Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book 108: Me Before You

I loved Moyes's previous novel, The Last Letter from Your Lover, and though I would say that I didn't like this one as much, it was still a very pleasant read.  Me Before You is both better and not as good as The Last Letter from Your Lover.  The earlier novel had a parallel story line setup with a story set in the 50's/60's as well as one set in the modern day, and the one focused on the earlier timeframe was just amazing.  Nothing in Me Before You was as strong as that relationship or story but this novel as a whole was definitely much better than the modern day part of The Last Letter from Your Lover.  In fact, I was a bit worried before I started this because the modern day characters in The Last Letter didn't appeal to me as much, so I was a bit skeptical about an entire novel in the modern era.  Fortunately, my fears were unfounded, and overall this is a strong story.
Another concern I had was that with one of the main characters being paraplegic, Moyes could easily make some controversial statements about quality of life given that Will Traynor wants to die.  However, I think she handles this well by showing different situations and opinions via internet chatrooms and showing how people may have differing views of quality of life, especially for themselves.
After Louisa Clark loses her job at the town cafe (it closed down), she faces a dire situation at the unemployment office given her lack of skills or education.  She has no qualification till finally her case worker finds a position for someone to serve as a companion care giver.  Someone else is already there to handle the more physical parts of it, but Will's mother wants him to have company during the day.
Louisa and Will come from different worlds.  Before his accident, Will was in a high power position in the city, he traveled the world and he engaged in dangerous hobbies like sky diving.  His world is now reduced to the guest house of his parents' estate.  Louisa was born and raised in the village in the shadow of the castle, and still lives with her parents.  She comes off as the quiet, dependable one though her parents also treat her as if she's a bit flighty.  Her younger sister was the smart one, and Louisa has accepted the role of sheltered one.  Her boyfriend is a fitness fanatic, though this is a recent development, and it becomes clear that she chose him originally because he was safe and unchallenging.
As the novel proceeds, Louisa finds herself challenged in ways she had not previously experienced while Will becomes more content than he has been in a long time.  While the novel addresses the challenges Will faces with his altered living conditions, Louisa is the main character and narrator.  As a result, it is probably best described as a novel about growing up, facing life and learning to take chances.  While Moyes's novels may not qualify as great literature, from what I've seen, they are reliable and touching entertainment.

Book 107: Vinegar Hill

This novel's title may sound familiar because it was a part of Oprah's book club back in 1999.  The novel was actually originally published in 1994 which I didn't realize until I was looking at the different versions available on Amazon.  I guess I was under the mistaken impression that the book club is a mix of new novels (for that year, at least) and classics.  Having said that, I can definitely see why this novel was selected for the book club.
The novel explores the marriage of Ellen Grier after she and her husband James are forced to move back to their hometown, Holly's Field, Wisconsin, and in with her in-laws.  Her in-laws hate each other, and her mother-in-law is especially hard on Ellen and her two children.  While Ellen's family is presented as much more loving, Ellen cannot turn to them support.  It's 1972, and this is still a very traditional community.  All of Ellen's female relatives simply tell her to be a supportive wife.  However, with her husband gone for business trips all the time, the brunt of the problems fall on Ellen.
While Ellen's mother-in-law is a rather horrible person, the novel also explains how she became this way, and introduces her older spinster sister.  All of the women in this novel are restrained by conventions and the limited roles available to women, and the impossibility of breaking free.  Ellen befriends a school teacher who is also a divorcee, so at least she sees that by 1972, there may be other options even if she runs the risk of alienating her family and community.
I thought the novel worked very well as a representation of a particular time and place,and explored the idea of loyalty and gratitude rather well.  James is divided between his parents and his own family, and his inability to draw any lines because he feels he owes his parents too much for allowing him to return home.  Not only does the novel highlight how restrictive gender roles can be for women, but it also shows how James has been negatively affected by the expectations on him.  Still, the novel was a bit bleakly and darkly written so while it was a good character study, it certainly isn't a good choice for a light or fun afternoon.

