Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book 93: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

I'm actually surprised I haven't read this earlier since it is a fairly well known novel dealing with the Holocaust, a topic I always tend to gravitate towards.  Perhaps it was the fact that it seemed to be very much marketed for a younger audience (not that this prevented me from reading and loving The Book Thief).  Upon completing the novel, I thought this felt like a fairy tale of the Holocaust until I flipped back to the front and noticed the title page actually read as "The Boy in Striped Pajamas: A Parable."  Boyne mixes realism with events that could maybe have happened because some crazy unbelievable things happened involving the Holocaust, but mostly feel like something that never could have taken place, at least not for a prolonged period of time.  As a result, I think adding that word parable to the title helps - Boyne isn't trying to give his readers an entirely accurate impression of the Holocaust but wants to tell a small personal story involving the Holocaust.
Bruno, the main character, is nine years old when his father gets a promotion, and the family has to move from their large home in Berlin to a smaller house in "Outwith."  His father has been placed in charge of a camp, and Bruno has a view of this camp from his bedroom window, where he can see lots of people in striped pajamas.  While Bruno hates his new home, the lack of friends and the soldiers that are constantly in and out of the house to speak with his father, he eventually decides to explore and walks the perimeter of the fence around the camp until he sees a boy in striped pajamas on the other side.  Bruno and Shmuel strike up a conversation, and continue to meet every day, each on their side of the fence.
Obviously, the idea that a young boy could go undetected while sitting next to a fence of aconcentration camp for a long period of time is the part that seems somewhat fantastical.  The other part of the book that may or may not be believable is Bruno's cluelessness about what is going on.  He has to be told that the people in the camp are Jews, and he feels a bit jealous of Shmuel being on the side of the fence with all the people.  Adult readers of course know exactly what Shmuel means when he says certain things while Bruno just doesn't get it.  He notices that Shmuel is very skinny and even tries to bring him food on occasion, but he still eats the food he brings with him while he is on his way to the fence half the time.
At nine, it probably is easy for Bruno to be wrapped up in his own world, which makes the silences on Shmuel's part all the more poignant for the knowledgeable reader.  Not only does Shmuel not know how to disillusion Bruno, but saying too much might very well get him into trouble since he is speaking not only with a German but with the commandant's son.  That isn't to say that Boyne leaves out all the dark moments - he simply writes them from a nine year old's perspective - Bruno witnesses some things that leave him confused and frightened but he doesn't necessarily know how to process it or how to put it in a context beyond a personal experience with a sadistic soldier.
While I think there are many more powerful Holocaust pieces out there, I would say this was a rather sweet story, and could be enjoyed by both children as an introduction to the Holocaust or older readers that have the ability to fill in the blanks.  It's also rather short, which works in its favor because if the novel had been much longer, I probably would have wanted more meat in the story rather than a simple story of friendship set against a very complicated and horrifying time.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Book 92: Industrial Magic

Picking up a few months after Dime Store Magic, Paige, Lucas and Savannah are living in Portland, Oregon.  Lucas continues to do pro-bono lawyer work in defiance of his father, the CEO of the Cortez Cabal (think head of the most important mob but run by sorcerers and employing supernaturals), while Paige attempts to start a coven of her own.  However, she is rather lacking in success, and part of it is due to her boyfriend being a sorcerer (sorcerers and witches are portrayed as enemies in this series) and her ward being the daughter of a witch with a reputation for practicing dark magic.
While Lucas has been trying to protect Paige from family politics, she gets pulled in when his father Benicio visits their apartment in Portland.  Someone is targeting the children of Cabal employees, and Benicio would like to hire Paige or Lucas to investigate, and is also concerned for their safety.  Despite initial hesitations, Paige and Lucas are drawn into the investigation, and spend a large part of the book in Miami, the Cortez headquarters.  Cortez is not the only Cabal that has been targeted, and working with the other Cabals raises some issues, especially since one of them played such a prominent role in the previous novel, and Savannah's custody case.
After Dime Store Magic, this one is very much action packed, and very quickly paced.  So far Armstrong has done a very good job in the series balancing between new and old characters without distracting from the plot.  Of course, I don't think this was an issue for Charlaine Harris, either, until further into the Stackhouse series, but I hope that Armstrong can keep up that balance.  As a result, Elena and Clay make small appearances as babysitters and back-up, the book gives more insight into Cassandra, the vampire rep on the interracial council, and introduces the readers to Jamie Vegas (who actually was already mentioned in an earlier novel) and Lucas's family.  Even better, while there is a lot of flirting between Lucas and Paige and implications of sex, the awkward scene from their last novel is not repeated.
I'm having a lot of fun with this series so far, and would definitely recommend reading the books.  Dime Store Magic was the slowest one so far, but they have all been good, fun reads and Armstrong does a very good job of expanding her universe and building on previous story lines without making it overwhelming.  The next one up is Haunted, and I think after that, there may be another Elena focused novel so I'm looking forward to that.  However, I have warmed to Paige as she has developed and matured over the last three novels, and her character just continues to improve.

Book 91: The Absent One

I've really liked both of the Jussi Adler-Olsen novels I've read so far.  While a lot of mystery novels clue the readers in on more things more quickly than their detectives, Adler-Olsen takes a whole different approach here.  There is no question in this novel about who committed the crimes.  There may be some questions in the middle about other things that are slowly uncovered, but instead the tension comes from wondering when the various parties will figure things out, and more importantly, when and if they will be able to prove anything.  His previous novel also had a slightly different set up than the normal mystery thriller though in that case the connection was with the victim, and the reader too was left wondering who was behind the crime.
This novel takes place only a few months after the case from The Keeper of Lost Causes.  Carl's old partner is still in the hospital as a result of the shooting that led to Carl's placement in the Q Department, and he has suggested that something may have been fishy about that afternoon's events.  While Carl wonders about this, he doesn't investigate or act on it, instead focusing on a case file that has mysteriously appeared on his desk.  While Carl's supposed to handle cold cases, this file refers to a shut case.  Two siblings were found beaten to death in a summer cabin, and the perpetrator turned himself in nine years later.  During the original investigation, the perpetrator was part of a gang of teens from a boarding school, and the entire gang was questioned at one point.  The guy who took the fall was the least well off of the group but the rest were rich and privileged, and are now influential members of society.  Still, Carl's interest is peaked, and he begins to pursue some leads until he launches a whole new investigation, and discovers that this could very well solve several other cases on his desk.
Some chapters are told from the perspectives of the gang members, the three remaining members being completely despicable and horrible people.  There is absolutely no doubt of their involvement in this crime or several others like it.  Of the other former gang members one is dead, and the last one, Kimmie, who was also the only woman, is homeless and living on the street.  It becomes obvious that she is the key to this because the other three men fear her, and she is obviously plotting something against them.  Kimmie is an interesting character because she is very cunning yet also mentally unstable; she was an important part of the gang and yet parted ways with them and actively works for their downfall.  The novel slowly reveals exactly what happened in the gang to lead them to this moment.
When the men aren't engaging in horrible crimes against humans, they enjoy hunting so there are some graphic descriptions of cruelty against animals (because naturally, they don't so much enjoy hunting as killing exotic animals - I'm not sure how they can even call it hunting when the animal is released near them into an unknown environment about two minutes before the "hunters" show up ... at that point, you're not showing off your tracking skills because it's a disoriented and confused animal no matter how vicious or challenging it may be in its normal habitat).
Overall, I liked this one but I preferred The Keeper of Lost Causes.  This one was darker, and the scenes between Carl and Assad weren't quite as funny.  Adler-Olsen introduces one new member to Department Q in this one, a new administrative helper, who adds yet another level of dysfunction to the team.  I'm curious to see what happens in the next novel in the series, and hope they don't become too much darker as they go.  It was nice to read a Scandinavian mystery with some humor, even if the case itself was dark.

