Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, takes on a case as a favor to his friend Thomas - a vampire of dubious integrity - only to become the prime suspect in a series of ghastly murders.

The Dresden Files have become the books I pick up when I want a break from serious reading or hectic life, and this time was no exception. Work and things in general got pretty hectic, I've been reading literature and non-fiction, so I knew it was time for some good old-fashioned magic and adventure with a fair dose of humor. And it has been a while since my last foray into the world Jim Butcher created, so I knew the tendency of longer series to be formulaic was not going to bother me (this is book six of the Dresden Files, and it's easy to notice patterns if you read a series through relatively quickly).
For all the familiarity of Chicago's only wizard with an ad in the Yellow Pages there were plenty of things about this book that were new and exciting. It was about time too: the vague hints about Harry's mom's past without anything to sink my teeth into were becoming exasperating. Fortunately in Blood Rites we finally learned quite a bit about her. The author's also given us characters whose motivations were not entirely clear until this book, and learning their back story was extremely satisfying for me. It gave me extra faith in Butcher's abilities, because now I know for a fact that there's depth in his world-building that goes beyond an elaborate and inventive grimoire, and the fact that there's always some homicidal maniac trying to unleash various evils on the world. There's another thing that surprised the heck out of me (spoiler alert, by the way): if you look at my reviews of the other Dresden Files books you'll see that I've mentioned that Harry gets beat up and injured in the most grievous way in every volume right when it's time for the ultimate battle. He's always come out of it with no permanent damage, but not this time. This time the bad guys take a nice chunk out of the semi-rogue wizard and I can't wait to see how that plays out.
I'm not going to say much about the fact that this book is action- and humor-packed, just as the rest of the series, but I will say that a few very emotionally-significant events took away some of the levity. Moreover, in the beginning of the series Harry was more of a damaged orphan wizard version of a cross between Hawkeye and Hunnicutt from M*A*S*H, but now he is a much more sinister, conflicted and in a way vulnerable character. Much has happened since Storm Front, so it's not surprising that Harry should develop into a more multi-faceted protagonist. And he's finally beginning to see romantic possibilities where he should've been looking for them from the very beginning, although he doesn't know it yet. What can you do, he's a guy!
The Dresden Files will probably never be a 5 out of 5 for me, but Blood Rites sure is a high 4. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the story progresses in Dead Beat.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Dream Lake by Lisa Kleypas

Zoë Hoffman is as gentle and romantic as they come. When she meets the startling gorgeous Alex Nolan, all her instincts tell her to run. Even Alex tells her to run. But something in him calls to Zoë, and she forces him to take a look at his life with a clear eye, and to open his mind to the possibility that love isn’t for the foolish.
Alex Nolan is as bitter and cynical as they come, he battles his demons with the help of a whiskey bottle, and he lives in his own private hell. And then a ghost shows up. Only Alex can see him, has Alex finally crossed over the threshold to insanity?
The ghost has been existing in the half-light of this world for decades. He doesn’t know who he is, or why he is stuck in the Nolans’ Victorian house. All he knows is that he loved a girl once and that Alex and Zoë hold the key to unlocking the mystery that keeps him trapped here.

Romance is usually not my preferred genre, but one of the ladies in my critique group is writing a romantic suspense novel, and I realized that if I wanted to critique her work well I needed to see what was going on in the world of steamed up windows and happily ever after. The fact that there's a bit of paranormal in this book only served to pique my interest: there is paranormal and there is romance, but the book isn't a paranormal romance, which is already different, considering how popular paranormal romance has been for the last 10 years or so.
Dream Lake is the second novel in the Friday Harbor trilogy but it works well as a stand-alone novel. You learn everything you need to know about the quaint town of Friday Harbor and the people who live there, and you get a fun and sometimes spooky story to go with the picturesque setting. And what a setting it is! My favorite part about Friday Harbor and this book is the Artist Point Bed and Breakfast, which Zoe runs with her cousin Justine. A while back I've actually thought about opening a bed and breakfast/bakery, maybe that's why the idea appealed to me so much. And having the different rooms in the B&B designed to commemorate different artist was just awesome, so much better than flowery wallpaper and doilies. When I finished the book I started looking for what Artist Point might look like and I think I found the perfect place:


The story is a variation on the theme of beauty and the beast: a young woman meets a guy who wouldn't wish himself on anybody, and they change each other's lives. Beauty & the Beast has always been my favorite Disney cartoon, and of course the folkloric iterations of the story that came before it have a special place in my heart, so it's no wonder that as soon as I realized that this is the core story type I was able to guess what would happen between Zoe & Alex. Had it not been for the ghost and his story I might've gotten bored with the book, but wanting to know what was keeping him from moving on made me continue turning the pages. In fact, the ghost and his story stole the spotlight more than once over the course of the book!
While Kleypas' writing didn't always work for me I'll admit that she did an excellent job with character building. All the key players and even the characters we meet for only a short while were multi-dimensional, with either obvious or implied shortcomings, quirks and admirable qualities. It was very easy to like Zoe and root for Alex, even when he was being a complete ass, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that there was more to Zoe's dad than met the eye.
One of the reasons the writing didn't always work for me is that there is quite a bit of 'telling' in the book where it would've been very easy to 'show' what the characters were going through or what was in their past. Another is that there is plenty of spelled-out minute actions and descriptions that I wasn't convinced were necessary to move the story along. The most distracting however were the sudden switches between point of view and male characters acting, talking and thinking as a woman would. For example, Alex is a construction contractor who can't boil water, I really doubt he would be able to describe a dish using vocabulary fitting for a culinary aficionado. I doubt even more that people who work with certain tools all the time would use full formal names for those tools in casual conversation, I know my husband will never say "the phillips head screwdriver" if "the phillips head" will suffice. I understand that this is a romance novel and it's probably safe to say that half the target audience doesn't know their way around a tool box, but this kind of extensive detail and uncharacteristic powers of description didn't work for me.
As much as mundane scenes didn't always work for me I have to admit that when it came to romantic scenes Kleypas did an excellent job. They were tasteful yet detailed enough to convince me that had the action been happening in a car the windows would've been steamed up, and while there wasn't a 'fade to black' effect the vocabulary and descriptions were neither crude nor gratuitous. I can see why Kleypas is so popular with fans of romance.
While I myself will most likely not be specifically looking for any other books by this author should I happen upon Crystal Grove (the sequel) I will most likely pick it up: the teaser at the end of Dream Lake got me wondering about Zoe's cousin Justine, her witch legacy, and her quest to be able to fall in love.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver

In her essay collection Barbara Kingsolver brings to us an extended love song to the world we still have. Whether she is contemplating the Grand Canyon, her vegetable garden, motherhood, genetic engineering, or the future of a nation founded on the best of all human impulses, these essays are grounded in the author's belief that our largest problems have grown from the earth's remotest corners as well as our own backyards, and that answers may lie in both those places.
Sometimes grave, occasionally hilarious, and ultimately persuasive, Small Wonder is an examination of the people we seem to be, and what we might yet make of ourselves.

