Thursday, December 31, 2009

Maxine Hong Kingston/THE WOMAN WARRIOR: MEMORIES OF A GIRLHOOD AMONG GHOSTS


I had approached reading The Woman Warrior more as an anthropological project than as a book to enjoy. I would be seeing what one of the original breakthrough female Asian American writers produced to shake up the literary world, but I would know that in the same period between its publication and today, both Amy Tan and Bruce Lee had gone from heroes (they've got everyone talking about China! look how cool they are!) to antiheroes, wall-builders of cultural misunderstanding who have inadvertently forced any Asian and Asian American writers/actors/etc after them into proscribed, limited, and ethnically stereotyped modes of expression. (Poor Amy, poor Bruce; both are heroes to me.) How would Maxine Hong Kingston's work fit into this scheme? Surely The Woman Warrior, which was first published in 1975, would prove part of this happy-to-unhappy trajectory.

Part of the fun of approaching a book with preconceived notions is watching them break down in your pleasant surprise. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this short but lavish book, and Kingston's prose is compelling and clever. Her composition and language are both innovative, and make the text brain-perking regardless of whatever content you're looking for. And although many of the themes within may have since become associated with that Amy Tanism, it is happy to remember that Kingston really was the forerunner of the genre.

The book is divided into five long chapters, or sort novellas. The first, "No Name Woman," reimagines the forbidden story of an aunt back in China who bore a child out of wedlock. "White Tigers" is a fantasy metaphor of Kingston's childhood, and describes the origin of the "Woman Warrior" in the title--loosely based on the tale of Fa Mu Lan, the woman who went to war disguised as a man to save her family and her village, it establishes Kingston as a girl child fighting both for and against her family and origins. "Shaman," the third section, is a narrative of her mother's time at medical school in China. "At the Western Palace," the fourth, is the story of her mother's sister who came to America at age 68, after thirty years of estrangement from her husband, who had moved to America and married a new wife. The last, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," is about Kingston's bilingual childhood, struggles in school and in reconciling the person her Chinese "village" wanted her to be with her American home.

The theme of "ghosts" manifests itself in different ways. There are literal ghosts throughout, evil Sitting Ghosts and Wall Ghosts of her mother's local superstitions, all crafting nefarious means of causing harm to the living. There are the "white ghosts" of Kingston's American childhood--in other words, all the white Americans around them in their California home. And there are the ghosts of the ancestors whose narratives her mother "talks-story," the poets, warriors, and myths that shape her conception of Chineseness.

I read this because it was on my fill-in-the-gaps list--an important book I had trouble imagining getting around to--but I ended up enjoying it. Plus it made me think. Win-win-win, as Michael Scott would say.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Last Will of Moira Leahy, by Therese Walsh


A quick, yet necessary, preamble:

Before I begin to relay the contents of this novel, look at that cover. Magical. Haunting. Amazing. I ordered this book online and when it arrived at my door, I tore open the packaging, ravenous, and then stared at the cover for who knows how long before I could peel my eyes away to see what lay beneath. And inside is just as beautiful as outside (I'm still not talking about the story yet). Click HERE to read my post about the importance of font in the overall experience of reading. Elina Nudelman, the interior designer of this book, gave some wonderful insight in the comments section.

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Never in my life have I read a book so emotionally moving. The Last Will of Moira Leahy left me breathless. Speechless. And then crying in my shower later. I am not ashamed to admit that; it's a huge compliment to the author, Therese Walsh. Grazie.

The story is about identical twin sisters Maeve and Moira Leahy. Through the first two-thirds of the book (roughly), each chapter is divided into two parts. The first follows 25 year-old Maeve in her present-day situation. The second (appropriately labeled Out of Time for more than one reason) follows childhood Moira through different stages that ultimately connect with what Maeve is currently experiencing, while at the same time giving the reader hints about why they are no longer in each other's lives, and how it will be resolved.

The final leg focuses solely on Maeve and how she puts all these seemingly unrelated clues together (songs that play in her head, notes nailed to her door, cryptic invitations to specific places in Rome), and glues them with a singular object, the keris, which ironically, is a blade. She begins her journey in a New York auction house, then travels to Rome, and finally, back home again to Maine. Each setting has a uniqueness that adds to the events that take place there, but especially riveting for me was her experiences in Rome (no surprise there, I'm Italian).

That is also where we meet Maeve's lost/found love, Noel. He is a minor character, sort of, but I had an instant connection to him. In fact, Walsh's portrayal of all the different characters, no matter how big or small their role, is one of the main things that sets this novel apart. All are given realism, more than one facet. That alone would keep me reading, but the story itself has a marvelous complexity that I cannot even begin to describe without butchering it. So I won't.

I'd rather you read it yourself and experience it in your own way.

For me, reading this book was likened to having wings and learning to fly. Scary in some ways (looking deep inside and facing your fears, your true self), but also exhilarating (discovering that beneath the ugly past there is hope, there is beauty, there is music, there is love).

All I can say is thank you, Therese, for writing this story. Thank you for the avventura.

~Lydia Sharp

For more about this book and this author:

Excerpt
Therese Walsh's website
Writer Unboxed
RWA-WF website

Monday, December 28, 2009

THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST/Stuart Neville


Disclaimer to the FTC: I received my copy of this book via Stuart Neville's Twitter short fiction contest. It is signed by the author, and I'm not giving it away or selling it no way, no how. Besides, I still haven't figured out what "Win but win" means.

The Troubles may be over and peace in Northern Ireland reached, but Gerry Fegan's troubles are far from over. During the tumult he was one of the IRA's most ruthless henchmen, killing twelve people - and now their ghosts literally haunt him. He's always had a talent - if you can call it that - for seeing the dead, but these ghosts have haunted him for seven years, keeping him awake with their screams, something only the drink can quiet. When he converses with a prominent politician, McKenna, in the bar in which he frequents, he finally discovers what the ghosts want. They don't want his remorse; they want him to kill the people who gave him the orders that resulted in their deaths.

Sometimes fiction can be a better teacher than the history books. I knew nothing of the Troubles in Northern Ireland before reading this novel, and the IRA was a far-off entity of freedom fighters who occasionally made American news. On the surface, Ireland has changed greatly: it's prosperous and there are more opportunities than ever before. Becuase no one beyond Fegan is sure who's responsible for the murders, Fegan's mission threatens to upend all the shady deals between the Unionists and the Republicans that tenuously keep peace in place. But there's no stopping Fegan once he's figured out what his ghostly companions want.

Complicating matters is Davy Campbell. An undercover agent, Campbell a man who's been on the inside so long he can't imagine ever getting out. But his handlers - whom I gathered to be British intelligence - disagree. In a way, Campbell and Fegan are one in the sense that they're both compromised men who made their living off the Troubles. In their scenes together I could feel the sympathy between them. Despite Campbell's apparent betrayal to the cause, he gets a reprieve from Neville's cold eye, for Neville's portraits of the politicians and people in power in this novel is unforgiving.

Marie McKenna, niece to the murdered McKenna, is Fegan's love interest and all the more interesting because Neville plays her as more of a lifeline for Fegan, the life jacket thrown to a man drowning in his efforts to reach redemption. His hopes for happiness and healing rest solely with her and her daughter, Ellen, though it's Ellen, through her childhood innocence, who helps him the most. She's the Ireland Fegan fought for.

The writing is taut and stripped of all banality. I really felt for Fegan - for who hasn't done things they regret? - and hoped fervently that he would find some measure of peace, if not actual happiness. Whether he gets that in the end, or has traveled too far into the abyss, is something to be pondered long after reading.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

THE HELP - Kathryn Stockett


For the love of Thor, get this book. Read it in your book groups. Discuss it. Ruminate. Journal about it. I finished it days ago and could not write this review because I keep thinking about it.

