Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book 62: Vlad

This is a historical fiction novel about Vlad Dracula, the real figure that inspired Bram Stoker when he wrote Dracula.  Of course, I use the term "inspire" loosely here, since the only thing Stoker really used was the East European setting and the name Dracula, otherwise completely ignoring the history behind the man, which would have made a rather horrific story on its own.
The novel begins five years after Dracula's death, as three people are gathered up by troops.  As they discover shortly after, they have been collected at the ruler of Wallachia's behest to get the true story on Dracula, his actions, accomplishments and failures.  The idea is that redeeming his name could possibly be the inspiration for another crusade, and a cardinal from Rome has come to hear this last confession about Vlad, Vovoide of Wallachia, from the three that knew him best: his best friend and comrade, Ion; Ilona, his mistress; and his confessor.  Though the story is narrated by these three people, the reader gets the narrative in the traditional form, and can guess who certain information came from.  For the most part, the reader isn't told the internal motivations for Vlad's actions unless he shared them with one of the three people mentioned, leaving the reader to make their own judgements.  Within the context of the story, it is not hard to understand why Vlad did the things he did, even if it is hard to understand how he could do them and still live with himself.
The confessions introduce a teenage Vlad who has been a hostage in Turkey for the past five years.  He receives the privileges and education of a noblemen at this court but never forgets his status as a political hostage, meant to ensure his father's compliance.  The politics of 15th century East Europe are perilous and complicated, with the small kingdom of Wallachia facing threats from all sides, including Christian and Muslim threats.  Early on, young Vlad already sees that one of the main problems is that the Christians states are too busy fighting amongst themselves for scraps to come together and provide a formidable defense and challenge to the Turks (in fact, Constantinople falls to the Ottomans in the time span of this novel, thus ending the final part of the original Roman Empire).  Wallachia's leader has to pay tribute to the Sultan, keep rebellious and traitorous lords under control, and maintain functioning relations with places such as Hungary.  When Vlad's father, Dracul, displeases the Sultan, Dracula is sent to the Turkish prison where he learns all about torture and witnesses his first impalement while his younger brother becomes the play thing of the heir to the throne.
Once Dracula returns to Wallachia to claim his throne, he faces threats from his boyars, or lords, and quickly finds the nobles of his land turning against him, used to the previous lawlessness and lack of rule.  After a long struggle, Vlad becomes undisputed claimant of the throne, and it is during this time that Vlad gains the nickname and reputation that will follow him as the Impaler.  As harsh as his punishments and actions are, his actions are understandable even if I wouldn't condone them.  In order to show rough men that he meant business, he himself had to be harsh and drastic.  Under his rule, people did not worry about crime because his punishment was swift and merciless.
I enjoyed the first part of this novel more than the second half, which dealt more with Vlad's youth and his development.  Humphrey chose not to judge Vlad, letting the reader make their own judgements, but this also means that there is a distance between Vlad and the reader, especially as he gets older, since Humphrey doesn't let us into his mind.  I think it was a good decision given the subject matter, but it meant that after a while certain scenes felt repetitive.  Part of this was of course Vlad's life, which saw many highs and lows with lots of backstabbing from fellow royals and his followers.  In current day Romania, Vlad is remembered more for the good he accomplished, including the decrease in crime, and the attempts to liberate Romania from foreign powers.  It is unfortunate that this historical figure has been lost behind the vampire legend because it is an intriguing story that provides enough brutality to satisfy even horror fans.  It was a good piece of historical fiction but I haven't read any other historical fiction on this subject to compare it to, and as I said I didn't love the novel.  It felt a bit long by the end so while I wouldn't rush to get this novel into anyone else's hands, it would definitely appeal to anyone that likes medieval historical fiction, needs something to do once Game of Thrones is done for the season, or would like to see the reality behind the myth.

