Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mount TBR: March Checkpoint

I've read 24 out of the 36 necessary for Mount Vancouver, which is 67% complete.  I've read 41 books total for the year so 59% of the books I've read have been from the "to read" pile.  I'll take that as a win.  Additionally, I've been tracking the number of books I buy, and I've bought 35 this year which puts me in the plus column, having decreased my to read pile by 6 total.  Here is the complete list of books read for this challenge.
I had to double check purchase dates on Amazon to determine which one I've owned the longest, but the one that has sat unread the longest is either My Cousin Rachel (ordered December 2009) or Gates of Fire . . . I don't actually know when I bought this one since I didn't buy it online but I'm pretty confident that I had it in Germany which would mean I've had it at least as long as My Cousin Rachel, and probably a bit longer.  I liked both and while I wish I hadn't let them sit this long, I also didn't love either one so much that I regret not getting around to them previously.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Book 38: The Magicians

It seems like almost everyone has read this novel at this point.  The reviews I've read have tended to be more positive than negative, though most agreed on the fact that Quentin, the main character, was not very likeable or sympathetic.  As a result, I felt like I was rather prepared for what was coming, and knew ahead of time not to be too frustrated if I disliked Quentin.  Honestly, the first part of the novel, I didn't even think he was that bad.  He was a bit snobby towards his parents because he thought they couldn't relate to him, but I get the feeling there's lot of college students that feel that way about their parents and going home for break, magical or not.  It wasn't until after graduation that he really started to grate on me.
Quentin has always been one of the gifted kids, working hard to get the grades and to get into the advanced classes so he will be able to get into the right college.  At the beginning of the novel, however, Quentin suddenly has an unexpected opportunity to take the entrance exam into Brakebills, a magical college.  He passes the exams and is accepted as one of the 20 first years to make up his class at Brakebills, a five year school.  Almost half of the novel chronicles his time at Brakebills, his developing relationships with other students including Alice and Penny, and later the Physicals (basically, the kids are all grouped together after their second year based on their discipline or major).  Alice and Quentin both skip a grade, and as a result aren't quite as involved with the rest of their year group, focusing much more on the other Physicals.  I didn't have any issues with this part of the novel, but at some point, I realized it was taking me much longer to get through than I would have expected, and this may be because there wasn't anything specific going on.  The students go to class, the reader is introduced to the concepts of magic in this world and how much work it is, and then they graduate.  It was at this point, that the novel went from a slow read to an unpleasant experience for me.  After graduating, the alumni have to return to the real world and figure out their lives and what they want to do - there isn't a magical world for them to inhabit, so while there are positions that would involve them working for the magical community, for the most part, if they want to do something with their lives, it involves working in the real world, and maybe using magic to guide certain decisions and policies.
Alice, who was my favorite character, decided to remain in New York with the other Physicals and pursue her relationship with Quentin, but she is the only one who still takes an interest in learning, and finding some type of meaning in her life and actions, a fear she has due to her parents.  Quentin and the others, on the other hand, waste their time with drinking, drugs and parties until Quentin and Alice's relationship is incredibly frayed.  At this point, Penny, a student from Quentin and Alice's original year group, shows up and announces that he has found a way to get to Fillory, a magical world all of them are familiar with due to their childhood love of the novels set in Fillory.  Fillory is of course an allusion to Narnia, saving Grossman the time of creating a new world from scratch since he can rely on his readers to fill in the blanks.  Yet even as the characters plan their trip to this magical land, I wanted to shake all of them.  Only Eliot really seems to get it, while the rest speak of becoming kings and queens, of riches they could gain, and discuss the possibilty of bringing guns into a land that doesn't have them.  When they are finally in Fillory, I quite enjoyed one local character's comment when they start getting unhappy with the outcome there, which was basically, "we didn't want invite you, we didn't want you to turn our home into your little fantasy land."
Basically, as a story, the novel wasn't as engaging as I'd hoped, partially because the characters' inability to figure out their lives really irritated me.  There's a reason I haven't read On the Road.  However, some of the points within the novel aren't bad, and Grossman basically portrays Quentin as an unhappy character that relies on circumstances to make him happy rather than to find something on his own.  He also has a hard time taking responsibility for his actions, and has a few somewhat sexist or misogynist moments.  Overall, I didn't dislike it, I just found some of the characters frustrating (loved Alice, though), and wish it had sucked me in more than it did.  It was basically the definition of an okay book - it wasn't good, it wasn't bad, there was definitely some potential and good parts but not quite enough.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book 37: The Leopard