Book 106: The Dinner

While this was a well-written novel, I don't think I would ever actually recommend it to anyone.  The characters were absolutely despicable and didn't have any redeeming qualities.  While I know that is a complaint leveled against Gone Girl as well, I actually enjoyed Gone Girl and figuring out its twists - in other words, it had something other than the characters going for it.  This book on the other hand didn't have anything in it other than the characters whose actions just made me feel slightly grimy for reading about them.  For me, it's a novel that I would love to discuss but I don't actually want to put anyone through reading it to make that discussion possible.
The majority of the novel takes place over a dinner at a fancy restaurant in Amsterdam.  Paul, the narrator, and his brother, Serge, do not have very much in common and don't seem to always get along, but their sons are friends, and as a result, they are at this dinner to discuss a criminal act that the boys did together.  Paul is less than excited about this dinner, and it is easy to relate to his rants about the pretentiousness of the restaurant and of the rich, since his brother has a good chance of being elected prime minister.  As the novel progresses, however, perspectives change with the addition of information.
Many reviews and product descriptions have stated that the novel explores how far one will go to protect one's family and loved ones, but I think that is a very simple way of viewing the novel.  Protecting one's family is an idea I can understand, and I could certainly understand a parent wanting to protect his child from criminal prosecution even if that kid was unquestionably guilty.  That doesn't mean the parent should protect the child, but I understand the sentiment.  This novel goes further than that - it takes a look at privilege and the ability to completely ignore the experiences and suffering of others.  That's the thing that I disliked so much about the majority of the people in this novel - it wasn't simply that they wanted to protect their children to avoid both the political scandal and prevent them from having a record; it was the fact that at no point do the parents discuss punishment.  For example, if your kid had a DUI, and you chose not to turn him into the police, wouldn't you still punish him by grounding him to his room for the rest of the time he lived with you?  I could understand parents protecting children but this novel's characters actually found ways to avoid accountability.  One parent is more interested in being friends with the child than a proper parent, and it is clear that that son feels extreme contempt for his parent.
As I said above, it is an interesting novel, well-written, and certainly one I wanted to discuss upon completion.  However, it is not an easy read because of the feelings it might provoke, and the people are absolutely horrible.  As a result, it's not one I would recommend to just anyone, but if this sounds like something that might be of interest, give it a shot.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book 105: Broken Harbor

While scanning through other reviews, I noticed a lot of people were disappointed with this novel (it's one of the reasons I waited to read it), but I actually enjoyed it.  The main character may not be as likable or sympathetic as some of French's previous protagonist, but I enjoyed the slow build up, and the eventual revelations about Scorcher's past and family life.  Like all the other detectives in French's novel, Scorcher has a background that is a bit more complex than one might expect.  In his case, he has a younger sister that is unstable of whom he is very protective.  Usually, he can manage to maintain his bearing and keep his private and professional lives separate but this time, his sister has a break down right when he is working a high profile case that happens to have occured in a location that is important to their childhood.
The novel takes place after the housing bubble burst, and Scorcher is called to a murder scene at a suburban home - the mother is in critical condition but alive, but the husband, son and daughter are dead.  The Spains were doing all the right things, focusing on the career and investing in a home when the bubble burst, and the up and coming neighborhood ended up as a worthless trap.  Scorcher feels a lot of resentment about what happened to the Spains before the murders even occurred and is very invested in determining what happened in that house because something was definitely off.  Scorcher is also training a new rookie on the homicide squad, and after spending the majority of his career as a loner, he is actually bonding with someone and even thinks he may finally have found someone that he could work well with as a partner.
I liked this one, and thought the exploration of Scorcher's relationships as well as the way French used the current economic situation to set the scene were both well developed.  French's writing helps even a generic crime story stand out slightly, and in that way, this one is no different from her previous novels.  I cared as much about finding out Scorcher's background as I did about the truth behind the crime.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Book 104: Letters from Skye