When I first opened this book I had mixed feelings about reading it. On one hand there was a lot of anticipation: I've heard so much about Barbara Kingsolver, I've heard her excellent interview on the BBC World Book Club, I've been meaning to read something by her for the longest time and now was my perfect opportunity. On the other hand I heard that environmental and humanitarian issues are a dominant theme in this collection of essays and I don't tend to make that kind of reading part of my entertainment lineup. When I got to the book club meeting and admitted that I haven't read the book the ladies were unanimous: "Just pick the ones that sound good," they said, "you're not going to miss some deep meaning if you do". And so I did.
I read "Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen" and "Letter to my Mother" first, and the latter almost made me cry. Then I read "Lily's Chickens" and "The One-Eyed Monster" and a handful of others. I skipped over the ones where issues were prominent and stuck to the ones that dealt mostly with people on a personal, intimate, level, and I loved them. Kingsolver made me feel as if I knew her through her writing, as if I could relate to this woman whose life is nothing like mine, but who somehow could understand me, and who I could in turn understand. I suppose it's a sign of a masterful writer if a few essays can make the reader feel close to a stranger, if they can show that no matter the place and the circumstances people really are the same everywhere.
Kingsolver's reputation is deserved and I'm glad that I have the Small Wonder essays a chance. She strikes the perfect balance between fearless frankness and not revealing too much, and her writing brings the reader so close it's almost like you're having a conversation with the author and she's telling you about her life and her beliefs. If you haven't read anything by Kingsolver yet I would recommend that you pick up this collection, it's an excellent example of what this author can do.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

First published in 1945, his Ficciones compressed several centuries' worth of philosophy and poetry into 17 tiny, unclassifiable pieces of prose. He offered up diabolical tigers, imaginary encyclopedias, ontological detective stories, and scholarly commentaries on nonexistent books, and in the process exploded all previous notions of genre. For good or for ill, the blind Argentinian paved the way for a generation's worth of postmodern monkey business - and fiction will never be simply "fiction" again. ~ Mary Park

As I was reading Ficciones I was often stumped because I had trouble reconciling the title of the collection with what I was reading. Oh, I did understand that the pieces were fiction, but they read like philosophical treatises so often that by the time I was halfway through a piece I'd forget how it started or what it was supposed to be about. You understand why it took me longer than usual to finish this book, even by story collection standards.
Fortunately there were a handful of stories that kept me going: The Circular Ruins, The Garden of Forking Paths, The Shape of the Sword, Death and the Compass, and The Secret Miracle had just enough philosophy to elevate them to literary status and just enough genre to make them engaging and easy to follow. These six stories had mystery and intrigue to make the very serious questions or morality, fate and wonder seem more down to earth, and I enjoyed them immensely. Yes, my tastes trend toward the bourgeois when it comes to books, and I'm not ashamed to admit it! Seems G.K. Chesterton thought similarly at least part of the time (see banner quote).
Borges' work is definitely inspiring in that it prompts the reader to think about the various "what if"s of the universe, such as what if we're just a figment of a greater being's imagination, what if there is more than one future, what if our potential is so much greater than we know, what if our understanding of history is fundamentally flawed. And he did have a wonderful way with words. The vividness of his writing reminded me of Ray Bradbury, except that Borges' feels more effortless and graceful. I'm guessing the rest of his books aren't particularly light reading either, but given a choice I'll take Borges' collected works any day.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Agatha Christie's Birthday Google Doodle

In 2010 Google had a Doodle dedicated to Agatha Christie's 120th Birthday, thought I'd share it with you to commemorate the brilliant lady's day this year. Maybe I should read a Poirot mystery to exercise those little gray cells...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Review: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

David Lurie is a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his position at the university has been reduced, he teaches his classes dutifully; and while age has diminished his attractiveness, weekly visits to a prostitute satisfy his sexual needs. He considers himself happy. But when Lurie seduces one of his students, he sets in motion a chain of events that will shatter his complacency and leave him utterly disgraced.

When I think of a book I ask myself "What is this book about?", and I did the same thing with Disgrace. The answer to my own question puzzled me: I'm not exactly sure. It's definitely about a man who undergoes a series of traumatic events and changes as a result, but not too much. It's also about the people of South African rural areas, about family, about attitudes toward the four-legged creatures with whom we share the planet, morality, deceit and about how all these things are thrown into sharp relief when the circumstances are just right. Yet it's not about any of them. Finally I decided that this book is about how all the different parts of life affect a person, mold him, shape him, break him and, well, change him. Make him better? Maybe. Make him different from who he was the day before? Definitely.
The best novels always have strong characters who make you care about them, even if they're not all that likeable. David Lurie is not likeable at all, in fact he is kind of despicable, and yet Coetzee made it easy to sympathize with him. Not approve, mind you, but definitely sympathize. He takes us into Professor Lurie's head and we live through his experiences with him, feeling his indignation and disdain, his self-doubt and finally his affection for his daughter who he cannot help and who continues to reject his advice and his assistance. It's difficult to remain indifferent when one is allowed into a character's life like that.
I hear there is a lot of controversy and strong opinions about this book. I haven't looked into this, but I think that they stem from the situation David Lurie's daughter finds herself in, the part of the story that deals with animals, and the interactions between the white and black South Africans. I don't really understand why there is controversy. Coetzee's position regarding all events of the novel is neutral, it's as if he is simply reporting the facts as he witnesses them. He's not expressing opinions or taking sides, he is just telling a story. It is a fact though that this story makes one think about everything it touches upon. Isn't that what a good novel is supposed to do?
I would highly recommend this novel to any reader who is willing to give the book that isn't at all happy a chance simply because it's a good story very well told.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes."

When I first read this book in high school my impression of it was "What terrible drivel! And this guy is a literary heavyweight!?", which is just more proof that what is considered literature was not written for children and therefore children are not the best audience for these works. They're just not equipped to understand the nuances of the story and to read between the lines. Of course there's always the option that my teacher wasn't all that good or that I was a particularly dense teenager, but I prefer the first theory.
If you read up on Metamorphosis you'll see the opinion that Gregor's transformation into an insect was just a physical manifestation of what he already was. Another commonly-accepted view is that the more important metamorphosis was that of the Samsa family as a result of Gregor's transformation. These interpretations made me think about the significance of Gregor changing into a creature that is revolting, a creature the family tries to accept but at the end cannot, and I wonder, for what is that a metaphor? What kind of person is Kafka writing about, what is it about him that is so unacceptable to his family? There is a passage toward the beginning of the book that indicates that there's something wrong with the lower abdomen of the insect Gregor, that it's diseased in some way. Then toward the end there is a passage about Gregor wanting to kiss his sister's neck. Do these passages reveal something about the nature of this character that overnight makes him a pariah in his own family? I think they do, and maybe I'm over-thinking it, but when viewed through that prism the story makes more sense than when it's not.
I'm pleased to say that this re-reading confirmed for me that Kafka's work deserves every bit of its exalted reputation. He really was a master of weaving stories that feel very close when you read them, despite the fantastical nature. Reading this book you can see the Samsas' apartment, them, and their issues. You even somewhat understand why the family feel about Gregor the way they do, regardless of his present state. After all, you know the man who dreams about kissing his sister's neck was odd even before his transformation into a gigantic insect. In fact, Metamorphosis is full of such implied revelations, but you have to be paying attention to see them. I would definitely recommend reading closely to get the most of out this book, and indeed any other of Kafka's work, because it seems that the boldest ideas are the closest to the truth with this author. Just bear in mind that often his imagery is far from innocent.
I'm curious to read more of Kafka's work now and I'm fully prepared to take my time with every piece, because his writing is just not something you should breeze through. Should you decide to pick up anything he's written I recommend you prepare yourself to take your time as well.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe's new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died a violent death and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

My first experience with Toni Morrison's writing was in college when the professor assigned The Bluest Eye. I don't remember much about the plot, but I do remember that it made me feel like I was in the presence of a literary great. The quality of writing was superb and even after reading a number of wonderful books that semester The Bluest Eye impressed me most. Fast forward to this year, when I first saw that Beloved was on the Fiction of Relationship reading list. I knew I was in for a treat yet at the same time I was not sure that the book would live up to my inflated expectations. When the time came to actually read it I was relieved to see that Morrison is consistent in her ability to impress me. Her prose is beautiful in its simplicity, her characters full of life. She simply tells the story and you can't help but care about the people in it, can't help but wonder what will happen next. She doesn't try to make you like her characters, they are who they are with their complicated lives and choices, but you care about them nonetheless. The character who made the biggest impression on me was Denver because she not only had a unique way of dealing with the difficulties her life presented, but she also was the one who stepped up to the challenge of Beloved's presence in the most impressive way. She started out a child younger than her 18 years, yet at the close of the novel she was transformed into a young woman mature beyond her years.
The novel is set in the South before and after the Civil War and tells the stories of Sethe and other former Sweet Home slaves as they build lives for themselves on and off the farm. Their experiences, their desires and their despair are highlighted all the more by our present lives and the fact that many of the events Morrison describes are unthinkable to the present-day reader. They seem almost surreal in their realism, and I had to remind myself that things like what Morrison talks about did happen, and not that long ago.
I believe that a sign of a good book is that it makes you think. More often than not such books don't go down smoothly, but they sure stay with you. They make you want to ponder what's said on those pages, revisit ideas and impressions, look back at the beliefs you hold and see if they still hold up. Beloved does that, and no, it's not an easy read. Not only is it not easy, it also doesn't give up all its secrets, not even at the very end. You can turn the last page and believe what you choose about Beloved because her story doesn't really have an ending, which to me is incredibly intriguing. How do you write a story where the same events can be both supernatural and perfectly explainable? How do you create characters who are both flesh and blood and the product of superstition? I don't know if Morrison's is the only way, but it sure is effective.
I've been thinking for a several days now whether I would recommend this book to a friend and I can't come up with a an answer. On one hand it's not a straightforward book and I don't believe that someone who's looking for a straightforward story would appreciate it. On the other hand it is so well-written that I'm tempted to insist that my friends read it. So my answer would be like that flow-chart, Are you looking for a simple escapist story? Then no, you won't enjoy this novel. Are you looking for something to feed your brain and be beautiful at the same time? Then yes, this novel is for you.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