Set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, all of the maids ("colored" or "nigra") wait on white women during their bridge games, parent the family's children, scrub the house, cook the meals, and say, "Yes Ma'am" and count the silver. She will use a separate bathroom, and she cannot eat with the family. If one is fired for backtalk or thievery, the head of Jackson society, Miss Hilly, will ensure that woman will never be employed in that town again.

Miss Skeeter, daughter of a cotton grower and his former-debutante wife, has bigger plans than the diamond on the finger and kids in the nursery. She wants to be a writer. Through her determination, she gets to talk to a New York agent. When told to come up with something no one talks about, Skeeter realizes that the relationship between the maids and their employers is a sharp subject. The problem is that no one wants to talk for fear of what Miss Hilly, one of Skeeter's best friends, will do if she finds out.

Minny and Aibileen are wonderful characters as the first maids to speak of their experiences to Skeeter. However, even with Skeeter's kindness during this racially-wrought period (Kennedy forcing the governor to allow a black student into "Ole Miss," the rise before Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech), I wonder of the irony of her motives. She is using black women to get ahead. I wonder at the author's motives - a white woman writing in black vernacular.

The book made me think and analyze and create opinions. What could be more delicious?

4.3 out of 5.0 So-Co Teas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD - Margaret Atwood

About a third of the way into this book, I thought, "Have I read this?" and flipped it over. "Praise for Oryx and Crake" the back copy exclaimed. I almost stopped reading.

I read Oryx and Crake before I began this blog, but if I had to rate it, I would have given it a 2.25 out of 5.0 Stupidity DNAs.

Atwood, whom I have adored in the past, makes me believe we may be having relationship problems now.

At the end of Oryx/Crake (spoilers), Jimmy the Snowman is left in a tree, the DNA-manipulated perfect species of blue-penis-waving men and big busted women singing happily along the ocean.

The Flood tells how Jimmy got there, though through the eyes of God's Gardeners, a nature-cult that would make PETA look like a Burger King. Living off of organic food grown in their roof gardens, they listen to Adam One and sing a lot of hymns. Personally, the hymns were annoying additions, but a couple held humorous references (like Saint Dian Fossey - who died while studying the silver-backed gorillas). Adam One tells the Gardeners of the Waterless Flood that will cleanse the earth.

However, it is Toby and Ren who are the leaders in this book. Toby had once eaten meat and worked at "A Noo Yoo" spa, while Ren was a stripper/sex servant at a local security-approved brothel. At once point, Toby is Ren's teacher, but it is the very weak connections to Crake and Jimmy that link this book to Atwood's "prequel."

Does the waterless flood occur? Yes, you know this if you read the first book. By the way Atwood ended this novel, we are not finished with her fiendish obsession with the future yet. Expect a sequel in a few years, and people will buy it because it is Margaret Atwood. Not this girl. Some of my favorite authors have fallen in love with their characters to the point where the plot or narrative becomes unbelievable and annoying. While Atwood wants to show the world a unique perspective on where we may exist with DNA testing, gene splicing, and government rule (in this case, being privatized), I wonder if she considers the waste of trees being used to distribute her messages.

1.75 out of 5.0 Gorilla Farts.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Faith Bleasdale/THE LOVE RESORT

A romance novelist who runs a resort so she can see the beautiful people and put them in her book is disappointed by the caliber of her guests so handpicks six gorgeous people to visit but is then disappointed by their behavior.

That's not much of a summary sentence, and it does leave out a lot of things, but I think that's at least partly because the book seemed all over the place. Hollywood stars, affairs, a novelist who doesn't even try to write...

The handpicked people are of course not what they seem, but not in a particularly interesting way for me. Some of the characters were interesting but a lot felt cliched to me.

The romance novelist made me crazy, there was again a thread of prospering cheaters (I'm 0 for 3 on that today... WHY is that a theme in so many books?) and the writing itself really lacked polish for me. The ending felt tacked on and overall I wasn't thrilled with the book.

Nancy Warren/SPEED DATING

An actuary and a race car driver pretend to be dating to fool the driver's ex-wife but it may become more than pretense.

Another romance. Being an ebook, it's difficult to tell for sure, but I think this is a novella not a full novel. While I liked both characters, their development wasn't as rich as I'd have liked, and their relationship went from "she likes him but he won't commit" to "we're together" so fast I scrolled back in the book to see if I'd missed something.

I hadn't.

I'm not clear on what stopped him from committing and what changed his mind, and from what I know about romances (admittedly not a lot) I SHOULD be clear on those things. But I enjoyed a lot of the situations in which the characters found themselves and since my husband likes NASCAR it was interesting to read a book set in that world.

Stephanie Bond/IN A BIND

A week of supposed no-strings sex threatens to become something more.

I'm not usually into straight-on romance novels and this one had some of the characteristics that tend to annoy me (immediate sex, misunderstandings that a few casual questions would have cleared up) and also my main hot button: cheaters who get to prosper. (I really want to see a cheater truly get what s/he deserves for once... maybe I need to write that book myself?)

But I did enjoy it, because I thought the main characters were interesting and real. The heroine was struggling with her guilt over what she was doing and I believed her. The ending didn't tie up absolutely every loose end, which worked for me as well.

This book is part of a series: ten years ago, college women wrote letters to their future selves describing their sexual fantasies, and the professor has mailed them the letters and they decide to act on those fantasies. Interesting concept, I think. If I'm in a romance-reading mood, I'll check out more of her books.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Darkness Forged In Fire: Book One of the Iron Elves, by Chris Evans


This book is best described as a military sci-fi set in a world of epic fantasy. From the very first sentence, you know you are in a world under stress: "Mountains shouldn't scream, but this one did."

I do believe that is the best opening line I've read all year.

The Shadow Monarch has returned to claim what She feels is rightfully Hers, and spreads a burning frost through the forest to find it. Konowa Swift Dragon, the main character, was once an Iron Elf. And apparently, once an Iron Elf, always an Iron Elf. After a one year isolation in the forest he is suddenly thrust back into service and asked/forced to lead the Iron Elves again. Only this time, the group is not quite as Iron-y. Or as Elf-y.

The best supporting characters, in my opinion, were the dwarf, Yimt, and his human sidekick, Alwyn. The latter had joined the military service because he'd thought it would make him a man, and quickly realizes that it is more than he bargained for. With the veteran dwarf at his side, though, he learns how to survive and how to find the courage within himself that he'd previously thought was nonexistent. Also, by the end of the book, he is quite adept at loading a musket, even under not-so-perfect circumstances. If I could point to a single scene in this novel that got the most emotional reaction from me, it was one of Alwyn's point-of-view scenes, in which he had to flog a fellow soldier who out-ranked him. Even thinking about it now gets me misty-eyed, so I'm going to stop there.

Back to Konowa, our lovely MC. His character is really what kept me reading. There is a scene near the beginning where he and his tree-loving father (oh, I forgot to mention, the elves have a special relationship with trees…except for Konowa, that is…he hates them) are having a heart-to-heart chat while making stew. The sarcasm and wit in this exchange had me tearing up with laughter. It was outstanding. But perhaps I am biased. I really am a sucker for good father-son banter. It is a close second to husband-wife banter. Very close.

Konowa's interactions with just about every other character were excellent. The only thing I can find fault with in that area was his relationship (or rather, lack of relationship) with Visyna. It was hinted at, several times, that they had feelings for each other, but nothing ever came of it. In fact, the whole matter was dropped off a proverbial cliff at one point, never to be seen or heard from again. A little frustrating. And the banter between them was more annoying than anything else.

The story was not without it's weirdness, but some of it added humor. Like the drunk pelican. Yeah. I think it might be worth reading the whole book just to see the drunk pelican. Kudos to Mr. Evans for finding a way to weave that into the story.

