Monday, August 30, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Thanks to Sheila at Book Journey for hosting this Monday morning Meme.  It gives blogger a chance to review their reading for the previous week, and look ahead to all the literary goodness in store for the week ahead!

I realize now that I was fairly ambitious last week-I must have blocked the fact that I was going back to work from my mind completely!  Still, it was a pretty good reading week.


I finished reading and reviewing:










Seems like a lot of us had a Mockingjay sort of week.  I loved it, though I'm noticing that some people felt like it was a let-down.  I'm only sorry that the series is over!  As I was reading Mockingjay I tried to make myself slow down, knowing I would only read it for the first time once.  I may as well have been trying to stop a Mack truck with only the power of my mind!

Here's what's on tap for this week:

The Passion of Alice, by Stephanie Grant


It's 1984. Alice Forrester is a twenty-five-year-old anorexic who has just experienced heart failure when she is taken to the emergency room of Seaview Hospital, renowned for its eating disorders clinic. There, family and friends in league with staff and doctors intently try to steer her toward recovery. But it's not that simple. She passes time at the clinic waiting to find out what is wrong with her. What happened. When and how the damage was done. Along the way, Alice encounters a fascinating array of oddballs and misfits - Dr. Paul, the physician who clinically evaluates and monitors this disparate group of afflicted young women; various members of the psychiatric support staff whose treatment of anorexia revolves around a chillingly familiar twelve-step program; wraithlike, flaxen-haired Gwen, whose anorexia ultimately turns into tragedy; and finally Maeve, raucous, vulgar, tender, and kind, who shakes up Alice's life and opens her eyes. (from Goodreads)


Whisper to the Blood, Dana Stabenow


Inside Alaska’s biggest national park, around the town of Niniltna, a gold mining company has started buying up land. The residents of the Park are uneasy. “But gold is up to nine hundred dollars an ounce” is the refrain of Talia Macleod, the popular Alaskan skiing champ the company has hired to improve their relations with Alaskans and pave the way for the mine’s expansion. And she promises much-needed jobs to the locals.

But before she can make her way to every village in the area to present her case at town meetings and village breakfasts, there are two brutal murders, including that of a long-standing mine opponent. The investigation into those deaths falls to Trooper Jim Chopin and, as usual, he needs Kate to help him get to the heart of the matter.

Between those deaths and a series of attacks on snowmobilers up the Kanuyaq River, not to mention the still-open homicide of Park villain Louis Deem last year, part-time P.I. and newly elected chairman of the Niniltna Native Association Kate Shugak has her hands very much full. (from Goodreads)



The Battle of Jericho, by Sharon M. Draper


Sixteen-year-old Jericho is psyched when he and his cousin and best friend, Josh, are invited to pledge for the Warriors of Distinction, the oldest and most exclusive club in school. Just being a pledge wins him the attention of Arielle, one of the hottest girls in his class, whom he's been too shy even to talk to before now.
But as the secret initiation rites grow increasingly humiliating and force Jericho to make painful choices, he starts to question whether membership in the Warriors of Distinction is worth it. How far will he have to go to wear the cool black silk Warriors jacket? How high a price will he have to pay to belong? The answers are devastating beyond Jericho's imagination.(from Goodreads)



Shoot to Thrill, by PJ Tracy


t begins with a floater.
When Minneapolis homicide cops Rolseth and Magozzi are called to a derelict stretch of the Mississippi River, they see a bride, facedown, dead in the water. And when the Monkeewrench crew – computer geeks who made a fortune on games, now assisting the cops with special anticrime software – are invited by the FBI to investigate a series of murder videos posted to the Web, it’s not long before the group discovers the frightening link between the unlucky bride and the latest, most horrific use of the Internet yet. Using their skills to scour the Net to prevent more killings, the team must race against the clock…before it’s too late. (from Goodreads)



Have a great week everyone!


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Wild Ginger, by Anchee Min



WELCOME HOPPERS!  

If you got here through Crazy-for-Books, I'm glad you decided to stop by.  That crazy Jennifer hosts the Book Blogger Hop each Friday. 


This week's question/topic comes from: 
Anne @ My Head Is Full of Books

Post a link to a favorite post or book review that you have written in the past three months.
 
Which is how you ended up here!  I hope you enjoy my review of Anchee Min's Wild Ginger.

I've always been baffled by religious, cultural, or political philosophies that seem to fly in the face of the very things that make us human.  Love, sex, the need to celebrate-rather through biological imperative or the need to feel a sense of belonging, humans have always found ways to express these and other emotions through our cultural and societal institutions.  This is one reason that, while I consider myself religiously tolerant, I don't really get Jehovah's Witnesses.  It feels against human nature somehow to deny a community the right to celebrate together.  Say what you will about the Catholic Church, but when they wanted to convert the heathens they were smart enough to co-opt their holidays and ceremonies.  I don't really get the prohibition against sexual behavior in most religious doctrines, either.  We are all sexual beings, and having healthy sexual relationships can only make us as a people stronger.