Siss and Unn are two friends who have only spent one evening in each other's company. But so profound is this evening between them that when Unn inexplicably disappears, Siss's world is shattered. Siss's struggle with her fidelity to the memory of her friend and Unn's fatal exploration of the strange, terrifyingly beautiful frozen waterfall that is the Ice Palace are at the center of this novel.

Had this elegant short novel not been assigned I most likely wouldn't have finished it, but now that I have read it I'm glad that setting it aside wasn't an option. Vesaas writing style is almost painfully spare, which takes some getting used to, yet once I got into it I kept marveling at the beauty of it. It's as if he set out to write a novel as stark as Norwegian winter itself, all sharp lines and few colors, intense in its subdued grace, frozen in place but ready for the spring thaw. It's as if he knew that if he gave the readers just enough they would create in their minds a world that would meld with the bare bones of the story and they would feel a part of it.
The story itself is rather simple: it follows a girl on the cusp of adolescence grieving the disappearance of a new friend, going through disbelief, acceptance and finally release. It's the elegance of execution and the profound insight into the characters that sets this novel apart. Vessas' children seem innocent and straightforward, and yet their problems are complex and far-reaching. The adults are an interesting combination of contradictions: on one hand they give children plenty of freedom to get through problems on their own and on the other hand it's clear just how concerned they are about the youngsters' welfare. One very special character I didn't expect was nature: Vesaas wove it into the plot so much that eventually the ice gripping the small village feels almost alive, it is certainly just as animated as any of the human characters.
I really want to talk about the details but for the sake of not spoiling the novel I will refrain. Just go get it and read it. It's worth every penny.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Inseparable

I'm currently working on my review of The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas and in the meantime would like to share this wonderful short film starring one of my favorite actors, Benedict Cumberbatch. Enjoy!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: Light in August by William Faulkner

August in a small town of Jefferson, MS becomes the scene of life-changing events for guileless, dauntless Lena Grove, in search of the father of her unborn child; Reverend Gail Hightower, who is plagued by visions of Confederate horsemen; and Joe Christmas, a desperate, enigmatic drifter consumed by his mixed ancestry.

I tend to be intimidated by classical literature. There's so much praise and admiration that more often than not I don't pick up these books for fear of them being too much or too little or just at the wrong time. So here I was, with another classic on my reading list, this one more recent than the rest and yes, I didn't jump right in, but the further I got the more I thought that I should have. It is beautiful and insightful and every word in it counts. I actually tried to skim on a number of occasions because of the assignment deadline and very shortly learned that I could not do that. Every time I tried I missed something, so I stopped trying.
Faulkner most likely wouldn't be to everybody's taste: his writing style is peculiar with unusual punctuation, he creates his own words by putting other words together, a lot of the characters behave in a reprehensible fashion and none are all that likeable. To top it all off his descriptions can take you off guard or confuse you if you're not paying attention. But if you are paying attention this book is worth every minute of your time. I couldn't help but read and reread some passages because they cut through all the superficiality and got to the very core of the human condition and human interaction.
I think Faulkner was a very attentive observer of people and when he set out to write a book about the not-so-pretty side of life he didn't hold back in using what he saw. Here's what he said about women: "Her own self one of the first ones to cut the ground from under a sister woman". If that's not brutally honest I don't know what is, because let's face it, we women often aren't too kind to our own. There's plenty more where that came from and combined with quite a bit of violence with no remorse it can be jarring.
An author can have all the writing mojo in the world but to have real staying power a novel has to have something that will touch the reader, something that will get them thinking about more than the plot. Light in August does that. It brings up issues of identity, fitting in, race, gender, family history and faith, things we all have to contend with at one time or another. Lena in particular made me think about believing that things will work out. I think books like this one can be re-read time and time again and every time something new would be relevant. I'm usually not one to re-read, but for a while now I've been wondering whether that's because most of the novels I pick up don't have as much to offer as books like this one do.
With this I'm going to leave you. Jorge Luis Borges is up next and I'm looking forward to seeing what his Ficciones hold in store.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Catching Fire

The Hunger Games trilogy got better with every book and I have high hopes for this movie. Enjoy the trailer!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

During a party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is dreaming of the future. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy.
Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress, living in London. She returns to the family farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday and finds herself overwhelmed by questions she has not thought about for decades. From pre-WWII England through the Blitz, to the fifties and beyond, discover the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds — Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy — who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined.

I've heard a lot of good things about Kate Morton's books so when I was putting together my reading list for this year I was excited to include The Secret Keeper. I did not regret my choice when I finished reading the book, particularly because Morton is so very good at bringing her characters to life.
Everybody we meet in the course of the novel is flawed or broken in some way: Laurel is wed to her work and a secret that's older than she is, Dorothy's desire for something more and better rules her life, Vivien is a prisoner of her past, Jimmy sacrifices his beliefs for the sake of love... There is a story there for each of these characters and through them Morton weaves a tale of love, family, growing up, hard choices and decisions with far-reaching consequences.
It's fortunate that the characters are strong because the biggest mystery in the book wasn't all that mysterious for me. I guessed what would be the shocker about half way through and kept reading mainly to see whether I was right and to watch the characters get to the end of the story. Morton worked very hard on making the shocker plausible and on keeping the reader in the dark throughout the book, and yet it wasn't seamless (Gillian Flynn managed to keep me guessing much better in Gone Girl). There were key character traits that just didn't work with the ending, and remembering how highlighted they were made the dissonance only more obvious for me.
Despite this shortcoming reading The Secret Keeper was particularly enjoyable because of the writing. The book is full of lines that I wanted to write down and commit to memory, but for the fear of breaking the spell I didn't, and now that the book is back at the library I wish I had. Fortunately there is the Internet, so here are a couple of quotes that I liked so much I went back to reread them once I was done with the chapters where they appear:
"... people who'd led dull and blameless lives did not give thanks for second chances."
and this paragraph I thought was just beautifully written, with a sprinkling of foreshadowing and a generous doze of significance:
"And as the train whistled its imminent departure, a small girl wearing neat plaits and someone else's shoes climbed its iron stairs. Smoke filled the platform, people waved and hollered, a stray dog ran barking through the crowds. Nobody noticed as the little girl stepped over the shadowed threshold; not even Aunt Ada, who some might've expected to be sheperherding her orphaned niece towards her uncertain future. And so, when the essence of light and life that had been Vivien Longmeyer contracted itself for safekeeping and disappeared deep inside her, the world kept moving and nobody saw it happen."
I did enjoy this book and if you are a fan of lyrical prose and a character-driven story I think you will as well. For my part, I'll be keeping an eye on Morton's new books. She's liable to produce another beautiful novel (hopefully one with a more graceful surprise of an ending).

