Monday, January 28, 2013

Book 12: The Winter Ghosts

I try to be much more discerning about books I purchase nowadays, meaning I'll get a pile together, and sit at the cafe with some coffee, read a few pages to see if I like the writing style while also looking at ratings on Amazon or Goodreads.  I don't do it with every book, and sometimes I like the premise of the novel so I'll just decide to give it a chance without the screening process, but I figure I need to stop buying so many books that then end up in my growing to read pile (actually I have a to read pile that I really consider books I want to read soon, and then a whole other, larger stack of books that I have and will read eventually if that makes any sense).  I bought this one over a year ago, before I had started being quite so picky because it mentioned World War I in the description.  I read a lot of novels about or related to World War II, but World War I interests me as well; I just don't think it grabbed the American imagination in quite the same way and don't always see as many novels or books in general on the topic.  I just couldn't get into this novel a year ago but I think that had more to do with my mood at the time.  Due to the Keyword Challenge, I decided to give it another shot this month since it contains the keyword "winter" in the title.  I looked it up on Goodreads before I started reading only to discover that this was a ghost story!  You'd think maybe the word "ghosts" in the title, and the fact that the back description talks about people being haunted would have clued me in, but I thought they were metaphorical ghosts and that people were haunted by the past, not by actual ghosts (also I never read the quotes from magazines or other authors because just like movies, there is always going to be someone willing to say positive things about even horrible novels).  I'm glad I figured that out before I started reading this, because it definitely would have been unexpected and surprising otherwise.
Bones and shadows and dust.  I am the last.  The others have slipped away into darkness.  Around me now, at the end of my days, only an echo in the still air of the memory of those who once I loved. (p. 9)
I am having a hard time really deciding how I felt this novel.  The majority of the novel is a flashback to 1928 in the French Pyrenees area, though it opens and closes in 1933.  In 1933, Freddie enters a bookstore because he wants its owner to translate an old piece of parchment written in Occitan for him.  The rest of the novel is his explanation of how this document came into his possession.  In 1928, our 27 year old narrator is traveling through France, still grieving his brother's death which occurred 11 years before.  Freddie was too young to fight in World War I, but his brother and a majority of his unit were killed in battle in 1916.  As the second, much younger brother, Freddie never had a substantial relationship with his parents, and George's death hit him especially hard, though he was unable to get any comfort from his parents.  He is now drifting, trying to move on but also not quite wanting to let go, and unable to understand how everyone else can be looking forward, to the future.  He understands that his grief isn't unique, that just about everyone lost someone in this war, but he still feels isolated and disconnected.
Following a car accident, Freddie ends up in a small village, Nulle, off the beaten path, and is invited to the yearly festival that happens to be occurring that night.  While at the festival, he meets a woman, Fabrissa, and feels more interested in his surroundings and life than he has in a long time.  He is completely fascinated by Fabrissa, enjoys their conversation, and eventually they share their stories of loss.  The novel is very slow moving, meandering even, and the ghost story and plot are incredibly obvious and straighforward to everyone but Freddie.  The author does have a nice turn of phrase, and while the novel is 263 pages, given the amount of indentation on the pages and the font size, it really is probably only half to two thirds that long.  On the one hand, it's almost impossible to say much about the story without feeling like it's a spoiler but on the other hand it doesn't feel like a spoiler because it is obvious what is going on.  I've seen many reviews describing this as a classic ghost story, and while I get that, I prefer my ghost stories with a little bit of mystery.  I like the ones where the protagonists have to do research to determine the identity of the spirit, and then more research to find out what happened to that person.  They don't have to be scary, but as I said, I like that sense of revelation as the story progresses.  The reason I think this is labeled as a classic ghost story is because Freddie finds himself transported into a different time, witnessing events (even if he doesn't realize it), and I at least got the sense that this was a "one night of the year" kind of situation.
In medieval times, the Pyrenees served as a type of center and refuge for Cathars, members of a heresy that the Catholic Church disagreed with, and this faith group was eventually persecuted to extinction.  While Mosse alludes to the region's history, she doesn't explain much.  I thought that was fine for the novel itself, but when she discusses her inspiration for this story in the afterword, I wished she would have added a paragraphs or two about what the Cathars actually believed, what their heresy was etc.  I looked on Wikipedia and it didn't give much of an answer instead focusing on the wars and the persecution, not so much what they were being persecuted for - I gather this is partially because the Catholic Church did such a good job of rooting them out and destroying them that not too many specifics are known.  Overall, I think this novel would have worked much better as a short story - there just wasn't quite enough there to justify an entire novel (and as a matter of fact, this is actually the author expanding on a short story she had previously written).  What is there is very straightforward, though I kind of liked it.  I would also say while Freddie was a bit longwinded and needed to get to the point a bit more quickly, there are some rather well written sentences in here.  While I don't think I'd recommend this one, I am still curious about the author's other novels.  I am not sure what that means since usually if I don't like a novel or feel either very apathetic or ambivalent about it, I have no interest in anything else by that author, so I guess there must have been something here to hold my interest even if I can't quite place my fingers on it.  Then again, it may just be as simple as the fact that her other novels also address the Cathars and my interest in the subject is now picqued.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book 11: The Distant Hours

I have only read one other Kate Morton novel before which also happened to be her first, The House at Riverton.  While I enjoyed it at the time, it also seemed a bit deriviative, reminding me strongly of other gothic fiction, and even part of the twist was something I had seen recently before.  As a result. I wasn't in a hurry to pick up any of her other novels, though I was curious to see how she had developed as a writer and often found myself lingering over her novels at bookstores but always put the novels back down, thinking of her as a back up.  Similarly, once I bought this book, I still kept picking other novels in my pile first.  It's not that I wasn't expecting a good read but it just never seemed like quite what I wanted.
Of course, it is gothic fiction so naturally there is an old ancestral home or castle, a family secret, the hints of a tragedy, and a love story gone wrong.  She basically captures all the elements, and there is a twist when all the secrets are revealed - that's basically the genre; if there weren't a twist and decades old secrets, it wouldn't be gothic fiction.  At the end, it is hard to feel anything but sad about some of the circumstances and not think "what a waste" regarding the characters' lives and outcomes.  The novel starts out when Edith's mother, Meredith, receives a letter from over 50 years before that had been misdirected (or mislaid).  Though she won't share its contents with her daughter, her reaction leaves an impression on Edie, and it starts her quest to learn more about her mother.  Edie and Meredith do not have a very sharing relationship, and Edie has felt misunderstood for much of her life.  Prior to this letter, she didn't even know that her mother had lived in a castle, Milderhurst, for over a year during WWII when parents from the cities evacuated their children to the country due to the bomb threat.  The novel begins as a daughter's quest to know her mother, and when she finds herself in the proximity to Milderhurst after an out of town meeting, she takes a tour and meets the Blythe sisters, the older twins Percy (Persephone) and Saffy (Seraphina) and their younger sister, Juniper, the author of the letter that started the novel.  Percy and Saffy are from the first marriage and about sixteen years older than their sister Juniper, who was once a promising writer but has gone mad because of a disappointment: a man she loved never showed up, leaving only a letter saying he had married someone else.
Edie, a book lover, is fascinated by the sisters, the castle, and the past, and begins to slowly dig to find out more about the disappointment that Juniper experienced - as her mother tells her, people don't go mad due to disappointment, and as much as Edie, lover of gothic fiction and romance, may like the idea of going mad due to lost love, she also soon admits that it is a bit fantastical.  One of the first things Edie learns about Milderhurst is that the sisters' father was Raymond Blythe, author of The True History of the Mud Man, one of the first books to turn her into a reader and a childhood favorite.  She mentions that Raymond Blythe's inspiration for the novel has never been determined so in addition to the mystery of the sisters and the missing lover, there is a bit of a literary mystery in the later half of the novel.  She eventually gets an opportunity to return to the castle (she refers to it early on) to help satisfy some of her curiousity.
Kate Morton's characters are very well drawn, and having read novels like Atonement, I feared what Meredith's involvement could possibly be in this mystery.  While the resolution was perhaps a bit by the numbers (at least parts of it), Morton's development towards the big reveal was superbly done, and I quite enjoyed exploring the different relationships, and watching as Edie began to gain new perspectives on her mother, and her mother's relationship with her family.  Percy is also a character it is hard to get a handle on because there are some differences between her 1992, her 1941 and her 1939 character, though the reasons for this all become clear as the sections progress.  The only character I occasionally got irritated with was Edie.  While I could relate to her love of books, I got a little annoyed with her whining about how she never felt understood because she liked books, and no one else in her family did.  She also mentions that her parents had a boy before her who died either when she was very young or before she was born - either way, she has no memory of him but talks about missing him and wondering what he would be like and what type of relationship they would have had, even using it to say she could understand another character's bond with her siblings.  I'm sure this is because I can't quite relate - my mom and I have a relatively close relationship, and talk regularly (I mean, I was never in the habit of calling her and telling her about crushes, but I would discuss actual relationships; I have also never referred to my mom as my best friend) so it is hard for me to understand the distance between her and her mother sometimes.  Additionally, I think I would have understood the sibling thing more if she had ever actually interacted with her brother, and it was an actual loss to her rather than just a question of what it would have been like, and I think this also goes back to the fact that I'm an only child and have always loved being an only child.  I wasn't that kid that asked her parents for a sibling - I was the one that emphatically told them she didn't want one.
Still, while the novel may have occasionally dwelt more on Edie's present day life and her problems (no apartment, no boyfriend), the majority of the novel was well written and an enjoyable read.  I liked most of the characters, and felt like the story was very well drawn; while I was expecting a big reveal at the end, I liked the way it built into the story, and added depth and a certain amount of irony to the events.  It really was perfect for curling up on the couch with some hot chocolate while it was 0 degrees Fahrenheit - except for the fact that I have been having some serious issues lately with finding a brand of hot chocolate I actually really like.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book 10: The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise

