Saturday, February 28, 2009

"The Good Thief" - Hannah Tinti

I thought I was getting "The Book Thief," which tickled my imagination. I'm not sure if it is even a book, but this is what I ended up taking home from the library instead.

Ren is a 12-year-old boy living in a New England Catholic orphanage. He fears growing out of the system, when the army will take him, but his lack of a hand makes him unwanted by the local farmers.

Enter Benjamin Nab, a trickster and schemer who takes Ren away under the guise of brother. Joining Nab's friend, Tom, the trio sell everything from fake potions to dead bodies.

I could have loved this book, but what charmed many people frustrated me. There are no normal characters. From the landlady to the nuns, not a single character has predictable behavior or habits. Without some semblence of normalcy, how do we compare the rest of the crazies? Perhaps if placed in a fairy tale world, it would not have seemed over the top. Placed in a small town in New England, it simply felt like one long tall tale with no honesty. Perhaps the "good thief" is the author, herself.

2.75 out of 5.0 Goods.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"The Gargoyle" - Andrew Davidson

This novel has been called fantasy, modern Gothic, romance, and Christian lit. After the first 20 pages, I wondered what the hell I was doing. After the first 100 pages, I wondered how I could have questioned the author's voice.

Because it's the voice that overwhelms you at first. The narrator, a pornographer (director, producer, and actor), high off coke and doped by alcohol, veers off the road and down a steep embankment. Fire consumes his car and his skin. He plans on making it through therapy to be able to commit suicide.

Then, Marianne Engel appears at his bedside, smirking that he's been burned "again." Again, meaning he'd been burned in a past life that the two of them shared as lovers. She knows about his scar from birth, as well as his thoughts. Marianne also knows a lot about the 1340s because she claims to have lived in a nunnery and transcribed a book similar to Dante's "Inferno." However, after their first meeting, he finds that she is a patient from the psychiatric ward.

Upon her release, Marianne dedicates herself to his recovery, telling him stories of love in Italy, Iceland, England, and Japan. He begins to fall under her spell, even though he also considers her either schizophrenic or bipolar.

Is she? Or is she the love from his soul's past? What is hell, compared to being burned alive in a car wreck? What is hell, compared to being in love?

The roughness of the narrator is smoothed by the end of the novel, like Marianne's rock sculptures of gargoyles and grotesques. While I could pigeon-hole it into a category (women's lit., mystery), I'll say it is simply beautiful writing that provokes thinking, which is my kind of book.

4.5 out of 5.0 Firestorms.

Outrageous Fortune, Tim Scott

Reading this book was painful.  It's so much easier when a piece of writing is completely awful, with no redeeming characteristics..  Then you can stick your tongue out at it and move on.  But this if different.  Tim Scott had a good idea, and then he went and screwed it up, which is a crying shame, because good ideas are few and far between these days.

The basic premise of the novel is as follows: some dude lives in a future where music companies have taken over the government.  He designs dreams for a living, and at the beginning of the book, his house is stolen.

See?  That's wacky!  It's funny!  Too bad it goes downhill from there.  The Douglas-Adamsish adventures of the protagonist are increasingly bogged down by a point
less, irrelevant and badly executed subplot about The Power of Friendship (TM).  There is a brilliant twist at the end, which could have brought the book to a wonderful close, but Tim Scott insisted on cramming in one last sermon on the importance of Being Yourself and Sticking With It, which fits just as well with the rest of the book as this image
does with the rest of this book review.

Friday, February 20, 2009

"Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You" - Peter Cameron

This young adult novel hits the nerve of today's disposable nation, bringing with it a disposable childhood. James Sveck is the depressed, cynical narrator who considers using his tuition money for Brown to buy an old house in the Midwest. This New York City teen works at his mother's art gallery while seeing a therapist after a parent-alarming event on a field trip to DC.

While this short book has been compared to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, it is indicative of our current generation's hopes and fears. Anything mundane is stupid, according to them, and the James-eye viewpoint shows the inner pain with wry humor and intelligence.