Due to the events of The Snowman, Harry Hole has had a hard time coping with his current circumstances, and has left Norway for Hong Kong where he is smoking opium and hiding from a gambling debt.  He attempted to resign from the police force, but his boss put him on leave status instead.  After two gruesome, inexplicable murders occur, Kaja is sent to Hong Kong to get Harry back to help solve the case since they may be dealing with another serial killer.  Relunctantly, Harry comes along, and finds himself caught up in the middle of departmental politics in the police force as two different departments (Kripos and Crime Squad) are engaging in a turf war, and this case may be a factor in the decision.
The mystery itself has its usual stops and gos, twists and red herrings, as can be expected from a Hole novel.  It's funny that I have no problems suspending disbelief when Harry, an alcoholic, gets away with drinking binges and other misbehavior at work, but I always raise an eyebrow when they travel to other countries to follow up on leads - "that's really in your budget?"  This time around, the case leads Harry to a possible connection with Rwanda and the Congo.  I was also surprised that quite a few of the other police officers in this novel have an issue with Hole due to an incident involving a dirty cop in an earlier novel.  In addition to the politics and the crime investigation, the other subplot in this novel relates to Harry's relationship with his dying father who is in the hospital.
As much as I like these novels and the mysteries, I am not sure anymore how I feel about Harry at this point.  This is the fifth novel I've read and the eighth in the series, and Harry just keeps getting more and more screwed up.  I have no problems with a flawed hero, but it's just so different from what I feel like is the more normal narrative projectory, where the hero eventually figures his life out and redeems himself and makes all those sacrifices and allowances from other people mean something.  The thing with Harry, though, is that while he is a brilliant detective, he cannot dig himself out from his hole, and just keeps going deeper.  It's a very different narrative choice since as a reader I want to see things get better for Harry, not worse.  And while the last five novels have shown some of his triumphs and struggles over the past few years and cases, I'm still not completely sure I understand why Harry acts the way he does or what drives him beyond his need for justice.  Why does he constantly mess things up with Rakel and his friends?  At this point, it's hard to feel anything but frustration with the character and his decision making process.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tuesday Top Ten

The Broke and Bookish hosts a weekly meme called the Tuesday Top Ten.  I always like looking at the topics and have wanted to write about one or two of them but I usually end up being horrible at making lists, especially if I can't refer to my shelves right then and there.  This week's topic, though almost sounds tailor-made for me! 
Ten Books I Had to Buy and Still Haven't Read (The ones that are especially depressing are the books I had to have so badly I bought them in hardcover and I still haven't actually gotten around to them - I went ahead and bolded any that fit that criteria)
1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - seemed like everyone was raving about this one
2. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - I read the rest of the trilogy, ordered this one when it came out and still haven't got around to it
3. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Euginedes - loved Middlesex, got this as soon as it was released, couldn't get into the first chapter
4. Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir - she is one of my favorite non fiction authors and I had just finished The Lady in the Tower so obviously I needed to read about Anne's sister . . .
5. The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean - I have had this one less than four months and it's one my night stand so I feel like I'm going to get around to it any day
6. Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
7. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
8. Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
9. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
10. The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book 36: Ready Player One

Taking place in 2044, this novel follows the adventures of Wade Watts, or Parzival as he is known in OASIS, the virtual reality/internet/gaming network that has come to dominate pop culture, media and recreation in the future.  The creator of this virtual reality, Halliday, died over five years ago, and in his will, he left his 240 billion dollar fortune to whoever could win the game he created in the OASIS and complete his quest.  Halliday afficionados know that to solve this quest they need to have an extensive working knowledge of all things '80s, Halliday's major obsession, and Wade is one of many "gunters" or egg hunters that has studied Halliday's life and the '80s in preparation for his quest.  Unfortunately, Wade comes from a poor background, and it affects his ability to travel in this virtual world (he has access to books and media files for free) where transportation from one planet to the other requires money (real or virtual) or a vehicle of some sort.  Access and usage of the OASIS is free but within that program everything has a cost.  Wade only has access to his one world where he attends school and has no idea how to get more money or how to narrow down on which of several thousands of worlds the first challenge is located.  However, while lost in thought in his OASIS Latin class, Wade finally makes that first connection that will allow him to discover the first key and be the first person to show up on the score board.
Wade's accomplishment leads to renewed interest in the quest, and also makes Wade a person of interest for the "Sixers" and IOI, a corporation that has a whole staff section dedicated to the search for the egg since this would allow them to make even more money off of the program - considering how much money people spend within the game on luxury items and what not, they have already made a good chunk selling things.  When their recruitment efforts fail, the corporation resorts to death threats, and even sets off a bomb in the trailer stacks Wade lives in.  I thought the second part of the novel dragged a little bit because Wade got distraced from his quest for the second key and the second gate.  The first part or "Level 1" included a good set up of Wade's world, the concept of the OASIS and his discovery of the first challenge.  However, in the second level he spends a lot of time talking about his new fame, buying things, going on side quests and attempting to romance a fellow gunter named Art3mis who was the second name on the score board rather than trying to solve the quatrain/riddle pointing to the Jade Key
When taken simply as an adventure quest story, the novel was a lot of fun though occasionally cheesy - I mean, anything focused on '80s culture is going to have some cheese.  Evil corporation, plucky young hero, sassy love interest - they are all there.  However, I feel like there were implications in the novel that either weren't dealt with, simply brushed off or addressed with one little sentence at the end along the lines of "don't confuse virtual reality with reality."  I know the things I'm about to bring up weren't even the point of the novel but it is definitely what came up in my head.  As much as I wanted to root for Wade, in other cases I also wanted to shake him as a representation of the future.  Wade mentions a few times that things in the future have gotten very bad so most people spend the majority of their time in OASIS, avoiding reality for the virtual world.  Most of these people don't even have the excuse that they're gunters and hunting for the prize.  Instead, there is a whole Brave New World situation where the OASIS has become the drug that people use to avoid the reality (although, I'm not completely sure how this works after being told that there is an energy and power crisis).  Instead of trying to fix the world, they just escape to a fake one.  Wade doesn't really talk about this much, focusing on the positives of this system.  He doesn't vote in the real US elections because they are pointless but he votes in the OASIS one?  Does Cline even realize what he is saying there?  Am I as a reader supposed to want Wade to stop caring only about what is going on in a game and maybe try to make a difference?  I mean obviously if he wins, he could use that money for good, but the only character to mention this is actually Art3mis, the love interest.  It's easy enough to root for Wade over the corporation but in the end, will it change anything?  Will Wade make a difference that actually matters?  Still, the idea of the OASIS is rather amazing - the ability to have all kinds of knowledge at one's fingertips, the ability to at least see representations of the world whenever desired.  Unfortunately, in the world portrayed most people aren't using it for this type of self improvement and are instead using it as an escape and a status symbol.  However, as long as one can avoid philosophical thoughts, it's a simple and engaging story.

