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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Book 17: A Walk in the Woods

I haven't ever really had much interest in hiking though lately I've become slightly more interested in the idea of it - mostly in relation to day hikes in places like Hawaii, preferably planned by someone other than me.  However, I've liked more of Bryson's work than I've disliked, and this is one of his more famous works.  As can be expected from Bryson, it was filled with random information, some of it actually related to the topic, some of it a bit less so.  There were also plenty of parts where he was making fun of himself, or others.
The premise of the book is that Bryson decides to walk the Appalachian Trail, and sells the idea to his editor.  After inviting just about everyone on his mailing list to join, the only person to respond was Katz, previously mentioned in Neither Here Nor There (the one Bryson book I didn't like).  Bryson considered himself a hiker based on his experiences in England, but quickly discovers that the Appalachian Trail is an entirely different endeavor.  The adventure begins with his trip to camping store, where he gets his first real visual of the endeavor he is about to embark on.  It seems Bryson's definition of hiking, based on the English country side, was rather similar to my idea - day trips with a possibly a nice dinner, and most definitely a room with a bed at the end.  The Appalachian trail, on the other hand, involves camping, carrying your supplies with you, and four straight months of hiking, give or take.  My idea of fun will never include sleeping in the woods (I had to do it as a cadet - although it probably is a bit less irritating when there aren't any guard duty shifts involved), and as a result, I really can't understand the people that go on hiking trips for months at a time.  Nor do I quite understand what type of reality they live in where they can simply take off from their lives for four months or so at a time - are they rich?  Are they hippies?  Do they all have book deals?  I thought I was lucky being able to take off 30 days in a row, and that's generally only because it's right after deployment or part of my PCS.  Bryson also manages to scare himself with several books about bear attacks (are they still America's #1 enemy on The Colbert Report, it's been a long time since I've watched it regularly), and other crazy hiking incidents.
Bryson goes into the history of the trail, talks about many of the people he and Katz meets along the trail, and also just the excruciating beginning when he and Katz start their journey, both middle aged, one somewhat out of shape and the other incredibly out of shape.  According to Bryson, the trail is an odd thing - it bypasses some of the best scenic views in the areas it is near.  He also spends some time talking about certain park services efforts, some of which are amusingly ineffective while others are almost disastrous.  Although Bryson planned to walk the entire trail, he soon realizes he may have overestimated himself as his mileage doesn't quite add up to his original plans.  Eventually, Katz and Bryson decide to stop, and make plans to meet back at the end of the summer to hike the last part of the trail in Maine, which apparently is some of the more difficult terrain.  I know some people are a bit critical of the book as a result, but I think if someone reads this book because they like Bill Bryson's other works and not because they are necessarily interested in hiking, they'll enjoy this.  If they are looking for a guide to hiking the trail, they would probably learn some interesting facts, but should definitely read some other books as well.  Since this was written in the mid 90s, I would be curious if anything has changed in the last 15 years.  Obviously, hiking isn't an activity that has changed much over time with the exception of improved gear, but Bryson had mentioned that it had been becoming more popular with increasing numbers of through walkers finishing over the recent years.  He also made a few complaints about technology on the trail, and given the current technology, I would be curious how many people use it as a chance to get away from it all, and how many try to document every single thing.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Book 16: Dies the Fire

When I read some comments on Pajiba stating that NBC's Revolution had basically ripped off the premise of S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, I figured it was a book I would be interested in reading after I finally downsized some of the rest of my to-read pile.  Well, then a friend of mine and I were discussing something, which somehow reminded him of the character Juniper Mackenzie, leading to further discussion and recommendation of the trilogy.  Since I had a Pajiba recommendation and one from a good friend, I ended up picking it up during a recent Barnes and Noble visit (which was actually my first in almost two months - I've been trying to behave).
The idea behind the novel is that in March 1998, all power/energy inexplicably stops working after a painful white flash.  Additionally, guns and gun powder don't work, and other certain chemical reactions don't work quite right anymore.  Stirling chooses two particular witnesses and groups to follow as they deal with the aftermath of this event.  Mike Havel, a pilot, was flying the five members of the Larsson family and their cat from Idaho to Montana when this occured, leading to a crash landing in a stream in Idaho.  While at first the six of them believe that this was bad luck, they soon realize that being caught in the middle of nowhere in the wilderness was actually a stroke of good luck as it allows them to avoid the mass panics that take over the cities which are soon facing a shortage of food.  After facing some initial hardships, Mike and the Larssons become the leaders of a group of survivors, aiming to settle in the Willamette Valley in Oregon where Ken Larsson has a family farm. 
