Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pop Pop Poppity Pop: A Plague of Secrets, John Lescroart

Summary, from Goodreads-

The first victim is Dylan Vogler, a charming ex-convict who manages the Bay Beans West coffee shop in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. When his body is found, inspectors discover that his knapsack is filled with high-grade marijuana. It soon becomes clear that San Francisco's A-list flocked to Bay Beans West not only for their caffeine fix.
But how much did Maya Townshend-the beautiful socialite niece of the city's mayor, and the absentee owner of the shop-know about what was going on inside her business? And how intimate had she really been with Dylan, her old college friend?
As another of Maya's acquaintances falls victim to murder, and as the names of the dead men's celebrity, political, and even law- enforcement customers come to light, tabloid-fueled controversy takes the investigation into the realms of conspiracy and cover-up. Prosecutors close in on Maya, who has a deep secret of her own-a secret she needs to protect at all costs during her very public trial, where not only her future but the entire political landscape of San Francisco hangs in the balance, hostage to an explosive secret that Dismas Hardy is privilege-bound to protect.

Dismas Hardy and the rest of the cast of characters from Lescroart's books are some of my favorites.  Lescroart does a decent job of making them into real people, and I care about what happens to them.  The mystery itself is fairly compelling, and there is enough misdirection to make it unlikely you'll figure out whodunnit early enough to ruin the rest of the book.  There was a bit more deus ex machina in this one than I usually care for-from the accident that took homicide detective Abe Glitsy's eye off the ball, to the last minute detail that reveals the true killer, it was a little less Hardy being brilliant (though he was) and a little more luck of the draw, but enjoyable nonetheless.  A good popcorn read, especially if you are following the series.  If you've never read Lescroart before, go back and start at the beginning of the Dismas Hardy series-you won't be disappointed!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Life Sentences by Laura Lippman

For many years I prided myself on the fact that I never gave up on a book.  Even if a book was not really doin' it for me, I stuck with it, sure that the author was trying to convey something that I just needed to work a little harder to pick up on.  After all, they took the time and care to write the darn thing-I should at least put in the time and effort to finish it.
Then one day (perhaps struck by a growing sense of my own mortality) I decided that there are too many good books in the world to waste my precious reading time on bad ones, and I've put down many a snoozer since.  But not my favorite authors.  Surely if I have loved everything a person has ever written, then if I just keep slogging through one of their books I will find that moment of joy in the written word.  Surely my favorite authors would not let me down?

Laura Lippman, I am sad to say, you've let me down.

Life Sentences is the story of Cassandra Fallows, an author who became successful writing about her father's infidelities and their affect on her.  After writing a less-than-stellar novel, she goes home to Baltimore to mine her childhood friendships for another memoir, something that will take her back to her bestseller status.  The irony is that in writing about an author who is afraid she's lost her mojo, Lippman has written a novel that shows that perhaps her mojo took a bit of a vacation.

The impetus for Cassandra's return to her childhood home is the story of an old schoolmate of hers who went to jail for seven years rather than reveal what happened to her infant, who disappeared and was never found. In revisiting her childhood friendships, Cassandra discovers just how fallible memory can be.  Her old friends are upset with her portrayal of them in print, and they refuse to help her find their old classmate.  Lots of intrigue ensues, revealing a conspiracy that involves politicians, blackmail, and twenty years of secrets.

To which I say "yawn".  Lippman usually pairs really good character development with intriguing plots to create suspense novels that are not formulaic, but little windows into human behavior.  Her novels usually carry some kind of emotional punch, but I found myself not really caring what happened to any of the characters, including the narrator.  I made myself stick with it, partly for the reason above and partly because the mystery was (just) engaging enough to make me want to know how it resolved, but even the ending was a disappointment-more whimper than wow.  Since this Lippman book is a stand-alone, I'd say skip it.  Her Tess Monaghan books and other stand-alones are a much better use of your reading time!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic

The experience of immigrant groups in the United States is something that has interested me ever since I took a multicultural education class a few years ago.  I read some really moving testimonials from people of various immigrant groups (beginning with Italians and the Irish and moving on through Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican) describing their experiences (or the family stories passed down by their grandparents) and how their families never gave up on making it in America.

My own family immigration history is fairly recent.  My paternal grandparents came to America in the early 20th century from Quebec.  They settled in New England, in an area where there was already a community for them to join.  While my great-grandparents spoke Quebecois French almost exclusively, it did not take long for my grandmother and grandfather to learn English and assimilate into mainstream American culture.  My grandfather fought in World War II, and was proud to serve the nation he saw as his, even though he had only been in the US for half of his rather short life at that point.

We as a society have never been particularly welcoming to new arrivals, regardless of where they are from or what the words on the Statue of Liberty may imply about how inclusive we pretend we are.  The myth propagated is that as long as immigrants are willing to work-hard and respect American values we will accept them with open arms.  The reality is that every immigrant group has started out on the lowest rung of American society, doing the jobs that no one wants to do, being discriminated against in public services, and being used as a pawn by politicians who want to scare people with the image of being overrun by the "other". Perhaps the most egregious case of this phenomenon happened to the Japanese in America during World War II.  It is this immigrant experience that Julie Otsuka chronicles in her book The Buddha in the Attic.

Otsuka's book is written in the third person plural, from the perspective of women who were brought to the United States from Japan after World War I as wives to Japanese men they had never met.  This rather interesting literary device  is used to highlight the similarities of the immigrant experience for these women, even as it describes the variety of experiences that defined them as farm laborers, shop clerks, maids, and laundry workers.  This very short novel, spare in its language, presents a portrait of women who try to find some way to survive in a world that has turned upside down, taking them away from everything they know to a world where not even the man they are going to marry is familiar.  Through back-breaking, heartbreaking work, they bring children into the world, and watch them become more American than Japanese.  Despite their fear that their children are moving away from them, they are hopeful that their futures will be better-until World War II brings it all crashing down around them again.