I experienced that familiar sensation of bafflement when reading Wild Ginger, by Anchee Min.  Wild Ginger tells the story of two teenagers living in China during the Cultural Revolution.  Maple is the daughter of a former teacher of Chinese history who has been sent to a labor camp for being a reactionary.  Every day at school Maple is taunted and beaten by Hot Pepper, the head of the Red Guard at their school.  Every day, that is, until Wild Ginger joins the school.  Wild Ginger, the daughter of a French-Chinese man and a Chinese mother, is viewed with suspicion because of her European roots.  Having nothing to lose, Wild Ginger stands up to Hot Pepper, and Maple and Wild Ginger begin a deep and abiding friendship.  Together with a boy named Evergreen, Maple and Wild Ginger begin preparing to sacrifice their personal lives in pursuit of Mao's vision for China-until a love triangle forms that threatens all of them.

The story of Wild Ginger is a familiar one-love triangles are not exactly new in the world of literature.  What makes this novel feel new and different is the setting.  China during the Cultural Revolution was a place turned on its head.  Mao, a communist, used the country's poor economy, uneducated populace, and history of exploitation at the hands of the West, and marched his Red Army right into power.  Everyone and everything that could have threatened the absolute control he had over the country was rendered suspect.  Teachers, prosperous business owners, artists, foreigners-all had to be turned to the purposes of Mao or expelled from China.  Anyone considered an intellectual was also an automatic reactionary.  The schoolchildren were only taught Mao's Little Red Book-a book of the famous sayings and speeches of Mao.  They were expected to memorize the entire book, and regurgitate it on command.  Any hint of questioning the Maoists could get you arrested, jailed, sent to a labor camp, or executed.  It was a time of wide-spread fear, as anyone who felt wronged by you could turn you in as a reactionary with very little evidence.

Maple and Wild Ginger both lived on the edge-Maple, because as a teacher of Chinese history her father was suspect, and Wild Ginger because of her mixed heritage.  But while Maple was more conflicted about being a Maoist, Wild Ginger threw herself into it wholeheartedly.  By pushing away her unsatisfactory parentage, she hoped to make herself a model of what a young Maoist should be.  Despite her family's persecution, Wild Ginger takes on the very characteristics of the people who have rejected her.  As she began to gain power within the movement, the pressure on her to be the perfect Maoist in every way grew and grew, until she was consumed with it.  Evergreen, who at first appears as zealous in his Maoism as Wild Ginger, begins to realize that his desire to recite Mao's teaching every night has less to do with Mao and more to do with his feelings for Wild Ginger.  Despite her own feelings, Wild Ginger cannot give up her quest to ultimately be respected by the very people who appeared to despise her and her family when she was a child.

And this is what I mean about doctrines-religious or political-that deny basic human needs.  Mao was indeed treated like a god by his most ardent followers, and his theology, if you will, included no recognition of the need for physical or affectionate love.  In order to be an ideal Maoist, you were supposed to not just deny yourself love and sex, but denounce the very idea of love as Western and bourgeois.  Never mind the folk songs no longer sung, or the Buddhist rituals driven underground-the very emotion that created the joyous reasons for songs and celebrations was forbidden.  Ultimately, I suppose that's one reason Maoism was doomed to failure (that and the fact that it brought down the entire economy of China!).  People will only submit to being stripped of their humanity for so long.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

At last the wait is over!  Wednesday evening, I came home from class to find my copy of Mockingjay waiting for me in the mail. 

In case you have been living under a rock when it comes to the latest in young adult literature, Mockingjay is the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy.  I reviewed the first two books in the series, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire here.  The trilogy tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old living in District 12 of Panem-what was once the United States.  Her life, and the lives of everyone in the districts, is closely controlled by the Capitol.  The populace is left half-starved and completely oppressed.  Once a year, just to prove how powerful it is, the Capitol puts on the Hunger Games, in which teen-age tributes fight to the death to earn their districts extra food for the year.  The event is televised all through Panem, and is required watching.  When Katniss, who volunteers to be a tribute to save her younger sister, finds a way to outsmart the system, she becomes a threat to the Capitol, and sets in motion a chain of events that leads to an uprising.

(If you have not yet read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and want to, I suggest you stop reading now, as I cannot guarantee there will be no spoilers in the following review.  You have been warned!)

