Sunday, June 29, 2014

Book 61: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

As much as I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I have come to the conclusion that Chabon isn't really an author I enjoy that much otherwise.  I disliked The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (I tend to have little tolerance for bratty rich kids that are struggling with what to do with their lives), and while I enjoyed Wonderboys, I saw the movie first and can't say the novel really added that much more for me.  I am not going to say this is a case where the movie is better but it was a loyal enough adaptation where it almost isn't necessary to both read and see it.

The idea behind The Yiddish Policemen's Union is that Israel failed, and during World War II, the US had opened up the borders of Alaska to Jewish refugees.  As a result, the history around World War II is slightly different, with the Holocaust having a slightly lesser death toll.  However, the Jewish community was only granted the land for a period of time, and in about two months, their lease effectively ends.  Some people have been granted permission to stay on, others have found other countries to take them in but overall the future is a big question mark for the majority of the characters.  Meyer Landsmen, an alcoholic cop, living in a rundown motel, is one of these lost souls.  At the beginning of the novel, he is called to look at a fellow motel dwellers' body - the man, a junkie, has been killed.  Though he is told to ignore the case and list it as a cold case to ease the transition in the next month, he cannot let it go, and with only the clues that the victim was once religious and played chess, he pursues the case and discovers the man's identity.

I feel like there was quite a lot about this novel that was interesting.  The Jewish community in Alaska felt very much like East European Jewish communities that have been described in countless other books, and there is a large very orthodox community in the center of the city.  Despite this, I just didn't really enjoy the novel that much.  It was a bit of a noir style mystery, but I couldn't say I was that interested in the mystery.  I'm not sure if it was too slowly plotted or if it involved too many tangents, but this novel was not a joy to pick up, and felt a bit like a chore.  I remember reading the The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and barely being able to put it down.  I was barely able to make myself pick this one up.

Overall, this premise had a lot of potential, and even the ways that Chabon imagined his Alaska seemed very realistic.  However, something about it just didn't click with me, and as a result I wouldn't recommend it.  I think it was mostly a pacing issue for me, but I'm not even entirely sure if that was entirely it.  This was actually my second attempt at this novel, and the first time I started it I didn't even get past the first chapter, so it might have been that noir type language.  While I don't have much experience with noir mysteries, I also remember finding Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep tedious and boring.  Based on that, maybe it was more of a genre issue.

Book 60: For a Few Demons More

I was a bit hesitant about the beginning of this novel as it seemed to be retreading the familiar theme of Ivy and Rachel too much in the beginning, but Harrison completely ends up switching things up and really changing the game by the end of this novel.  In the last novel, Rachel recovered an ancient relic, thought to be mythical, that could truly disrupt the balance of power in the supernatural world, as it would allow werewolves to create other werewolves rather than only being hereditary.

Werewolves are dying as the novel kicks off, leading Rachel to believe that someone is searching for this relic.  She is also hired as security for Trent Kalamack's wedding, and Piscary and Al are making her life more difficult, even if Piscary is supposed to be in prison for the next five hundred years.  Rachel's relationship with Ivy continues to be complicated, and her relationship with Kisten doesn't exactly make that any easier.

The novel had more scenes with Ceri, a character I immensely enjoy so that was a definite positive.  Also, Rachel continues to see the world in a very black and white way, which is one of the character traits that annoys me about her just a bit, but by the end, she appears to be more willing to understand the shades of gray.  One thing about this series I occasionally have to remind myself of is that Rachel is only 25, and while many other urban fantasy series seem to have about a year between novels, this is a much faster paced series, with only months passing - as a result, Rachel is still young and immature.  This one is definitely the best one so far, and seems to be a real turning point in the series due to the changes and upheavals in Rachel's life by the end of the novel.

Book 59: A Fistful of Charms

As it turns out, this is my least favorite novel in the series, and I was honestly surprised by this given how promising the beginning was.  After all, when it starts, Rachel finds out that her ex, Nick, and her partner's son Jax are in trouble and she decides to help them out of the tight spot they've gotten themselves into.  I wasn't a huge Nick fan and didn't understand what Rachel saw in him, but at this point, Rachel has realized that Nick actually wasn't that great.  Given their past she feels like she owes him.  Still, I was excited to see Nick get some comeuppance.

Unfortunately, the novel ends up spending a bit too much time for my tastes on the Ivy-Rachel relationship.  I like Ivy, I mostly like Rachel, I like the idea of them as roommates but I am getting a bit tired of the dynamic of their relationship since it involves a lot of weird undercurrents, and Ivy wanting to make Rachel her scion.  Rachel says she has no interest in being bit, and yet keeps getting into dangerous situations (when Rachel analyzes her feelings and actions, I'm not sure if I thought she was being stupid and acting rashly, or victim blaming herself).  Rachel finally admits to herself that she is an adrenaline junkie and that many of her bad decisions, including her choice of boyfriends are directly related to this part of her personality.

One other thing that bugs me a bit about this series, but this book in particular, is the way that Jenks, Ivy and Rachel interact sometimes in general.  Jenks is mad at Rachel due to something from the previous book, but his son's predicament brings them back together.  For the most part, it is clear that the three of them care for each other, but then other times it is absolutely amazing how they talk to each other and how much abuse they heap on each other.  Jenks can be especially guilty of this.

The actual main plot isn't bad, though it was a bit oddly paced.  After an action packed rescue mission, there is quite a bit of space before the next big event, which is why the relationships end up being such glaring parts of the narrative.  However, I've already read the next novel in the series, and though it begins with some of these same weaknesses, it ends up being the strongest in the series thus far.  Basically, this is a decent novel though definitely a weak link in the series, and from what I've seen so far, I'd still recommend pushing on with the series even if this one is not as enjoyable as the previous ones.