Book 35: Black Swan Green

I've read Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell, and enjoyed them all thoroughly.  Despite this, I have been in no rush to pick up Black Swan Green.  I assumed it would be good but I still wasn't quite that interested in reading a coming of age novel.  Also, I've noticed there are some authors that I feel like I have to read their whole backlog as soon as I discover them, while others I slowly get back to, even if I loved the novel I read.  I am not sure what determines the distinction, but I think it might also be that as I get older, I don't always rush out as much as quickly unless it's the beginning of a series.
Jason, the novel's thirteen year old narrator, is one of those kids that doesn't quite fit into any of the cliques.  As the novel begins, he is not popular but he isn't unpopular or an outcast, either.  The novel covers about a year of his life, and each chapter felt like it took place in a different month (I think there are thirteen so that's not completely accurate), sometimes referring to events in previous chapters, sometimes not.  Jason doesn't fill in all the blanks between one chapter or another, so in some cases it is up to the reader to guess what may have happened in the last few weeks, but the novel certainly seems to address the highlights of Jason's life that year.  Jason has a few fears in his life - he writes poetry that gets published under a fake name, and if anyone were to ever discover this, his social life would be ruined.  He also has a stammer which is different from a stutter that he has mostly been hiding from the kids at school by avoiding trigger words as much as possible.
The novel takes place in 1982, so there are references to old videogames, the Falkland Wars and other cultural pieces from that time.  While Jason is mostly a sweet kid, it took me a while to get into the novel and to actually care about the middle school politics and rules of popularity.  One chapter in particular just involved him walking around in the woods, searching for adventures, and I was just about ready to give up on the story.  In the first half especially, I was more interested in the adults in Jason's life, the undercurrents between his parents that he doesn't quite understand, and I liked being able to compare his interpretation of events to what was actually going on or what Mitchell wanted the reader to think.  The turning point in the novel for me was when an older woman in the town takes an interest in Jason's poetry, and she discusses a composer Robert Frobisher while playing his sextet that is now unavailable for purchase.  If you've never read Mitchell before, she will just be an eccentric old woman but if you've read Cloud Atlas you'll recognize the names and the connection so I quite enjoyed that shout out to his readers.  Another one that I caught was that the DJ played "number nine dream" at a school dance, which happens to be the title of a Mitchell novel I haven't yet read.  There may very well be other connections to the author's other works, but those were the two in particular that struck me.  After the Frobisher chapter, I was much more involved in the story, especially since it soon becomes clear that there has been a shift in Jason's social standing at school as he has clearly dropped down from his precarious position in the social rankings at his school.
Overall, it wasn't a bad novel at all, but it's just not really a topic I'm generally that interested in.  While I liked Jason, it took me a while to really care about the character and what was happening to him and around him.  However, once I became engaged, I quite enjoyed it.  However, I don't think I would recommend this as a starting point to a reader new to Mitchell unless they also happen to be into stories about young boys/teens growing up and dealing with life.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book 34: The Swerve