My best friend came up this weekend, so we went to the mall for pedicures, which naturally involved a stop at Barnes and Noble for coffee and browsing.  After picking up the book I really wanted (the second part of a trilogy I recently started), I looked around a bit, and when I saw this, remembered all the rave reviews I'd seen of this novel last year.  While it had sounded sweet, I wasn't quite sure if it was my cup of tea originally, so I hadn't rushed out to get it, but obviously the title stuck in my head.
The novel is set at the Tower of London, and the two main characters are Balthazar Jones and his wife, Hebe.  As a Beefeater, or Yeoman Warder, Balthazar and his wife live at the Tower along with their almost two century old tortoise, Mrs. Cook.  There are a myriad of supporting characters in the novel, including the other Beefeaters and Tower inhabitants, and the people that Hebe comes across working at the Underground's Lost Property Office.  Following their son Milo's death three years before, Hebe and Balthazar have started to drift apart.  While they had always been a close and loving couple, their methods of coping with grief are very different, and instead of finding shelter in each other, they become isolated from each other.  Jones has developed an odd obsession with charting types of rain, while Hebe simply wants to discuss their son.
After one of the animals presented to the Queen as a royal gift dies, almost causing an international scandal, the Queen decides to move her personal animals from the British Zoo and reestablish the Royal Menagerie at the Tower, placing Balthazar in charge of it due to his tortoise.  Naturally, there are some hijinks involved with the animals, especially since the Ravenmaster, who is also the closest Jones gets to having an archnemesis is less than happy with the changes and starts developing plots.  A lot of the characters in this novel are unlucky in love - several are divorced, the Reverend Septimus Jones is still trying to find a woman that would be willing to live in the Tower with him, and all are rather gunshy as a result.  Hebe's coworker tentatively enters a relationship with a fellow unlucky divorcee.  Most of the characters are sweet, but I wouldn't call them very well developed.  They have distinguishing character quirks, and it is hard not to root for them but they are also relatively superficial.  My favorite was probably the Reverend who writes erotica in his spare time when not trying to handle the rat problem in his chapel.
Overall, it was a sweet novel, the quirk being balanced out by the sadness and grief that has infected the main characters' lives.  I am curious how many of the facts about the Tower are true, because some of them were very entertaining.  And of course, it's hard not to enjoy the animals (don't worry, no important animals die in this to make some type of point), especially the parrot, the bearded pig and the albatross, who obviously represents Balthazar.  I think this would work best for an afternoon on the couch with tea and small cakes or cookies.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Book 9: The Whites of Their Eyes

I'm remember reading an article about this book when it first came out, and thinking it sounded incredibly fascinating.  This book has now sat on the floor in my bedroom (two different bedrooms in two separate states, actually) for so long that I can't even find the blog post that first mentioned it because I think that blog switched servers - assuming I'm even correct as to where I first heard about this book.  Additionally, it seems like the Tea Party is slowly peetering out.  Oh, there are still plenty of super conservative people around, but I don't think they are rallying to the call of the Tea Party anymore.  Of course, I could be mistaken here but does seem to be the impression I get based on news, blogs and election results.  So yes, while this book certainly takes a look at an interesting topic (the misappropriation and misinterpretation of history), the specific moment the author is exploring may already be past.
While I quite liked the premise of this book, I have to say the execution left me slighlty dissatisfied, and that I believe has a lot more to do with me than the book.  I think Lepore was attempting to start a discussion, and this slim volume would certainly do so.  However, I was left wanting more details about both the present interpretations of history and the past, the actual events that happened.  Of course, this book never claimed to be about the history of the Revolution and its events; she mentions several events focusing on the Boston and Massachusetts area (I admit while I was reading about all the grievances regarding events in Boston, I kind of started wondering why the rest of the colonies agreed to go to war as well - there was certainly nothing listed about grievances that the rest of the nation faced), and talks about how certain events were barely remembered until later brought back into focus.  For example, the Boston Massacre Anniversary (the colonials certainly had a good grasp on propaganda - an armed, riotuous crowd does not an innocent assembly make) was always celebrated, but the anniversary of the destruction of the tea wasn't even really noted until many years later when one of the last survivors was used by a political party.  Similarly, no one paid much attention to Paul Revere's ride or remembered it until Hawthorne wrote a poem prior to the Civil War.  The book is full of interesting tidbits like this, and overall when she digs into a discussion or argument, it really is interesting.  I just wish there had been more.
She also argues that some of the problems with history right now go back to the Bicenntennial when academic historians failed to put a proper meaning to the anniversary - something that academia might not find necessary but something that the American people perhaps needed.  Academia has lately been much more focused on the social movements, rediscovering lost voices and discussing these types of more problematic pieces of history so that the far right and popular historians have taken over the idea of the "Great Man," publishing various biographies that basically make every single founding father (a term that didn't come into use until Woodrow Wilson) singlehandedly responsible for the course of history and the American Revolution.  Of course, this means some of the more problematic fathers are either dismissed by certain political elements (such as Thomas Jefferson) or only parts of their history survive, such as Thomas Paine.  Somehow his writings on his lack of interest in religion aren't really addressed when people try to argue that our nation was founded as a religious nation.
She introduces the men involved in the Revolution as complex, flawed men with conflicting opinions, and says that it is absolutely not correct to try to determine what they would do in current situations.  After all, by setting up this nation they were very definitely not looking to their forefathers.  The other parts I liked were when she discussed how the American Revolution has been interpreted and used in the past - after all, the Tea Party are not the first to make history fit their own design; it was done by both sides during the Civil War and various other groups before and since.
Overall, it isn't a bad book at all, but it seemed like there was less about the Tea Party than I expected there to be.  Certainly most of the topics she addresses could be turned into much larger books on that topic alone - for example, I would now love to read a book that tracks how history or certain events have been interpreted over the years.  There were also quite a few fun pieces of information that I wasn't completely aware of before, not that I think trivia would ever get that specific.  Unfortunately, I think I wanted more meat, otherwise I probably would have enjoyed this more.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book 8: Gates of Fire

