the repetition, especially when describing certain main characters such as Mike, the former marine from Michigan with a Finnish background (and a Finnish battle cry) and some Native American blood.  It got a little old to say the least.  More annoying to me, though, were Juniper Mackenzie's constant Gaelic sayings.  Got it, you have Irish ancestors, you're a Wiccan, but you're from Oregon.  There is just something about it that seems put on rather than making her seem wise and folksy.  I think this may be me though - I enjoy reading about druids and such in their historical setting but I quickly roll my eyes at new ageism and discussions of inner goddesses (sorry to offend, some of this may be a result of lack of knowledge in belief systems).  Of course, based on the fact that her son Rudie's craft name is Artos, and he forms an instant bond with a horse, it is rather clear that Stirling may be insinuating that Rudie is a kind of reincarnation of King Arthur (also, there is a follow up series to this trilogy which focuses on Rudie, and one of the titles has something to do with a sword).
The novel takes place about eight years after the change, or the ending of the last novel.  Most of the areas have stabilized and have managed to become more or less prosperous depending on the area, but the threat of the Protectorate in Portland and its surrounding area still looms.  Arminger, their leader or "the Protector," wants to expand and create an empire, and the Mackenzies and the Bear Clan (Mike's people) are the ones that will be most immediately affected.  In addition to being slightly annoyed with all the Gaelic sayings, I wasn't really that into all the Elvish.  Yes, that's right - Astrid Larsson, a Lord of the Rings fanatic, has become an amazing fighter and with her friend Eilir, leads some of the younger people (ie late teens/early twenties) in a band of warriors or rangers, drawing much inspiration from Tolkien's works.  I guess I can see the reasoning from a tactical perspective to speak in a code that enemy troops might not understand, but it was a bit much just the same.  How much one enjoys these types of references probably all depends on what one's childhood obsessions were.
Given that, my favorite part of the novel was when Stirling expands his view from Oregon's Willamette Valley and gives a glimpse of what has happened in the rest of the world, particularly Europe and England.  The United Kingdom has survived under King Charles III, and they are going back to their roots by colonizing the parts of Europe that weren't quite as lucky in their survival (Britain's main advantage was some of its islands off the coasts while countries like Germany and France were too densely populated throughout to have many, if any, survivors).  Additionally, Tasmania survived the incident rather well, and like the British, are sending out exploration teams to discover the state of affairs in the world.  It is via a Tasmanian ship that three Englishmen find themselves in Oregon.  Sir Nigel Loring, his son Alleyne, and his son's friend, John Hordle, have to leave Britain after angering King Charles III, and quickly become involved in the politics of the Willamette Valley (and naturally there are three single women located there to help these men who are "in want of a wife").
Overall the novel wasn't bad, but the weaknesses of the first novel are certainly magnified in this one, and certain character traits are so focused on that they detract from the story.  While I can understand the idea that with lack of technology, certain things would regress quickly, I'm just not sure I buy it or that the establishment of new types of culture happening quite as quickly as they do.  Also, the title is slightly misleading since there are a few skirmishes in this novel that lead to political issues, but the war doesn't actually begin until the next novel, and this novel simply deals with the incidents leading up to its development.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Book 18: Q

I heard about this novel after reading another Cannonball review for it, and finally picked it up last week.  While I couldn't help asking myself a simple question regarding the unnamed narrator's dilemma, I still went with the story, and quite enjoyed where it went.  The narrator is basically living his idea of the perfect life - he is a college history professor, a published writer (though his first book has sold only 1500 copies), and lives in New York with his fiance, the beautiful, intelligent Q, short for Quentina Elizabeth Deveril.   Shortly after the engagement, the narrator receives a visit from his future self, or I-60 as he refers to him, warning him against marrying Q.  Time travel has been invented in the future, and I-60 has returned to the past to save himself and Q future misery. 