Juniper Mackenzie, a Wiccan and folk singer, is in Corvallis, Oregon when the event occurs, and her first reaction is to act as if this is a permanent change once she gets her bearings, heading for her country house with her deaf daughter Eilir and pub owner Dennis Martin.  Some of her friends and fellow Wiccans have a similar, pragmatic reaction, and also head for the hills, bringing along tools from a museum exhibit on farm life in early Oregon which are of course crucial in the first few months.  Juney, too, becomes a leader as she and her friends take in refugees, leading to a growing community.  Her group has the added advantage that some members participated in rennaissance fairs, and as a result, actually know how to use bows, axes and swords, which become crucial when guns don't work, and the country is overrun with bandits, refugees and groups of people that revert to cannibalism as the food supply dwindles.
Meanwhile, there is a third man that quickly gains power, though in Norman Arminger's case, it is completely by force and plan, rather than due to having skills and knowledge that people flock to, as in the case of Mike and Juniper.  A medieval history professor who also participated in Rennaissance fairs himself, he quickly takes over certain important resources, and starts building his fiefdom based on medieval principles, basically trying to go back to a system of serfdom.  As the novel progresses, Arminger already tries to extend his power, and this novel sets up the alliances that will develop later in the trilogy.
One thing I really liked about this novel is that no one really spends too much time trying to explain what happened or how or why.  Basically, most of the survivors are people that quickly recognized what happened, and decided to act as if it was permanent, and all around the world, and go from there.  The focus is on survival and rebuilding, not reversing the event.  I would definitely recommend the novel, though I haven't completed the trilogy so hopefully I don't change my mind later.  Stirling appears to have done quite a lot of research on economics, agriculture and history to predict how this loss of technology would affect humans in both the short and the long term.  There is also quite a bit of action, and while I may have only glanced through the song lyrics that Juniper sings throughout the novel (I always get bored with that kind of stuff in fantasy novels, and was just glad there wasn't as much as in The Wheel of Time), it was good overall.  The main characters seem incredibly lucky to an extent  but Stirling mostly explains rather well why certain characters survive and why they would even have certain, formerly useless skills that would be crucial for survival, including the Wiccans, the medieval reenactors or the Lord of the Rings fanatic that took an interest in bow shooting as a result.

Book 15: 11/22/63

I've been reading Stephen King since I was about 12, although there are still a few pieces of his I haven't read (mostly the novellas/collections; I've just never been much of a short story person).  For some reason, I was mixed about whether I wanted to read this, and I think it has a lot to do with my place in history.  The idea behind the story is that Jake's friend Al has discovered a gateway back to 1958, and the past resets itself with every trip (meaning, if you accidentally do something you shouldn't like start telling people you're from the future, if you go back to the past after returning to the present, it's like it never happened because the gateway always leads back the exact same moment).  Al's plan was to go back to 1958, wait until 1963, prevent the JFK assassination and with it, any bad things that had happened afterwards such as increased troop presence in Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy's and Martin Luther King Jr's assassinations etc.  When Al's health fails him, he convinces Jake, a 35 year old English teacher living in Maine, to take up his mission.  Obviously the premise sounds intriguing, but I think the reason I wasn't more interested in the novel when it came out to begin with is that I was born in 1984.  The JFK assassination is of interest to me as a history major, but I have never been sold on the idea that Kennedy was this totally amazing president, if only because he died very early before he could really leave more of his legacy (additionally, aren't we generally more forgiving of the dead, especially the assassinated?).  In fact, given the chance to change history I don't think I would even go back to stop Hitler, if only because being a bit of a pessimist, I can't help but wonder that if the Holocaust and World War II hadn't happened then, maybe something much worse would have happened later without that tragedy to make people more closely evaluate situations and consequences (not that we've really learned that much).  Also, not to sound harsh, but sometimes a martyr is necessary - would certain people have been able to pass certain laws if they had lived, or were the laws only passed due to their death, and in memory of them?
Once Jake returns to the past, he has five years to decide what he will do - Al was only 95% certain that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman, so Jake and Al were both afraid to move too fast.  Eliminating Oswald may have simply led to another gunman being hired rather than preventing the assassination.  After preventing a crime in Derry (a town King readers of course recognize - Jake actually meets two of the characters from It) that has a more personal meaning to him, Jake gets ready for the long wait.  He ends up settling in a small town in Texas, near Dallas, after making a stop in Florida.  While in Jodi, he ends up working as an English teacher, and directs the student plays.  Simultaneously, he returns to Dalls and Fort Worth at times to shadow Oswald's movements, and confirm his guilt as the gunman.