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”
For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

I'm always excited when a new book by Maggie Stiefvater comes out, and The Raven Boys was no exception. I held off on reading it though because I knew it's the first book in a trilogy, and I really prefer to read trilogies in one go. My plans to wait for all three books to be available to hold the Raven Boys Readathon were foiled however when Maggie posted on her blog that SYNC was giving away the audiobook as part of their summer program. I got the book and couldn't resist any longer.
As I listened to it I congratulated myself again and again on getting it and Maggie on writing it. She continues to grow as a writer and watching her progress makes me happy, not just because she keeps giving me great books to read, but also because every book is a little bit more than the last one. More mature, more masterful, more complex, more quirky, more "Maggie" somehow.
My favorite thing about The Raven Boys is how multi-faceted it is. There are family relationships, friendships, socio-economical differences, abuse and love, and of course magic to make everything real-life seem surreal yet even more heartbreaking, because that's what fairy tales do. I kept remembering the old adage "Don't judge a book by its cover" throughout the novel and marveled at how nothing really is at it seems in it.
Maggie's books are different from a lot of other YA novels in that her characters' families are always very present in them. There's not the absentee parent syndrome that makes it seem as though the teenagers have somehow woken up one day and all the parents were gone (and yes, I know there are books built around that premise too), and in The Raven Boys that's even more noticeable than in her previous novels. Blue's colorful family is particularly central to the story, and it's interesting to see their dynamics, the struggles over Blue's independence being a new territory for both her and her mother. The boys all have their own family issues to contend with, some more serious than others, but all with painful past, present and, I assume, future. I loved seeing their interactions and hearing characters talk and learn about things that are subtle, yet not less true or important just because they don't stare you in the face.
The only thing I wished for is more mystery when it came to the main plot of this novel. From the very beginning it was obvious that the boys' and Blue's lives would be interwoven and in what context, the villain was apparent almost from the very beginning and he didn't seem evil or clever enough to last past the end of this book, and a few other things that I won't describe here, with two exceptions, were not particularly surprising. This dampened my enjoyment of the novel but not enough to make a real difference because for me this book was more about the characters and the setting than Gansey's quest for Glendower. I could also tell that it was setting up the sequels by establishing all the relationships, building the world, giving us clues of secrets and ideas for what will be coming next in The Dream Thieves. How could it not with that kind of last line!
If you are a fan of urban fantasy, magic, engaging characters and excellent writing, and you haven't read The Raven Boys yet, I recommend that you do. I listened to the audiobook and I'm planning on getting the actual book to read, because I want to see the words on the page and soak them in in a way an audiobook won't allow, no matter how good the narrator.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

When the proprietor of a law office in New York hires a new clerk for his practice he seems to have found a colorful yet beneficial addition for his already colorful team. But when the new employee begins to inform the proprietor that he "would prefer not to" perform his duties things get really interesting.

I have heard about this book from a friend of mine, who's read it with her book club, so I generally knew what to expect in terms of plot developments. I was however pleasantly surprised by the characters in this novella. They were all remarkable in one way or another and since they were all very distinct their differences stood out all the more. It seems that authors in the middle of the 19th century weren't afraid to make their characters full of personality, take Dickens for example, and Melville definitely followed the same tradition. I particularly enjoyed the character of the proprietor, who is the narrator of this story. He tries so hard to be on good terms with all of his employees, regardless of the trouble they cause him, and makes up excuses to not take any action that would make him look good in his own eyes.
What I didn't expect is how plodding the pace is. Now that I've read Benito Cereno I think that's something that is common in Melville's work. The same type of scene seemed to repeat over and over without furthering the plot or developing the characters. The only thing this repetition seemed to accomplish was to convince me further of utter and complete spinelessness of the proprietor, but I already knew that so it wore on me. I did enjoy the ending though. It seemed somewhat abrupt because events moved along faster than the rest of the story but it was very satisfying. In a way it was the only appropriate ending, anything else wouldn't have worked quite as well. It also redeemed the proprietor in my eyes somewhat, he did have a good heart even if his will was lacking. Despite the extremely slow middle of the novella the ending saved it for me and for a few days after finishing it I kept thinking about the characters and the story. I can see why Melville is considered such an important figure in American literature and why this particular piece is still widely read. I would recommend Bartleby if you want to read a work that will inspire you to think about people, their motivations and how they relate to each other.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: Funny In Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Funny in Farsi chronicles the American journey of Dumas’s family and Firoozeh herself, who as a girl changed her name to Julie, and who encountered a second wave of culture shock when she met and married a Frenchman, becoming part of a one-couple melting pot.

When my book club voted for this book to be on our list for this year I was excited: it was definitely different from our usual fare and it was a promise of a peek into a new cultural experience, which is always something I'm interested in (since I myself am an immigrant other immigrant experiences are something I'm curious about). Besides, the title has the word "Funny" in it, I expected humor and lots of it.
The book started out well enough and at first I could see myself finishing it, but then it took a turn for the worse. It is structured as a series of vignettes covering particular subjects such as doing touristy things in America, kindness of strangers, American food, camp experience, etc. They're not done in any kind of chronological order and one chapter can jump from childhood to adulthood in a paragraph or two. This made it difficult for me to enjoy the experience because I couldn't help but feel unfocused and scattered all over the author's life. The promised humor was there but it was mild and didn't make me chuckle even once.
I got through about a third of the book and realized that I was having an OK experience with it but I didn't really care one way or another what else the author was going to talk about. My main takeaway at that point was that she didn't particularly feel like she belonged in either her family because she grew up very Americanized nor in American society because of her name, appearance and heritage, but she was putting a brave face on it. I also think she possibly was hoping that this book would build a bridge of sorts between the cultures, show the Western world that Iranians are not all terrorists and the Persian world that all Americans don't hate them just because they're Muslim. The fact that this book was written and published after the 9/11 makes this idea plausible for me.
I really wanted to like this book but once I realized it didn't really work for me I set it aside. Life is too short for OK books, especially if they're not required reading (I'm looking at you, Manon Lescaut and Bartleby the Scrivener), even if intentionally or not they make "the other" seem not quite so alien.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only practicing professional wizard, should be happy that business is pretty good for a change. But now he’s getting more than he bargained for. A duel with the Red Court of Vampires’ champion, who must kill Harry to end the war between vampires and wizards… Professional hit men using Harry for target practice… The missing Shroud of Turin… A handless and headless corpse the Chicago police need identified… Not to mention the return of Harry’s ex-girlfriend Susan, who’s still struggling with her semivampiric nature. And who seems to have a new man in her life. Some days, it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed. No matter how much you’re charging.

I first picked up this series because I watched the TV show which is based on the books and wanted more of Harry Dresden and his supernatural adventures. Sadly the show only lasted for one season, which is not that surprising if you consider that cool shows get canceled sooner than they should be and we end up with naked people covered in bodily fluids prancing around on the screen. But I digress. I read the first three books and could tell that they were a promise of better things to come. I was right. Book 4, Summer Knight, finished setting up the world and established the over-arching conflicts for the future installments (the wizard-vampire war and Harry's troubled personal life) as well as the mystery of Harry's parents' lives and deaths. At that point I felt that Butcher was done flexing his writerly muscles and was finally getting to the meat of things, while at the same time the day-to-day wizardly detective work was not going anywhere. I really like this about these books, by the way, there's always a more short-term problem to solve while the big-deal problem demands attention at the same time. Back to the book at hand though.
I was right about the meat of things. Death Masks builds on the conflicts, with some steamy and deadly consequences, and feeds us a pellet of information about Harry's mom. He is either too busy or too reluctant to pursue this tidbit, conceivably because he is afraid of what he might discover. Yes, I'm talking about feelings while discussing a high-action urban fantasy with death waiting at almost every page. There's quite a bit of that in this book, actually. Soul-searching, self-analysis, reflection, Harry does all that, and it balances the near-constant action. It provides for some down time while still allowing for things to happen, as it does perfectly when Harry has a heart-to-heart with Michael's wife. This is one of my favorite scenes in the book, by the way. Another means of tension relief is the humor which permeates this book and the rest of the series. Harry is a really self-deprecatingly witty guy! I chuckled on so many occasions that my husband started raising his eyebrows in my direction. I ignored the eyebrows and kept reading.
We've already met all the key players of the series so Butcher's main task here is to develop their character arcs. I really liked that Susan didn't just move to the beach to suppress her vampiric tendencies, she is no damsel in distress and in this book we really get to see her in action. It doesn't hurt that she has an ace up her sleeve either. Gentleman Johnny Marcone (I love how Harry always refers to him in this way, no exceptions) is a very interesting guy and I look forward to seeing where Butcher takes his character.
I didn't expect any surprises in this book but there was one: by now I'm used to Harry getting pummeled into hamburger in the course of the novel and then having to go fight The Fight severely sleep-deprived and broken. Not in this novel. I won't go into details but the way things worked out was very refreshing and satisfying. I wonder what Butcher will do in the next novel. Maybe if I can stop taking on commitments like I have something against sleep I'll even find out, soonish.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost

"The sweetness of her glance - or rather, my evil star already in its ascendant and drawing me to my ruin - did not allow me to hesitate for a moment..." So begins the story of Manon Lescaut, a tale of passion and betrayal, of delinquency and misalliance, which moves from early eighteenth-century Paris - with its theatres, assemblies, and gaming-houses - via prison and deportation to a tragic denouement in the treeless wastes of Louisiana. It is one of the great love stories, and also one of the most enigmatic: how reliable a witness is Des Grieux, Manon's lover, whose tale he narrates? Is Manon a thief and a whore, the image of love itself, or a thoroughly modern woman?