4.0 out of 5.0 Pain Killers.

Kiss- Ted Dekker & Erin Healy

Kiss Kiss by Ted Dekker

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I had never read anything by either of thsee authors before and so I really had no idea what to expect. Overall it was a decent book. Sort of like sushi: good and hard to put down, but you don't really remember eating it when you're done and are still hungry for something more.

Kiss is about a young woman, Shauna, who is the daughter of a man running for President of the United States. At the very beginning of the book Shauna is talking to her brother and phsychiatrist about confronting her father. We don't know what she is confronting him with, but it sounds serious. Next the reader knows, Shauna is in a coma, her brother is a parapalygic and all hell has broken loose. Shauna doesn't remember the car accident, or the six months previous. Gradually she begins to uncover part of her story and realizes that she had blown the cover off of an accounting scandal that financed her father's campaign. Her father knew nothing of it, but his business partners were behind her accident and drugged her afterward to try to erase her memory. The drugs however, had an odd side effect: Shauna can now steal other people's memories. Shauna uses this new power to recreate her accident and confronts her father, who for the first time in her life, stands by her side.

I surprisingly liked this book. It was a really quick read, very hard to put down. Within the first fifty pages I thought I had everything figuered out. It seemed like it was going to be really predictable, but it wasn't at all, which was a nice surprise. The characters were a little flat, and at times the paranormal got difficult to swallow, but overall it was a decent read. I'm not usually one to pick up a paranormal thriller, but I would definitely try another one after reading this. It was interesting and easy enough that I really didn't have to think too much about it. Overall, it was worth reading and I would recommend it to others.

View all my reviews.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency- Alexander McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Book 1) The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
The very short summary of this novel is that Mma Precious Ramotswe has used her inheritance to purchase a house and start a detective agency. The novel chronicles some of her cases, ranging from a lost dog to retrieveing a stolen child from a witch doctor. It also relates her past, how she grew up, her relationship with her father, her marraige, birth and death of her child as well as her current love.

I was sort of surprised by this book. I really had higher hopes for it. I have to admit, that I did like Smith's writing and style. It had a definite ease to it and I love how he incorporated so much of African culture without it feeling like a textbook. I think I was most disappointed by the pace of the novel. It was quite slow at the beginning. I wish that Smith would have sprinkled Mma Ramotswe's backstory through the entire novel, rather than focused it at the beginning. I also with that Mma Ramotswe had just a little more depth. I think she could have benefited from more time spent on her personality; she seemed quite flat in spots.

I did enjoy the book overall, but it wasn't as good as I expected. I loved the setting and the overall premise, but it needed just a little bit more. It was worth reading, but I don't know if I'll read any of the other book by Smith.

View all my reviews.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Boudica: Dreaming the Serpent Spear" - Manda Scott

Manda Scott has dreamed her way through four books about the infamous Boudica (Boadicea, Boudicca) woman warrior of ancient Briton. And I grit my teeth.

I'll be frank. I wrote a screenplay about this warrior (the film by Mel Gibson - referred to as "Braveheart in a bra" - is in pre-production). My viewpoints are very different than those of Scott or Gibson (as I understand it) and many other ancient Briton experts. Add to the mix that I'm an American and I'm easily dismissed from conversations regarding the red-headed queen of the Iceni tribe. And, yes, she (via her daughter) has been my project for years.

Still, I liked a lot of Scott's imagery and battle scenes. While her focus is on the "dreaming" (Druid) aspect of the different tribes, it is an interesting mix of Celtic and old Irish traditions and history. The Roman versions of the invasions were less believable, but Scott admits to tinkering with history. Although I don't agree with Scott's version, I appreciate the beauty in it.

Unfortunately, you can't read this book alone. You need to begin with the first and work your way through the series. Even so, I was confused several times and had to rely on my faulty memory and hints from the language to work through paragraphs and scenes.