Book 90: The Orchid House

Considering how much luck I had with books at the beginning of the year, I really feel like I've been striking out lately.  I haven't read any books that I'd rate as a 1, but I've definitely had a lot more 2s in the last month or two than before.  I was actually looking forward to reading this one, expecting something along the lines of Kate Morton, and I guess technically there are some family secrets but it's just so boring.  Even when I'm getting irritated with Morton's characters, I'm still riveted with the narrative.  I just wanted to throw this one across the room when it wasn't putting me to sleep.
It started off decent enough, and part of it is just that I expect these types of novels to start off slowly before they dig into the past.  Julia, the main character, is a pianist, and she has shut herself off from the world for the last eight months following the death of her husband and her two year old son.  Despite her lack of interest in most things, her sister is able to convince her to attend an auction at Wharton Park, where her grandfather was once responsible for the hothouses and orchids.  Julia's mom died when she was young so she spent a lot of time with her grandparents at Wharton Park after this loss.  In the modern day, the estate has become too expensive to maintain, so Kit, the heir to the estate, must sell it off though he plans to keep the small house Julia's grandparents called home.  While doing repairs on the house, he discovers an old journal, and returns it to Julia.  Now in most Gothic fiction, Julia would become interested in the journal, read it and be inspired to look into some family history.  Julia, however, is still too caught up in her grief to do even that, though she eventually takes a trip to see her grandmother and give her the journal, assuming it was her grandfather's (that's right, she didn't even flip through it enough to realize who the author of the journal was).  Elsbeth, her grandmother, corrects her, and tells her it was actually Harry's journal, the heir to Wharton Park during World War II.
Her grandmother then tells her the story of Olivia, a young socialite raised in India, that comes to England shortly before World War II begins.  I actually liked Olivia.  She was smart, independent and organized.  Harry seems to get along with her, and his mother also is quite taken with her.  Olivia falls in love with Harry, and he proposes when he realizes that Olivia is only visiting his mother because of her interest in him.  Despite his mother's warning only to marry for love, he decides to marry Olivia so she can take care of the estate.  As a result, I felt absolutely no pity for Harry when he referred to his marriage as an arranged marriage later in the book because his mother didn't want him to go through with it unless he really loved Olivia, and Olivia genuinely cared for him.  Though their marriage is off to a rough start when Olivia starts noticing Harry's lack of romantic interest in her, they overcome these issues, and settle into a seemingly happy relationship before Harry leaves for the war.
From here, the narrative returns to Julia, and her developing relationship with Kit as she learns to live with her loss.  Kit is of course the perfect man, caring, gentle, and attentive but considering that most of the other men in this novel are scumbags, I guess it needed to balance out somehow.  Eventually, Elsbeth visits Wharton Park to share the rest of the story with Julia, which is about the time I wanted to start punching characters and throw the book out the window.
After surviving a Japanese prison camp, Harry ends up in Bangkok at the conclusion of the war where a friend of the family assists him.  As he recuperates, he interacts with the local population, and I'm not sure how much of the descriptions are due to Riley relying on stereotypes of Asians in general or if she was actually just being historically accurate in portraying how British men in 1945 would have thought of Asian women.  Either way, it pissed me off because I think it was more of the former.  The descriptions of one Asian woman and the constant focus on her tininess was just too much.  It seemed like the usual exoticizing and fetishizing that is done in regards to Asian women, and I feel like we should be past that.  I also couldn't help but roll my eyes when a character said something along the lines of "I'm Buddhist, I live day to day.  I take what happiness I can get today and don't worry about tomorrow."  Oh my god.  Once again, this person wasn't a character, she was a fucking walking stereotype and a manic pixie dream girl without the manic part ... the serene pixie dream girl?  Is that a thing?
I would have preferred more of a mystery for Julia to explore.  Instead she gets the story hand-delivered by her grandmother, and she barely even seems that interested.  Some of the fun in the Morton books are the clues that are still left behind after decades, and even if there is a character that knows the story, they only reveal it because of the protagonist's dogged pursuit of the past and inability to let ghosts lie.  Also it helps when the romantic lead is actually charming and interesting and not an asshole wallowing in self-pity who lies and takes advantage of others' trust - although I don't think we were supposed to see it that negatively.  Then again, while there are romantic entanglements in Morton, I guess they are never entirely the point - there is also the intense and important relationships between two or more women, be they sisters, cousins or friends.
There were also some statements about adoption in the novel that I found insulting but I would have to spoil things to get further into that part.  However, I liked the fact that Harry stayed at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok during his recovery time.  I was in Bangkok last summer, and though there was no way I could have afforded to stay at that hotel, I went there for lunch one afternoon and the hotel was indeed gorgeous (the restaurant I ate at, one of several in the hotel, had a veranda/deck by the river and the food was delicious).  In other words, considering that the only redeeming part of the novel related to a personal experience for me, I would say this novel is not worth the time or the effort.  It's not sweet, it's not romantic, and most importantly, it's not interesting.

Book 89: The Son of Neptune

The novel begins with Percy Jackson being pursued by gorgons.  Percy has had a rather bad week - he can't remember anything about his past except for his name and a girl named Annabeth.  He is being hounded by monsters from mythology, and he has to get Camp Jupiter for safety.  When he finally arrives at Camp Jupiter, he still doesn't know if he's actually safe since he is met with suspicion.  His abilities clearly mark him as a son of Neptune, who isn't exactly a favorite among the Romans.  He quickly makes friends with two of the other misfits in the camp - Hazel, a daughter of Pluto, and Frank, who is still unclaimed though his 16th birthday has passed.  Hazel has secrets about her past that she is hiding, and Frank is still grieving for his mother, a Canadian soldier that died in Afghanistan.
Percy's first day at the camp is very eventful, and ends with an appearance from Mars himself sending Frank, Percy and Hazel on a quest.  It was actually a very funny scene, especially when one of the Roman teens insists that quests come from scrolls and prophecies until Mars finally humors him and writes it out on the spot.  The problem in this novel is that Gaea and her forces have captured and imprisoned Thanatos, or Death, which is why all their slain enemies keep returning.  The trio must go to Alaska to save Death and restore order.
The previous novel in this series dealt with a Roman hero suffering from memory loss in a Greek camp, and this one does the opposite.  While Riordan already used Jason to begin alluding to differences between Greeks and Romans, actually being in the Roman environment really made it hit home.  The camp revolves around the cohort and the army.  The campers are organized into cohorts regardless of who their immortal parents may be in contrast to the Greeks who are housed based on parentage.  The Romans are also more focused on discipline and duty.
Percy's memories come to him much more quickly over the course of the novel than they did to Jason, but that is also based on Hera/Juno's timing of their adventures.  Like all of Riordan's novels, this one is another engaging adventure with sweet characters who sometimes think they have dark secrets but learn to trust each other, and a nice mix of the modern and ancient.

Book 88: Dad is Fat

I am pretty sure that my first introduction to Jim Gaffigan was his portrayal as Miranda's boyfriend on Sex and the City.  Like most guys on that show, he didn't last beyond one episode, his character's major issue being that not only didn't he close the door when using the bathroom, but he left it wide open.  Since then I have seen him around randomly, and I have of course seen his Hot Pocket routine from his stand up show.  It's on YouTube - you should check it out.
Since I seem to be a sucker for books by comedians, sometimes even ones I don't even care about one way or the other, I of course had to get this one.  As the title implies, this book is about parenthood.  I had no idea that Gaffigan had five children, and lived in a two bedroom apartment in New York.  The book is basically a series of vignettes about having children.  It is definitely not a memoir, though it has personal stories, and in many cases reads like part of comedy stand up routine.  The vignettes and anecdotes are roughly organized by topic and chronology, so that the first parts deal with him as a man without children interacting with parents, discussions on pregnancy leading into a chapter on birth, infants and so forth.   It helps to already be familiar with Gaffigan's humor to appreciate it this, but I personally enjoyed the dry wit.
Some of the jokes get repetitive but I still liked them - he makes lots of remarks about how incredible his wife is, and about his laziness.  For example, there are quite a few comments about him getting tired from watching her work while he was eating on the couch, him sleeping through labor, basically going with the fat schlub persona he has used to get famous.
I feel like this is a book a lot of parents would enjoy as he chronicles the hardships of parenthood but he does it in a way that isn't off putting to non-parents.  Gaffigan didn't portray himself as a martyr, and simply makes humorous comments about the ridiculousness of his living situation and the every day life of parenthood.  His descriptions of family vacation simply reinforce my idea to never have children, at least not until I've visited every place I want to go.  That, or make sure my parents are ready for prolonged visits from actual grandkids, and not just an active Siamese cat.  The book is definitely good for a few laughs, and it is one of the only times I afterwards wondered how the audiobook would have been.