Naturally, the protagonist needs more of an explanation, and over the course of three dinners, I-60 explains his purpose and the reasoning behind his warning.  If Q and he get married, they will have a wonderful time together, and have an incredible child that will develop a genetic disease for which both his parents are carriers, and die, thus destroying Q and the protagonist.  Naturally, my first reaction to this was "don't have kids, adopt" but the protagonist never seems to consider the option and since he doesn't actually discuss this with Q prior to breaking off the engagement, she doesn't get to come up with a solution, either.  However, I feel like the author vaguely addressed this when he had his narrator discuss his favorite episode of The Twilight Zone - in a romantic gesture, the episode's hero avoids suspended animation during a space mission, thus coming back to Earth forty years later, aged forty year so he could be with the woman he loved.  She, on the other hand, had put herself in suspended animation so she would remain young.  As a result, one aged, one didn't; it was simply the reverse of the expected.  This novel's protagonist sees the gesture as incredibly romantic while Q simply responds by saying they should have talked before the mission.  Basically, we get the idea that the protagonist may be prone to large gestures rather than pragmatic solutions.  The closest he gets to approaching the topic with Q is asking if she would want to know when she was going to die (she doesn't) which is a far cry from "if you knew you were going to have a child, but that child would die, would you still have the child or what would you do?"  I think people may have completely different responses to something that would affect them vs someone they love.
However, that's one of the things I quite enjoyed about the novel - while I liked the protagonist, I also got the idea that he was rather full of himself on occasion, and that the author was poking fun at him.  After the narrator follows I-60's advice, he soon finds himself visited by another future version of himself, the version that didn't marry Q, who has other advice regarding what the narrator should do with his future.  However, basically, every time he changes his life, it ends up that his future self is unhappy with the results, and still has regrets.  At first they give him advice on love and relationships, then on his career, and finally just which hobbies he should choose to find fulfillment and develop relationships of any sort (he also spends less and less time on each new development as the visitors from the future just keep coming).  It is easy to feel pity for some of these future versions.  When one of his future versions tells him to stop writing alternative history stories about topics that no one finds interesting nor have any impact really (ie his first novel answered the question what would have happened if William Henry Harrison hadn't died 32 days into his term - answers: the abolition of slavery would have been slightly delayed), and to write funny stories instead, the reader gets to hear about how hilarious the protagonist is in the classroom setting but it is absolutely clear that he isn't and the author makes sure that the reader knows exactly how unaware the narrator is of this fact. 
While the novel is framed by the love story, much more of it deals with the repercussions of the narrator trying to change his life to fix the regrets of his future selves.  While there is a certainly a sense of something slightly tragic as the narrator goes from one endeavor to the other, only to find that none of them have improved his life, and possibly have only made his future more empty, Mandery also throws in some humor.  In fact he even makes fun of writing and writers.  The narrator has no idea what makes for a good story or premise, and the novel includes excerpts from his alternative history on Freud, asking the question that no one has ever asked: what if Freud had become a bioligist instead of a psychoanalyst.  Also, I'm pretty sure if anyone in the history of the world has ever contemplated that question, it was more out of curiosity regarding what would have happened to the world of psychology rather than what contributions he would have made to the other field.  I assume there are plenty of time authors in real life are gripped by an idea and invest a huge amount of time before realizing that no one else would be interested.  The narrator (and I assume the author) is a big sci-fi fan and makes references to various shows and novels, including The Twilight Zone and BSG.  In fact, even Q's actual name and initials seem to be taken from a shortlived 1980s sci-fi show.  Overall I would definitely recommend this, though it isn't the epic love story one might expect from the beginning or the description.  There is a certain amount of whimsy and while Q remains the love of the protagonist's life throughout everything, the story is just as much, if not more, about a life nearly wasted by the protagonist's constant quest to improve his future as it is about a love story.  Rather than gaining experiences or making his own decisions and failures, he keeps changing course beforehand.  As a result, he has no failure to look back on, but he has no true successes, either.