Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Nicole Galland/CROSSED


In 1203, a nameless British musician finds himself in Venice with the single task of assassinating the man who killed his family and tribe. When it turns out his intended target isn't in Venice at all, the musician ends up falling in with a starry-eyed and pious German knight named Gregor on his way to the Fourth Crusade. As the thousands of "Latins," a collection of Germans, Franks, and Venicians, make their way east, things begin to go wrong, and Gregor and his people--his brother Otto, Otto's girlfriend Lilliana, Gregor's power-hungry father-in-law Boniface, a mysterious captive Egyptian princess, and, of course, the nameless narrator--always seem to find themselves at the center of the action.

For Crusades enthusiasts (ahem) this is certainly worth dipping into. Galland follows the progress of the Crusade step by step from Venice to Zara to Constantinople, and the book offers a vivid recreation of the political upheavals and military back-and-forths that plagued the entire operation. Although much of the book is tongue-in-cheek, Galland captures the fatigue and political nuances that underwrote the entire fiasco--which, by the way, no one could have foretold from the onset. Her work is drawn from the primary accounts, and unsparing in the details of the campaign shortcomings and tragedies.

For me, it was a bit too unsparing--the book was long and I found myself tempted to skim despite my affection for the topic. Much of the primary action seemed far-fetched or steeped in bravura, which made me less sympathetic to the characters. I also would have loved to have seen more period detail come through in the behavior and speech of the characters, all of whom conducted themselves with a heavy kind of 21st-century romance pageant irony. For all the length and detail, I didn't feel transported, which was a disappointment. I guess that leaves room for another fictional treatment of the Fourth Crusade.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Joanna Kavenna/INGLORIOUS

Her mother’s death and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the superficiality of her life are the catalysts for thirty-five year old Rosa to impulsively quit her job as a successful journalist for a London newspaper and enter a painfully long meltdown. Rosa has no prospects or plans and her life rapidly disintegrates. A decade-long live-in relationship with her handsome, but vapid boyfriend abruptly ends and she moves in with a friend. She soon finds out that her ex and her closest friend are about to be married. Without income or job prospects (she’s not really looking), her debt mounts and she wears out one and then another friend’s hospitality. She’s reduced her assets down to a few changes of clothes and a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the complete works of Shakespeare as the train wreck continues in painful slow motion.

I wanted to like this book. The US cover art and back cover blurb are misleading and would lead one to believe Inglorious is chick-lit – far from it. Joanna Kavenna won the Orange award for new writers, so my expectations were high. Kavenna is indeed a gifted writer, her prose is beautiful and Inglorious is an ambitious work that just misses the mark. The novel is relatively plot-less and the ending is unresolved and pessimistic. The work feels much more like an open ended character study, than a completed novel and even that I could indulge, but I found there were inconsistencies that kept pulling me out of the often lovely fictive dream the author created and they made me question the veracity of Rosa’s thoughts and actions.

Rosa has many of the symptoms of someone entering a deep, clinical depression, but she’s got none of the lethargy associated with depression and a version of mental mania that closely resembles logorrhea – if there were a non-verbal kind. She is an obsessive list-maker and letter writer, although she never manages to cross anything off the lists and the letters are promptly torn up and tossed. What keeps one reading is that she is darkly funny. She spends a good deal of the first third of the book wandering the streets of London and we float through her stream of consciousness as she ponders the meaning of existence and tries to work through various philosophical concepts and ideas, while niggling reminders of her need to find employment, lodging and cash continue to intrude. I found myself at times fascinated with her trains of thought, but at other times annoyed that she has the time and energy to wander aimlessly around London, sit in coffee shops writing endless lists and letters, but she doesn’t have the inclination to take care of her own basic survival needs. Her symptoms are so incongruous with the forms of mental illness I’ve witnessed that I found myself distracted trying to identify her pathology in order to resist the idea that she is simply spoiled and self-indulgent.

Rosa’s situation goes from bad to worse and she continues to deteriorate and cut herself off from friends and socially acceptable behavior.Again, I found myself wondering about her friends' seeming obliviousness and indifference to her condition.