3.75 out of 5.0 Bay Horses.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

GOD'S CHINESE SON/Jonathan D. Spence

"It's hard to be always on the outside, looking in, but these foreigners have no choice."

That's the immediately arresting first sentence of this book, talking about the earliest - very narrowly circumscribed - foreign trading settlements established at Canton/Guangzhou. Jonathan Spence's fascinating account of the Taiping Rebellion against the Qing Empire in mid-19th Century China first appeared a dozen or so years ago, but I've only just discovered it. It's a bold and unusual choice for a serious historian to craft an account almost entirely in the vivid present tense (often, indeed, as in that striking opening, he seems to be adopting the point of view of one of the protagonists or of a notional Chinese everyman); and, while it can occasionally become a slightly distracting affectation (particularly when he has for a while been forced to dodge backwards or forwards in his narrative, departing for a while from the present tense and then returning to it), it is on the whole very effective in creating an immediacy which secures the reader's full imaginative and emotional involvement in the story. For such a weighty topic, this is a very easy and engaging read.

At the centre of the story is the figure of Hong Xiuquan, a young man from a fairly humble family in southern China who had devoted his life to studying the Confucian classics in order to try to obtain a post in the civil service through the notoriously exacting Imperial examination system. After failing in these exams for a second time, he became sick with a fever and during his delirium experienced an extraordinarily protracted, vivid, and detailed dream in which he went to 'heaven', met with 'god', and fought a great battle against a horde of 'demon devils'. It was only several years later that he puzzled out the significance of this dream in the light of his reading of a foreign book, one of the biblical tracts in Chinese translation which had recently begun to circulate in the country. Hong became convinced that his dream had been a real experience, that the 'god' he had met had been the Christian god, Jehovah; and moreover that he, Hong, was a second son of God, a younger brother of Jesus, and had been sent to Earth with a sacred commission to convert the Chinese to the true religion and save them from the 'demon devils'.

At first, these 'demon devils' were associated primarily with the superstitious practices of traditional Chinese religions, but as Hong's fledgeling religion grew and started to provoke suspicion and persecution from the local government, it rapidly became politicized and militarized, and began to identify the 'demon devils' as China's Manchu rulers, the "Tartar" invaders from the far north-east who had seized the country two centuries before but were never fully accepted by the indigenous Han Chinese and were now starting to find their grip on power increasingly tenuous.

Hong was remarkably successful in winning converts, and gained considerable assistance from two of his earliest followers who proved to be extremely convincing at 'channelling' the voices of God and Jesus to provide advice and encouragement. With this appearance of direct divine intervention, Hong soon created a powerful millenarian movement, intent on establishing a Kingdom of God on Earth, the Kingdom of 'Great Peace' - Tai Ping. The Taipings soon numbered in the tens of thousands and later in the hundreds of thousands, and at their zenith controlled a broad swathe of central China, with the city of Nanjing established as the capital for their Heavenly Kingdom. For 15 years they, and other disaffected groups, waged a bitter civil war against the armies of the imperial government - one of the most terrible wars in history, a conflict that is thought to have left at least 20 million people dead, not only in battle but through brutal massacres and executions, starvation and disease.

Outside of China, this is a history that is probably known little if at all. It should be more widely known, since it is one of the keys to understanding China today (for example, the present Communist government's extreme wariness of religion in general, and of cults like the Falun Gong in particular, is tied to the startlingly rapid growth and the ultimately disastrous impact of the Taipings a century and a half ago), and Spence's book makes it very accessible. This is a book I would highly recommend, even to people who don't normally like non-fiction or history.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Word of Promise Next Generation - New Testament: Dramatized Audio Bible

Teens looking for a more accessible way to read the New Testament will be drawn to this collection of CD's, especially since their favorite stars provide the voices. Some of the stars do a great job, especially Jordin Sparks as an emotive Elizabeth. However, some of the voice-acting isn't so great--Cody Linley's dreamy-voiced Jesus is quite irritating.

The carefully-paced narration and modern translation might be helpful for reluctant teen "readers;" however, these elements might be a bit annoying for those more familiar with the Bible.

