Thursday, December 30, 2010

FIXING DELILAH by Sarah Ockler

 Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler
Young Adult
Little, Brown and Company, 2010

Fixing Delilah is a story about discovering buried family secrets and mending present relationships. The story begins when Delilah Hannaford's grandmother dies, and she and her mother spend the summer in Vermont preparing for the funeral, prepping her grandmother's house for sale, allocating assets, etc. Delilah and her mother clearly have a strained relationship at the start. But we soon learn of a big family fall-out at her grandfather's funeral when Delilah was eight, between Claire Hannaford (Delilah's mother), Rachel Hannaford (Delilah's aunt), and their mother, which, Delilah guesses, had something to do with the third Hannaford daughter, Stephanie, who died as a teenager before Delilah was born.

Following all that? This story is an intricately woven web and masterfully presented. It's more difficult to try and tell someone what it is about than to simply read it and learn these things along the way. However, it wasn't until about a hundred pages into it before I felt like I had to keep reading. But that feeling did come. I finished the final two-thirds of the book in record time (for me, that is. I'm a slow reader).

Through Delilah's discoveries of the events leading to her aunt Stephanie's final moments, there is also a romance ignited between her and a boy she hadn't seen since she was eight (the last time she'd been to her grandmother's house). It's clear from the moment he is introduced that there is going to be something big between them, and because it was so obvious it fell a little flat for me. I wasn't impressed with the romance aspect of this story at all, which made some sections feel like they were dragging.

There is a huge twist near the end that I totally didn't see coming, which reveals a gargantuan secret Delilah's mother had been keeping since before Delilah was born. This scene was powerful and nearly brought me to tears. Very well done, and completely unexpected (in a good way). Don't go reading ahead to see what it is, that will ruin it. Just trust me. It's brilliant.

Cover Art: 3 stars (relevant but not very eye-catching, in my opinion)
Title: 3 stars (it gave me the impression that Delilah is severely broken, but really it was her mother who needed more fixing than anyone else. kind of misleading, but still relevant)
Writing: 4 stars (beautifully written but some areas were overworded for my taste)
Story: 5 stars (emotionally compelling from start to finish)
Characters: 4 stars (excellent but I don't like it when the supporting characters clearly outshine the main character. Delilah was bland compared to the others around her)
Ending: 4 stars (excellent climactic peak, but the denouement seemed to go on forever. I prefer a punchy ending with a quick wrap-up)

Overall Rating: 4 stars


Friday, December 24, 2010

LOSING FAITH by Denise Jaden

 Losing Faith by Denise Jaden
Young Adult
Simon Pulse, 2010

This was one of my favorite reads of the year, which re-emphasized why I adore Simon Pulse books (a YA imprint of Simon & Schuster). I have yet to read anything published by them that I don't absolutely love.

Losing Faith covers some heavy issues, not the least of which is the mysterious death of the main character's sister, Faith. As the story moves along, Brie copes with this loss, deals with her parents' depression, faces her own disinterest in all things Biblical, and works to unravel the events that led to her sister's death. Many claimed it was a suicide. A martyrdom, even. But even though Brie admits she and Faith weren't as close as they once were, she cannot believe Faith would ever take her own life.

Brie would have gotten nowhere in her "investigation" without the help of Tessa, a girl from school who is the last person she would have considered saying two words to, let alone becoming friends with. Tessa is the typical bad girl character, dressed all in black, but Brie soon discovers that they have a lot in common.

I'm not sure why this book hasn't received more attention. If you're shying away from it because of the religious themes, you're severely missing out. It is presented in a way that, in my opinion, does not feel preachy or shoved down your throat. The story reads like an intense mystery/thriller/suspense novel. You won't be disappointed.

Cover Art: 3 stars (beautiful, but could have had more intrigue)
Title: 5 stars (I love titles with double meanings)
Writing: 4 stars (good but some parts felt a bit dry, unstylistic)
Story: 5 stars (full of twists and intense emotion)
Characters: 5 stars (realistic and vivid)
Ending: 4 stars (satisfying but somewhat predictable)

Overall Rating: 5 stars


Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Book Book Reviewers' Favorite Reads of 2010

In December, of course, everyone publishes "best books of the year" lists. Here at The Book Book, we don't review only new books; we go with whatever a reviewer chooses to review, regardless of year of publication.

Below appear some of our favorite reads from our reviews of the last twelve months, regardless of when the books in question came out. The order in which the books appear below is alphabetical, by title. Each link from a book title takes you to a full review (in all but one case, at The Book Book); and each link from a reviewer's name will take you to his or her own Web site.

From Claire Dawn:

My nomination goes to Anna and The French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. It's YA Contemporary. From the review at Claire Dawn's site:

Stephanie Perkins has the strange and dubious distinction of being the first author to ever make me cry in the acknowledgements.

To her husband, Jarrod: "Thank you for being you, because you are my favorite."

If that's not a person meant to write teen romance, I don't know who is.

From Lydia Sharp:

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Samantha Kingston dies in a car accident after a party one night, then keeps waking up to the same day over and over again -- the day she dies. The only way to end this cycle is to figure out who and what needs to be saved. Her life? Her reputation? Her friends? Or maybe it's that someone/something she'd never noticed until she'd been forced to relive the same events day in and day out.

I selected this book as my favorite because the story has stuck with me long after finishing the read. Oliver's writing style and storytelling skills are in a class all their own.

From Jane Steen:

In The Convent by Panos Karnezis, six nuns inhabiting a decaying Spanish convent find a baby in their midst, and the seeming equilibrium of their lives is shattered by jealousy and madness. A simply-told tale with chilling undertones.

From JES:

Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan, is nominally a YA fairy tale which you may not choose to share with your children when they're very young. (And I wouldn't blame you.) But its dark, dark surface masks a gentle and whimsical -- even playful -- heart, and it rewarded me on every page. A powerful, wrenching story, told in an exhilarating melange of not-quite-medieval English, set in a world at the very border of real and fantastic.

From Moonrat:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

Set in 1799 on an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, this novel is a story of the Dutch East India Company, Tokugawa Japan, colonialism, oppressed minority Christians, slavery, love, medical history, forgotten religious sects, miscegenation, racism, and war. Mitchell flexes his brawny fictic muscles for 400 pages here, and doesn't cut his readers any slack, so don't embark lightly. But if you have the chance to read and savor it, The Thousand Autumns may rock your world like it did mine.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Portrait of a Holocaust Child: Memories and Reflections by Rita Kasimow Brown

Where I got the book: acquired through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.

Portrait of a Holocaust Child is a very personal memoir of a survivor. When she was a young child in 1942, Rita Kasimow Brown's family escaped from their Polish ghetto and spent nineteen months hiding in a tunnel dug beneath a farmhouse, unable to stand, living on scraps and crawling with lice.

Then they escaped. And Brown eventually moved to Israel. Where, in 2001, she processes the emotions still left over from her childhood experiences through writing about them and dialoguing with an imaginary character named Jay.

And that, really, is that. This is a very fragmentary memoir, made up as it is of the relived past, snippets of the present, and the dialogue with Jay, who talks a bit like a therapist. Which is not surprising because Brown is a therapist.

I'm left with the impression of a psyche caught in the past, unable to get free of the memories and move on to any kind of resolution. Brown's artwork, on color plates in the middle of the book, reinforces that impression: while the abstracts have an adult feel to them, the people in her paintings are childishly represented.