This is where Mockingjay picks up.  While Katniss deals with the physical and emotional aftermath of her time in the games, the rebels try to groom her to be their symbol-the mockingjay, which has come to mean freedom to the people of Panem.  Katniss is ambivalent about being used by the rebels, and is desperately worried about Peeta, the second tribute from District 12, who was captured at the end of the Hunger Game in Catching Fire.  Finally, her desire for revenge against the cruel President Snow causes her to throw in the with rebels.  With her best friend Gale by her side, she tries to outsmart the Capitol-and the rebels-in order to avenge the brutalities visited on her, her family and friends, and her district, and maybe just free Panem from tyranny while she's at it.

That summary feels pretty weak, but I am afraid that saying too much will ruin something for someone, so it'll have to do.  Because the fact is, if you know too much about the events of the book prior to reading, there is no way that the story can pack the same emotional wallop that it does on a cold read.  I was wrung out after finishing-in a good way, if there is such a thing.  Granted, I pretty much read it all in one sitting, but I don't know how I could have put it down.  And I am not really going to go into the state of the Peeta/Katniss/Gale triangle.  That, too me, is the least that this series has to offer.  Suffice it to say that regardless of what "team" you are one (and could we stop making everything about teams, like it's the Superbowl or something!), you will find very few happy endings in Mockingjay.

What made this book feel different for me than other books with similar topics is the way that the horrors of war are portrayed.  There is no sentimentality here.  All of the characters, but Katniss, Gale, and Peeta especially, are horribly damaged by the war-body, mind, and spirit.  Collins does not try to sugarcoat the effects of war on human beings.  People go crazy, people are wounded, people die.  For periods of the book some of the characters are basically living on anti-depressants and other psychiatric drugs.  I don't see how anyone reading this book could possibly believe that war is somehow glamorous, as some books/movies seem to imply.  Despite the horror and pain, Katniss and the others somehow manage to keep going-a greater testament to the human spirit than the glorified warriors of other novels, I think.

I also liked the theme of media manipulation.  Both the Capitol and the rebels use propaganda films to sway the populace.  There is a certain amount of "wagging the dog", and ultimately the novel shows how almost anything can be spun to prove almost anything.  I think that is not so different than what happens in today's media.  Just think about a political campaign.  There is so much conflicting information presented in campaign ads, it is impossible for both sides to be telling the truth.  Or think about famous scandals.  A well placed apology or public conversion can change a scoundrel into a repentant saint  we are all too quick to forgive-especially if they shoot a basketball real well or starred in a movie we really liked.  The fact was that no one who wasn't "in on it" had any idea what the true agendas of either the Capitol or the rebels were, including Katniss, who was once again manipulated for someone else's purposes.

It's the Friday Book Blog Hop!

Welcome to the Book Blogger Hop!  This meme is hosted by Jennifer at Crazy-For-Books.  Here's a little bit about the meme from her site:




ABOUT THE HOP:


In the spirit of the Twitter Friday Follow, the Book Blogger Hop is a place just for book bloggers and readers to connect and share our love of the written word!  This weekly BOOK PARTY is an awesome opportunity for book bloggers to connect with other book lovers, make new friends, support each other, and generally just share our love of books!  It will also give blog readers a chance to find other book blogs to read! 

 This week's blogger question-

Do you use a rating system for your reviews and if so, what is it and why?

I have never used a rating system on my (almost) year old blog.  When I started out I had no idea how to even make that sort of thing happen on my blog-html is still not my friend, but at least we can tolerate each other now!

Now that I don't have one, I'm glad.  Thinking of books that way doesn't always work for me.  I guess it comes down to what the rating system actually rates.  If a rating system rates how much a person enjoys a book, and says so up front, then I can sort of get my head around that-after all, I do rate books on Goodreads that way.  But where the system starts to break down for me is rating scales that try to compare books based on literariness, if you will.  I don't care how much someone likes the Twilight series (and I devoured it just like the rest of the world did), you can't give it "five stars" or the equivalent if comparing it to books like Kite Runner or To Kill a Mockingbird.  So, no rating system for me-you'll have to read my long, sometimes rambling, sometimes ambivalent opinions in my reviews!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Deception, by Jonathan Kellerman

Several months ago I wrote an open letter to Jonathan Kellerman, begging him to create story lines in his Alex Delaware novels that actually took advantage of Delaware's considerable psychiatric knowledge.  My fear was that he would devolve into a sidekick for Milo Sturgis, the gruff detective who is his best friend.  Apparently I had reason to be concerned.

Deception is the story of the murder of a teacher, Elise Freeman, at an exclusive prep school called Windsor Prep in Los Angeles.  After her body is discovered in a bathtub full of dry ice, a DVD is found in her apartment that shows her accusing three different colleagues at the school of sexual harassment, and stating that she is afraid for her own safety.  Milo is called in to investigate, and asks Alex to come along to give his input into the validity of the DVD.  Despite the DVDs claim of victimhood, they soon discover that Freeman had engaged in some criminal activity of her own, and while the sexual harassment claims might not hold true, something fishy is definitely going on at Windsor Prep.

