Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book 42: A Tale for the Time Being

I had seen several positive reviews for this novel, and thought it sounded like something I would enjoy.  An author, Ruth, discovers a journal on the beach of her remote Candian island shortly after the earthquake and Fukushima power plant disaster in Japan.  While her community expects to eventually find items swept away by the tsunami on their shores, it seems too soon for this piece to be one of those things.
The journal turns out to be the writings of a teenage girl in Japan.  Born in Japan, Nao grew up in California until her father lost his job, and they had to return home.  Except that to Nao, California is home, and Japan is a large unknown entity, where she quickly becomes the target of bullying.  She is behind on school, and generally does not fit in.  Her father spirals into a great depression as he has a hard time reconciling his failure and previous success.  As the journal begins, it is obvious that Nao wants to end her life, but first she wants to document her buddhist great-grandmother's life, a woman she didn't know existed until they were back in Japan.  Her great-grandmother is a great character, and one of the few people that Nao feels a connection to. Nao's  journal never quite gets around to telling Jiko's story, but instead she provides a deep look into her life.
The novel switches back and forth between Ruth and Nao, and while I generally didn't have any issues with Ruth, I was always in a hurry to get back to Nao.  However, Ruth decides to read the journal at a slow pace, basically only reading as much as she thinks Nao wrote as a time so there is lot of switching back and forth between the two characters.  Ruth's sections discuss much about the impact of globalism and climate change on the environment which I actually find interesting since it's a topic that I'm drawn to/terrified by.  However, there are also points where Ruth is a bit irritating and dense.  For example, at one point in the story she gets mad at her husband about his reaction to something in the journal, because she completely missed a very obvious point.  Ruth is a writer suffering from very bad writer's block after a successful novel, and towards the end some weird things start happening.  I had one idea for why that might be, but that's definitely not where it went.  Ozeki instead decided to go a bit metaphysical with her resolution.  It didn't work for me at all.  However, besides some weird things at the ending that I would have preferred resolved in a different way, I really enjoyed this book and read it in a day or two.
It's not perfect for me due to the ending, but there is a lot that is well done and I would definitely give it a shot.  Also, the author's husband's name is actually Oliver so I felt like much of that section was probably a bit semi-autobiographical or at least inspired by their lives.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book 41: Dreams of Gods and Monsters

I wrote and published this on the Cannonball Read site on 9 April.  Just finally caught up with all my other reviews so I could post it here and stay in chronological order.  Also check out Malin's review - she also loved it.
I pre-ordered this book back in January, so when I got home yesterday, this book was waiting for me.  I was both incredibly excited to start and nervous - this year hasn't exactly been a good one when it comes to satisfying conclusions (see How I Met Your Mother, and everyone's reactions to Allegiant, a book series I never started).  Of course, I actually enjoyed Days of Blood and Starlight as much as, if not more than, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, so I shouldn't have been worried since the series already avoided the dreaded yet almost normal dip in quality between books 1 and 2.  Now, I admit, I may be being a bit less critical because I love the series, and Taylor didn't mess up in the way some others did, but I really, really, really liked this novel.  Was it perfect and flawless?  No, but I really liked where the story and the characters ended up, and it was an emotional ride - there were definitely a few moments in the book when I was just thinking, "noooo" and "wait, so that means ..."  So overall, well done!
The last novel left things in a dark place but with some hope ... there was the possibility of the remaining rebel chimaera uniting with the Misbegotten, the bastard angel regiment, and Akiva and Karou were actually in the same location.  However, Jael had led a army of angels to Earth, and given that humans see angels and think "messengers of God," this was not exactly good news.  At this point, the chimaera are still facing extinction, the most evil angel is in charge, and the war might be expanding to Earth.  So definitely a dark starting point for a final novel!  And the thing is Taylor figures out a great way to plot and end her novel without it seeming out of character or out of nowhere.  Everything that happens has been alluded to in previous novels so nothing that happens can be dismissed as contrived or weak story telling.  I hadn't read a single review before reading this, so I don't want to spoil or give anything away which is why I'm being super vague here.
Taylor finally gives us answers about the Stelians, the angels Akiva's mother came from, and it is a very good background.  We also get the history by means of a different character, and the events that happened over a thousand years ago were the ones that made me go, "but that means this is even more tragic and sad because ..."
Surprisingly, Taylor actually introduces a completely new character in this novel, and her chapter even opens up the book.  While at first, I didn't find myself all that engaged with her story, and was kind of curious how she was going to play in, Taylor tied it all together perfectly!  I still could have passed on Eliza's super annoying co-worker.
While the novel goes dark places and pulls at emotions, Taylor brings quite a lot of the whimsy and lightheartedness back.  She balances the moods incredibly well, and doesn't overuse Zuzana and Mik.  I also really liked that even though we finally get resolution to Akiva and Karou as they face their feelings and whether there is such a thing as redemption, the love story doesn't take over the whole story nor are we dragged through a long triangle.  Akiva and Karou confront their feelings and their loyalties, while acknowledging the importance of their duties.
I think this was a great ending to the series.  I still wish someone would magically find a thurible with Brimstone's soul in it (that's not a spoiler, it's been established that he is gone-gone in previous novels), but it's the losses that make this series so poignant and powerful.  I loved her choice not to tie everything up in a ribbon as well.  This chapter of Eretz's history has ended, but that doesn't mean everything is over.  Taylor could very well choose to set another trilogy in this world, potentially with different characters, or she could stop it here, leaving the reader in the knowledge that the fight continues and life goes on.

