Wednesday, October 14, 2015
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
No wonder this book won the Pulitzer Prize, and was nominated for so many other awards, and is found on so many “best of” lists. This is an amazing book, on multiple levels. It brings the horrors of WWII down to a personal level, but is never overwhelming or overly dark/depressing. In the end, it speaks of the strength of the human spirit, even in the face of evil.
But don’t let the lofty themes scare you – this is also a wonderful story of two young people, a French blind girl and a German electronics whiz, and how they grew up before and during the war, and how their stories eventually come together. Doerr does a wonderful job of capturing life for each of these characters, enveloping the reader with delicious prose that captures the feel of their very different lives.
Marie-Laure lives with her widowed father in Paris. He is the locksmith and key master for the National History Museum, and Marie-Laure grows up surrounded by scientists and collectors. Werner is an orphan boy, who lives with his sister in an orphanage, and who loves to design and build things – especially radios. He is discovered by the Nazis and sent to a training school (boot camp) for young Nazis. The book weaves together the two stories of the children as they grow and as their world changes around them.
The narrative is told in multiple time periods, as well as the two main story arcs. The book starts with the bombing of the town of Saint Malo, with Marie-Laure alone in her great-uncles house. As we skip between storylines and time periods, we follow the two protagonists’ stories and are led to them finally intersecting. What happens after they meet is probably not what most readers would want or expect, but it rings very true.
The title of the book is from a radio lecture that Werner overheard as a young boy, about the spectrum of light. The small part of the spectrum that is visible to the human eye is infinitesimally small, compared to the rest. So much so, that – mathematically speaking – all of the light spectrum is invisible to humans. How this relates to the book is up to the reader’s interpretation. While the obvious hook is Marie-Laure’s blindness, I think it refers to all of the goodness (the “light” in a dark world) that is happening, even in the midst of WWII. Both Marie-Laure and Werner are often struck by some bit of natural beauty, or the kindness of a stranger, and I think it is this that helps them survive.
Another theme addressed is the age-old question of “What makes a good person do bad things?” This question is often raised when discussion Nazi Germany, and Werner’s story depicts this brilliantly. There are many scenes showing how he is gradually sucked into the Nazi war machine – even when his friend in school stands up and refuses to participate. I really came to understand how easy it can be for good people to be corrupted – or at least to be trapped so much as to go along, even when they know it’s wrong.
I also have to mention the prose – it’s fabulous. Doerr’s descriptions are nearly poetic in their imagery, yet it all flows effortlessly. It’s a page-turner, but with certain pages that will cause the reader to pause and savor the words on the page.
This is a book that will stick with me for some time to come – the mark of a book that is not merely entertaining, but that speaks to the human condition. It is truly worthy of the Pulitzer Prize, and is a book that everyone should read.
Saturday, October 10, 2015
The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ivan Doig knows Montana. He knows its landscapes, it moods. He knows its people, and how they are shaped by the land. And he knows how to weave all of this into a captivating story. And while this book isn’t perhaps his very best, even just a "good" Doig is a near masterpiece.
The title could more accurately be The Bartender’s Son’s Tale, since the story is told through the eyes of Rusty, who is six years old when we first meet him. His father, Tom Harry, is the owner of The Medicine Lodge bar* in the (fictional) town of Gros Ventre in north central Montana. Tom and Rusty’s mother “split the blankets” when Rusty was a baby, and Tom sent Rusty to live with his sister in Arizona. Rusty is bullied by his older cousins, and his future looks bleak, when one day
Tom swoops in and declares that Rusty is to come back to Montana and live with him.
The two of them find a rhythm of life together, and things go along fine until the summer of Rusty’s twelfth year. A new girl, Zoe, moves into town, and she and Rusty discover they are kindred spirits. But even more ominous, a strange (to Rusty) woman arrives with her daughter, Francine, claiming that Tom is the father. Francine begins living with Rusty and Tom, and starts working in the bar, thus disrupting the perfect life Rusty felt he had. All of this takes place in the late 1950's and early 1960's.
Like Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, this is a father-son story, and a coming-of-age story for the son. We see the father through the eyes of his son, which means we don’t know everything about the man – we only know what the son sees. And part of the plot of this book is Rusty’s gradual attempts to wean information from Tom as to what Tom did “before” when he was working at the Fort Peck Dam. (Characters and events from Doig’s earlier work, Bucking the Sun, play a not insignificant role in the plot, but reading that book is not really a necessity before tackling this one.)
Rusty’s admiration of Tom is quite natural, and his curiosity about “grown-up life” also feels genuine. Watching him watch and listen to the people in the bar (via a hidden vent) and then being privy to his attempts to understand everything is part of the charm of the book. But Doig never falls into cheap jokes at the expense of Rusty – he is treated with the seriousness of any of the adult characters, and his questions and unease about his mother and his father’s past permeate the book.
There are, as always with Doig, wonderful characters – Canada Dan, the ne’er-do-well sheepherder; the wife of the local newspaper editor who was a star in early Hollywood; Duane Zane, the local garage owner and his bully of a son. They are all depicted with grit and reality, giving Gros Ventre the feel of any actual small town in Montana.
Doig takes his time unraveling the mysteries in the book: Who is Rusty’s mother? Why does Tom rush off on foolhardy trips to Canada? What really happened at Fort Peck? The narrative meanders along nicely, like a bubbling brook traipsing its way through a valley. It is not rushed, but before long you know a great deal about each person in the book, and you feel what they feel. It reminded me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird in this regard – both have a young child narrator, who is an outside witness to the goings on in the adult world, and both have many little vignettes of everyday life that gradually reveal the whole picture.
While this is not my favorite Doig book (I think that has to go to English Creek) it’s probably in the top three. Anyone who likes Doig’s work will find this a worthy addition to his oeuvre.
*In the bar, the beer of choice is Great Falls Select, and as a native of Great Falls, I especially enjoyed the book's references to the beer and the town, as well as Rusty and Tom's visit there.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is probably not a book I would have ever picked up off the shelves. I don't usually like modern literature, because it seems to be either full of unlikable, neurotic characters, or it is so obviously engineered to tug at your heartstrings, full of artificial emotions. But this book was chosen by our book club (as part of our library's book club recommended books), so I read it. And I'm glad I did!
It is set in the 80's (which is important to the story), and the narrator is 14-year-old June Elbus. June is a misfit - a bit of a history nerd, who fantasizes about living in the middle ages. Her older sister, Greta, is the "pretty one" and is a budding stage star who seemingly has everything together. June's uncle is the famous artist, Finn Weiss, and he is dying of AIDS. Finn is not just June's uncle - he is her godfather, and basically her only real friend.
After Finn's death, June is bereft and having difficulty coping. Her mother wants her to "get over it" and get on with life, but June just can't seem to. Then she ends up meeting the mysterious stranger who was at Finn's funeral, but who was denied entrance. She becomes friends with him, and learns more about Finn, and about her family and herself.
Having the book set at the time when AIDS was just becoming known in the mainstream, and at a time when homosexuality was not as openly accepted, allows the story to have sharper emotional arcs. The fear of AIDS and the denigration of gays add to the already fragile family dynamic and to June's difficulties in handling what is happening.
This book has many themes: it's partly a coming-of-age story, but it also deals extremely well with the highs and lows of having a sister. The relationships between June and Greta is handled exquisitely. No one can love you and simultaneously hate you like a sister - and the author nails this. The character of June is also outstanding. Her fears, her hopes, her emotions are all quite true to life, without being too whiny, as many teen protagonists end up being. This ability to portray teen life (both outward and inward) is one of the many strengths of this book.
And, despite the fact that it deals with AIDS, and fear and prejudice against gays, it never falls into the trap of being preachy, nor is it ever maudlin. Because the characters seem so real, the events that transpire never feel contrived. It really captures what it feels like to be 14 and trying to navigate a big, scary world. June Elbus is a strong, believable, and likable character, and her story is one that anyone can relate to.