I thought the concept of this book sounded great - epistolary format, two women, two generations, two wars.  The idea of exploring the effect of two wars on two generations that directly follow each other just sounded like such a great idea.  What similar issues would they face on the home front, what would be different due to time and the evolution of warfare (obviously the Blitz and the targeting of the civilian population would be a huge change)?  What would it be like to have lived through a war and loss only to watch your daughter face the same things?  Additionally, there were comparisons to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which was such a sweet book.  It was a bit quirky but I completely connected to the story and the character and was drawn in.  Unfortunately, I think the comparisons were mostly made due to the war time setting and the epistolary nature of the narrative.  This was more of a regular war romance, though I guess maybe the descriptions of the one character's college pranks could qualify as quirky (he was a University of Illinois grad, which may have been my favorite thing about the book - ILL-INI!)
Anyway, as the United Kingdom begins mobilizing in preparation for WWII, Margaret starts reconsidering her feelings for a male friend of hers, and realizes that he is more important to her after all.  At the same time, she discovers that there is more to her mom's story than she thought after she reads an old letter her mom has hidden.  Soon, Elspeth, her mom, is missing, and Margaret is trying to track down her family history.  Meanwhile, the novel starts to focus on the letters that Elspeth has saved, and the story between Elspeth and David on the eve of World War I unfolds in their letters to each other.  Elspeth is a young married poet from the Scottish Isle of Skye, and David is one of her American readers.  They develop a correspondence which eventually leads to stronger feelings.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with the story, it's been done before.  That's fine since lots of stories are similar to each other but the characters need to stand out and make me care for them.  I didn't care for the characters that much - they were all rather bland.  Since the Amazon description describes "a sweeping story," I wanted to be swept away.  Unfortunately, the main part of the story was David and Elspeth so even though Brockmole could have done so much comparing the way the people faced the two wars, I didn't feel like much attention was paid to that later period.  In fact, while David and Elspeth's love story already wasn't that exciting, Margaret's was less than lukewarm.  I really got the impression that she only decided she was in love with this guy because he was going to war.  I'm sure that was a common reaction at the time but I think I was expecting something more along the lines of parallel story lines rather than one main storyline told over an extended period of time.  I'm not sure if I explained this that well.  Either way, the Margaret part of the story was very weak, and the Elspeth story wasn't strong enough to make this stand out, so rather than being an epic romance, it just felt melodramatic and sappy.  It's really disappointing, too, because I was looking forward to reading this, and the concept had so much potential.

Book 103: Haunted

I've been enjoying this series a lot, but some reviews on Goodreads made it sound like this was one of the weaker entries in the series.  I actually quite enjoyed it, possibly because I had tempered my expectations.  This time Eve is the narrator, a character that has so far mostly only appeared as a topic of conversation since she is dead.  However, Armstrong opened the door to the afterworld in Industrial Magic, so Eve's appearance is not a complete surprise.  Since Eve is a ghost, this means that there is a limit on how many of the other characters show up in the novel, but Eve's motivations are driven by her daughter's safety so I actually enjoyed this slightly related side story.  Besides, Jaime Vegas is a necromancer so Eve soon convinces her to help, and it was fun to see more of her.
The Nix, an evil spirit, that has caused chaos and havoc in the past (and is more powerful than others of her kind for reasons explained early on), has escaped from her otherworldly prison, and the Fates engage Eve who owes them a favor to hunt her down.  Part of this is because Eve enjoys breaking rules so much that she has gained quite a bit of knowledge about the different paths and places in the afterworld, and is very good at getting around quickly.  Kristof Nast, Savannah's deceased sorcerer father, is also a very prominent character in the novel since he is trying to use the afterlife as a second chance to rekindle his romance with Eve.  The two of them enjoy quite a few different adventures as they try to track the Nix, and do some detective work, linking her to past killers and victims.  The Nix basically works by finding people that want to kill someone already and helping them find the conviction to actually go through with it, except as a spirit that feeds on chaos, she also enjoys then leaving them behind to watch them deal with their inevitable capture - one former partner includes Lizzie Borden.
This one was a lot of fun, and after five books, I'm happy to say that I'm still thoroughly enjoying the series and all of its characters.  I think using shifting narrators helps keep the story lively, and by limiting other characters to shot outs or a short phone call, it gives the audience what they want without getting to the point where she is simply filling each book with references to other characters.  I'm trying to pace myself on this series instead of burning through it since I know the novels are always reliable entertainment but it is tempting to finish the series quickly.  I have to say I am curious about Armstrong's newest series, though, so I may pick up the pace.