Readers will be polarized about this book. Some will forgive the lack of conventional story and character and be charmed by the author’s keen sense of irony and the admittedly fine writing that often displays flashes of brilliance. Others may find that the references and quotes border on pretentiousness and lose patience. The fact that I had to stop to and consider which camp I was in and my inability to buy into the reality of Rosa’s breakdown left me with the feeling that this was a valiant effort, but the author didn’t quite pull it off.

Dean Koontz/ODD HOURS

Twenty years ago, Dean Koontz began his novel MIDNIGHT with a terrifying late-night jog on the beach. It took him exactly one chapter to bring a healthy, vibrant young runner to a godawful end.

ODD HOURS, the fourth (and newest) book in Koontz's Odd Thomas series, doesn't start on the beach, although it occurs in an oceanside resort town. Its protagonist isn't someone who runs for fitness, really, although he does quite a bit of running. But by the end of the first chapter he's running, all right, pursued by not-quite-nameless horrors. And although that initial pursuit will drive the book through eight chapters instead of one; although the runner will live; although the pursuers are clearly human rather than the ambiguously-specied ones of MIDNIGHT -- despite all this, you will recall the earlier book and the shudders that accompanied its opening. They'll echo in your head with each panting footstep.

ODD HOURS continues in style Koontz's popular first-person saga of the 20-something fry cook who sees dead people.

I know, I know: "I see dead people." The first book in the series came out well after "The Sixth Sense" -- or, for that matter, well after THE INFERNO, THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and a thousand other books and movies featuring protagonists who interact with the dead. So, to a first-time Koontz reader, the idea may seem exhausted.

Not so.

Odd Thomas (the protagonist's actual name, as well as a pretty good descriptor), as he once said, not only sees dead people: "By God, I do something about it." He can't make them any less dead, but he can sometimes help them move on to the afterlife, giving up their infatuations and obsessions with "real" life. He can talk to these ghosts, interact with them, but they cannot talk to him. (Their mouths open and they gesture and "talk," but in silence -- a fact which causes them no end of frustration, sometimes to the point of crossing the line into ridiculous or violent manifestation.) In the process, he encounters live nasties: evil men and women, pathologically insane men and women, men and women who seem to be (and perhaps are) working in the service of dark supernatural forces.

In the present story, Odd has left behind Pico Mundo, the fictional California desert town where the series began. He's left behind St. Bartholomew's Abbey, featured in BROTHER ODD. He's left behind, finally, the ghost of Elvis Presley, who haunted him for years with his silent, mournful countenance, and who at the end of Brother Odd managed to achieve the peace to get on with his afterlife. And Odd is still haunted not just by ghosts of the famous and ghosts of the unknown, but by the spirit, deep within him, of his "sweet girl" and soul mate, Stormy Llewellyn.

He's relocated this time around to the small resort town of Magic Beach. One night his sleep is disturbed by a nightmare of frightening realism:
I had been standing on a beach, snakes of apocalyptic light squirming across the sand. The sea had throbbed as some bright leviathan rose out of the deep, and the heavens had been choked with clouds as red and orange as flames.
Ere long, Odd comes to discover that the dream is (as such dreams tend to be) not all symbolic, but a premonition of horrors to come. And (as such story lines often go) only our protagonist can make the dream, and the world itself, turn out otherwise.

Along the way, he's aided by a classic Koontz cast of secondary characters: his employer, an elderly retired actor; a mysterious woman with certain creepy powers of her own; a woman horribly disfigured by an accident in her past; the all-white ghost German shepherd, Boo; yet another in a long string of Koontz's idolized golden retrievers; and the ghost of Frank Sinatra.

The antagonists this time around inhabit the institutions which nominally glue society together: the police department; the harbor patrol; a minister. All of them want money. None of them care about those red and orange skies because, so they claim, Magic Beach itself will be spared...

I haven't read everything Koontz has written, but I've read quite a bit of it. And I must say that if you think of him strictly as a horror writer, you have probably read very little, if any, of his work.

True enough, the supernatural (both good and bad) plays a heavy role in Koontz's story. He does not shy away from depicting awful events, in straightforward but highly visual terms:
His face was bruised, one eye swollen half shut, one ear crusted with blood -- the consequence of events in the interrogation room.

As I stepped closer, he reached, and I shot him twice again.