Sunday, September 6, 2015
Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Not CJ's best book, by any means. It wasn't terrible, but it was pretty ordinary, which for CJ is kind of shocking. Granted, this was fairly early in her career, so I'll make allowances, but for fans of hers, be warned: this doesn't meet her usual writing standards.
A rusalka is a ghost, from Slavic/Russian folklore, of a woman who died violently in the water - accidental drowning, suicide or murder. This spirit haunts the woods near where she died, drawing energy by killing unsuspecting people who happen by. This book is a very long fairy tale about one such spirit.
The book is set in what would appear to be Medieval Russia. It begins in a small village, where we see a young ne'er-do-well, Pyeter, get in a fight with the husband of a woman he's seduced. The man dies during the fight (without being touched by Pyeter) and the village authorities are called out. Pyeter was wounded in the fight, and hides in the stable of the local inn. He is discovered there by Sasha, the young stable boy, who has a bad habit of wishing things about people and having those wishes come true. For whatever reason, Sasha decides to help Pyeter, and they end up running away together. They eventually stumble across the home of an old man, who saves Pyeter's life by healing him with magic. The old man, Uulamets, is a wizard, you see. He tricks the young men into helping him resurrect his dead daughter, Eveshka, who is a rusalka.
The first part of the story moves along rather well, though the character development of the two young men is fairly sketchy, especially that of Sasha. Once they join forces with Uulmamets and begin trying to rescue Eveshka, the rest of the book is mostly arguments. Pyeter & Sasha argue. Sasha and Uulamets argue. Eveshka and Uulamets argue. All four of them argue. This goes on and on and on, for the rest of the book. There are encounters with other magical creatures from Slavic/Russian folklore, but these don't overshadow the incessant bickering among the characters. Even the final battle seemed to be just a blip between arguments.
The magic in this world is never fully defined - it seems to be along the lines of simply wishing and believing things, though Uulamets uses potions and spells, as well. People seem to be born with the ability to use magic, and those that are recognized as such can be taught by wizards. But clearly, wizards and magic are not thought of in a positive light by the mundanes, since Sasha was so ostracized and criticized for his 'wishing' abilities. Otherwise, one would think he would have been sent to a wizard as an apprentice.
Another nit to pick: CJ massively overuses the phrase "with which" and its similar cousins. Every other page, and sometimes twice on the same page, we get something along the lines of:
She wanted them safe. Which notion far from reassured him.
...Upon which thought...
...After which decision...
Used sparingly, there is nothing wrong with these phrases. But they are used dozens of times in this book - and often enough that they are jarring interruptions to the flow of the story.
Between the unending arguments and the awkward phrasing, this book needed the hand of a very good editor. Sadly, it didn't benefit from such. As the first in a trilogy, it doesn't spur me to want to read the rest of the books, though I may give them a try - someday.
Monday, August 31, 2015
Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the second time I've read this book, though the first time was over 30 years ago, so I didn't remember anything other than the fact that I really liked it. Having just seen Vonda N. McIntyre on several panels at WorldCon (the world science fiction convention) I was prompted to reread this classic. And I'm very glad I did!
The book is set in a post-apocalyptic future on earth (hints as to a nuclear holocaust, but there are also references to aliens) where our protagonist, a young healer named Snake, is out on a journey to remote areas, as sort of a traveling country doctor. The unique thing about her healing is that she uses snakes as a medium for medicine delivery. Through genetic manipulation, healers have created snakes that metabolize various medicines. A bite from one of these snakes injects the medicine instead of venom. (Healers also provide vaccinations via a more typical mechanism.) Healers also have a special snake, called a dreamsnake, that is alien in origin, and whose bite is used as a painkiller and a sedative. This snake is important in helping patients during treatment, and also in helping patients who are dying, so that they can die in peace.
We first see Snake among desert nomads, treating a boy with a cancerous tumor. She starts one of her snakes on the process of metabolizing a cure, which will take several hours. She leaves the dreamsnake with the boy to ease his pain and keep him from being afraid. She goes outside to rest, and meets a young man from the tribe, named Arevin. When she goes back in, she discovers that the boy's family killed the dreamsnake because they were afraid of it. Since dreamsnakes are alien in origin, and healers don't know how to breed them, the loss of one is a terrible blow. Because of this, Snake fears she will no longer be able to be a healer. The rest of the book is about her journey to find more dreamsnakes.
I liked the mix of primitive (nomads living in the desert, riding horses) and advanced (genetic manipulation, alien contact) and it all seemed very believable. The only thing that was a bit weak was the immediate love between Arevin and Snake. They really only had a couple of conversations together, but somehow fell deeply in love - so much so that Arevin risks his life in trying to find Snake after she leaves his tribe.
The storytelling is otherwise quite strong, with interesting characters who have believable motivations. This is definitely a page-turner, as Snake gets closer and closer to finding the truth about dreamsnakes. And her relationship with Melissa, a little slave girl whom she frees and adopts, rang quite true.
I was pleased to see that a book from decades ago doesn't show any signs of aging or of feeling outdated. There are no old-fashioned prejudices or cultural references. Like Dune, the world in this book stands outside of time and culture, while its themes of trust, fear of others, and perseverance against all odds are still relevant to our current day. This is a rousing good story, with a strong female protagonist that anyone can relate to.
Sunday, August 30, 2015
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I must admit that I felt a great deal of trepidation before I finally decided to read Go Set A Watchman. I had heard the leaked reviews that Atticus Finch (the beloved icon of reason and justice in To Kill A Mockingbird) was a racist supporter of segregation in this book. This was hard for me to accept, as much as I admire that character, and as much as I love that book – I’ve read it 30-40 times in my lifetime, and each time I appreciate it more, and get something new out of it. So, it was with trembling fingers that I finally picked it up to read. But it was very much worth it!
First, one must keep in mind that this book isn’t a true sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird – it was submitted to the publisher, who requested that Ms. Lee rewrite it to focus on the character of Scout as a young girl. However, for a fan of Mockingbird, it’s hard to not read it as a sequel – most of the same characters are present (with the notable exception of Boo Radley.) And Scout is very much the same, even though this story takes place about 20 years after the events in Mockingbird. Scout is in her mid-twenties, but is still the impetuous, independent person we saw in Mockingbird. In this new book, she is coming home (from NYC) for a visit with her family and her beau. It is very much a coming-of-age story – even though Scout is an adult – as she is forced to confront some things in her family and in her own life that will truly set her on her feet as her own person.
The first part of the novel feels much the same as Mockingbird – Scout fights with her Aunt Alexandra (that pillar of imperial southern women) just as she did as a child, and her memories of youthful escapades could easily fit into the pages of Mockingbird. Things take a decided turn toward new territory when Scout surreptitiously attends a meeting of the ‘town council’ which Atticus chairs, only to find it is a meeting about how to deal with the ‘black problem’ – complete with a racist speaker who calls Negroes sub-human. Scout is beyond stunned, as she remembers the time that Atticus defended a Negro against a rape charge, and won on appeal (another difference from Mockingbird) and she remembers that he always treated Negroes with respect, when most other people didn’t. And not only is Atticus there, but so is her boyfriend, whom she had been thinking of marrying.
Angry, shocked and confused, she goes to her Uncle Jack (Atticus’ brother) to tell him what she saw. Here she doesn’t find the comfort that she thought she would, and she leaves as angry as she arrived. She finally confronts Atticus, with accusations of racism and bigotry, and he doesn’t defend himself. This is probably the hardest part for a Mockingbird lover to read – Atticus speaks about the “black problem” and the “meddling” of the NAACP, and he constantly refers to the Negro community as “children” who need the guidance of white people. His only response to Scout’s accusations is “I love you.”
Still not knowing what to think, she returns to Uncle Jack, where he confronts her with the revelation that she must be her own conscience (the “watchman” of the title) and not rely on Atticus to be her moral compass. She must fully grow up and become her own person.