The only major fault I had with the book as a whole, was that the ending was so obviously just a set up for the next book. It was not satisfying, in my opinion. I am all for trilogies and series and whatnot, but each book still has to stand alone. And if you're going to lead into the next one, do it in an epilogue, not the final six or so chapters of the book when you should be wrapping things up.

Now, that being said, this novel is a strong contender for my pick as Best Read of the Year. The writing was excellent. Easy to read. Tension on every page. And some of the wording and descriptions left me breathless. I loved the military aspects of the story, too, which set it apart from what I typically see in fantasy.

Highly recommended. Book Two is available now, and Book Three will be released in 2010. Both are on my list of future reads. (For more about Chris Evans, click here.)

~Lydia Sharp

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lev Grossman/THE MAGICIANS


Quentin, a seventeen-year-old prodigy about to graduate from high school and deeply dissatisfied with his life, stumbles onto the grounds of a secret college for magicians. His intelligence and as yet undiscovered talent for magic gain him a place at the exclusive school, but classes are grueling (wizardry is no easy task, as it turns out), school life is difficult to maneuver (sex and alcohol abound), and he is still searching for direction by the time he graduates. A foray into Fillory, the charming fantasy world he read about as a child may give his life some purpose--or it may force him to finally confront reality.

Mostly this is an adult's rumination on the Narnia and Harry Potter series, which is what makes it so fascinating. To call it derivative, as many have done, is to completely miss the point. The school resembles Hogwarts in many ways and Quentin constantly thinks about a series he read as a kid that is obviously a nod to the Narnia books. But Quentin's experiences are much more difficult and sloppy than those of the characters in his beloved Fillory books, and in the end Quentin must come to grips with the fact that life as described in childhood fantasy novels is often easier and more purposeful than real life.

Unfortunately, the plot is episodic to a fault, without even the benefit of successful character development; the attempts to show the dark inner workings of various characters didn't work well, to me. I didn't find myself especially fascinated by or empathetic toward any of the characters, especially glum and numb Quentin. But some of the twists in the story are really marvelous, and the climax was a big surprise. The ending sort of tapered off, without Quentin really coming to a satisfying resolution for his inner problems. However, I would still recommend this book to those who read the Narnia stories as children. The incorporation of Narnia-like Fillory was fascinating enough to carry the whole novel.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon


Moonrat has been kind enough to set a 60,000 word limit for reviews on this blog. I may need all of them. On the other hand, I may just confine myself to “good grief” or even MmmmHmmm. These are all valid responses to Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read because I was participating in Moonie’s readalong. Without the encouragement of knowing I could post “Finished” on Twitter and have people out there who understood, I could not have gotten myself through this novel. Actually, it came out as FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISHED, right from my heart.

I can’t even begin to encompass what Gravity’s Rainbow’s about – I know that there’s at least one companion book out there (costing more than the novel itself) to explain it all to you. I didn’t purchase it, as a) I’m a skinflint and b) I like to approach a book at the first reading without context, to experience it as a new meeting of minds. My purchase came with some hype: “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” is the proud boast on the back cover of my copy. I feel a bit like the child who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes on when I say, as I think I must, “No it’s not.”

It was published far back in the mists of time, i.e. 1973, an era when drugs were cool and books about drugs were just the hottest thing out there. I remember letting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published at about the same time, percolate into my then teenage brain and thinking wow, this is deep because I don’t understand it. Could it be that Gravity’s Rainbow has the same effect on the reading public? Not that it’s about drugs, directly, you understand. My point, I think, is that getting all awestruck about a book just because it’s difficult to grasp is an erroneous approach.

Well I’m four paragraphs in, and still haven’t said what GR’s about. How Pynchonesque of me. Well, it’s about the V2 rocket, WWII, the Allied occupation of Germany after the defeat thereof, the beginnings of the Cold War in the contest between the USA and Russia to scoop up as much Nazi technology as possible, paranoia, mind-conditioning, espionage, sadism, masochism, power… The themes of Rocket, Sex, Excrement, and Death recur as relentlessly as pornography.

The obvious penis/rocket metaphor is given human shape as Slothrop, a character with so little personality that even the author is compelled to remark on that at one point. Conditioned in infancy, Slothrop is believed by those who control him to be able to indicate an incoming V2 by having an erection; he is therefore trained and sent out into the Zone (which seems to equate to Germany under Allied/Russian occupation but also has a symbolic value) to find a very special version of the Rocket by following his, well, not his nose. And the trouble with Slothrop is, the novel’s much more interesting without him, so you get a brilliant beginning, a long Slothrop Desert in the middle, and a somewhat interesting last section when Slothrop has sort of faded into the scenery. I got so tired of Slothrop’s penis at one point in the Desert that I stopped reading the novel for two weeks.

I haven’t read any other books by Pynchon, so I don’t know if the writing method employed in GR is typical of him, or confined to this book. He tends to shift suddenly from one subject to another, launching himself off a random reference into a new tangent at variable rates of frequency. In the first, and by far the best, third of the book, his tangents have a way of coming full circle, but once Slothrop is released across Europe, Pynchon’s train of thought wanders off with him and never returns, although the last part of the book is, mercifully, a bit more coherent. It also contains plenty of doggerel, snatches of song, and arcane references to secret societies and mysticism.

Still, as disjointed as the narrative may be, there are certainly plenty of unifying images: erections, the Rocket, excrement, inventively imaginative public toilets, drug dealers, prostitutes, and bad taste. Pynchon excels at the latter, and I must admit that the scene where Slothrop, in a hot air balloon, is being chased by a planeload of American military singing filthy limericks is one of the high points of the book. The scene where the characters begin making up disgusting, alliterative foods (menstrual marmalade, ringworm relish and the like) at dinner until the guests begin to vomit is decidedly Monty Python. There is also a very dark side to Pynchon: racism, homoeroticism with a homophobic edge, coprophagy, sadism and pedophilia are not left out of the mix. My local library declines to stock a copy of the novel, and when I tried to get an inter-library loan, it never arrived. If I were Slothrop, I would think that They are exercising censorship…

Well, I could go on and on, but by now you’ve either read the book and disagree with me totally (maybe I’m wrong and it is brilliant), are titillated enough to want to go buy a copy, or have crossed that one off your list. Final verdict? I’m always up for broadening my reading horizons, and it did have its luminous moments, but on the whole I can’t see myself becoming a Pynchon fan. I’m having a hard time attaching a tag to this one, as almost any description in the Book Book lexicon would apply to it: I think I’ll go for overrated, but it would make a great read for anyone interested in 60s/70s thought or trying to loosen up their own writing.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Joy Is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook

Joy Is So Exhausting
by Susan Holbrook
Coach House Books
$16.95 CDN / 88p



Despite spending a considerable amount of energy pumping poetry, and particularly Canadian poetry, I avoid readings like the proverbial plague. Cue Susan Holbrook.

For entirely unrelated reasons, I happened to attend Coach House Press's launch of its fall titles. Joy Is So Exhausting was one of the titles released, and Susan Holbrook was one of the authors reading. The evening was progressing pretty predictably: the Coach House staff hosting the event revealed themselves to be charming individuals, and various authors read from their excellent and recently-published books.

Then Susan Holbrook came up to the microphone. She's probably not you'd think a poet rock star would look like: she's a short-haired, nice looking, lady in maybe jeans and a button-up shirt. I can't quite remember, but my view in the crowd was not great. A drunk lover of literature was standing on a chair for a good view and kept falling off it, right next to me. Apologizing profusely each time, but climbing up again undaunted. He would know, if he could remember, what she was wearing. Suffice it to say, there were distractions for my memory reel.

Regardless of this, and of her unmemorable Clark-Kent-airs, Holbrook is a poet rock star, or maybe just a comedienne extraordinaire. In about thirty seconds, she had the packed barful of literary types in stitches of laughter and didn't let us relax until she had finished her reading.