Introductions help put each book into historic perspective, and the 40-day "reading" guide is also helpful. A bonus, behind-the-scenes DVD is a big draw: the teens stars give thorough interviews about their experiences with not only this project but also their TV shows and movies. They also speak about their faith.

Overall, this resource makes it easy for teens to get into the Bible--as long as they're not annoyed by their favorite stars' lack of voice-acting experience.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


In September 1981, Isaac Amin is removed from his Tehran jeweler shop by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and thrown in prison for charges that are unclear, but probably has to do with either his accumulated wealth (which marks him a Shah sympathizer) or the fact that he is a Jew (probably making him a pro-Israel Zionist). The story weaves between Isaac's horrific experiences in prison and his family's pained waiting and struggle to stay afloat. His wife, Farnaz, is left to figure out what happened when her husband doesn't come home from work. His eighteen-year-old son, Parviz, is stranded in New York, the money his father has been sending him at its end, and living on the charity of the Hassidic Jewish family with whom he boards. His nine-year-old daughter, Shirin, sees the guards who tore her family apart at work among her playmates, and soon becomes involved in her own secret way.

The Septembers of Shiraz is a fast and gripping read. The whole book is ruminative and elegantly written, calling up a vivid understanding of what daily life must have been like in Iran during the revolution. It's respectful of the horrors the characters experience without being grotesque. The writing is so smooth, though, that even the grimmest moments are compelling. My favorite passages were perhaps the ones from Parviz's point of view, as he struggles against the malaise and inactivity of being alone and depressed in a foreign country, taking a job for his Hassidic landlord while nurturing a secret crush on his host's untouchable daughter.

Sofer doesn't hide her own story, and it's clear that much of the book is autobiographical--her father was thrown into prison, and she fled Iran when she was 10 years old. There is a lot in the book about humanity, and the nuances of good and bad--how sometimes our most trusted friends betray us, but sometimes the people we expect to betray us do nothing but help. Isaac and Farnaz, missing each other acutely, one locked in prison and one trapped in her own house with the revolutionary guards watching her every move, each reflect on the failures of their marriage, the romance that brought them together, the compromises that have driven them apart. They each are forced to account for the friends and family they have lost, who were sinners in their faith, their politics, or their wealth.

I recommend this book highly--it's both very readable and (at least for people like me, who come into it with only a very hazy grasp of what happened in the 20th century in Iran) helpful in distilling history that is only poorly represented in the comings and goings of government and regimes.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Blue van Meer, an oppressively well-read high school senior, has spent her life in the passenger seat of her widower father's car as they drive from university town to university town, averaging three moves a year. As a result, Blue has an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare, resistance movements, and deceased film stars, but not a single friend. For her senior year, however, Professor van Meer decides they will settle in a town with a very good private school so Blue will be sure to get into Harvard. The unsocialized Blue finds herself sucked into a clique of charismatic seniors, the "bluebloods," who gather together under the wing of their film teacher, Hannah Schneider, the most charismatic of them all. It isn't many weeks into Blue's settled life and tenuous new friendships that things become strange and begin to go wrong--and Blue, in her innocence of people, has an awful lot to untangle.

Although this book is more than 500 pages, I found it going very quickly. Pessl's style is compulsively readable and compelling--this despite the fact that there are (often humorous or imaginary) bibliographic citations worked into almost every paragraph. The whole book is nerdishly delectable like that--in that you'll find it delectable if you are *that* sort of nerd. I have met people who loved it as well as people who couldn't stand the style and didn't make it past 20 pages. For the latter group, I feel a little sorry, since they never made it to what turns out to be a multifaceted and mind-tripping little plot.

I, personally, liked it a lot, although I think it's a risky recommendation for people who don't tend to like the kinds of things I read.

I won't say more here, because I don't want to put spoilers directly into the review, but if other people have read it, please let me know! I'd love to talk about the end (so those who haven't read, perhaps shy away from the comments).