Overall, the book was not quite as good as Mockingbird (but what is?), though I still think it has merit on its own. The point of the book – to learn to be your own person – is relevant to everyone, and the issue of racism and bigotry is, sadly, still one we must confront. I think it serves as a great adjunct to its ‘big brother’ and I enjoyed my visit back to Maycomb, Alabama. And, speaking as a true fan of Mockingbird, I’m glad I read it and I don’t feel as if it has spoiled the image of the Atticus I know and love.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is another time travel book from Connie Willis. It takes place, chronologically, before the events of Blackout/All Clear, with a couple of the same characters. Like those books, we switch back and forth between the 'present' (Oxford University in our future) and a time period in the past, in this case, the Middle Ages. As with Blackout/All Clear, the historic period depicted reads like historic fiction, with great care taken in depicting the life and society of that era. I didn't find this book quite as compelling as Blackout/All Clear, but it was also much less confusing, with only a single character in the past that we had to follow. Nevertheless, it was a good story, with a bit of a mystery of sorts, and interesting characters.
The historic portion of the book follows a female historian, Kivrin, who goes back to the middle ages to observe how people lived. In the 'present', Professor Dunworthy - the top historian - is opposed to sending her, because he doesn't think enough research has been done to ensure the 'drop' is safe. But the head of the department is off on holiday, and the professor left in charge okays the drop - in fact, he is in charge of it and dismisses Dunworthy's fears. So Kivrin goes, and when she arrives she is very sick, with a high fever, and cannot remember the location of the drop, for when it's time for her to go back.
Meanwhile, back in Oxford, there is a flu epidemic and the drop technician who sent Kivrin falls deathly ill, but not before he reaches Dunworthy to say only "Something's wrong." Dunworthy has to deal with his colleagues falling ill, housing a team of American bell ringers on holiday to England (who are quarantined along with the rest of Oxford), desperately trying to find his missing department head, and fretting over Kivrin.
Kivrin is dealing with her own issues, once she recovers from her own illness. It seems that other people are also falling ill, but they have different symptoms than what Kivrin had, and she struggles to come to grips with what is actually happening. And, she still has to figure out some way of finding the drop site, so she can return to her own present time.
One of Willis' fortes is her ability to weave humor throughout the book, even in the midst of tense situations. She does so perfectly in this book. There are several characters at Oxford that provide some much needed comic relief, including the bell ringers, and Dunworthy's secretary (who is massively concerned about the lack of supplies, especially 'lavatory paper.')
There is no real comic relief in Kivrin's part of the story, but there are sympathetic characters that we come to know and love. There are also some not so sympathetic characters. All are very believable. Again, Willis does a masterful job of capturing the living conditions of the era, as well as the language difficulties - people back then didn't speak English as we know it (read Chaucer in the original, and you'll see how incomprehensible it is!) The descriptions of the home and the village reinforces my belief that I'm glad I didn't live then! Dark, cold and smelly pretty much sums it up.
Fans of time travel stories will enjoy this, and even fans of historical fiction should find the Kivrin-based story enthralling.
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good by Jan Karon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In this, the tenth book in the Mitford Series, we are back in Mitford, shortly after Fr. Tim & Cynthia return from their trip to Ireland (as related in In the Company of Others.) Tim is still trying to figure out how to be retired, Cynthia is working on a new book, and there are the usual struggles with the Barlowe kids. There is also, of course, the usual cast of colorful characters in the town of Mitford, with their own ups and downs. Reading one of these books is like a family reunion - there are the relatives you love, the ones you think are kind of quirky, and there are always those for whom 'drama' is a lifestyle. But they are all your family, and you wouldn't trade them for the world.
As usual for these books, there are several story arcs that weave their way through the narrative, some of them heartwarming and some of them heartbreaking. But the tone of the book is never depressing, even when dealing with some of the harder issues. There is a sense of 'everything will be all right' even when things don't work out. Since this is pretty much my philosophy in life, these books really resonate with me. And this one is no different. Despite the hard situations (Sammy, Hope's baby, Fr. Talbot), Tim & Cynthia face life with courage and hope. (No pun intended.)
The ending of this one makes it seem like the next book will be about Dooley and Lace, but there are still some loose threads that need to be addressed (Will Hope and her baby survive? Will Fr. Tim be able to publicly acknowledge his black half-brother?? Will Sammy ever fully come around?) which I really want to see wrapped up, so I hope we will still have more Fr. Tim books.
Sunday, June 28, 2015
A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the second book in the Inspector Gamache series. (The first was Still Life.) Like the first, this one involves a murder in the quaint Quebecois village of Three Pines, and Inspector Gamache once again finds himself observing the villagers in order to find the killer. I love his style of investigation, which is to watch and listen. This makes the ambiance of the book quite delightful, as we are treated to many little vignettes of him interacting with the residents of Three Pines - often over food, so be prepared to be hungry while reading this!
As with the first book, I had quite a bit of the mystery solved before Gamache did, which is one reason I didn't give this 4 stars. The mystery of 'B KLM' and the bag lady was very obvious to me. But the real joy of reading this series is the wonderful characters that populate Three Pines, not so much the mystery to be solved. The people seem very realistic - not always likable and often with not the purest of motives. Each person is distinct, and has his or her own foibles.
Another carry-over from the first book is Gamache's team. Once again, Gamache brings on a rookie, to try to help him become a better investigator - this time it's a local officer. Thankfully, he turns out to be a better choice than the nasty Nichol (from the first book), who returns to the team (assigned by Gamache's boss) and does her usual bit of in-fighting and muddying up the investigation. Nichol brings a bit of an edge to the overall tone of the book - she's not likable and is quite underhanded. We also learn a bit more about why Gamache is not universally liked by his superiors, which made me like him even more.
But the real star of the book, like its predecessor, is the village of Three Pines. It's a storybook locale, especially during Christmas, which is when this book takes place. But, like its populace, it can also be quite unpredictable and even deadly, with terrible snowstorms and frigid temperatures. Ms. Penny keeps it from being too perfect, with her quirky characters and their all-to-real issues.
I will definitely be reading the rest of this series!
Sunday, June 21, 2015
All Clear by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is also a review for Blackout, as the two books are really one long story. The end of the first isn't really even an ending - the story stops, and is immediately picked up where it left off in the second. Don't read Blackout unless you have a copy of this one at hand!!
These two books tell the story of several time traveling historians, from the year 2060, as they observe events in Britain during WWII. Each chapter follows a different time period and different characters - sometimes it's a single character, sometimes it's a group of them. (PAY ATTENTION AT THE BEGINNING OF BLACKOUT!!!! The first few chapters are kind of confusing, but lots of very important things are said and done - or not said and not done - which you have to know for the rest of both books.) The tension in the plot comes from both the circumstances the characters are in (the London Blitz, the evacuation at Dunkirk, driving an ambulance), and also the fact that there seems to be something going wrong with the whole mechanics of time travel. (I won't get into specifics to avoid spoilers.)
We end up following three main characters, Polly (observing the Blitz, driving an ambulance), Eileen (observing evacuated children in the north of England) and Mike (observing the evacuation at Dunkirk.) Each of these characters is fairly well-developed, with their own personalities and motivations. (Personally, I think Eileen deserves sainthood for not killing the Horrible Hodbins!) It can be a bit confusing, however, as the historians don't always use the same name in each time period. Again - pay attention.
As we observe each historian, we also get to observe the events in which they are embedded. This history is wonderfully researched and presented to the reader. I really felt as if I were there during the bombings! (In fact, at one point when I was reading outside, a prop-plane flew over the house, and my first thought was that it was the Germans!) These books would be perfect for anyone who wants to know what it was like living in England during WWII.
At times, I was a bit confused as to what was happening (I didn't pay close enough attention at the beginning), and the time travel sometimes made my brain hurt, trying to keep it all straight. And, I did feel as if the pacing was on 'full speed ahead' the entire time. Even the humorous bits with the Hodbins or the acting troupe all came during fairly stressful events, so there didn't seem to be any let up in tension or action. However, all that notwithstanding, these were two very enjoyable (and educational) books. Willis knows how to write!!