I can't even say how long this novel has been sitting in my to read pile at this point.  I like ancient history, and I know quite a few people who enjoyed this so I guess I always felt like it was something I should read but never quite felt like I was in the mood for it.  Basically, this year I'm trying to read at least a few novels that have been sitting around forever, so I decided to take a stab at Gates of Fire.
This is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae as told by Xeones, a Spartan squire, to Xerxes, the Persian ruler, and recorded by his historian.  Xeones's words make up the majority of the narrative, but the historian has a few parts, which are italicized, adding background information as well as telling of the events that occurred during the rest of the war between the Greeks and the Persians.  After the Battle of Thermopylae, Xeones is discovered, clinging to life (though he wants nothing more than to join his comrades in arms in death but someone must tell their tale), and Xerxes orders for his story to be transcribed in order to gain some type of understanding of what types of men withstood his forces for such a long time against insurmountable odds.  While Xeones explains that he is a simple man, merely a squire, and not one of the three hundred peers and nobles that the Spartans sent, he defers and tells his story for the record.
Xeones is not from Sparta, coming originally from Astakos, but he has not entered into Spartan life in the normal manner of an outsider, either.  The Spartans did not conquer his people in war, and turn him into a slave; instead, Xeo's home is attacked by the Argives when he is young, and he decides then that he wants to join the Spartans in whatever manner possible because they "make men."  After hiding in the forests for two years with his cousin Diomache and his family's teacher and slave, Xeo makes his way to Sparta.  Eventually gaining the position of squire, he comes into contact with the great men and warriors that will make up the three hundred peers.  As Xeones reflects back on his life, attempting to explain exactly how Spartan society creates the warriors it does, he jumps back and forth in the timeline quite a bit, being reminded of tangents as he remembers various anecdotes and stories.  Usually, I don't mind jumping around in narratives but since it took me a while to get used to the rhythm of the plot, the names and places, it did hinder me in getting as absorbed into the story as I normally would have.  While Xeo becomes friends/ starts out as a squire for Alexandros, eventually Alexandros's mentor Dienekes takes Xeones as his second squire, placing his squire Suicide as Alexandros's because a young man needs an older wiser man to keep him out of trouble.  Xeones tells of a variety of different Spartans, and Dienekes and his wife were the ones that were of the most interest to me.  A large portion of the narrative is also dedicated Alexandros, and I can see where the author was going with the character - a type of underdog, a man that is almost too honest, kind hearted and earnest for his warrior society yet still tries to fight honorably, but something about the character just didn't interest me at all.  I believe that was the other reason for my initial difficulty with enjoying the story - too much of the beginning is about Alexandros.
In fact when Xeones discusses some of the initial training for the teenaged boys, he discusses one teacher in particular that had it out for Alexandros - it basically sounds like every coming of age story ever with the bully and everything.  Still, once the novel shifts to the events of Thermopylae, it is impossible not to get wrapped up in the flow of the battle, the heroics of the characters and the tight brotherhood they form in the face of adversity.  While the first few chapters certainly held my interest, I wasn't quite sure how I'd feel about the novel overall, especially during the training scenes.  However, I ended up enjoying it quite a lot, even if it wasn't quite a style I usually read that much.  I always feel like I should be more interested in military history and the tactics involved, but usually I'm happy reading about the socio-political events surrounding the war rather than stories of the battles themselves.  I can't say I'm going to rush out to read more novels like this, but I'm glad I have finally tackled this.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book 7: The Invisible Ones

Set in 1986, the novel begins with Ray Lovell, a private investigator, in a hospital, partially paralyzed and with chunks of his memories missing.  The novel then flashes back to the beginning when Leon Wood hires Ray Lovell to look into the disappearance and possible murder of Rose Janko, his daughter who has been missing for over six years.  Leon makes it clear that he chose Ray due to his gypsy heritage since this should make it easier for him to investigate in the gypsy community than if he were a complete outsider.  Leon hasn't seen his daughter since her marriage seven years before, and while he has wondered if it is true that Rose ran off after giving birth to a son or whether she was in fact murdered by her husband or his family, it is only now that he has decided to act on his suspicions.  Knowing that it will be difficult to find traces after this long period of time, Ray takes the case and finds himself drawn to some members of the Janko family.  The novel flashes back and forth between Ray and JJ, Rose's husband's nephew/first cousin once removed, giving the reader insight into the Janko family, their unfortunate family history, and JJ's moments of teen angst.
Rose and Ivo's son, Christo, has inherited the family disease which has already killed a large portion of the males of the family.  As a result, they have a rather small gypsy family, and though they struggle to hold onto the old ways, the family consists of only JJ, his mother and his grandparents; Tene, his great-uncle and grandmother's brother, Tene's son, Ivo, and Christo.  Everyone else has died over the years, due to the family disease or curse, cancer or in Ivo's sister's case, an accident.  The only exception is Tene's youngest sister, Lulu, who has assimilated and lives in the city, having very little contact with her family.  As Ray comes around with questions, JJ begins to wonder about his family's past, and whether they are in fact hiding secrets from him.
As the novel progresses, Ray develops an odd type of relationship with the Jankos.  In the process of a divorce, he finds himself drawn to Lulu, and his interactions with the family in some ways make it seem like he was hired by them rather than by Rose's father.  Certainly, he doesn't want to alienate his only leads, but Ray develops a great deal of interest in their lives and involves himself quite a bit, all while trying to answer the questions of Rose's whereabouts, and the slew of unfortunate deaths in the Jankos' pasts.
Overall, I mostly liked this novel.  The author certainly kept her readers guessing, and while I saw a few reviews make comments about twist endings, I honestly don't feel like it was completely out there - Penney had certainly thrown hints out throughout the novel so the reveleations at the end could all be traced back to various comments throughout the novel.  However, I did feel like the novel dragged a little bit.  While I was curious to learn more about the disease in addition to the truth, there were a few points where I felt like it was time to get moving.  JJ definitely goes through a bit of teen angst in the middle which I found a bit obnoxious but then again, teen angst tends to be annoying unless you're the one experiencing it.  Ray is also a damaged character, still reeling from the fact that his wife, whom he was deeply in love with, cheated on him and left him.  I was kind of surprised by the way some of the characters acted, because while the Jankos are protective and close knit on the one hand, they also seem rather friendly and accommodating to Ray, even though they must know that he suspects them of some type of foul play regarding Rose.  Basically, the characters didn't always make the most sense to me, but generally, I thought it was an engaging and slightly moody mystery novel.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book 6: A Memory of Light