I found Portrait slightly annoying and somewhat disturbing. If you are studying severe, lifelong post-traumatic stress disorder, it might be interesting. If you're a Holocaust junkie, you might like it. Otherwise, I'd pass.

Nemesis by Philip Roth

Where I got the book: my own choice from the library.

I've only read one other book by Philip Roth, The Human Stain. And I wasn't crazy about it, although I thought the writing was superior. (And I guess a few other people thought so too, since it won a PEN/Faulkner Award.)

I liked Nemesis a whole lot more, even though I thought the novel was structurally flawed. Or is that genius, to build flaws deliberately into a novel and then get away with it? It's a fine line.

[SPOILER ALERT] Nemesis is set in Newark in the hot summer of 1944, specifically in the Jewish community in Weequahic. It begins in an expository style, explaining the origins of the polio epidemic of that year, before introducing the main character, Bucky Cantor. This young man, a superb athlete but barred from war service by poor eyesight, works as a playground supervisor and has a passion for helping children grow as athletes. He is a model citizen: brought up by his grandparents, he grew up working in their business and did well at school. He is small, tough, and respected, and his relationship with a doctor's daughter promises a rise in society.

But the polio epidemic hits Weequahic hard, and the playground is particularly badly affected. Children sicken and even die, and Bucky Cantor's faith in God is shaken as he tries to comfort the families and puzzle out why "his" children should be the victims of such a virulent strain. When he finally gives in to the temptation to leave it all behind and join his girlfriend at a camp in the mountains, Bucky's nemesis follows him and destroys his life.

This is a great story told mostly in a tight narrative style interspersed with dialogue. I loved the affectionate descriptions of the community and its people, and really got a sense of the suffering of the families. The writing is excellent: tight and compelling, it sketches scenes with great economy of detail but considerable power, and the dialogues and action are completely convincing.

Where the book fell down, for me, was the odd shock of discovering, about halfway into the book, that the narrator is not the anonymous "omniscient" so useful to novelists, but one of the polio victims; he tells Bucky's story (so that we see Bucky mostly as "Mr. Cantor") but really tells us almost nothing about his own part in it. The idea that he would have become friends with Bucky later in life and is now narrating what he has learned from him just doesn't strike true. I would have been OK with an omniscient narrator, but I find a second-hand narrative through a very minor character rather jarring.

The second thing I did not like was precisely the account of Bucky later in life, when he has turned his back on his former love and all that connected him with the playground. The embittered invalid is a familiar enough trope, but the way this section of the novel is sandwiched between the actual story and a final description of Bucky in his glory days (which strikes me as an attempt to balance out the present-day section) doesn't work for me. Bucky's anger against God is explored in this section, but I think it could have been worked more satisfactorily into the main narrative given Roth's great ability with the pen.

But I could be wrong. Maybe the flaws are deliberate attempts to break the rhythm of the narrative and shock the reader out of complacency. If they are, then I respect them. My overall impression is still of a powerful piece of writing that is well worth reading, and for that reason I'm giving Nemesis an "excellent" rating.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

FREEFALL by Mindi Scott

Freefall by Mindi Scott
YA contemp
(Simon Pulse, 2010)

Seth was the last person to see his best friend, Isaac, alive. And the first person to find him dead. Now he's dealing with careless friends and a girl he may or may not have slept with and failing grades and stagefright and no one seems to care that Isaac is dead and everything is spinning out of control...

...then he meets Rosetta. And little by little, as they're forced to help each other face their issues in an elective course called Interpersonal Communications, things start to turn around. For both of them.

This novel gripped me from beginning to end. Mindi Scott's writing style and constant story twists keep you turning pages. An amazing debut. Four out of five stars.


Monday, December 13, 2010

The Brontës by Juliet Barker

Where I got the book: a gift from a friend (see below).

While I was engaged in the writing marathon that is NaNoWriMo, I was also caught up in a little personal reading marathon. Juliet Barker's The Brontës, published in 1994, is a humungo 830 pages, followed by 170 pages of notes. It is frequently, so it seems, referred to as the "definitive" Brontë biography, which is why I asked my friend The Blond Knitter to buy it for me when I won her blog contest. (I like to think of the writers of definitive biographies crying "Follow that!" as they write the final line. I would.)

The Brontës totally lives up to its billing. Between the text and the notes (which I only dipped into), I really did feel that Barker had explored every possible source available to her. And yet not once, not once, I am not kidding you, was I bored. This could be due to my fascination with all things 19th-century-literature, but I think I'll put it down to good writing.

And I discovered so many interesting things, especially about Patrick Brontë, the father, and his most famous daughter, Charlotte. The book begins with the transformation of Paddy Branty, a poor but highly intelligent farmer's son, to the gentleman who outlived his wife and all six of his children; in some ways, he is the star of the narrative just by reason of his longevity.

Barker sets out to set the record straight about Patrick, who in Brontë legend is usually seen as mad and bad; in her book you get a portrait of a deeply devout clergyman (with a few foibles, such as a tendency to brag about himself and his children to the family he left behind in Ireland) who greatly loved his children, encouraged them to think and write, and was constantly worried about their ill health (which mostly seems to have been due to Haworth's generally unhealthy environment. The water supply was bad, and disease was rife in the village). Charlotte, on the other hand, comes across as less saintly than she usually does: she was rather on the bossy side, prone to outbursts and sulking, and decidedly manipulative.

Barker quotes extensively from the Brontës' letters and early poetry and prose, showing every alteration and insertion so that I got a real sense of their writing process. Fascinating. Her notes are detailed and written in just as lively a fashion as the text.

As the book advanced, it became increasingly hard to put down. A very nicely done treatment of a fascinating group of subjects. I'm actually racking my brains to think of a criticism, but the only one that comes to mind is that the collection of photos is a little idiosyncratic. But I've read enough about the issues surrounding the publication of photos in books to understand that this may have been a situation beyond the author's control.

I'm happy. Except that I have to inform you, dear reader, that this is a hard book to obtain. I was lucky and located a good copy at a reasonable price, but I see that on the day of writing we're talking about "collectible" (i.e. exorbitant) prices. I hope you have better luck.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Catherynne M. Valente/PALIMPSEST

One night, four very different individuals fall asleep to be inducted together into a world they each think is a dream. The four people are Sei, a 20-year-old Japanese woman who works as a railway employee on the Tokyo-Kyoto bullet train; November, a thirty-something San Fransisco woman who works as a beekeeper; Oleg, an ethnically Russian man who works as a locksmith in New York; and Ludo, an Italian man who collects and repairs old books. They have nothing in common except Palimpsest, the world they are brought to. When they wake up in their respective beds the next morning, each has a mark like a new tattoo somewhere on his or her body. It is a map of a tiny section of Palimpsest, the invisible dream city. The only way back is to find other marked people--and to have sex with them.

Palimpsest the city is like a strange sexually transmitted disease of the mind, an obsession with a brightly colored and strangely textured dreamworld where the thing each person is missing in their life can be found. Oleg can be with his long-dead sister. Ludo can find his beloved wife, who left him without explanation. November, an incurable introvert, can be Queen of a society ruled by insects. And Sei, who really loves nothing but trains, can devote her life to loving them. But the happiness lasts only the length of the night, and the "real" world becomes harder and harder to choke down for each of them upon return.