Book 40: The Lace Reader

This is one of those novels that's been languishing in my stack of unread books for long enough that I can't remember when I got it.  Probably while I was living in the Richmond, VA area, but I won't make any guarantees.  For a book that's been sitting around for anywhere from three to four years, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it - especially since I wasn't even sold on the beginning and it took me a while to get into it.
Towner Whitney left her hometown of Salem, Massachusetts several years ago for California, and hasn't returned.  She's recovering from a surgery when she receives a package from her beloved great-aunt Eva, and soon after there is a call that she's missing.  This leads to Towner's return to the town and the family she has been avoiding for a long time.  Towner warns us from the very beginning that she lies and should be viewed as an unreliable narrator.
It takes a while for everything to fall into place, but once the tale gets going, Barry ties things together in intriguing ways.  Towner has a dead twin sister and a strained relationship with her mother, who is a recluse on an island.  Her mom supports victims of domestic violence, who make lace on the island and sell it through many of local stores to the tourists.  Towner's family has a tradition as lace readers, using lace to see visions and make predictions though she has been avoiding this gift since she had a vision as a teen that turned bad.
I really enjoyed the ways Barry described Salem, the mix of tourists and locals.  Another prominent character is Calvin, a fundamentalist preacher or cult leader, who has a history with the Whitney family.  While at first the novel offers little explanation, putting the reader in the middle of a cast of characters whose relationships aren't always obvious, Barry slowly reveals the past, why Towner has avoided her past for so long and slowly shows why it is so important for Towner to face her demons.  I also liked Rafferty, the cop that is first part of the investigation of Eva's disappearance.  Since he wasn't a local, he doesn't know all of Towner's history, and provides a different view of the situation.
I just realized that one of my recent reviews is of Splintered which had a promising beginning and then lost momentum.  It was nice to discover the opposite of that in this novel as I became more invested the more I read, discovering more about the characters and their pasts.  I also became so wrapped up in Towner's narration that I forgot about her early warning about her lies, thinking of her as the normal one in a town of eccentrics.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Book 39: The Eye in the Door

This is one of those books where I get why it's acclaimed and award winning, but I didn't really enjoy it that much.  Granted, I'm not sure if these novels are meant to be enjoyed since I would definitely classify them in that literary fiction category that's more about teaching than enjoying.  However, even within that, I can't say the novel particularly moved me.  I thought it was dark and oppressive but in a way that actually turned me off from the novel.  It isn't a very long novel but it took me over a week to read because I never felt the desire to keep going.
Like the first and previous novel in this trilogy, Barker explores the psychological affects on the men fighting in World War I.  Dr. Rivers and Billy Prior reappear, though the focus has shifted a bit since the majority of the narrative takes place in London.  Billy Prior and another man have been released from the asylum, and have been reintegrated into life, though they obviously are still haunted.
While the previous novel dealt with famous historical figures, this one focuses more on fictional characters though Barker adds in more historical events, including a threatened expose of gays and lesbians in Great Britain.  She also devotes a great deal of time to exploring the Pacifist movement in Great Britain, using a childhood friend of Billy Prior to connect the two narratives.  Prior is very torn on his feelings because he certainly sees the bravery in his friend's stance and standing by it, but he can't help but think of how much worse the men at the front have endured.
I think maybe I would have liked this more if I was less knowledgeable about the subject.  Since I don't really like the characters (they just seem very flat to me), I think the main draw would have been the subject matter.  However, I've already read a nonfiction piece of pacifism in Great Britain during World War I (To End All Wars) so it's not like I was even gaining much insight into a new topic.  I already have the last book in the trilogy, and it is one of my goals to read at least twelve World War I books this year (or one per month), I am going to finish it out.  Maybe the next one will be a better experience.