Remembering how intense my last Coursera experience was, what with needing to read a novel a week and do plenty of other related work I decided to give myself a head start on the Fiction of Relationships curriculum. Manon Lescaut will be the first novel we'll be covering and I'm glad I wasn't restricted in time when I read it. No, it's not long and it doesn't place any serious demands on the reader's faculties, but it does tax one's patience. At least it did that to mine.
It took me a while to get into the story because it is told in a very old-fashioned way, it begins at the end, then jumps to the beginning and works its way to the end again; it is also the perfect example of the author telling much more than showing. I did my best to remember that if this book is on the curriculum of a Brown University course there must be value in it, so I read closely in an effort to not miss this value among all the exceedingly flowery phrases and moralizing debates on the subjects of love and virtue. See, I read so closely that the floweriness has seeped into my brain! But I digress. I kept thinking that if nothing else this book provides an excellent example of how literature has changed since the 1700s and how I needed to pay attention to the relationships described in the novel since that will be the focus of the course. And then something curious happened: as irritated as I was by Manon's flightiness and Grieux's lack if backbone, as well as the archaic language, I soon found that the characters weren't entirely unsympathetic and began reflecting on all the reckless and crazy things people do in the name of love. Somehow this novel broke through the frustration and touched me.
This realization alone surprised me to no end and I continued reading with a certain degree of enjoyment. Imagine my surprise when I finished the book, looked it up online, and found that Manon Lescaut isn't as obscure as I imagined. Authors of novels hailed as classics referenced it in their work, it continues to inspire composers and dramatists, it is the subject of quite a few academic papers and it's still being published with the latest edition released in 2005! (Don't you just love Wikipedia?)
In the end although I wouldn't recommend this novel to a friend in search of an engaging and fun read I'm glad I read it, if purely because it's widened my literary horizons and showed that love has always been blind and young people have always been capable of highly imprudent behavior. It's human nature, after all!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré

When the last agent under his command is killed and Alec Leamas is called back to London, he hopes to come in from the cold for good. His spymaster, Control, however, has other plans. Determined to bring down the head of East German Intelligence and topple his organization, Control once more sends Leamas into the fray - this time to play the part of the dishonored spy and lure the enemy to his ultimate defeat.

The first time I became interested in John le Carré's work was when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Benedict Cumberbatch was advertised prior to its release. I'm a huge fan of Cumberbatch (or The Batch, as he is affectionately known) whose Sherlock won me over, and curious about the movie I suggested the book for my book club's reading list. Majority asked for a more famous novel by le Carré so here we are.
It is easy to understand why this book has stood the test of time: it is a fast-paced, intelligent, emotionally-engaging thriller with characters who are easy to care about and even the shift of perspective from what I would describe as "inner circle third person" to "outsider third person", which was quite obvious, didn't change that. I think le Carre employed this device to hide certain things from the reader without making Leamas an unreliable narrator. He was counting on the reader to figure out what was really happening as the novel progressed and with the little hints along the way it wasn't that hard. The book could've become boring at that point considering that the action isn't in chases or gun-fights but in a steady execution of the plan, but le Carre had an ace up his sleeve. With the perspective back to "inner circle third person" the reader got to realize along with Leamas that he wasn't as inner circle as he thought he was. A three-level conspiracy, my friends, how delicious is that?! I won't say more for the sake of not spoiling the ending, but you see how this book is never exactly what it seems at first, with characters pursuing secret agendas to the very end.
Written in the middle of the Cold War and being a spy thriller it is no surprise that this book pits characters who are both physically and figuratively on different sides of the Berlin wall against each other. Le Carre talks ideology here and doesn't leave any room for doubt as to which side he is on. I don't know how historically accurate the details are and the year on the calendar didn't allow for ambiguity if one wanted to be published and widely read, but the fact remains. While there aren't any gray areas as far as le Carre's and Leamas' allegiances go there are plenty of them in the rest of the novel. I suppose it is like that in the business of spying where the ends justify whatever means necessary. As Leamas said, the only criteria of success is results, and ethics are sacrificed at every turn.
The most memorable and thought-provoking character for me was Liz, particularly because little about her is straightforward. She is young, naive and idealistic but she is locked in a gray area even more so than the spies who've made it their home. She belongs to the Communist Party yet she dislikes its everyday defining characteristics, she sees a socialist state first-hand yet she doesn't question her beliefs, she rejects the capitalist ideals yet she is devoted to a man who is as ideologically far from her as possible. She gives the depth and the heart to this novel, particularly by showing Leamas the man underneath the mask of the spy and making the reader care for those who at the end of the day are collateral in the game of politics.
This book was published almost 40 years ago and is set even earlier but it doesn't read as dated. In fact, if I didn't know when it was written I would've taken it for a historical spy thriller. Now I'm even more curious about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy because I am confident that le Carre knows what he is doing so expect to see me talking about it here at some point in the future.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Marcus aka “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he already knows how the system works – and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.
But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.
When the DHS finally releases them, his injured best friend Darryl does not come out. The city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: "M1k3y" will expose the DHS himself.

We all know someone who insists on paying for everything in cash, or who won't bank online, or who is absolutely convinced that big brother is out to get them and everybody else, or at least that big brother is watching. We listen to them and think to ourselves "That's just crazy talk. Can you say Paranoia?". But what if they're right? What if those security cameras are more than just ordinary anti-theft precautions? What if our spending histories are tracked by some entity other than our banks? What if all the electronic devices we've come to rely on so much can be and are monitored to establish our movement patterns and what not? It's not really paranoia if what you're concerned about is really going on. Cory Doctorow examines a world like that, a world where everything is bugged. School books have chips in them, gait recognition cameras are everywhere, credit cards and public transit passes are used to track movement of their holders, and all this feeds into whatever agency is in charge, be that the school board or the Department of Homeland Security. After a terrorist attack the system is thrown into overdrive and Marcus is one of the first victims of the indiscriminate checks performed by the overzealous officials, who seem to be looking for someone, anyone to pin the crime on. At only 17 he's scared but he's not backing down, instead he's fighting the system with its own weapons.
My favorite thing about Marcus is that he is a realistic character in that he is not some superhero devoid of fear, and when he is afraid he is not too proud to admit it. At the end of the day he is just a kid against adults who have all the power, he fights when he can and with the tools he has but he isn't reckless about it because he knows that more than just his freedom is on the line. And when things go as far as they can with the status quo unchanged he recognizes that it's time to take the fight to the next level, time to hand it off to those with more resources and more influence. He is also a 17 year old with a life outside of the fight. He has a girlfriend, he is at odds with his dad, he reads books and does school work, he plays video games and mouths off to his teacher.
Marcus' father is a character who represents the "I'm not doing anything wrong so I don't see what the big deal is, let them check and monitor and catch the bad guys" side of the argument, and I'm glad that Doctorow wrote him this way. I'm also glad that this wasn't his position from the very beginning of the book, it showed that people can and will change their minds under certain circumstances. It also showed that such changes of heart are not seamless or painless.
Marcus' friends and acquaintances cover the remainder of the spectrum, from spirited support of his actions to adamant disapproval. There are also those who are spies out of necessity, recruited by the DHS to infiltrate the underground network. The tensions resulting from these interactions provided the difficulties that made the story more believable, after all life's not all black and white, the gray often dominates the playing field and that's just how it is.
Overall I loved this novel, but what made it a little less enjoyable for me is all the technical talk. Marcus often walks the reader through what the different bugs and gadgets are, how they work, how they can be deactivated or circumvented, and since I'm the kind of person who loves her gadgets but doesn't particularly itch to find out how the software and hardware work it went over my head on occasion. Besides, I figured it was all author's imagination steeped in today's technological reality. But then at the end of the book one of the afterwords is by a security technologist, whose job is basically to figure out how electronic systems can be broken and how to make them more secure, and the other is by a professional hacker. Imagine my surprise and general feeling of unease when these real-life guys started talking about how Doctorow's "inventions" either do exist or aren't that far-fetched. There is also a bibliography with an extensive list of eye-opening titles. I admit, after reading these sections I started to wonder whether I should move my family to a cash-only basis for daily transactions to protect us from the possibility of both big and little brother infiltration (let's face it, if the government has no interest in us there's probably a marcus hacking away within a 2-mile radius from our house). In the end laziness won over that sentiment, but the seed has been sown.
This is a very well-rounded novel that is fast-paced and written in a voice that is casual without being too adult or too adolescent. It poses interesting questions and explores a variety of standpoints that are just as relevant today as they were when the book was published, if not more so. I recommend it without reservation, especially if you are the kind of reader who loves their gadgets, wants to know how they work inside, and wants their privacy to remain their own, regardless of whether there's anything to hide besides grandma's secret pie recipe.