I had to look up the word "palimpsest" while I was reading--it was one of those words I thought I knew, but realized I didn't. A palimpsest, it turns out, is a page of a book (think old-style velum) that has previously been written or printed on, but has now been scraped or wiped blank so it can be recorded on again. I think this gets at the core idea of people trying to create their own stories while never quite managing to escape the residue of their pasts, or the pasts of others, which interfere with their lives. But also, the word kind of sounds diseased, doesn't it? I like to think that echo is deliberate.

The book reminded me in pieces of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, only much sexier, given that every chapter needs to have at least one act of sex in it to transport the character from the real world to Palimpsest. While Valente's writing is certainly sensual, though, I wouldn't describe the book as erotic--there is an increasing sense of desperation in the characters' quests for map-marked partners. Valente creates some thought-provoking implications about why humans pursue what they do, and how happy it really makes them.

The writing is lush, indulgent, and episodic. I was to some extent frustrated by the source of the world, and felt like when I got to the end I hadn't completely wrapped my head around its origins or meaning--perhaps a deliberate effect of Valente's writing, since that frustration of half-grasped information feels a lot like dream-frustration, when nothing quite makes total sense.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Inhabitants, famously, of a country surrounded by oceans and allies, Americans have a reputation for not knowing what's going on in the rest of the world. While not exclusively for U.S. readers, Bob Harris's Who Hates Whom tackles such ignorance from an idiosyncratic angle, per the subtitle: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up: A Woefully Incomplete Guide.

As the tone of that title (and subtitle) indicates, you should not expect from Who Hates Whom a formal -- or even TV documentary-style -- study of the causes of war, despotism, and long-simmering international hatreds. To the extent possible with such a cheerless topic, what you actually get here is a breezy race through large-scale violent current events, and the history behind them.

Harris makes no secret of his "qualifications" for writing this. He's been a television host (for a show about urban legends) and writer (for CSI, Bones, and other shows), a stand-up comedian, a successful game-show contestant (according to his Web site, he's accumulated cash and prizes worth over $350,000 on Jeopardy! and other shows), and a designer of puzzles. His educational background? Electrical engineering. His previous book, Adventures in Trebekistan, recounted his history of success (and otherwise) on Jeopardy! All of which, he notes, "qualifies me for squat. I'm lucky I'm allowed to drive."

But as I knew before picking this up, he's also an incisive commentator on current events. On the right subjects, politics and current events among others, he's less joke machine than satirist.

In working on this review, I couldn't think of a single example of the book's major shortcomings which Harris doesn't concede right at the outset. Yes, it was out of date the minute it came out. (Publication date: 2007.) True, he's a US citizen (and has lived here most but not all of his life), born in 1963, and this can't help biasing his choices and his observations. And fair enough: at 218 pages, Who Hates Whom can't present a complete picture of a single conflict, let alone dozens of them.

None of those problems prevents it from achieving its central aim: to provide a clear, concise understanding of the world's major trouble spots. "This book is meant to be handy when you see something explode on CNN but they switch to Anna Nicole Smith still being dead before you're sure what went kaboom."

Right. He jokes about Anna Nicole Smith media coverage. (And that, from the Introduction, was just the first of numerous references to it.) But that the joke is dated doesn't make it unfunny, and it doesn't invalidate the joke's point, and it didn't weaken my desire for even a superficial, not too out-of-date understanding of the subject.

The book is organized geographically. It covers conflicts, first, in the Middle East and central Asia, moves on to Africa, then to south Asia, east and southeast Asia, the Americas, and wraps up in Europe. Reading about so many different historical and current events, in so many countries, one after another, can be exhausting: it exhausts the mind (the "my brain is ready to explode" effect), and it exhausts the soul ("human beings sure are cruel and they sure are stupid"). You may begin thinking that kidding at all about such stuff trivializes it; yet you may come (as I did) to look forward to the next joke, even a weak and easy one, just for a little psychological relief.

One of the best things about Who Hates Whom, for me, was -- despite Harris's built-in and unavoidable biases -- its neutrality:
I have come to recommend strongly against looking for "good guys." Conflicts often aren't two-sided, and our capacity for rationalization means even the "right" side usually does lousy things. So be ready for conflicts with two marginally bad guys, three bad guys and no good guys, etc.
(See that cover? The two opposing forces are identical; they're differently-colored mirror images.)

If you seek ammunition for a current-events debate about which side is "right," in other words, you need to look elsewhere. Harris does note paragons of nobility and innocent victims. It's just that they all turn out, or so it seems, not to be the principal parties in any conflict. They're individuals. Exceptions and bystanders.

So do you put down Who Hates Whom in despair, believing that nowhere is safe and sane? Not if you read it through the last chapter, which notes:
Get an atlas and cross off the countries that you'd really never visit any part of because you know that they're just too dangerous. There may be dozens, but even then, you'll be surprised at how little you trim.
The book's last few lines may strike you as insufficiently cynical, given all the mass murder and insanity, fear and egotism and self-certainty in the world which you've just read about. Hope and common sense may feel like pretty flimsy weapons to be matched up against bullets and machetes. But really, y'know? They're the only things that have ever worked, consistently. And they have worked: despite official assurances to the contrary, the world has grown demonstrably safer over the course of decades and centuries.

Note: You can preview Who Hates Whom on Google Books, if you'd like a peek before committing to the whole thing.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Yeine is the princess of Darr, a "barbarian" kingdom far from the administrative capital of Sky, but her life is disrupted when she is called to Sky following her mother's death. Yeine's mother had been the heir to the powerful Arameri family, who rule all of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from Sky, but had given it all up to flee to Darr with her Darre husband. Now that her mother is dead, Yeine's grandfather, the king, has called Yeine to the capital to compete for the unwanted privilege of being his heir.

The more Yeine learns about the Arameri capital, the less she likes it--it is a city of cruelty and oppression, where no one's life is sacred and where power is maintained through a distasteful pact with Itempas, the Skyfather, one of the three gods. (In the pact, the Arameri keep a second god and the gods' children as slaves; the third god was murdered in the war for power.) And now Yeine is being forced to compete for the dubious distinction of heir to this realm, and for her life.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was recommended to me separately by several different people, at least two of whom said it was the best thing they had read this year. I definitely enjoyed it and would recommend it to all fantasy and scifi readers--it's innovative but epic, with plenty to chew on. It's adventurous, sexy, and morally fraught--basically everything one looks for in meaningful new fantasy novels. This is an idea book, with many powerful allegories, and if I had one gripe with it it was that it could have been longer and let me indulge in those ideas a little longer. But that's ok, I'll forgive the author, since she's written two more books in the series.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Knife of Never Letting Go

By Patrick Ness

This is the first Young Adult book in the Chaos Walking Trilogy. Though the MC Todd's narrative got annoying at times (he is a teenage boy, after all), this is one of the only books I have recently read that I can say is truly unique.

All of the characters, at least to start, are male, and all possess an illness they caught from the planet called, "Noise", which makes their thoughts open to all around them in both word and picture. This leads to some funny moments when the MC's thoughts (the book's narrative), are answered by the characters around him.

Even the animals can talk, and Todd's dog, Manchee, has some hilarious moments, including where he has to admit he was going, "Poo, Todd" instead of watching his back.