The Wheel of Time series is now complete after 14 novels, somewhere between 13,000 and 14,000 pages, one prequel, and countless characters.  I think even the most hardcore fans of the series can agree that it was time.  Obviously, after a thirteen novel commitment, anyone that's gotten that far is going to finish regardless of what anyone else might say.  I'm sure I could tell you it was all just a dream, and you'd be pissed, but you'd still read it just to really justify that anger.  Fortunately, that's not how it ends.  (If you have never read the series, and are debating whether you should or not, the review contains spoilers for the rest of the series; however, I wrap up in the last two paragraphs with a discussion of whether or not you should consider starting the series.)
Now, I won't say that this novel is perfect - this novel is supposed to be about the Final Battle between Rand al'Thor and the Dark One, the thing this whole series has been building up to for over 20 years (though surprisingly only two have passed in the series), and it still takes almost half the novel to get all the pieces into position.  Not that I necessarily wanted to read just about the battle, but it's amazing how many things still had to be moved and decided this late in the game.  For example, the novel has to wrap up events going on at the Black Tower, and I'm not sure if I'd just forgotten this, but the descriptions of saidin and saidar are rather rapey, aren't they?  Well, at least the ones concerning the male version of the Source, saidin, are since it's something that has to be seized.  In fact, I'm sure extensive papers could be written on the idea of consent and The Wheel of Time, with saidin/saidar and bonds and circles as metaphors for sex.  Anyway, the novel begins with a war council, which concludes with Egwene agreeing to break the seals at the right time, Rand preparing to go fight the Dark One, and Elayne being placed in charge of all the nations' armies.  The four remaining great battle captains are each placed in charge of one of four fronts, and off they go.  Rand heads to Shayol Gul accompanied by Nynaeve, Moiraine and Aviendha as well as an army to hold off anyone that may try to interfere with his final stand.  The Aes Sedai led by Egwene take on the forces at Kandor, while Elayne focuses her energies at Andor as she oversees the entire war, and Lan is up fighting in the Blight with a large force.  Mat and Perrin each have their own battles and tests to do to support Rand, Mat with the Seanchan and his new wife's people, while Perrin is tying up loose ends with Slayer.  To be honest, I kind of feel bad for Perrin because at some point, he went from having a rather strong story line (he saved his people at the Two Rivers, he can talk to wolves) to having the most boring story of the three or six.  I mean Rand isn't that exciting because he fits within the prototype of the hero, but Perrin spends a majority of the novel trying to track one guy down.  Of course, Nynaeve's story has practically been wrapped up since her wedding, and though she is one of the most powerful Aes Sedai in memory, she is basically in sidekick mode.  At some point in the series, Egwene and Mat transitioned into my favorite characters, at least of the main six (or eight if we include all of Rand's love interests) - all the characters display growth, so it's not necessarily that they show the most but they certainly make the most of their transformations, Egwene being the youngest Amyrlin in history and Mat being the great gambler war leader.  Now if only Egwene's love interest could be as interesting as Mat's wife Tuon instead of the whiny Gawyn who has an inferiority complex.  I basically want to strangle him myself every time he shows up on the scene, and he was the one character whose death I was actively hoping for and waiting on.
Sanderson manages to send a nod to most of the better characters from the series. but the battle pieces are so extensive that there isn't too much time devoted to many of them.  Still, it's better to at least see some characters from the series make a quick appearance, such as Elyas, another man with Perrin's wolf connection, than not have them appear at all.  Now one of the things I have been saying about the series for a while is that it's hard to care too much about what happens to the main characters because they all have to survive for the final battle.  Bad things may happen to them, but the reader knows they will make it to the end.  That doesn't mean the series isn't littered with dead minor characters, but there is none of the shock that comes from reading A Song of Ice and Fire.  Does that mean that Jordan/Sanderson makes up for this in the final battle?  Yes and no.  The troops are overwhelmed, the death tolls are massive, some of my favorite characters that aren't part of the main six die, and not all of them survive, but it certainly doesn't reach Martin levels.  Additionally, after 14 novels and way too many tangents even some of the deaths that I feel should have been more effective didn't really leave me that concerned or sad.  However, there is one death in particular that packs a good punch (although the death that was most powerful to me in the series as a whole was Hopper's).  I also liked some of the twists that occurred concerning the battles, and how Sanderson/Jordan dealt with having epic battles of differing lengths occurring simultaneously.  Due to time being out of whack and slipping, the further from Shayol Gul one is, the more time passes.  As a result, Rand is in battle for minutes/hours, while the Aiel guarding Shayol Gul are engaged in a battle lasting a few days, and then further away in the kingdom, it is taking days and possibly weeks (my concept of time is exactly that great to begin with).
Still, I think this is overall a fitting end for the series.  Some things are left open, but most major plot points are tied off (though in my opinion some of those should have been tied of ages ago, and really didn't need to still be an issue, ie Padan Fain).  One thing that Sanderson was very good at doing is that he mostly didn't have things appear out of the blue at the end.  Even if some characters didn't appear until very late, at least someone had referenced them at some point previously so I already had been reminded of their existence rather than having to refer to the Encyclopedia.  This may not be a surprise considering that Sanderson is involved in writing both, but there is a line or two at the end that strongly reminded me of the end of the Mistborn trilogy.  I wonder if this was part of Harriet's decision to have Sanderson finish the series.   And this may sound horrible, but I'm rather glad that Sanderson took over the series, because I can't imagine how Jordan would have wrapped this all up given his last few novels.  Basically, if you have made it through this far, you will be mostly satisfied with how it ends though it isn't perfect, but the series stopped living up to its potential a long time ago.  While this novel isn't a "great novel," it works as well as it can given the issues that started appearing in the middle of the series to come to a good conclusion and makes the series feel complete.
Now a quick discussion on The Wheel of Time series.  Obviously I can't simply recommend this novel so the question is whether I would recommend the series.  I definitely wouldn't recommend this to just anyone - my dad has read the Codex Alera twice, he has read the Mistborn trilogy, and the first two novels of the Kingkiller Chronicles.  There is no way I would recommend this series to him - in fact, I would discourage him from reading it.  He would get bored with the middle part and stop.  No matter which way you look at it, the middle part of this series drags on and could have been condensed.  This is not just a matter of people not being patient and not appreciating world building as so many defenders argue - Jordan literally describes every single dress his characters wear or even think of wearing, one of the novels includes a scene where Elayne draws a bubble bath and it literally takes up four pages.  Fortunately, that's where scanning comes in.  I actually did enjoy some of the detail and extra intrigue when applied to things like societies and their cultural systems instead of clothes.  I think the problem becomes especially pronounced when you wait for two years for a novel only to discover that it is mostly devoted to setting up for later.  Since I came to the series late, I felt like some of the middle books dragged on occasion but I didn't have to wait two years to not get any answers, I could simply read the next novel.  So I think the middle drag is definitely still an issue but the fact that the series is now available as a whole should at least help with it.  Jordan is great at world building, adding lots of detail, and I liked that the characters had to deal with conflicts from different sources rather than simply the Dark One, and had to deal with day to day issues and politics.  However, at some points it went further than it needed to, and some of the secondary big bads were distracting rather than intimidating or interesting, especially past a certain point in the series. 
I want to say that this series is important because of its place in fantasy.  Certainly, many authors seem to credit Jordan as an inspiration, but unfortunately most of the fantasy I've read was written after Jordan so I can't really say if he was part of a trend or started it.  At this point, I expect fantasy to involve varied worlds and political plots.  Additionally while I could easily say "this reminds me of the Forsaken" when reading a more current novel, I could also say "the Forsaken are like ringwraiths with actual personalities."  And then of course there is what I would consider Jordan's major flaw (Sanderson tried to fix this, or at least, downplay it some, but it was still present in the last three novels of the series because you can't simply completely change everyone's personalities) - Jordan appears to be a huge believer in the battle of the sexes and a gender essentialist.  He has lots of women in positions of power and with power in his series, but they aren't necessarily very well written, and are at times interchangeable with all their annoyance and braid pulling.  Instead of actually communicating and explaining themselves logically, as soon as the women get around a man they become bossy nags (who secretly all just want/need a man).  They aren't much nicer to each other, depending on the novel and the situation.  And there are way too many comments about spanking.  Not to mention the fact that Rand gets three love interests (who agree to share him) - did I miss something, was this series written by a Mormon stay at home dad (sorry, bad Twilight joke)?  In fact, I'm under the impression that all three of the main women in the series were virgins, while most of the guys get to play the field a bit.  Jordan isn't necessarily repressed about sex, some of his powerful women rulers have lovers, but the three main ones?  As far as I know, they are virgins until they marry/find their true love etc and with the exception of Perrin, none of the guys do the same.  Basically, I don't know if I'd recommend the series.  I'm glad I read them, there were definitely some very good things and stories in the beginning and the end, but I don't think this is a series I'll ever reread.  I'm not sure if the good outweighs the bad, because some of the main characters were very boring and honestly, not really that likeable, and there were some very frustrating parts in the novels.  Still, I am glad I can say I read this if only because it means I can have an opinion on this series that has been a part of the fantasy world for over 20 years.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book 5: When Christ and His Saints Slept