Book 38: Splintered

I never really got into the Alice in Wonderland thing as a kid.  Apparently, when I saw the Disney movie, I started crying because it scared me so much (honestly, I can't say this surprises me - I used to hate Ferris Bueller's Day Off because the film made me anxious because I was afraid he was going to get caught - plus, he was skipping school! ... now of course, I enjoy it for the comedy it is).  Of course, I know the basics - rabbit hole, Cheshire cat, caterpillar, Mad Hatter etc. though I do get confused once we hit the royalty.  Is there a queen of hearts and a red queen?  Or is that the same person?  I also never read the Lewis Carroll poems/book, and it is only more recently that I've had a bit of an interest in Alice related things, starting with the novel Alice I Have Been, a fictionalized account of the real Alice's life and her family's relationship with Charles Dodgson.  I've also seen the Tim Burton film which I thought was pretty but not really that engaging.
Anyway, as a result of my half-familiarity with the source material, I could pick up on the obvious references to Carroll's Wonderland but I'm sure there were things that simply flew over my head.  I really enjoyed the worldbuilding in this one but I am not actually sure how much of that is due to Howard's original ideas and how much of that is from the preexisting world she is writing in.  Certainly, I liked the premise, and the first half of the novel had me hooked.
Alyssa Gardner, the narrator, is descended from Alice Liddell, of Alice in Wonderland fame, and as one can imagine this has led to a certain amount of teasing in school. However, Alyssa has also inherited the family madness that led to her grandmother's death, and her mother's placement in an asylum.  Like the other women in her family, Alyssa can hear bugs and flowers speaking to her.  It actually serves as the inspiration for her art, as she makes mosaics of dead bugs to keep it under control.  However, as the novel continues, Alyssa starts witnessing things that make her realize that she and her mother aren't mad - they really can hear the bugs speaking to them, and Alice really went down a rabbit hole a hundred years ago, leaving the women of her family cursed for the things she did in Wonderland.  In order to save herself and her mother, Alyssa realizes she must go to Wonderland and fix what Alice did.
So far so good, right?  Alyssa is shown as a relatively capable and sarcastic protagonist in the beginning who is willing to go on an adventure.  Unfortunately, she has a crush on her neighbor and best friend Jeb, and while he is a bit overprotective and irritating in reality (he considers himself one of Alyssa's best friends but is dating her biggest bully and wants Alyssa to play nice), Alyssa ends up bringing him along to Wonderland with her, which may have been the worst plot decision ever for this novel.  When Alyssa is first exploring Wonderland and discovering the same potions that Alice did in the rabbit hole, the reader can barely relish the experience because Jeb keeps interrupting and saying they need to go back home.  I guess that's one of my faults.  I tend to get irritated with characters sometimes when they don't just go with the flow and accept the adventure even though it is an entirely reasonable reaction because well, I'm reading a fantasy novel and I know the adventure is going to happen so let's just get to it and stop protesting so much - plus at this point, the novel as already dealt with Alyssa's earlier disbelief.  I don't need two scenes worth of Doubting Thomases.
Once they are in Wonderland and thoroughly committed to the quest, Jeb becomes a crutch for Alyssa as she basically becomes a passive damsel in distress in need of rescuing.  Instead of a resourceful heroine, she just tags along on her own adventure.  Jeb continues to be obnoxious and overprotective, except more so.  It certainly doesn't help that Howard develops a love triangle between Jeb, Alyssa and Morpheus (a moth/the caterpillar from the original) as Morpheus volunteers himself as Alyssa's guide to Wonderland.  Morpheus was an interesting character, but his presence made Jeb a controlling chauvinist and distracted from the overall story.  Now, I really get what Howard was trying to do - Morpheus is supposed to appeal to Alyssa's dark, wild side while Jeb is the protective, sweet boy next door that she's had a crush on forever, but instead Jeb just comes off as a douche.  I honestly think the pull between light and dark would have worked for me more if Jeb had not been in Wonderland so I wouldn't have had an opportunity to realize what a tool he was.
While the novel started out as a page turner for me, by the end, it had really slowed and I actually felt like it dragged.  I think the main reason for this is the novel got bogged down and drowned in the love triangle.  Instead of describing Alyssa's adventure, I just felt like it kept describing her feelings for different boys and how they made her feel when they kissed her.  I was a bit curious about the sequel, but a few people mentioned loving Splintered and being annoyed by the lack of plot in the sequel as it's all about the love triangle.  Basically, it sounds like my issues with Splintered amped up to the nth degree which is unfortunate because I really liked the initial set up of this novel.