Like Otsuka's first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, The Buddha in the Attic is filled with carefully chosen words, meant to evoke specific ideas and feelings without extraneous language.  While occasionally the long, collective paragraphs start to feel a bit listy, the book works because the snippets of women's stories that are elaborated upon are compelling enough to provide a frame for the rest.  By the end I felt overwhelmed by the struggles of these women-and once more furious and regretful that it is my country, whose ideals I revere, that interned so many of our own citizens out of racial fear and prejudice.

Nothing speaks as well to the way that communities changed after internment as the last portion of the book.  Suddenly, instead of the voices of the women, the narrator changes to a collective white American voice.  That voice describes how ignorant and/or arrogant white society was during World War II, when any injustice could be justified if it was for "national security" purposes (Sound familiar?  Patriot Act, anyone?).   What was startling was not just that people seemed to approve of their improper jailing of their neighbors, but that any negative reaction to it came from a selfish concern about who would pick their crops/clean their shirts/scrub their toilets.  As a reader, I couldn't help but wonder what happened to the women who's lives I had been invited into, and perhaps that's the most startling thing-that an entire group of people can just be disappeared while the rest of us go about our lives.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pop Pop Poppity Pop: Obedience by Will Lavender

A good popcorn book is one that is entertaining but easy...something that doesn't require a ton of cognitive energy but is still engaging.  Most mysteries and thrillers fall easily into this category for me-books that I read when my brain is already busy with meetings, paperwork, lesson plans, and grading.  Obedience by Will Lavender falls into this category, but just barely.  It's not exactly the "thinking man's" thriller, but it's convoluted storyline at times made me break a little sweat.

Given the complicated plot and the fact that I've only had half a cup of coffee so far this morning, I'll use the Goodreads summary:
When the students in Winchester University’s Logic and Reasoning 204 arrive for their first day of class, they are greeted not with a syllabus or texts, but with a startling assignment from Professor Williams: Find a hypothetical missing girl named Polly. If after being given a series of clues and details the class has not found her before the end of the term in six weeks, she will be murdered.
At first the students are as intrigued by the premise of their puzzle as they are wary of the strange and slightly creepy Professor Williams. But as they delve deeper into the mystery, they begin to wonder: Is the Polly story simply a logic exercise, designed to teach them rational thinking skills, or could it be something more sinister and dangerous?
The mystery soon takes over the lives of three students as they find disturbing connections between Polly and themselves. Characters that were supposedly fictitious begin to emerge in reality. Soon, the boundary between the classroom assignment and the real world becomes blurred—and the students wonder if it is their own lives they are being asked to save.

As first novels go, this one is fairly well written, especially for the genre.  The characters feel like real people, and the way that the mystery unfolds creates a pretty creepy, obsessive feeling in the reader (at least, in this reader).  Given the number of thrillers I've read it's hard to find a plot that really keeps me guessing, but I didn't have this one figured out til close to the end, and not because the author pulls one of those deus-ex-machina maneuvers that tick me off.  I actually thought several times while reading the book that it would make a good movie, the kind that people leave the theater shaking their heads over because they feel like they just went on a mindbending ride.  If you are looking for a not-too-mindless popcorn book, this is definitely a decent choice.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What If?

This weekend during youth group at church, my youth played a game where everyone writes a question on a piece of paper, then we crumple them up into balls and have a "snowball" fight.  Everyone reads their question aloud and answers it.  Some of the questions are silly, but some of the questions really cause the person to think, and can start some great discussions.  Here is the question that struck me Sunday morning-"If you could kill someone with the power of your mind, and no one would know, would you do it?"

This question led to a discussion of Unitarian Universalist values, as the activity is supposed to ultimately do.  But it also led to a discussion of whether it is possible to change history.  If you add the ability to time travel to the ability to kill people with your mind, many of my youth said that maybe going back and killing Hitler as an infant would be an acceptable use of that power.  Because you already know what evil he created, and you would have a responsibility to stop it.  This exact idea is the central focus of Stephen King's latest tome, 11/22/63.


In the book, small town high school teacher named Jake Epping is floating through a rather drab existence.  Newly single, he spends his days teaching, grading papers, and eating his meals at a local diner.  One day the diner's owner and chief fry cook, A,l shares a secret with Jake-in the back of his store is an unexplained tear in the fabric of time.  Step through that tear and it takes you back to the same exact time on the same exact day in 1958.  No matter how long you stay or what you do while you are there, stepping through the tear resets any effect you may have had on the past.  Since Al discovered this mysterious tear, he's been travelling back and forth frequently.  His last trip lasted four years-because he had a mission, one that a lung cancer diagnosis is now forcing him to push on Jake.  His mission-to stop the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald, thereby stopping one of the most turbulent times in American history.  At least, that's this theory...

What follows is a loooooong history lesson about Lee Harvey Oswald.  Jake studies Oswald like a scientist, trying to discern what kind of man he was, what kind of husband he was, whether he did, in fact act alone...He follows his movements, and as a result we learn a lot about the man who shot Kennedy.

At 849 pages, this is one of King's doorstops of a book, but unlike Under the Dome, which I thought could be shortened by a hundred pages or so, I was riveted every moment of this one.  Maybe it's the historical fiction lover in me, but I actually liked the minute descriptions of Oswald's life, and King provides a personal storyline for Jake that is mildly predictable but very engaging.  Not horror by any means, this genre bending book-part historical fiction part science fiction-evokes the optimism of mid-20th Century America and the tension that builds as Jake gets closer to his goal.  And if he succeeds, will things really be better?  Consider this a novel of unintended consequences...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Between Friends, Debbie Macomber

I have always thought that the phrase "women's fiction" was somehow a slight (or not so slight) put down of the kind of stories that women find enjoyable or meaningful.  While it is certainly not a universal fact that all women like to read stories about family, relationships, and friendships, it is certainly true that much of the fiction marketed to women as women's fiction is just that.  I have mixed feelings about the type of novel that is labeled "women's fiction".  Like any other genre, some is better written and more literary than others.  On the spectrum from serious literature to fluff, I find myself most comfortable on the more literary end.  The titles on the fluff end tend to feel a bit too much like a Lifetime Movie to me-trite, easy platitudes or oversimplified stories about complex issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, or family dynamics.

