Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Top Ten

This is a meme hosted by Random Ramblings.  Since I love all things listy, thought I'd give it a shot.  This week's theme is Top Ten Fictional Characters...While it's open to any media, I'm going to stick on the literary end.  These are in no particular order, since I can't really rank them.  They are all so different, it would be like trying to rank my kids...

1.  Jo March,Little Women:  For any woman over the age of 30 I probably don't have to explain this choice at all.  Younger readers, if you think that early American fiction isn't for you, think again and read this book!




2.  Alex Delaware, from Jonathan Kellerman's series:  I read many, many mysteries and love most of the main characters, but there is something about Alex that is comforting, and I really care about what happens to him as though he was a real person out there somewhere.



3.  Harry Potter,Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:  I realize that he is the main character in seven books, but this is the one where I liked him the best.  Young, uncomplicated, before he got all dark and twisty, as Meredith Gray would say.  Plus, let's face it, he may have been realistically surly in a teenage sense in Order of the Phoenix, but sometimes I wanted to tell him to man up and quit his cryin'!

4.  Francie Nolan, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:  I think I like her for the same reason I like Jo March.  She was a girl struggling to find her way through the social and cultural rules of her time.  Whereas Jo was trying to find life and love on her own terms, Francie was trying to find a way to help her family survive in New York City around the turn of the century.


5.  Lisbeth Salandar,The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:  I always like complicated female characters, and Lisbeth certainly fits the bill.  There's something cathartic about reading a revenge fantasy like the scene with her "guardian" in this novel, even if you would never condone it in real life.



6.August Boatwright, The Secret Life of Bees:  I almost wished I too had to run away from home so I could go to Tiburon, South Carolina and be taken care of by August and her sisters.  I loved her movie self as well, played admirably by Queen Latifah.



7.  Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:  Yes, even Edmund, who comes through in the end.  Oh how I cried when Peter and Susan got too old to go back to Narnia!



8.  Hannibal Lechter, Silence of the Lambs:  Was there ever a so deliciously evil character written before or since.  Frankly he was the only reason I read Hannibal.  It certainly wasn't for the barely plausible plot.



9.  Myron Bolitar and Win Locke-Horn, Harlan Coben's Bolitar series:  Maybe it's the basketball, maybe it's the completely strange relationship these two have, maybe it's just that these are top-notch mysteries that are formulaic without being predictable, but I love reading about Myron and Win!



10.  Marietta Cook, Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots:  If you haven't read this book by Susan Straight you are really missing out on a truly insightful look into what a small town southern girl has to do to make it in the big city. 

Monday, March 29, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I didn't get around to this last week, so I've got a couple of weeks to share!  First, I finished The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins.  Both were amazing young adult fiction, and easily suitable for any thinking adult as well.  The link to my review is here.


Then I read The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf.  Not a bad first novel.  Here's the review for that one...The Weight of Silence

Right now I am reading Anatomy of Deception by Lawrence Goldstone.  It's a historical mystery set in the late 1800s in Philadelphia among a group of doctors studying the newly "acceptable" science of forensics.  Pretty good so far, but it's going to take me the rest of the week, I'm sure.  However, spring break starts Thursday afternoon!  A while week to rest and read.  I've started getting the books I ordered from the The Orange Prize, so those are on tap.  So far I have This is How by M.J Hyland, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

Hope everyone has a delightful reading week!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Weight of Silence

In her examination of love, friendship, and family, Heather Gudenkauf provides the reading with a decent mystery, some suspense, and a lot of strong characters.  The Weight of Silence is a mystery wrapped in a family story, with a side of unrequited love thrown in.

While there are many characters, each given their own chapters, the story starts with Calli, a seven year old elective mute.  Her alcoholic father drags her into the woods early one morning, saying he is taking her to her "real" father's house.  Her mother, Antonia, asleep in the house, has no idea that she is gone.  Enter Martin, father of Calli's  best friend Petra, who is also missing.  They soon contact Deputy Sheriff Louis, an old flame of Antonia's and the man that her husband Griff believes is Calli's "real" father.  As the frantic search for the girls begins, the story of these adults and how their lives intersect unfolds.

As mysteries go this one is OK-I figured out who took Petra pretty early on.  There were just too many references to a seemingly tangential character for it to be coincidence.  But what kept me hooked was the backstory of the adults.  Gudenkauf revealed just enough in each of her chapters, each told from a different point of view, to keep you wanting to know more.  While Calli's elective mutism doesn't seem entirely believable, it does provide the story with some suspense, as you wait to see if and when she will speak.  All in all this was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of days.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire

For months I have been hearing about The Hunger Games, a young adult novel by Suzanne Collins.  Not only had all of my teacher friends read it, but so had many other people I know who are not teachers, nor do they have children.  This should have been my first clue that The Hunger Games is so much more than just another young adult book.  But, as someone who has to read children's literature for my job on a  daily basis, I usually put my foot down about reading it during my precious free time each day.  Finally, a critical mass of "It's so good!" and "You really have to read it!" built up and I borrowed the book and it's sequel, Catching Fire, from a friend.