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman

During a somewhat recent BN trip (it was last year), I noticed Sharon Kay Penman's novel Lionheart on display, and while I had no desire to read about King Richard, it reminded me that I had meant to check this author out based on a previous recommendation. When I saw that this novel concerned Maude (or Mathilda) and Stephen of Blois, I was of course drawn to it.  My guess is that most readers who are familiar with this time period are probably so due to Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth.  Certainly, that was my first introduction to this war of succession fought in 12th century England (and Normandy).  I also read the nonfiction book She-Wolves about two years ago, and Mathilda was one of the women highlighted in the book.  As a result, I certainly looked forward to reading another piece about her.  Additionally, this novel is the first of the Henry and Eleanor trilogy.  I may be under the mistaken impression here, but it seems like Henry II has either been ignored in recent history or gained a bit of a bad rap.  Certainly, he had an eventful reign, and his interactions with Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, and his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, appear to have overshadowed much else.  My first introductions to Henry II weren't positive since the first time I heard of him was in The Pillars of the Earth which involves a scene featuring Becket's death (and since Philip is a monk, the reader sees his perspective which is that a king's involvement in church affairs is bad), and my second interaction with him was in the German historical fiction novel Die Lowin von Aquitanien (The Lioness of Aquitaine) which naturally focused on Eleanor and how she was wronged.  Certainly, I understand and share the current fascination with Eleanor, a strong woman in a time when women were expected to be silent, but it seems that it has left her husband on the sidelines.  It wasn't until I started reading Ariana Franklin's series of medieval murders, starting with Mistress of the Art of Death, that I started to reevaluate my opinion of Henry II.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find any recent nonfiction biographies on him, and even today, a search on Amazon links to books that are out of print or would cost about $40 to purchase (and yet there is a new book on Thomas Becket out - I may eventually check it out just for the Henry II references but I am not sure if I really want to read about a church figure).  However, even Eleanor's biographers, such as Alison Weir, are actually rather generous towards Henry II, and emphasize some of his foresight and strengths as a ruler.  It is completely fascinating to me that in general people seem to think good things when they hear Richard the Lionheart, and while he was certainly a great warrior, he was not nearly the man or the administrator that his father was (who was also a great battle commander).  In fact, he and his brothers all rebelled against their father at one point or another because they wanted to rule.  I guess it helps when you get a good nickname, though, and when you are still a better option than the brother that succeeds you.
At seven hundred pages, this novel is certainly a commitment, and it's not just due to its length.  It's not a light, breezy read - Penman is very detailed and while her narrative is engaging, it is not for the faint of heart.  The novel spans over fifty years, beginning with intro chapters when Stephen of Blois is only 5, skipping ahead to the events of the White Ship, when Henry I's only legitimate male heir dies, leading to his decision to make Mathilda his heir, and going through the years leading up to Henry I's death until the eventful decision of Stephen's to claim the throne as his own rather than let his female cousin have her inheritance.  The novel follows the years of war, the endless allegiances and changes in fortune, finally ending with Henry II claiming his throne upon Stephen's death.  Given that this is historical fiction about famous events that actually happened I hope that I do not have to worry about spoiler alerts - obviously, it is known historical fact that Henry II becomes king of England.
While Penman mostly focuses on the leaders and the famous men and women, she throws in occasional vignettes from random people to add different perspectives, so there are quite a few characters that appear for a few pages never to be seen again.  Many of the key historical players share names, but Penman does a good job of distinguishing them by using variations of names, so that Stephen's wife Mathilda is referred to by the Latinized version of the name, while the empress is referred to as Maude, the vernacular version of it, and her niece is Maud (obviously this distinction wouldn't be of much help in an audio book version).  While it has always been easy for me to side with Maude since clearly the throne was hers to inherit, Penman did not portray Stephen as a villain even if he did usurp his cousin's inheritance.  He was a product of his time, afraid of what a woman ruler might do, convinced by others to do the wrong thing.  The problem is that while Stephen appears to really be a kind, good and honorable man, he does not have what it takes to be a strong and good ruler, too forgiving, too easily swayed and unwilling to make the tough decisions, leading to lords that have no respect or fear of their king, leaving them to do as they please.  Maude, on the other hand, makes her share of mistakes as well, though clearly, she would have been judged differently if she had been a man making the same mistakes.  However, Maude is uncompromising and keeps using her father as an example of how a king should act, not factoring in that men will react differently to a woman doing these things than to a man doing them.  Her marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou is a disaster because neither is able to compromise or willing to make even the smallest concessions.  Stephen and Maude are both frustrating - in some ways, Maude was more frustrating because I kept thinking if she had only just been a bit more pliant, more willing to listen, maybe things could have been different.  Later in the novel, she softens or at least gains a certain amount of self awareness that helps her character even if it is too late for her bid for the throne.  Stephen, on the other hand, was incredibly likeable but he just didn't have the right mettle.  On their own, they may have been decent rulers, but as two rulers fighting for the crown they were disastrous, as their blunders kept prolonging the war, giving the lords and earls time to switch sides over and over again for small grievances and real or imagined slights.  As Maude eventually notes, one thing that she and Stephen have in common is that their worst wounds are self inflicted.  Unlike Stephen, Maude was blessed with incredibly supportive brothers, especially Robert, and a few other very loyal supporters while Stephen is mostly surrounded by opportunist.
Penman does a great job of building a variety of characters, showing how they grow and change over the years.  She peppers her novel with a variety of strong and supportive women and wives which was nice to see given how easily this novel could have simply focused on men and war with Maude (and Eleanor) as the exception.  While Henry II doesn't start to take center stage until more than halfway to two thirds through the novel, she makes sure to show the boy's development, demonstrating his early intelligence and precociousness.  When I was less than halfway through the novel, I figured I would finish the trilogy but would probably need a bit of a break before picking up the next in the series.  However, at some point, the narrative really started to flow for me, and I am now quite looking forward to continuing on with Eleanor and Henry's story, even though I know it ends unhappily.  I don't plan on reading the sequel right away, but it will certainly be sooner rather than later.

(Of course one thing that is truly amazing is that after this 19 year civil war, the almost exact same thing happens again about three hundred years later with the Wars of the Roses, another ravaging series of battles with ever changing allegiances.  And there are even more wars in the years between these two huge succession oriented ones.)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Tentative Reading List for the Keyword Challenge

I was going through my pile of books at the house to find some candidates for the 2013 Keyword Reading Challenge, and have a tentative list for the year.  It may change because I'm more enthusiastic about some of these choices than others.  I'll sporadically add links and updates to this as the challenge continues and I have reviewed novels, or as my reading list changes.
January (winter, snow, silver, white, cold, shiver, smoke, fire, freeze, breath): Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, The Whites of Their Eyes by Jill Lepore, The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse
Total: 3
March: (luck, wish, gold, rainbow, green, mountain, valley, magic, farm, treasure): The Magicians by Lev Grossman, City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Total: 3
August (come, look, gift, cloud, food, clear, tree, orange, test, broken): Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, Broken Harbor by Tana French, The Dinner by Herman Koch, Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay
Total: 4
September (shade, cry, blow, memory, kiss, space, fast, storm, blue, club): My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares, Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell
Total: 2
October (witch, haunt, murder, death, phantom, inside, fear, weapon, trapped, ghost): The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockridge
Total: 3

Monday, January 07, 2013

Book Challenges

While I've been participating in the Cannonball Read for what will now be five years running, I thought it might be fun to add some other book challenges.  I'm always reading about different ones peopel are doing on book blogs, and I feel like it could help me branch out a bit as far as my reading goes and hopefully discover new authors.
The first one I want to do is the Mount TBR Challenge as I'm sure my dad will be glad to hear.  The idea?  Read books from your to read pile or "mount."  Any books owned prior to 1 JAN 13 qualify.  Guess it's a good thing I went on my post Christmas shopping spree before 1 Jan.  I'm going to start at Mount Vancouver (36 books) though I can always go for more.

The next one that appeals to me is one that has a list of keywords for each month, and the idea is to read a novel each month that has one of those key words in the title.  Sounds like it could be fun.  I know I have at least one book in my TBR pile that includes the word "winter" so that would take care of two birds, one stone.
monthly key word challenge
I read a lot of historical fiction.  Not as much as I used to, and I try to incorporate nonfiction more, but in general, I'd say fantasy and historical fiction are my most read genres.  In fact I just started the first of historical fiction trilogy.  As a result, I'm going to sign up for the 2013 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, aiming for Medieval level with 15 books.
I don't think I'm really going far out of my comfort zone on any of these but I figure I'll get to read some interesting reviews this way, and feel a bit more obligated to work through my pile of unread books rather than simply adding more to it.