Saturday, June 20, 2015
In the Beginning by Chaim Potok
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Chaim Potok is an amazing storyteller. One of my top 10 books of all time is The Chosen, which I reread on almost a yearly basis. This novel is just as good, though one I probably won't read as often, due to its nature - it is a bit grimmer in tone and feel.
The story is a coming of age tale of a Jewish boy named David Lurie. It begins when he is five, and continues to adulthood. He lives with his younger brother and parents in New York City, beginning in the late 1920's. His parents are immigrants from Poland, and staunch Zionists. His father is someone who believes Jews should fight back, and not let themselves be passively killed; he is a man of action. David is not. He is a sickly little boy who is ill almost monthly. Because of this (and also sometimes because he is Jewish) he is often bullied. When he is ill, he has high fevers, and Potok does a stellar job of describing how it feels to have fever dreams – I remember my own from my bout of scarlet fever.
Little David also has “accidents” – things that go wrong due to his clumsiness or actions. He can’t understand why people get so mad at him, when these incidents are not really his fault. (I think this is really a metaphor for what happens in life; often bad things happen for no reason.) After one such accident, David is afraid to speak, and goes for months without saying a word. His insights into silence are similar to the same theme in The Chosen and The Promise - obviously, a theme that is important to Potok.
I found this book compelling, but sometimes hard to read because of all the difficulties faced by David and his family. And for some reason, the part where they find out that all of their extended family was killed in concentration camps during WWII hit me extremely hard. I've read many books that deal with the Holocaust, but for some reason these few paragraphs just took the wind out of me. Maybe it was just the cumulative affect of all the other trials they faced, or that David's parents had tried to get their parents out of Poland, but they refused to leave. Whatever the reason, I was deeply touched.
Overall, this is a moving, powerful book about growing up, discovering self, and Jewish/American culture. Highly recommended!
Thursday, June 11, 2015
The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This would have received 4 stars but for three pretty egregious problems:
1. Anachronisms! At one point the narrator (Timothy Wilde) talks about the 'data' in relation to the crime he is investigating. While the world 'data' certainly existed at that time point, it was not part of common-day usage. It did not become common until well into the 20th century. The other BIG anachronism was a reference to razor wire. Barbed wire was not patented until 1860-something, and razor wire was invented after WWII!!
2. Reliance on the "raving Christian conservative lunatic" as a major character. Really, this trope is SO over-used! And having this be the motivation for one of the pivotal crimes/plot-points is just lazy.
3. The 'voice' of the narrator. Timothy Wilde was orphaned at 10, and raised by his drug-abusing older brother. They practically lived on the streets, and yet Timothy's musings include Latin references and a vocabulary that bespeaks a fine college education. While I did like this character, and found his musings and observations to be insightful, they just didn't sound like a young tough from the streets of New York City. This bothered me the entire book, and really interfered with my enjoyment of it.
All that being said, this was a fine 'true-crime' historical novel. For the most part, the characters were well-rounded (with the exception of #2, above - which I will refrain from naming to avoid spoilers) and had complex motivations. The action moved along nicely - the last half of the book, especially so. The descriptions of the city and its denizens made it seem quite real. I also like the fact that while the main mystery was solved, there were still some open-ended situations with respect to Timothy, his brother and other principal, though secondary, characters. As this is the first in a series, I do hope we'll find out about how things pan out for these people and their lives.
So, despite the three problems listed above, I do hope to read the next one in the series - though I'll probably just get it from the library, and not buy it.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
In the Company of Others by Jan Karon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I love Ms. Karon's Mitford books! They are good for the soul: uplifting without being smarmy, comforting without being cheesy. In this, the second of the "Father Tim" books (which take place outside of the village of Mitford), we find Tim and Cynthia on their long-awaited vacation to Ireland. The events in this book follow hard on the heels of the previous book (Home to Holly Springs) where Tim discovered he has a half-brother. This book continues the overarching theme of family - what it means to be a family, good and bad.
Tim & Cynthia are staying at a fishing lodge inn/B&B, run by a husband and wife, with their troubled teenage daughter. Tim & Cynthia become entangled in their extended and estranged family. We are treated to the usual loving and fun interactions between Tim & Cynthia, and also with the various guests in the lodge. As events transpire, there is a mystery that unfolds, but it isn't the main focus of the story. (And any regular reader of mysteries will 'figure it out' well before it's revealed in the book.) The focus, as always, is on people and the redemptive power of love.
I read that Ms. Karon likes this book the best, out of the series. But it's not my favorite. I think it's because a good part of the book is spent by Tim & Cynthia reading an old journal of one of the former owners of the place they're staying. The journal is written in the style of the 1860's, so it's kind of hard to read. It serves to echo the themes of family and redemption, but I was always impatient to get back to the "real" story of Tim & Cynthia. Still, it's always good to spend time with these characters, and I did enjoy this book, overall. And I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good!
Monday, June 8, 2015
PartnerShip by Anne McCaffrey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Even though this was written in 1992, it has the feel of old school, classic Science Fiction. There's a hint of sexism, though not as bad as stuff from the 50's and 60's, and the science still has that "gee-whiz" feeling you get from early SF. It's a quick read, and an entertaining story - though I had things figured out quite early on, as far as what was going on with the bit of mystery and intrigue that drives the plot.
Brainships are intersellar craft that are really human cyborgs - a human being (born physically deformed) is hard-wired into the ship, and the ship's functions are controlled directly by the human "brain." The "brawn" is the able-bodied human partner who provides literal legs on the ground, so to speak. In all instances of the series so far, the brain is female and the brawn is male. I would love to see this change in later books in the series, but I don't know if it does. (This is part of the mild sexism.)
This book begins with a newly commissioned brainship - still without a brawn - assigned to ferry 5 young aristocrats to their first job postings. Nancia, the brain in the ship, is also from an aristocratic family, but she is immediately shocked by the rude behavior of her passengers, and does not reveal herself as a brainship; her passengers think they are on a simple droneship. As such, they do not censor their behavior, and Nancia overhears them all plotting to achieve riches through underhanded and illegal means. Being a new ship, she does not know what to do with this information, so she tells no one.
As the story progresses, Nancia is paired with a brawn and they run into some trouble, related to the 5 aristocratic plotters. Her brawn is injured, and she takes on a temporary brawn and gets pulled deeper into the intrigue surrounding the actions of these 5 people.
It has a fully satisfying ending, of course - the bad guys are caught out, Nancia mends fences with her family, and she finally gets a decent brawn. We are left with the prospect of the "partnership" becoming something of an investigative team and solving more crimes through their ingenuity.
There is nothing really deep in this novel. And certainly, by today's standards, nothing really groundbreaking with respect to the ideas. Nevertheless, it is a fun, light read, especially if you like classic SF.
Sunday, June 7, 2015
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The first time I read this I was probably in grade school, and I was captured by the spirit of Buck, the dog who survived being kidnapped, beaten, and abused to eventually break free and "run with the wolves" in Alaska. I was aware of the abuse by men but somehow all I focused on was Buck and his ability to survive. (And it was MEN who abused him - the only woman in the book was a sniveling spoiled brat, typical of London's idea of women.) Reading this as an adult, all I could see was the cruelty of almost every man Buck encounters. It was terribly hard to read, at times, because of the severe abuse. I just kept picturing one of our dogs in the same situation, and nearly wept with the thought of it.
The main theme of the book is the inherent wild nature of dogs (and man) and we see Buck transformed from a pampered house pet to the ruler of the wild as leader of a wolf pack. It is through the privations and abuse that Buck learns who he really is (a wolf in dog's clothing, as it were) and we are led to believe that Buck is finally fulfilling his destiny, once he breaks free of men and becomes the leader of a wolf pack. Clearly, this is London's view of what it means to be a "real man" as well: breaking free of the pampering and strictures of city life and conquering one's fears and one's enemies. It is a very "alpha wolf" view of life; to succeed, one must subdue all adversaries - there is no compromise. I found it very tiresome, and almost comical, if it weren't for the horrible cruelty. Only one man, his last owner, treats Buck with kindness, and their relationship is nicely portrayed. But still, Buck heeds "the call of the wild" and leaves his loving master to be killed. (Of course, Buck takes vengeance on those who killed him, like any "real man" would!)