When I read the jacket blurb, and even when reading the first part of the novel, I was sure that this was going to be a case where Alex could use his extensive knowledge of the human mind to outwit a killer.  Even the setting seemed promising-after all, child psychology is Delaware's specialty.  Unfortunately, the plot turned out to be sordid and banal, and once again Dr. Delaware seemed to do almost nothing but follow Sturgis around and act as his sounding board. 

Mr. Kellerman, please, as much as I love the Alex Delaware novels, let him retire gracefully.  He has apparently outlived his usefulness as a character, if the story lines you are developing around him don't actually require him to do anything.  I imagine that your publishers probably want you to crank out one a year, but you are a better author than that, and surely you already have more money than most of us will make in two lifetimes.  Give me a new book with Reed/Fox, or a new Petra Connor novel.  I just don't think that I can continue reading Alex Delaware books only to watch him fade away from the vital, fiercely intelligent character he has always been.

Monday, August 23, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Welcome to another edition of It's Monday, What Are You Reading, hosted by Sheila at One Person's Journey.

For me, it's more like a "Where have you been for the last two weeks post?", since I somehow missed the boat last week.    School starts today, and while my blog may have been slightly neglected, my classroom looks wonderful :)

So, since my last Monday post, here's how things stack up:

Books read:















Deception, by John Kellerman (review coming soon!)



Reading has definitely slowed down in my world-darn that having to work thing, anyway!  So, what's up next?


Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins


I was informed that my copy is on it's way from Amazon!  I read the first two in late winter, and cursed my friends who recommended Hunger Games for not waiting a few months so I could just read all three at once!

Wild Ginger, by Anchee Min


The Red Guards have branded Wild Ginger's deceased father a traitor and eventually drive her mother to a gruesome suicide, but she fervently embraces Maoism to save her spirit. She rises quickly through the ranks and is held up as a national model for Maoism. Wild Ginger now has everything, even a young man who vies for her heart. But Mao's prohibition on romantic love places her in an untenable position. Into this sexually charged situation steps Maple, creating an uneasy triangle that Min has portrayed with keen psychological insight and her characteristic gift for lyrical eroticism.(from Goodreads)



The Passion of Alice, by Stephanie Grant


It's 1984. Alice Forrester is a twenty-five-year-old anorexic who has just experienced heart failure when she is taken to the emergency room of Seaview Hospital, renowned for its eating disorders clinic. There, family and friends in league with staff and doctors intently try to steer her toward recovery. But it's not that simple. She passes time at the clinic waiting to find out what is wrong with her. What happened. When and how the damage was done. (from Goodreads)

Whisper to the Blood, Dana Stabenow


Inside Alaska’s biggest national park, around the town of Niniltna, a gold mining company has started buying up land. The residents of the Park are uneasy. “But gold is up to nine hundred dollars an ounce” is the refrain of Talia Macleod, the popular Alaskan skiing champ the company has hired to improve their relations with Alaskans and pave the way for the mine’s expansion. And she promises much-needed jobs to the locals.

But before she can make her way to every village in the area to present her case at town meetings and village breakfasts, there are two brutal murders, including that of a long-standing mine opponent. The investigation into those deaths falls to Trooper Jim Chopin and, as usual, he needs Kate to help him get to the heart of the matter.

Between those deaths and a series of attacks on snowmobilers up the Kanuyaq River, not to mention the still-open homicide of Park villain Louis Deem last year, part-time P.I. and newly elected chairman of the Niniltna Native Association Kate Shugak has her hands very much full. (from Goodreads)


Patternmaster, by Octavia E. Butler

 
The combined mind--force of a telepathic race, patternist thoughts can destroy, heal, rule. For the strongest mind commands the entire pattern and all within. Now the son of the Patternmaster craves this ultimate power, He has murdered or enslaved every threat to his ambition----except one. In the wild, mutant--infested hills, a young apprentice must be hunted down and destroyed because he is the tyrant's equal....and the Pattermaster's other son. (from Goodreads)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

It's the Friday Book Blog Hop!

 
 
ABOUT THE HOP:  Hosted by Crazy-for-Books


In the spirit of the Twitter Friday Follow, the Book Blogger Hop is a place just for book bloggers and readers to connect and share our love of the written word!  This weekly BOOK PARTY is an awesome opportunity for book bloggers to connect with other book lovers, make new friends, support each other, and generally just share our love of books!  It will also give blog readers a chance to find other book blogs to read!  So, grab the logo, post about the Hop on your blog, and start HOPPING through the list of blogs that are posted in the Linky list below!!

The Hop lasts Friday-Monday every week, so if you don't have time to Hop today, come back later and join the fun!  This is a weekly event!  And stop back throughout the weekend to see all the new blogs that are added!  We get over 300 links every week!! 