P.S. Those with ereaders, heads up: Doctorow makes the novel available on his website free of charge in a variety of formats under the Creative Common License. Yes, he is that cool.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

May Biblio-Update

Greetings from the strawberry patch!
Hi, guys :)
Spring is in full swing in my neck of the woods and although it's a bit chilly for my taste (and no, you won't hear me complaining about the heat in August) nature's promising all kinds of goodies. Our strawberry patch is the one I'm most excited about. Hubby spent all day yesterday bunny-proofing it so my hopes are high.
If you've been following the blog you may have noticed that things haven't been going according to plan exactly. That's because back in January on a whim I took a Coursera Fantasy & Science Fiction course. We read a book a week, had to write essays, watch videos, evaluate each other's work and I loved every minute of it. Well, except for the part where a peer accused me of plagiarism because I used the phrase "socio-economic issues" in an essay. That wasn't fun but that was one essay. You've been reading my reviews for the books we covered ever since I realized that I haven't been posting any for all the studying, and I hope you've been enjoying them. So far these are the Fantasy & Sci-Fi curriculum novels I've reviewed:
Only Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is left but you'll see it on Sunday.
I had a short reprieve and have been able to catch up on my book club reading but today that's over for the next 15 weeks: I'm beginning two consecutive Coursera courses and there will be lots of work involved again. The first is a basic writing tools course which I'm taking as a grammar refresher to help me in my writing, those pesky commas get me every time. The second is called Fiction of Relationships and it will be examining relationships in a number of works of fiction covering the last several centuries, so you'll be seeing reviews of some more classics. I've been saying for a while that I needed to catch up on those and here's my chance! I expect it will be a very interesting and informative experience and although I'm a tiny bit intimidated by the fact that it's a Brown University course I'm at the same time very excited to have the opportunity to participate in it. Here's my reading list:
Manon Lescaut - Abbé Prévost
Bartleby the Scrivener - Herman Melville
Benito Cereno - Herman Melville
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë
Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka
In the Penal Colony - Franz Kafka
The Country Doctor - Franz Kafka
To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
Light in August - William Faulkner’s
Ficciones - Jorge Luis Borges
The Ice Palace - Tarjei Vesaas
Beloved - Tony Morrison
Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee
I will do my best to post at least 2 reviews every three weeks although Special Feature posts will probably continue to be in short supply until about the middle of August. I'll do my best to post something special every once in a while but girl's got to prioritize!
Since my reading plans for this year are getting a major overhaul I think it's safe to say that I won't be able to read all the books I so giddily posted about at the end of last year. Oh well, may be next time :)
Hope the year's going well for you all!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day To All Moms!

That was me and my mom, me in bed sick and my mom reading to me. This is how readers are made! I don't know who the artist is but this picture made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside :)

Review: The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje

In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England – a ‘castle that was to cross the sea’. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly ‘Cat's Table’ with an eccentric group of grown-ups and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys become involved in the worlds and stories of the adults around them, tumbling from one adventure and delicious discovery to another, ‘bursting all over the place like freed mercury’. And at night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner – his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.

The most powerful feature of this book for me is how poetic the language is. The lyricism of it, the almost dreamy quality of the narrative make this novel an experience of poetry in prose and the character's voyages throughout the book only become richer for it.
The novel's protagonist, Michael, tells the reader about the trip that changed his life both literally and figuratively when he was only 11 years old, although I didn't get a feeling that it was a journey of self-discovery in any sense. The boy simply experiences the adventures of the voyage and the adult reminisces about them and the events that followed, in a way wrapping things up for the characters, telling the reader where they ended up and how. Curiously enough the adult Michael is a writer, and Ondaatje himself arrived in England from Colombo when he was 11 on a ship called the Oronsay, just like the boy in the novel does. There is some speculation about whether the novel is autobiographical in a lot of ways and although the author hasn't confirmed or denied this I am inclined to believe that it is indeed autobiographical, however fictionalized and dramatized, especially in terms of a child experiencing life without direct adult influence and an adult fully understanding the real impact and meaning of those childhood experiences.
Michael's story is intertwined with stories of other passengers, many of whom aren't who they seem to be at first and whose presence makes for a multi-layered narrative. This reminded me of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who employs a similar story-within-a-story structure, and if you've been following the blog you'll remember that I enjoyed that book a lot. My favorite story-in-a-story was that of Miss Lasqueti, I found it even more touching and fascinating than that of the prisoner. Possibly that's because it is more subtle, there is no life or death drama and secrets in it, yet it got to me and made me think about the events of Miss Lasqueti's life and their undeniable effects.
There is quite a bit of jumping back and forth in time so if you usually have trouble with that - be prepared. It wasn't a problem for me at all, I actually enjoyed it because it gave the story a more mature feeling, clarified in a way why the 11-year-old protagonist didn't seem exactly pre-teen. After all it is an adult looking back through time at the child, reliving the experiences through the memories, offering insight that he wouldn't have had all those years ago.
This was one of the books I listened to as opposed to reading, and although having the author do the narration was very special because I knew that the intonations, pauses and pronunciations were done exactly as intended I think this is a book that should be read, be that on paper or eReader, especially if you are a person whose visual perception is better than audio perception. As I've mentioned before the writing is extremely beautiful and if you look up quotes from this book online you'll see exactly what I mean. I myself will be picking up this book again, this time soaking it all in from the page.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Review: Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire by Mireille Guiliano

When Mireille Guiliano became a senior executive and spokesperson for Veuve Clicquot, she took the Champagne to the top of the luxury market, using her distinctive French woman's philosophy and style. Now she uses those same talents and savoir faire to help readers pop their own corks and get the mostout of life. Drawing on her experiences at the front lines and highest echelons of the business world, she gives women (and a few men, peut-être) the practical advice they need to make the most of work without skimping on all the other good things in life.
Stylish, witty, and wise, Mireille segues easily from the small details to the big picture, never losing sight of what is most important: feeling good, facing challenges, getting ahead, and maximizing pleasure at every opportunity.