Book 4: The One I Left Behind

I'm not sure how it is possible to both be completely hooked into the plot line of a novel and still feel like it was just "meh" at the end.  That, however, is how I feel about this mystery novel by Jennifer McMahon.  A few of her novels have caught my eye in the past, and I ended up picking this up last week while on an errand to Barnes and Noble (what, I had finished The Passage and desperately needed to know what would happen next).  The premise certainly sounds intriguing - Reggie, a successful architect, receives a call from her aunt that her mother, Vera Dufrane, is in a hospital.  Since Vera has been presumed dead at the hands of the Neptune serial killer for 25 years, this is a rather surprising development.  In 1985, the Neptune serial killer had four victims, all women.  His MO was to leave the severed hand of his latest victim on the steps of the police station, and five days later, he would kill them and leave their naked bodies prominently displayed.  Vera was his last victim, her hand appearing on the steps, though her body (obviously) never showed up on the fifth day.  Now that Vera has returned, people can't help but feel hopeful to finally discover the identity of the killer, but Vera, suffering from cancer and the effects of a life of alcoholism, is clearly suffering from dementia.
The novel flashes back and forth between the present day (or 2010, close enough) and the spring/early summer of 1985 when the killing spree starts.  Reggie and her two friends, Tara and Charlie, all hang out together though there is a bit of a love triangle between the 13 year olds - Reggie likes Charlie who likes Tara who has some issues.  Honestly, while the novel was well written, I really didn't care too much about any of these friends or their dynamics.  It just feels like I've seen it so many times before, often much better done.  Three friends that are misfits?  Check, roger, whatever.  Oh, one of them is a cutter.  It just all seems so by the numbers, especially after reading Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.  If I want to read about cutting, I'll take her.  Reggie's home environment is complicated - she lives with her aunt and her mom, and her mom is a bit of a barfly, always picking up new boyfriends for drinks.  When Reggie was younger, Vera actually took her along at least once, leading to an incident with a dog that led to her losing an ear.  Basically, Reggie has lots of intimacy issues due to her childhood.
The actual mystery was engaging, but I didn't really like Reggie or any of the characters too much.  In addition to the Neptune mystery, the novel hints that something unrelated happened between the three friends that summer, something bad that has haunted them.  I honestly didn't care what it was, and it wasn't much more interesting after the reveal.  I guess the author wanted some big explanation on why the three friends stopped being friends but "they drifted apart" would have been a perfectly acceptable answer to me.  It just seems like I've seen these types of broken, damaged people before.  While it plays into the mystery, would it have been that bad if Reggie had been normal, and was damaged only due to her mother's disappearance instead of adding all this extra stuff?  It just seemed like she was trying to do too much, add too much drama and padding, and it hurt the novel overall by making the characters annoying and unlikeable rather than people whose fate I cared about.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Book 3: The Song of Achilles

While I was in Barnes and Noble last week, I decided to take a different approach than usual and instead of spending most of my time scouring the tables with new or noteworthy fiction, I went through the actual shelved section of "fiction and literature", picking up anything that sounded interesting.  Generally, it seems like there is too much for anything to stand out in the shelves but this book caught my eye, and the first few pages held my interest so I got it with my Christmas gift cards.  I was also pleasantly surprised to see that it had won the Orange Prize last year (I now feel like I should pay more attention to lists when making my decisions but usually when the list is announced the novels are still only available in hardcover and then I forget).
I have always loved Greek mythology.  Naturally, I'm familiar with the story of The Illiad, but I can't say I have ever really had that much interest in Achilles (except when he was portrayed by Brad Pitt).  He just always seemed like he was too concerned with honor, and it is hard not to think of him as a petulant child when he refuses to fight even though his comrades with whom he has shared the battle field for almost a decade are dying because of his absence.  While several novels have been written about the Trojan War (including ones from the perspective of Penelope and Helen), none of the ones I've read have really done Achilles any favors.  He is either barely mentioned or portrayed negatively: in Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Firebrand he is portrayed as a psychopath, and even Shakespeare portrays him as a coward that couldn't defeat Hector honorably and had to ambush him in an unsuspecting moment in Troilus and Cressida.  It's always been easy to like Odysseus, the clever one, the trickster, but Achilles is a difficult figure.  I'm not sure if it is just due to being from a more modern time, or if even people in past periods had similar problems with the great warrior.
The Song of Achilles is actually narrated by Patroclus, who depending on the source and interpretation has been portrayed as either Achilles's best friend or his lover (or his cousin).  Patroclus has spent his entire young life as a disappointment to his father, he is weak and slow, the son of a simple mother.  After ten year old Patroclus accidentally kills a boy while defending himself for possibly the first time ever, his father has no problem sending him into exile to Phthia, the kingdom ruled by Peleus, father of Achilles.  Despite what Patroclus considers his extreme ordinariness, Achilles takes an interest in him, and chooses him as a companion.  As they grow up Patroclus develops romantic feelings for Achilles, the beautiful boy who is incredibly fast and skilled, loves to play the lyre and who is already prophesied to be the greatest warrior of his time though Patroclus does not act on them except for one kiss, once.  Thetis, the sea nymph goddess and mother of Achilles, develops an early hatred of Patroclus, feeling him beneath her son as a mere mortal.  Still, Achilles is more than pleased when Patroclus chooses to follow him to his training with Chiron, centaur and teacher of heroes.  They are up on Mount Pelion for their training for three years before reality interferes and Peleus calls them back.  Though Achilles is set to be the greatest warrior, his training on Mount Pelion focused on arts and medicine and other random skills.  Patroclus and Achilles have already changed the basis of ther relationship by this point, becoming lovers, thus making everything that happens later so much easier to understand and more poignant.
Achilles knows the prophecies, and he knows he has the potential to be renowned for the rest of history but die young, or to be obscure and long-lived.  Obviously, he chooses fame, but Miller shows an Achilles that is a thoughtful and caring boy/teenager rather than a bloodthirsty warrior searching for fame.  Patroclus, a kind man who was more drawn to Chiron's medical knowledge, hates the idea of warfare but still describes Achilles as beautiful in battle - for Achilles, it is not about the killing but the challenge, preferring to take on large groups in battle rather than individuals. Given how gentle and noncombative Patroclus was, I was really curious to see how Madeline was going to make the end of the novel work without it seeming like she was completely changing his character, and it worked really well.  Equally, I completely bought how the Achilles of the earlier part of the novel became so prideful at a later part of the novel.  It seems like a lot of times when people write historical fiction or other pieces based on events and people that existed/ are from other pieces of fiction, the author does such a good job of humanizing the villain that decisions made later don't make sense at all with the character that the author created.  The actions and decisions have to happen because the real person (or character in another narrative) made/did them but often times they seem incongruous with the novel's character.  In this case, Miller finds the perfect balance between making the characers relatable and likable, but showing their flaws and making their decisions seem organic to her novel rather than simply things they have to do because that's what happened in The Illiad.
This novel was absolutely amazing, and I loved how she changed my view of Patroclus and Achilles, portraying a truly moving and touching love story.  If I hadn't been in public, there is a good chance I would have cried at the ending (or a few pages before the ending).  Highly recommend this to anyone, unless the idea of reading a love story between two men makes them squeamish.  If that is the case, you're missing out on a great story and beautiful novel.  I know it's early in the year to say this, but I could easily see this one making my top ten list for 2013.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Book 2: The Twelve