Book 61: The Demon-Haunted World

As much as I enjoyed this book, I am not sure if I have much to say about it.  In its simplest form, this book is a plea to focus on science, in education and the media, and to teach the scientific method.  Sagan argues that many people have no idea what the scientific method is, so that they are easily duped when pretenders show up with bogus results.  As a result, he spends a lot of time discussing aliens and UFO sightings, showing how they have no real evidence to back them up.  Unfortunately, not even basic high school classes seem to actually teach what counts as evidence, and this allows too many people to be deceived in this arena, as well as other areas where it matters, such as global warming.
It is very easy to read, and the chapters are all relatively short (less than 20 pages), thus easy to break down into small junks.  For the most part, the chapters build on each other, leading from one thought to the other, though I think many could also be read independently of the rest of the book and still be understood.  In some cases, he provides very specific details, examines hoaxes, and also has a chapter where he discusses certain signs that inevitably signal bad science, such as confusing causation and correlation to name a simple one.  I liked his no nonsense approach, but he also doesn't make fun of those taken in - he provides examples of how easy it is to be fooled, hence the importance of a scientifically literate population. 
Given that this was written almost twenty years ago, I wondered how he would feel about today, since many of the fears he lists about culture in the '90s have only worsened and become more extreme.  He doesn't lay all the blame on the common people either - he mentions that some scientists have made this divide worse as well by explaining things in very complicated terms.  Science is interesting, but it needs to be presented in an engaging way rather than the dry textbooks that seem so prevalent in schools, the exact time when children are having their first interactions with the subject.  It is a wide ranging book, and Sagan discusses the many goods of science while acknowledging its flaws and missteps.  He also points out that many scientific discoveries were the by product of other experiments, and cautions against limits on science research since very focused goals could easily prevent other important breakthroughs.  I'll definitely check out some of Sagan's other work in the future though I'm not sure where to start.

Book 60: Hood

While Room may have made Donoghue a household name among readers, she already had a long writing career behind her when it was published, and Hood was her second novel.  Set in Dublin in 1990, it's a first person narrative told from Pen, or Penelope's, perspective, chronocling the first seven days after her lover Cara's death.  Anyone only familiar with Room will probably be surprised by how detailed the sex scenes in this novel are as Pen reminisces and finds herself constantly replaying and dreaming of old memories.
Due to the fact that Pen is in the closet, her lover's death is even more complicated than otherwise.  Since she moved into Cara's childhood home four years previously, she now has to wonder if she even still has a home or if Cara's father will ask her to move out.  No one knows that Pen has just lost the only woman she has ever slept with, someone she has been with for thirteen years with the occasional break, and instead everyone just thinks she lost her roommate.  She is only able to get off three days from work because it is only a deceased friend.  Additionally, working at the same Catholic school where she met Cara, Pen finds herself surrounded by memories and triggers.
As the novel progresses each day, Pen deals with various emotions, and it is clear that though she loved Cara, and Cara even loved her, their relationship was far from perfect.  Cara was flighty and displayed little regard for Pen's feelings, often breaking up with her to explore other options, until finally they settled into a "open" relationship with Cara always coming back to Pen.  In fact, Pen is plagued by the fact that Cara was seeing someone on the vacation she was returning from at the time of her death.
While Pen is in the closet to the majority of the people in her life, Cara had found a group of lesbians to associate with, and one of them tries to offer Pen support.  However, Pen sees them more as Cara's friends so she feels uncomfortable even talking to the one group of people that she would not have to pretend with.  Donoghue does a great job of portraying the small things that Pen has to deal with after the death, the conflicting reactions and feelings, and the isolation that Pen feels.  Even while judging Cara and her choices (and disliking her to an extent), I couldn't help but be interested in her due to Pen's complete and total devotion to her.  Pen portrays herself as the reliable and steady one, the somewhat boring one, but reading her story it is hard not to want more for her, beginning with an appreciation of herself.  I quite liked the intimacy of this novel, and the fact that Donoghue didn't try to sugarcoat anything.  The reader witnesses every conflicting thought Pen has, making for a very realistic approach to death and grief.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book 59: The World We Found