Book 37: Redeployment

I usually shy away from military related books, and short story collections, so I'm still a bit surprised I even picked this up since it fits both of those categories.  I'd seen it mentioned on one of those Amazon Editors' Picks lists, and when I saw it at Barnes and Noble, I started reading the first few pages just out of curiosity.  One reason I was slightly more interested in this one than other military novels is that one review had said that this collection might have a hard time appealing to civilians since it doesn't change up the language much or anything.
Having said that, I thought the collection was rather well done, and rang true even if I couldn't relate to many of the details or the specifics.  To be honest, I think that's another reason I am not that drawn to military books.  I never feel like they tell my story, and to be honest, a book about my deployments would be rather boring.  I was in a PLS company and did convoys on one, and during the other I had a staff job - I had long hours, but my actual job was predictable and as safe as you could possibly get in a war zone.  However, there were a few stories that actually did remind me of some of my experiences.
The one that comes most specifically to mind was the story told from the perspective of the Foreign Service Officer.  I wasn't in a civil affairs unit or anything like that, but much of my second deployment was focused on partnering with the Iraqi Army units in an advise and assist role.  As a result, some of the things definitely rang true since I remember my Soldiers complaining about the fact that we kept teaching them the same things, they totally knew what they were doing, and in some cases, our systems wouldn't work because they had their own.  I also a meeting with one particular Iraqi leader which basically turned into him giving us a laundry list of things they wanted - of course, we couldn't legally give him any of the things he requested but it shows the difference between what we were able to offer and what they actually wanted for themselves.
Honestly, I just enjoyed seeing the names of places I'd been mentioned in writing, such as Al Asad, Taji, Anaconda/Balad, Ramadi and even Istaqlaal (I was based in the first two, and brief stops or convoys to the others) as well as seeing other recognizable places and names.  Klay was a Marine and most of the stories are from the perspective of Marines, so the acronyms weren't always familiar.  Then again, if you talk to a Field Artillery guy in the Army and a logistics guy, you are already dealing with two slightly different cultures and vocabularies so that's not exactly a surprise.  As far as how well it reflects how people feel after combat and their experiences, I can't judge but it mostly rings true or at least conforms to what we think people must feel based on other books that have been published about the last decade of war.

Friday, April 25, 2014

2014 Summer Book Challenge Sign Up

I'm behind on posts and have not been getting as much reading done as I'd like (thanks a lot, grad school!) so of course it makes sense to sign up for another reading challenge!  Don't judge me, Malin!  However, my term is almost over, and I'm only taking one course over the summer and I think I have a good idea of what the work load will be since it's currently scheduled with a professor I've already had.  Plus, the challenge is from 1 May through 31 August, and during that time I am taking around 30 days leave from work and going on a cruise so I should totally have reading time!  (I'm also moving and deploying but minor details - plus, what else am I going to do on a plane ride across the Atlantic.)

Anyway, I stumbled upon Megan's blog when she was hosting her fall reading challenge last year, and even though I didn't sign up for that one, I've been following it ever since.  And I already have books at home that should help me complete this challenge (some of them I actually just got Monday when my mom took me to Barnes and Noble for my birthday and had me pick some books out).

As you can see, my list is still very tentative and I haven't completely made my decisions since a few of them have more than one option.  Anyway, here are the topics and my choices.  Also, the first five people done get to suggest a category for the next reading challenge - I don't know if I will be one of the five but I totally already have two ideas for what I would suggest!

5 points: Freebie! Read any book that is at least 200 pages long. - Will probably depend on what I do for the last category - a few of them involve books in series that I actually need to read a few books to reach first.

10 points: Read a book that was written before you were born. - The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

10 points: Finish reading a book you couldn't finish the first time around. (You must have at least 150 pages left in the book to use it for this category.) - Hood by Stephen Lawhead, Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

10 points: Read a book from the children’s section of the library or bookstore. - The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell

15 points: Read a book that is on The New York Times' Best Sellers List when you begin reading it. - Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (8), Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2), The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (16), Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (14)

15 points: Read a historical fiction book that does not take place in Europe. - Serena by Ron Rash, Palisades Park by Alan Brennert

15 points: Read a book another blogger has already read for the challenge. (Yes, you will have to wait until the first check-in to choose this book! So no one will be able to finish this challenge in only one month; sorry!) - I'm hoping I can use one of the ones that I already have listed in the bestseller list for this since I already own the books and all and figure that one would have the most overlap between bloggers.