Your blog should have content related to books, including, but not limited to book reviews.

This week's question comes from Libraryscatbooks!


How many blogs do you follow?
 
Well, according to my Google Reader, I follow 109.  That said, I don't read most of them every day, or even every week.  Because my time online is limited, I tend to prioritize my blog reading based on the kinds of reviews posted, or on the frequency of posts.  Mostly I look at my blog roll on my own blog and read whatever is newest from the blogs listed there. If I have time, I go back to older posts in Google Reader, but I often have 1000+ new posts to read there, so I feel a little like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill.  Come to think of it, that's how I feel about my bookshelves as well.  Seems like no matter how much I read, they stay just as full :)

Farm Fresh Murder, by Paige Shelton

After my recent spate of reading end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it books, I decided I needed something light and easy.  I mean, I was probably 10 pages away from building a shelter and stocking it with firewood, canned goods, and bottled water.  What better way to cleanse your mind of apocalyptic visions than by reading a good cozy mystery!?!

Having won a box full of them this spring from Sharon's Garden of Books, I chose one and sat down for some nice relaxing reading.  Farm Fresh Murder, by Paige Shelton, is the first in a new series of cozies.  The main character, Becca Robbins, grows strawberries and pumpkins on her small farm, and turns them into the best preserves and jams around.  She sells them at Bailey's Farmer's Market, which is managed by her fraternal twin, Allison.  One morning, when Becca arrives with her wares, she discovers that someone has bludgeoned one of the vendors to death, and the police think it is her dear friend Abner, who has disappeared.  Hoping to clear Abner's name, Becca starts investigating on her own., leading to much foolishness and mayhem!

I must admit that I tried to read a few of the cozies from the give-away box, and with the exception of this one and Town in a Blueberry Jam,  I haven't liked too many of them.  However, I think that I have come up with a list of Cozy Mystery Rules According to Heather:

1.  The main character must be smart, independent, and strong.  None of these simpering ladies-who-lunch that don't so much solve the mystery as stumble upon the murderer in a compromising situation and manage to fend them off until being saved by someone else.

2.  The plot must take the main stage, not the recipes/scrapbooking tips/knitting patterns.

3.  What descriptions of cooking/baking/scrapbooking/knitting there are must move the plot forward.

4.  The setting should be evocative of someplace homey and comforting, with a strong sense of community,  without being boring.

5.  Any romance has to either move the plot along or be realistic-I don't read romance novels, but I do enjoy romantic things, so plots need to stay on this side of the romantic vs. romance novel line.

Farm Fresh Murder meets almost all of these requirements.  Becca's character is a twice-divorced, independent woman farming her land her way.  Fiercely loyal to her friend, Abner, she actually formulates a plan to clear his name, and follows through on it bravely but not foolhardily.  Still, she does sort of end up in the killer's clutches by mistake.  She can be impulsive, but she is always thinking, even as she is doing something she knows could lead to trouble.  Even though the author describes the process of making preserves and jams, and talks about Becca working in her pumpkin fields, it is always with a purpose-clearing her head, making product so she can have a cover to go to the market and question people, that sort of thing.  So it is interesting without becoming the purpose of the book.  The setting of a South Carolina farm/farmer's market is charming without being cloying.  Reading about Becca's life made me want to quit my job, buy a farm in the south, and sell my produce/jam/whatever out of a booth where people come and know me by name.  And Becca's love interests are woven into the plot beautifully.  There is the police officer investigating the murder, who she goes to for information and help.  And then there is the fellow vendor, an artist who is drawn into the mystery when Becca wonders if he could be a suspect!  All in all, Farm Fresh Murder looks to be the start of a fun new series for cozy lovers!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Clay's Ark, by Octavia E. Butler

What would you do if you contracted a "disease" that forced you to seek out the uninfected and infect them?  We've had plenty of examples of this in popular culture lately to help us think about the issue-28 Days, 28 Days Later, and I Am Legend  have all dealt with the aftermath of an epidemic that forces us to lose our humanity in the mindless quest to propagate a disease over which we have no control.  I've always seen these stories as allegory for human creations gone awry, as apocryphal tales of what will happen in humans continue to change nature to meet our demands.

Trust Octavia E. Butler to have a different way of framing this idea.  In her novel Clay's Ark, part of the Patternist series, Butler shows us the beginning of an extraterrestrial epidemic that has the potential to completely wipe out the human race.  Not by turning humans into raving, bloody zombies intent on killing every living thing in sight, but by changing our very genetic make-up so that we are no longer human, but also not completely inhuman.  Clay's Ark is the story of Eli, a geologist and astronaut, who returns from a mission to the Alpha Centurion galaxy carrying an alien organism in his body.  The organism has changed him at a molecular level so that he is faster, stronger, and has sharper senses than before.  He also has the overwhelming compulsion to infect others with the alien life form.  After his ship crashes back on Earth, he comes upon a remote compound in the desert where a patriarch and his family live isolated from the rest of the world-a world that has become increasingly dangerous as people fight for resources that are becoming more and more scarce.  Eli has no choice but to infect the inhabitants.  Several years later, a man and his twin daughters are traveling the highway through the desert when Eli's band kidnaps them to add to their growing community.  What happens next determines the fate of all humankind.