Since it is a sequel, it can probably be left unsaid that spoilers for the first book are present.
While the novel kept me up late at night because I wanted to know what would happen next, I didn't enjoy it quite as much as The Passage - after all the build up, the ending seemed a bit rushed.  However, I quite liked the build up.  In both The Passage and The Twelve, some of the chapters begin with a heading with a date of 1003 AV (after virus). showing that whatever follows in that portion of the novel was presented at a conference.  As a result, no matter how dark the novel gets, the reader can assume that some type of civilization has survived.  I actually quite enjoy the idea of papers being written hundreds of years after an apocalyptic event and presented at a scholarly conference.  This novel begins with a prologue, presented at this conference, which is basically an account of the previous novel written much like stories in the Bible.  It really is a great way to jog a reader's memories of everything that occured in the previous novel (of course, I read the novels back to back so I'm not sure how effective it was for someone with a year between the two).
After this quick refresher, Cronin jumps right into the action.  It is five years after the end of The Passage and despite various hunts to find the other eleven (one of the twelve having died at the end of the previous novel), they haven't had any luck locating any others, and continue to face the same challenges.  Amy is living in a convent with "baby" Caleb who along with Hollis survived the Roswell Massacre.  Peter and Alicia continue their hunt as officers in the expeditionary forces, and Michael is working on an oil rigger.  Having set the scene and reacquainted readers with all the characters, the novel then flashes back to the year of the outbreak.  In The Passage, Wolgast and Amy hid in the mountains as civilization fell.  This novel portrays exactly what was happening while they were there, using characters previously introduced, such as Grey, or mentioned, such as Wolgast's ex-wife Lila, and "the Last Stand in Denver."  He also gives more background on some characters from the previous novel.  I actually really liked these parts of the novel, especially when I saw some of the connections forming.
Once the narrative returns to 97 AV, all the characters find themselves enroute to the same goal, independently of each other.  After meeting Anthony Carter, the final death row inmate to become part of the Twelve, in the previous novel, it was nice to return to him, and see how he had evolved in his state as a viral.  Unlike the other violent, brutal criminals, Carter was always an anamoly.  Given that Cronin introduced the small town of Haven in a previous novel, the revelations he makes here make complete sense within the narrative context of the story.  Besides the almost rushed and slightly unsatisfying ending, I think my biggest gripe with the novel was a certain female character's protrayal.  While I think it makes sense that a person's brain might shield them from the trauma they were surrounded by, I just expected this particular character to be stronger and more stable.  I think the main reason this bugged me though is because it just seemed like such a stereotypical character from certain types of fiction - the crazy mother that blocks out the world.  I almost felt like I was reading about the crazy Southern belle in a novel set around the Civil War era.  After having so many strong female characters in the novel, it was just disappointing to see him fall back on an old literary trope.  Still, while the novel wasn't perfect, it was still a good second novel, with some forward progress, setting up for the last part of the trilogy.  More importantly, I still care about the characters, and want to see how it all ends (something I wasn't saying after the second novel of The Strain Trilogy)

Book 1: The Passage

Looks like this year is off to a good start bookwise, at least.  I have been meaning to read The Passage for a few months now, but kept choosing other novels instead.  It's not that I have anything against book series, because it can be nice to revisit old characters but it also gets old having to wait for the next part to come out, and I just didn't want to add yet another one to my list.  I think it may also be partially due to the fact that I was a bit disappointed with the last vampire trilogy I started, The Strain Trilogy (enjoyed the first book, but the second one seemed rather unnecessary; I haven't even read the final one yet).
It's a rather large novel, and Cronin spends a decent amount of time setting the scene and introducing the characters, the most important being the six year old girl, Amy.  After her mother leaves her at a convent, a secret government program decides that she would be the perfect candidate to add to their experiments with a virus that prolongs human life and turns its victims into blood thirsty monsters.  FBI agent Brad Wolgast is tasked to pick up the girl with no last name and no footprint, since the assumption is that no one will miss this girl.  Of course, that doesn't quite pan out and transporting her to the testing site in Colorado doesn't go as smoothly as planned.  Additionally, Wolgast develops a protective and paternal attachment to the girl, and feels guilty about involving her though he is unable to save her from the experiment.  As in most novels, the military's plan go awfully awry, and soon the government-created vampires, all violent former death row inmates, are free to spread destruction across the United States.  As Wolgast and Amy leave in the midst of the outbreak, the scientist behind the program implies that he used Amy as a key or potential savior of humanity to counteract the disaster he foresaw resulting from the NOAH Project.  Instead of describing the destruction and widespread panic, Cronin chooses to follow Amy and Wolgast as they escape together to the wilderness, and then flashes forward 92 years to a small community of survivors in California, descended from a train of children from Philadelphia before its fall.
I enjoyed reading about the individuals in the Colony, but was also anxious to get back to Amy's story.  The Colony is experiencing a strange time of upheaval when Amy arrives at its gates, and while many fear her and what she may represent, a few of the younger crowd of the Colony believe she raises important questions, leading to a good old fashioned quest story.  The Colony is isolated and has had no communications with the outside, so as the group embarks on their journey through vampire infested lands, they have little idea what has happened to the rest of the United States, or even there are even any other survivors.
There is much more to it than that, but I tried to avoid anything too spoilery that can't already be guessed from the cover or the Amazon description.  I actually enjoyed all the detail that Cronin went into, and how he developed his various characters and their relationships.  The book cover compares the novel to The Stand, and certainly the "government experiment goes wrong and is released to the general public" premise is rather reminiscent of The Stand.  In fact, a few characters in the Colony begin to have dreams and hear voices, influencing their decisions, which I feel like I have seen in several other vampire novels before, but also specifically King novels.  However, since The Stand is one of King's best novels, it isn't exactly an insult to be compared to him.  Honestly, I didn't even really notice it too much while I was reading the novel because I was too wrapped up in the story, but I can see it in retrospect, especially since both authors have such large casts of characters, managing to make even some characters that would normally be harshly judged somewhat sympathetic.  While I have been burned before on series, recommending them after reading the first novel, only to discover that the follow ups couldn't compare, I am far enough into the second novel at this point to feel safe recommending this one to other readers.

And all the others: Books 53-87

And the rest of the novels for 2012 that are unreviewed:
53. Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe
54. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
55. Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn
56. Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
57. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow
58. A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
59. War by Sebastian Junger
60. Secret of the White Rose by Stefanie Pintoff
61. Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
62. The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
63. The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey
64. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean
65. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
66. The Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach
67. Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin
68. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson
69. There's Cake in My Future by Kim Gruenenfelder
70. Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
71. Testimony by Anita Shreve
72. Always Something There to Remind Me by Beth Harbison
73. Cold Days (The Dresden Files, Book 14) by Jim Butcher
74. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
75. The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
76. The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
77. The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons
78. The Yard by Alex Grecian
79. The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan
80. The Throne of Fire by Rick Riordan
81. The Serpent's Shadow by Rick Riordan
82. My Custom Van by Michael Ian Black
83. Size 14 Is Not Fat Either by Meg Cabot
84. Big Boned by Meg Cabot
85. Size 12 and Ready to Rock by Meg Cabot
86. Gone, Girl by Gillian Flynn
87. The Map of Time by Felix J. Palmer
I didn't read as many books as I have in previous years, and definitely didn't review nearly as many.  While I tried to mix up my reading, it turns out that I read a lot more fantasy than I thought.  I also started quite a few books in 2012 that just couldn't quite hold my interest, and that I didn't finish, many of those non-fiction, which may also explain my lower number than usual since instead of moving on, I would just not read for a few days before finally admitting that I wasn't returning to whichever book it was.

Book 52: Graceling

It seems odd but it turns out that I ended both 2011 and 2012 with the first in a YA trilogy.  Kristin Cashore doesn't spend too much time world building, instead letting the reader's imagination/familiarity with other fantasy and historical periods fill in lots of the details.  Her main character, Katsa (what is it with female heroines with "Kat" in their name) is the niece of one of the Kings of the Seven Kingdoms (there are the five main ones whose names are basically variations of middle, south, north, east and west, and then the island kingdom and the kingdom over the mountains).  In this world, some people are "graced" with special skills, and they can be distinguished because their eyes are different colors (Katsa has one green and one blue).  The skills change from person to person; for example, some might be really good at swimming, or cooking, or other things such as that.  Katsa is graced with killing, and her uncle uses her as an enforcer, sending her throughout the realm to make examples of people that have broken the law or disobeyed him in one way or another.
However, Katsa doesn't enjoy being an enforcer, and she and her cousin have set up a secret council that tries to counterbalance some of the king's wrong doings.  More importantly, the council extends into other kingdoms so that the council has been able to help out in varios kingdoms that all seem to be mismanaged by power hungry kings.  During one council mission to save a kidnapped prince, Katsa stumbles across another graceling who appears to have superb combat skills as his talent.  He ends up tracking her back to the palace, and introduces himself as Prince Po, seventh son of the island king.  Katsa and Po develop a friendship, partially because Po is the only person that has come even close to giving Katsa a challenge during combatives training.  They work together to determine why the prince was kidnapped, and their discoveries and suspicions lead them on a mission to some of the other kingdoms.
It's probably not a surprise to hear that there is a bit of a romance in the novel, but I liked Cashore's approach and while it was obvious, it also developed somewhat organically instead of just being the usual love at first sight story, and it is based on more than simple attraction.  Katsa has long been wary of her grace but as the novel progresses she begins to discover good things about it, and changes her view of herself as a savage killer and thug.  This is the first in a trilogy though from what I've heard it is less of a trilogy and more of a series of three interrelated novels with different main characters.  I like this idea because while I'm sure there is more to Katsa's story, I feel like it concludes in a good place for her.  Therefore I'm perfectly okay with the idea of her simply showing up as supporting character or guest star in one of the other novels because too much more of her would probably only take away from the conclusion of this novel.