20 points: Read a book with “son(s),” “daughter(s)” or “child(ren)” in the title. No other words will count—including kids, offspring, etc.—so please don’t ask. :) - Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germaine, Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire or The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

20 points: Read a book that was/will be adapted to film in 2014. (Here are 16 ideas to get you started, but I know there are plenty more options.) - If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Serena by Ron Rash or Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter

25 points: Read a book written by a blogger. (Submitted by Jessica of The Tangerine.) - Jack by Shannon LC Cate, The Purity Myth or Why Have Kids by Jessica Valenti

25 points: Read a biography, autobiography or memoir. - I Don't Know Where You Know Me From by Judy Greer, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

30 points: Read a pair of books with antonyms in the titles. - Girl in Translation and Out of Oz - In and Out? Any Which Way But Dead and Living History - Dead and Living?; Brain on Fire and Miracles on the Water - are Fire and Water antonyms or would that be fire and ice? Monuments Men/Lion Among Men and Dangerous Women - Men and Women? City of Lost Dreams/Number9Dream and The Truth of All Things - Dream and Truth?
A friend of mine gave me the books from Maguire's Wicked series for Christmas (we'd seen the musical together in December).  I already the first one years ago, but that's why they are showing up a lot here.  Also, a few books could work for different categories - I can't use them for more than one category of course, but I haven't decided yet which one I want to use them for - it's all going to depend on my mood at the time.  Fortunately, we are also allowed to switch the books as we go if we end up changing our minds later about how we categorized something.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book 36: That Part Was True

I saw this at the book store and thought it sounded cute.  I was also kind of under the impression that it was an epistolary novel, but while there are letters in the novel, they don't make up the entirety of the novel.  I realize that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has entirely ruined me for epistolary novels but I also think it has led me to pick up books I wouldn't have before.  I actually looked at my review of that novel the other day, and it started with "I don't like epistolary novels" vs. if asked today, I would have said, "yes, I like those."  However, I tried to go into this one with no to little expectations.
Anyway, I was a bit disappointed when I realized how much of the novel was actually prose, telling the story of the two protagonists through third person limited rather than through letters they write each other.  Eve Petworth, a reclusive Englishwoman, writes a fan letter to Jackson Cooper, an American thriller author, and they communicate back and forth.  While the novel does trace the influence they have on each other and mention some of their exchanges, the novel mainly tells the story of them as individuals.  Jackson's second wife has left him, he's dealing with writer's block, and is generally just suffering from a midlife crisis.  Eve's mother, a very controlling woman, has been dead for a year, and Eve's daughter has recently become engaged.  After years in the background, Eve finally wants to be a proper mother to her daughter, after letting her mother push her to the side and become a huge influence on her daughter.  Additionally, the upcoming wedding means she will have to confront other parts of her past, including her ex-husband.
It wasn't a bad novel but it wasn't particularly exciting, either.  I wish the author had done more with the epistolary aspect of it, and actually allowed us to get to know the characters through their own words in letters rather than dangling the idea of an epistolary novel, only to go with a more traditional structure.  The characters themselves were both rather privileged, well to do, middle aged people, and I didn't get too wrapped up in their issues.  Eve, for example, had been to able to have a maid and stay at home ever since her divorce with no financial issues while Jack is a successful author.  Not exactly all that relatable, but unfortunately the characters weren't fun enough for just mindless escapism, either.  I realize I gave this novel a 3 on Goodreads, and it has made me realize something about how I rate novels.  If I think a book is at least ok, I tend to still go with the 3.  It's only if the novel also irritated me that I go down to a 2 for mediocre novel.  Of course, I also give 3s to books I genuinely like.  Anyway, I probably wouldn't recommend this book because there is so much out there that's better.  It ends up being rather forgettable in the end, but it also didn't make me role my eyes too much, and didn't offend me.  Plus, the cover is genuinely cute.  I also think the title is better than the book.  Of course the title may create certain expectations, because when I hear something like "at least that part was true" I expect something playful and things that, well, aren't true.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book 35: Dead Witch Walking