Book 87: The Night Eternal

This is the concluding volume of The Strain trilogy.  Given the fact that the paperback copy has been out for over a year already, it is probably easy to tell that I wasn't in a rush to finish this series.  In fact, if I hadn't found a bargain copy for $4 or $5 at the bookstore recently, I probably still wouldn't have finished it.  The second book was just incredibly disappointing to me, and while I figured I'd eventually finish the series because I was already two thirds of the way through, I certainly wasn't seeking this novel out.
There were quite a few issues with this novel, but at least I now know how it ended.  There were parts of the plot where the action picked up, but overall the biggest problem this book, and I would say the series as a whole, had was the pacing.  It was much too slowly paced.  I think if this series had been one stand alone novel divided into three parts, it could have been great, or at least not mediocre.  It would have been easier to care about the characters because the people in book 1 were interesting.  The people in books 2 and 3 weren't very exciting even though they were technically the same characters, with the exception of Quinlan.  That was actually one part of this novel I liked, the rest of the vampire mythology and lore that is revealed, especially in regards to Quinlan.  There were a few parts of the origin story I could have done without, especially when they are presented as fact rather than myth such as the idea that the vampires are the result of a fallen angel from Sodom and Gomorrah times.  I don't mind allusions to biblical stories but straight up using the Bible?  Let's leave religion out of my vampire novels unless it's a character holding a cross to ward off a vampire.  Also, no visions!  I'm okay with revelatory dreams because it could just be sold as someone's subconscious but don't make it a vision.
The novel takes place two years after The Fall, and the vampires have overtaken the world.  Thanks to the nuclear bombings from the previous novel, daylight has been reduced to only 2 hours a day.  Unlike in some other vampire novels or movies, the Master thought ahead and worked out a ratio of vampires to humans.  While many humans are dead, a large part of the population is still around, allowed to go about their daily lives as long as they tolerate the fact that they are second class citizens to vampires, and sometimes people might be moved to a camp where they will serve as human blood bags.  The human leadership were among the first killed, and with the rest of the population malnourished, there is very little resistance to the new reign.  Ephraim, Nora and Fet are still fighting the good fight as well as Gus and Quinlan, the mysterious vampire like creature.  However, Ephraim is a shell of a man, and he is so annoying!  The Master kidnapped his son Zac two years ago, and Ephraim continues to torture himself about his son, using alcohol and drugs as a crutch.  I admit I have noticed in the past that father-son relationships often don't move me very much in novels unless well written, and in this case, I had very little patience and sympathy for Ephraim.  Of course, the fact that the reader knows that Zac is having a rather pampered life with the Master (at least it's pampered for this new world) and has become an asshole (yes, I know he's under the Master's influence, and it's not his fault) may be part of the reason I wasn't too concerned with Eph and Zac when compared to the fate of the whole world.
The other part of the novel that irritated me, and once again, this completely relates to Eph, was the love triangle.  That's right, there's a love triangle - Nora, the only woman character with anything to do in this novel, has been involved with Ephraim but has been developing feelings for Fet.  The thing is I could buy Nora's interest in Fet since he is still fighting while Eph has become a complete wreck.  I just had a hard time believing any of the descriptions of Eph's jealousy.  He has become so much of a one note character that I really couldn't believe that he cared that Nora was no longer interested in him.  Of course it was also used a plot point to show just how discontent and isolated from the group Eph was feeling.
As discovered in the previous novel, it takes a nuke to actually destroy one of the Ancients or the Master.  Fet has finally been able to secure a nuke, but the team has still not been able to decipher the Lumen which would reveal the location the weapon needs to be detonated.  The novel is essentially a race as the last of the resistance must figure out how to save humanity before the Master zeroes in on them, removing any chance of being overthrown and defeated.
It's been so long since I've read the second novel that I'm not sure if this is an improvement but there is no doubt that the first one remains the best of the series.  Overall, I would even say that the series and this book, too, have some good ideas in them but the series shouldn't have been dragged out into a trilogy, or as a trilogy, it should have focused on more or different characters.  I had a hard time (and the character Gus is with me on this one) with Ephraim as the flawed hero in this because I did not care about a single one of his issues.  It could still make for an interesting movie or two if they cut out some of the fluff, and were alright with having a two year jump somewhere in the middle of the film.  I just wouldn't want this to be turned into a film trilogy.

Book 86: Tell No One

Based on the description of his newest novel, Six Years, I decided to try this author out, and was told that this one would be a good place to start.  If the description of that one and this novel are anything to go by, then Coben certainly likes stories about women that disappear.  David Beck, this novel's protagonist married his childhood sweetheart, only to see her kidnapped and murdered on their anniversary.  Eight years later, he still has not recovered from her death.  However, when two bodies are discovered at her kidnapping site, it begins to raise questions about what happened.  Then David receives an email that makes him think that Elizabeth is still alive.
This is what I would call a good disposable novel.  While I was reading it, I was hooked enough to want to know what has happening next, but it's not something I would ever reread.  I thought the end started having just a few too many twists, but overall I thought the story was rather entertaining.  I didn't really like David that much, though.  I think part of it may be that in the beginning of the novel, David refers to some secret he should tell Elizabeth.  As a result, I never suspected him of her death, but I thought he might be shady.  As it turns out, the secret was something completely different from what I suspected, and maybe if I hadn't had this suspicion of David the whole time, I would have liked him more.  I'm not sure.  I still thought some of his interactions with people were a bit dickish.
Overall, not a bad novel, and I would say it's probably perfect for travel.  It doesn't matter if it gets wet at the beach, it's one that could easily be left on the shelf at a hotel or cafe, and it doesn't require too much involvement.

Book 85: Unraveled

I haven't ever really read romance, or been too interested in the genre (I was totally judging the books by their covers), but I realized that some of the descriptions of all the novels Malin was reviewing sounded like a lot of fun.  Especially this one.  I also thought Mrs. Julien's description of this one sounded interesting.  Instead of just trying to pick a romance novel out on my own, I asked Malin for her recommendation for a first time reader of romance, and this is the one she came back with.
The novel revolves around Smite Turner, the middle brother in his family and the last to have a book devoted to him, and Miranda Darling, who was raised by actors and is now a bit of wigmaker/seamstress.  After they cross paths in Smite's court room, the two get to know each other, and Smite makes her a proposition to be his mistress for a month.  Smite is very damaged, and doesn't want to get too comfortable with anyone even though he is fascinated by Miranda.  Miranda decides to accept his proposition because she is also very much interested in him, and it would make her financially stable for a very long time.  There is a subplot involving a mysterious Patron, a shadowy underground figure that protects the lower classes but also has a tendency to ask for favors.
I liked the fact that when Miranda is faced with challenges she doesn't use them as an excuse or reason to leave, and instead confides in Smite, thus preventing unnecessary convoluted plot lines as seen in most romantic comedies.  While I thought the ending was a bit muc (in regards to the subplot), overall it was a fun book.  I still don't see myself becoming a big romance reader, but I can see where I might enjoy it every once in a while, especially on plane rides or when I need something light.

Book 84: Dreams of Joy

I've been hesitant to read this one because I didn't enjoy Shanghai Girls, the novel that preceded this one, that much (what is the good term for that?  I feel like that prequel is inaccurate because to me a prequel is something that takes place previously but was written/filmed afterwards ... I would never call the first part of Harry Potter a prequel to Part II though I have seen the word prequel used in that kind of context; I just think it's incorrect).  Shanghai Girls started off well enough, but by the end of the novel, it just felt too much like a rehashing of any other novel about the difficulties of being an Asian immigrant to the United States.  I don't think I would have been quite as disappointed if the novel hadn't started off strong, and if I hadn't had such high expectations due to Lisa See's previous novels.  I also think I was getting irritated with the main character who did tend to focus on the negative in life and the things she didn't have (so it was nice when her sister called her out on that).
Having said that, I enjoyed Dreams of Joy more than I did Shanghai Girls.  I'm not sure if that is due to lowered expectations, or if it is because she dealt with a topic that I'm familiar with in passing, but haven't read too much about in fiction or otherwise.  At the end of Shanghai Girls, Joy finds out the truth about her parents, and decides to run away to Communist China (this novel takes place in the '50s).  The chapters alternate between Joy as she sees Mao's China, and Pearl as she follows her daughter to save her.  Joy's parents have always warned her against the Communist regime of China, but in college, she joined a student group that discussed the positives of Communism and the community it creates.  As a result, 19 year old and idealistic Joy is an extremely annoying and naive character for the first half of her chapters, always seeing the positive, ignoring the bad despite the half clues her birth father, Z.G. Lin occasionally gives her.
While Joy views her situation through rose-colored glasses, Pearl is also surprised when it isn't quite as bad as she expected.  However, Pearl catches on to the general lack of trust between people much more quickly than Joy does.  While it doesn't Pearl too long to track Joy down, convincing her to return to the US is another matter.  Pearl decides to stay in China as long as Joy stays, and as a result, the novel ends up showing the effects of Mao's Great Famine from both the city perspective since Pearl settles in Shanghai, and the country side's view where Joy lives.  I think previous accounts I had read of this were from the city perspective but it affected the country-side first and harder, because much of the food that was grown was collected up, and distributed in the cities, leading to the odd circumstance that the people growing food had even less than city dwellers.
Joy eventually wises up and becomes less irritating, and even Pearl works through some of her issues from the previous novel.  I liked it more than I expected to, and to someone that has read Shanghai Girls already, I would certainly recommend reading this sequel.  I also think this would work as a stand alone novel, though knowledge of the previous novel would help understand some of the dynamics.  Still, See does a good job of explaining the basics, and since this one does have an almost an entirely new set of characters, it's not a problem.  One of my favorite books that I had to read in high school was Wild Swans which chronicles three generations of Chinese women, and also deals with the repercussions of Mao's Five Year Plan, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution.  I highly recommend that one for any interested in this topic.