What a great decision that turned out to be.  I devoured each of them, finishing each in a day.  Young adult novels they may be, but there is plenty of meat to them to satisfy even the most discriminating adult reader.In a post-apocalyptic North America, the land is divided into 12 districts, each with it's own role in the larger society, and all ruled with an iron fist by The Capitol.  The main character, Katniss, lives in District 12, the coal mining district located in what was once Pennsylvania/West Virginia.  At 16, she supports her mother and younger sister by sneaking out of the district and hunting in the nearby woods with her best friend Gale-an act punishable by death.  Once a year, the Capitol holds the Hunger Games, where two 12-18 year olds are taken from each district and forced to compete to the death in a large arena.  When Katniss's sister is selected to go, Katniss volunteers to go in her place.  She and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta are sent to the Capitol, where they are paraded around town while those lucky enough to be born into the only place left on the continent that have enough food gawk and make bets on which one will die when.  The Games are shown daily on the only television station, and everyone is required to watch.  The first book details the struggles and horrors of Katniss's first Hunger Games.


In Catching Fire, Katniss is once again the target of the Capitol, not as a lowly tribute, but as a victor.  Now everyone in the country knows her name and face, and the story that was created to help her get help from the public during the first games.  Because of her perceived acts of defiance towards the Capitol, she is seen as a threat to their chokehold on power.  Because the 75th anniversary of the Games is approaching, the government decides to have a special Games-where all previous victors have to compete.  This throws Katniss right back into the spotlight-but this time it turns out she is not competing alone.

These books are phenomenal.  Katniss as a character is richly developed, as are all the other characters.  The action is non-stop, and Collins does a great job creating a mood of unsettling fear.  I felt tense and anxious while reading the book, but in this case those feelings added to rather than distracted from the story.  The first book, The Hunger Games, is a great look at our tabloid culture.  I mean, really, what is a more stunning example of our hunger for tabloid TV taken to it's extreme (yet logical) conclusion than watching people actually have to fight to the death while we watch and make bets?  I guarantee of there was a show like The Hunger Games allowed on TV today someone would watch it.  Remember those videos from the 80s-"Faces of Death"?  I rest my case.

Both books also examine how absolute power corrupts, and how trying to control people with fear, resentment, and aggression leads to an uprising.  People will not be violently oppressed forever-sometimes all it takes is the right person, the right circumstance, to set the whole thing ablaze.  Even if that person doesn't even know she's doing it-as far as she knows, she's just trying to keep herself and her family alive.

The third book in the series comes out this summer, and frankly I can't wait.  The second book ended with such a cliffhanger that I still think about it occasionally when my mind wanders.  If it is anything like the first two, I know I have at least a day of obsessive reading ahead of me!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Orange Prize for Fiction announces 2010 longlist

 The Orange Prize is an annual award given to literature written by women.  Every year they announce a long list, which becomes a short list...you get the idea...I read the synopsis of each of the books on this year's long list, and I've decided to read them in my effort to read 100+ books this year.  I've been feeling a need to get out of my mystery rut.  Surprisingly, I've only read one of the books on the list.  It is a British prize, though, so maybe that's not quite as surprising.  There are also a ton of new authors on there that I've never read before.  You might want to join me-we'll have lots of literary love to talk about!

Orange Prize for Fiction announces 2010 longlist

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Big Hair and Popped Collars

Anyone coming of age in the 80s probably has fond memories of big hair, parachute pants, and popped collars.  In Jen Lancaster's last book, Pretty in Plaid, she recounts her metamorphosis from small-town Midwestern girl to fashion-forward, Prada-loving businesswoman.

The book begins when Jen is still Jenni, and she is living with her family in New Jersey.  It is the late 70s, and she is rockin' a retro-60's vibe in her hand-me-down fringe vests.  Before long, her father moves the family to a small town in Indiana because of his job, and her high-style Eastern-seaboard existence comes to a screeching halt.  Throughout the rest of the book she shares tales of her trials and triumphs through the clothes that signify each period of her life-jeans and t-shirts in elementary school, preppy khakis and polos in high school, sorority sweatshirts in college, and frumpy business suits at the beginning of her career in business.