Umrigar is one of those authors whom I always enjoy, and while the descriptions of her novels sound like they have the potential to be cliche-ridden, I'm always pleased with the end results.  In general, her novels tend to deal with difference between classes, between cultures (America vs. India), religions, and often have her older Indian characters looking back and reflecting on their teen and college years as opposed to their current positions though of course some novels focus on certain themes more than others while some address them all.  All of these themes are seen again in The World We Found.
Armaiti, Laleh, Kavita and Nishta were inseparable in college, and they considered themselves revolutionaries - they engaged in long political discussions, attended rallies, and believed in the possibility of change.  Thirty years later, they are around 49, 50 years old and lead lives far different from the ones they would have imagined for themselves.  Armaiti left Bombay, married an American and has lived there for years; Laleh is a middle to upper class housewife with a successful husband.  She still believes in the ideals of her youth but she has the benefits of the well-to-do.  Kavita gave up the struggle after on particularly humiliating event, and is now an architect who still struggles with her personal life and those secrets.  Kavita and Laleh see each other often, but the rest of the group has drifted apart and lost contact, until Armaiti is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and decides it is her dying wish to see her friends one last time.  This leads Laleh and Kavita to seek out Nishta, who had distanced herself shortly after her marriage to a Muslim.  They are surprised to find that the passionate and liberal Nishta and Isqual have both changed, with him becoming a very devout and strict Muslim, struggling financially and displaying little of the passion that once bound them together.
As the women attempt to plan their reunion, they remember their pasts, and confront the differences between who they were and who they have become.  They also question why they drifted apart, finally confronting long held secrets and beliefs that have led to their estrangement, realizing how trivial some of the matters that have influenced their lives truly were.
I think my favorite one of hers is still The Space Between Us, but I would certainly recommend this one as well as it shows Umrigar's ability to write detailed characters, their internal conflicts and how they fit into present day India and its past.  The novel doesn't tie things up, ending on a note of hope but with questions about the future for them all.

Book 58: NOS4A2

I may be in the minority here, but I didn't like this novel as much as Joe Hill's previous novels.  I think part of it is that I didn't read the description of the novel too closely, and basically ordered it because it was by Joe Hill, and I assumed that it would be about vampires based on the title.  I was excited to see Hill's take on vampires, especially given his father's treatment of them in Salem's Lot.  However, while the character referred to in the title certainly has vampiric qualities, sapping life energy from others to remain alive, it isn't a straight up vampire story as I expected.  Additionally, I like Stephen King a lot, but one thing I've enjoyed about Joe Hill is that even though he works in the same genre as his father, his voice is very different and distinct.  This novel reminded me more of his father than any of his previous works, which isn't a bad thing, but it felt odd.
The novel begins with a creepy prologue, introducing the now comatose Charles Talent Manx, the novel's villain.  Of course, this is a horror story, so the reader immediately knows that there is no way this man will stay incapacitated.  From here, the story flashes back in time to its protagonist, Victoria, or the Brat.  After their return from a family holiday, 8 year old Victoria's parents begin to fight about a lost bracelet, and Victoria wants to end their fight.  She runs off with her trusty bicycle, and discovers that she can make a bridge with her mind that will take her to the things she is looking for.  She doesn't mention it to anyone, and makes up cover stories for how she found the lost items, which she even believes herself though she knows the truth deep down.  As she gets older, she has questions about this ability, and the bike leads her to a person with answers.  Victoria is not the only one with this type of skill, though in manifests differently in everyone, the one common factor being that all of the people have talismans, such as Victoria's bike.  However, the use of these skills takes a toll, exhibiting as illnesses and eye issues in the case of Victoria.  During this conversation, she also learns of Charles Talent Manx, a man that has been using this ability to keep himself alive and kidnapping children in the process.
Due to family issues, Victoria ends up as a rather rebellious teenager, and one night, while looking for trouble, her bike takes her to Manx's house in Colorado.  Her unexpected arrival throws a kink into his plans, and he ends up getting caught by the authorities, arrested and sentenced.
The novel then flashes forward to the adult Victoria, who lives in Colorado, and has a son, Bruce Wayne, with the man that helped her when she escaped from Manx.  Victoria is incredibly screwed up - she is haunted literally and figuratively by the events that occurred, and still receives phone calls from the kidnapped children asking for their father, Charlie.  She is an alcoholic, she believes she is crazy, and though she has strength and skills, she is also very dysfunctional.  Once Charles miraculously regains consciousness and freedom, he decides that his next victim will be Wayne, and Victoria must keep it together long enough to save her son from his clutches.
I feel like I went into quite a bit of detail but the description of the novel actually gives away this much of the plot, and it is a seven hundred page book.  I actually didn't really warm up that much to Victoria though I thought her portrayal was very realistic and reasonable.  The story worked very well within its own logic though I think I was hoping for something where the other worldliness didn't come into play until much later.  Unfortunately for that, the bridge was introduced within the first ten pages.  I think I tend to prefer horror stories that seem to be normal until things just aren't (see many King novels that start grounded in reality and then aren't - NOS4A2 was grounded in reality the majority of the time except for that one thing that is introduced in the very beginning) - Horns had a similar beginning where the main character had horns on the first page, and the story developed from there, but it worked for me more in that novel. 
Joe Hill also had quite a few pop culture references including Firefly, Dr. Who, and Harry Potter, though I think the one I was most pleasantly surprised by was Cloud Atlas.  I know a few readers mentioned some nods to Stephen King's work as well, and that actually leads me to a question - one of the characters refers to something called the True Knot.  The Stephen King novel coming out in September refers to the True Knot in the description - so was this something that came up in a previous King novel that I don't remember or was there some father/son collaboration while they were writing these novels?  The other thing I would say is that Manx's helper very much had the feel of a character from a King novel.  Overall, it was a well-structured novel, and it was definitely a page turner but it wasn't what I was expecting, and it seemed much more influenced by Stephen King than Hill's other work.  I think most people would still enjoy this since it is certainly a good horror novel, I just think I expected something even better or different.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Book 57: The Lost Hero

