Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Story of Louisa May Alcott

The Story of Louisa May AlcottThe Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is for middle readers, and though it was published in the 50's, any child who enjoyed Louisa May Alcott's books (e.g. Little Women and Little Men) would enjoy reading about the author's life. This book does a fine job of depicting Alcott's early life, and draws parallels between her and her character Jo March. Alcott was clearly a tomboy, and took much pride in the fact. We see the influence her own childhood had on the characters in her stories, with she and her sisters putting on plays, writing a 'newspaper', etc. We also learn that the Alcotts were almost always quite poor, often depending on the charity of their friends. Because of this, they had to move frequently. Even though Alcott is depicted as something of a heroine as in her own books, the book does not avoid mentioning the hard times and illnesses that the family suffered.

I learned quite a bit about Alcott that I didn't know: her father was a pioneer in the philosophy of Transcendentalism (not transcendental meditation), and her family was friends with Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorn.

I would recommend this to any young reader who is a fan of Alcott's work.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

The Truth is a Cave in the Black MountainsThe Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This small book began life as a short story, and then became part of a performance piece where Neil read it accompanied by music and pictures. The pictures and story are captured here as a lovely illustrated book - too bad the music couldn't be included on CD!

The story is based on a legend from the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. In the legend, there is a cave that contains gold that anyone may take, but each time you leave the cave you become 'more evil.' Gaiman uses this story as the main driver of the plot, but adds a larger narrative. The story is about a dwarf who lives in the Scottish lowlands. We learn a bit of his life, that he is married with children, and that he lost his daughter many years ago. The dwarf is on a quest to the cave to get some of the gold, but he doesn't know where it is, so he enlists the help of another man who went there as a teenager and successfully returned with gold.

The story is full of murder and intrigue, and Gaiman tells it masterfully, as is to be expected. The phrasing of the narrative is such that one can almost hear the Scottish brogue. It feels like a story told around a campfire.

The illustrations, by Eddie Campbell, are done mostly in lovely greens, blacks and grays, evoking the landscape of Scotland quite nicely. (I know, I've been there, and also visited the Isle of Skye.) I first read the story in another collection, sans illustrations. Reading it again, this time with the images, helped to give more texture to the words and to create the slightly fantastical atmosphere. The story is haunting, as are the illustrations.

Any fan of Neil Gaiman will eat this up, but I'd also recommend it to those who like Scotland. This story feels as if it sprang from the very rocks and heather of the Scottish lands.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Peripheral

The PeripheralThe Peripheral by William Gibson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

William Gibson's ability to visualize the near future never ceases to amaze me. He takes politics, science and sociology of today and nudges it a few years or decades ahead, resulting in a world that seems absolutely real and plausible. And he does that superbly in this new book.

The main character in the book is Flynne, a 20-something woman who lives in a small town in the US. Her brother, Burton, is a veteran (of an unspecified war) with PTSD. Flynne and Burton both supplement their income by playing online games for money. The plot begins with Flynne subbing for Burton in a new game, as a beta tester. In the game she sees what looks like a murder. Then the game owners, a Colombian company, contact her, and things get very interesting very fast.

Gibson's near future world is full of recognizable things such as online gaming, 3-D fabrication, religious protesters (a thinly veiled reference to the Westboro Baptist group), skyrocketing drug prices, and Veterans Administration that cannot cope with the wounded soldiers coming back from the war. All of these are extrapolated just enough to be believable, and to create a richly textured future world.

My only complaint is that Gibson throws us into this world with no explanations, and throws characters and plot developments at us, thick and fast, so that for the first 90 pages I was trying to figure out what the heck was going on. Part of this is because Flynne and Burton are also trying to figure out what's going on, and we take that journey with them, but part of it is what I see as a 'trendy' style of writing, where the author just throws the reader into the ocean, in a 'sink or swim' kind of deal. I'm afraid new readers would give up on the book, because of the confusion. However, having read all of Gibson's fiction, I knew that by sticking it out, I would be rewarded, and I was. But I do think he has the potential to lose readers on this one. So, my advice: Don't give up on the book! It's worth the initial struggle.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Great Expectations

Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second or third time I've read this book, and at first I didn't enjoy it as much. But by the second half of the book I was once again caught up in the story and how it would unfold. (I had forgotten some of the details, so I was nicely surprised at times.) This is not my favorite Dickens work - I think that honor goes to A Tale of Two Cities - but it's still a wonderful example of his work, and certainly worthy to be called a classic.

The book tells the life story of Pip, a young boy living on the edge of the marshes near Kent. He lives with his domineering older sister and her simple, kind-hearted husband, Joe. It opens rather dramatically, as Pip encounters an escaped convict in the churchyard on Christmas Eve. The convict threatens Pip and orders him to fetch food and a file for his leg irons. Pip obeys, setting into motion events that would drastically change his life.

A few months after this encounter, Pip is summoned to the ruinous mansion of Miss Havisham - a jilted bride, still wearing her bridal gown, and driven slightly mad with hurt and the desire for revenge. At the mansion, Pip meets Estella, Miss Havisham's young ward, and he is immediately smitten, despite Estella's cruelty to him. From this point on, Miss Havisham and Estella are focal points for Pip, and his relationship with these two women drive all that he does, as he grows.

A few years go by, and Pip is contacted by an attorney with wonderful news: a mysterious benefactor has bestowed 'great expectations' upon Pip, with a lavish trust fund, and the desire of this benefactor to see Pip become a gentleman. Pip can't believe his good fortune, as he didn't feel worthy of Estella as a blacksmith's apprentice. He goes off to fortune to become a gentleman. The identity of this benefactor is the central mystery of the story, and I won't reveal it here.

Throughout the book, Dickens populates Pip's life with the usual assortment of colorful characters, as is his wont. These, along with his clever turn of phrase make the book a joy to read - though the archaic tone and slow pace can take some getting used to, at first. But Dickens wondrously ties up all the loose ends (even those you weren't aware of) by the book's end, giving the reader much satisfaction at the end. Indeed, I read that Dickens changed the original ending to make it happier.

This is a true classic, and justifiably so. Do read it, if you haven't!