Jake naturally develops personal relationships with several people in Jodi, including a romantic entanglement with Sadie, the school's librarian who has some baggage of her own.  And while that was sweet and all, Sadie kind of irritated me.  It probably started with the fact that Jake described her as this perfect, tall, gorgeous blonde that is endearingly klutzy.  Really?  How often has this trope showed up in romantic comedies now?  How many articles have I read about this very thing where the only flaw women are allowed to have is being a bit of a klutz?  And that's who ends up being the love interest?  A klutz that occasionally speaks of herself in the third person (which may have annoyed me more than the klutz thing).  Additionally, I had read complaints that King may have glorified either the past or small town life a bit much.  There are definitely parts that seem just a bit idyllic but I think King may have been afraid of this happening himself so occasionally Jake comments about the lack of racial integration, or people's attitudes towards women and sex.  So it's a mixed bag, but Jake definitely seems to prefer the so-called simplicity of the early '60s.
The beginning of the novel kept me interested as King was explaining how it all worked but once Jake was in the past, I was kind of ready for the five years to pass a bit more quickly.  The thing is I'm not sure what it was - obviously, King couldn't just jump forward five years, and the details did make for a nice narrative but at some point, Jake's character became a bit grating.  His spying on Oswald wasn't really that interesting which seems odd that I wanted less on Oswald and the assassination in a novel that was technically about preventing JFK's assassination.  Of course, there was a bit much of Jodi as well - overall King probably could have cut at least a hundred pages, instead of showing example after example of how the past harmonizes and/or protects itself.  The other thing that is interesting is that Jake really doesn't think about what it is he plans to do that much - Al laid out the plan for him, Jake hesitated and then went with it.  He doesn't seem to wonder at any point in the five years if preventing the assassination would really be that good of a thing to do - yes, this is somewhat addressed with the idea that history resets itself so as Al points out in the beginning, if things turn out badly, Jake can take it all back, but at no point does he really think about how the world might be different - he simply takes Al's assessment that things would have been better without the assassination at face value.  He spends a fair amount of brooding on the Oswalds and his actual plan but not much analysis on the why of it (of course, I've already explained my views on changing the past in the above paragraph).
While the novel could have been condensed somewhere, it was still an enjoyable, if long-winded, read (I feel like I had more fun reading Under the Dome).  One thing about this novel that was very good is that King actually knew how to end it instead of facing his usual problem of just kind of tacking on an ending that made little sense.  This ending definitely made sense, and was rather fitting for the novel (while I of course didn't guess the specifics of the ending, I had an idea of the overall ending from very early in the novel), so it was nice to see King actually close out a book in a way that left more questions and didn't go along with the book at all.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Book 14: The Beekeeper's Apprentice

I've never actually read a Conan Doyle novel or Sherlock Holmes with the exception of a simplified version of the Baskerville Hound (you know how they take classics, and then reduce them to their plot points so young children can feel like they're reading classics?  That was my experience with Holmes, except it was in 6th grade and we read it in my English class at my German school so it was for second year English students).  It's actually weird because I loved mysteries when I was younger but I focused more on Agatha Christie and her characters, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.  Still, it's impossile not to be aware of the figure of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  I also tend to enjoy reimaginings of old novels when done well (I hated and didn't finish Ahab's Wife, but love Atwood's short story "Gertrude," a riff on Hamlet).  Additionally, in the past few years, I've noticed that while I still enjoy the occasional mystery/thriller, I tend to gravitate towards ones set in the past when forensics weren't quite so developed, such as Stephanie Pintoff's or Ariana Franklin's novels.  This may be because after years of mysteries and CSI-type shows, it is hard to be surprised anymore so it's nice if the novels have something else to offer besides a mystery, such as a glimpse into the past.  While I at first hesitated to pick this up until I read some actual real Sherlock Holmes novels, all the other factors convinced me to get this.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel, but it is obvious that this novel was written as the first of a series, and not just because Mary Russell keeps referring to events in the future.  King devotes a great deal of time to introducing the characters, setting the scene and showing the reader how Russell's relationship with Holmes developed.  As a result, there are actually a few small mysteries in the beginning that illustrate their burgeoning relationship and the novel is somewhere between a third to halfway through before the novel actually delves into the main mystery.  By the way, this is one case where the back of the book gave too much away - while certain connections may have been obvious to readers anyway, the cover already gave them away, thus leaving the reader waiting for Holmes and Russell to catch up.