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
Greenblatt is most famously known for his books on Shakespeare, or at least, that's why I know the name even though I haven't read any of them.  This book explores the rediscovery of antique works in Christian Europe around the time of the Renaissance, and the premise reminded me of Petrarch, a name I vaguely remembered from college history classes.  This book focuses specifically on Lucretius' poem On the Nature of Things and the book hunter Poggio Braccioloni who lived about a generation or two after Petrarch.  I definitely enjoyed the book but I also think the back cover and the title in itself may be a bit misleading regarding the book's topic and argument.
 For example, this is straight from the book description section on Amazon: "One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it."  However, while Greenblatt choose to focus on this particular manuscript, he doesn't make the argument that it alone changed the world or caused modernity - he makes an argument that it had an influence and a role, but so did several other things.  While I don't want to argue about the importance of Lucretius's work specifically, to me, the book read less as an argument of how Lucretius changed thoughts, and more of an example of how things were changing in general, and this particular poem was used to show the journey that many others would have been taking at this point in time.  On the Nature of Things has some unique viewpoints and perspectives it brought to the table, but the story of its discovery is probably representative of many other works.
The book begins with a personal anecdote of how Greenblatt himself first came to read the ancient poem, and then tells the story of how Poggio Braccioloni discovered the manuscript in an unnamed German monastery in 1417.  From here, Greenblatt backs up to tell the story of Poggio's life, to explain life at the Vatican at this time period (Poggio was a papal secretary; his refusal to take vows meant certain avenues of power were closed, but he still did well for himself), and provide context to the renewed interest in ancient texts, beginning with Petrarch, the Humanist and the elite of Florence, where Poggio rubbed shoulders with several scholars before moving on to Rome.  He also puts the piece in its proper historical context.  Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus, and Epicurean philosophy.  The simple idea is that the most important thing in life is pleasure but not in the way that one would now think upon hearing that term - the emphasis isn't on crazy over the top luxury, but simple pleasures such as doing good, being with loved ones etc.  There is also a big science aspect to it, including the idea that the universe is composed of an infinite amount of atoms that rearrange themselves to create new things.  The philosophy also isn't too concerned with gods - it doesn't say they don't exist, but says they have no interest in humans, and that there is no such thing as an afterlife.  However, while Lucretius (approximately 96BC-50BC) may have been read, this philosophy didn't even necessarily sit that well with ancient beliefs so he was known but not necessarily incredibly well known or influential even in his own time.  From here, Greenblatt discusses the spread of Christianity, and the changing priorities - the libraries of places like Alexandria were partially destroyed, and partially allowed to fall apart as the men and women responsible for maintaining them and their ideas fell out of favor.  It was disheartening to read how in the focus on religion, early Christianity appeared to toss aside the ancient knowledge as seductive and/or distracting.  As a result, many pieces were lost - even now, after concerted efforts of recovery there are many ancient authors who are only known due to being mentioned or cited by other authors though none of their pieces survive.  On the Nature of Things was almost lost, but Poggio happened to discover a copy of a copy of a copy that had been moldering away in a monastery.
After giving all this context, Greenblatt explained what Poggio most likely did with the piece, and notes that he does not appear to have referred to it again beyond telling his friend he'd like it back to read it.  A few people may have read it and it appears to have circulated a bit in Florence and forward from there but it is hard to tell what the initial reactions were or if the poem made much of an impact.  After a chapter that breaks down in very easy terms exactly what scientific and philosophical beliefs On the Nature of Things expresses, Greenblatt focuses the last sixty pages on some philosophers and great thinkers that appear to have been influenced and familiar with the ideas expressed in Lucretius's work.  While it was generally interesting, I'm not sure if I was ever entirely convinced of this poem's importance, partially because many of its ideas are now seen as basic science.  As a result, I'm not sure if the examples used in The Swerve were influenced by On the Nature of Things specifically or other similar works, though Greenblatt doesn't mention the existence or absence of such works.
Overall, I thought it was an informative snapshot of a particular moment and movement in history, and it isn't a story I've read elsewhere in the same detail so I quite enjoyed that part.  My major complaints are the aforementioned misleading statements regarding the marketing and advertising because I don't feel like the book argued how the world became modern or how this poem specifically was the catalyst for such (at least, not a very strong case).  Obviously, Greenblatt showed some people had been influenced by some of its beliefs, but slowly, and as I said, only a few (such as Jefferson) directly quoted or referenced Lucretius or Epicurean philosophy.  My other complaint was the lack of footnotes.  The book had end notes but since they weren't cited or marked in any way on the page, I didn't realize this until I flipped to the end.  This isn't a complaint exclusive to this book, though - it seems like editors or publishers of some of the popular history books don't think the audience care about citations or where information came from, so they just hide it all at the back.  Personally, I would love to have footnotes so I can get those extra details, and I don't have to flip back and forth, but at the least they should make sure the reader is aware that a particular point on a page has a citation or end note.  However, (and I may be wrong) I don't think this was Greenblatt's decision so I can't blame that or even the way the book was marketed given that he even stated in the beginning that Lucretius wasn't the thing that set modernity in motion, just one important piece of many.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Book 33: Vaclav and Lena