Sadly, my book club's November pick, Macomber's book Between Friends, falls a little too far to the fluff end for me.  The epistolary novel is tells the story of two women, wealthy Jillian and her poor friend Lesley, who become friends as children and maintain that friendship throughout the trials and tribulations of their lives.  While I don't have a problem with an epistolary novel in theory, in practice I find they often do more "telling" than "showing".  Telling a story through a series of letters and other documents relieves the author of the need to actually develop characters, evoke feeling through setting or events, or write intelligent, meaningful dialogue.  This book felt like a novel written in hearsay-there is little immediacy to the events, which I think takes away from any emotional impact.  

I was also disturbed by how stereotypical the characters lives were.   Lesley, the daughter of an abusive alcoholic, goes on to marry an abusive alcoholic after he gets her pregnant.  Because she is a devout Catholic, she stays with him "for the children", and refuses to use birth control, ending up with three more children before she finally decides enough is enough.  Jillian, the daughter of privilege, rebels in high school by falling in love with the gas jockey with a heart of gold-who just happens to get killed in Viet Nam, clearing the way for her to go on to the pricey private school and career as a lawyer that she was destined to have from the start.  I can't cite too many other examples, mostly because I couldn't finish reading the book, but suffice it to say that I was unimpressed.  One of the women in my book club reminded me that in the 1950s and 60s there were some women exactly like Lesley and Jillian.  My response to her was, "I can acknowledge that without wanting to read a hole book about it."

  My best friend has one other major complaint, which I share.  Somehow these two women from Washington state, one of whom has only a high school education and rarely leaves her hometown, are connected to every major event in American life for 50 years.  My friend called it "Forest Gump" syndrome, after that charming movie about mildly retarded Forest and his many brushes with greatness.  Difference is, on screen it worked.  In this book it just seems contrived.  All in all, I'm pretty sure I will not be reading a Debbie Macomber book again any time soon.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Book Lover's Dream-or Nightmare!

Here is but one of the many reasons that I love Stephen King as an author-who else would think to write a horror story about the Kindle, for the Kindle?  OK, I suppose it could seem a little gimmicky, but it works!

UR is a novella about Wesley Smith, an English professor at a mediocre college in a small town in Kentucky.  After a vicious fight with his girlfriend over his reading habits, he buys a Kindle out of spite.  Sure that his purchase will be a passing fad in his reading life, he begins searching for titles.  What he finds astonishes him-the Kindle seems to have access to alternate realities where his favorite authors lived longer, and wrote MORE BOOKS!  Or they died when they were "supposed" to, but wrote DIFFERENT BOOKS!  Seriously, what else could a reader ask for but hundreds of new titles in millions of alternate realities from their favorite authors?  You could do nothing else but read for the rest of your life and never get through all of them!  Which is exactly where I thought the story was going.  King does a good job with obsession-I thought that this would be a return to Needful Things.

But not only does the new Kindle let you download titles from alternate realities, it also lets you check out the New York Times, and the local news.  Difference is, with the local news, instead of getting alternate versions, you get the future of the reality you live in.  And what Wesley sees in his future is too terrible to contemplate.

This is King at his short story/novella best.  He sets the scene, develops a character seamlessly, and moves you right along.  I was so intrigued by the whole idea of the Ur alternates.  Of course, anyone familiar with King's Dark Tower series knows that the Ur references the various levels of the Tower, and I was not surprised when the low men showed up to punish Wes for his paradox infraction.  But you don't have to have read the 3600+ Dark Tower books to appreciate and enjoy UR.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Zoli, by Colum McCann

Colum McCann finds the world to be a dark, seedy place where nothing good can last.  At least, that's what I think he feels after reading or trying to read two of his books.  Last year I read Let the Great World Spin, as a part of my effort to read more male authors, and more literary fiction.  Reading that review now, I can see that my feelings on McCann's writing are very similar now, having tried unsuccessfully to read his novel Zoli.

Here is what Amazon has to say about the plot of Zoli,

 A unique love story, a tale of loss, a parable of Europe, this haunting novel is an examination of intimacy and betrayal in a community rarely captured so vibrantly in contemporary literature. 
Zoli Novotna, a young woman raised in the traveling Gypsy tradition, is a poet by accident as much as desire. As 1930s fascism spreads over Czechoslovakia, Zoli and her grandfather flee to join a clan of fellow Romani harpists. Sharpened by the world of books, which is often frowned upon in the Romani tradition, Zoli becomes the poster girl for a brave new world. As she shapes the ancient songs to her times, she finds her gift embraced by the Gypsy people and savored by a young English expatriate, Stephen Swann. 
But Zoli soon finds that when she falls she cannot fall halfway–neither in love nor in politics. While Zoli’s fame and poetic skills deepen, the ruling Communists begin to use her for their own favor. Cast out from her family, Zoli abandons her past to journey to the West, in a novel that spans the 20th century and travels the breadth of Europe.

Sounds like a sweeping tale of love and transcendence, doesn't it?  Instead, reading it felt like being sunk into a dark, bleak  world where even the most beautiful, innocent things were tainted by something cold and dreary.  At first I was drawn into the world of the Roma in eastern Europe during the early 20th century.  I knew that they had been persecuted, but I didn't know a lot about their traditions or culture.  But eventually I began to feel weighted down with all of the misery of the place.  I suppose that was probably purposeful on McCann's part.  After all, the Roma were persecuted, and we are talking about the start of the Soviet Union and the cruel grip of communism here.  But nothing, and I mean nothing, that I read seemed to speak to the transcendence of the human spirit.  Even the love story was bleak, and felt strangely unemotional.  It is not that I am adverse to reading melancholy, haunting, tragic books.  I read and loved The Road, and found the triumph of the father's love despite the complete destruction of the world to be meaningful, even if the events of the novel themselves were bleak.   A Thousand Splendid Suns is one of my favorite books, and it is undoubtedly tragic and heart-wrenching.  But even within the horror of living as a widow or a battered wife in Taliban Afghanistan, there were moments of tenderness, or beauty, or light.  Not so with McCann's books.