I should start the review portion of this post by saying that I love Jen Lancaster.  I firmly believe that we are meant to be best friends and go out of fancy martinis while we snark about all of the ridiculous things in the world.  I have read two of her other books, Bitter is the New Black and Such a Pretty Fat, and other than the fact that she is a Republican I felt like I was reading something my businesswoman alter-ego (if I had such a thing) might have written.  That said, I did not enjoy this book as well as her others.  Not because of the focus on fashion, which is why one friend of mine did not like it, but because I think that I prefer the fully-formed Jen to the still-developing Jenni.  I still laughed out loud more than once during my read.  Her footnotes add to the hilarity rather than distract from it.  As someone who was a teenager in the 80s myself, I was transported back to my own big-hair days.  I too was one of those obnoxious know-it all honors students who wanted to run the world.  I too got to college and lost my mind for a while (though I took way less than the 11 years to finish that it took Jen).  I too waited tables for many years trying to keep my head above water.  I too had big curly hair that frizzed when it was humid.  Overall, while I wasn't quite as over the moon about this book as the others, I still loved it, and can't wait for her to write many more!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Tarnished Eye

Judith Guest is probably best known for her novel Ordinary People, which was turned into an award-winning motion picture.  In her book The Tarnished Eye, Guest gives us a completely different kind of story, but with the same intuitiveness about why people do the things they do.

The novel is based on the true story of a murder that happened in Northern Michigan.  In the fictionalized version, a family of six, the Norbois family, is brutally murdered while at their vacation home in Blessed, Michigan.  Sheriff DeWitt, still recovering from the SIDS death of his infant son two years earlier, is emotionally ill-prepared to investigate this crime, yet he feels a strong desire to see the perpetrator brought to justice.  His investigations take him to Ann Arbor, where the police chief is having troubles of his own in the form of a serial killer who is preying on young women at the University of Michigan campus.  Despite the fact that each of the Norbois family seems to have someone who might want to kill them, the investigation leads both men to the conclusion that their cases are linked.

The writing is spare, but the emotions are strong.  Through a series of flashbacks to the days before their deaths, Guest paints a picture of the Norbois family that makes you want to find their killer almost as much as Sheriff DeWitt does.  DeWitt himself as the main character begins to come to terms with the tragedy in his own life through the course of the investigation, and you feel for him as a grieving father as much as you respect him as a dogged investigator.  The setting didn't hurt my appreciation for the book.  My parents live near Traverse City in exactly the same kind of resort area that the book describes, and many of the real places mentioned in the book are places I've been.  All in all it was an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to any mystery lover.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

It's Monday, What Are You Reading

This week I just about finished Pretty in Plaid by Jen Lancaster.  I love her-she reminds me so much of my best friend (except for that whole being a Republican thing-but I forgive you, Jen!).  Not sure what I'm taking on next...maybe the Octavia Butler series I just got.  I loved her book Fledgling, I think it might be time to revisit her.  Hope everyone had a good reading week!

National Treasu...I Mean, The Lost Symbol

I was one of those people that drank the Davinci Code kool-aid.  I loved that book, and watched all of the follow-up shows on History Channel and NatGeo about whether any of the "history" presented  was true.  Like many readers, The Davinci Code was the first Dan Brown book I read, and when I went back and read his earlier books, I assumed that the fact that I wasn't as crazy about them was because they were his earlier works.  Obviously he was peaking with DaVinci Code, and anything that he wrote after was bound to be as amazing.

Well, not so much...I recently completed The Lost Symbol, and while it was enjoyable it didn't have the same draw for me.  The setting of Washington, D.C. was interesting, but not nearly as engaging as the journey across Europe in The DaVinci Code.  For the first half of the book I kept expecting Nic Cage to come in and start talking about something he found in his uncle's attic or something.  While I appreciate that Dan Brown works hard researching all of the history behind his choice of artifacts, rituals, etc...I wonder if there is another way for him to give us that information that to have his main character expound on it during long monolgues...often standing over a dead body or while driving at breakneck speed through some section of DC.  Seems like those might not be the times for a thoughtful discussions of Masonic history.

That said, I still enjoyed it.  The history was fascinating, even if it was often explained at strange points in the story.  The idea of Noetics really grabbed me.  As an atheist I've always said that I see no empirical evidence proving the existence of anything "supernatural".  If something like Noetic science can give me a scientific explanation for what seem like irrational beliefs then that would be something that could profoundly change my life.  I'm not getting on the theist train just yet, but it was interesting enough that I plan to research on my own.  For Dan Brown fans, this book will be enjoyable, I think, if something of a let down.  If you've never read Dan Brown before, start at the beginning-this is not the best representation of his work.