This was such an incredibly sweet novel.  I wasn't sure what I thought at first since the writing was a bit simplistic, but it worked very well for the story and the characters.  I did wonder a few times if this was YA or "regular adult" fiction while reading it due to this, but it was very charming and didn't have an effect on my enjoyment of the novel.  Vaclav and Lena are about 9 when the novel begins, and Russian immigrants.  Well, maybe - Lena's past is a bit hazy so she doesn't know if she was born in Russia or the US but she has been in New York since she was a baby.  Lena currently lives in a state of neglect with her aunt, and due to this, she struggles in school and with English.  Vaclav, her best friend, dreams of being a magician with Lena as his assistant.  The kids spend most of their time at Vaclav's, under Raisa's protective eye, planning illusions and shows.
Raisa knows that something is wrong with adults in Lena's life, but is not completely sure how to act.  Instead, she turns a blind eye when Lena steals food, feeds her every day, and brings her home, making sure she is tucked in.  Vaclav is an only child, and Raisa has basically made him the center of her life, but she also has a great deal of affection for Lena who is as close to a daughter as she has.  The story and relationships portrayed are familiar - the children of immigrants growing up in America, the neglected child, the mother who lives for her family and especially her child, the immigrant whose credentials don't count in the States that works a more menial job and drinks a lot.  Despite all these familiarities and types, the novel is able to stand on its own as a coming of age story, and feels fresh.  It actually takes place in the modern day though the novel really felt like it could have been describing any immigrant family from various countries over the past decades.  Personally, I enjoy "coming to America (or Britain as the case may be)" stories and reading about the struggles of adjusting to the new community, of parents growing distant from their children due to the very opportunities they wanted to give their children by picking up and leaving their countries, and about conflicting cultures and beliefs so I liked this one quite a bit.
The first part of the novel spans about a week with occasional forays into the past to explain Lena and Vaclav's friendship.  Lena is acting differently, and avoiding Vaclav at school.  At the end of the week, there is an incident that Vaclav doesn't completely understand that leads to the police taking Lena into custody and removing her from her aunt, and Vaclav's life.  From there, the novel flashes forward to the day of Lena's 17th birthday which serves as a catalyst for Lena to return to Vaclav's life.  This gives the reader a chance to see how Lena and Vaclav have developed, and the opportunity to find out what was occuring in Lena's home life that caused her abrupt departure.  As  I said before, it was a relatively sweet and simple story, so the reasons things occur won't be a huge surprise, but the characters were a pleasure to be with, and I especially enjoyed Vaclav's mother, Raisa, because I could definitely see someone like my grandmother in that role.  I'd definitely recommend this since it was a pleasant story and a easy read for an escape from reality.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Book 32: The Weight of Water

While I wouldn't consider Anita Shreve one of my go-to authors,  I have enjoyed the novels I've read by her, which are Testimony and The Pilot's Wife.  As a result, after I read a positive review for this by another CBR V participant, I certainly made a note of it, and picked it up while at the bookstore.  This novel was actually shortlisted for the former Orange Prize in 1998, and has since been made into a movie by Kathryn Bigelow.  Having now completed it, I would have to say I prefer the other two of her novels that I have read, though this wasn't a bad novel.  It just wasn't quite what I wanted at the time I read it.
Jean, the narrator, is a photographer who has been hired to take pictures of Smutty-Nose, one of several islands off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine.  In the mid to late 19th century, the island was the site of two women's double murder with one survivor, and the magazine wants to do a piece on the murder and compare it to a more recent sensational case.  While visiting Portsmouth, a nearby town on the mainland, Jean stumbles upon some documents written by the lone survivor, Maren Hontvedt.  The narrative shifts back and forth between these documents or journal, and Jean's narrative.  Within Jean's story, she tells the story of her marriage and her life, but also occasionally elaborates on the murder trial and what history has recorded as occuring on that island.  I actually really liked this structure, and thought it was very well done, especially the way the author weaved the facts of the case in with Jean's actions and thoughts of the moment.  It was also easy to draw parallels between the situation on the island and the boat.  Jean has asked her brother-in-law, Rich, to use his boat to take her out to the site, leading to a trip with four adults and one young child confined to a relatively small space for about a week while Jean works on her assignment.  Maren and her husband John lived in a small house on Smutty-Nose with his brother Matthew, her brother Evan and his wife Anethe, with her sister Karen as a frequent visitor.  Six adults in such a small proximity obviously could lead to some tensions, especially since Maren portrays Karen as a bitter, angry woman who judges her constantly.  While the three men were away for work, a former boarder comes to their abode to steal, and ends up killing two of the women in the process, with only Maren escaping.  He is soon found, tried and found guilty of the crime.
While the four modern day adults are on the boat together, Jean begins to doubt her marriage, and her husband Thomas.  Rich's current girlfriend Adaline is beautiful, and very interested in poetry, giving her a connection to Thomas, an alcoholic poet.  Jean's insecurities nag at her, knowing that she is no longer as young as she once was, and watching the easy interaction between Thomas and Adaline.  The dual narratives and the exploration of people in confined places should have worked incredibly well but it just didn't do it for me.  I think part of it was the ending; if the ending had been slightly different, I think I would have preferred it rather than the ending that occurs.  Parts of the ending I was expecting from the first page of the narrative, and these certainly came true, but in other cases my expectations were not met.  And while I believe that was actually kind of the point of the novel (expectations and believes vs reality), it actually left me unsatified - on the one hand, I wanted to be surprised but not in that way.  Still, I probably would pick up another Shreve novel, and part of me is even curious about The Last Time We Met, which is a sequel, focusing on Thomas a few years down the road.