He slid down the gunwale and toppled onto his side. His head knocked the deck hard enough to bounce.
Yet oddly (heh), Koontz's writing is marked primarily by his good heart. We're sometimes told that a society can be measured by the way it treats animals and the elderly; on both these scores, Koontz is truly a good person. He doesn't torture his characters: those which die do so quickly (as in the passage above), not in Bonnie-and-Clyde "artistic" slo-mo. He makes evil characters plainly evil (at the same time adding contradictory "human" elements to their characters -- loving families and so on). There is generally little moral ambiguity about the outcome.

But Odd Thomas has started to suspect that he himself has a dark side -- the will to do nasty things. To nasty people, yes. But nonetheless it's a side of himself he doesn't care for and, I suspect, will continue to grapple with.

One downside becomes evident early on: that initial chase scene seemed to drag on quite a bit longer than necessary. Odd Thomas's voice is a charming one, punctuated with sly humor (and a quaint near-absence of contractions: "is not" instead of "isn't," "it is" vs. "it's," and so on). It may be that this voice beguiles Koontz as much as his audience. In any case, Odd's woolgathering asides just when the action is starting to ratchet up can seem, at their worst, like artificial "suspense-making" gimmicks.

But the operative word in that paragraph is "charming." If you haven't met Odd Thomas before, you might want to start not with ODD HOURS but with the first in the series (the eponymous ODD THOMAS), and read forward. If you have met him, on the other hand, you'll come to ODD HOURS knowing what pleasures to expect -- including the usual little jolts you never saw coming.

And it doesn't hurt to learn along the way just why the shade of Frank Sinatra has resisted moving on. (Hint: it goeth before a fall.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mary E. Pearson/THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX

When Jenna Fox awakens from a coma, she can't remember anything about herself or her life. As her memory returns, questions arise:

  • Why can she recite the entire text of Walden from memory?
  • Why is she starting to recall events from as early as the first year of her life?
  • What really happened the night she got in the car accident that sent her into a coma?

The twist in the middle of the book that answers most of these questions is rather easy to see coming, but the main character's journey toward it is still interesting. I personally thought that the ending of the book didn't quite match up with the rest of the story, but I have a feeling this book is going to be a teen science fiction staple for some years to come.

Cecilia Galante/THE PATRON SAINT OF BUTTERFLIES

This YA title follows two girls who have grown up in a religious commune and are now attempting to escape. Rebellious Honey wants to get out from under the oppression of the commune's leader, but Agnes has a much harder time leaving behind the only way of life she has ever known.

Agnes wants to become a saint. She tries hard to be perfect, even inflicting pain on herself and fasting in order to punish herself for misdeeds. But she's starting to have doubts about the commune's leader, who doesn't follow the same rules everyone else does and even has a TV and an expensive car.

Honey could care less about following the rules. She wants to escape from the commune into the real world that she's seen on her illegal TV set. The only thing she'll have a hard time leaving behind is her friend and father-figure, and his butterfly garden.

The topic of this story is fascinating, and the juxtaposition between the two girls balances out two extreme viewpoints. It's easy to decide that a religious commune is a terrible place to live--until you understand why Agnes likes living there.

The author grew up in a religious commune herself. You can read the FAQ on her website to hear a little bit more about how her experiences affected her and why she decided to write a novel instead of a biography.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Patrick Rothfuss / The Name of the Wind


This is a book that I could not put down. Excellent / Well written / Fantasy / Literature. The story kept on calling to me such that I spend a couple of days ignoring all the other things that I am supposed to be doing in life. This is the first book from Patrick Rothfuss, and it has complex characters and a lot of twists in the story. When you start to get settled into the story, all nice and cozy, something unexpected happens and you are off in another direction.

The main character is an adventurer, Kvothe, now retired and settled down as an inn keeper. The book takes place in one day, where Kvothe is telling his life story to a scribe / bard / historian. It turns out that his life started fairly normally, as a child in a travelling entertaining troupe, if that can be normal, but becomes twisted and dark as Kvothe struggles to first survive, and then learn and grow. Somewhere along the way he becomes a famous musician and feared wizard.

Interestingly, the story switches between the present and past, with separate stories slowly being weaved together. Strange things are happening in the present, and over the course of the book you start to realize why and how they are shaped from his past. You also realize that not everybody is who / what they seem on the surface.