While it isn't necessary to read Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series prior to this novel, The Lost Hero takes place afterwards so the reader will be missing some background.  Since this novel focuses on three characters that are new to this world, however, it is very easy to just follow and learn along with them, while realizing that there are past relationships and nuances that you aren't in on.  The Percy Jackson series is fun, and there are only five, so they are definitely worth checking out and this book contains minor spoilers for that series, at least regarding whether certain characters lived or died (Riordan does a good job of not giving away much about the big events and twists, though).
The novel begins when Jason, one of the three new heroes, wakes on a bus, surrounded by strangers, unable to remember anything about himself.  The first two students to address him are Piper, who says she is his girlfriend, and Leo, apparently his best friend.  After an attack from a wind spirit, they are rescued, and introduced to a whole new supernatural world, one in which gods truly exist, and they are demigods, the offspring of a human and a Greek god.  Piper and Leo are quickly claimed by their supernatural parents, though Jason isn't.  However, as confused as he is, Jason appears to have some familiarity with what is going on, recognizing the gods, the symbols, and much of the mythology, even if he keeps using the Roman rather than the Greek terms.  All three are under a spell or mist - Piper and Leo have been made to believe that they know Jason while Jason's memories have been taken.  Soon after their arrival, they are given a quest to free Hera from her captors.  In the process, they hope to find out what is going on with Jason and why, and Piper has her own motivations as well.
Meanwhile, Annabeth is attempting to find Percy who has gone missing.  A prophecy told her that Jason was a clue of sorts, so though she continues on her mission, she hopes this quest will lead to answers about Percy.
I thought this was a very fun read, and even though it takes the heroes awhile to put two and two together regarding Jason's background and mysterious appearance, I enjoyed it.  There are various hints about what may be going on, and the teachers appear to know even if they are forbidden from talking about it.  I was actually surprised Annabeth didn't figure it out much sooner, but it will definitely be fun to see where the story goes from here.  I also enjoyed the ways that Riordan used this novel to explain the differences between Greek and Roman gods early on, when even Annabeth, Camp Halfblood resident genius, thought they were the same with new names.
I can't wait to read the rest of the series, and Riordan is rather reliable as far as publishing goes.  I just wish the paperbacks came out more quickly (maybe it's just me, but if the sequel is out in hardback, that means all preceding novels should be available as paperbacks).  I also wish the Percy Jackson movie had been more successful (and better made from what I hear) because this could have been such a fun series to watch onscreen, especially since each novel covers one quest rather than one school year like the Potter series.