Book 83: Conquistadora

Growing up, Ana was surrounded wealth and prestige that were the result of an ancestor's successes in the New World with Ponce de Leon.  As a result, she has always had a yearning to explore and to create something of her own rather than sit on the laurels of past ancestors.  Her dreams and desires aren't exactly feasible in 19th century Seville, and her relationship with her parents is distant.  She is an odd one within her society, not pretty enough, not social enough and generally just doesn't behave like women were expected to. 
She ends up meeting a set of twins, Ramon and Inocente, through her best friend Elena, and quickly gets engaged to Ramon.  It helps that his family has land and a plantation in Puerto Rico which would allow Ana to fulfill her life time wish for adventure and exploration.  The novel follows Ana's marriage to Ramon, their move to Puerto Rico, and Ana's struggle to forge something out of their plantation despite mismanagement and against the odds.
With this title, I was a bit worried about reading about a heroic woman who finds success at the cost of the native population (I liked Ines by Isabel Allende, but that was definitely an issue).  However, it takes place a few centuries after the Spanish conquest of the New World.  Additionally, the novel actually begins with a prologue from Columbian times, from the perspective of the people that the Europeans would annihilate, so right from the beginning, the reader is warned that everything that Ana strives for and already has has been built on the bones and blood of others.  As a sugar plantation owner, her success will depend on her ability to buy and control other human beings, and while she could probably be described as one of the "better" owners, striving to fairness, she has absolutely no problems making hard choices, pushing people to their limits and inflicting punishments in the name of her plantation.  Ana is hard woman and a product of her times who will do what it takes but that doesn't mean her actions are admirable or that the reader should even necessarily like her.
Ramon and Inocente share and do everything together, and this causes a rather weird dynamic in Ana's marriage.  Additionally, their mother babies her sons, and even moves to Puerto Rico with them but she despises Ana, blaming her for every bad thing that happens.  And while it is easy to see her point, as the novel goes on, her inability to see any negatives in her sons is irritating.  Ana is a hard worker, while her sons play at work, having been raised as proper gentlemen.  While the relationships between the characters were fascinating, not a single one of these charactes comes off that well.  They are all flawed.  I wouldn't recommend this one to someone that needs a likable main character.  Overall, I enjoyed it as a character study, but I felt more like I was observing the story and never was completely wrapped up in.  I still liked it, but I was also somewhat distant and detached from the majority of the characters, which I would say actually describes the way many of the characters acted with each other as well.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book 82: Aces High

The first volume of the Wild Card series introduced a variety of characters, and the wild card virus, developed by an alien race.  Once released in the US, it infects and kills the majority of its victims, but 1 in 10 survive.  Some of them become aces, others jokers.  The virus can give special powers (aces) but it can just as easily cause malformity or some other useless changes, and these people are referred to as jokers.
The first compilation was a bit uneven but it had some great stories.  In contrast, this volume didn't have any standout stories but they were all part of one larger plotline involving aliens trying to take over Earth, and a secret cult/sect attempting to overthrow Earth in preparation for the aliens.  I don't read many comic books (this isn't a comic book but has a bit of comic feel to me), so maybe that was part of it, but I just didn't really enjoy this one that much.  There were a few characters I liked, but overall it was all too much.  And something about it just left me feeling dirty.  The book was mostly set in the '80s, and I believe that is also when the stories were written, and there just seemed to be something kind of sexist about them.  It wasn't something incredibly obvious, but I was just left with a general feeling of "for men, by men," and considering that the nerd girl thing has only become big in the last decade, that probably isn't far from the truth - of course, there have always been women that liked nerdy things, but I would guess that they were still trying much harder to get accepted and find a place hold in the world of comics and sci-fi than they are now, even if they continue to be underrepresented.
I also thought that though the volume had a focused main plot, the stories themselves were too "all over the place" for me.  I could have done without all the aliens showing up, and would have preferred the more intimate adventure stories of the first Wild Cards book.

Book 81: The Warmth of Other Suns

I've wanted to read this book since it first came out a few years ago, and immediately bought it once it was available on paperback, but have continued to be intimidated by its size.  Despite its size, I decided to pack it for vacation, figuring that I would be forced to finally read it if I didn't have any other choices.  While it was definitely too big to carry around in my purse, it was the perfect companion for trainrides from Stockholm to Copenhagen, and Copenhagen to Gothenburg.
While the book may be large, and information packed, it isn't necessarily very dense non-fiction.  I couldn't zip through it like a novel, but it wasn't as dense as some other non-fiction I've read.  From what I've recently discovered, this book would probably count as narrative nonfiction.  Using the lives of three separate participants of the Great Migration, Wilkerson explores the causes and effects of the Great Migration, puts some myths to rest and shows how the effects can still be felt to this day.  Her three subjects represent different aspects of the Great Migration, though they are close to each other in age, Ida Mae being the oldest of them.  All three are from different regions, ended up settling in different parts of the North and West, and left the South in a different decade.  Since Wilkerson explains that the train lines basically determined where people went, which is why Chicago tends to have people with a background from Mississippi, Newark and New York migrants tend to be from the southern east coast, and so forth (I can't quite remember all the examples but it was fascinating).  As a result, her choices made perfect sense to me.  Ida Mae Gladney was a sharecropper's wife that left Mississippi in the '30s and ended up in Chicago after a short stay in Milwaukee.  George Starling fled Florida in the '40s after he had protested against unfair wages, and settled in New York City.  Robert Foster, a doctor, left his home in Louisiana (and his wife's home of Atlanta) for the opportunities of LA in the 1950s.  The three combined represent different backgrounds, destinations, and social-economic classes.
Intermixed with all their personal stories are the facts.  Wilkerson presents the living conditions for black Americans in the South during the Jim Crow era, discusses the segregation, the fear of lynching and retributions for imagined wrongs.  She also discusses common misconceptions, such as some people's beliefs that the migrants were lazy and uneducated, showing statistics and studies done at the time that actually demonstrated that the blacks moving to the cities in many cases were at least as educated as their white counterparts, and more educated than Northern blacks.  She also discusses how hard it was for these former Southerners to find places to live outside of a small block radius, leading to hugely segregrated areas that still affect these cities today.  Blacks were being paid less for harder work, and charged more for smaller apartments, which basically meant they had to work a lot just to afford a place to live, often having to leave their children alone which made them vulnerable to other distractions and the negatives of city living.  George's son, for example, became involved in drugs.
Robert Foster ended up being very successful in LA, but it felt like he always had something to prove.  The people Wilkerson focuses on aren't always likable but their stories are fascinating.  I wish I had actually read this sooner, and I also wish I could come even close to doing this book justice.  It just has so much information that isn't discussed in other places, and has some very good analysis that is still relevant to the present day.  Wilkerson repeats herself occasionally which is good in some cases because she does reference so many different people that a reminder is helpful, but in other cases it felt oddly placed.  This is probably a minor editing issue, and certainly doesn't take away from the rest of book.  I'd definitely recommend this since given the last few weeks it is obviously very relevant.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book 80: Day After Night