Of course I did not realize that it was part of a series until most of the way through the book. At some point it sunk in that there was no way that it could end in the remaining number of pages. (A little over 700). After some investigation, I now understand that there will be three books (what else?), that all three are written, and that they will be released one year apart. I will read the following two books when they are available. The next release is in April 2009. I just hope that they are not just putting this out for us poor readers. What usually happens is that the one year becomes three or four and I forget so much of the story that I am always struggling whether I need to reread the story just prior to the next release. What I need to do is wait until the whole thing is out in paperback, and then I can read it all in one binge. Why is it is so hard to wait?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

David Crystal/BY HOOK OR BY CROOK


Linguist and writer David Crystal takes a tour of British (and global) regional dialects under the pretext of doing research for the BBC. In the meantime, he answers all kinds of fascinating questions about the English language that you hadn't realized you'd been dying to ask.

Q: Why the heck do we use Q when it always needs a U and the Anglo-Saxons did just fine without it? ("Queen" used to be "Cwen." Makes sense to me.)

Q: Why have natural English words like "frequentness" and "delicateness" fall out of use?

Q: Where did the word "blurb" come from?

Q: What does a spider have in common with a rock?

Q: What got into Lady Godiva?

Q: Why would the Welsh go and name one of their towns Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch? (Does anyone else see 4 consecutive Ls in that word or are my eyes just blurring?)

BY HOOK OR BY CROOK is a lot of fun, particularly for language enthusiasts. Some of the Britishism can get a little bit tedious, particularly for American readers, but Crystal is a forgiving author and the book is easy to dip into and out of--no need to go cover to cover.

It is also chock full of tidbits and cocktail conversation. (At least, my personal version of cocktail conversation, which maybe explains why I don't get invited to more parties.) Crystal talks about a monk named Brother Orm who tried really hard to codify English spelling. Orm made the valid point that instinctively if we use two consonants we like to pronounce the vowel before it short; one consonant yields a long vowel. "Having," for example, should be spelled "havving," and "coming" should be "comming." Alas, no one else wanted to start spelling words the way they should be. But he tried.

For some questions, Crystal has no answers. Such is the nature of the English language that some things will never make sense. For example, Who made up those ridiculous group designators (eg a bevy of geese, a herd of cows, an unkindness of ravens, a murder of crows)? Crystal suggests some of his own. Some of my favorites:

An absence of waiters
A rash of dermatologists
A bout of estimates
An exces's of apostrophes

Friday, July 25, 2008

Brunonia Barry/THE LACE READER


Towner Whitney never intended to return to Salem, Massechusetts. Now 33, Towner has been living in California for the last 15 years, since the mental breakdown she had after her twin sister's suicide. But now she has to go back--her beloved Great Aunt Eva has disappeared. As Towner is forced to confront the life she'd hoped she'd left behind, she finds herself fighting for and against a town steeped in personal histories and filled with unusual characters: her mother, May, a misanthropic rescuer of battered women who lives with a tribe of feral golden retrievers on an inaccessible island; a walking wounded recovering alcoholic police officer; an angry ex boyfriend; a serial pedophile and violent abuser who also happens to be the most influential evangelical religious leader in town and Towner's uncle. Most relevantly, Towner must fight for and against the ghosts of her past, and reconcile herself with this town full of ambient magic and every conceivable kind of witch.

THE LACE READER is an absorbing read--you'll have trouble putting it down without finishing it. The over-all effect, unfortunately, is a little half-baked. A rotating narrator moves from present-tense first person to past-tense third person and past-tense first person, and the lack of narrative commitment makes the stream of thought rocky at times. The author offers a lot of interesting plot threads, some of which come to fruition and some of which get abandoned or forgotten along the way. If the ending didn't feel so rushed and the conclusions had been a little more developed, this would have been a great book. As it is, it's an entertaining read.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Elif Shafak/THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL


In Tucson, Arizona, Armanoush Tchakmakchian, an Armenian-American college girl, decides she needs to go to Turkey to see the homeland out of which her grandmother's family was driven during the Armenian genocide. Meanwhile, in Istanbul, Asya Kazanci, the 19-year-old Turkish girl who will end up being Armanoush's involuntary host, spends her days hating her crazy family and her meaningless life. Naturally, the two girls become unlikely friends over the course of the week of discovery Armanoush spends in Istanbul.