I suppose this book is worth reading as an example of the "macho" literature of the era. At least it's short, and London does write well. But I don't know if I'd even recommend it to children anymore, given the extreme abuse of dogs it portrays.
Saturday, June 6, 2015
Patrick: Son of Ireland by Stephen R. Lawhead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I remember reading Mr. Lawhead's Merlin/Arthur books and enjoying them, so when I saw this at the library book sale, I snatched it up. I was not as enchanted by this one, but it was still an enjoyable piece of historic fiction.
First off, however, you should know that if you're looking for the story of how St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, this is not the book. This book tells the story of Patrick's early life, and how he came to be in position to convert Ireland. I'm sure it's 98% conjecture, but the details of his daily living lent a sense of reality to the story. And it's a pretty depressing story, mostly. It seems like the entire first half of the book was him getting a savage beating every other chapter!
When we first meet him, Succat (as he was called) is the son of a rich landowner, living the high life. He is cultured (Roman), educated, and nominally a Christian. Irish raiders come and he is captured and enslaved. He becomes a shepherd, living in a crude hut, always on the edge of starvation and always trying - and failing - to escape.
After being befriended by a Druid, Succat goes off to be a servant in the Druid house, and then becomes a Druid himself. During this time we see hints as to his spirituality and his future. We also learn that there is a sect of Druids who are Christian. (I don't know if this is historically accurate - I had never heard of Christian Druids.) During this period he also falls in love with the sister of one of the Druids. But he's still plotting his escape, and finally manages to get on board a boat back to Britain. There, he discovers his family estate in ruins, his family is dead, and all the towns also greatly reduced in population and general prosperity. He meets an old friend, who is now a priest, who convinces Succat to go to Gual with him. It is in Gaul that the next part of his life ensues - that of a Roman soldier.
Because he feels he has nothing else he can do, he joins the Roman army, as a mercenary. In his first battle he saves the life of an important Roman politician, who decides to take him back to Rome. Succat becomes part of Roman high society, and even falls in love again. But circumstances drive him back to Ireland, as he finally receives his calling to return.
It was interesting to read of his life in each of these very different societies. Some reviewers have said that he was an unlikable character, but I didn't find him so. He was stubborn, and didn't always choose wisely, but that seemed to make him more human. Others have complained that he was not portrayed as a "good Catholic" which makes me laugh. This was the very early years of the Church, and he lived thousands of miles away from Rome. I am sure that most Christians of that time would not measure up to today's version of Catholicism! (For one thing, priests could marry back then.) Others took umbrage with him being portrayed as a Druid. Even if you discount the idea of Christian Druids, having him be a Druid makes his 'conversion' to Christianity that much more profound.
Overall, it was an entertaining book, and I certainly enjoyed the portrayal of life during that era.
Friday, May 29, 2015
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
3.5 stars, actually.
First off, let me say that I'm a huge fan of Ms. Novik's Temeraire series (His Majesty's Dragon, et al) or I probably wouldn't have read this one. I'm not a fan of the "hocus pocus" school of magic - where one must learn the proper way to pronounce some sort of gimmicky spell, as in Harry Potter. (For a treatment of magic that I find more acceptable, read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.) And as this book started, I was afraid I'd have to grit my teeth through such spell-casting for the whole book. Thankfully, our heroine developed a more mature way of spell-casting that Ms. Novik described beautifully, and was really quite intriguing. Also, by this point in the book the action had picked up dramatically, so I was sailing along pretty well, pulled by the great storytelling.
This book is very much like a long, involved fairy tale. The basic premise is that there is an evil wood that is encroaching on villages, and it often "takes" unwary people and animals and they are either never seen from again, or are released, but are "corrupted" by the evil and must be put to death. One wizard, known locally as "the Dragon" lives near the wood and has been holding it at bay for decades. Every ten years he chooses a young woman who lives near the forest to come and serve him. After their time with him, these young women never return to their home villages, but go off to live elsewhere. No one really knows what actually happens to them during their time with the Dragon. Our protagonist, Agnieszka, ends up being the chosen one, despite everyone thinking her best friend - who is much prettier and more capable - would be chosen.
The first part of the book is all about the Dragon trying to teach Agnieszka simple magic spells and her failing miserably. It seemed a bit predictable - it's obvious from the dust jacket summary that she'll learn more powerful magic - but it was interesting to see how she finally learned it. In this section the Dragon is pretty one-dimensional, but I suppose that's appropriate, because that's how Agnieszka sees him.
Once she learns "real" magic, things start happening fast, and the rest of the books is about the pitched battle between good and evil (with some politics thrown in to spice things up.) This section of the book had me pretty spellbound (no pun intended), as it moved from action to action. These scenes, with the magic spells, were really quite captivating. I liked the fact that it wasn't easy to overcome the evil in the wood, and I especially liked what Agnieszka did afterward. And the relationship between the Dragon and Agnieszka was well-handled.
So, yes, I liked this book. Not as much as the Temeraire books (they have REAL dragons, after all!) but still I enjoyed the story. Ms. Novik knows how to tell a good tale! Harry Potter fans looking for something a bit more developed will eat this up.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Neal Stephenson writes in many different genres - historical fiction (The Baroque Cycle Collection), crime thrillers (Reamde) and cyberpunk (Snow Crash). My favorite of his is Cryptonomicon, which defies classification. Seveneves is pure hard science fiction.
MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
The book begins in the present day, with the destruction of the moon by an unknown "agent" leaving it in large chunks. A scientist (clearly based on Neil deGrasse Tyson) determines that the subsequent creation of rocks caused by repeated collisions of the chunks will cause devastating meteor showers, eventually wiping out the earth. He sets the time frame for this at two years. This announcement sets into motion a desperate attempt to save the genomes of earth and its people. They build on the existing International Space Station, and select certain people to be saved by rocketing them there. Part one of the book deals with this effort.
Part two is what happens after the earth is wiped out, and humanity struggles to survive in space. This is where Stephenson explores a lot about politics and human motivations. It's almost exasperating to see humans perpetuate their little 'empire building' power trips, but it certainly seems realistic.
Part three is 5,000 years later, as humanity has spread out in orbit around Earth, and has started terraforming and colonizing the planet once again. This part was less exciting to me, as it seemed to just be an excuse for Stephenson to show off his 'cool' technology ideas. Don't get me wrong, they were cool ideas, but there was only minimal plot to move this section along.
Stephenson writes with great clarity, and the science used in the story is more than plausible. I was riveted by the first two parts of the book, despite all the technobabble. My only quibble with part one was the lack of societal breakdown caused by the impending doom of the world. He had people going to hotels and eating in restaurants during this time. You mean to tell me that housekeepers, chefs, waiters, and dishwashers would keep on going to work, day after day, knowing they'd all be dead in less than two years? There was a bit of unrest around those who were selected to be saved in space, but there was a real lack of the chaos I would expect under the circumstances. Part of this may have been a plot choice - adding additional chaos on earth would have slowed down the main story - but since all the science and politics seemed so realistic, this lack was pretty glaring for me. However, this is a minor quibble, and I would still recommend this to any science fiction fan, or those who like post-apocalyptic fiction.