Maybe I am being slightly unfair, since I didn't finish the book.  Maybe the page after I finally gave up started a trend showing something, anything positive in the human experience.  Sadly, I couldn't take the unending dreariness long enough to find out.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Belgariad, by David Eddings

Earlier this fall I posted a review of Pawn of Prophecy, the first book in David Edding's fantasy epic The Begariad.  I enjoyed it a lot.  I think that it is high fantasy at its best.  It had the usual cast of characters-sorcerers, knights, princesses, and the like-but it was smart and engaging.  I also reviewed the second book in the series, Queen of Sorcery, which I thought was a very good next step in describing the quest to find the Orb of Aldur and defeat the evil god Torak.



I have since finished he entire cycle-including Magician's GambitCastle of Wizardry and Enchanter's End Game-and I am please to say that the epic story of Garion and his journey from scullery boy to King of Riva and champion of the west was every bit as fun and exciting as the first two books led me to believe.  Eddings did a great job creating characters that were at once universal archetypes of western literary fantasy and completely individual.  While there was never really any doubt of the outcome-this is a classic good v. evil story after all, and we all know how those come out-there were enough twists and turns to keep you guessing.

One of the frequent complaints about high fantasy is how sexist it can be.  The men are warriors, the women are witches or princesses.  Eddings addresses that issue head on, acknowledging in this male characters that those attitudes exists, but countering them with his female characters, who he shows to be every bit as resourceful, strong, and capable as his male characters.  Unlike Tolkien, who's female characters were very one dimensional, Eddings shows women to be an integral part of the world that he created, and each has her own strengths and foibles.  All in all The Belgariad is a fine example of good storytelling-gently flowing language, interesting turns of phrase, characters that are believable even when they are doing unbelievable things, and exciting action sequences that stir the blood and the heart.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Precious Blood, Jonathan Hayes

Ah, the serial killer.  That sociopathic individual that gives Americans such a delicious thrill.  I'm not sure what it says about us as a people that we are so fascinated with sick, twisted, violent death, but given the number of books, movies, and true crime shows on the subject, we seem to have a never-ending curiosity.

I will admit to this morbid fascination in myself.  I like to think that my interest is as a result of my profound desire to understand the human mind, but I suspect there is a fair amount of of rubbernecker syndrome as well.  It's almost as though we (I) want to be shocked and horrified.  Well, if revulsion and horror is what you are looking for, then you could do worse than to pick up a copy of Jonathan Hayes book, Precious Blood.

The book centers around Dr. Edward Jenner, a former pathologist with the New York City police who had to retire after the daily horror of trying to identify 9-11 victims caused him to have a breakdown.  Now living off his savings, he agrees to take a job as an independent pathologist in the murder of the daughter of a friend-of-a-friend.  The murder scene is obviously staged, the victim nailed upside down on the wall.  Her roommate, Ana, managed to get away, but not before seeing the killer-and him seeing her.  Afraid for her safety, Jenner takes her in until his friend, Ana's uncle, could return.  It soon become apparent that this was not the first time this killer has struck, and they soon have new cases to investigate as well.  Jenner, while not having any real authority in the case, continues to investigate, his investigation gaining more urgency once he begins having feelings for Ana.

As thrillers go, this one was pretty good.  The killer's religious motivation is not exactly original, but it did have a different twist on the theme than most books.  Jenner's character is fairly well-developed, though his relationship with Ana does not really feel entirely authentic.  The final show-down is suspenseful, and the ending satisfying.  While there is nothing earth-shattering about Precious Blood, as popcorn books go it does its job admirably.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Kellerman Whose Books I Am Still Reading

Faithful readers of this blog know that I have broken up with my long-time mystery/thriller favorite, Jonathan Kellerman.  You can read my Dear John (pun intended) letter here.  Lucky for the Kellerman family, they will not lose all of their income from my corner of the world.  Faye Kellerman, wife of Jonathan, is still writing fresh stories with all of the characters I love.

In Hangman, Kellerman brings us another story starting Rina (Lazarus) Decker and Pete Decker, Orthodox Jews and crime fighting team.  Well, not really a team, exactly-Rina is more logistical support than boots on the ground.  But together they have a chemistry that humanizes Decker and keeps him from being the stereotypical hard-boiled detective.  There's a lot going on in Hangman.  The main crime is the murder of one girl, and disappearance of another.  There is a second story line, which I found the more intriguing of the two, about Decker and hit man Chris Donnati.  Donnati and his wife are having marital problems, which rarely works out well for the non-homicidal maniac in the relationship.  When Donnati's wife disappears, Decker is sure that he killed her, and takes in Donnati's 15 year old son while he investigates.  During the investigation they stumble upon a serial killer-like a twofer deal.  Eventually Decker and his team solve all of the mysteries, but justice is not done-one of the killers flees and can't be tracked.  But it is a satisfying story nonetheless.

Kellerman's characters are interesting, the story is well-paced, and while the crimes and situations are not exactly believable, I didn't really care, because they were entertaining.  All in all a good popcorn book!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Secret Daughter, Shilpi Gowda

A young wife in a rural village in India lies in a small hut, screaming with the pain of childbirth.  The widwife tells her she has a daughter.  Her husband comes to the hut to meet his son, and when he sees the baby is a girl, he takes her away to be killed.  They can't afford a girl-a girl will not be able to do the hard manual labor, and for a girl they will need a dowry.  The year was 1985.

That's right, 1985.  As recently as the end of the 20th century, the culture of valuing boys more than girls was flourishing in places like India and China.  Cultural practices regarding marriage and family, as well as the need for laborers to work on small subsistence farms, caused some families to abandon their newborn daughters to orphanages, or worse.  In The Secret Daughter, Gowda tells the story of one such family.  Kavita Merchant has three children.  The first was taken away and killed at birth for being a girl.  When the second girl, Usha, was born, she sneaked away from her husband and took the baby to an orphanage, so that at least she'd have some chance of a better life.  The third, a boy, was cherished and celebrated by the family.