Oh, and how excellent is Susan Holbrook's wit of word play. One of the poems she read, published in this collection, is entitled "INSERT." As she said at the reading, women usually catch on before men. An excerpt:

Your First Timpani?
Take a deep Brecht and relapse. It's much easier to insult a tanager when you're religious. It takes pratfalls. Most Wimbleton need a few triumphs before they can comfortably and easily insert a tam-o'-shanter. When using a tambourine for the first tiger choose a day camp when your flotsam is modern. Refer to the diamonds so you know what to do.

Sound familiar? It goes on from there, culminating in the "Rémoulade":

Sit on the tolerant with knowledge apart, or squint slightly. Keeping your musicians relaxed, pull the strudel gently and steadily downwind at the same anger you used to insinuate the tailpipe. (See Imaginary flour.) Then simply flush the tadpole away.

Holbrook, who undercovers as a literature and creative writing professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, is spot-on throughout this collection. She writes a poem using only the letters that a calculator can produce. She digs into the conversations between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson. These are ludic and wonderful poetic experiments. Holbrook dances with the texts, as adeptly with Stein as with the tampon package instructions. No mean feat, when you think about it.

So, whether she's exploring the permutations and combinations of the headline, "Harper proposes free vote on the issue of same sex marriage" or categorizing people in "Good Egg Bad Seed", Holbrook is delightful:

People who open the door for you and people you open the door for.
People who open the door for you and appreciate it and people who open the door for you and it's irritating.
People who love it when you open the door for you and people who refuse to let you do it, they want to be the door-opener, and you have a little fight about it.
People who play Boggle and people who would rather be shot in the head.

There are people who love reading poetry like this and people who haven't read poetry like this but need reviews like this to go out and read poetry like this so they can love reading poetry like this, too.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Night by Elie Wiesel


[Spoiler warning] This is one of those books that’s been on the fringes of my awareness for quite a while - I thought I really ought to read it, but I was reluctant to because I thought I’d find it depressing. So I eventually picked it up on a trip to the bookstore, as it made a welcome interruption to Gravity’s Rainbow – out of one kind of madness into another.

Night is a short volume, only 112 pages of story, which, for the few of you who don’t know, describes Wiesel’s experience as a teenager in Transylvania in the Second World War, a Jew in a small, very devoutly religious Jewish community where he, the son of a well-educated storekeeper, was devoting his life to his religious studies.

The community is tightly knit and, you get the impression, quite insulated from the outside world; the war is a faraway thing, even when the foreign Jews are rounded up and deported from the town. One of them, Wiesel’s friend Moishe the Beadle, returns to warn the town of the danger of the Nazis, but nobody listens. By this time it is 1944, and the community is sure that the war will soon be over and they will be safe.

Inevitably, the German army arrives and the restrictions begin, then the displacement of the Jews from one ghetto to another. And yet still the community is optimistic. Looking at these scenes with historical hindsight made me want to scream alongside Moishe the Beadle – how could these people be so unaware? And yet it’s human nature to hope…

Of course they are transported to the camps. And of course what follows is a nightmare of separation, deprivation, starvation and brutality. Wiesel reports it all so simply; there’s an almost flat, unemotional quality to his writing that makes it quite possible to read unemotionally, even at the poignant moment when he watches his mother and younger sister walk away in the opposite direction, never to be seen again.

The aspect of this book that most deeply impressed me was the devotion of the Jews to God, even as they wondered where He was in all this horror. Even Wiesel, who professes to turn his back on a God who would let such things happen, constantly refers to Him even as he denies Him. There's much to be learned from the people in this book.

Wiesel sketches the brutalities he suffered and saw very sparely, without much detail. What he tells is enough. He moves the reader swiftly from day to day, week to week as the inmates are moved farther away from the liberating Allies. Then suddenly the narrative slows down to encompass the death of Wiesel’s father, and you can truly feel the numbness of the brutalized teenage boy who is barely able to feel compassion through his hunger. It’s powerful stuff. Then the story moves swiftly again, through the liberation of the camps, and ends with Wiesel looking at himself in a mirror – the face of a corpse. “The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.” Was this the first time he envisaged writing a story that had himself as its main character?

What can you say to such memories? I feel as if I’m writing a summary rather than a review, because the only possible response to this story is respect. Yet the writing has much to commend it – this edition is a new translation by Wiesel’s wife, and the writing is clear, simple, direct and immediate. I give this book the “life-changing” tag simply because it is a familiar horror story seen from the inside. Survivors of such events are rarely able to speak of them, so it is a privilege to listen to a man who did not spare himself from the task of writing his story.

Monday, November 23, 2009

BORDERS UK ARE UNDER THREAT FROM SUPERMARKETS & ONLINE SUPPLIERS. THERE IS ROOM FOR REAL BOOKSHOPS TOO. IF YOU ARE IN THE UK & YOU VALUE BOOKS GO TO BORDERS AND BUY A BOOK TODAY. HELP SAVE REAL BOOKSHOPS!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic- Sophie Kinsella

Confessions of a Shopaholic (Shopaholic, Book 1) Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
While I was standing at the Redbox rental kiosk, this seemed like a cute movie to watch while my husband wasn't home. After I watched the movie, I decided I wanted to read the book also. The premise is funny and I knew it had done well both as book and movie, so I thought I would see how the two compared. Honestly, there isn't much of a comparison. The book and the movie, while they have similar themes and some similar plot points, are very different. I like the movie a little bit more... I know... blasphemy. The movie had a stronger conflict and more drama; plus, I love Isla Fischer.

The book was cute, pretty simple and good chick lit. I'm not a huge chick lit person, but I do love a quick and easy read every now and then. Becky Bloomwood, the heroine, is a journalist who works for Successful Saving magazine. She is a strong financial voice, but her own financial life is in shambles. She's being harassed by a collector, can't stop herself from buying nearly everything in sights and is completely overwhelmed. Her harebrained solutions for conquering her debt range from winning the lottery to making fabric frames. Eventually she realizes that she does actually understand finances far more than she gave herself credit for and is able to use her knowledge to help others and herself.

Overall, this books was okay. Not the best book I've ever read, but a quick and easy read. The characters were endearing, though a little stereotypical. The plot was decent, but events were a little convenient at times. It was funny enough. Not amazing, but decent. Now, I love to shop. I love sales and could totally relate to that thrill of buying something. However, I wasn't really a fan of all of the name dropping of brands and stores. It just wasn't my style and got a little irritating after a while. I'd saw both the book and movie are worth reading and watching, especially if you have some time to kill while your husband is out of town, want a good girls' night flick, or something easy to ready while traveling.

View all my reviews >>

Saturday, November 7, 2009

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD/John Le Carre


If you want a history lesson in how things were during the beginning of the Cold War, read this book. Yes, it's fiction, and yes, it's about a spy, but it will give you a more accurate view of how things work in espionage. Why? Le Carre himself worked as a spy in British Intelligence for years before writing this novel.

This is the antithesis of the Bond novels (and films)—and I'm certainly not knocking those, because who doesn't need a little Bond in their lives, especially now that he's played by Daniel Craig? But Le Carre's novel gives a more realistic glimpse into how things really are for spies. It's mundane work, no more exciting than your average office job.

For Alec Leamas, it's even worse. When his last agent is murdered behind the Wall, his boss approaches him for one last mission—one that will (hopefully) take down East Berlin Intelligence.

All Alec has to do is play the part of an agent on the decline, one who drinks too much and sleeps too little, an agent on the outs. In other words, one who's ready to be turned. He does the part with so much aplomb it was difficult to remember he wasn't actually a lush. But then he meets a young woman, a librarian, and all hell breaks loose in his life.

Le Carre, I think, pokes a bit of fun at Western-style Communists, those thin, emo people I used to see early in my childhood (I forget where, maybe on TV). They dressed in black and handed out some Communist paper. But in TSWCIFTC they were harmless, people playing games and had no idea how real Communists operated. Le Carre obviously did, and he shows you in the last scenes of the novel.