I loved The Red Tent when I read it, and I've actually even read one or two other novels as a result that dealt with biblical women characters that were mentioned only in passing.  This one was my favorite of them, and as my interest in religion has decreased, so has my desire to read those types of novels, since there is always the danger of getting something preachy instead of a novel that muses about what the historical realitites of a woman living in biblical times would have been.  Of course, Day After Night has a very different topic, but I was very much interested in it based on both the topic and the author's previous work.
Taking place at the Atlit Internment camp, a British run camp for illegal immigrants, in the fall of 1945, the novel tells the story of four Holocaust survivors in the camp, waiting to be released into Palestine.  The four women all represent different backgrounds and experiences in the Holocaust - Zorah is a concentration camp survivor from Poland; Shayndel, also Polish, was part of the resistance; Leonie, a young French woman, survived through other means; and Tedi hid with a family in the Netherlands, her appereance allowing her to blend in.  As the novel develops, the women slowly deal with their memories, survivors' guilt and attempting to live again after all they have witnessed.  One can see certain issues arising between the survivors based on the different ways they stayed alive, such as whether Tedi's experiences can compare to those of a camp survivor.  Though Tedi lost her whole family, she occasionally still feels that maybe her pain is trivial compared to people like Zorah.
Another interesting point that Diamant raised was the relationship between the Jews already in British controlled Palestine and the Holocaust survivors.  While the Zionist want to help and welcome the newcomers, the survivors also notice a certain amount of condescension from some of them.  Zorah specifically notes that the Zionists were not there, they cannot judge and they certainly can't pretend that they would have acted differently or fought back because they don't understand the situation.  Similarly, Shayndel notes that the Jewish men in Palestine seem to have such a desire to overcome the stereotypical views of the bookish, intellectual yet weak Jewish man that they act like the complete opposite - somewhat macho and very much focused on the physical.
All these contrasts and issues were fascinating to me, but many of them were only briefly touched on.  I feel like Diamant raised lots of interesting points and views I hadn't completely considered, but mostly dealt with them superficially or in passing.  I would have loved to dive deeper into some of these points.
The last part of the novel then focuses on an escape attempt, which I guess was supposed to serve as the action packed finale.  The only problem is that while I understood the need for a very specific group of prisoners to escape, I wasn't quite sure why it was so important for the others to escape.  Obviously, they had been waiting for awhile to be released, but I didn't get the feeling that the British were going to force the majority of the refugees in the camp back to the countries they came from.  I'm not sure if this lack of tension was the result of hindsight on my part or Diamant's writing.
Overall I liked the book, but the lack of depth means I would categorize it as an okay book rather than a good book because there could have been more to it.  While I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend this, I also wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it since it does have good parts.  I was looking over some of my latest reviews, and I have noticed a certain theme emerging - "I wanted more" or "I was expecting something different."  I feel like I am simply continuing that with this review, unfortunately.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book 79: Dime Store Magic

In this third novel of the series, Armstrong changes perspectives and narrates the novel from Paige's point of view.  It works very well, too - the first novel introduces Elena, in the second novel Elena realizes there are more supernatural beings than just werewolves and meets some of them, including Paige, and now that the world has expanded, Paige tells her story.  Of course, it also makes sense because Paige had the most changes to her life as a result of the actions in Stolen.  Her mother is dead, she is now in charge of the coven and Savannah, a thirteen year old orphaned witch, is living with her as her ward.
The coven is incredibly conservative and Paige butts heads with them on quite a lot of things, but keeps believing that they are an important part of her life.  Personally, I thought they were incredibly stuffy and I couldn't believe how much Paige put up with from them.  In fact I couldn't help but think of a comment from Damon in The Vampire Diaries: "Witches.  Judgey little things."  That description can also apply to Paige, though she is much more open-minded than her coven.  Paige gets a court summons in the beginning of the novel, and finds herself with a custody suit from Savannah's father, a powerful sorcerer.  The coven doesn't want Savannah, and tells Paige they will not assist her, and she angers the only lawyer in town, so even though she has no one to turn to she resists when Lucas offers his services as a lawyer.  He is a sorcerer and Paige has been raised to believe that sorcerers are corrupt, evil and the enemies of all witches.  Eventually, circumstances get so bad Paige has no choice but to lean on Lucas.
I enjoyed this novel but it started out slower than the other two for me, and honestly, a custody battle just isn't going to be as exciting as kidnappings and murders.  Armstrong adds plenty of hijinks to the proceedings and caps it off with an action packed ending.  While I could understand Paige's actions, I also got irritated with her a bit, especially after having Elena as a narrator, but I think it will be interesting how her journey continues in the follow up novels because quite a few developments occur that will have repercussions in the next few novels.  While romance isn't the purpose of these novels, it is a big part of them, and naturally, there ends up being some attraction between Lucas and Paige.  Since I liked Lucas, that was a good thing, but the sex scene was a bit ridiculous, involving a lot of stopping to show off with magic tricks and an oddly comfortable basement/laundry room (I tend to think of basements as cold, and even the nice ones have hard floors).  Basically, it was definitely a fun novel, though not as good as the previous two in the series, and Elena and Clayton have the better sex scenes, even if Lucas works for me more as a love interest since he doesn't have that whole macho Alpha male thing going for (against?) him.

Book 78: It Happened in Italy

This is probably more of a rant than a review but I was just so disappointed with the book this was compared to the book I thought it was going to be.  Maybe I shouldn't judge a book just on my expectations, but I also believe the title was misleading so the publishers or author created those same expectations.
What kind of book should one expect with that title?  I was expecting a oral history, or a non-fiction historical account of the people that survived the Holocaust while living in Italy, the Italians that helped them, and some chapters explaining the political situation in Italy and why it may have been different.  Unfortunately, there was very little of that.  Instead, I got to read about Elizabeth Bettina and how she discovered that there was once a concentration camp near the village that her grandmother was from, that a larger percentage of Italy's Jewish population survived the Holocaust than those of other European countries (with the exception of Denmark), and how it inspired her to do research and make people aware of this story.  This book is less her sharing the story of the Holocaust and more her sharing her journey of discovery.  And while that journey very well may have its place, such as in an introduction and/or afterword, or the first and last chapters of the book I described, that's really not what I thought this book would be.
I agree that this would be a great story to tell, but she is not the one to tell it.  The first hundred pages are basically all about her (and I honestly don't get the impression that she is purposely self-absorbed but it doesn't negate the fact that the book is more about her than the "untold story" she claims to tell, or at least her part in it).  There are two or three chapters that specifically focus on survivor stories but even these are told more conversationally with her quoting them rather than letting her subjects speak for themselves and tell of their experiences.  I absolutely believe that Bettina did a lot of work compiling their stories and tracking down the survivors, but I wish she would have shared the results in this book, not the work.  She mentions that she is working on a documentary and I wonder if that documentary would show more of this story.
Bettina also describes the various trips back to Italy that she organized for the survivors and how she arranged meetings with the Vatican, and eventually even the Pope.  Again, I think that would have been a great epilogue or afterword to the Holocaust story but instead it was the center of the story.  Maybe if I was Catholic or gave a shit about religion, that would have been fascinating.  As it was, I didn't really care.  Considering that the subtitle is "how people of Italy defied the horrors of the Holocaust" I would much rather be hearing from elderly Italians or Jews.
The other thing is that the book lacks nuisance as a result of her focus on the modern day.  She paints a very rosy picture of how things were in Italy, focusing on the fact that 80% of the Jewish population survived.  That still leaves 20% dead, and while that is a much better number than from a country like Poland, it doesn't mean that she can argue that Italians were just such good Catholic people.  Last I checked the Poles were Catholic, too.  There are a variety of factors that caused that number, and I can only guess at the intricacies involved, including the different relationships Germany had with Poland and Italy, those countries' histories, and pre-existing anti-semitic attitudes, among many other things.  Before this, the only thing I'd read that focused on Italy and the Holocaust was Mary Doria Russell's amazing novel A Thread of Grace, and not all Italians came off as great humanitarians.  Some were, some weren't.  I'm not denying that there is a difference, and there should definitely more exploration of the topic but I'm sure it is more complicated than Bettina's "Italians are awesome" analysis in this book. Plus, being more humane than the Nazis still doesn't mean that policies weren't racist.
My one other complaint about this book, besides her focus on the wrong part of the story, is her writing style.  It felt like every sentence should have ended with an exclamation point because she! was! so! excited!  "Oh my god, you were at the same camp as this other survivor I've been talking to?!  How crazy and awesome and amazing!"  It's called statistics, woman!  There are only so many camps and so many survivors.
Having said all that, I think the stories alluded to would be fascinating, and if this documentary is ever released, I hope it would focus on the interviews, because in that case the documentary could be very good.  Bettina also talks about filming these interviews, so at least this part of history is now preserved for posterity so I will applaud Bettina for that.  I just wish the history had made up more of this book.