Book 56: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

I actually picked this novel up at the college bookstore back when I was a college senior because it was being used in a class I didn't have room for in my schedule.  I then never actually got around to reading it because every time I picked it up, the first paragraph just seemed oddly impersonal and distant to me.  I finally realized recently that it would actually fit into the Keyword Challenge I was participating in this year, and moved it into the short term to read pile (or in sports terms, it went from bench warmer status to on deck).
 The novel is set at an undetermined time in the United States, but definitely the future.  The world is facing huge environmental issues, and societies are close to the brink of collapse.  David is a member of a large yet close knit family that has been very successful, spawning doctors, researchers, and department store owners among other things which gives them useful skills and resources.  The family's leadership can see the epic crisis that is looming, and as a result, the family comes closer together, all relocating to the patriarch's land under the guise of building a hospital.  This gives them access and reason to buy a large amount of medical supplies and equipment without looking suspicious.  In reality, the hospital is a front for Walt, David's uncle, to run his experiment in the caves with the assistance of other medical professionals, both in and out of the family.  The only solution Walt and David can see to the future of the family and humankind is cloning.  The livestock aren't breeding successfully, and neither are humans.  Research suggests that after a certain generation of cloning, the specimens regain the ability to breed naturally, so the clones are supposed to be a kind of stop gap to prevent humanity (and their livestock) from going extinct before allowing nature to once again take its course.
The novel follows the collapse of society, and the beginnings of this secluded life on the farm, but David sees that their plans may not go as desired before he dies - the clones have developed ideas of their own about the future of society.  From here the novel jumps forward, to a society of clones.  While the society functions well enough, they are also at the point where they must explore their surroundings to continue to thrive, and salvage what they can from the abandoned, dead cities.  It is here that this community reveals its weaknesses which are very much related to the lack of individualism and lack of creativity.  At this point, the clones have no idea what their original function was as previous clones have rewritten their history.
Mark is born into this, the result of a relationship between two clones that have been behaving oddly as a result of exploring the world, and his individuality allows him to see the threat to the future of humanity.
I actually liked the first two sections of this novel the most, seeing how the family determined what they felt needed to be done to preserve themselves and humanity.  Though this was written in the '70s, using environmental issues as the reason for the breakdown of society makes it still very much relevant to today.  I also felt like the novel did a great job of showing the problems that would eventually arise in such a homogenous society as cloning could lead to, and enjoyed the inner conflicts that the characters faced.  My biggest complaint is that the section with Mark both went into great detail about certain things, and yet wrapped up very quickly.  Wilhelm spends a good portion of narrative on his development, his childhood and his sense of difference, but I would have enjoyed more time on the resolution.  At the end, I couldn't help but wonder if a whole different issue had the potential to arise in the type of society being developed but that is a whole new discussion.  Overall, I would definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Book 55: The Painted Girls

While I had already bought and decided to read this novel before this review by a fellow Cannonballer (which the author even responded to!), the review certainly helped move it towards the top of the pile.  While I didn't love it as much as Jamie, I enjoyed the novel.
The novel is told from the alternating perspectives of Antoinette, the older sister and protector of her two younger sisters, and Marie, the middle sister, the shy one with the most schooling.  The family has always assumed that Grace, the youngest, would be the professional ballerina, especially after Antoinette's attitude got her kicked off the troupe, but after their father's death, Marie and Grace both end up trying out for positions on the same day, and both make it.  Their mother is an alcoholic, and Antoinette sees herself as their guardian, taking care of Marie and Grace to the best of her ability.  Unfortunately she meets a boy, who becomes a major distraction for her, Emile, and as a result of his influence, she soon finds herself descending the rungs of society to help him when he gets in trouble.
Marie doesn't understand her usually intelligent and streetwise sister's attraction to Emile, but it isn't exactly a topic Antoinette is willing to discuss.  Instead, Marie focuses on her training, works extra jobs to help with her progression, and even is paid to model by Edgar Degas.  This exposure helps her find a sponsor, which is both a bad and a good thing.  The older rich man that takes an interest in her helps her monetarily but some of his interest is definitely less than kosher and makes the naive Marie uncomfortable.
I admit, I was expecting a slightly different story than the one I read - since the novel charts the progression of two sisters, one who is a descending star in the ballet world, while the other is on her way down, falling victim to the seedier side of Paris, I think I was expecting the high to be higher, though the low was rather low.  However, what I thought worked very well is the way that the sisters' success and failures paralleled each other - Marie may have been becoming more popular and accomplished in the theater but how much did the things she ended up doing truly contrast with her sister's actions?
While Marie and Antoinette have their differences, it is their relationship that anchors the novel, even if at points other things and people take priority.  The three sisters are actual historical figures and Emile is also pulled straight from history.  Of course, the idea that they ever interacted is the author's imagination, so while some of the big facts of their lives are used in the story, the feelings and things that drove them to those outcomes are conjecture on the author's part.  I actually liked the fact that the main characters of this historical fiction novel had a basis in reality beyond "this could have happened."  Still, I didn't get quite that attached to the characters, and I'm not sure whether that is because I didn't care as much about the relationship between sisters or because I've read so much historical fiction that it takes quite a lot to stand out to me.  As a result, while I liked the novel, it didn't hook me in the way it did some other readers.  And let's be honest - I've always been much more of an Anglophile than a Francophile.  While I've always felt the need to branch out, the fact is Paris just never entices me the same way that London does.  This isn't the novel's fault, but may very well be one of the reasons I didn't connect to this more.  Still, the novel is well-written, and I liked the concept behind the writing, showing that the author actually put some thought into this and some research.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book 54: Faceless Killers