The predominant themes in this book are the nature and impossibilities of family and the Armenian genocide. The story is a little potted: cartoonish characters, spirit-guides, time travel, and a tangled mess of happy and unhappy coincidences. The writing is nothing you can help but cringe at. But the book is worth reading nonetheless for its content. Shafak goes to no lengths whatsoever to hide her agenda--on her acknowledgments page, she brags about her 2006 arrest as a result of the book's Turkish publication--so you'll enjoy this book as long as you're prepared to be brow-beaten by the ideas that a) Armenian-Americans hate Turks, and b) Turks either don't believe their was a genocide or don't understand why the genocide is still relevant.

Despite lack of any particular subtlety, the book makes some interesting and thought-provoking points. Although Shafak makes the 1915 Armenian case a heart-wrenching one, she doesn't delineate good guys and bad guys.

Armenian refugees--most specifically, Armenian-Americans--are after 90 years because Turkey still denies the horrors their ancestors were made to suffer. Turks, meanwhile, can feel great empathy for Armenian descendants. The good women of the Kazanci family, for example, experience great pain on hearing Armanoush's family history. They simply don't see themselves as having anything to do with the whole thing--the race crimes against Armenians were perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks, a great "They" that contemporary modernized Turks also see has a horrific regime of the past. Hence the impasse: Armenians look for acknowledgment (if not compensation), and Turks can offer only sympathy (those that bother--there is the requisite cafe nationalist who declares no such genocide happened).

It's an interesting observation on many of the racial and cultural morasses that populate modern relationships and politics all over the world: the clash of the obsessive oppressed and the forgetful erstwhile oppressor:

Slowly it dawned on Armanoush that perhaps she was waiting for an admission of guilt, if not an apology. And yet that apology had not come, not because they had not felt for her, for it looked as if they had, but because they had seen no connection between themselves and the perpetrators of the crimes. She, as an Armenian, embodied the spirits of her people generations and generations earlier, whereas the average Turk had no such notion of continuity with his or her ancestors. The Armenians and the Turks lived in different time frames. For the Armenians, time was a cycle in which the past incarnated in the present and the present birthed the future. For the Turks, time was a multihyphenated line, where the pat ended at some definite point and the present started anew from scratch, and there was nothing but rupture in between. (164-165)


Weaknesses aside, THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL is a straightforward and accessible "Turkish" novel that makes a valiant effort to clear up for the confused--there are more than two of us--some of the most ubiquitious Turkey-related news items. Certainly worth reading, especially for any American (or other "outsider") interested in Turkish or Armenian culture.

Unrelated bonus: there's a really yummy recipe on page 272 for the most delicious dessert you can imagine.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sarah Waters/AFFINITY


In the autumn of 1874, Margaret Prior, an upper-class 29-year-old "spinster," begins visiting Millbank Prison for women as part of her program for re-associating with the world after a long illness that kept her bound to her house. Over the course of her visits, Margaret observes the austere and unforgiving prison conditions and the way they affect a number of matrons and prisoners. She is especially drawn to one prisoner, a 19-year-old girl named Selina Dawes, a former spiritual medium who is in prison for a little-understood ghostly attack on a young girl.

For an almost action-free story that takes place largely in a grim, gray prison ward, this is a real page-turner. The historical recreation is really impeccable--Waters has a real gift for compelling and highly readable period detail. I found Margaret, who narrates the book through her diary, not a particularly likable person. But the story and world are so carefully crafted that you can't really give up on her no matter how insufferable she gets.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Garth Stein//THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

Spoiler Alert: The dog dies.

Oh man, don't kill me! You will realize the dog dies in the first few pages.


This book is told from the POV of Enzo, the beautiful dog on the cover. Enzo watches too much television and is afraid of the zebra (the demon that lives in all of us). But he's a good listener. He has to be if he wants to be human in his next life. His human owner is a racing car driver. By the end of the book, I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a dog or a racer. Garth is that good.


Racing in the Rain is a parable about life. It's about overcoming your hardships and going after your dreams. It's not as sappy as it sounds. I heart this book very much.