The positives far outweigh the negative portions, and it does take a dark turn in the last third of the book. I have to recommend it for its uniqueness and because it needs to be read to appreciate parts of the rest of the trilogy.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

POSITIVELY by Courtney Sheinmel

Positively by Courtney Sheinmel
Middle Grade Contemp
Simon & Schuster, 2009

Every so often I come across a book by accident that ends up being one of my favorite reads of the year. This is such a book. It's not exactly new, but for some reason it was still featured on the "new release" shelves in the YA section of my local library. I had no idea what to expect just by looking at the cover, but I like pink so I picked it up.

I know. That's a silly reason to read a book blurb. I've never denied the spell that book covers cast on me, though. For this one, it was just the overall cleanness of it (and the pink bubbles) that got my attention.

Once I cracked it open and read the blurb, there was no turning back.

Emerson Price cannot remember a time when life was ordinary. She was four years old when she and her mom were diagnosed as HIV-positive -- infected with the virus that causes AIDS -- and eight when her parents divorced. Now she is thirteen and her mother is dead. Emmy moves in with her father and stepmother, but she feels completely alone. Even though everyone has always accepted her, no one -- not her father, or stepmother, or even her best friend -- understands what it's like to have to take medicine every single day and to be so afraid of getting sick. Now Emmy misses her mom more than she ever thought she would.

When Emmy's dad and stepmother send her to Camp Positive, a camp for HIV-positive girls, Emmy is certain she is going to hate it. But soon she realizes that she is not so alone after all -- and that sometimes letting other people in can make all the difference in the world.

It's a bit chilling to think of this girl's situation. Even more chilling was the opening sentence:

When my mother died I imagined God was thinking, One down, and one to go.

The story that followed did not disappoint. Something like this has the potential to smack you around with ideals, but the author never once did that. It was raw and real, and at times, a bit unreasonable. But I wouldn't expect a 13 year-old girl to be reasonable, especially when she knows she might not live to see adulthood, she might not ever have a first kiss, let alone have sex with anyone... she might not ever know if people are nice to her because they feel sorry for her or because they actually like her as a person.

These are not small things.

And yes, this book made me cry, but probably not for the reason you're thinking. When Emmy goes to camp she starts to see things differently, about herself and others. What really got to me, though, was how her view of her mother remained consistent through the entire story. She never got upset with her mom for passing on this death sentence to her. She cherished what they had together while they had it. She remembered the good things about her mom, and if she realized she was forgetting something specific, like the sound of her mom's voice, it saddened her.

There are so many things to love about this book. I'm sure I could read it again and see things I didn't see before. It is one of those rare reading experiences that has a truly resonating quality, which is why I'm surprised I'd never heard of it before.

Please read this book and tell others about it. I've added it to my list of recommended reading for teens, but I think adults should read it, too. Everyone.

Monday, November 8, 2010

George Friedman - The Next 100 Years

TL; DR : Worth reading, if you can take it as speculative sci-fi rather than a history of things which haven't happened yet. Buy it if you're looking for something interesting and feel like stepping off your beaten literary path.

For some reason, it's become really popular to predict the coming fall of America. China is rising, we're falling, our age of dominance is over and we'll soon be playing but a bit part on the world stage. Depressing stuff. Which is why this book was, if not always completely believable, at least a refreshing read.
In this book, George Friedman first claims that he will draw a rough outline of how the next hundred years are going to play out, and then proceeds to draw a ridiculously detailed one. I won't pick apart all of his core assumptions here, because I would be in serious danger of breaking the strictly enforced 60,000 word limit. Suffice to say that, if you write a future history based on the assumptions that China and Russia will both fall apart, and America will continue to rise, you're building on shaky ground.
But let that go. Predicting the future is really a hopeless enterprise, and reading a book of predictions as a graven list of Things That Will Happen can only be annoying. That isn't to say, however, that The Next 100 Years isn't worth reading. Friedman starts with a valid (if not perfect) set of assumptions, and reasons forward along the most rational path - as far as any of history's twists can be called 'rational'. The result is a sprawling tangle of future wars and politicking that makes for a good story if you can get past the fact that you're supposed to take all of this seriously.
In the end, there's nothing more fun than reading about the US squaring off against Japan, and winning. Again.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Patrick Lee/THE BREACH

I just finished this and I'm not sure I can formulate any coherent thought other than YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW. LIKE STARTING YESTERDAY.

This one took me by the throat in the first sentence and didn't let go until the last. Actually, it didn't let me go at the last sentence. It didn't let me go at all. Luckily there's a sequel coming out at the end of December, titled GHOST COUNTRY.

Read this. If you have to sell a kidney (to steal Simon's suggestion) just to get the mass market paperback, do it. If you love thrillers, you'll love this. If you love SF, you'll still love it. If you love taut, no-nonsense writing that tells the damn story, you'll love this.

BIG new fan of Patrick Lee. One of the few books I've read in a while that left me shaking.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Octavia E. Butler/KINDRED

In 1976, Dana has just moved into a quiet country house in California with her husband, Kevin. Their life as writers is relatively quiet, but Dana's comfort is shattered the first time she is sucked into the past, into the first decade of the 19th century, to rescue a drowning little boy. The early 19th century isn't a very pleasant place for a young black woman (with ostensibly no husband or owner to protect her) to be stuck. As she is repeatedly called back to the past, Dana begins to put together her strange situation, and realizes that the young boy she rescued, Rufus, is her own great-ancestor: a slave-owner in rural Maryland. She is sucked into the past every time his life is in danger, with, she guesses, the unique and trying job of keeping him alive long enough so that he can sire her great-great-great-grandmother.

Dana's adventure, a rather familiar scifi/time traveling narrative used to examine slavery, is a deeply psychological reading experience. Butler's prose is straightforward and the narrative deceptively simple, but it calls up serious and very interesting questions. As Dana watches her young ancestor grow up, she also watches him change from an open-minded little boy to an increasingly corrupted and antagonistic man. The abuses and corruptions open to a nineteenth-century male slave holder begin to take hold of him, and Dana is forced to ask herself whether she can actually justify helping keep him alive. When she is stuck in the past for long periods of time, she is necessarily trapped by slavery; on the occasion when Kevin (who is white) is brought to the past with her, she must deal with the psychological ramifications of their very different circumstances.

One of Butler's most powerful points is about the insidiousness of slave psychology. Not only does Dana begin to acclimate to the enslaved lifestyle, she continues to tolerate it as her bad treatment gradually escalates, and there comes a point when she is even an agent of its enforcement. My skin crept as I followed her logic in support of the status quo, and I began to feel oppressed by the hopeless and seemingly irrefutable situation I was reading about. I think this creeping sense of dread and disgust was the product of a very carefully and cleverly crafted book.

Lydia Sharp reviewed Kindred here a couple months ago. I already owned a copy and intended to read it at that point, but I thank her for inspiring me to bump it up on my list.

Kindred was first published in 1979, and I was really unhappy to learn after discovering this book that Octavia Butler died (rather tragically young) in 2006. But I'm glad I found her. After going to the Sirens Women in Fantasy conference recently, I've started to think really closely about the ways women have shaped the sff genre. There's a neat "period table" of great female sff writers of the last century ("great" being determined by awards and nominations) that has been some help to me as I try to understand the genre better. In case anyone else is interested in and wants to talk about the genre, please hit me up!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

GOOD IN A ROOM/Stephanie Palmer

This book is well-known among screenwriters. It should also be well-known among novelists, but it's also great for other business situations. In fact, the principles would probably work better in business situations outside of Hollywood because typically, no matter how competitive an industry might be, it's probably not as competitive as Hollywood.