I keep seeing the Kurt Wallander series at the bookstore, and since I wanted to read a novel by a Swedish author, I decided to give the first novel in the series a shot.  While there were some things I liked about this, I also found myself comparing it unfavorably to the Harry Hole series.  Of course, this novel came out long before Harry Hole became popular in the States, so some of the cliches in this novel may not have been quite as cliched when this was originally published.
The novel begins with the murder of the elderly couple in the country who are discovered by their neighbors.  The violence and randomness of the crime shock the nation, and Kurt Wallander is assigned to the case.  Kurt's wife has left him, his relationship with his daughter is almost non-existent, he is struggling with his weight, and in this novel, he also is making bad decisions when it comes to drinking.  However, he isn't a loose but brilliant cannon in the lines of Harry Hole, and in fact, comes off as occasionally incompetent.  The wife of the elderly couple actually lived long enough to make it to the hospital and utter the word foreign, so in addition to facing a brutal crime, Wallander has to find the murderer soon enough to prevent any racially motivated crimes from occuring as a result of the tensions the murders cause to flare up.
I actually liked this part of the novel.  Mankell shows us the slow investigation, with very few clues, and several possible motivations but none that truly stand out.  The fact that this isn't some incredibly intricate case and instead something that probably resembles life was actually interesting.  The murders lead to a hate crime which is solved more quickly than the main case of the novel.
The issue I mostly had is that Wallander isn't really a character I felt that invested in. While Hole makes mistakes, you still find yourself rooting for him to figure it all out.  In the case of Wallander, I just kept thinking "stop bumbling around with your personal life."  He becomes interested and makes a pass at a married prosecutor which honestly just pissed me off and made me not like him.  Actually, I don't think I would have minded him making a verbal pass or slightly flirting with her, but the fact is he becomes a bit forceful.  I can deal with a lot of things, and I realize detective novels aren't always the most gender friendly, but don't have the hero act like an entitled, sexist asshole and still expect me to want to read about him.  He apologizes the next day with flowers, but seriously?  This is supposed to be the flawed protagonist?  There still needs to be something interesting or likable about him.  Wallander on the other hand is a middle aged guy that doesn't know how to deal with his family, is having a bit of a midlife crisis as a result of his wife leaving him and is taking to drinking.  This makes him a realistic enough character but I'm not sold on him being a great cop, nor am I sold on him being a good person who is having some bad luck given his forceful pursuit of a married woman that didn't express an initial interest.
Since I actually liked the approach to the mystery, and this was a very quick read, I would be willing to give the series another shot before completely writing it off.  Maybe once Wallander has processed his impending divorce more, there will be a redeemable character hidden underneath.