Since I'm all caught up on The Dresden Files, and finished Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series (loved!), I was in need of another urban fantasy series that wouldn't end up derailing (I've heard all about Anita Blake's drop in quality).  I feel like I've been seeing this series a lot lately, and Malin assured me they were worth the time.
I really liked this novel as the first of the series, though I will say that the tone in the first few chapters is a bit off compared to the rest of the novel.  One quote on the cover compared it to a mix of Dresden and Stephanie Plum, but I only really got Plum out of it in those first chapters.  Once we get further into the novel, Rachel Morgan starts appearing as a relatively competent detective/enforcer/witch rather than the super ditzy and clueless person that she appears to be during her first mission in the bar.  I'm not sure if she or the publisher wanted her to keep it very light in the beginning to draw in an audience, but I definitely enjoyed it more as the novel started diving into the details of Harrison's world.
The novel takes place in an alternative timeline Ohio, where a virus wiped out a good percentage of the human population in the middle of the 20th century.  Once supernatural and human numbers were about even, the supernaturals decided to reveal their presence, and they've been living together somewhat uneasily ever since.  There are law agencies run by both sides to monitor activity, and Rachel decides at the beginning to quit her job at the supernatural law enforcement agency.  Of course this is more complicated than it sounds because it leads to her boss taking out a contract on her.
The rest of the novel deals with Rachel establishing her new life, and trying to find out a way to get the agency off her back.  Her initial plan is to do something so significant they'll have no choice but cancel the contract, and as a result she ends up pursuing the mayor, a mysterious, powerful man that seems to dabble in something dark but no one knows exactly what.  While reading I got the feeling this was going to be one of those long running villains who sometimes helps and sometimes hinders Rachel in the series.  I could be wrong, but for Dresden fans, I got a bit of Marcone vibe with more attraction.
The novel also introduces Rachel's partners, a living non-practicing vampire and a pixie.  I think it was due to the fact that that this novel starts establishing Rachel's community and support system in this novel that it reminded me more of Harry Dresden than Stephanie Plum (that and the fact that Rachel while impulsive actually shows some skills) - Dresden also is surrounded by rag-tag team of allies.  Even though I'm making comparisons, she isn't derivative.  I think most series end up with a collection of characters after a while.  Harrison also sets up quite a few mysteries for later, especially regarding the pasts of some of these characters, so I'll definitely keep reading this to see how Harrison develops her world and her story.

Book 34: Lady of Ashes

I don't remember where I first saw this mentioned, but I'm pretty sure it was a book blog, and I liked the cover as well as the premise so I thought it would work well to fill my historical mystery fix.  While the novel was entertaining enough, the mystery was rather beside the point (it isn't until page 250 of a 400 page novel that someone even thinks a body looks a bit odd, even though there are journal entries from the killer throughout so the reader won't forget this is a murder mystery), and the novel was packed with an overabundance of plot lines and historical details.
Violet Morgan and her husband Graham run an undertaking business in Victorian London, and since Victorian England was a bit obsessed with grief and mourning, business is good.  In fact it is so good that it is causing significant strains on their marriage, as her husband has let his success go to his head, and wants a wife that is focused on the household and entertaining rather than a partner in business which is what their relationship started as.  The Civil War in the United States has also had its first battle and both sides have been sending representatives to England for support and acknowledgment.  Graham has this super weird obsession with America and hates them because of what they did to his grandfather during the War of 1812, blaming all Americans for the fact that his grandfather came back a broken man?  Had a bad experience as a POW?  I couldn't quite understand the extent of his rage since his grandfather obviously survived and came back to England to run a prosperous undertaking business to pass on to his family.  This whole plot point never made sense to me because I didn't get what he was trying to get vengeance for.  At one point, very early on, he describes his grandfather's experiences, how he took a coat off a dead body to blend in with the population, and pretended to be dead when soldiers approached.  One of these "barbarian" soldiers then tried to take the coat off what he perceived to be a dead body.  When Graham's grandfather did it, it was a matter of survival, when this American does it, it means that they are uncivilized animals.  As I said, this whole vengeance scheme never made sense.  Graham's brother is all about profiteering and hence wants to smuggle things into the South so I understood that, and think it would have done wonders for the novel if Graham's motivations had been equally simple rather than having the husband be a raving lunatic.
Undertaking and Civil War plots with a dash of murder mystery would probably be enough for any novel, but there is also a runaway orphan that Violet adopts, a train wreck, the royal family, Prince Albert's royal funeral and various chapters on hiring the proper help (I still don't know why she had to hire a maid only to have her steal and then hire another one - the first maid never shows back up so I'm not sure why she couldn't have just found the good maid to begin with - too much detail for one novel) ... basically, anything that might have taken place in 1861 probably gets a mention in this novel.  Violet is even neighbors with Karl Marx after all!  The spy/smuggling plot point is mostly boring, and the murder mystery never is actually that interesting.  This may be because no one except the reader realizes there is a murder mystery!  Violet just kind of gets sucked into the drama after thinking a few of her clients' deaths look like they have a link.
Overall, it's an adequate piece of historical fiction though the author does stuff too much into the story and she tried to add too many character perspectives that weren't necessary (there are scenes from the American ambassador and Queen Victoria's perspectives), but it is less than satisfying as a mystery (especially since we know there is something suspicious about one character the first scene they are in).  I would also say there are a few cases of characters doing things merely for the sake of the plot, and acting dumber than I would expect of them - Violet particularly went back and forth between being a compentent character and unable to put two and two together.  And I would really be curious if there was a great hate of America in England as portrayed by Graham in this time period, because it just didn't seem accurate to me - I would get condescending, but not vengeful.  This was definitely more of a 2.5 for me than a 3, and I don't feel much desire to see what happens next.