It's a great book if you own your own business and are looking for clients, if you're looking for a job, AND if you're trying to sell your screenplay (or even your novel). Breaks down the infamous sell meeting (or job interview) into five parts, which I know exist from all the job interviews I've been on. Now I have a better idea of what to do and what to pay attention to.

But the best part was that it confirmed my suspicion that a lot of networking rules are bullshit. Yes, you really are supposed to build rapport with people you truly respect and not with everyone you meet. Just because you meet an editor or a well-known agent in an elevator doesn't mean it's an opportunity to pitch your novel. That's rude and you're more likely to be remembered in a way that you don't want to be. (Palmer addresses the problems of selling the screenplay in part because she's the former Director of Creative Affairs at MGM Studios.)

In a natural writing style, Palmer advises you on how you can sell yourself or your work without making the hard sell. A 'no' isn't the end of the world—it's actually an opportunity to find out what's not working and fine tune your techniques. Hard questions from a potential buyer are actually a good sign.

This is a great book for business people and artists alike. If you're mystified about business transactions and want to know more about how you can handle yourself before and after your published or in other business situations, this is a great book to read.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


1975, Laos: Dr. Siri Paiboun, who is 72, has been cordially invited (in other words, coerced) by the new communist government in Laos to become the national coroner (basically, he's the only person left after the revolution with a medical degree). Siri isn't thrilled about being denied retirement, but it turns out he has a knack for his new job. Furthermore, as the only official examiner of dead bodies, Siri is in the unique position of being able to spot a murder.

In this first book in Colin Cotterill's series, Dr. Siri faces two mysteries: the suspicious death of a politician's wife (appearances indicate an allergic reaction, but Siri's not buying it, for a number of reasons), and then, separately, the resurfaced bodies of two Vietnamese soldiers who were found in a Laotian lake. Unfortunately, there are those who, for various reasons, don't want Siri digging to deeply into either case, and soon it becomes very clear that his life is in real danger.

I chose to blog about this book because I was SO pleased by it. I immediately turned around and gave my copy to my mother, a devout mystery reader, and was gratified when she felt the exact same way. It's a really, really well done mystery, and very atmospheric. Although I am not really qualified to say the setting is authentic--I've never been to Laos--Cotterill's creation certainly feels authentic. Coming out of it, I feel better educated as well as entertained. I definitely intend to read his next book soon.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ladder of Years- Anny Tyler

Ladder of Years- by Anne Tyler

As I was sitting a month or so ago, twiddling my thumbs at Parent-Teacher Conferences, since I rarely have parents show up, one of my assistant principals came down to my room to chat with me. We somehow got started talking about books and our family lives and she recommended this book to me. She said it was one of her favorites, and promptly sent a student with a copy for me to borrow the next day. I'm always intrigued by book recommendations, especially since I get them surprisingly rarely, so I dove in and hoped for the best.

Ladder of Years features Delia (coincidentally the name that I chose for myself in high school Spanish class), a middle-aged housewife who feels rather, well, beige about her life. She married Sam, the doctor set to take over her father's practice, right out of high school, promptly had three children and now that her kids are mostly grown and her husband completely settled in his practice, she doesn't have much to do with her time.

The book opens at the grocery store, where an attractive young man asks Delia to pretend to be his girlfriend so he doesn't have to encounter his estranged wife and her new boyfriend. She is secretly thrilled by this little escapade and when she later bumps into him on the street, begins a clandestine, though small affair. Her building dissatisfaction with her home life comes to a head when she is with her extended family on their annual trip to the beach. She's fed up, so she picks up her beach tote and walks away without ever looking back.

Now, in theory, I should have loved this book. I have upon many occasions, since the age of oh... nine or so, fantasized about simply running away from my life to try something new. Not that my life is particularly dissatisfying, or bad in any way, but there's just something about how beautifully free I would feel walking away from it all. So, I should have liked this book. I should have related to Delia and her plight to start from scratch. I should have, but I didn't. At all. I was rather disappointed by the whole thing. The writing was lovely, but I had a really hard time getting a sense of time in the setting. The book itself was published in 1995, but the social morays and way people acted felt more like 1950 something. But, then there would be other indications that it was more recent, computers, medical stuff, etc. It probably shouldn't have bothered me as much as it did, but I just felt lost in time. The characters also felt flat to me. Now, that may have been the point, showing how Delia was really nothing in her world, felt see-through, blah, blah, blah. It still didn't work. The plot was meh and the end really left me wanting something more substantial.

I may not have connected as well to this book as the middle aged housewives this book was geared towards would have, but who knows. It just didn't speak to me. It was interesting enough, I guess. I did keep turning the pages because I wanted to see what was going to happen to Delia, but it's not a book that's going to stick with me. So, I guess, in the end, I would probably recommend this book to anyone who has kids, a husband and not much else on their reading list. Otherwise... skip it.

Read my other reviews HERE.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Deliver Us From Evil, by David Baldacci

Deliver Us From Evil
David Baldacci
Grand Central Publishing, 2010
416 pages

“Why do you need that?”
“Because I want to make sure I stop the pain before I kill you, of course.”
Abdul-Majeed tensed and began to chant under his breath.
“So your god is great, Abdul-Majeed?” said Waller, translating the words. “We will see how great he is to you.”

The mysterious super-operative known as Shaw is back to face an even more deadly foe in Deliver Us From Evil. Fresh off of Baldacci’s The Whole Truth (4.0 stars, Recommended) he finds himself tasked with bringing in monstrous Evan Waller, a businessman who’s dealing in sexual slavery and nuclear material has him in the crosshairs of Shaw’s organization. But there is far more to Evan Waller than Shaw knows. Shaw also doesn’t realize that he is not the only one targeting Waller and not everyone has the same agenda that he does. They all come together in the quiet French town of Provence, as everything quickly falls apart.

As always, Baldacci sets his scenes beautifully and provides his trademark sharp dialog. The action is intense at times, but the story lacks the punch of a great thriller relying on dramatic scenes instead of building the tension continuously. There is a feel of inevitability to the first half of the book, with a culmination that is quite predictable. The second half of the book is disjointed and at times feels likes some of the story that should have been there had been cut out of the book. And while the characters are interesting, they often feel too one-dimensional and I didn’t really feel any emotional tie to them.

The ending had some interesting twists, but it really didn’t engage me in the way The Whole Truth did. The characters seemed more clichéd on the second trip around and I’m not nearly as courteous about what happens to them next as I feel I should. That said, the book is very readable and I never felt bored. It’s a good story, but not a great one. I’m hoping for much better from Baldacci with this series the next time.

You can read more of my book reviews here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

BLUE FIRE by Janice Hardy

Blue Fire by Janice Hardy
The Healing Wars: Book Two
Balzer + Bray, 2010
Middle Grade (ages 10 & up)

The second book of The Healing Wars trilogy, Blue Fire, is just as amazing as the first (my review of Book One: The Shifter is here). From the back cover:

"Is that you, Shifter?"

I swallowed my gasp. She had to be guessing. She couldn't possibly know it was me.

"I'll leave the girl alone if you show yourself. You're a much better prize for the Duke than she."