Book 51: To End All Wars

While this is the third Adam Hochschild book I've read, it is actually the first one that caught my eye.  I simply wasn't willing to spend money on a hardcover for an author I was unfamiliar with, and started reading some of his older books first, both of which I loved.  While this one was just as informative and well written as the other two, I think I slightly preferred the other two.  However, I think this may have a bit to do with the subject matter.  I am very much interested in World War I but I already know a bit about the topic.  As a result, I learned a lot from this book but not as much as when I read his book about the British abolition movement or the Belgians in the Congo, topics I knew basically nothing about.
Still, Hochschild takes a different approach to World War I.  While he talks about the war to help contextualize everything that is going on, his actual topic is the anti-war movement, and the pacifists.  While they heroically spoke out against a war that now everyone would agree had absolutely no point and simply led to another war, at the time they were villainized and seen as criminals.  One of the pacifists in this book was actually an important person in his book King Leopold's Ghost, the investigative journalist that helped bring the Congo's blight to the public eye.  Some of the people that Hochschild introduces have various faults and seem extreme in their views, but there were others whose fate it was impossible not to feel bad about.  I would definitely recommend this one, because it adds a perspective that isn't often focused on during studies of history.

Book 50: Furious Love

We read the play and watched the film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof my senior year of high school but besides that I don't think I've ever seen an Elizabeth Taylor movie, and certainly not one of the ones with Richard Burton.  Still, it's basically impossible to not know at least a little bit about Elizabeth, her various marriages, Richard Burton, and not be impressed by her standing in pop culture and film history.
Maybe I would have enjoyed this more if I'd also watched some of the films while reading the book.  However, while I think the book gave a very good portrayal of the famous couple, and was very sympathetic to them, at some point it all got to be too much.  Then again, given the book's subject that actually makes sense: Taylor and Burton enjoyed their quiet moments but being "Liz and Dick" took its toll, and their life together was certainly defined by excess - alcohol, food, diamonds.  I liked the book for the most part, but it just got to the point where I was ready for it to be over.  Perhaps like their marriage, it just went on a bit too long.  Still, it was a very comprehensive discussion of their marriage, and put some of the Hollywood legend into context for me. I'm not sure if I would quite say it humanized her because the life Taylor led still seems very excessive and so removed from normality but it certainly illuminated what it was like to be Hollywood royalty in the past.

Book 49: Girls in White Dresses

When I picked this up, I was basically expecting chick lit, but possibly a more realistic version of it.  Instead, it was more of a collection of vignettes told from various different characters that are all in the same social group.  Some characters have more than one vignette, while others have only one from their perspective but are referenced in later discussions.  While this novel wasn't a page turner by any means, and it actually took me a while to get into the format, overall I felt like the novel rang rather true.  Or at least it rang true of what I hear other people's lives are like.
The various character drift in and out of relationships and jobs, but none of them have the perfect life as seen in a chick lit novel.  Instead, they seem representative of lots of college grads trying to figure things out, some taking longer to figure out what they want or to just get lucky and find the right guy or profession.  While none of the characters are necessarily super developed, I think that is what helps make it so relatable.  Basically, it's a quiet novel, and while it's not necessarily a book that I would run out and recommend to everyone if only because it's not something that I would even think of, it also isn't a waste of time.  I realize I haven't given much plot summary but there isn't necessarily much of a plot - it just chronicles the lives of various friends and their relationships with each other, men and their success or lack thereof professionally.

Book 48: The Wise Man's Fear

This is the second novel in the Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy, and while it was still an engaging read, it also suffered a bit from similar issues as other second novels in trilogies.  Due to running into some problems at school, both with people and with money, Kvothe decides to take the semester off, and heads to another city to try to get a patron in the form of the Maer, a very powerful man in Severen.  If Kvothe can prove himself and help the Maer woo a woman, he hopes that the Maer would agree to be his official patron.  His work for the Maer leads to several different adventures, including an interlude in the land of faeries, and an explanation of where Kvothe learned his fighting skills.  Some of these side tasks lead him to cross paths with the Amyr or Chandrian that he has been pursuing but he doesn't learn too much more.
Basically, the two book of the series have been hinting all types of adventures and intrigue that involve Kvothe, and while the book reveals some of it, I don't feel like it went nearly far enough, considering that there is only one book remaining.  Especially since it seems like there is upheaval in the current day of this world, and I assume at least part of the third book may deal with having to face forces in the present rather than just talking about the past.  For example, the novels have been hinting at Kvothe's expulsion from the University, but two books in, and Kvothe is still a student, even if he is one that took a year off.  That means there is only one book for the reader to get any type of closure with the Chandrian, for Kvothe to get expelled and for the reader to find out why he is also referred to as the Kingkiller (other than the obvious, more importantly how it happened).  As a result, while I enjoyed the novel, I was also disappointed that it didn't reveal more.  It just seems like the third novel is either going to be huge or incredibly rushed which would be disappoining after how well-paced the first two were.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Book 47: The Emperor of Maladies

While science lost its appeal for me during high school's AP Chemistry class, I still enjoy the occasional science book for the laymen such A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Disappearing Spoon, etc.  I like to know the ideas and the processes behind science, just don't ask me to get into the actual details.  I've also read a few books (and added others to my wishlist) related to medical history that I've enjoyed, including The Great Influenza, so this tome seemed like a natural addition to my reading pile.
It definitely did not disappoint.  Mukherjee frames the book with a patient's story, a woman who is diagnosed with an aggressive type of leukemia.  While he refers to her on occasion, he then delves deep into the history and some of the science behind cancer.  While there are references to diseases that appear to be cancer to the modern eye going as far back as the ancient Egyptians, cancer's current prevalence is rather recent, and for good reason: our life expectancy has increased quite a lot.  By eliminating (or at least reducing the occurence of) other killers, such as tuberculosis, typhoid and many other diseases, humans now have the opportunity to live long enough to develop cancer.
While the book is subtitled a "biography of cancer," it doesn't have straight time line.  Instead, he picks different topics and approaches, and discusses them in a detailed manner.  The reader can then connect the dots and be baffled by the type of treatments that were occuring while other groundbreaking research was showing how ineffective that treatment was (such as radical mastectomies not adding any more life span than a smaller surgery would have in a similar case).  The American Cancer Society was originally a small group but once certain donors became interested in the cause it became a political force.  Of course, while they did a lot to get more funding for cancer and such, Mukherjee also discusses the idea that historically, most diseases and illnesses have been eradicated due to prevention rather than treatment, and while cancer treatment is of course important, ACS's constant pushing for cures may have also diverted some people from focusing on the cause, or getting to know and understand the disease more intimately.  He talks about the history of lung cancer as one of the most obvious one as far as causes while for other cancers there is still much to be learned.  While he discusses breast cancer, I was surprised that he didn't mention Suan G. Komen - it just seems like there is so much talk about breast cancer being ignored before those types of organizations but it seems like most cancers were kind of quietly hidden and not talked about for a long period of time prior to last century.  He also discusses the idea of cancer patients being at war, and how cancer is portrayed as a battle so that in some cases the hardest thing is to simply accept that there is a point where nothing else can be done, and simply let the patient die with dignity without the patient feeling like they have somehow failed in their battle.
Overall, I thought it was an absolutely fascinating read, discussing cures and treatments that can sometimes seem worse than the disease, what research has revealed recently, and the way people's understanding as evolved over the years, and how understanding could be culturall influenced.  It was definitely worth the time, and Mukherjee never forgets the people involved, be that the scientists, the doctors, or the patients.