Book 102: The Expats

What a frustrating and disappointing book!  I wasn't expecting great literature, but I really thought this would be a fun thriller or cat and mouse game set in Europe.  At the worst, I thought it might be a bit formulaic or have bad writing but it was worse.  It was boring.  A thrill-less thriller, an unsuspenseful suspense novel inhabited by a main character that could just as well be described as the dumbest spy ever.
The novel is set in Luxembourg and follows Kate and her family who have moved to Luxembourg for her husband's job.  The very first few pages take place two years after the main events of the novel, and after that opening, the novel flashes back and forth between their arrival in Luxembourg and Kate's preparations to leave her old job and the US.  While switching up the time line can be a fun and good method sometimes, I felt like in this case the author was only trying to make a simple narrative more complex.  Once in Luxembourg, Kate begins to miss working and slowly tries to integrate with the other rich ex-pat wives.  One other American wife in particular becomes close with Kate, and Kate soon finds Julia suspicious.  Now, the novel could have gone a few different ways - is Kate bored and imagining all these clues that point to Julia being off?  Is her husband as clean as she has always believed him to be?  These ideas could have been fun to play with, but I wasn't engaged enough to wonder whether Kate was really being spied on or whether she was creating a game for herself out of boredom with her role as housewife (plus, the opening chapter made it seem like she was probably proven right in her suspicions).
Kate and her husband's marriage just seemed off to me, and every time she wondered if people were after her because of her past, I wanted to slap her upside the head and yell "your husband is supposedly employed by an important bank as their IT security expert - don't you think maybe he is the target?  Look into that!"  The novel did finally pick up pace around page 200 only to lose it again 50 or 60 pages later.  There were other plot points that just seemed too far out there and ridiculous to me.  Oddly, enough I could see this working as a mediocre spy movie because the European setting would be gorgeous (whoever sets things in Luxembourgh after all?) and there are enough random twists that could be fun in a movie even if they are obnoxious in the book.

Book 101: Eleanor and Park

Considering that I read this a few months ago, I'm not quite as late to the party as it looks, but I'm still rather late.  As much as I enjoyed Attachments, and as much as I trusted everyone else's recommendations, I was still a bit skeptical.  I think this might be because almost every other piece of YA I've read is on the dystopian or fantasy side of things.  How could a story about two teenagers in the '80s be that exciting or groundbreaking?

Rowell, however, knows how to create characters.  They aren't perfect, though they try hard to do the right thing, and they are so easy to relate to because even if their experiences are different from the readers' experiences, just about everyone can understand the feelings they are facing.  Eleanor is the new girl in her community, and she sticks out.  She appears to have developed quickly, and just feels like she takes up more space than she should.  She also struggles with family problems, having lived apart from her mom and siblings for the last year due to her strong disagreements with her step-father.  Having finally been allowed back home, Eleanor has to tread very lightly as she adjusts to the changed relationships in the house and gets to know her siblings again.

Park tries very hard to fit in, and has achieved that status in high school where he isn't popular, but he isn't picked on too much either.  Given the community he lives in, he also represents a rather unique experience - he is half Korean since his parents, who are very much still in love, met while his father was overseas in the military.  Park is hesitant to befriend Eleanor because he works hard enough to blend in, and talking to the odd redhead won't help him, but slowly they begin to talk, and a friendship develops.

While the novel focuses mostly on the usual challenges a teenager might face - dealing with parents, fitting in, peer pressure and such - Rowell's characters also face some harder decisions and situations.  There is no happy perfect ending but instead the novel leaves the reader with a bittersweet message of hope.

Book 100: The Cuckoo's Calling

Once I heard that J.K. Rowling had published this under a pseudonym, I knew I had to read it.  Admittedly, that sounds odd since I still haven't read The Casual Vacancy (I really like Harry Potter, but I wasn't sure if wanted to read about a small English town, even though I read those kind of novels all the time; I guess I was just afraid of being disappointed), but this one just sounded fun.  I love mysteries, and hopefully this is the beginning of another series.