Saturday, May 23, 2015
Bucking the Sun by Ivan Doig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I love Ivan Doig's writing! He captures Montana like no other writer I've come across. This book is slightly different than the others I've read in that it's kind of historical fiction. It's set during the depression, when the WPA decided to build a dam on the Missouri River, in northeastern Montana, at Ft. Peck. But in typical Doig style, it's also the story of a family, the Duffs, whose lives are entwined with the building of the dam. The father, Hugh, is a farmer along the river, upstream from the dam site. He's barely eking out a living, but when told he has to move because his farm will be flooded, he doesn't take it well. Part of his enmity toward the dam is the fact that his oldest son, Owen, is one of the primary engineers for the dam, and they have an estranged relationship - probably stemming from the fact that Owen didn't want to be a farmer like his father, and went off to college. The book follows what happens to the family, as they all end up working at the dam site.
The story is told as a sort of flashback/flashforward, centering on the mystery of a naked man and woman found drowned in a truck in the reservoir. It mostly centers on the Duff clan, all of whom end up working at the dam site, in one capacity or another, including Hugh's brother, Darius, a communist/unionist from Scotland, who shows up and throws a monkey wrench into the already tangled relationships of the family. Doig's characters are all wonderfully fleshed out. They are all very believable and Doig is able to make them recognizable as typical Montana folk, without being stereotypical. I felt as if I could bump into any of them in any small Montana town. The twists and turns of their relationships lead to the final reveal of the mystery, which is quite plausible.
The characters alone are only part of this book. Dominating and driving the plot is the dam. It's practically another character. It was the largest back-filled earthen dam in the world (may still be), at four miles long. Building it was a major achievement of engineering and manpower. Over 10,000 workers helped to build it. Part of my enjoyment of the book was reading about how it was designed and built, and the obstacles they had to overcome to do so. It was absolutely fascinating and never bogged down the flow of the narrative.
The title of the book comes from a saying that is used to describe what happens when the sun is setting or rising and is just on the horizon and blinds you, but you keep on driving (or doing whatever else you're doing) regardless of the danger. We see this played out explicitly with one of the characters driving back to Ft. Peck one evening, but we also see this metaphorically, as characters are blinded by their fears or desires, yet keep going forward anyway, heedless of what might result. It is this blind progress that causes the conflict among the characters. An apt metaphor, indeed.
I highly recommend this book to anyone from Montana, to history buffs, and to mystery lovers. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Sunday, April 12, 2015
Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is juvenile science fiction book, from the 1950's (what we'd call Young Adult Fiction, today), so it must be read with that in mind. It is told in the first person, by Tom, one of a pair of identical twins. He and his brother, Pat, are chosen by a non-profit agency to participate in some tests, for an untold purpose. It becomes clear that the tests are to determine the ESP capability of twins. It is discovered that Tom and Pat have very good ESP capability between themselves, and it is finally revealed why they want ESP-enabled twins: for long-range space travel, with one twin on a ship and the other back home on earth, so that they can communicate despite the relativistic differences. (It is determined that ESP does not obey the physical laws of relativity, and is instantaneous, no matter the physical distance, or relative time displacement.0 The rest of the book is about the adventures of the ship, as they seek a habitable planet, and the differences that arise between the twins, as they age at different rates.
This is pretty much a standard science fiction tale from the 50's, without a lot of the cheesy, pro-American rah-rah. Kudos to Heinlein for addressing the issues of relativity - that facet of the book is well-done. But, ESP? Really? I guess that we should cut him some slack for that - back then, lots of people thought ESP was a reality, and could be utilized in various ways. But that was a hard hurdle to clear, for me. Once I accepted that part of the story, the rest of it went as expected - some sibling rivalry, a few "gee whiz" moments with supposedly cool technology, and the usual amount of sexism. At least Heinlein was realistic about the dangers faced on alien planets, and we were not subjected to 'bug-eyed-aliens' on the planets visited. This book is not the usual tripe of "good old American know-how" triumphing over everything, which is refreshing. For that, and for the good treatment of relativistic issues, I give it 3 stars, despite the ESP factor. I think that had I read this when I first discovered science fiction, as a young girl in the 60's, I would have LOVED it!
Saturday, April 11, 2015
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Oh, Neil. How do you do it? How do you manage to write such amazing stories? Stories full of magic, full of emotion, full of truth. Stories that make you laugh, make you cringe, make you feel. As an aspiring writer myself, when I read your stories I despair - how can I ever hope to write even half was well as you do?
The stories and poems in this collection were almost all previously published. Some I had read before. One, "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" was even published as an illustrated book. But even the ones I had read before were worth reading again. That's the thing about Gaiman - his works are so multi-layered that upon each rereading you will find something new, something that catches you out, that you didn't notice before.
As in every collection, readers will find stories that resonate with them more than others. For me, these were the highlights:
"The Thing About Cassandra" - Quintessential Gaiman. It's all about the power of words to create.
"Down to a Sunless Sea" - Another quintessential Gaiman story. It's a bit creepy, and full of wonderful prose and imagery. Also kind of melancholic.
"Orange" - A delightfully humorous story, told as only the responses to an investigator's questions. A bit cheeky, but it works.
"The Case of Death and Honey" - Did you ever wonder why Sherlock Holmes got into beekeeping after retiring? This story provides the answer.
"An Invocation of Incuriosity" - Another vintage Gaiman story. Wryly humorous, with not a word out of place.
"And Weep, Like Alexander" - See previous.
"Nothing O'Clock" - A wonderful Dr. Who romp, that even non-Whovians will enjoy.
"Black Dog" - A creepy story. The further adventures of Shadow, the protagonist from American Gods. Gaiman at his best.
The stories and poems not listed were all still wonderfully written, and full of imagination and originality. They just didn't quite hit home for me. Nevertheless, they are all worth reading (and rereading).
Monday, April 6, 2015
The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a great piece of classic science fiction, that holds up very well today, and doesn't feel dated or archaic. The book is a series of short stories (which can be considered longish chapters) that tell the story of Helva, a girl who was born severely physically deformed. In the time of the book (far future, with faster-than-life travel between planets) such babies were tested for brain functions, and if they passed, the babies were raised to become implanted into ships, cities or other complex entities, where they would serve as the "brains" of said entity. In the case of Helva, she was implanted into a ship. As such, her sensory inputs are from the ship, and her "movement" is that of the ship. All such "brain ships" are paired with an able-bodied human, called a "brawn," to perform activities that the ship cannot do. People embedded like this have protected rights, and basically work off the cost of their training and embedding by performing assignments for the government.
The stories in this book begin with Helva's birth and training (though briefly), her various pairings with brawns, and several different missions. Helva learned to enjoy music during her years of training, and develops her singing voice(s) with her first brawn. She gets quite a reputation, as "the ship who sings" - hence the title of the book.
All of the stories are quite interesting, exploring different worlds and/or different facets of the brain/brawn partnership. Through it all, Helva strives to be true to her own values, and also seeks to earn enough money to pay off her debts and become a free contractor. The science of how the ships work is only lightly touched on - these stories are more focused on the character of Helva and the society in which she lives and works. It is quite refreshing to read a work from this era (1969) where there is a strong female character. I'm sure it was quite ground-breaking at the time. Overall, this is a fun, mostly light, adventure story, with a great central character. I definitely recommend it!
Sunday, April 5, 2015
The Bookman Histories by Lavie Tidhar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is an alternate history steampunk trilogy in one volume, comprising three separate books: The Bookman, Camera Obscura, and The Great Gamee. And while all steampunk novels can be considered alternate history, this one truly is, because the ruling family of Great Britain is comprised of large, intelligent lizards. (The queen is still named Victoria, however.) The origin and motives of these lizards are part of the mystery that is unraveled in the course of the novels. Each novel is fairly stand-alone, but there are common characters and plot lines that run through all three, so I would recommend that you read them in order.
This is not a short read - all three novels combine for over 1000 pages. And the story is quite complex, with quite a large number of characters and sub-plots to keep straight. It wasn't quite as difficult to get through as War and Peace, but it was close. It is truly an epic tale.