I won't give you any spoilers if you haven't read it. Just know Le Carre doesn't pull any punches. I can't wait to read more of his work.

Time of My Life, by Allison Winn Scotch


Do you ever regret marrying me? How many of us have ever been on the giving or receiving end of that question? We all think about it, even if we don't affirm it with speech. And not just with marriage, with everything. We can't help but wonder, what if I'd done this differently, or what if I'd not done that instead of the other thing, what if, what if, what if…

That pesky two-worded question is the basis of Allison Winn Scotch's second novel, Time of My Life. Jillian Westfield, a mid-thirties mother of one (adorable!) eighteen month-old girl, finds herself stuck in the mundane chaos of trying to be the perfect parent, and dwelling on the what if's of yesteryear. What if she'd stayed with Jackson-the-exciting-and-unpredictable, and hadn't married Henry-the-everything-by-the-book-list-maker. Through an accidentally magic chi-unblocking from her masseuse, Jillian is whisked back seven years…before she'd lost her tight abs to pregnancy, before she'd left her successful marketing job to be a full-time mom, before she'd even met her husband and she was living with Jackson…

Jillian gets a chance to redo her past, but, of course, this is not without its consequences. Aside from constantly running into Henry (past/future memories of their life together still fresh in her mind, and forced to act like they don't know each other) and trying to make her shaky relationship with Jackson and his hard-to-please family work this time, other issues that Jillian hadn't even thought about are pushed to the forefront.

Her best friend who, seven years forward, was dead, is alive and well. And her struggles with fertility are now affected by Jillian knowing what happens to her in the near and somewhat distant future. Jillian's mother who'd abandoned her at a young age, she remembers abruptly when she receives an odd letter, contacted her out of the blue. How will she react this time? She knows what her previous future actions led to. What if she dealt with it differently? Better? Worse? She also sees her "old and married, tied down by the kids" boss in a different light. One that only her past/future experiences could brighten.

The concept of this story (we tend to view the path not taken through rose-colored glasses) is one that I think just about everyone can relate to, but I felt it especially hit close to home for mothers. Jillian's questions about whether or not she'd married the right person are what led her to her second chance, but the overall theme seemed to focus on her accepting motherhood and understanding, somewhat, her own mother's bad choices.

Allison's delivery of the story makes it a quick and entertaining read. As other critics have pointed out, her writing is rife with realism. It has its full share of emotional moments, aha! moments, stop-and-make-you-think moments, and a good dose of much-needed humor. Personally, I am not a fan of time travel tales (although, this one is not really about the time travel aspect, per se), but this is definitely one that I recommend.

For more about this novel and this author:
Time of My Life excerpt, Chapter One
Ask Allison
Chicklit Club interview
Audio interview

~Lydia Sharp

Thursday, November 5, 2009

WOLF HALL - Hilary Mantel


Winner of the coveted Man Booker award for fiction in 2009, Wolf Hall charmed and challenged this reader.

First, I will admit some bias. As readers of my blog know, I have been exploring the books about European royalty, including several volumes about Henry V alone. This book shows the relationship between Henry and Anne Boleyn, yet it is through the eyes of dark merchant/lawyer Thomas Cromwell.

If you know enough about British history (or, Thor forbid, you read Phillippa Gregory novels as truth), you already know these characters. Otherwise, it would be a confusing read. Still, these are not the characters that I have known through different pages. Thomas More is older and fierce in his religious beliefs, while Anne Boleyn is both automaton and vengeful bitch.

What was brilliant about this book, however, was the dry humor. Whether at home, in court (meaning the court of royalty), or back alleys, I re-read bits of dialogue over and over to fully enjoy the snark veiled by manners and questions.

4.75 out of 5.0 English Highballs.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh- Michael Chabon

A couple of weeks ago, Michael Chabon was at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver for a reading from his most recent book Manhood for Amateurs. As he read selections from the book, I could see that his prose had grown since this first novel of his, but it still had the ring of truth and beauty found in all of Chabon's works. He is funny, witty and eloquent. He was a wonderful speaker and gave some great writing advice (to be blogged about later). I look forward to reading even more of his work.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel (P.S.) The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel by Michael Chabon


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am ridiculously jealous that Chabon was able to create a novel so beautiful his first time out of the gate. Mysteries of Pittsburgh is Chabon's debut novel and abounds with his lyrical prose and intriguing characters.

Art Bechstein has graduated from college and is spending the summer following working at a book store and playing with his new found friends. Arthur LeCompte entices Art into a world of interesting people and even more interesting parties. Between Art's new girlfriend Phlox, his increasingly sexual feelings for his friend Art and new friend Clevland's interest in Art's father's mobster ways, Art is lost and confused. This novel is reminiscent of Fitzgerald and a bygone era of sophisticated parties and debauchery.

Chabon's prose is lyrical and striking. His descriptions are always unique and the characters are beautifully written. I am always impressed by his way of viewing the world. The details that he sees are vivid and intriguing. I always turn to Chabon's work when I'm feeling like I need inspiration for my own writing. He has not disappointed me yet.

View all my reviews >>

Saturday, October 24, 2009

THE CHILDREN'S BOOK - A.S. Byatt


Nominated for the 2009 Man Booker prize for fiction, The Children's Book is written for fans of epic drama; in this case, the Wellwood family and its friends during the years 1890-WWI.

Philip Warren, a runaway found by Olive Wellwood's son in the South Kensington Museum, states that he, "[...]wants to make..." Looking at pages of his drawings, Olive assumes he wants to make pots, and he is sent to apprentice with a famed friend. However, it is Philip who is the steadying character in this novel.

The Wellwoods are enchanting with a lovely English home called Todefright in the country and loads of children to fill it. Olive writes children's stories, while continuing to write a personal story for each of her own children. Humphrey, the father, works in banking and trashes it in his publications under a pseudonym. They host ravishing parties and invite the most radical of their circle.

However, not all is as misty and magical as it seems. Daughter Dorothy and son Tom worry about their parents' fights. Their cousins worry about boarding school or the lack of education for females. The younger Wellwood children are simply mothered by their aunt Violet.

As children do, they grow up and expand into lives that even creative Olive could not have predicted. In fact, this was the most satisfying part of the book - the first 120 pages were devoted to knowing the huge background of players. The ending left many threads hanging loose from the tapestry, which I appreciated.

I almost gave up on this book. It was difficult to plow through the names, the characterizations, the histories. Once the fairytale gave way to the truth, I became fascinated. It was ugly and raw, but the polite English way of dealing with pain made me wonder at how they survived loss or disappointment. Especially Olive, with her proper endings to each story.

Why did this novel not win the Man Booker? Perhaps because of the beginning. The writing could easily bore some readers who are not interested in the nuances of the characters' actions or dialogue. It could have been too long. Still, I think it became a finalist for these same reasons. It is a novel that I will think about for a while, and that is always considered valuable in my experience.

4.25 out of 5.0 Milk Punch.

2009 NaNoWriMo - nothing to do with a book or reading


Yes, it is that time of year when people put on silly hats and beg for chocolate. No, not Halloween, silly... NaNoWriMo! National Novel Writing Month - every November, insane idiots from strange places like Mississippi and New Yawk City join this online group and try to write a novel in one month.

I meant to do it last year and the year before. There is never the "right" time to write. It is a matter of getting your butt in the chair and doing it.

So, I am doing it under the sassy nom de plume: KDRockstar. Friend me. I am lonely. And my avatar on NaNoWriMo has zero friend placings as well (*ching* - rimshot - and, thank you, tip your waitresses, I'll be here all weekend).

Click here to join the insanity.