Book 58: Beautiful Ruins

By this point it feels like everyone has read this novel, and yet with all the reviews I read, I never quite got the impression that this novel was slightly humorous and even farcical on occasion.  Instead, I just kept seeing words like "dying actress" and thought it was a very serious novel.  Both of those descriptions don't quite describe what is going on as Walter mixes despair, tragedy, love and comedy into this story spanning almost seventy years.

The story begins in 1960s Italy, on a remote island, when a young, beautiful actress comes to stay at Pasquel's family inn.  The area is so remote that Pasquel has only one regular customer, an American that comes every summer to work on his novel but spends more time drinking.  As a result, Dee's arrival makes quite the splash.  This narrative is the heart of the novel, involving old glamorous Hollywood since Dee is in Italy as a cast member of Cleopatra, a film more famous for its stars' explosive love life and being dramatically over budget than its quality.  The novel basically refers to this being a turning point in Hollywood marketing as the scandal of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was exploited to make money rather than swept under the rug.

This part comes out only slowly, and is intermixed with various other characters and their stories.  There is Claire, an production assistant who has become disillusioned with Hollywood and her boyfriend, and Sean, a would be author whose parents have spoiled him rotten.  Sean and Pasquale arrive at Claire's office at the same time, Pasquale to try to find out what happened to Dee, and Sean to pitch a movie about the Donner party.  It is the scenes that focus on the present day workings of Hollywood that are particularly farcical and comical.  A few other chapters are told from the perspective of an aging musician, and World War II veteran who remains haunted by his time in Italy.

This is one of those novels that I initially wanted to read very much only to push it off due to all the hype, afraid that perhaps I would miss something or have my expectations set too high.  Since I had read some less than raving reviews by the time I got around to it, I think I was in the proper mood set for this, and was pleasantly impressed by the mix of all these intertwining lives and the final product. Walters does not try to make everyone smarter and better by the end of the novel, and he definitely still gently mocks the Hollywood industry, but the characters that are the true heart of the novel add enough humanity for this to be a touching piece of fiction without becoming too sentimental.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Top Ten Books That Will Be in My Beach Bag

I always love looking at the Broke and the Bookish's weekly Top Ten Tuesday but I am horrible at making lists.  However this one is perfect for me at this point in time because the topic is "top ten books that will be in my beach bag this summer" - since my beach vacation is about a week and half away, I've already been planning this!  My actual time off from work starts tomorrow, though.
1. Skin Game by Jim Butcher - okay, that's a lie.  I'm reading this as soon as I get to my parents' on Thursday
2. The Chocolate Kiss by Laura Florand - I've been waiting for the perfect opportunity to read this.
3. Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop - because Written in Red was amazing!
4. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King - new Stephen King?  Of course I have that on preorder!
5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - I love everything else I've read by her but have been letting this one sit in my TBR stack for too long
6. Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang or Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff - figured I needed to add least some more serious reading, and both of these are about powerful, misunderstood women
7. Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan - it seems like everyone has read this, and it's time to jump on the band wagon
8. Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende - Allende is another favorite though I'm so used to her novels having a historical setting; it will be interesting to see where this one goes
9. The Outlaw Demon Wails by Kim Harrison - my current fun escapist series
10. The World of Yesterday by Jared Diamond - love his nonfiction books.
11. Where She Went by Gayle Forman (since my #1 doesn't really count) - I just read If I Stay, and was thoroughly impressed.  Usually my forays into YA tend to involve supernatural or dystopian settings.
As this list probably makes obvious, I'm one of those people that interprets beach read as lighter fare.
The Silkworm would be on that list except it isn't released until after I leave for my trip!

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Summer Reading Challenge Month 1 Check In

Today is the first check in for the Summer Reading Challenge, and so far, I have ten of the twelve categories done.  I haven't written all my reviews yet, but have linked to the ones that are already posted.  One of the remaining categories is "read a book another blogger has read for the challenge" and based on the responses so far, I'm leaning towards Where'd You Go Bernadette because I've really been wanting to read that or Wild.  Both of those would involve books I don't actually have yet, but have been meaning to read.  Maybe someone else will post and mention that they've read Orphan Train before the end of the day (fingers crossed).  I also noticed that I actually read a book one of the other bloggers read last month (Beautiful Ruins) but I can't count it since I didn't know they were reading it.

5 points: Freebie! Read any book that is at least 200 pages long. - This is Where I Leave You by Jonathon Tropper (352 pages, 3 stars)
10 points: Read a book that was written before you were born. - The King of the Castle by Victoria Holt (288 pages, 3 stars)
10 points: Finish reading a book you couldn't finish the first time around. - The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (411 pages, 2 stars)
10 points: Read a book from the children's section of the library or bookstore. - The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell (336 pages, 4 stars)
15 points: Read a book that is on The New York Times' Best Sellers List when you begin reading it. - Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (8 on paperback nonfiction when I started) (288 pages, 4 stars)
15 points: Read a historical fiction book that does not take place in Europe. - Palisades Park by Alan Brennert (New Jersey) (448 pages, 4 stars)
20 points: Read a book with "son(s)," "daughter(s)" or "child(ren)" in the title. - Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain (272 pages, 3 stars)
20 points: Read a book that was/will be adapted to film in 2014. - Serena by Ron Rash (371 pages, 4 stars)
25 points: Read a biography, autobiography or memoir. - I Don't Know What You Know Me From by Judy Greer (256 pages, 4 stars)
30 points: Read a pair of books with antonyms in the titles. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (307 pages, 4 stars) and This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff (304 pages, 3 stars)
Point total: 160/200