Monday, March 08, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Being trapped on a plane last weekend made this a good couple of reading weeks for me.  I finished

Night Work, by Steve Hamilton
Testimony, by Anita Shreve
The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown
The Tarnished Eye, by Judith Guest

My favorite of the above list has to be the Anita Shreve book, because it still has me thinking and processing.  If you want to know why, here is my review, Testimony.  I just this morning picked up Pretty in Plaid, by Jen Lancaster.  She is one of my favorites, and I am sure I will like this one too.  Hysterical!

Have a good reading week!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Ethical Dilemmas for 1000, Alex

When stuck on a plane for several hours, it is generally a good idea to have something thought-provoking to read.  Heaven knows that there is nothing else of interest going on.  With that in mind, I picked up Testimony, by Anita Shreve.  While I can run hot and cold with her as an author, I was not disappointed.  The story revolved around a sex scandal at a prestigious boarding school in Vermont, but there was more to this story than meets the eye.

Mike Bordwin is the headmaster at Avery Academy, a co-ed boarding school in Vermont.  He comes into possession of a video that will blow his world, and the world of the school, completely apart. Before it is over, the scandal will destroy the futures of three students, as well as Mike's career.  The book is an easy read, but presents major issues to think about.  The characters are all flawed, but all sympathetic-though the least sympathetic to me was the "victim" of the scandal, which I found interesting from a reader's perspective.  Clearly Ms. Shreve wants us to examine our knee-jerk reactions to certain situations involving teens, and making the "victim" unappealing is certainly one way to do it.  It could also be seen, however, as a repetition of the "blame the victim" mentality that has persisted in our society for so long.  It's been 20 years since Jodi Foster brought us her heartwrenching performance in The Accused, but despite years of gains made in the feminist movement I still hear comments saying "She asked for it" or "What was she thinking, going/being there".  Shouldn't we all be able to be in any situation and be safe?  Why should women have a different set of rules?

But I digress...The issues presented here have no easy answers.  This book has given me something to chew on for a while-and I am thankful! 

SPOILER ALERT-there is no way for me to talk about the main theme of the book without revealing some of the content.  If you want to read the book, stop reading now or parts of it will likely be ruined for you.  You have been warned!


The main issue presented in this book is whether teenagers, male or female, can be truly held accountable for their bad decisions, and to what extent they should be punished.  The "victim", a 14 year old named Sienna, is clearly troubled.  Her ultra-rich family has moved her from school to school as she has gotten in more and more trouble.  She is beautiful,  pushes the edge of the dress code, and parties with the older students.  The three "perpetrators"-Rob, J. Dot, and Silas-are upperclassmen; 18, 19, and 18 respectively; two rich kids from out of town, Silas a local who was recruited for the basketball team and is there on scholarship.  After a night of heavy drinking, the four end up back in the boy's dorm, where a strange three way ensues.  The sex acts that end up in the tape are clearly consensual, but because the girl is 14 and the boys are of age, major repercussions rain down on all of them.  The boys are expelled, two of them losing their early admissions to prestigious universities after being arrested for sexual assualt, and the other eventually losing his life as he struggles to come to grips with the hurt his actions will cause his 17 year old girlfriend, with whom he is very much in love.

Shreve's portrayal of Sienna is clearly meant to show that even as young as 14 girls will willingly give their consent to engage in sex.  This should not shock anyone-statistics on teen sexuality and pregnancy have shown this trend clearly.  The fact that Sienna actually appears to have sought out sex with older boys, and then lied about it being non-consensual once she got caught, makes me wonder if Shreve is in fact buying into the "blame the vistim" mentality.  According to the powers that be in the story, even if Sienna sought out the boys for sex, as "adults" defined by their age, they had a responsibility to resist and say no.  Regardless of the whole "blame the victim" argument, this is the point I have trouble with.  Is it fair, or even realistic, to expect 18 and 19 year old boys to stay out of sexual relationships with younger girls?  And if society says it is, then what is an acceptable consequence for that action?  Had the three boys in the book ever made it to trial it was entirely possible that they would have had to register as sex offenders for life.  Does engaging in consensual sex acts with younger teenagers when still a teen yourself really put you in the same league as child molesters and rapists?  Until fairly recently, girls were routinely getting married at 17, 18 or 19 years old.  I myself dated a junior in college when I was a junior in high school.  Would the fairly innocent acts we engaged in then earn him a sex offender label today?

As a feminist I have long believed that men in our society need to be less cavalier in their attitudes towards women and their "right" to use us for sexual gratification.  The objectification of women and sexuality troubles me because I believe it can lead to the same kind of behavior that Sienna engaged in.  She obviously learned somewhere along the way that sex is power, and that as a young, attractive girl she could use it to her advantage.  Is this not what a lot of modern media teaches us?  But when it comes to teens-and 18 and 19 year old boys are still teens, I think that a little bit of compassion and understanding go a long way.  Suspend the boys, expel them if you must, but sex offenders...in this case, I don't think so.