Cormoran Striker, a veteran of the British campaign in Afghanistan, decided to use his military background as an investigator to open up his own PI office after losing his leg and leaving the military.  As the novel begins, he is very close to losing everything.  He and his long term on-again, off-again fiancee have broken up and he has resorted to living in his office that he will probably soon lose as well.  Even though he is broke, the temp agency sends him another secretary, so now he has yet another bill to worry about.  Robin, the new secretary, just got engaged, and has several interviews for more permanent jobs lined up.  In other words, things are looking very well for her, but she is very excited about the idea of helping solve cases so she is a bit disappointed when confronted with Strike.

However, Strike soon gets a very well paying client in the form of John Bristow who wants Strike to look into the suicide of his sister, famous super model Lula Landry.  John disagrees with the police investigation and believes there was foul play involved.  Though hesitant to take the case and take advantage of Bristow, Strike agrees to look into it, and soon Robin and Strike are deep into the world of the rich and famous as well as Landry and Bristow's complicated family history.

Being used to Rowling as the author of the Harry Potter series, there were one or two small scenes that surprised me, only because they were very adult.  I enjoyed the developing working relationship between Robin and Strike, and the slow revelations about the characters and the case.  Strike is constantly surprised by Robin's competence after his previous experience with the temp agency, and she adds quite a bit of professionalism to the office, helping him make a good impression on potential and current clients.  Additionally, as curious as Robin is about Strike's background, she refrains from directly asking him, though she does indulge in the occasional Google search about his famous father.  I also thought Lula's world was well developed, and Strike is set up very well as a fish out of water in the fashion industry during his investigation.  I hope that Rowling explores the world of the PI more, and that is the beginning of another successful series for her rather than a stand-alone novel.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book 99: Bitterblue

This is the third of Cashore's Graceling novels, though this one is more of a direct sequel to Graceling, unlike Fire which was a companion novel set in the same world.  This time, the novel focuses on Bitterblue, ten years after the events of Graceling.  Bitterblue was the fierce young girl that stood up to her father, the evil King Leck, with Katsa's help, and found herself in charge of a kingdom at the age of 8.  Ten years later, it turns out that things are not all well in her realm.  While she wants to be a good ruler, she has been pushed to the side by her advisors, partially because of her age, and partially because of their desire to protect her.  Bitterblue knows of her father's violent past and evils from her own personal experience, but she is unaware of just how badly his influence affected his kingdom, and doesn't know the right questions to ask.  As a result, she is rather unaware of many of the problems in her realm, and sometimes is disrespectful and rude to the wrong people.
As the novel progresses, Bitterblue grows into her role, and begins to question her position and her past.  She tries to remember more about her childhood, much of which is blurry due to her father's ability to control minds, and slowly faces the pains that her kingdom has endured.  She comes to realize that even with her father's control over people, simply ignoring the past may not be the best way to heal, especially given some of the odd things going on around the castle.
While I didn't enjoy this one as much as Graceling, I definitely preferred it to Fire.  It was nice to catch up with Katsa and Po, and all their friends again, and Bitterblue just worked for me more as a character.  In a way this could sound odd, since Fire and Bitterblue face similar issues.  They are both the daughters of bad men who did unspeakable horrors, who also occasionally revealed more affectionate sides to their daughters.  However, they also face very different challenges since Fire has to deal with the fact that she has similar powers and people fear her like they feared her father, while Bitterblue has to learn to rule wisely.  In some ways, Blue has the harder path because she has to put the kingdom back together while Fire could choose to live in seclusion if she wanted to.  I think the main reason I preferred this one is because Bitterblue appeals to me more as a character while the focus on how attractive Fire was got to be a bit much.  It seems like most YA trilogies start off strong and getter weaker as time progress.  This is one I actually feel very comfortable recommending because even though the books vary in quality, they are mostly good, and it is one trilogy that doesn't end weakly.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Reading

I saw this question and answer session about books and reading habits over at Reading in Winter, and thought it would be fun to do ("but Jen, shouldn't you maybe write a review since you are only 25 behind instead of doing a meme"- well, I guess here's another thing that can be added to reading sins, or maybe I should do a whole other one about blogging sins!)  Kristilyn in turn got the idea from another blogger, and it all started with Malyza.

Greed: What is your most expensive book? What is your most inexpensive book?