Book 53: Stolen

I've taken a bit of an unplanned break from reviewing, and have also fallen a bit behind on my reading in general (so this is what having a bit of a social life does - I'm not sure if I approve), but figured it was time to get back to it.  Stolen is the second novel of the Women of the Otherworld series, and so far, I'm definitely still hooked.  While investigating a potential threat to exposing werewolves to the public, Elena discovers that werewolves are not the only supernatural beings in the world when she realizes that the people she is meeting with are witches.  This meeting leads to the introduction of vampires, demons and other beings into Armstrong's world.  Elena is a bit surprised to find out that werewolves aren't alone in the world, and while it is easy for the reader to thing "well, if there are werewolves, why wouldn't there be these other things?", it actually makes sense in a way.  It's easy to think of being able to change one's body has some weird genetic mutation but witchcraft?  That's a whole different level.
This gathering of supernatural forces is in response to a common threat.  A group of scientists, sponsored by a tech millionaire (billionaire) are kidnapping supernatural beings for nefarious purposes - research, money making schemes, gaming ... as the only female werewolf, Elena is of special interest, and is soon targeted and captured, leading to various adventures as she attempts to learn as much as she can and escape.
Since Armstrong wasn't tied down as much with introducing her main character, this novel moved along much more quickly than the previous one, and it also helped that Elena had by this point come to accept herself rather than fighting with the parts of her personality she was unsure about it.  Additionally, even though Armstrong introduces quite a few new characters, she only develops the ones important to the story, relying on the fact that there will be later novels to flesh others out more.  With the influx of new characters, she was also smart about how she handled old characters, sending a few off to a trip on Europe, thus avoiding cluttering the book just so the readers could see familiar faces.  My one complaint about the previous novel was the lack of female characters which this novel nicely gets rid of, introducing several women in both the supernatural setting, and in the lab/prison.  So far I'm definitely happy with the series - as far as seriousness vs lightheartedness, I feel like it ranks somewhere between The Dresden Files and The Stackhouse Series - Elena is a fairly competent character (Sookie wasn't incompetent, but I feel like she got rescued more), but at this point, I don't think series has gone as dark as The Dresden Files occasionally do.  It might help that unlike Harry, Elena actually gets to have sex fairly often.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Book 52: Wool

I saw this at Barnes and Noble shortly after reading a very enthusiastic review for it over at the Cannonball Read site, and of course had to pick it up.  I wasn't disappointed, either.  It was nice to see a good piece of dystopian fiction in the adult section for once (I love all the YA ones, I just wonder sometimes why they seem to be primarily marketed for that group).  Wool originally started as a short story, which comprises the first section of this compendium entitled "Holston."  Due to the fan response, Howey followed this up with four novellas which all expanded on the world he built.
There is a lot of rich detail that adds to the story but I don't want to give too much away.  One thing I quite enjoyed is that Howey played with the readers' expectations, and subverted them.  I think many people that read this will have read other dystopian pieces, such as The Hunger Games trilogy.  As a result, we expect secrets and lies from top officials, but Howey plays with this and turns it on its head.  For example, I thought I knew where the short story was going with one or two of the comments or hints dropped but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong.
When the first story begins, the piece slowly reveals details.  Survivors of some catastrophic event live in a huge underground silo that is over 100 levels deep.  There is a mayor, and a sheriff to ensure law and order.  Everything is very controlled to ensure survival, including reproduction.  Holston is the current sheriff and his wife has been dead for three years.  On the third anniversary of her death, he decides he is done, and expresses a desire to go outside.  This breaks a giant taboo and law, and Holston knows he faces death, outside being something that isn't talked about.  We hear a little about his wife, and the past, gleaming hints of life in the silo - there have been revolutions in the past, but the history has been erased.  No one knows what happened to cause humans to retreat to the underground, how long they have been in the silo or what has happened in the silo in the past but they know that the outside is toxic.
The second section or first novella of this compendium covers the search for a new sheriff, and the mayor's decision to put Juliet in charge.  Juliet is a mechanic and has worked deep down in the silo for most of her life, but she made a good impression on the deputy during a case years earlier that took place in that level.  Juliet, of course, knows about Holston's fate since news travels in this environment, but once she is in place she is driven by a desire to find out what inspired him to make that kind of decision.  It is her search for meaning and understanding that drives the rest of the novellas and leads to the actions that occur.
Howey takes on a familiar story but adds his own spin, making this seem fresh and new within the genre.  I quite enjoyed it, though I think some of the later novellas ended up being a bit longer than necessary.  It was definitely a page turner, and I wonder how much of the world Howey had in mind from the beginning vs. how much he developed as he went based on fan response and popularity of his story.  There is a prequel out as well now, and on the one hand, I would very much like to read it, but Wool was so good on its own that I'm almost hesitant to change that experience or read anything further that might detract from Howey's creation in this compendium.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Book 51: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This is one of those titles I've always heard of and felt like I should read but never actually got around to.  I had no idea what the novel was about and kept confusing this novel and its author with Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated and The Unbearable Lightness of Being sound like titles that could be from the same person, right?).  However, I've been trying to read more translated work this year and this fit in well with that goal.  With that title, I have to say I was expecting a rather heavy read, but I was pleasantly surprised by just how approachable the novel was.  That isn't too say that it doesn't touch on serious topics or that the author doesn't spend a good time engaged in philosophical discussion, but the writing itself was accessible and contained a simple story to settle it.
The two main characters are Tomas and Tereza.  He is a surgeon in Prague, and after a chance meeting (or one determined by fate depending on which character's thoughts you go with), Tereza visits him in Prague, and eventually moves there to be with him.  Tomas is a philanderer, and marriage and a relationship based on love are not what he was looking for, but he loves Tereza, and they get married. Tereza, of course, is miserable with the fact that even after marriage, Tomas continues to sleep with other women.
One of his many lovers is Sabina and she actually knows Tereza since she helped Tereza get her job at Tomas's request.  The novel follows Tomas and Tereza, Sabina and one of her other lovers whom she met in Geneva after leaving Czechoslovakia in 1968.  Tomas and Tereza also temporarily left the country, but return based on a choice Tereza makes.  Sabina remains an expatriate, while Tomas sees his status decline due to a statement he had made which the current government sees in a bad light.
Throughout the novel, Kundera goes off on various tangents, discussing the idea of light and heavy.  I liked the way he referred to language, discussing how certain words were composed in different languages and how this affected their meaning within their language.  And since I speak German, I enjoyed the bits of German thrown in here and there, such as his repeated focus on the idea that "einmal is keinmal" or once is the same as never doing it.  I also liked the way he played with the reader, referring to the novel as a novel while we were reading, acknowledging that Tomas and Tereza were characters, explaining the ideas that led to their creation.  Of course, within the context of the novel, he still gave them a backstory and family background, but to me it all seemed very tongue in cheek.  While he may have been using the characters to make a point about a belief or an idea, I still found them well developed, if sometimes eccentric or not always likable.  The other thing I liked a lot was the dictionary in the middle of the novel where he compares Sabina and Franz's definition of words.  This demonstrates just how different they are though I think only one of them realizes it.
I was pleasantly surprised by this one.  I generally avoid straight up philosophy if I can (at least straight philosophy - I can't get through Plato), but I like it when it's in small doses surrounded by a story, and this novel certainly met that requirement.  It was also nice to read something set in Prague (it's such a fun city), though I think it may be time to read an actual history of the Czech Republic and Slovakia to put everything in the proper context.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Book 50: Home