The dock creaked again.

"You can't evade me for long, Shifter," the tracker said in that irritating singsong voice.

Maybe not, but that didn't mean I wouldn't try.

Nya and company have a knack for finding trouble. But I guess that tends to happen when you're only fifteen and trying to overturn a corrupt government... and you're wanted for murder, with a price on your head.

In this second installment of the Healing Wars trilogy, Nya is hunted down by the Duke's best tracker. She is again separated from her sister, Tali, and also her friends, Danello and Aylin. But this time the story shifts from the city of Geveg to Baseer.

If you've read book one, you know what a horrible fate that would be. Gevegians hate Baseeri, and vice versa. Bringing the story into one of the most hostile territories possible for the MC was brilliant. As in The Shifter, Nya is face-to-face with danger on just about every page. The pacing is at a constant high, making it a quick and fun read.

In addition to physical dangers, Nya makes some unsettling discoveries about her family history. Along the way, her skills continue to sharpen. Her ability to flash pain from pynvium is not so unreliable anymore. She's been learning physical combat under Danello's trained hand. But she's still the same stubborn Nya we grew to love in book one; she doesn't always make the best decisions when the emotions involved are strong.

And true to "middle  book" style, the story ends on a huge cliffhanger. Book Three will not be released until October 2011. I'm drooling in anticipation. This is by far one of the best series I've read in a long time.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Whisperers, by John Connolly

The Whisperers
John Connolly
Atria, 2010
416 pages

“‘Oh, little one,’ he whispered, as he gently stroked her cheek, the first time he had touched her in fifteen years. ‘What have they done to you? What have they done to us all?’ ”

The border region between Maine and Canada becomes a dark and dangerous place in John Connolly’s latest thriller featuring private detective Charlie Parker – The Whisperers. But there seems to be more at work among the cool forests than just treacherous former solders as voices of a paranormal nature are said to be directing things. While this adds additional tension to the story, The Whisperers is first and foremost a detective novel. Charlie Parker has become a well-worn detective by the time of this ninth installment in the series. Even so, the book reads well as a stand-alone work, with only minor references to the previous stories. Connolly never lets the tension slack from the first paragraph to the last sentence. His writing wastes no momentum with clean imagery and engaging characters throughout. The entire story feels very realistic as the allegiances of the characters are never completely clear, leading to one dramatic scene after another as the story builds to its startling climax.

Some readers of detective novels might balk at the idea of the paranormal in the story. However, Connolly does a wonderful job of ensuring reasonable doubt from beginning to end. The characters are the drivers of the action and there is plenty of it. The dialogue is crisp and authentic and many of the characters are as genuinely interesting as the protagonist – at least until they meet an untimely end. There is no letup in the story and I cruised though it from start to finish. In the end, I wanted even more. I finished the book and began looking to find copies of the first eight books in the series –a fitting compliment for any work.

Read more of my reviews here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

(intentionally left blank) of Leaves/Mark Z. Danielewski

You have to read this book.
Sometimes, a book comes along that defies genres. Such a book dares you to pin neat little one-word adjectives to it (they won't stick, even if you try); it refuses to be shelved with its kin, is often a classic, and is always worth reading.
This book is not a book like that. Not only does House of Leaves defy any classification or attempt to cubbyhole it, it actively fights the format in which it is presented, as well as fighting you, the reader, in your attempts to comprehend it. You will face a gauntlet of confusion, you will unearth meaning buried beneath meaning like Matryoshka dolls of fear, you will sometimes have to read upside down. In the end, you will win through to the end of this book - only to see the spirit of the thing burn the truth of the matter to keep it from you. Sound like fun? I didn't think so either - but it is. Is this a book? Not as such. I would feel more comfortable describing it as a labyrinth/crossword-puzzle-mystery on paper. What in god's name is that? I don't know. But you really, really need to get in on it.
These first few paragraphs really give you no insight into Mr. Danielewski's bad-acid-trip-horror-thriller-lovestory -(documentary?)-thing. This is because any attempt to describe the book can be nothing but a reproduction of the book. But for the sake of giving this review a semblance of normality (which doesn't seem fitting, given the fact that this novel seems to have fallen out of an alternate universe) I'll give it a shot.
Ok. So there's a young tattoo artist named Johnny who is taken by a friend named Lude to a dead old man's apartment named Zampano. There, he finds a ragged, half-assembled critique of a movie that may or may not actually exist. The movie is a documentary made by a famous photographer who moves into a house and quickly finds out that it is larger on the inside than on the outside, and may or may not be (spoiler! except it may not be) Yggdrasil.
Does that make any sense? No? I didn't think so. Buy the book.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael

This is my second read this week that blends fact and fiction to describe part of the life of a famous person, in this case Charlotte Brontë. The other one, you may remember, was Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell, which I liked but wasn't crazy about. Today I get to gush a bit, which is a nice treat.

There are some new rules out about bloggers declaring when they receive products to review, and quite right too. So I'm going to make a habit of telling you where I got my books, thus:

Where I got it: chose it myself at the library. I love my library.

Romancing Miss Brontë describes a slice of the life of Charlotte Brontë, starting with the appearance of Arthur Nicholls in the Brontë family's life. Nicholls had come to work as the curate for the Brontë paterfamilias, Patrick, who was going blind with cataracts. At this point in time the Brontë family--already diminished by the deaths of the mother and two children--was composed of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell, who had begun his slide into alcoholism and drug addiction.

Gael gives few or no dates in the novel so I had to grab Juliet Barker's seminal biography, which I'm currently also reading, to find out that the year was 1845 and Charlotte would have been about 29 (already an old maid by the standards of the day). Over the next ten years she would become famous, but when the novel begins the Brontë family are isolated, considered rather odd, and eking out a meager living on Patrick's stipend with no other sources of income in sight. Romancing Miss Brontë covers the next ten years and describes--or imagines--how Arthur's love for Charlotte grew despite the stiff, formal relations that existed between them for most of that time.

Well, I don't say it very often: I LOVED this book. It worked for me on the level of a fictionalized biography; I always take this kind of writing with a pinch of salt and remember that its historical accuracy is not guaranteed, but I had no idea in this case where fact ended and fiction began (until I read Gael's Author's Note at the end) and there were only two or three paragraphs where Gael dropped into a documentary tell-not-show style. Other than that, there was lively dialogue, plenty of action, and letters (some real, some, apparently, imagined, but very well done) to vary the diet and bring out some of the inner feelings of these reserved Victorian characters.

The characters were extremely well drawn; I have read a great deal about the Brontës but I've rarely felt that I've been given such a good sense of them. We also see their servants, friends and business acquaintances, all vividly depicted, and I truly felt a part of the story. If there was a jarring contemporary note in the dialogue, I didn't find it. It just worked.

Romancing Miss Brontë also, in its later chapters, worked for me as romantic fiction. Arthur Nicholls tends to be a subsidiary character in Brontë tales, but Gael managed to give him a touch of the Mr. Darcy's--outwardly stern and forbidding but with a heart of gold and a smoldering passion for Charlotte. It's pretty difficult to imagine the romantic and sexual side of a Victorian relationship with all its attendant repressions, but I found myself really hoping that things had, in fact, been as Gael imagined them to be. The creator of Jane Eyre deserved no less. By the way, that last link is to the new, Twilight-inspired cover of Jane Eyre, which is no less than sacrilege. Harrumph.