Book 33: The Disappeared

Oddly enough, this is the second novel I've read this year about Cambodia, and neither one were recent purchases.  Unfortunately, I didn't find either one completely satisfying, and think I might need to move on to some non-fiction to get a better picture.  Having said that, In the Shadow of the Banyan was the better of the two novels, but I think sometimes it used art too much to escape.  I can see that as a valid coping method, but it is also kept me at a bit of a distance.
This novel, on the other hand, was just mostly irritating.  There were parts later on that almost get close to explaining the impact and the horror, but I didn't enjoy the style or the narrator.  The novel was basically written as if addressed to the narrator's dead lover, and if the novel had maybe started off in journal or epistolary format, it might have worked for me better, but I spent the first few chapters waiting for it to change.  Fortunately, it was a short novel.  I think the main reason I didn't connect with this is because I didn't buy the love story.  The narrator has spent the last thirty years pining over a man she met when she was 16, and remains obsessed with for the rest of her life.  They met while he was a student in Canada but he returns home to Cambodia to find his family once the border reopens.  After that, she doesn't hear from him for ten years, but decides to travel to Cambodia on a lark after she sees him on TV.  I can see where given his background and circumstances, he would make a greater impression than a normal first boyfriend but not enough for her to be mooning over him ten years later.
I feel like this could have been played in a different way and worked but instead it just read as obsession, and made me want to yell at her that a few months at sixteen don't make the guy the love of her life.  For example, if her interactions with him had inspired her to become a journalist, and they reconnected while she was on assignment in Cambodia - I totally would have bought that story and wouldn't have wanted to strangle her for acting like a selfish love sick teenager for the entire novel.  Seriously, she later puts people in danger because of her inability to let go or grasp the severity of situation.
I think what happened in Cambodia is a story worth telling but instead in this novel we only get glimpses of the tragedy filtered through someone else's ramblings.  I also read a novel earlier this year which tried to do a magic realism take on the Holocaust, and I think for me, I prefer straightforward, simple narratives for those types of tragedies to being distracted by beautiful or convoluted writing that obscures the events.  Rather than providing new insight or illuminating the tragedy in creative ways, they can easily diminish the reality of what actually happened.  The Book Thief works because the story is still very much grounded in reality, even with its untraditional narrator.  Just to clarify, this novel doesn't use magic realism, but it and the Holocaust novel tried approaches that didn't work for me.

Book 32: Under the Wide and Starry Sky

I absolutely loved Nancy Horan's previos novel, Loving Frank, a book I randomly stumbled upon in the book store (browsing for books used to be a bit different because it seems like now when I go to a book store I have at least heard of most novels I look at due to CBR and various book blogs and if not, I can look them up on Goodreads).  I actually remember that trip to the bookstore, because I was visiting a friend, and we had once been to see a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house in Springfield, IL, so it just seemed fitting that I would buy this novel while at the bookstore with her (that Springfield trip is actually the topic of my very first post on this blog).  Naturally, when I discovered she had a new novel coming out I was very excited, even if the initial reviews were not exactly enthusiastic.  Having completed the novel, I have to generally agree.  It's a good piece of historical fiction but it didn't make nearly the impression that Loving Frank did.
Having read both novels, there are certainly seem to be themes that the stories share, and I'm guessing these similarities are the things that draws Horan to her topics.  Both novels deal with women who already have children, and are somewhat disillusioned with their partners who discover second chances at love and have to find a balance between what is right for them and for their children.  In both cases, their new paramours happen to end up very famous and successful though they have financial struggles throughout the relationship.
Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne has packed up her children and moved from San Francisco to Europe to get away from her philandering husband.  While she is in France, she meets and eventually develops a relationship with Robert Louis Stevenson, a man ten years her junior, who will become famous as the author of pieces such Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (unfortunately, that's the only thing of his I've read).  Their life and their relationship ends up being very determined by his poor health as they spend much of their time traveling in search of the proper climate for him.
I thought their relationship was rather interesting, but I didn't always take to Fanny because some of her decisions seemed a bit impulsive, and her personality could be a bit harsh and caustic at times, even though the novel describes her as charming.  While she got along very well with Stevenson's family, her relationship with his friends was more complicated, and I thought the parts that went further into Stevenson's relationships with different people and their reactions to him were illuminating, and a bit sad at points.
Honestly, I found the novel very informative and Horan did a great job of chronicling the couple's life and journey but I also feel like this is where she misstepped.  It just got a bit long and too detailed at various times.  One instance that stands out most in my memory is when she discusses them moving to a town in France only to move again because of illness; even while I was reading I thought we could have just skipped ahead to where they ended up actually living to begin with.  Horan had already demonstrated the difficulties the couple faced due to Stevenson's health, so this didn't seem necessary.  However, a while back I read The Paris Wife and a biography of Hemingway's first wife and realized that sometimes just because someone's a good author doesn't actually mean his life (or his wife's) is that interesting or that he is a good subject of a book (since these books in particular were from Hemingway's first wife's perspective, they don't actually focus on many of his journeys given the time frame, or they occasionally mention that Hemingway went somewhere while focusing on Hadley's time alone).  In comparison, I found the life Stevenson and Fanny lead much more interesting, and this was a much better book than The Paris Wife, but certainly some of the novel could have been streamlined and made for an even more engaging read.  After all, it's historical fiction not biography, so I don't expect all the gritty details, and understand if timelines are compressed for the sake of entertainment.