Readers shall become writers... for one month. Who knows, it may rub off on you. Moonrat is already there, so let's get the party started!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

AN ECHO IN THE BONE - Diana Gabaldon


SPOILERS (if you are and OUTLANDER fan):

The last time we saw Claire and Jamie, Brianna and Roger had to return to 1960s America because their daughter, Amanda, needed heart surgery. Claire and Jamie had not yet decided on his role for the American Revolution.

It is 1777, and they decide to go to Scotland. What? This goes against everything that Jamie stands for as a fighter.

Of course, things happen (which reflect other books - seriously, could they have one boat trip without a problem?), and they end up Ticonderoga. However, the reader does not get to find out about Claire and Jamie - the beloved characters of this series - until practically a third of the way through the book (except a passing mention). Gabaldon has created the "song that never ends, it just goes on and on, my friends." She adds characters and plots until there is too much, overwhelming the original love for the original characters.

The other books about Lord John are combined into this one, along with the story of William (which was unbearably long and boring). More new characters from that tedious line. More impossible plot twists that will ensure another three decades of these books. Completely unrealistic and uncharacteristic endings to prior plots.

This pains me. If you are interested in the series, read the first three books. After that, it feels like she found the money train and just hopped on. I'm heading to another station, sistah.

1.75 out of 5.0 Bonesetters.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Matter, by Iain M. Banks

Matter by Iain M. Banks
Science Fiction
2008, Orbit

This book may very well end up being selected as my "Best Read of 2009." Yeah. It's that good.

Step aside Star Wars, this is space opera at its finest. The seventh of Banks' Culture novels, Matter follows the journeys of three royal children who share the same murdered father. The oldest son and now rightful king, Ferbin, is also presumed dead. Having witnessed the murder in the shadows, he sets out with his servant to find a way to put everything right again. The only daughter, Djan Seriy Anaplian, is across the galaxy as part of the Culture's Special Circumstances division when she hears of her father's and brother's deaths. She then decides to return home to pay her respects, which means getting de-fanged of her SC enhancements. But it's all good. She stows away her favorite drone disguised as a knife missile. Just in case. The youngest brother, Oramen, who thinks he will be king once he's old enough, dodges assassination attempts while trying to acclimate to his new position as Prince Regent. He's introduced to women, alcohol, drugs, you name it. The entire kingdom is at his beck and call. Or so he thinks. In the meantime, the only available ruler is, not so ironically, the king's murderer, playing every card to his advantage.

And that doesn't even begin to tell the story. There are so many awesome things packed into this book. Alien races and lands you'd never dream of. Something called a Shell World--this concept still has me amazed. Ships that name themselves silly things like, Don't Try This at Home, and The Hundredth Idiot. The fantastical ins and outs of being a member of the Culture. Hilarious interactions between characters that makes your belly hurt from laughing. Bloody fights that make you cringe. Emotional turmoil that had me gasping, crying, biting my knuckles…anything to release the pressure.

The ending to this book was so intense, I screamed. You read that right. I screamed. Iain M. Banks is now one of my favorite authors because of this book, and I can't wait to read more of his work. JUST READ IT!

~Lydia Sharp

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Flann O'Brien/AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS

This is the 1930s debut novel from the cracked genius of Irish humourist Brian O'Nolan (published under his regular nom de plume, Flann O'Brien).  It has come to be regarded as something of a cult classic, and crops up more and more often in 'Greatest Novels' lists.  This exalted reputation developed early, with one of its first reviews being a rave from none other than Graham Greene. A little later, the great James Joyce (of whom the book is principally making fun) acknowledged that it was "a very funny book".
 
I'm going to take the iconoclastic position here.  Now, I love O'Brien/O'Nolan, I have been a huge fan for years.  I like all of his work, and his The Third Policeman is, I think, one of the finest comic novels ever written.  For me, At Swim-Two-Birds just isn't in the same league; in fact, I think it's probably the weakest of all his books.  O'Nolan honed his craft churning out voluminous 'funny stuff' for the Irish Times newspaper through the 1930s and 1940s and on into the 1950s.  He was enormously erudite, and had a unique ear for language; but he was also a drone, used to having to produce quantities of material in a very short space of time, and thus he would lapse into set patterns of creation: when he got into a certain parodistic groove, it became a kind of 'automatic writing' with him, and he could turn out pages and pages of the same sort of stuff in no time at all.  He was also quite unashamed about lifting great chunks of material wholesale from dictionaries and encyclopedias - he was a master of the funny list, taking a series of mundane facts or exotic words and making them amusing through the manner of their presentation.  But he often got tempted to overdo it.  Sometimes that was the point of the joke - challenging his readers' patience, defying them to call him out on just reeling off three or four paragraphs of the same old stuff.  But sometimes, too, I think he may have been doing it just out of sloth, because it was easy, because he could get away with it.  I suspect he may often have been hoping to goad his readers - and even more editors and reviewers - into protest, and was probably mightily dispirited when, again and again, they just lapped it all up uncritically.
 
This is particularly the case with At-Swim-Two-Birds.  It's not really a novel at all; just a ragbag of offcuts from the Irish Times column.  If it has any point, it is to mock the pretensions of modern literature, to parody the stylistic and structural eccentricities pioneered by writers like Joyce.  But I'm not convinced that this was a serious overarching purpose for O'Nolan here; it feels to me more like a private joke, perhaps the result of a bar bet with a friend that he could get a whole book of his trademark whimsy published and taken seriously as a novel.
 
Now, it's not by any means a worthless book.  There is some wonderful writing in it, and many extremely amusing incidents (my favourite scene involves the unusual ethical problems posed by allowing an invisible - and, indeed, incorporeal - entity to participate in a game of poker).  And the principal conceit of the book is interesting, probably the key reason for its enduring popularity: it's a humorous investigation of the relationship between the author and the characters he creates.  The ostensible narrator in the main 'frame story' is an indolent university student whose name we never learn (largely an autobiographical sketch of O'Nolan himself, one suspects), who begins writing a novel in his spare time - though we never see him engaged in his writing.  He creates a character called Dermot Trellis, the owner of an Inn (who shares and exaggerates the student author's own predilection for spending as much of the day as possible in bed) who is himself engaged in writing a novel.  A manifesto is put forward that an author's typical treatment of his characters is cruel and tyrannical, and that it would be more humane to allow them "a private life of their own" outside of their work in his fiction.  Hence, Trellis's characters become 'real' people, lodging in his Red Swan Inn and idling away their time together in the intervals between being called upon to act out Trellis's plot.  For no given reason, a large part of the student's manuscript is given over to extended parodies of old Gaelic lays about the legendary hero Finn MacCool - who (along with Sweeny, the mad king of Ireland, another legendary character in a story told - at inordinate length - by MacCool) later appears at the Red Swan as a companion to Trellis's characters (who include a trio of cowboys he has borrowed from a writer of Westerns in order to fill out some of the bit parts in his novel).  Trellis proves an unpopular master, and the other characters eventually rebel against him and exact an unspeakably cruel revenge - by writing a novel about him.
 
So, yes, it's a quaint idea, and there are some very, very funny bits along the way.  But it all goes on way too long (the lays of Finn MacCool are beautifully written, but they just go on and on for page after page after page, and you can't help thinking that O'Nolan is daring you to skip them).  And ultimately, there's no real point to any of it.  The most engaging episodes, in fact, are those about the student author himself (an early prototype of Withnail and I), but these only account for about 15% of the book, which is rather frustrating.
 
It's a short read, and it does certainly have its moments of brilliance; but you shouldn't feel ashamed of skimming or skipping many passages (I'm convinced O'Nolan really intended that you should).
 
And if you are curious to try it out, you should move quickly.  It has been reported that the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson is slated to direct a film version of it shortly (with Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy said to be starring).
 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

ONE SECOND AFTER - William R. Forstchen


Anyone want nightmares? It is the time of year when people search out ghosts and goblins and witches. Whether it is for All Hallow's Eve, Samhain, or Halloween, nothing will scare you more than this book.

