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.