Mireille Giuliano is the author of a book you may have heard of, French Women Don't Get Fat. While I haven't read that best-seller of hers, not yet anyway (it's all for health, I assure you, vanity has nothing to do with it!), the title of this book made it seem like it would be a good read right now: lately I have been pondering career advancement, how we women fit into the world where men continue to rule, and why the situation is what it is. Guiliano was president and CEO of Clicquot, Inc. for several decades, so I figured she'd have some interesting thoughts on the matter.
I wasn't wrong. This French-born powerhouse tells it like it is, from women having to work harder and smarter than competitors to get ahead, to the fact that women continue to get the short end of the stick when it comes to compensation. What I liked though was that none of it was a lament of the situation. "It is what it is, face the facts, put on your big girl pencil skirt and go get 'em if that's what you want to do" is Guiliano's kind of career advice.
She is realistic about our feminine shortcomings (not playing up our own worth, not negotiating the terms to get what we want, gossiping, trying to take care of everything and everybody at the expense of ourselves) just as she is realistic about our strengths (ability to listen and see a problem from different angles, being flexible, being enough of a novelty to command immediate attention if we position ourselves as an equal with valuable insights to offer). She gives practical advice on topics ranging from presenting ourselves in the best possible light both on paper and in person, to entertaining, to value of excellent communication skills and time-priority balance. She talks about what makes a good leader and a good manager, the importance of not being reluctant to share information with other women and help each other advance, as well as the fact that sometimes chance and luck are huge factors in the course one's career takes.
Throughout the book she illustrates her points with real-life examples from her own career and experiences of other women, and men, she knows, which helps to make the book a more lively read. It is already written in a very accessible voice so these illustrations make it helpful and fun at the same time. If that's not fun enough there are recipes, self-deprecating humor, wardrobe advice and a healthy dash of French turns of phrase.
My only reservation regarding this book stems from the fact that despite all the positives I didn't get a feeling that it is aimed at women who aren't aspiring for corner offices. Granted, Guiliano writes from her experience, and she was a high-level executive in a luxury industry for many years, but not everybody is looking for titles with Cs in them, some of us just want to get out of the rut of the lowest levels of the support staff positions. On the other hand of course the time she spends talking about entertaining business associates or working with leaders of foreign companies only makes this book more useful for those of us who do want that C title. After all, tips on working smarter is something we all can use, from an entry-level assistant to a president of a corporation.
One last note: the very last sentence of this book is "Bon courage". Not luck, courage. That alone made the book worth reading.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Genli Ai is a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose - and change - their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization, but to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.

I first read this book in 2011 and already then I knew that I would read it again. The timing of me re-reading it wasn't entirely my choice but in the end that didn't matter at all. Because I knew what was going to happen it was as if my brain was free to notice things I didn't notice 2 years ago - the poetry of the language, the beautifully crafted story, the meaning of the folklore and excerpts of historical records inserted between chapters, the echoes of the philosophy of ying and yang throughout the book, the notion of true gender equality and its consequences. I noticed how perfectly the ending of the novel mirrored its beginning, recognizing the similarities between a keystone being placed in an arch to connect the separate sides and Therem Estraven being a similar kind of keystone that would link two separate branches of humanity. I finally fully understood the title of the book, which made me feel that I understood nothing the first time around. I realized that this novel isn't really about Genli Ai, even though he is the narrator most of the time. It is about Estraven, his vision for Gethen, and about following a path which others can't even see.
Like many other science fiction novels this book isn't about the planet or the technology, but rather about people, human nature and everything that comes with it, such as patriotism, love, deceit, faith and Truth. Yes, it's a lot to talk about in a book that is not at all hefty, but that is where Le Guin's brilliance lies. She doesn't need 600 or more pages to ask questions, ponder answers, observe and make the reader think. Half of that does very well.
I'll keep this review short because what I really want to tell you is that this is an amazing book, that I'm buying it for my collection and that if you haven't read it yet you should, even if you're not a fan of science fiction.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

When a Civil War veteran John Carter finds himself on Mars, or as the locals call it Barsoom, he discovers that the dying planet and its harsh deserts are home to warring species, adventure at every turn, and Dejah Thoris, a princess who will steal his heart at first sight. But can they overcome the dangers and be together?

Back when I was first looking at Burrough's bibliography and feeling terribly intimidated by the sheer quantity of titles I couldn't make up my mind as to which book of his I should read to see if I liked his work. Fortunately my Coursera professor made the choice for me when he put A Princess of Mars on the Fantasy & Science Fiction syllabus. Thanks, Professor Rabkin!
I can see why Burroughs became so popular back in the day - the first novel he published had adventure, fantastical creatures, a valiant hero and a beautiful heroine, admirable values and a happy ending. It is also an easy and fast read, which makes for a perfect escapist novel. To top it all off Burroughs ended the book in such a way that made me want to find out what happened next, especially since there is obviously a mystery of John Carter's very existence, which reminds me of Wolverine, an immortal superhero with a severe case of amnesia. If his success is any indication his consecutive novels followed this winning formula and most likely improved upon it to keep the readers from getting bored.
I was definitely not bored with this book, what with the plot moving along nicely, Carter constantly getting himself into new trouble and his lady love keeping him on his toes. Even the generally one-dimensional characters didn't spoil the fun, it was much too interesting to observe Burroughs imbue his Martian characters with very earthly traits. And it was definitely interesting to see how our society has changed since Burroughs' time, particularly when it comes to the role of women. I'm sure that if this book was written now Dejah Thoris would not have been sitting there in all her voluptuous glory, waiting to be rescued, she would have been plotting her own escape. It was also interesting to see Burroughs' social commentary on capitalism and socialism with Dejah Thoris' passionate monologue condemning the Green Martians' "everything belongs to everybody" system, making his position that much more obvious.
While I won't rush out to the Project Gutenberg website to get my hands on more Barsoom novels in the near future I will definitely pick up the sequel should I want a few escapist hours in the company of familiar characters.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Book-to-Movie: Two New Releases I'm Excited About

I've been full-on fangirling for a while now over two movies that will be released later this year. They're both based on best-selling YA fantasy series and I think it's really cool that all these movies are being made and that their budgets are far from puny. Haters can say whatever they want but I believe that Twilight opened the door for these movies and made it possible for them to be completely and totally awesome. (I did mention the fangirling, don't say you haven't been warned.) But back to the movies.

First up is Sony's City of Bones, due to be released on August 23. It is based on Cassandra Clare's novel by the same name and since the book is the first in the Mortal Instruments trilogy we're pretty much guaranteed a sequel. Plenty of action, magic and general badassery are also guaranteed. Of course Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower aren't exactly eyesores either.



And on November 22 Lionsgate is giving us Catching Fire, which I'm sure needs no introduction. Here's their latest trailer!



I rarely go to the movies but I think I'll make an exception for these two :)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury

Bradbury's Mars is a place of hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earthman conquers Mars...and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.

This collection of short stories is considered to be one of the best examples of science fiction, yet Ray Bradbury himself says that it is not science fiction but fantasy. Pretty curious, isn't it? After some deliberation I decided that it is sci-fi after all - in this bibliophile's universe fantasy has magic and while Bradbury's Martians have some nifty abilities they do not have magic. Sorry, Mr. Bradbury, but that's how you wrote them.
The book is organized as a collection of separate episodes from several decades in the future when humans applied themselves to colonizing Mars, and an attentive reader will see clear parallels with the history of the North-American continent in these stories. In some cases they couldn't be any more obvious. Chicken pox, need I say more? Some characters make multiple appearances which contributes to the cohesiveness of the book, but mostly it's episodes from lives of people who've never met, which makes the account more well-rounded than it would've been with just one or two protagonists and their limited perspectives.
My impression of the book as a whole is not too enthusiastic, although several stories made a strong impression on me. One, There Will Come Soft Rains, doesn't have any characters at all and it reminded me of the 19th century literature where so much is inferred as opposed to being clearly stated. Others, such as Night Meeting and Ylla, are incredibly full of humanity despite the fact that Martians are the key players. And one, The Off Season, left me incredulous: I simply couldn't understand why the Martians would effectively give half the planet to the guy who would destroy their heritage given the right mood. I'm still wondering if they thought his greed would keep him on the planet when everybody else left.
Another reason I liked this book was because of terribly obvious things stated in a beautiful way, making the reader think about the obvious with a fresh mind. In almost every story there was a "couldn't have said it better" moment, all because of passage like this:
We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn't set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose.
This particular passage reflects a common theme for the collection and by the end of the book I had a deep sense of regret when it comes to the destructive nature of humanity because after all it is true, we'll ruin anything with no regard for its history and value beyond the obvious as long as it suits our profit-hungry nature. A sad state of affairs, really, especially if you consider that when all's said and done this book is about humanity, Mars is just an unreal enough place to tell the truth without riling up the masses.
I would have liked The Martian Chronicles a lot more if the stories weren't so obviously deliberately polished, which, strange as it is, is my only real complaint about the book. All the clever turns of phrase and the unexpected similes were great individually but when considered together made it impossible for me to lose myself in most of the stories: I was simply too busy noticing all the cleverness. Bradbury's works are highly esteemed in the field of science fiction and I would recommend this book, especially if the said friend is exploring sci-fi literature.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Blitz-review: The Nine Rooms of Happiness by Lucy Danziger & Catherine Birndorf, M.D.