Usha was adopted by a couple from the United States, Krishnan and Somer Thakkar.  Kris grew up in India wealthy and well-educated.  Somer is as American as apple pie.  After having multiple miscarriages, Kris convinces Somer that adoption from his home country is her chance to be a mother.  Usha, now named Asha, comes to live with them when she is just one year old.  She grows up surrounded by love and privilege, but it's not until a trip to India at 20 that she truly learns what her birth history and adoption mean to her life and the lives of her parents, biological and adoptive.

The story is told from the perspective of the two mothers for the first part of the book, and mostly from Asha's for the last portion, though her two fathers (bio and adoptive) also get short chapters from their point of view.  It would be easy to demonize a society that throws away 5% of their girls (there is a 5% difference in the population of men versus women that can't be explained by natural or health factors), but Gowda shows both Kavita and her husband Jasu as real people who are faced with impossible decisions in order to survive crushing poverty.  And while Somer seems like an easy choice for sympathetic character (inability to have children, swooping in to save a little brown baby from a third world orphanage), the fact is that she was pretty hard for me to like in this book.  Once she has her daughter, she is constantly afraid that she won't really have a connection to her, because she looks more like her husband, and people in the streets don't know she is the girl's mother.  She tries so hard to hold on to the girl that she ends up pushing her away, into the very thing that she feared most-a search for her biological parents.  While Asha begins her journey as a spoiled, surly teen, what she finds on that search makes her reevaluate her own assumptions about identity and a mother's love.

Gowda does a great job of showcasing the differences between the lives of the classes in India, and the culture shock that westerners, even those of Indian descent, have when they see the beauty and history of the culture transposed with the poverty and environmental issues.  Asha and her Indian family  portray the mixture of pride and shame that must come from being a part of a culture that brims with thousands of years of history, yet still devalues girls such that female infanticide, child abandonment, and honor killings are still taking place today.  One can't help but wonder which India will win out in the end-modern, technological India, or the India of subsistence farming and poverty.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

Like many young girls, I was given a copy of Little Women as a gift.  Lousia May Alcott's perfect roman a clef about growing up in genteel poverty during the Civil War has been universally adored by generations of young readers, and despite the drastic social changes that have taken place in the intervening years, Jo March's struggle for independence and freedom from the conventions of society still resonates with many young women struggling to find their way in a complex and often confusing world.

So it was with great excitement that I picked up a copy of The Lost Summer of Lousia May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees at a local discount store.  I had read glowing reviews of the book on many of the blogs that I follow, and I anticipated feeling just as taken with the fictionalized account of one youthful summer as all of those bloggers had been. While many authors over the years have used primary historical documents to write fictionalized accounts of the lives of real people, this book seemed to promise some kind of new insight into a hidden chapter of Miss Alcott's life.

The Lost Summer recounts the events of one summer when Louisa was 20.  She and her family go to stay in the house of a friend of their father's in Walpole, Massachusetts.  Her father Bronson Alcott, was a philosopher who was friends with many of the important intellectuals of the mid 1800s-Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, and others.  Unfortunately for his family, he believed that working for money would sully his mind, and as a result the Alcott family lived off of the generosity of their friends and family, as well as whatever money the girls could bring in doing piecework or working as tutors and companions.  Louisa meets Joseph Singer, a young man trying to manage his father's shop during the older man's long illness.  There is an instant attraction between Joseph and Louisa, but he is already pledged to another girl, and she longs for the independence to write.  Despite never wanting to marry, Louisa feels herself falling in love with Singer, bonding as they do over Walt Whitman's recently released Leaves of Grass.

Reading the author's note, it becomes obvious that there is actually no historical evidence that Louisa had a love affair as a young girl the year her family lived in Walpole.  The entire affair is completely from the imagination of  McNees.  Which would have been fine, if the story of their love had been as gripping and tragic as some of those rhapsodizing bloggers seemed to find it.  My problem with it was that it didn't seem realistic at all.  They meet, make eyes at each other, read a few poems, and are suddenly consumed with an unquenchable love for each other.  Maybe it's a function of my age, but I just didn't buy the "love at first sight" thing.  Infatuation, yes.  Physical desire, sure.  But full-on, can't-live-without-you love?  Sorry, I just didn't get it.  As a result, while the book is very well written and I enjoyed McNees' descriptions of New England life in the 1850s, I can only say, "meh".

Monday, September 12, 2011

Queen of Sorcery, David Eddings

So a couple of weeks ago I posted a review of Pawn of Prophecy, the first book in David Edding's Belgariad series.  I talked about how it was a well-written fantasy series, with well-developed characters and well-paced action.  All the typical archetypes are there-the sorcerer, the witch, the warriors, the rogue.  It is an enjoyable journey in a sometimes dark fantastical world.

I just finished the second book in the series, that chronicles the further travels of Belgarath, Polgara, and Garion and their allies on their search for the orb.  As for my review of said book-I can only say...

ditto.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Egyptian, Layton Green

Last year I reviewed Layton Green's first novel,  The Summoner.  In it, Green introduces us to Dominic Grey, a former member of the US diplomatic services security.  While stationed in Zimbabwe, Grey is drawn into the mysterious disappearance of a US diplomat, and its connection to a ju-ju priest who seems to be able to do the impossible.  This year I was lucky enough to be asked to review his next book, The Egyptian.


When I reviewed Green's first book, I said that while I thought there were some pacing and exposition issues, I was excited to see where Grey's story went as the series continues.  I was not disappointed.  Green has taken Grey out of the Diplomatic Security Service-which I think allows for more flexibility in storylines over time-and has him working with Professor Viktor Radek investigating cults and mysterious, seemingly magical events around the globe.  In The Egyptian, Radek and Grey are called in by a biomedical company to recover stolen research into a life extension product that could literally make humans almost immortal.  But all is not what it seems-when Grey and an investigative reporter begin to uncover the location of the stolen research, they witness the slaughter of a team of scientists, which leads them to believe that the biotech company is somehow behind the violence.  Drawn by their investigation to Egypt, they discover an ancient cult intent on controlling who is bestowed eternal life.