While this may sound an awful lot like the other examples of this theme that I mentioned, what makes Butler's take different is the way that the infected try to hold on to their humanity.  The organism living inside each of them causes them to have compulsions that are immoral by human standards-incest, rape, murder. But Eli is convinced that if they can keep their settlement small, and only take new people as necessary to keep their compulsions at bay, then they can retain their humanity and contain the infection.  In Clay's Ark the literal infection is an alien life form, but Butler could be using that as a symbol for anything that causes us to act in ways that deny our humanity.  Rather than experiencing the invasion from the perspective of the "clean", we see this outbreak from the point of view of the infected.  Eli is basically struggling with the most basic existential questions.  What is it that makes us human, what is it that defines us as a human race?  And once the infected start having children who are very different than human children, what can be said for the future of the human race?  Are the children a new species of human, or something altogether different?  And does it matter, if they are taught how to act as humans?  Clay's Ark may be a pretty short novel, but Butler gives us a lot to think about.  The next book in the Patternist series takes us to the far future, and I find myself wondering whether I will like where this story comes to its natural conclusion.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Dark Matter, by Peter Straub

If you were forced to distill the world down into it's essence, and the goal of humanity down to it's simplest form, I think that what you would have is the struggle for good over evil.  This theme is at the heart of almost everything we do as a people-the way we treat family and friends, the way we structure our society, the way we write our laws. It's the basis for most religions.  And it is the theme of an awful lot of literature.  Including A Dark Matter, by Peter Straub.

I first discovered Straub through his collaborations with Stephen King, and I have loved his work for much the same reason-good character development, intriguing supernatural plots, both of which have something to say about the world as we know it.  While he occasionally strays away from the horror genre, his best stuff, to me, are the scary, inexplicable stories.  I was very excited to find the latest Straub in the boxes of books my mother had for me on my last visit.  I think that I may have psyched myself up a little too much!

A Dark Matter is the story of five high school friends growing up in Madison, WI in the 1960s.  Four of them fall under the spell of a "guru" named Spencer Mallon, and follow him into a field one spring night to participate in an arcane ritual designed to change the world-for better or for worse is yet to be seen.  The ritual leaves one person dead, and sends another to a mental hospital.  Forty years later, the friend who didn't go, Lee Harwell, famous author, calls all of his former friends together (including his wife), and Roshamon style they tell the story of what happened to them in that clearing.

This sounds like exactly my cup of Oolong, but for some reason I had trouble sipping it down.  The story just did not hold my attention the way his books usually do.  I grew frustrated with the slow doling out of details, and I often found myself having to go back and re-read a page because my mind had drifted to other things-never a good sign for a book.  When we finally got to the big reveal, I was a little underwhelmed.   When we finally get to the last story, the final piece of the puzzle, I was surprised to find that all of the preceding pages were leading up to the idea that without evil, you cannot have good, therefore there are evil beings in the world.  Not exactly the most profound (or original, or creatively made) statement.  I was so disappointed!  I had obviously worked myself up into such a lather of excitement about a new Peter Straub that I was probably bound to be slightly disappointed regardless, but I really think that this is just not his best work.  If you've never read Straub before, start with Ghost Story, or Koko, or Mystery, or the Hellfire Club, and read his collaborations with Stephen King, The Talisman and Black House.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Law of Similars, by Chris Bohjelian

The first Chris Bohjelian book I ever read was Midwives, in 1997.  It's the story of a well-trained modern midwife who performs and emergency cesarean section on a woman she believes has died of a stroke during childbirth.  But what if the woman she thought was dead wasn't, and she herself caused the fatal injury?  The novel examines the debate over alternative medicine through a gripping personal account of tragedy.  I devoured this book, and developed an instant love for the author.  I would have read the phone book if he wrote it!

Fast forward a few years and I am thrilled to find a copy of Bohjelian's The Law of Similars on GoodReads.  By this point I've read several of Bohjelian's books, and loved each and every one.  The Law of Similars was sure to be another home run for Bohjelian, as far as I was concerned.  I didn't even know the plot line, but it didn't matter-I wanted it!

Well, here's what it's about.  The patient of a homeopath named Carissa Lake dies after eating a nut to which he knew he was allergic.  His wife believes that Carissa told him to do it, and she tries to get the District Attorney's office to file murder charges against Lake.  An assistant DA, Leland Fowler, widower and single father, is first assigned to hear the story from the dead man's wife, but there is a problem.  He's been seeing Carissa Lake-both as a homeopathy patient and as a date.  His feelings for her cause an ethical dilemma that will challenge everything.