Despite the fact that my dad introduced me The Sound of Music at a very young age, I didn't know very much about Julie Andrews.  I can't even remember seeing Mary Poppins more than once though The Sound of Music was a repeatedly viewed film during my childhood.  When I found this in the bargain bin, I was certainly sold because it's Julie Andrews, and I quite liked the book and her voice.
In my head I have a picture of Julie Andrews as proper but fun, slightly naive - basically, it's hard not to start thinking of her as her character Maria.  This book certainly shows that she is very classy.  There were points throughout the book where she could have viciously gossiped or made biting remarks about people, but she didn't do that.  She would explain the situation, provide a comment, but not drag anything through the mud or treat them too harshly.  For example, she describes being disappointed by her manager when he raised his percentage and she trustingly signed his contract without realizing this part, but beyond acknowledging that this changed their relationship, she does not attempt to settle any scores or rehash old drama.
The book follows Andrews through her childhood, introducing her somewhat unorthodox upbringing, her first successes on stage, through to her first musical on Broadway, her follow on role in "My Fair Lady," and ends with Andrews married, with her first child, enroute to Disney to take on the role of Mary Poppins.
I was actually amazed by the family situation that Andrews described - Andrews loved both of he parents though she trusted her father more.  Her mother was a pianist, divorced Julie's father and married another performer, and it is through them that Andrews eventually ended up performing.  As she becomes more successful, Andrews feels more and more responsible for taking care of the family in all senses of the term, financially paying for the family home, looking after her younger half brothers and even looking after her mother.  While it is easy for the reader to judge this relationship, and wonder at the amount of responsibility Andrews had thrust upon her at an early age, Andrews is not resentful at all, which is truly admirable.
While it is not necessarily a tell all, I feel like Andrews opened up quite a bit and revealed a lot about her life (Pat Benatar's memoir for example not only didn't have any juicy gossip, it didn't feel like it revealed much about her though it was nice to read about her musical career).  I would definitely be interested in checking out a book about her later successes, but I feel like she ended it in a good place since most people are probably more familiar with what happened once she made it to film anyway.