When Mary Russell and Holmes first meet, Holmes is in his fifties (he explains that Watson aged him in his stories since readers might have had doubts if Watson had told of a younger detective) while she is fifteen, and he is pleasantly surprised by her intelligence and wit.  Their relationship remains platonic throughout the novel though there are hints of possibilites, so I'm not a huge fan of the age difference, but I understand the author's choice - by having Russell be 15, it would explain why Holmes would take an interest in developing her mind, and he could still think of her in an asexual way.  If she had been older, it would have been a bit more difficult to train her in the arts of being a detective.  While I have not read actual Sherlock Holmes novels, I understand that Watson has a certain sense of awe for the character and his amazing skills of deduction.  Russell, on the other hand, is more his equal when it comes to these abilities, so she portrays him in a different light, though still with great respect and admiration.
The first big case that Holmes and Russell work together involves a kidnapping in Wales, but life quickly goes back to normal until Holmes finds himself and those he cares about threatened by an unknown entity.  I don't think the mystery itself was really that strong or interesting, and to be honest, I don't feel like it was really one of those where the reader can play along too much.  However, I liked the character development, and as I said, this novel felt more like an introduction, so I am not using this one to determine whether the mysteries are well thought out and developed.  I'll definitely be picking up the next one in the series before I make any final judgements or determinations.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Book 13: The Wedding Dress

I originally saw this novel at a Barnes and Noble on one of their tables, possibly "summer reading" or something along those lines.  I read the description, and felt like I was in the market for some light chick lit with an emphasis on clothes.  I also decided it would be the perfect kind of disposable book to get on my Kindle and read on a long flight.  Unfortunately, I didn't actually take advantage of my ability to read the first chapter or even look more closely at the novel before buying it because it was definitely not what I was going for or expected at all.  I guess it is partially my fault, but since I was clearly not part of this novel's intended audience I ended up strongly disliking the book and its characters.  Oh, the characters.
According to the blurb on the back, the recently engaged Charlotte, who also happens to own a bridal shop, buys a mysterious trunk at an auction and discovers a gorgeous wedding gown.  Charlotte becomes fascinated with discovering the story behind this dress, which turns out to be a century old and have had three previous owners all while trying to determine her true feelings for her fiance - as I said, light chick lit with some clothes porn.  Unfortunately, I misinterpreted the following description: "the power of courage and faith, and the timeless beauty of finding true love."  I interpreted faith in a secular way, since many chick lit stories throw around the word faith but in that case it seems to be about faith in oneself, in love, or something else.  In this case, it was all about God.  The main character talked about praying on something at least five times in the first chapter.  Instead of a fun, fluffy read with a passionate love story, I got a wooden couple with no chemistry that tip toe around each other and talk about being friends, and who have been together for four months, engaged for two but haven't had sex.  Of course that is a personal preference but it's definitely not what I was looking for in what was supposed to be a trashy read.  I'm not sure if I should be unhappy with the publisher for not clearly stating faith in God, or with Barnes and Noble for putting it on a general interest table when perhaps normally it would have been shelved under Christian fiction, in which case I never would have seen this novel.
Additionally, I thought the writing was weak.  Granted, I wasn't exactly looking for strong writing, but since I wasn't being entertained in the fashion I expected, I started getting critical of certain narrative devices while reading it.  Emily, the first woman to wear the dress lives in early 20th century Alabama.  We, the reader, are supposed to believe she is a good person because she talks to black people and hires a black dressmaker, and, oh my gosh, doesn't understand why people are so upset about it.  Maybe it's just me, but taking a white Southern belle during Jim Crow and saying she's nice to black people seems like a lazy and easy way to say the character is good instead of actually developing the character and showing us that she is a good person.  Let's not focus on the fact that she hired the black dressmaker because she didn't like what the white dressmaker wanted to make (ie she was being a spoiled white girl that gets what she wants) rather than due to any desire to make a social statement.  If the author was really trying to make a statement about race or equality, maybe one of the four brides to wear the dress would have been black - or maybe there would have been a black character other than the dressmaker.  Instead, Hauck just uses a black character as window dressing to define her white heroine and give her some fake depth.
The present day heroine tracks down the history of the dress and all its previous owners, while also figuring out what she wants in the process, but the focus is mostly on Emily and Charlotte's stories.  I don't know, this book might be worth it to someone who is into Christian fiction, but honestly, while the novel isn't my cup of tea, the characters were also incredibly one dimensional, and boring, so I think it's just generally a weak book.