Book 77: The Engagements

This is the second novel I packed with the express purpose of reading it on the plane.  Sullivan's novels could easily be shelved as "chick lit" since they deal with women's relationships, but they also are deeper than something like Shopaholic, being kind of the perfect middle ground between entertaining beachy read and literary novel.  Her previous two novels dealt with four women's perspectives, and this one follows a similar path.  However, Commencement and Maine both dealt with women who knew each other, either by being college friends, or part of the same family.  In this one, Sullivan does something slightly different, addressing marriage, relationships and engagements by using women and men from different time periods, backgrounds and social-economic classes.  Mixed in with her usual four perspectives, Sullivan uses an actual historical figure to frame these pieces, and explain the obsession with engagements and diamonds.
Frances Gerety is the historical person, and she is the copy editor that came up with the phrase "A Diamond is Forever."  Diamonds hadn't always been as popular for engagements as they are today, and Gerety is part of the media campaign that helped make them synonymous with the word engagement (her ad agency was also responsible for the term "coffee break").  Despite this defining slogan, Gerety struggles in the ad world due to her gender as can be seen in chapters that show her at later stages of her career.  One obvious example addressed is that she misses out on business opportunities by not being a member of the country club or part of the golf games held there.
The other four characters represent various views and ideas of marriage.  Evelyn and her husband have been married for decades, but her son's marriage is faltering in the early '70s.  James is a paramedic in the '80s, whose family is accumulating more and more credit card debt and barely scraping by.  Delphine is a Frenchwoman in her early 40s that has left her husband for a musician in his 20s and moved to New York with him only to discover that she made the wrong choice by following her passion.  Finally, the last one is Kate, a happily unmarried woman who has been living with her partner Dan and child for a long time but has no desire for the marriage or wedding, and is in fact shocked by the whole wedding complex.  With gay marriage finally legal in her state, her close friend and cousin and his partner decide to get married, and her cousin quickly becomes just as crazy about wedding planning as everyone else Kate has seen in the past.
I liked how Sullivan threw in all these different perspectives though James was my least favorite of all the main characters.  There is of course one common thing that connects all the stories, and it wasn't necessarily obvious how this item would end up tying into everyone's stories, so I enjoyed that added little piece of mystery though it was really just a fun part of the novel, and not the point at all.  I liked all the other characters, though Kate was the one I was probably agreeing with the most, "yeah, why do weddings cost that much, why are they such huge deals and productions?"  I never was that girl that had her wedding planned out ahead of time, and the whole idea just sounds like a headache to me, but I'm also afraid that if I ever got to the whole engagement part of a relationship, I would try to make it really nice, and go overboard and spend way too much, especially given how nice my friends' wedding pictures all are on FB.  I've also been very conflicted on engagement rings because on the one hand, I absolutely want a diamond ring and it's my birthstone and I love jewelry but on the other hand I realize there are better things to spend money on, and it bugs me that guys don't wear them so it kind of seems like the guy is just marking his territory (I realize that's not the case now ...).  I don't think I have to worry about that for a while though so right now I can just say the novel has given me more to contemplate.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book 76: Dear Girls Above Me

I first heard of this novel thanks to a fellow Cannonballer's review, so when I saw it at the bookstore I figured it would be perfect for the plane ride I had coming up (little did I know at the time that my plane ride would take an extra 24 hours due to delays; this book barely lasted through the first airport but that's why my carry on was basically a bag of books).  I have to agree with Lisa Bee - it was a very fun book, and I definitely recommend getting it for an amusing afternoon.  The great thing is that even when Charlie, the character, is being condescending about the two women that live above him, the reader realizes that Charlie himself is kind of ridiculous as well and in some cases his mockery directed at the women really just points out his own personal issues.
Charlie is still dealing with a rough break up, not understanding why the woman he loved left him. His confidence is shot, he has no motivation, and he has been moping around quite a bit.  He has some rather crazy neighbors to begin with, especially the one who thinks their dogs are soulmates, but after two former sorority sisters move in above him, he discovers that he can hear just about everything they say through the ceiling.  After seeing how much paperwork a noise complaint would involve, he slowly comes to the realization that this annoyance is actually a great opportunity: as all his friends keep telling him, it gives him an insight into women's opinions (some more valid than others), and eventually it inspires him to start tweeting about it.  As weird as it is, in this novel, Charlie slowly pulls himself out of his rut in life because he becomes interested in surroundings again due to these women.  It's kind of funny but that's two books I've read in the last month or so that are based on men that are doing things that I would probably consider unethical in reality but find sweet in the novels, the other being Attachments.  At least Charlie never actually tries to use his insights into the two girls above him to date either one of them.
It was a very fun read, and I also enjoyed Charlie's friends and family.  His story about Disneyland is a particular standout, and he really has no problems making fun of himself in addition to everyone around him.  The title of course says "inspired by a true story," but it's very embellished and fictionalized.  My only complaint about the novel isn't a complaint per se but McDowell uses lots of very modern and current references to current pop culture, including the Kardashians, Ryan Gosling etc.  As a result, I would say it's better to read this one sooner rather than later before these references become irrelevant or confusing.  I really hope that readers in four or five years will miss some of the humor because they have no idea who or what a Kardashian is but that might be too optimistic - or by then they will have been replaced with someone even more obnoxious.

Book 75: Life After Life

When I first heard about the concept behind the novel, I was intrigued.  It sounded slightly similar to Replay to me, but in the case of Replay, the protagonist relives his life from certain points of time, and remembers everything every single time.  Ursula, this novel's main character, does not remember her past lives, and each time she dies, her life starts over from the beginning (sometimes the reader goes all the way back to the beginning with her, other times Atkinson only takes the reader to the relevant decision point in that life).  While she does not remember her past lives, she does get bad feelings and develops a bit of deja vu that prevents her from making the same decisions.  For example, one of her deaths is the result of her falling off a roof in pursuit of a toy tossed out the window.  When she finds herself in the same scenario again, she looks out the window, gets a bit scared, and leaves the toy outside.  She basically knows enough to avoid her life going the same way as before.  In one instance, she is also portrayed as believing the rumors of Nazi Germany fairly early on - she has a sense of things or an inkling but no actual real factual knowledge that follows her from one life to the other.
Ursula is born repeatedly in 1911, and depending on which life, her life basically spans two World Wars.  Of all her different lives that this novel chronicles, her longest one extends into the '60s, but the majority of the novel takes place between that snowy day in 1911 and the end of World War II.  When I was a few chapters and lives into this novel, I was concerned that this might be one of those novels that I appreciate more than I like because the chapters were rather short, and there wasn't much time to develop a relationship with the characters before starting over.  However, as the novel went further, and Ursula made it past the age of two or three, this was no longer an issue as some of the chapters would extend much longer.  Early on, Atkinson also tells quite a bit of the story from her mother Sylvie's perspective,  While I liked Sylvie in the beginning, her reaction to one of Ursula's lives tainted my view of her even in timelines where that event didn't happen.  I quite enjoyed the rest of Ursula's family as well - the obnoxious older brother that no one in the family really likes, her steadfast and in charge sister (who actually reminded me of the older sister in Behind the Scenes at the Museum), the younger brother that everyone loves, and the sweet and supportive father.  Through her lives, Ursula sees the war from different sides, has different lovers and attempts different outcomes with each of them.  Her sense of deja vu not only prevents her from making similar mistakes repeatedly, but also allows her to test various choices and to affect events in other people's lives.
In some cases, her choices may lead to a longer life but they don't always lead to a better life.  I also liked that in some circumstances, it took Ursula several tries to change events enough to prevent her death.  For example, it's easy to avoid falling off a roof once it's happened once, but in the case of a virus and the Great Influenza epidemic it will of course be much harder to avoid contracting that.  Similarly, given how many raids occurred during the Blitz, it also makes sense that it would be harder to avoid dying during one of these.
I ended up liking the book a lot.  Ursula's circumstances make her unique but as far as her personality, she seems very much like an ordinary, every day person, thus making her a great stand in to show how things during the war affected normal people's lives in a variety of positions.  I'm looking forward to working my way through more of Atkinson's catalog now that I have read both her first and most recent novels.