This novel is about the year after three EMF nuclear bombs are set off above the United States - EMF meaning electro-magnetic frequency. All electronics are affected, including newer cars and water pumps. There are no ways to get medicines or travel, except by foot.

John, a history professor and former Looey, is forced by his conscience to help his small North Carolina community. The choices are brutal, and the results are realistic. Even John does not come out of this situation unscathed.

My gripes: there is a definite agenda to this book. The foreward is by Newt Gingrich, and the conclusion is by a doctor who talks about how this is being ignored by current and past administration. The writing is achingly poor... at times, I had no idea who was speaking because of the strange dialogue format. When I read about Hurricane Katrina - well, let's just say I laughed out loud because of the author's politics being inserted into the story.

Still, it is a quick read and will make you have freaky nightmares. And if this happens, don't even think about coming out here. My ranch is already booked for doomsday scenarios.

2.5 out of 5.0 Red Deaths.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein


The Art of Racing in the Rain
by, Garth Stein
2008 by Harper
321 pages
ISBN: 978-0061537967



A first-person protagonist in a novel is nothing new. It is a widely used method of storytelling. However, Garth Stein’s protagonist in his novel The Art of Racing in the Rain is unusual. He’s unusual because he can’t talk. He’s unusual because – well – he’s a dog.

“Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively….And that’s why I’m here now waiting for Denny to come home – he should be here soon – lying on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in a puddle of my own urine.”

The Art of Racing in the Rain chronicles the life of Enzo – a dog of indeterminate lineage – and his life with his master Denny, an aspiring professional race car driver. Part companion, part guardian, part philosopher, we learn Enzo’s unique view of himself, the humans around him and expectations of his future life. We also learn of his unfailing love of racing.

As much as the story is told by Enzo, the tumultuous life of Denny is the real heart of the story. Enzo’s unique perspective allows for many interesting insights into the human condition, but it also limits the view of the lives of Denny and his family. In spite of this, Stein demonstrates his writing talent by relating much of what Enzo misses quite elegantly without it seeming contrived. His storytelling is effective and very efficient - moving things along quickly. There are a couple of occasions when Stein gets carried away and shoehorns a bit too much race car history into the story, sometimes to the point that it becomes distracting. However, this is a minor hiccup in an otherwise enjoyable story about what life from a dog’s eyes might look like. Denny’s life is so full of highs and lows that none of the reader’s emotions are left unused. There are plenty of opportunities to laugh, cry and of course growl.

My only other complaint is I wish there had been more. Normally leaving the reader wanting a little more is a good thing, but in this case I felt at times like I missed a little too much of Enzo’s life. In spite of this, I really enjoyed The Art of Racing in the Rain.

I do have one cautionary warning to parents. While this tale of a dog and his master might seem like great reading for children, Stein does not hold back with both adult language and adult situations. You might want to read it first to make sure it is something your children are mature enough to handle.

Find more of my reviews here.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Patrick Ness/THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO


Part 1 of this novel is a dystopian masterpiece.

Todd lives in a run-down colony where everyone's thoughts can be heard by everyone else as never-stopping "Noise." One day Todd's out exploring with his dog (whose thoughts can also be heard and mostly consist of "Poo, need to poo.") when he discovers a sort of gap in the Noise--a spot of silence. This discovery prompts his caretakers to tell him to flee and never come back. Todd gets no explanation as to why he is suddenly in danger but is given a map, a journal, and a knife.

Awesome.

The rest of the novel peters out from there. Many people disagree with me about this, but quite a few agree: the plot is wearying. It involves Todd running, running, running from his pursuers, the evil men who run the colony he has left. He fights the main antagonist so many times that by the end of the novel the evil man barely has any skin left on his face. And the entire time Todd is trying to escape, we don't know why he's being chased. The answer, we assume, is in the journal Todd carries with him. But Todd can't read very well, and he will not let even his most trusted friends read the journal to him. Todd is told snatches of secrets by a few different characters during the course of the book--but we are never allowed to hear these hints.

When I got to the end of the novel, I didn't find the reason for the pursuit believable. I had pretty much guessed the other secrets, so they no longer had any punch to them. Plus, I was annoyed at being left in the dark and at the repetition of the chase. To top it off, there isn't actually an end to this novel--we're left at a cliffhanger that leads into the second book, The Ask and the Answer (which is out now).

However, a lot of people are praising the socks off this novel, so I would love for you all to give it a read and let me know what you think. Did you find the chase more exciting than I did? Were the secrets more interesting to you? I think this author has some unbelievable talent. His manipulation of language and his dark themes remind me a little bit of Riddley Walker. Ness has some unique ideas and Knife's premise is certainly relevant in a era over-loaded with information. I just wish I had enjoyed the rest of the novel as much as I did Part 1.

The Expanded Bible/Thomas Nelson Publishers


The Expanded Bible is a study-version of the New Testament that's hard to read but useful for, well, studying.

The translation is based on the New Century Version, which is meaning-based (it translates phrases in groups of words, rather than word by word, for a more culturally relevant understanding). However, alternate translations are provided in brackets throughout the text. The familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 13:5 looks like this:

Love is not rude [disrespectful], is not selfish [self-serving], and does not get upset with others [is not easily provoked/angered].

Another interesting aspect of this study bible is that it often places more familiar translations in brackets throughout the text, so if you're used to, say, the King James Version, you'll see where those familiar flowery phrases fit in. Here's an example from 1 Corinthians 13: 7:

Love patiently accepts all things [bears all things; or always protects].

These familiar translations are denoted by a symbol I haven't included here, so it's easy to tell which kind of information you're getting from the brackets.

Clearly, this is a utilitarian translation, meant for use in studying. It also seems great for debating the meaning of certain passages, as it provides literally translated phrases. As you can tell, it's not easy to read straight through, so it's certainly not the Bible to buy for your main use, but it'd make a great gift to an academic, and it'd be good to use in a study group.

View the product page

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer


The House of the Scorpion was the October 2009 pick of the Book Wizards book club (a great group of young adults with intellectual disabilities; I’m lucky enough to be one of the facilitators). It’s classified as a children’s/young reader’s book, but its subject matter and writing style put it on the older end of that spectrum. It won several awards when published in 2002. At 380 pages, it’s a longer read than many adult books in this age of shrinking attention spans, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a good adult fiction choice.

The action is set about one hundred years from now, on the border between the United States and Mexico, now called Atzlán. A country called Opium has been created between the two countries, to act as a buffer zone for deterring illegal immigration and to produce opium legally. Former drug lords are now the heads of powerful syndicates, controlling the huge estates where opium is farmed and running highly effective border patrols.

This plausible and almost reasonable scenario does, of course, have its drawbacks. The drug lords have complete power within their own estates, and, having struggled to rise out of appalling poverty, don’t have a great regard for human life. Captured illegals are fitted with a computer chip which deprives them of any ability to make decisions for themselves – slavery perfected, in a sense, because these people are completely unaware of their enslavement.

The second result of the drug lords’ unlimited wealth and power is that they extend their lives way beyond the normal human span by growing clones of themselves that can be used for spare parts. The normal practice is to stunt the clones’ intellects at birth and raise them as animals; but the whim of the most powerful drug lord, Matteo Alacrán, is occasionally to raise one of his clones as a normal boy, with all of his intelligence and strong will, and give him the privileged childhood he, Matteo, did not have – until he is old enough to provide the required organs.

So this book is the story of Matt, a Matteo Alacrán clone, and his gradual awakening to awareness of who – and what – he is, and what is in store for him. I won’t spoil the story by going over the plot development, because this book is above all a page-turner. The plot’s pretty complex, with a number of well-drawn secondary characters. It brings in several sociological and ethical issues: cloning, obviously, and the use of technology to produce a controllable workforce, but it’s also a study of power and its abuses, and how people react to finding themselves in a state of powerlessness. The social system of Opium is contrasted with the orphanages of Atzlán, which are run on socialist lines for the children of illegal immigrants; they’re no less morally bankrupt than the drug estates, and provide some fascinating points of comparison.