Alternative medicine?  Patient dies?  Malpractice?  Sound familiar?

Apparently, there is a belief in homeopathy that taking a small amount of something that causes the same symptoms you have will actually make the symptoms stop by jump starting your body's own healing processes.  It's called the law of similars-and provided a very apt title for this book.  I was stunned that the story was so similar to Midwives.  I've read books by this author on transgenderism, foster parenting, gun control, and sexual assault.  Bohjelian is not a one trick pony, telling only one story over and over again.  What happened here?  And The Law of Similars, published in 1999, wasn't even written that long after Midwives.  If I thought the two stories were pretty much the same after 13 years, surely after only two years the author himself must have noticed what was happening. 

I will say, the book itself was interesting and well-written, as always.  Bohjelian's characters are always so well-written.  Even when I don't agree with their motives I find myself understanding their perspective.  I learned a lot about homeopathy from this novel, and while I'm still not sure how I feel about it at least I have some insight into the underlying philosophy.  Leland's character especially moved me-a single father who lost his wife to a car accident, the scenes with his daughter were so tender, and the fact that he was so obviously at a loss about how to move on from the tragedy made him imminently sympathetic.  I can't say that I dislike the book-I devoured it just like Bohjelian's other books-but why two books with such similar topics?  I suppose only he can answer that question.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well, another week (or two-I was on vacation last Monday), and more good books, well, in the books.  I was able to get quite a bit done, what with all of the porch sitting and beach sitting and boat sitting.  Frankly, this real world thing sort of sucks in comparison!  Here's what my view looked like last Monday...




Thanks to Sheila at One Person's Journey for hosting this meme.

Books finished since last we met:

  Shutter Island-Dennis Lehane
  Life As We Knew It-Susan Beth Pfeffer (reviewed on Second Childhood Reviews)
  In a Perfect World-Laura Kasischke
  The Mistress of the Art of Death-Ariana Franklin
  The Law of Similars-Chris Bohjelian (review coming soon!)
  A Dark Matter-Peter Straub (review coming soon!)

What's coming up next?  Who knows?  I have no required reading right now, so I'll choose whatever strikes my fancy when I'm standing in front of the bookshelves.  Plus, I just got two boxes of books from my mother, and I have not really examined them in detail.  Who knows what gems could be there?  I know for sure there's a Stephen King-you know how I love my Uncle Stevie!

Have a great week everyone!

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin

What do you get when you combine 12th century British history and CSI?  You get Ariana Franklin's series about Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar!  Mistress of the Art of Death is the first book in the series, though I read the second book, The Serpent's Tale first.  I'm just wacky like that sometimes!

The Mistress of the Art of Death is set in Henry II's England.  In Cambridge, four children have been murdered, and the Catholic majority have decided that it is the city's Jews that are the culprits.  Now, Henry may not really care about religion or tolerance, but he does like the money that he gets from his Jewish merchants, so he orders the Jews brought into the castle in Cambridge for their protection, and sends away to the King of Sicily and his famous medical college in Salerno for a "master of the art of death"-a doctor who understands how to get information from a corpse.  Instead, he gets Adelia and her Saracen manservant.  Forced to pretend that the Saracen is the doctor or be accused of witchcraft, Adelia makes it her mission to find the killer who tortured these children-and it was not anyone from the Jewish community.  She has a long list of suspects, but has trouble narrowing it down until an outbreak of cholera in Cambridge, when Adelia notices the clue that leads to the exciting conclusion.  Adelia isn't the only one that Henry has on the case-he also has his "fixer", Sir Rowly, undercover as a tax collector, investigating the murders, and together these unlikely partners bring justice to the killer.

I read a lot of mysteries.  For a while, when I was a young single mother, that's all I read, because I got them for free from my own mother.  As a result, it's pretty hard to find a plot twist that really surprises me.  Usually I have figured out the answer long before the end.  Not so with either of Franklin's books.  As with The Serpent's Tale, I was pleasantly in the dark about whodunit, and that made the reveal so much more exciting!

But, while I appreciate Franklin's ability to surprise me, what I love most about her books is the way she uses Adelia and her scientific skepticism to explore the state of the world during the Crusades.  Adelia finds 12th century England a barbarous place, where superstition rules over reason and the church uses fake miracles and old bones in reliquaries to control the population.  The Church definitely comes in for scrutiny in this novel, but Franklin makes sure to show that it is the hypocrisy, superstition, and intolerance that Adelia finds wrong, not religious faith itself.  Rowley's account of his time in the Holy Land brings a clarity to what it was like in that part of the world, with Jews and Christians and Muslims all vying for control of the same sacred location-and the resources available there!  Franklin even makes a connection between the treatment of the Muslims in the Crusades with the rise of something new, called Islam, which seems to mirror something of our own time.  This smart, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic mystery is also a smart, funny, tragic history lesson-and well worth the time to read it!