Book 74: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I have kind of been putting off writing this review because it's Neil Gaiman and I liked the novel, but I wanted more.  I admit I didn't read too much about the novel before ordering it because the words "fairy tale" and "new adult novel" were enough to get me excited.  I have never really been much of a short story person or a graphic novel person, so there is actually quite a bit of Gaiman's work that I haven't yet read.  I admit my first reaction to this novel upon opening my Amazon package was disappointment: "but it's so small!"  I wanted to be immersed in Gaiman's world for hours and hours, not an afternoon.
As many other reviewers have already noted, this novel feels the most personal and intimate of all his works.  After his father's funeral, the narrator finds himself driving around in his old neighborhood, and visiting a family he befriended one summer when he was 7.  As he sits in their backyard gazing at their pond, he slowly remembers the events of that summer, though only a few hours ago all these memories had been buried and fuzzy.  After the narrator's family's newest boarder kills himself, his death seems to awaken an ancient being or spirit, and the young narrator becomes involved in this due to his developing friendship with Lettie Hempstock, a mysterious 11 year old who lives with her mother and grandmother.
I enjoyed the allusions to some much greater mystical background regarding the Hempstock family.  The first thing that came to mind for me were the three witches from MacBeth for some odd reason, but I definitely got the idea that they have been around forever, and I felt like I should have recognized what figures from mythology Gaiman may have been referring to.  Unfortunately I think I'm a little lost when it comes to Celtic figures (I assume; really I'm out of my depth with anything not involving ancient Greeks or Romans).  So I really loved the idea that this was all part of something bigger and greater, and for the most part I'm fine without answers, but then there is the other part of me that wanted more, and wanted the connections, and just wanted more story.
I think the other issue is that since it was marketed as Gaiman's first adult novel since Anansi Boys, I had a certain idea in my head of what I was expecting.  Do I think this is a novel adults will enjoy?  Absolutely.  However, I think it is very much a novel for all readers and I think that would have led to slightly different expectations on my part.  Basically, I definitely enjoyed the novel and it was magical and fantastical, but I don't think it fits in quite with his other adult novels, and is perhaps more comparable to some of this other works for younger readers as far as the content and the structure while still being for adults.  Even when I say I wanted more, I realize that in other ways the story was perfect the way it was, and I couldn't imagine actually changing it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book 73: The Sandcastle Girls

As much as I've read about the Holocaust, I have never actually done much research on the Armenian Genocide.  I knew it happened under Turkish rule during World War I and that over a million Armenians died but I would not have been able to tell you the political motivations behind this or how they went about it.  Naturally, I was very happy to see that Bohjalian, an author I quite enjoy, had decided to tackle that subject.  However, since I felt his last novel before this (The Night Strangers) was a bit lackluster compared to his other works, I held off and waited for the paperback version to come out, and I'm glad I waited.  This was a perfectly good book, but I wanted more.  Bohjalian's Holocaust novel Skeletons at the Feast was incredible - it was moving, heartbreaking, it focused on a slightly different topic from other World War II novels, and was just a fantastic read.  I hoped he would bring that same type of writing to this novel, especially considering that he mentions his own Armenian heritage in the acknowledgments.
Unfortunately, this was not the case.  The novel was good, but it wasn't anything spectacular.  Perhaps I expected too much of Bohjalian since I wanted to be educated and drawn into the story.  In the case of authors writing about the Holocaust, it is easier to get straight to the story, and the individuals in the novel because they can assume that everyone has a basic background of the history.  Therefore, the approach Bohjalian used in this novel may very well have worked in a Holocaust novel because I would have been filling in the blanks on my own.
The novel centers on Elizabeth Endicott, a recent graduate from Mount Holyoke, who visits Turkey with her father on a relief mission, and Armen, a young Armenian engineer that has been affected by the genocide and policies.  Interspersed with their story are pages from their granddaughter Lauren's perspective, and her gradual interest in her family history.  Unlike some readers, I didn't mind Lauren's additions because she provided a way to add extra historical detail to a personal narrative though I think she could have been used more effectively.  As I discovered with Elizabeth, the US actually was somewhat aware of what was going on in this area at this time given that many communities had collected funds for the relief of Armenians and it was in the name of one of these relief funds that her father and she visit Aleppo (in present day Syria).  As a result, the novel deals with some of the atrocities but is mostly told through the eyes of white, American volunteers.  Some other characters play roles as well, such as one of the women that was marched in on Elizabeth's first day in Aleppo, showing a bit of the Armenian perspective.  Through her and Armen, the reader sees some of the brutality firsthand, but mostly the novel deals with Elizabeth's reactions, and the aftermath that she sees.  While Armen has lost his family, he personally has also avoided some of the worst due to his status as an engineer and still having some value to the regime.
While I liked Elizabeth, and the portrayal of her as a rather independent woman for her time who went against many conventions, I would much rather have been reading the stories of Armenian women and their survival.  While some of those stories were in the novel, the main character was the outsider American, and I would have liked it much more if it had been the reverse.  However, this isn't necessarily a fault of Bohjalian as much as it is due to the lack of Armenian genocide literature I've read (or even come across) - if I'd already read other novels or actual nonfiction books on this topic, this novel would have probably been an interesting new perspective, showing how ineffective American aide was, and also showing that certain countries couldn't speak out against the atrocities due to their positions in World War I until finally the horror of WWI itself overshadowed whatever concern or outrage people may have had about this.  Unfortunately, given my lack of knowledge on the subject, and possibly the lack of materials on the subject, I don't feel like this was as good as it could have been.  Bohjalian even mentions that the one hundred year anniversary of this genocide is coming up, and as a result, I think the focus should have been shifted from Elizabeth to the actual Armenians.  Still, the novel had some good parts, and at least some of the references he mentions in his acknowledgments may be worth checking out to get what is I think I really wanted from this read.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Book 72: Wide Sargasso Sea

The premise of this slim novel is to tell Bertha Rochester's side of the story.  In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhy imagines what life was like for the woman that would eventually be reduced to being the mad woman in the attic, an obstacle that prevents Jane Eyre's Rochester from getting what he wants.  It is broken down into three parts, the first part focusing on Antoinette Cosway's upbringing in the West Indies, the second portraying Rochester's perspective of the early days of their marriage, and the final part is a few pages from Antoinette while in England locked up in the attic with her warden.
I liked the idea of this novel and the themes and connections within the novel more than the actual novel.  The writing style had a bit of stream of consciousness to it, and I am not always a fan of that type of writing.  Still, I thought the way Rhys set up Antoinette's character and background were rather illuminating.  Growing up, Antoinette and her mother didn't fit in.  The blacks disliked them, the whites looked down on them, and they were incredibly poor, especially with her father being deceased.  One of the most defining moments of her childhood was the burning of their home (no wonder she would become fascinated with fire in her later years).
Antoinette comes across as a sensitive yet passionate girl that has never quite fit in.  She is afraid of things, and she and her mother both have been misunderstood.  Both repeatedly state that others do not understand what it's like on the island, neither her mother's second husband or Rochester, both of whom are outsiders and didn't grow up amidst the racial and class tension of the place.
Rochester and Antoinette's marriage starts out well enough but he soon finds reasons to dislike his wife, and lets himself be influenced by others because he wants reasons to dislike her.  Their relationship goes sour, and Rochester refuses to acknowledge his wife's identity, even calling her by the wrong name.
I liked quite a lot of the ideas in this novel and the way Rhys develops the characters and the relationships, but I can't say that this is a novel I would read again for fun.  I feel like it really would work best in a classroom setting or as a novel that is to be analyzed and compared with Jane Eyre.  I think there is enough there that one could read it without having read Jane Eyre, but the older novel certainly adds more to the discussion.

Book 71: Honolulu

In ways, Alan Brennert revisits familiar scenes and characters when he writes his historical fiction novels, and yet I always enjoy them and they still seem fresh.  His choice of setting certainly helps: since Moloka'i and Honolulu were both set in Hawaii, it adds just a slightly different spin from other stories about immigrants or minority populations in the US.  As a result, while a novel like Shanghai Girls felt like it was retreading the same old story about Asian immigrants to America with its LA Chinatown setting, there was just enough that was different and unique about Hawaii's history to make this feel like something new.  Certain themes are recognizable when it comes to stories of immigration regardless of the immigrant's background or their new home, but I feel like Hawaii's racial history is slightly different, at least as far as more recent history is concerned.  Unlike many cities in the US, there was still a rather large native population when people were immigrating.  For example, a novel about New York in the late 19th century could easily focus on immigrants adjusting to their new surroundings, and the oppression and xenophobia they might face from Americans.  In Hawaii, or Honolulu specifically, the whites were pracitically immigrants themselves but this didn't prevent them from taking control of the territory from the local Hawaiians.  This novel addresses how a large native and immigrant populations led to different racial tensions than in other places.  In ways, the racism was perhaps less pronounced but as this novel clearly demonstrated, it existed and it was damaging to the local community.
Regret, the novel's narrator, was an unwanted daughter in a Korean family, and through her aunt, she learns to read.  Regret wants more for her life than she could see herself having in Korea, especially with her very conservative father, her plain features and the fact that her dowry wouldn't be excessive.  As a result, she ends up speaking to missionaries, and chooses to put herself in the running as a picture bride.  She and her childhood friend are both selected by Korean men already in Hawaii, and prepare themselves for their journey.  Regret and three other picture brides meet on the passage to Hawaii, and though they would never have expected this, these four women will play an important role in each other's lives as they find their ways in Hawaii.  All four are disappointed when they realize that their new husbands sent old pictures of themselves, and their lives are going to entail lots of hard work.  Regret actually gets the worst of the lot, because her husband soon turns out to be an alcholic abusive gambler.  Eventually, she figures a way out of her predicament, and chooses to call herself Jin, or Gem, a nickname a friend once gave her.
Every time I read a novel by Alan Brennert, it leaves me with a strong desire to visit Hawaii.  This novel was no different - he does a great job of making the island and his characters come alive.  Additionally, by choosing to have his narrator be Korean, he is able to work in several different fascinating pieces of history.  About the first hundred pages of this novel take place in Korea, and in addition to showing Jin's family background and her conservative upbringing, he also brings into focus the fact that Korea was occupied by the Japanese at this point.  Jin discusses the hardships faced by her and her fellow country men, and the resistance they offered to their occupiers.  As a result, she easily relates to the native Hawaiians and the last Hawaiian queen whose land has been taken from her by the white Americans.  Brennert ties in other important events from the period, ones that most readers probably would not know about, such as the red light district in Hawaii and its eventual closure, and a local event which sounded very much like lynchings in the South and led to a huge trial which raised racial discontent and tensions as a result.
This is exactly what I look for in historical fiction - I gain new understanding and insight into a topic, and the protagonist is engaging enough to want me to continue to read, and doesn't seem too much like a copy of other protagonists from historical fiction.  Additionally, it is entertaining - it is obvious that Brennert did a great deal of research but at no point did I feel like he was lecturing me or trying to show off everything he learned - instead it all fit in the novel organically and simply enhanced the setting.  I enjoyed spending time with Jin, and I liked how Brennert incorporated her into major events without making her the center.  I'd definitely recommend this one, and I really do need to get to Hawaii one of these days.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book 70: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope

The reviews for this novel seemed a bit mixed on Goodreads but the first few pages of this novel sucked me in, so I ended up reading this one despite some misgivings.  The novel is set in the country side of North Carolina shortly after WWII.  After her aunt dies, Evelyn takes over the family farm while her parents remain in town.  Evelyn enjoys the freedom this gives her as a young woman at this time, and her life changes when she comes across what she at first thinks is a burn victim on the property.  However, after getting the being home, she realizes this isn't the case as it heals much too quickly, and slowly begins to look like her.  While Evelyn can never explain what or where Addie comes from to herself, she feels protective of her and invents a story to explain her presence on the farm.
The two women forge a life for themselves on the farm, and become lovers, but Evelyn longs for a traditional life, and children, and as a result Addie finds a solution eventually, becoming Adam, and marrying Evelyn.  Evelyn enjoys her life, though she feels bad about the lies she tells her family and friends, and occasionally worries about what would happen if Adam were discovered until finally an event leads to Adam exposing himself as abnormal within the community.
I had very mixed thoughts on this novel.  It started out incredibly interesting, and as I stated above the writing style sucked me in from the beginning.  However, I had a hard time with Evelyn and Addie/Adam's love story because Evelyn basically immediately fell for her with absolutely no questions about her origins.  I actually liked that the book didn't try to explain Addie/Adam but I still wouldn't have expected Evelyn to sleep with this creature within a week of discovering her.  I also got irritated with Adam.  We only see him through Evelyn's view but he is too perfect.  I don't feel like he has much of a personality or that Evelyn truly got to know him.  I also got kind of irritated with all the sex scenes.  They weren't graphic, but it seemed like all the two of them were ever doing was having sex.  I would much rather have one or two well-written graphic sex scenes than comments along the lines of and then we had sex on every page.  I understand the characters are a couple/married, and I'm going to assume they are having sex; no need to constantly reiterate that they are basically fucking like rabbits.  I also thought the humming noise that Adam makes was just weird, and it really didn't work for me within the context of the story, annoying me more than anything.
I ended up giving this novel 3 stars on Goodreads but on further reflection, I don't think it should be more than 2.  It did get a bit more interesting in the last part when the family moves to Florida but I have given other books that I enjoyed more than this one rankings of 2 stars because I was disappointed with how they handled things.  This book was certainly not better than they were.  When it comes down to it, I liked the writing, I liked the concept and even some of the parts of the plot but I disliked the execution.

Book 69: The Keeper of Lost Causes

Prior to my trip to Scandinavia, I wanted to at least be able to say I'd read a book by an author from each country.  While my first choice would not have been yet another Scandinavian crime thriller, this novel caught my eye on a trip to the bookstore (technically, I already had a novel by a Danish author that would have qualified but it just didn't quite interest me as much - it too was a mystery).  While I can't completely judge the whole series on one book, I actually thought this one added a refreshing bit of humor that has been entirely missing from the other Scandinavian crime novels I've read this year.  I rather like the Harry Hole series, and in fact they may be one of the reasons Norway entered into my head as a vacation spot, but they do occasionally get quite dark and dour.  I can't say I liked the story or the detective in the Swedish one I read by Henning Mankell though with over a dozen books in the series, I can only assume he improves - either way, the novel was also just dry and dreary.  While Carl Morck, the detective on whom this novel centers, has similarities with Harry's type - antisocial, doesn't play well with others, dysfunctional but brilliant - Olsen adds enough supporting characters to lighten things up a bit.
After one of his colleagues is shot and killed, and another paralyzed during a routine investigation, Morck isn't quite himself.  He can't figure out why he didn't draw his gun, and possibly prevent everything that happened.  As a result, he is even grumpier than usual, more withdrawn and he has lost interest in his cases.  At around this same time, a politician begins an initiative to get the police department to focus on cold cases, and Morck's supervisors decide to solve two problems at once by placing Morck in charge of the new department.  This way they get rid of a non-productive policeman and make it look like they are taking the initiative seriously.  Morck gets an assistant as part of this job, and though the person was supposed to be mostly administrative and for cleaning, he quickly takes more of an interest in their cases than Morck until finally he entices Morck to investigate one case in particular.
Five years ago Merete Lyngaard, a rising politician, disappeared from a ferry and has been presumed dead for five years.  However, the novel has been flashing back and forth between Merete and Carl, and the reader knows that she didn't die five years ago - instead she was kidnapped.  Of course, since Merete's first chapters are dated five years before Carl's it is hard to tell what her current fate is, but it was nice to read a crime novel where for once there might be a chance of saving the victim.  Fortunately, this is the case that Carl and Assad focus in on, and the reader watches as they slowly make progress in the investigation, hopefully in time to make a difference.
Olsen did a good job of laying out clues, and I was able to guess the motivations behind the crime before any of the other characters.  I quite enjoyed how he developed his story, and the interactions between Carl and Assad help this one stand out from being yet another detective novel about a brilliant but tortured cop who can't figure out how to help himself.  I'm curious to see if this dynamic continues to play out over the rest of the series or if they will slowly get darker.  While Harry Hole was never all "rainbows and kittens," he has certainly sunk deeper and deeper over the course of the novels.  I hope this isn't the case in this series because sometimes it's nice to not have everything be quite so dark, even in crime literature.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book 68: The Art Forger

Claire is a pariah in the art world.  Though she continues to paint and work on her own art, she cannot get a show, and struggles to sell her work.  As a result, she also works for a website that sells quality reproductions of paintings by the masters, her particular specialty being Degas.  At the beginning of the novel, Claire receives a visit from Aiden, a gallery owner that she knew before she became an outcast, and he makes a proposition to her: he has somehow gotten a hold of a Degas painting that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and wants her to make a reproduction of it.  His arguments, the money and the promise of her own work being shown at his gallery are all too tempting to resist, and Claire agrees to copy this missing masterpiece.
The novel slowly reveals more of Claire's backstory as the novel progresses, eventually explaining exactly what caused Claire's fall from grace.  At the beginning, all the reader knows is that it somehow involves her ex-lover and former mentor/teacher.  As Claire studies the Degas painting, preparing herself to make the copy, she slowly begins to doubt whether it is in fact an original.  There is no doubt that this is the painting that hung in the gallery but she begins to believe that the original went missing long before that, leading her on a quest to find the original.
Shapiro also includes fictional letters home that Isabella Gardner wrote during her trips to Paris.  Since only the readers have this information, it is easy to start coming to conclusions regarding the original painting before Claire gets to them.  While the mystery is interesting, what makes this novel really stand out from any other thriller is all the detail and information about the art world and forgeries.  Some of the characters actions and reactions seem a bit rushed and unrealistic at times, but I was definitely hooked, and thought this was a rather well-done and slightly informational page turner.  Given the time of year, this would be the perfect read for the beach or a flight, especially if somone wants something light but with a bit of educational value.