I don't really have any collector's books or super nice editions, so for me expensive books tend to just be the ones that I actually buy in hard cover.  However, I do have a few that were a bit more expensive from college, such as my Norton anthologies, a used version of the complete works of Shakespeare, and I have also splurged one or two academic type books, such as Psychoanalysis and Black Novels (although it was only $30 when I bought it).  I think they are expensive because they are relatively limited and specialized.  Other than books that were simply gifts, I wouldn't say there is one book that qualifies as cheapest.  I've gotten a few for around $3 or $4 from bargain bins before.

Wrath: What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?

I wouldn't go as far as love/hate, but there is of course the issue that any Stephen King fan has - love the books but always worry about the endings.  George R.R. Martin for killing everyone, and taking so long between books?  Chris Bohjalian's last few novels have been a bit disappointing given how talented of an author he is.

Gluttony: What book have you deliciously devoured over and over with no shame whatsoever?

I don't reread nearly as much as I should or would like to.  The majority of my more recents rereads have been school-related, such as The Odyssey.  For some reason, I also read Twelfth Night in quite a few English classes so that is my most read Shakespeare play.  On my own, though, I would say The Mists of Avalon is the novel I've read most often.  I've owned probably at least three different copies of it, one in German, and I actually realized recently that I don't have a copy at my apartment because I was thinking I'd like to read it again some time.  So I'll either need to have my mom check if I still have a copy there, or possibly give more money to Bradley's estate.

Sloth: What book have you neglected reading due to laziness?

So many classics and non-fiction books.  I'm not sure if it's entirely laziness but sometimes (most times) I don't feel like investing a week or more into a book, and those always tend to take me longer to read.  If I had to pick one, I guess I would go with Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Camilla by Fanny Burney or David Copperfield by Dickens (now there is an author where I'm still not sure what my feelings are).

Pride: What book do you talk about most in order to sound like an intellectual reader?

I don't think I have one specific book I use to do this, but would say I do a combination of things to sound like an intellectual reader, if that's what I'm trying to do.  First off, there are of course references to classics I've read, as well as discussing various more modern literary novels and award winners.  Mostly though, I think I attempt to sound intellectual by referencing lots of books rather than anything specific, like "oh yes, that reminds me of this which has an interesting reference to that ..."

Lust: What attributes do you find most attractive in male or female characters?

This is one I actually have to think about.  I like characters that are sarcastic and intelligent, and capable.  Also, with women I like it when they are capable and own it.  For example, I would take Elena of Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series over Sookie Stackhouse because Sookie does still occasionally hide behind the "I'm so innocent and naive" even after four or five books in.  Of course, both are better than characters like Bella.  Overall, I think I just want a character with complexity and layers rather than black and white.

Envy: What books would you most like to receive as a gift?

I have a huge Amazon wishlist, and pretty much every time I walk into a bookstore I see something I want so receiving any of those as a gift would be great.  Basically, any book as a gift is a bonus.  However, since the question specifies "as a gift," I'm going to focus on the books I wouldn't buy for myself so a first edition or signed version of a favorite book, or a special collection.  There are so many books that I have and love but then I see new versions of them that I want purely for the covers, such as the new Harry Potters, or the leather bound Barnes and Noble classics, a newer, nicer version of Shakespeare's Complete Works, or some of those huge coffee table books that are $50 and full of pictures, like art history or architecture books.  Basically, the books I really want to receive as a gift are ones I wouldn't actually read.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Checking In

After seven years off of school, I started taking two online grad school courses in September (Humanities - it was the closest to an English program I could find).  For the most part, balancing work and school hasn't been an issue, but one of the victims has definitely been my personal reading time.  I still read plenty of homework, but most of my assignments tend to be articles or parts of books, and thus not long enough to qualify for CBR, but there's enough of them total to take up time.  Right now, I'm a bit over halfway through the classes, and for one, I have a 14-16 page research paper due which will also eat up a lot of my reading time.  Anyway, despite all that, I'm actually still have about twenty reviews I need to catch up on, and given that people are starting to post reading challenges for next year, I'm feeling inspired to clean everything up, wrap up all my reading plans for the year, and start making some much less ambitious ones for next year.  So in other words, I should hopefully start posting again in the next week ... this weekend is shot between travel and papers, though.