One of my favorite phrases for someone who seems to be feeling at the top of their game is "in the pocket".  Green has found his groove with this series, and The Egyptian felt much more "in the pocket" that The Summoner.  While there is less about Grey's back story in this book, there is enough to keep you interested in him as a character.  The story moves from America to Europe to a lost oasis in the Sahara, making for a lot of globe-trotting action.  The information about the immortality cult, and the science behind anti-aging, was presented in such a way that I felt like I learned a lot without being lectured at, and it was well-placed in the overall arc of the story.  I am so glad that this series is shaping up the way it is...smart thrillers for people who like their action with some cognitive stimulation!

Thanks for Layton for giving me an advanced preview copy.  You can get it in Kindle or Nook version from his website, www.laytongreen.com.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings

One of the recurring motifs in high fantasy is the idea of the average villager actually being the lost prince of Somewhere, or the reincarnation of the great sorcerer Whoever.  Unsuspecting mortals who are suddenly confronted with a destiny that is larger and more important than they realized.  Maybe that is part of the reason that people enjoy high fantasy.  For the average-Joe, who may feel powerless to change their own lives, the idea of secretly being the heir to the kingdom of Everywhere is pretty attractive.

David Eddings has created just such a scenario in his epic fantasy series, The Belgariad.  The first book in the series is called Pawn of Prophecy.  It introduces us to Garion, a young boy living with his Aunt Pol on a farm in Sendaria, a peaceful kingdom of the west.  His world is narrow but comfortable, with Aunt Pol and the blacksmith Durnik to guide him.  But Garion is haunted by visions of a dark rider who casts no shadow-a rider that no one else ever sees.  One day, a storyteller named Mr. Wolf comes to the farm, and it becomes clear that he and Aunt Pol know each other.  Mr. Wolf brings news-something important and powerful has been stolen, and Mr. Wolf and Aunt Pol (who are clearly more than they seem), leave the farm with Garion in tow.  Durnik insists on accompanying the party to protect Aunt Pol.  They meet up with two shady characters in the woods-Silk, a crafty, sly man, and Barak, an enormous warrior.  Together they embark on a journey to find the lost artifact, and to stop the war that may be coming if they don't. Somehow Garion is connected to this artifact, but at an angsty 14 no one tells him anything.

This first installment does an excellent job of setting up the background for the future books.  The reader is in the position of having information that Garion does not have as the result of a short prologue, which allows the reader to understand the strange events that surround Garion even when he can not.  While the roles played by the main characters are pretty common for epic fantasy-the powerful sorcerer, the witch, the rogue, the warrior-there is at least decent character development, especially for Garion's character.  Despite the fact that the characters are in fact hiding or following a trail of the artifact, there is enough action to provide some relief from the tedium of constant travel.  The only real criticism I have is the same criticism I have for most high fantasy-apparently women in fantasy land will have to wait a little longer to be released from their oppression, as the only woman in the story so far that has any real power is Aunt Pol, who we discover is more than a simple cook.  I'd like to see a good female warrior or two, or a queen who has the same power as her husband the king.  But while we wait for the feminist movement to come to the various kingdoms of the Land of Fantasy, we can enjoy well-crafted stories like Pawn of Prophecy.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, or Why Synesthesia Sucks

Imagine while you are eating dinner tonight that every time you take a bite you can feel the emotions of the person who cooked it.  This is the very unusual synesthesia that afflicts Rose, the main character of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.  OK, it's not exactly synesthesia, which refers to the neaurological condition where sensory input gets confused in the brain.  Sounds suddenly have color, or tastes.  Certain words are associated with smells...But Rose's ability to taste the emotions of the people who made her food was just one special ability in her family's DNA. 

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender,  begins when Rose is a child.  She comes home one day to a freshly-made chocolate lemon cake.  When she takes a bite, she can suddenly feel how desperately lonely and unhappy her mother is.  After an initial panic, she learns to eat as much food prepared by faceless factories-while she can tell where the ingredients came from and which factory manufactured it, she is not inundated with the feelings of strangers.  But she can't avoid family dinners, and when her mother's food suddenly starts tasting of guilt, Rose knows that she is having an affair.  At the same time, her brother Joe, who never really felt a part of the world, starts to disappear.  Over the course of years, he is gone more frequently and for longer periods.  Through it all, Rose deals with her relationship with her mother, her father, her friends, and George, her first crush and brother's best friend.

This book may be the most unique coming of age story that I have ever read.  Rose's character is full of all the angst and uncertainty of any adolescent-I mean, aren't we already swimming in a storm of emotions as teens?  Bender's writing is fluid and poetic, though she does have that annoying lack of quotation marks going against her. She manages to blend a rather surreal set of family quirks and strange events into a very realistic seeming story about a family who loves each other, but just can't seem to connect. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Reading Vonnegut for the First Time

As a science fiction fan, I have considered it a personal failing that I had never read any Kurt Vonnegut.  As a pacifist, the fact that I had never read Slaughterhouse Five made that failing sting a little more.  I wish I could say that reading this book was worth all of the years of self-recrimination.  I wish I could say that I finished it.  But the only thing I can say with any certainty is that I didn't get it.

I won't say that I don't understand why this book is considered a classic of science fiction specifically and literature generally.  Vonnegut's writing is by turns funny, poignant, frightening, or evocative.  Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an accidental soldier who is captured by the Germans in 1945 and taken to Dresden.  He is there during the Dresden bombings, when the Allies bombed the non-military city of Dresden and killed over 100,000 people.  Vonnegut himself was a German prisoner of war who lived through the Dresden bombing and its aftermath.  But this is not in fact the major event of Billy's life.  Billy becomes "unstuck in time", moving through his own lifeline from prisoner to wealthy optometrist to alien zoo exhibit...yes, I said alien exhibit.  Because the other major fact of Billy's life is that he was abducted by aliens on the night of this daughter's wedding.

OK, I only know the last part because I read the SparkNotes for the complete novel.  Because I couldn't finish the book.  Even with the excellent writing, I could not get into this story.  It wasn't the writing, or the war, or the time travel, or the alien abduction.  The only explanation I can come up with is that my brain just doesn't think the way that Vonnegut's does.  Even though I already knew the destination theme-wise, I just couldn't follow where Vonnegut was leading.  Despite my natural inclination to agree with the book's anti-war message, I wasn't sure how Billy Pilgrim traveling through time and being abducted by aliens was supposed to articulate that message.  Of course, had I finished it, maybe all would become clear.  And that's on me.  I guess I'll just have to continue living my life as a science fiction fan who hasn't read Vonnegut.  But this time I'll forgive myself.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Haven't I Heard This Somewhere Before?

In Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs gave us a hilarious and horrifying look into his early life.  When his parents divorced, Augusten's mother signed over guardianship of him to her psychotic psychiatrist.   Refusing to go to school, he spent his days drinking or getting high with this foster sister, and being preyed upon by a 33 year old pedophile.  It was a story like no other-hopefully because no one else has ever lived through that particular brand of hell.

Dry picks up the story of his life as an award winning copywriter at an ad agency and raging alcoholic. After a particularly disastrous business meeting, his company gives him an ultimatum-go to rehab or lose his job.  He enters rehab determined to treat it as a spa vacation, only to be confronted pretty quickly with the strange world of group therapy and the 12 steps.  He leaves rehab determined to stay sober, but the pressures of real life threaten his fragile sobriety.  And this, this is a story I've heard before.


Granted, Dry is told with Burrough's usual wit.  I admire his ability to laugh at himself, and unlike some recovery memoirs this one is not preachy or sentimental.  But it also doesn't really have anything new to say on the subject of addiction.  He was a drunk, for understandable reasons, but still a drunk.  He nearly ruined his own (and a few other people's) life.  He met some unusual characters in rehab, had difficulty re-entering the "real" (read: sober) world, etc...etc...If you are a fan of Augusten Burroughs, it is probably worth reading just so you can say you've read the "complete set", so to speak, but if you've never read his books before, start with Running with Scissors-much more compelling story.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Secret Societies and the Readers Who Love Them

So you may have heard of this author, Dan Brown?  He wrote this relatively successful novel called The Da Vinci Code, all about this professor who chases down ancient conspiracies about Jesus and Mary Magdalene to solve a modern day mystery.  I guess they made a movie about it or something...

Obviously Dan Brown's best-selling novel was more than relatively successful.  Say what you will about Brown's writing, he seemed to have tapped into a part of our cultural consciousness that believes in conspiracies and secret societies and vaguely impossible sounding alchemical magic.  And it's didn't start with Dan Brown, of course.  Indiana Jones was searching for lost artifacts in the jungles of the world at least 20 years before Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code.  I'm not sure why we as a society are so intrigued by the shadowy figures that we somehow fear are secretly running the world...perhaps it helps us make sense of the senseless, you know, like debt ceiling agreements or Donald Trump's hair.

Since every single literary phenomenon apparently needs its clones, there have been plenty of Da Vinci Code copycats.  I've read a few, and liked a few of those, but I had always avoided the novels of one of the more successful ancient mystery/secret society authors to compete with Dan Brown, James Rollins.  Something about his Sigma Force felt too militaristic and male to  be of much interest to me.  After all, I prefer even my mystery/thrillers to have female detectives.  Sexist of me, probably, but that's a topic for another post.

Well, wouldn't you know, Audible.com had a James Rollins book, Map of Bones, available FREE the last time I was looking for something to listen to on a roadtrip.  And who doesn't love free?!?  So, over 13 hours later, I can tell you that my concerns about Sigma Force were unfounded.  I was completely drawn into the world of Gray Pierce, Rachel Verona, and the mystery of the ancient mages they were trying to keep from the Imperial Dragon Court.

Map of Bones begins with a massacre in a church in Cologne, Germany.  Armed men dressed as monks unleash some sort of device that cause people to be electrocuted in their seats.  They also steal the scared relic of the cathedral-the supposed bones of the biblical Magi. Sigma Force is called upon by the Vatican to help them determine exactly who stole the bones and what their plans for them are.  Gray Pierce and his team are sent to the Vatican, and much mayhem ensues.

The upside to this kind of book is that the action is pretty non-stop, and there are lots of twists and turns to keep you engaged along the way.  And actually, there is some character development here, which you don't always find in this kind of action/adventure story.  The downside of this type of story is the enormous amount of historical exposition the author must try to work in around the gun fights, bombs, and car/boat chases.  Like most books of this types I've read, occasionally it felt slightly more like a history text than a novel, but Rollins actually does a decent job of having these little lesson occur in contexts that make sense-not, for instance, while standing over a dead body like one scene in Da Vinci Code.  All in all this was a fun, satisfying use of 13 hours in the car!


Wednesday, August 03, 2011

When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor was Divine is a little gem of a book.  A slim 160 pages, Otsuka's debut novel tells the story of a Japanese family forced into an internment camp in 1942.  Each of the five chapters is narrated by a different member of the family-the mother, who packs away the house and their old life after the relocation order came down; the daughter, who tells of the journey on the train to the Utah desert; the son, who describes life in the camp; and the father, who was arrested and held in a separate facility for the duration of the war and returns to his family a different man.  The characters are nameless, which I assume is a purposeful attempt to portray the family as representatives of the 127,000 Japanese Americans who were "relocated" during World War II. 

Otsuka's writing is spare, but conveys such emotion.  This family lived in an America where their neighbors turned against them, or, worse, pretended they no longer existed.  Their ties to the community where they lived and worked and went to school are suddenly severed, and it is apparent that everyone was too afraid of being seen as disloyal to stand up for anyone-themselves or their neighbors.  There were two parts of the novel that stood out for me.  The first was when the mother was packing up their house in order to evacuate.  From my place in the 21st century I knew there was a good chance that no matter what she did to safeguard her family's things, they would not be there when and if she returned.  But the most painful part was when she killed the family dog, because he was old and sick and there was no one to take care of him.  The second part that struck me was the son's description of his mother's slow slide into depression and hopelessness.  They say that children are adaptable, and in fact the boy never seemed to lose hope that they wold eventually go home.  But even his youthful innocence could not spare him from watching his mother wither and lose interest in the world and what would happen to them.