Book 31: The Snowman

I was slightly cursing the fact that all these novels weren't translated and published in order while reading this Harry Hole novel.  The Devil's Star was technically the fifth in the series, and this is the 7th, but the sixth won't be published in the States till May.  The good thing about Nesbo is that even when he refers back to his older novels, he simply alludes to things but doesn't completely give things away.  Still, it took me some to get caught up with this one since two characters that were alive and kicking at the end of The Devil's Star are now deceased, another one has had a baby and Harry has even moved offices.  Harry and Rakel have once again broken up, and since I'm unsure what their status in the previous novel was, I have to say that Rakel and Harry have an odd relationship.  Harry considers Rakel the love of his life, but as far as the reader is concerned they are never together - they met in The Redbreast, were dating in Nemesis though she was in Russia for almost the entire novel, had broken up prior to The Devil's Star only to get back together by the end, and here are once again, broken up.  In fact, Rakel is even seeing someone new and it is relatively serious.  Obviously, more drama can be gained from misery but I wouldn't mind having them actually together for at least a novel or two so their relationship would have more meaning.
The novel begins with a short scene in 1980 during which a married woman visits her lover one last time before he leaves town while her son waits in the car.  She notices a snowman outside the window before returning to the car and her frightened seeming son.  From there, the novel flashes forward to 2004 where the novel introduces another young boy whose mother disappears by the next morning, leaving no trace and only a newly built snowman in the front lawn.  Based on a letter Hole received in the mail earlier that fall, he wonders whether there is a potential serial killer on the loose, and his research takes him back to a case in 1992.  Another woman goes missing soon after as well, and once again there is a snowman connection.
The novel had some good twists though I guessed the identity of the killer somewhat early on.  Of course, Nesbo often reveals more information to his readers than his inspector has, though he occasionally uses this to misdirect the reader as well.  I guess it basically happens in every mystery novel but there are a few false starts and suspects that are of course not the killer.  While I understand how the evidence points towards certain people, it seems like in Nesbo's novels sometimes the characters believe incredibly strongly in the guilt of the wrong people.  It would be a short novel if there weren't a few missteps but it bugged me in Nemesis when Hole became super focused on a possible suspect, and it bugged me a bit here when a person who appeared to have something to hide suddenly became a huge focus for a different detective.  These points all work together, and the novel comes to a satisfying conclusion, it's just a small pet peeve about the genre in general sometimes.  I think it's just because I'm used to intricate twists and turns as a consumer of this type of media even though in reality, the simplest answer probably is the solution (ie, I felt the same way about Veronica Mars in season 2 or 3 - Mars kept following the wrong suspects but she really believed they were the right guy, and she seemed too smart for that).  I can't wait to read the next one which is actually also the next one in reality, and not just the next one available in the US.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Book 30: A Red Herring Without Mustard

This is the third novel in a mystery series centered around eleven year old Flavia DeLuce, taking place in 1950s England. Flavia lives in the family home with her two older sisters, both whom she describes as torturers (usually, they have at least one or two sweet moments in a novel, but in this one, Ophelia and Daphne seemed to have declared all out war on Flavia), her slightly distant father, and Dogger, all around handy man. Additionally, there is a housekeeper/cook who takes care of the family on a daily basis, while Flavia's mother died during a mountain climbing incident when Flavia was only 1 (I keep waiting for there to be more to this than there is). Flavia is amateur chemist, having long ago claimed a deceased uncle's laboratory as her own, and spends much of her time conducting experiments and reading about poisons.

In this novel, Flavia accidentally sets fire to a gypsy woman's tent at a fair and as a result offers the woman use of the Palings, a field on the family land, for her caravan that night. Late that night/early the next morning, Flavia goes to visit the woman, and finds her beaten in her trailer. Flavia's quick response and fetching of the doctor saves the woman's live, but now Flavia has found a case to solve. Who beat the gypsy and why? What was that one woman talking about when she said the gypsy had stolen her child? Why did Flavia stumble upon Buckie in her house the same night the gypsy was beaten? Are these incidents related? And what is with that fishy smell?

Given that the main character is 11, the novels don't get too gruesome or dangerous and stay away from certain topics. Overall, they are sweet, slightly quirky fun. In this one, Flavia even makes a new friend of sorts. While I can definitely understand how Flavia would be an incredibly obnoxious and nosy little sister, but it seemed like her sisters' reactions in this novel went beyond annoyance and disdain. Then again, I don't know much about sibling relationships, and Flavia may have been taking things too seriously. A theme that has been running through the books is the family's financial problems due to Harriet's (the dead mother) lack of will, so I'm curious to see if the novels will simply continue showing the family in constraints or if Bradley will actually make the family relocate or come up with something else. Actually, three novels in, I'm ready for there to be a bit more time progression, so maybe by the next one Flavia will be 12. Otherwise, we're looking at an awful lot of incidents in such a small town in a small period of time.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Book 29: City of Dark Magic