Friday, August 06, 2010

I Like Being Versatile!

 KT over at A Book Obsession was kind enough to give me the Versatile Blogger Award.  Thank you thank you thank you.  I think that "versatile" is a great thing to aspire to!



Here's how this award works:

1. Thank and link back to the person who gave you this award.
2. Share 7 things about yourself.
3. Pass the award along to 15 bloggers who you have recently discovered and who you think are fantastic for whatever reason! (In no particular order...)
4. Contact the bloggers you've picked and let them know about the award.

Here's my 7 things...

1.  My wife and I have been married for five years next today.
2.  I can't just sit and watch TV, which is why I took up cross stitch.
3.  I'm addicted to Lego Harry Potter on Wii.
4.  I preached a sermon on Dr. Seuss at my church this weekend-I love being a Unitarian Universalist!
5.  Sometimes I look at my 16 year old daughter and she takes my breath away.
6.  I'm actually looking forward to getting my room ready for the school year.
7.  I have my own coloring books-and I don't share!

Here are the bloggers I'm honoring...(there aren't 15 because I haven't had as much blog reading time as I would like this summer-but these are great!)

The Booksnob
Must Read Faster
The New Dork Review of Books
Desert Book Chick
Dead White Guys: An Irreverent Guide to Classical Literature
Our Year in Books

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

In a Perfect World, by Laura Kasischke

For some reason my book club chose two books about the end of civilzation as we know it for our August selections.  You'd think that during the glorious months of summer we would be reading hopeful books about love and family and fun, but not us!  We'd rather read about pandemics, natural disasters, food shortages and how to stay warm during what amounts to a nuclear winter!

Well, whatever the reason, we read Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer (soon to be reviewed by yours truly on Second Childhood Reviews) and In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke.  While reading both books in a row made me want to start stocking up on canned goods and bottled water, I'm pleased with the selections.  Even though the books were about different kinds of disasters leading to the destruction of our comfortable way of life, it was a little like reading the same story told from tw points of view-Life As We Knew It has a teenage girl for a narrator, while In a Perfect World is told from the perspective of a woman in her 30s.  But mood of both books was both heartwrenching and ultimately hopeful.

In a Perfect World is the story of Jiselle, a flight attendant, always the bridesmaid, never the bride.  When handsome, charming Capt. Mark Dorn starts to court her on their frequent transatlantic flights together, she is honored, and a little bewildered.  When he proposes to her just three months after they start dating, she is quick to say yes.  The catch-he wants her to quit her job and stay in Wisconsin to raise his three children-two teenage daughters and an eight year old son.  Despite her misgivings, and the hostility of the older children, she becomes a stay-at-home stepmom.  Looming on the horizon is a disaster with global implications-a new disease, called the Phoenix Flu, that starts as a small epidemic but soon becomes a worldwide threat.  When Mark and his plane are detained in Germany, Jiselle is left alone with the children to survive the best they can.

There are really layers of story going on in this novel.  First, there is the dubious "love" story between Mark and Jiselle.  As I was reading I was pretty sure I knew how it was going to turn out, but I also knew with the certainty of someone who has also convinced herself that a love is true that Jiselle as going to get sucked in.  Then there is the story of Jiselle's relationship with the children.  While I've never been a step-mother, I am married to one, and I know first-hand how difficult it can be to negotiate the unspoken rules that make each family function.  And, of course, at its essence this is a survival story, one that pits humans and their institutions against the vagaries of the natural world.  This as a theme is not uncommon in contemporary literature.  As we discover more about global warming and the impact that humans have on the planet more and more authors are exploring this idea of man against nature.  That theme has existed in literature for much longer than our current climate crisis, but unlike some of those earlier stories, in today's literature nature usually wins, forcing humans to adapt to the new reality of life without the conveniences we have come to rely on.

One of the most interesting things about the story, to me, is the fact that Kasischke chose America as the place where the pandemic begins, and created a world where it was Americans who were denied access to foreign countries, and American products being turned away from prots worldwide, and American flights that weren't allowed to land at the world's airports.  Though I don't know the author's intent, the sory felt like an allegory for the way that American culture is exported globally, and the idea that American commercialism and political dominance could be a disease spreading around the globe was inescapable for me.  If nothing else, that particular plot point turned the tables on the usual way of things, with America being the arbiter of who and what is worthy to enter our boundaries.  I can't believe that was completely accidental on Kasischke's part.  All in all, this was an enjoyable, thought-provoking way to spend a beautiful summer day-even if I've probably bought a few too many cans of tuna in the last week or so!