Anyway, this is a very nicely written novel that won't make Brontë purists wince and might just revive some interest in the Brontës' lives and work. I am now absolutely itching to reread Jane Eyre. Slam dunk, Ms. Gael.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Jack Rosenblum and his wife, Sadie, are refugees from the Holocaust who end up in England, where Jack, very grateful to his new home, takes it upon himself to become the best English gentleman he can be. There are some hurdles Jack can't seem to jump no matter how hard he tries, though--for example, he cannot get himself admitted to a golf club, since there seem to be no English gold clubs that admit Jews. When the failures begin to get him down, Jack decides to solve his problem himself--by building his own golf course. He and Sadie relocate to Dorset, where he invests his entire carefully accrued fortune in a plot of land and in efforts to combat some fairly insurmountable difficulties--among them, his hostile country neighbors, the rich neighboring gentry who look down on him no matter what, the notoriously soggy English weather, and the famous fearsome Dorset woolly-pig.

At first I was skeptical about Mr. Rosenblum, what with having no personal interest in golf myself, but in the end I loved this book. (As it turns out, Jack knows nothing about golf, either, so I was in good company.) It's a very sweetly told story of a family in great flux, and is a very different take on the post-War era than I have ever seen before. Jack faces some pretty awful challenges--fiscal setbacks, racism, classism, ill health, nasty neighbors--but he is indomitable, and his story uplifting. Solomons's depiction of Dorset is rich and lush, and the novel takes much joy in Jack and Sadie's prosaic encounters, like Jack's getting drunk with the antagonistic bully neighbors and Sadie's teaming up with the village wives to create Coronation chicken. I recommend the book as a real heart-warmer, a literary novel that is somehow also feel-good.


At the time of this book's publication (1997), Earley was the only writer to interview Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent and KGB spy. Earley did more than 50 hours of interviews with Ames before the CIA got wind of things and whisked Ames off to federal prison. When I first started the book, I had barely heard of Aldrich Ames, so I suppose I was as open-minded as one can get. The results are less than revelatory—but that's not due to Pete Earley's writing.

It's natural to want to know why someone would commit treason. Did Ames compromise more than 100 operations and turn over to the KGB twenty to twenty-five names of KGB agents who were working for the CIA and FBI because he no longer believed in the principles for which the CIA fought? Or, more accurately, because he believed the CIA no longer believed in them? He cites this in his interviews, but it feels perfunctory. Really, he did it for money. Initially he convinced himself he was desperate for cash due to his divorce from his first wife. He waltzed into the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C.—without even being recruited!—and started turning over information.

Besides the damage he did to CIA operations, he was responsible for the executions of no less than ten Soviet men who were helping the CIA. (One other committed suicide.) Most often noted is General Dmitri Polyakov, who was a CIA spy for 18 years. He was already retired when Ames gave the KGB his name.

Though hindsight is always 20/20 in these situations, it's hard to fathom how the CIA could have missed a mole in their ranks when twenty to twenty-five Soviet agents went missing in 1985 over a period of just a few months. Ames turned over the names of virtually every spy he knew about (he was rather high-ranking himself in the CIA, and had access to everything the CIA was running on the Soviets) and by the end of fall they had all disappeared. Only a few people in the CIA suspected Ames was the mole.

Why? Though Ames (called "Rick" throughout most of the book) was a known lush, drinking in the CIA was part of its culture. In itself getting drunk at gatherings was not enough to point the finger at him. Additionally, a list of people who knew of at least one of the spies Ames had named was a total of 198 people. Mountains of paper had to be sifted through, financials had to be checked, and the team had to interview people on the list without raising suspicions they were looking for a mole.

Mistakes were made, most notably by the FBI, who later took the vast majority of the credit for their role in catching Ames. Ames made no less than four drops right under the FBI's nose. It defies explanation.

Yet Earley manages to play fair to all parties involved. As already pointed out, Ames's drinking was not enough for people to point the finger at him as the mole. And the CIA team was misled by an informant to believe that Rosario's (Ames's second wife) family was stinking rich, which explained the $540,000 house and a succession of three Jaguars, as well as $30,000 monthly credit card payments. But the mole hunting team kept digging, and eventually Sandy Grimes (one member of the team and the only one convinced Ames was the mole they were looking for) made the connection that he was working for the KGB. Reading the book, it's easy to see how they could miss this until she logged his deposits into her already-existing time table of his meetings with Soviet officials. Many of the deposits were made the day of the meetings or the day after.

The book drags when Ames is quoted extensively, as he is in nearly every chapter. Giving every appearance of enjoying himself, he gives winding and self-serving explanations about why he turned over the names of the men who were later executed. He notes that these men were "not innocent" bystanders, but knew how the game was played. Jeanne Vertefuille—the lead investigator on the mole hunting team—counters this, saying, "Traitors are not all the same. Sure, some of the Russians we recruited were doing it for the money. Some of them were despicable characters. But others were not. We in the United States have so many outlets if we don't like what our government is doing . . . They didn't have these outlets, particularly Eastern Europeans who didn't like what the Soviets were doing to their countries. For many of them, espionage became a way of protesting the injustices they saw."

If you're looking for insight into why Ames did what he did, you'll find it here. For me, though, it wasn't all that enlightening. But I found learning more about the relationships between members of the CIA at the time and between the CIA and FBI fascinating reading.

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell

There's a whole sub-genre out there of historical novels that are based on real people, and this week I'm sampling a couple of them from my favorite literary era, the 19th century. I'm never 100% convinced that I like this kind of blending of fact and fiction in principle, but in practice I invariably find them escapist fun while taking everything that's written with a large pinch of salt.

Claude and Camille is about Claude Monet and his first wife (and before that long-time mistress), Camille Doncieux. It begins much earlier in Monet's life, at the point where he first began to paint in oils at the age of 17, and traces the early steps that led him to join forces with the group of painters that became known as the Impressionists. It ends somewhere in the middle of Monet's career, I think, at about the time he was starting to have some success but his finances were still extremely precarious.

I enjoyed reading this book, although to me there was a big difference between the middle part of the book and the first and last 50 or so pages. The beginning and end of the novel seemed to have a somewhat documentary tone, perhaps because they were moving faster through the events of Monet's life. The part I really liked was the middle, where Monet was constantly struggling with the tension between remaining true to his artistic vision and providing for his family. I think Cowell brought out well how Monet lived for his art to the point of rejecting all other offers of work and, in effect, to the point where art became a destructive element in his personal life.

I got a good sense of Monet's relationships with some of the other Impressionists, which is always interesting as we tend to see these painters studied in isolation with the other characters just dim figures in the background. I did a lot of reading about these people when I was writing a master's thesis on Zola and Henry James, and that whole society of artists, writers and intellectuals holds a fascination for me. In fact I would have liked to have seen more detail and more names, but then I suppose we would have had a different type of novel, and Cowell does a good job of sticking to her main focus, the relationship between Monet and Camille. All in all, it's an entertaining read.