The net result is a book that you can read simply as an exciting story or as a social commentary, at any age from middle school upwards. Pretty good for a children’s book! I can see why teen/young adult literary fiction is gaining ground; its linear plot development and clearly defined points of view are much easier to get your head round than much of today’s adult literary fiction, which is often, to my mind, self-consciously “arty” to the point where you can’t see the plot for the episodes. Don’t get me wrong, I like that kind of book too, but sometimes you just want a good story that also gives you a few things to think about. And The House of the Scorpion will satisfy on both counts.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Twenties Girl: A Novel


Twenties Girl: A Novel
By: Sophie Kinsella

Published by The Dial Press, 2009

ISBN13: 9780385342025

448 Pages

didn't like itit was okliked it (my current rating)really liked itit was amazing

Sophie Kinsella, the popular author from the even more popular Shopaholic series, is back with a new novel. This novel contains everything Kinsella readers have come to expect and enjoy: humorous and culturally relevant commentary, the girl-next-door type(read: pretty and relatively smart, but a bit clumsy, flustered, and says whatever pops in her head; do now, think later), the "prince charming," and of course, the crazy and almost unbelievable situations. But this novel has a twist, and it ain't the living kind folks.

The story follows Lara Lington, a twenty-seven year old woman, who is visited by the twenty-three year old ghost of her great aunt, Sadie Lancaster. Sadie can't "move on" until she can find her greatest possession, a necklace she's had for years. She enlists the help of Lara, and together both women try to solve the "mystery," while simultaneously forging a friendship and learning about one another, something neither could have anticipated (except, of course, the audience).

Is the book good? Yes, it's an easy read, and a fun diversion, something that fans of chic-lit have come to understand and appreciate. Is it predictable. Oh yes, yes it is. A few chapters into the book, I was already aware of how the "mystery" was going to end (ie the culprit). However, to Kinsella's credit, while the general direction of the story may seem predictable, Kinsella always manages to twist the actual events around somehow. So while the ending is not exactly as we imagined it, its still an ending that we see coming.

Is this the fate of chic-lit books? Perhaps, but Kinsella has such charm and humor in her books that its no surprise millions are willing to read what she has to write. Myself included; I have read every single one of her books, under the pen-name of Sophie Kinsella that is.

In general, the book seemed a little too long for me. There were many scenes that I think she could have edited to make shorter, or just plain cut out, and it would not have detracted from the overall plot.

As for the two main characters, I found Sadie to be a bit annoying and rude. It was hard at times to imagine that this is a twenty three year old, albeit ghost, because she seemed like a bratty teenager. But as the story progressed, their friendship deepened, I came across my favorite underlying theme in the book: the importance of family and the disillusion of old age. I've always had tremendous respect for elderly people. Too often they are swept under the rug, their wisdom and experiences deemed irrelevant. Through Sadie and Lara's relationship, Kinsella is able to show the reader that old age does not mean decrepit. Sure, the body weakens, the physical appearance of youth disappears, but the mind is still fresh, young, still in its twenties :) The spirit of those who are older is one that is constantly saying, wow i'm old, how did that happen?! I think Kinsella does a marvelous job in showing that youthfulness, but also illuminating the fact that the old have gone through some extraordinary situations, if only people looked beyond the physical to truly appreciate it.

Overall, if you are a Kinsella fan, then I hardly need to sell you on reading it; you probably have already read it, planning to check it out from the library, or plain buy it. For those new to the Kinsella scene, this may not be the first book I would recommend of hers to read, but it has Kinsella's signature voice, so you can get a feel for who she is as an author.

Not as good as her other books, but a fun and easy read that will keep you entertained.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stuart Neville/The Twelve

[Note: Stuart Neville's The Twelve, reviewed here, will be published in the US on October 1, 2009, as The Ghosts of Belfast, with a different cover. Other minor differences may exist in the text itself.]

Cover: The Twelve, by Stuart NevilleIf you are a novelist looking to be published, I have bad news for you: Stuart Neville sets the bar for beginners very, very high. In his own debut, he begins with a fascinating premise, topical but yet not likely to be yesterday's news anytime soon. Into the premise he inserts a half-dozen fully realized and wholly different main characters, and makes the arcs of their stories intersect in a myriad ways -- and makes us care about it all.

His protagonist, one Gerry Fegan, is a former... well, a former thug (a "hard man") for the Irish Republican Army. Whether simply strong-arming someone insufficiently supportive of the IRA, or killing an outright opponent, Fegan followed orders loyally and without question.

Without outward question, that is; inwardly, he had many moments of doubt and unease. During years of imprisonment and ever since his release, these questions come back to haunt him, and do so in the worst way imaginable for a killer: as his victims' ghosts. They will not let him sleep, and often they will not even let him rest. Moreover, they don't bedevil him merely at nighttime: even in his daylight hours, although silent, they will not let him forget them.

From the book's opening:
Maybe if he had one more drink they'd leave him alone. Gerry Fegan told himself that lie before every swallow. He chased the whiskey's burn with a cool black mouthful of Guinness and placed the glass back on the table. Look up and they'll be gone, he thought.

No. They were still there, still staring. Twelve of them if he counted the baby in its mother's arms.

[...]

...the twelve would follow Fegan through the streets of Belfast, into his house, up his stairs, and into his bedroom. If he was lucky, and drunk enough, he might pass out before their screaming got too loud to bear. That was the only time they made a sound, when he was alone and on the verge of sleep. When the baby started crying, that was the worst of it.
What do they want from him? Simple confession will not do, because confession can lead to absolution and these dead will not settle for any "justice" so passive. They want blood for blood. They want not Fegan's life, but the lives of those who condemned them to death, either by giving him his orders or by looking the other way rather than intervene.

Neville has chosen a simple device to ensure a modicum of tension throughout the book. He's organized The Twelve into 61 chapters, grouped into sections, and each section has a title (whereas the chapters are simply numbered). The title of the first section: "Twelve." The title of the second: "Eleven." And so on through the remainder of the book, like the rhythmic, relentless tolling of a bell marking Fegan's passage to true freedom.

There's another tension in The Twelve as well, one of the oldest of all. Straight into Gerry Fegan's personal hell comes a woman -- a living woman -- and her little daughter. Years ago, Marie McKenna committed one of the worst crimes possible, in the IRA's eyes: she "took up with" an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary:
Even worse, he was a Catholic cop at a time when joining the police was still an act of treachery. [Marie] was already in poor favour amongst many Republicans as she wrote for one of the Unionist rags, the Telegraph or the Newsletter, Fegan couldn't remember which. A romance with a peeler cut her off from all but her mother.
The cop had endured a difficult life with Marie until she got pregnant, then "made his excuses" and took off. Fegan had had nothing to do with any of this in the past, but in the present he cannot escape his growing entanglement with Marie and Ellen. Now Fegan, and now the reader, must care not just about the dead and the soon to die, but about those in whose veins the blood still pulses freely.

And all of them must care, too -- in a different way -- about those in the old-line IRA who can't help but notice the one point where all the fresh trails of death seem to converge...

As you can see from the excerpts above, Neville writes with the assurance and apparent ease of a seasoned professional. Dialogue, exposition, action scenes: no difference. He switches effortlessly from one to another.

But you know what? You have to work to notice that much. You may set out with a critical eye, thinking you'll catch him – however smoothly – in the act of wielding his tools. I predict, though, that you'll repeatedly find yourself another two or three chapters further along since taking your last checkpoint. And you will have utterly forgotten any such mission within a few chapters of the shattering end.