When I read the description of this novel, I was both intrigued and worried.  It sounded like fun, but it also kind of sounded like A Discovery of Witches due to the mix of characters and European setting.  And I didn't like A Discovery of Witches very much, a novel which took a fun concept and dragged it out with too much description and a boring main character (in fact it was one of my more scathing reviews last year).  Still, this novel was set in Prague, so I was cautiously optimistic.  I love Prague!  Also, once I realized that Magnus Flyte is actually a pen name for two authors writing together, one of whom I like (at least I liked Meg Howrey's novel The Cranes Dance), it made me feel even more reassured.
Sarah, the main character, is a grad student focused on Beethoven and brain activity related to music.  She receives an invitation to assist with the creation of the Lobkowicz Museum in Prague now that the castle is back in the hand's of the heirs following confiscations by the Nazis and then the Communist government.  The seventh Lobkowicz was one of Beethoven's patrons, so she is excited about the opportunity though not quite sure why she was chosen.  She soon discovers that her mentor and thesis advisor is actually working on the project and the reason she was invited - unfortunately by the time she realizes this, he is already dead in Prague, an apparent suicide.  In addition to exploring the collection for letters and references to Beethoven, she now also wants to investigate the death.  She also gets caught up in intrigue and espionage dating back to the KGB's presence in Prague, and some secrets that a certain American senator would rather keep hidden.
The cast includes various eccentric and quirky academics, all of whom are working on various aspects of the collection, such as a woman who studies 17th century women artists, a Lesbian weapons expert from Texas, and various others.  Sarah's friend Pols, a blind child prodigy, manages to make herself a part of the intrigue through sheer force of will.  Prince Max, the current heir who is responsible for bringing them all together, also keeps showing up, and may have more knowledge about the professor's death.  Sarah finds herself drawn to him though she feels he may be keeping some things from him.  There is also Niccolas, a dwarf, who works for or with Max, and seems to know quite a bit abot various things.  Personally, I wouldn't have minded a whole novel just from Nicco's perspective.
Overall, it was an amusing story, though I wonder about the marketing.  It seems like many of the negative reviews are from people who were expecting another A Discovery of Witches.  This novel is far more humorous, though there were parts that were kind of gross (eating toe nails for their drug residue).  In fact, some parts of the humor reminded me more of Chris Moore than a romantic novel.  There is of course a love story - it has a prince after all, but even with that, some of the sex scenes seemed like something Chris Moore would describe.  I know some people didn't appreciate the sex or the fact that Sarah hooks up with a guy in a bathroom within the first few chapters, and while I wouldn't encourage that kind of behavior, I also found it very refreshing to have a heroine that was not only sexually active, but also sexually aggressive and not afraid to take or ask for what she wanted.  It just gets irritating sometimes when the characters are in their twenties or older, and are still virginal or have never had good sex.
The novel was far from perfect and the plot was a bit convoluted at some points with the two different plot angles (which converge a bit, but not completely).  The ending also clearly left the possibility of a sequel open.  Overall, I don't think I'd run around recommending this but I certainly preferred it to other novels, and it was entertaining enough.  I also think there is potential if these authors continue to write together because I would say the things I liked outweighed the things I didn't care for as much.

Book 28: Time and Chance

Taking up where When Christ and His Saints Slept left off, Time and Chance follows Henry II through the first fifteen years of his reign.  While there are quite a few things going on in this novel, and several wars and rebellions, the main events of this novel are the slow deterioration of Henry and Eleanor's marriage, and Henry's feud with Tom Becket.  Penman certainly shows a great grasp of the history and the different events going on, and shares this information with her reader in a generally engaging way.  I actually quite enjoyed the side trips to Wales to learn of Hywel and Owain as seen through the eyes of Ranulf, a brother of Maude and uncle of Henry II that Penman invented for the sake of her narrative (though Maude was the only surviving legitimate heir, she had around 20 illegitimate siblings, hence the addition of a half-Welsh half-brother).  However, I think I preferred When Christ and His Saints Slept, though this was still a good novel.  The main difference is that while it took me a bit of time to get into When Christ and His Saints Slept, once I was into it, I was sucked in.  I feel like this one started off strong but my interest vanned some in the middle and last parts.  It might just be me, but I feel like I spent less time in the characters' heads this time around, and more time being told facts.  This isn't a bad thing, but it made it slightly less engaging.
I also will say that part of it may be related to something else.  Henry and Eleanor are one of those couples I both love and hate to hear about.  On the one hand, they were both incredibly intelligent, capable and powerful rulers who had a passionate marriage.  On the other hand, it all falls apart.  While the series doesn't get there in this installation, Henry locks Eleanor up for over ten years, and she at one point encourages her sons to rebel against their father.  What started out as a strong partnership simply disintegrates.  Additionally, while Henry and Eleanor are brilliant, their offspring are decidedly less capable than they are.  However, these are all events that are still in the future of the series, though knowing it is coming makes it tough to read.  Eleanor has been tolerant of affairs conducted discreetly while they are apart, but in this novel Henry takes up Rosamund of Clifford as a mistress, in a situation that is very different from the ones before.  Additionally, Henry often ignores Eleanor's advice, leading to arguments, and between these two things, their marriage begins to weaken.  They also interpret each other's action in completely wrong ways - who knows how much of this is true to life, but in the novel, Eleanor feels slighted, and though Henry still loves her, he doesn't quite understand or see her perspective, nor does he even realize that she doubts his love due to her wounded pride and ego.
The other large event of Henry's life that this novel covers is his feud with Thomas Becket.  Harry originally promoted Becket to be his chancellor, and Becket has had great success in the position, fighting for the king's rights.  However, Harry has some issues with the church, many of which I even see as justified.  In order to bring harmony to his reign, he pulls strings to get Becket made the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest religious office in the country, under the assumption that this way he'll have an ally in the church.  Unfortunately, things don't work out that way though it takes Harry some time to realize that Becket's and Henry's views of how Becket should act  are very different.  One character describes Becket as a chameleon, someone that is able to blend in wherever he is and succeed.  When a politician, he was going to be the most devious and best; now that he is serving as archbishop, he is going to be the most pious bishop possible and defensive of the church's rights.  One of the king's main concern with the church was his inability to punish wrongdoers within the church; for example, after a knight was murdered by a member of the clergy, the clergy member was prosecuted within the church where 12 men swearing an oath that the accused wouldn't do something like that is enough to get him off.  Even the ones that are viewed as guilty are merely banned from the church.  The king feels that he should have the right to prosecute these clergy members in his courts with actual evidence required rather than oaths and such.  When Becket refuses to budge, Henry makes demands that are excessive while Becket keeps arguing with him.  Basically, what seems like should have been a simple issue escalates because both men are prideful, stubborn and arrogant until both are in the wrong though they think they have right on their side.  Not everyone in the church even agreed with Becket but as their leader, the clergy follow him, and find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard palce.  In fact, it certainly seems that by the end Becket was trying to make himself a martyr which would certainly allow him to win the argument even if he wasn't around to witness the results.
Henry's relationship with his children is almost non-existent due to his continued absences and the demands of ruling such a large territory as he does.  Henry does not trust easily, and within this novel he feels that Becket, one of the few people he trusts, betrays him.  With the novel ending where it does, it sets up Harry to be faced with another series of betrayals in the sequel, this time by his own family.  While Henry was a good ruler from what I've gleamed, he didn't know how to share power or how to engage his family.  It will be interesting to see how Penman portrays all this.  Since this is a novel I understand that the focus will be on the drama and events, but I wouldn't mind hearing more about things that Henry implemented in his rule that improved lives, besides the fact that his existence as king ended a period of civil war.  He is always described as pragmatic, a man that will go to war if necessary but doesn't relish it among various other attributes (really, I just need to find a real non-fiction bio on the man).  I'm definitely planning on reading the third one in the series; however, once I am done with that, I think I am more likely to follow up with Penman's Welsh series or maybe even the stand alone The Sunne in Splendour (Richard III! - it's topical) rather than reading Lionheart - I know chronologically, it comes first, but I am far more curious to learn more about Wales at this point than about Richard.  Besides, when it comes down to it, I am much more interested in Henry and Eleanor than their offspring.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Book 27: A Letter of Mary