With self-help books you've got to always remember that it's not going to be a perfect prescription for your individual problems, more like a general guide for where to start digging for the cure. This book is no different, although I really enjoyed that every point was illustrated with examples from real women. It was actually done in the format of "here's my problem" - "here's the solution" so it made the reading experience feel like a group of women sitting around a table sharing stories. I didn't realize it until today but one of the chapters (the one that focuses on the Office, the room where professional growth issues live) gave me the much-needed kick in the derriere and the "Go (with the status quo) or grow" pearl is directly responsible for my decision to take a literature course through Coursera and to join a writing club. My life is much fuller as a result, so as far as I'm concerned it's a great book and definitely worth the read.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

A shipwrecked gentleman named Edward Prendick, stranded on a Pacific island lorded over by the notorious Dr. Moreau, confronts dark secrets, strange creatures, and a reason to run for his life.

I've been curious about this novel for some time now but always managed to put off reading it, which seems to be how it goes with me and the classics: they've been around for a while, the shiny novelty has worn off and there are too many books everybody is talking about today for the classics to manage to get to the top of my reading list. Fortunately it was on the syllabus for the Fantasy & Science Fiction course I'm taking through Coursera so it climbed to the very top, along with some other tried and true novels of years past.
This book managed to surprise me and at the same time it had a comforting familiarity about it, so it was an interesting experience. I didn't actually know anything about the plot before reading the novel so the nature of Dr. Moreau's experiments caught me unawares, and although I suspected that something wonky was going on when Prendick started feeling uneasy about Morris' servant the extent of it was not something I expected from a 19th century novel. My modern imagination did however work out the details before Prendick, for whom even what we now know as plastic surgery was already an advanced and awesome thing.
The comfort came from the circumstances that cushioned the adventure itself: Prendick ends up on the island by accident and when he returns from it he is not entirely happy to be back at home. This is a notion that was present in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and if memory serves Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and is a curious one in and of itself. In a way it remains true to this day and I've experienced it myself: wherever we travel we feel that we are outsiders and yearn for the place that is home, yet when we get back there the adventures abroad have changed us and we are no longer truly at home in our homeland and miss the familiarity of the place that transformed us. The only way I think to avoid that would be to never go anywhere new, but where's the fun in that?
The thing I enjoy about old novels is that the authors tend to manage to create characters who are complex and simplistic at the same time. Take the protagonist himself for instance: he at first seems one-dimensional enough in his decency, but then you think back to his time stranded at sea and you wonder what really happened to his fellow shipwreck survivors, and then all of a sudden he doesn't seem so decent after all. Authors of that era seem to have been a lot more subtle than the modern ones when it came to developing their characters, and taking their usual brevity into consideration I have to admire their skill.
Reading this novel I kept thinking about Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog, which explores the idea of similar surgical experiments. I haven't read that novel but Wells made me want to give it a try, although I understand that it is chock full of social criticism of the early post-Revolution era in the Soviet Union and that makes me want to read it less.
This was my second book by H.G. Wells and something tells me it won't be my last. I hear The Time Machine is quite good.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.
At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.
Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

I'm going to begin with a disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of Maggie Stiefvater. I love her books, I love her blog and I love the persona she presents to the world of a race car-driving, approachable and not particularly mysterious best-selling author. I love that she posts images of her manuscripts dripping with her critique partners' notes. I love that she talks about writing as a craft and hard work, not the product of divine inspiration. I love reading her books because they are fun and quirky and very well-written, because with every new one they get better, and because her fantastical is so thoroughly embedded in the mundane that suspending disbelief is not at all a problem for me. You get the picture, huge fan. So it's not that much of a surprise then that I loved The Scorpio Races. I actually listened to the audiobook, which I almost never do, because obligations are pulling at me from all directions but I really wanted to read this book right now. So I did.
My favorite thing about this novel were the relationships between humans and animals, the fondness that animal-lovers will recognize, where the human will learn to read their four-legged friend, know when to push them and when to soothe them, and when to remember that they are not human and taking a step back is the wise course of action. This partnership and mutual affection came through so clearly in the book that I could almost feel it as I listened to the story.
Another favorite were Puck's and Sean's internal conflicts: for her it was which horse to ride in the race, for him it was a matter of who would win. Puck's dilemma was apparent very soon, while Sean's took time to build, but when they clashed it was the moment when The Conflict became obvious and you just knew that there was no turning back.
I have a soft spot for stories where not everything is spelled out, and here Stiefvater obliged with a few characters whose pasts and futures were more than a little murky when the book ended. The not knowing upped the ante in the tension department and the fact that the reader was left guessing took the novel to a different level in YA. After all, there is always something in life that remains unresolved and undiscovered.
What left me vaguely displeased was the character of Mutt Malvern. I suppose I've been analyzing literature too much lately to be completely satisfied with a purely evil villain, but here it works, especially when combined with the way the book ends. I'm not going to give too much away but the last sentence gave me chills and made me want to get the printed copy and immediately read it (audio is great and all but it's a completely different experience from reading the words on the page).
Once the book was finished I thought back on it and decided that it has a very fairy-tale kind of feel to it, both when it comes to the characters and the story itself. Listening to it was similar to listening to a legend and the fact that it's not only set on an island in Ireland but also crafted in such a way that the location becomes almost a character itself helps support that mythic quality. It all works and I'm looking forward to not only revisiting The Scorpio Races but also reading Maggie Stiefvater's next series, The Raven Boys.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway — a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

This is a story about a circus, and a man and a woman, and immortality, and consequences, and sense and sensibility, and being a pawn in someone else's games, and magic (of course there is magic), and love, which is a kind of magic. But more than anything it is a story about life, where everything is connected and where everything we do today is a part of where we will end up tomorrow, and where there is only one ending to the game.
This book didn't captivate me immediately but rather grew on me. At first I thought that first and second person narration was getting on my nerves, and that the jumping around in place and time was too hard to follow. Then the former made me feel as if I were part of the story and the latter became almost a game of figuring out when the "you" parts were set. And then it was all clear and when for the very first time I saw the different narrator's stories coming together like branches on a tree all connecting to the trunk a delicious shiver ran through me and I knew that this was going to be just the right kind of book to keep me up at night. Which it most marvelously did.
For some reason before I picked it up I thought that this was a YA novel, which probably has something to do with the cover blurb about young magicians. Yet from the very first pages it was obvious that a YA novel it is not. For starters the main characters aren't all that young, the story is more elaborate than it is in your average YA novel, there are too many variables for the book to be straightforward, and nobody has any doubts as to their own identity (although I questioned the identities of a few characters, and still do), so there is no point in journeys of self-discovery. Finally the very style of writing and the language put it firmly in the adult category, or at least new adult, which has recently emerged.
There aren't any spells and the mechanics of magic aren't revealed enough for people to start putting magical formulas on t-shirts, because after all the spells aren't that important here, there are matters much more pressing than knowing how exactly the heroine makes her dress change color. I did love though that those who are capable of doing magic in this novel are the quiet, bookish types, who will get lost in a library on purpose. I also loved how great a role books played in the story, I think all bibliophiles will get a thrill out of that. And those who belong to any kind of fandom will be delighted to see themselves and their peers in this story. Fandoms are not to be underestimated and Morgenstern takes a close and intimate look at this phenomenon. Something tells me she herself belongs to one.
There are so many things I want to add but they would be so terribly spoilerish that I think I will stop here and will only tell you one last thing: I borrowed this novel from the library because I tend to not re-read books, but as I turned the last page I knew that I had to get a copy for my collection because for me this one is a keeper.