Part of the difficulty in getting though the books was the fact that I never truly connected with the characters. The only exception was the character of Orphan in the first book, but that is his only appearance. I thought I'd really like the main character in the second book, as she is a kick-ass female assassin, but she is portrayed so dryly that I never felt emotionally invested. This is my main complaint about these books - the characters, though quite complex, seem wooden, and seem to exist only to move the story to the next plot point. One gets the impression that the author had an idea for a story, and simply added in the characters as needed, in order to serve the plots.
The star of the books really is the world. It is rich and complex, and quite inventive. The author brings in both real-world and fictional characters (such as Frankenstein, Lord Byron, Dr. Jekyll, Harry Houdini, Sherlock Holmes and Oliver Twist) and weaves them into the myriad plots quite nicely, even though they may be from different eras in our world. He also uses real-wold events, such as the Chicago World's Fair. These little touches are fun, and help to lighten the rather complex plots.
Had I read these books back-to-back-to-back, I may not have struggled so much with keeping the plots and characters straight. As it was, I read the books over about a five month period, interspersing them with dozens of other books. These books just didn't pull me in, so that I was content to pause for long periods between them. For me, the mark of a successful series is that you cannot wait to pick up the next book, as soon as you finish the current one. This was definitely not the case for this trilogy, and I blame the wooden characters. Even the most interesting and inventive of alternate worlds cannot make up for this lack.
However, I would still recommend this to steampunk fans, as the world is delightfully complex, and the mix of fictional and real-world characters is quite fun. I just think that the author could have done a better job with the characters.
Friday, March 27, 2015
Mary Queen Of Scotland And The Isles by Margaret George
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Well, that was a slog. It took me months to finish this book, for several reasons: one, I never really connected with Mary as a person; two, the behavior of the Protestants toward her was just so despicable, I hated to spend time reading about all their plots and machinations to dethrone her; three, I knew how it would end, so there was no suspense to motivate me to read to the end. Despite these obstacles I finally finished it. I think I deserve some sort of medal - this was harder to read than War and Peace!
Let's address a couple of my difficulties, first the character of Mary. I expected that this book would draw me in to the characters and make me care about them, like Philippa Gregory's books. Sadly, I did not connect with Mary until the very end, when she was imprisoned by the English, after seeking asylum there. Up until that point, the book seemed to simply relate all of the events that happened to here (and a lot happens), without any personal or emotional sense. Once she was imprisoned, she seemed to be more human, and certainly more sympathetic. The last few pages leading up to her execution were extremely powerful. I would have liked to have had some of that personal connection earlier in the book, but I didn't.
The other thing that made it difficult for me to read this book was what the Protestants said and did. Now, I'm not a Catholic, and probably have some bias against Catholics (that whole Inquisition thing...), but the behavior of the Scottish Protestants was beneath contempt. The libel and slander were despicable, and their opposition to her was based solely on her religion. At least, publicly - as with all political opposition, it probably had to do with money and power, but they cloaked it in religious terms to get the backing of the general population. It was really quite hard to spend time with these horrible men. I kept having to put down the book because it would make me sick to think of how they treated her. I suppose the author should be commended for getting some sort of emotional response from me, when the rest of the book left me rather cold, but an emotion that makes you want to put the book down is probably not what the author hoped for.
All this being said, the book was certainly thorough. I learned much Mary Stewart that I didn't know. The author clearly did an excellent job on research. But somehow, all those details just didn't add up to an exciting book. It was mildly interesting, from a historical perspective, and only my love of learning kept me reading to the end. Overall, I was very disappointed in this book.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Still Life by Louise Penny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is my first book by this author, and it won't be the last! It is a very good mystery - interesting characters, wonderful sense of place, excellent pacing. I sat down to read it around 3, and didn't put it down until I finished, a little after 9. I had to see if my theory of "whodunnit" was right! (And it was!)
The book is set in a rural village in Quebec, which the author populates with a great cast of characters. Some are likable, some are really NOT likable, but all seem real. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is definitely likable, but he, too, is very real. He's not perfect, he makes mistakes, but his heart is in the right place. His investigative skills are second to none, but his real strength (and what makes him interesting) is his desire to see his team members grow and succeed. He is very into teamwork and mentoring. And this actually plays a role in the development of the story, as he tries to bring along a new team member. His strength as an investigator is observation - sitting back and watching the villagers interact, talking with them, etc. In this way he learns about each suspect, and begins to develop motives for them. He and his team make some wrong turns, here and there, but eventually the killer is uncovered (of course.)
Quite early on, I figured out who the murderer was, but there was enough doubt that I kept reading. And the author's skill with character development and storytelling kept me riveted. The journey to discovery, and finally learning the details, made for a quite enjoyable read. Overall, it seemed like a modern Agatha Christie mystery, with better characters. For those who aren't into gunfights, car chases and explosions, this is just the ticket! This is a quiet, cerebral mystery, full of wonderful characters. Get a cup of tea, settle in and have fun.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
Prudence by Gail Carriger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is the first in a new series by Ms. Carriger, that takes place after the Parasol Protectorate series (Soulless et al) and in the same universe. Readers of that first series will recognize many characters in this book, though they play minor roles since this new series is based around the children of some of the original characters. I am a huge fan of the Parasol Protectorate books, so I was greatly anticipating this new book and series. However, if this book is any indication, it't not going to be as good.
I have two major issues with this book. The first is the general tone/tenor of the prose. Every scene is played to the hilt with over-the-top cheekiness. One can almost see the author saying, "Isn't this clever? Isn't this funny? Aren't I being ever so droll?" One of the things I enjoyed about the Parasol Protectorate was the droll humor. However, in that series, we were given little bits of it, spaced out throughout each book. This made the humor really hit home. Just as one enjoys sweets occasionally, and enjoys them all the more for this infrequency, a diet made up of only sweets becomes unbearble after a while, and one forgets why sweets were such a treat in the first place. Similarly, a book with little bits of humor sprinkled here and there is much more enjoyable than one where the humor is slathered on with a knife, and the reader can never escape it. It's really too much of a good thing! I had to keep putting the book down, because I just could not stomach yet another scene full of cloying humor.
My second big complaint is the egregious lack of proofreading. Let me list just a few of the most blatant errors:
1. The river in London is the Thames. While it may be pronounced "Tems" it is never spelled "Themes" - not even in America.
2. The pepper plant is the chili - with one "l", not 2!
3. The proper spelling is "quandary" not "quandry."
4."upclose" is not a word.
I won't even get into the poor use of adjective phrases, that leave the reader wondering at the target of the phrase. I am, frankly, appalled at the number and frequency of these errors. If this were a self-published book, I might be more understanding, but this book is published by a (seemingly) reputable publishing house. However, I fear for their reputation if this is the quality of writing they publish.
All of this notwithstanding, Ms. Carriger is a good storyteller, and overall, I enjoyed the book. The story was fun and inventive. But the unrelentingly cloying writing style, along with the poor quality of writing, keep me from giving this 4 stars. The fact that the Parasol Protectorate did not suffer from these issues makes it that much more of a disappointment for me. You can do better, Ms. Carriger!!
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
4.5 stars, actually.
This is the sequel to Seraphina, and if you haven't read that one, go read it before reading this one. It's really an absolute must. Go ahead. I'll wait. ;-)
OK, now that you've read Seraphina (wasn't it great?), let's talk about the sequel. I was almost afraid to read this one, because I enjoyed the first one so much! Often, a sequel is just the author rehashing themes and characters from the first book. That is definitely not the case with Shadow Scale - it is much broader in scope, and a much more ambitions book, overall. And it succeeds on almost every level. I was completely absorbed by it - devouring it over a couple of days, and then wandering about in a 'book hangover' afterwards. I was almost shocked to realize that I didn't live in Goredd!
This book picks up right where the first one left off: Seraphina has been revealed to be half-dragon; a faction of dragons who do not want continued peace with humans has staged a coup, leading to a civil war; humans must prepare to fight dragons again, and to aid in that, Seraphina must find the other denizens of her 'mind garden', who are also half-dragons, so they can create a mind weapon against the dragons. And the love triangle still exists: Kiggs, the captain of the guard and betrothed to Giselle, the queen, is still in love with Seraphina, and vice versa. But the big development in this book is the re-emergence of Jannoula, a troubled and troublesome resident in Seraphina's mind garden. Seraphina had successfully 'locked her up' in the first book, but Jannoula finds ways out, and becomes the major villain in this book.