Book 31: The Book of My Lives

I actually first saw this book on a list for new releases in 2013, and though it peaked my interest, I didn't hear much of anything else about it, so I decided to wait.  I finally picked it up recently, and thought it was a pleasant enough read.  Some of the essays were incredibly moving, while a few others didn't quite work for me though they were well-written.  I just don't tend to pick up short fiction or non-fiction that often, and when I do, it tends to be humorous essays so this was a bit outside my normal reading selection.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if I'd spaced the essays out, reading one or two a day rather than simply reading through from one to the next.
The essays are arranged in more or less chronological order, and address Hemon's childhood in the former Yugoslavia, the atmosphere before the war, and his life in America while his country is torn apart.  Some of his friends remained in Sarajevo, and he shares some of their experiences as well, and that was actually one of the most powerful essays in the entire collection.  I also really liked the soccer one - for some reason, it just stands out to me even now.  Other essays that stood out to me include one dicussing a former professor that ends up playing a huge and monstrous role in the government as well as one about him putting his life back together post divorce.  Almost every single essay in this collection has been published before, in magazines such as The New Yorker, and as a result, some essays end up referencing the same event but from different contexts since he probably didn't originally plan to have them together.
For some reason, I thought he was younger when the war started, since the cover of my book simply said something about school, but he was actually in his mid to late twenties, which adds more perspective and awareness to his surroundings than an eighteen year old freshman would have had.  I particularly love the title of this collection since it is such as fitting description, as the essays cover his childhood and adolescence in Sarajevo, as well as his life as a refuge until finally he sees Chicago as his home as well.  Of course, I think that title could aptly describe any one's biography, but he actually addresses the idea of the title in one of his essays (the same one with the professor).
I enjoyed his writing, but I tend to prefer longer narratives.  As a result, I think I will have to add his fiction to my list for later to make a true determination about how I feel about him as an author.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Book 30: Cut to the Quick

I received this book from Siege as part of the Pajiba gift exchange, and it really was the perfect read for me - I'm quite a fan of mysteries, especially ones set in the past, including the Mistress of the Art of Death series, and Stefanie Pintoff's works.  This novel is actually came before many of the ones I've read recently, and is the first of a four part series starring Julian Kestrel.  I will definitely be picking up the next three at some point in the near future.
While to the general public, Kestrel seems like just another dandy (a term and type of person that really started becoming a thing in the late 18th century), the reader quickly learns that there is more to him, and he is not just another self important, shallow narcisist.  Since no good deed goes unpunished, Kestrel soon finds himself wrapped up in the Fontclair family drama after he helps the heir, Hugh, out of a minor scrap.  Invited to a weekend in the country with the family, Kestrel finds himself in the middle of a very tense situation.  Hugh has recently become engaged to the daughter of a former employer, and no one in the family is happy about the situation, especially since the proposal is the result of black mail.  Hugh's fiance wants to know what power her father holds over the Fontclair family, and finds an accomplice in Kestrel.
As if things weren't bad enough in the house, Kestrel returns from a ride in the country only to discover a body in his bed.  The head of the family is also in charge of the investigation, and Kestrel's servant Dipper finds himself under suspicion.  Kestrel becomes an essential part of the investigation as he tries to clear his servant while also making sure no one is cleared without reason.
Ross did a really good job with keeping the story going, and answering questions throughout without giving too much away at once.  The different strands came together nicely, and even the red herrings provided good information.  Kestrel also develops relationships with some of the other members of the community, and while the novel shows that there is much more to Kestrel than meets the eye, she could definitely still develop his past in future novels (or keep it simple - either way would work).  I'm glad to have discovered this series thanks to Siege!