For really detailed descriptions (straight from the source) of the artist's life in 19th-century Paris I would recommend Zola's L'Oeuvre, generally titled The Masterpiece in English, and the de Goncourt brothers' Manette Salomon, which unfortunately is not available in English (it's a hard sell because of some anti-semitic elements, but it really is a good picture of the artistic life of the time). Incidentally, this is one of those instances where e-books and POD are an absolute boon - it always amazes me how few people actually want to read books that are, after all, only 140 or so years old. If Claude and Camille inspires a few people to dig a bit deeper, I'll be happy.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I AM DAVID by Anne Holm

'I am David', David repeatedly explains. If he seems slightly obsessed with his own name, it can be excused since it is all he really has. For as long as he can remember, David has grown up in a Eastern European concentration camp. He has no knowledge of the outside world. However, all that is set to change when a camp guard helps him to escape and encourages him to head north, towards unknown freedom.

Although I found the novel hard to get into at first, I started to warm to David's character. He is fiercely independent and very mature for his age. His wonder and naivety at the world is refreshing to read. Witnessing him experience his first smile is genuinely touching, and his character had more than enough quirks to keep me reading.

Anne Holm's prose is simple but effective, although I sense its effect has been somewhat dampened by translation into English. The geographical and political context seems to be intentionally vague, perhaps to both reflect David's own confusion, and to allow the reader better access to the narrative. This didn't bother me, but could annoy some readers, especially inquisitive children.

This is a novel probably best marketed at young girls, and adults, since younger boys would probably find some of the more emotional aspects of the book slightly sickening! For me however, the relationships which David strikes up throughout the book with both adults and children rang true. It is a book which certainly makes you appreciate what you have. The plot runs slowly at times, but builds momentum, to the extent that the final passages seem a little rushed.

All in all it is a thought provoking, orgininal novel which focuses upon a little talked about time and place.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

THE SHIFTER by Janice Hardy

The Shifter by Janice Hardy
The Healing Wars: Book One
Balzer + Bray, 2009
Middle Grade Fantasy

Without thinking, I grabbed the night guard's shin and drew, knitting bone and yanking every hurt, every sting from his ankle. His pain ran down my arm, seared my leg, and chewed around my own ankle.

I seized Heclar's leg with my free hand and pushed. The agony the night guard hadn't revealed raced up my other side and poured out my tingling fingers into Heclar. Heclar screamed loud enough to wake the Saints.

~excerpt from chapter one, also quoted on the back cover

Aside from having some of the best cover art I've ever seen, Janice Hardy's Healing Wars series is a definite must-read for children and adults alike... and I'm saying that after only reading the first book.

Nya is a Taker with a rare gift -- she can also Shift. She has the ability to draw pain from someone, hold it, and then push it into someone else. Nya's younger sister, Tali, is an apprentice in the Healer's League. They had been orphaned during a previous war, and while Tali spends her days at "school", Nya wanders the streets in search of odd jobs to afford food in their bellies.

Nya's mother had warned her to keep her talents secret, but when life or death necessity forces her to Shift, more and more people -- both good and bad -- learn of her abilities, and she discovers just how much danger she is in. But it's too late. Once the events are set in motion, she cannot turn back. Around every corner, something new thrusts her into making tough decisions... I mean, really tough decisions that even I, as an adult, would not want to be faced with.

Apprentices at the Healer's League are disappearing, and when Tali is among the missing, Nya does what she feels she must to find her, even if it means using her gift to hurt instead of heal. But when she learns of a conspiracy among League authorities and an undercover connection with the nefarious pain merchants, her simple rescue mission turns into an all-out war.

This book has everything I crave in a good spec fic story. World building without boring infodumps or getting lost in lengthy descriptions. A strong-yet-conflicted viewpoint character. A plot that keeps you guessing. High concept and high stakes, and a pace that, at times, literally leaves you breathless. Highly recommended.

Book Two in The Healing Wars series, Blue Fire, RELEASED TODAY! I just picked up my copy and can't wait to dive in.

Like, right now. See ya!


About the author:

A longtime fantasy reader, Janice Hardy has always wondered about the darker side of healing. She tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing could be dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. She lives in Georgia with her husband, four cats, and one nervous freshwater eel. Janice offers helpful writing tips and advice through her blog, The Other Side of the Story.

Monday, October 4, 2010

rediscovering Brother Cadfael, medieval monk-detective

Over the summer, I embarked on a mini-project to get to know the mystery/thriller genre better. And by that what I really mean is I decided to go back and read all the Brother Cadfael books (I threw in a couple other mysteries here and there, to be well-rounded).

For those who have missed Brother Cadfael up until now, he is a 12th-century Welsh Crusader-turned-Benedictine monk with a big heart and a knack for happening upon and investigating murders. Ellis Peters, who was also an academic and Czech translator, was painstaking in her creation of the medieval abbey of St Peter and St Paul, its environs, and its characters, and the whole mystery series is rich in historical detail--perfect for armchair time-travelers. The series, which was published between 1977 and Peters's death in 1994, includes 20 books (to the best of my counting... there are a couple of associated stories, too). The mysteries are pretty feel-good in the sense that they are, for the most part, peopled with loving and well-meaning characters, and there are generally happy threads of true love that emerge over the course of the book.

My plan is to make it through the whole series sequentially (not skipping around to "the good ones" like my father does). For now, here is a brief synopsis of each of the first two.

The first mystery in the series is set in 1135, when ambition seizes the quiet abbey of St Peter and St Paul in Shrewsbury (an English town very close to the Welsh border). The abbey has no holy relics or resident saints of its own, and in order to encourage the flow of pilgrims and patronage the abbot okays a quest into Wales to bring back the bones of St Winifred, a martyred virgin whose Welsh village has mostly neglected. The monks set out on an ostensibly simple operation to dig up the bones and bring them back. Brother Cadfael, who has grave misgivings about this venture and the motive behind it, is forced along as a translator. Unfortunately, his misgivings are well-founded; the village of Gwytherin is not keen on the idea of letting a bunch of English monks make off with their "little saint." Tensions between the monkish delegation and the Welsh villagers are coming to a head when the local lord--and chief opponent to the monk's scheme--is discovered murdered.

The second Brother Cadfael mystery takes place three years after the first, in the midst of the chaotic civil war between Queen Maud, who has fled her lands under duress, and King Stephen, the usurper. Peters plays off of the real historical event of King Stephen's siege of Shrewsbury castle for her mystery--after the battle, Brother Cadfael is chosen for the sad task of blessing the bodies of the 94 men who were hanged for resisting the siege. Alas, Cadfael counts 95 bodies where there should only be 94, and some closer scrutiny reveals that one of the young men wasn't hanged at all--he was strangled by hand, and his body dumped into the pile of resisters so that a murderer can disguise his crime as a war casualty. Luckily Brother Cadfael is more observant.

For those who are big nerds like me and were wondering if, after reading each of these books and then forcing my roommate to read them as well so we could compare notes, I subsequently went and rented the BBC video adaptation to watch and compare further notes, the answer is obviously yes. And while I enjoyed the movies (again--I'd seen them all before), the movies felt rather pale in comparison to the books. For A Morbid Taste for Bones in particular I found my tolerance for hokey adaptation tested. Apparently the producers thought the Welsh names would be too much for viewers, as several key characters were renamed, and (more frustratingly) several great plot elements were made less interesting in order to give Cadfael more screen time. One Corpse Too Many was more faithful and a little better executed (weirdly, as it was made two years earlier). In any case, we enjoyed both watching the movies and griping about why we liked the books better. A very satisfying activity for anyone who delights in purism!

Any other series fans out there?