Seraphina's journey to find the others of her kind takes us all over the Southlands, each country of which is very fully developed by Hartman, as is each new half-breed we discover. These new characters are as distinct and different as can be, each with his or her own manifestation of dragon-ness. But not all desire to help, having managed to carve out a niche in society. Jannoula, however, is also doing her own style of 'recruiting', coming into direct conflict with Seraphina. Everything comes to a head at the end, with a satisfying conclusion. (It doesn't appear there will be a 3rd book in the series, unless things change from the status quo achieved at the end.)
Paralleling Seraphina's physical journey is her mental journey, as she discovers more about her mind garden, more about Jannoula's place in it, and more about how it is actually hindering her. She is also forced to realize that her motivations for 'saving' the other half-dragons were shallow, and self-serving. She thought she would be coming in as some sort of savior, but many of them did not need or want 'saving.' This is just one of many areas where we see characters growing and changing - and not just Seraphina. We finally learn Jannoula's past, and discover why she acts the way she does. I really liked the fact that the villain of the book was not just 'evil' but was acting out of what had happened in her life - much like real people do.
The themes of the first book - friendship, self-discovery and acceptance, fear and hatred of 'the other' - are broadened and deepened in this book. And the exploration of what motivates people (dragon, human, half-dragon) is rich and multifaceted. This is more than an adventure story.
One could think of Seraphina (the book) as a small string quartet: very intimate, with only a few major players, but hints of bigger themes. If that's the case, then Shadow Scale is a symphony! In book one, the action takes place exclusively in Goredd, and mostly in the city of Lavondaville. In the sequel, we get a tour of all the Southlands, as Seraphina goes on her quest. And instead of just a few main characters, there are dozens - human, dragon and half-dragon. But Hartman does a masterful job of introducing each one, and there is never a time of "Wait? Which one is this, again?" The major thematic developments are also symphonic in scope. This is definitely a magum opus!
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty: Whispers of Restoration From the Book of Ruth by Tanya Marlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I know of this author from her blog at tanyamarlow.com, though I do not know her personally. Ms. Marlow suffers from a chronic illness, as do I, so I can really relate to what she writes. Because of reading her blog, I knew I had to read this book, and I'm very glad I did! And while this book uses her personal story to illustrate the story of Ruth from the bible, even those who are not chronically ill will be able to get something out of the book. We all have times when we are bitter, or feel lost, or are struggling in some way.
This short book follows the book of Ruth (which is also a short book), and intersperses the author's experiences and struggles with those of Ruth and Naomi. Each chapter of the book corresponds to a chapter of Ruth. At the end of each chapter is a series of short questions to help readers explore the themes of that chapter in their own lives. After reading the book, I think it could be appropriate for bible study groups, as well as individual study. I found the book to be very well-written, clear and concise. It is full of wisdom, and can enrich any Christian who reads it. I learned a lot about the book of Ruth, as well as about myself and my struggles. I highly recommend it!
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Note that 2 stars means "It was ok."
And, yes, this book was ok. Not sure I actually liked it (3 stars), but I did finish it, and it was mildly entertaining. It had come highly recommended by a friend, and I was expecting something akin to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but it just wasn't that funny or that good.
It is very creative and inventive, however. I can't go into too many details about this, without spoilers, but the ideas are pretty wild and original. The characters are not quite so original, though the author tries really hard to be cute - we have a surfer/rasta boi, we have the older scientist attracted to the cute grad assistant, we have the cute grad assistant (pixie girl trope), the lesbian ex-wife, etc. I never connected with any of the characters, which is one reason I didn't enjoy the book more. If I were a guy, perhaps I would have done so, as the lead character is the older male scientist and the pixie girl grad assistant might have piqued my interest. While I didn't actively dislike any character, the plot was intriguing enough that I wanted to keep reading. But it never really clicked for me, as a whole.
So, 4 stars for creativity, but it loses a lot in the execution, especially due to stereotypical characters.
Sunday, March 8, 2015
And Both Were Young by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one of L'Engle's earlier works, and does not have the science fiction/religious shadings of the Wrinkle in Time series or some of her later work. Nevertheless, it is a solid story, and should appeal to girls.
The story takes place in Switzerland, and a boarding school for girls. Philippa (aka "Flip") has recently lost her mother, and her artist father is being pursued by a rather nasty woman. (She reminded me of the gold-digger in the original "Parent Trap" movie!) Her father will be traveling, and this woman convinces him to put Flip in this school for the year.
Flip is also artistic, and rather shy. She also has a bad knee which makes her clumsy in sports. All of these attributes combine so as to make her one of the unpopular girls, and the target of many jokes. There are two bright spots, however: (1) on her first day at the school she meets a young man named Paul, who lives nearby, and they strike up a friendship; (2) the art teacher takes a liking to Flip and becomes something of a mentor to her.
The first part of the book mostly deals with Flip's interactions with the girls at school. For anyone who has felt like 'the outsider', these scenes will resonate. Because of her loneliness, she sneaks away every week to spend time with Paul. She also spends her time learning to ski, after the ski instructor told her she was hopeless. The art instructor, who is a very good skier (and we find out why at the end of the book), gives Flip the right sized skis and offers instruction. Flip has a goal to enter the school-wide competition later in the year.
There is a bit of a mystery around Paul, and this is slowly revealed, as he and Flip become closer friends. The budding romance is handled very realistically, and without schmaltz, which is refreshing.
I think if I had discovered this in junior high I would have loved it! Even reading it as an adult, I found myself rooting for Flip, and drawn into the mystery of Paul. Overall, an enjoyable couple of hours reading.
Saturday, March 7, 2015
Born To Trot by Marguerite Henry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Growing up, I loved horse stories, and the best writer/illustrator pair was Marguerite Henry and Wesley Dennis. I've been trying to collect these books, ever since. This is a lovely hardback (sans dust jacket) 1950 first edition - a gift from my sister at Christmas. I'm sure I read this one when I was younger, but I didn't remember the story, so it was fun to read what seemed to be a 'new' story.
This book is almost two books in one. The main story is about Gibson White, a teenage boy whose father trains and races trotters. (These are the horses that pull a two-wheel 'sulky' and must only use the trot gait, never a gallop.) His father is Benjamin Franklin White. (Both characters are based on real people.) Gibson wants nothing more than to race with the grownups, but he is somewhat sickly. His father takes him to the doctor who prescribes a year (!!) of rest at a sanatorium. This is, of course, heart breaking for Gibson. But off he goes.
While recuperating, Gibson's father "gives" him a foal, and agrees to train her for Gibson. Gibson's doctor also gives him a book, about the man who bred the father of all trotters, a stallion named Hambletonian. This story is the book within the book, as we get to 'read along' with Gibson as he reads the book. Through this book we learn the history of the American Trotter, and how the breed was developed from this one stallion. It is an entertaining story, and certainly helps to break up the monotony of the story of Gibson's time laid up in bed.
Of course, Gibson finally recovers, just in time to get his filly ready for the big Hambletonian race. This leads to the one major plot twist in the book, which I won't detail, so as to avoid a spoiler.
The book captures both Gibson's and his dad's love of the horses, and of the sport of Trotting. Henry is masterful in her description of horses, whether simply grazing in a field or tearing down a race track. And Dennis' illustrations are sublime, as usual. This edition has a few lovely color illustrations, as well as a color front and back illustration.
As is usual for books of this era, the only female of note is Gibson's mother, who is pretty much relegated to making food for Gibson and his father. But that is really my only nit to pick. This was an engrossing book, and had the added bonus story of Hambletonian. Any horse lover will enjoy this book immensely. A must-read for Marguerite Henry fans!