While I was incredibly disappointed with the second Mary Russell novel, I had already purchased the third one in the series.  I decided to revisit the series this past week, and I have to say I liked the third installment much more.  While I felt like the last novel took too much time to get to the actual mystery portion, which then ended up being rather weak, this novel started the case almost right away.  A few days after a friend visits Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes, Holmes notices a piece in the paper requesting assistance identifying the victim of a hit and run.  Her description matches their friend's appearance, and the couple is quickly enroute to London to identify the body, and determine whether this truly was an accident.  Of course, all the signs point to foul play, and the rest of the novel involves Russell and Holmes trying to track the killer, determine who had the motive, the means and the opportunity.
There were a few other things that I found much improved in this novel from the previous two: Russell didn't get hurt during the investigation.  In the first novel, she ends up hurt while protecting someone, in the second she gets turned into a damsel in distress and has a long recovery period, so I was very happy when the narrator of the story didn't end up in a tight spot or a hospital in this one.  King also didn't bring up Russell's age until over halfway through so it was easy to ignore the fact that Russell is only 23 years old to Holmes mid-50s, and their relationship is described in very set and comfortable ways.  I found the weird sexual tension/relationship between Holmes and Russell distracting in the last one, while here they seemed more like friends or partners that happened to be married.  Still, there is something about this novel that was just slightly off to me, and I think it is related to Russell.  I don't dislike her as a character but I don't love her.  While I don't expect her to solve the case when Sherlock Holmes is there, the author intended her to be an equal.  While she is smart, there were a few times where she just seemed a bit slower about things than she should have been, and was made more fragile than I wanted, such as her near fainting spell at the morgue.  Maybe it's more accurate for the time period, but I could pass on some of these types of things in the character (the narrator states she has an issue with car accidents due to a past incident but I still could have done without the near passing out followed by her taking a long nap from exhaustion), especially since the novels otherwise emphasize her intelligence, resilience and uniqueness.
Before her death, their friend Dorothy Ruskin had given Mary a box containing an old letter, possibly written by Mary Magdalene and addressed to her sister right before the fall of Jersualem.  Two experts had dismissed the letter, and while Ruskin knew she would get nowhere with it, she still believed it was authentic, hence her gift to Mary.  As the pair of detectives pursue the case, the question becomes Dorothy was killed because of her work and the uproar this letter could cause to the Christian community (Mary as one of the apostles), her involvement with the Zionist movement or more personal reasons.  The novel involves various disguises and undercover missions to find the truth as well as various chats with Mycroft.  The story was relatively straightforward but it was a fun romp, and the setting in the past certainly helped matters.  I'd have to get further into the series to determine if I'd actually recommend it, but now that I'm three novels in, I'll probably continue onward.