Finally, after more than three years of imprisonment, the internment camp inmates were given $25, put on buses, and taken back to their hometowns.  Many had no actual homes to return to, and no family or friends to help them.  The opportunistic lawyers and businessmen who promised to collect rents from the people living in their houses or running their businesses had disappeared, along with the money they had promised to keep safe.  No on apologized, or offered any compensation for their losses-but really, how can you compensate someone for their quality of life, for the loss of feeling safe and secure in your own home?  And their neighbors, out of shame or anger, shunned them, which must have felt like a different kind of imprisonment.  Otsuka does a wonderful job bringing her readers into this shameful era of American history.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Any long time readers of this blog know my deep respect for Octavia Butler.  She takes the genre of science fiction and turns it into literature that not even the most pernicious lit snob can say is anything other than high quality.  Kindred, Butler's best known work, is perhaps the clearest example I've yet read of the way that she combines issues of race, gender, and class into her work.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a black woman living in California in the 1970s.  Through some process never fully explained, Dana is transported back to the early 1800s whenever Rufus, her white great-great-great-great (you get the idea) grandfather is on the verge of getting himself killed.  Unfortunately for Dana, this unknown ancestor is also the son of a slave-owner in Maryland.  This means that once she is back in time with him, she must adjust her life to the customs of the time, acting the part of a slave.  As Dana travels back and forth between the past and the present, she learns more about what it meant to be black and powerless in the United States than she ever wanted to.  What was abstract to her and her white husband in 1976 becomes terrifyingly concrete in the world of 1830s Maryland.

Kindred is a bit of a cross-over novel, as the science fiction aspect of it is not nearly as important as the story itself.   Perhaps that's why it is her most popular novel, because you don't have to be a science fiction fan to enjoy it.  But I suspect it has more to do with the examination of race and slavery than with a genre preference.  Through Dana's experiences, Butler shows the brutality and cruelty of slavery.  Dana, with her 20th century moral superiority, begins by "acting" as a slave, but after being whipped, beaten, forced into the fields, and nearly raped, she comes to realize how easily people can be made slaves.  Take away a person's humanity, and they will believe they are less than human.  Value a person only because of the work that they can do or the price that they will fetch, and they will start to define themselves that way, even contribute to their own captivity.

It is this idea that is perhaps the most striking in Butler's work, especially given the 1979 release date.  That close to the heyday of the civil rights movement, it must have been a risk for Butler to create the characters of Rufus, who while not likeable does at least become understandable as the slave owner's son, and eventual slave owner himself.  Even though Dana hates what he does, she can't quite bring herself to hate him, though he certainly gives her ample reasons to do so.  But Dana's relationship with Rufus, and the various attitudes of other slaves on the plantation, demonstrate that slavery and people's attitudes towards it were not as clear-cut as history books would make them out to be.  To be sure, the institution of slavery is abhorrent, but those living within it sometimes had to do things that should not necessarily be judged by 20th (or 21st) century standards.  Butler clearly shows how insidious the effects of living under such a brutal system can be, from the need to run away again and again, even after the most horrific beatings, to the need to try and secure your place by serving up another slave's transgressions to your masters, even though you know what the consequences for them will be.  In the end, Dana is able to retain enough of her 20th century self to free herself from the bondage imposed on her by the involuntary time travel, but not without scars, both physical and emotional, that will leave a permanent impression on her, and on the reader.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

What the Dead Know, Laura Lipman

Laura Lipman can usually be counted on to provide a mystery that is more than a mystery.  Her intricate plots are always just as much about love, family, and the difficult choices we make as they are about solving a crime.  What the Dead Know is no exception.

What the Dead Know is the story of the Bethany sisters-two young girls who disappeared without a trace in the summer of 1975.  Thirty years later, a woman turns up claiming to be one of the lost sisters, but the circumstances of her sudden reappearance leave more questions than answers.  Joe Infante, a detective in Baltimore, and Kay, a social worker who is assigned to evaluate and protect the rights of "Heather Bethany" can sense that the woman is lying, but about what, and why?  Each tries to get to the bottom of the mystery in their own way, but it is not until the mother of the girls arrives from the life she managed to make for herself in Mexico that everyone finally gets the full story.

Alternating between the past and present day, Lipman weaves together a narrative that is engaging and infuriating-well, really it is engaging partly because it is so infuriating.  Getting to the end of a chapter was like a cliffhanger at the end of your favorite show.  Bits and pieces of the story slowly start to coalesce into an almost clear picture, and then you learn something that makes you reevaluate what you thought you knew.  The general gist of the girls' story-kidnapped and held for years against their will-is something that has become almost cliche in contemporary mysteries.  But Lipman's treatment of it made it feel familiar yet new at the same time.

What I found so interesting as I was reading was that I didn't really like any of the characters.  Not the cop, not the "found" sister, not the father or mother.  I can't remember the last time that I was able to get this into a book where I didn't really feel sympathetic towards any of the characters.  But somehow it worked.  Even though I found myself annoyed with everyone at one time or another I still wanted to know what happen.  Maybe Lipman's biggest risk was making "Heather" so unlikeable.  We want our lost girls to be sweet and damaged and innocent.  Well, "Heather" was damaged all right.  She was manipulative, emotionally stunted, selfish, and a liar.  But after learning about the circumstances that led her back to the place she disappeared from, that all made sense to me.  How else would you feel if you were ripped away from your home and family, forced into sexual bondage and a new identity, and then escaped into a world that you thought had forgotten you, and would tear you apart if they remembered?  Lipman explores the ties of family, and those who become our family, even in the most horrifying of times.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Pray for Silence, Linda Castillo

After years of reading almost nothing but mystery/thrillers (they were mostly free, don't judge!), it is pretty hard to find a book in that genre that feels entirely new to me.  Part of why I like a lot of mysteries and thriller is because they are usually fairly predictable and formulaic, thereby allowing me to lose myself in the story of the moment without actually having to think terribly hard.  Admittedly, this gets a bit old.  And it is for that reason that I am glad that I discovered Linda Castillo and her Kate Burkholder series.

I read the first book in this series, Sworn to Silence, earlier this year.  It introduces chief of police Kate Burkholder, a former Amish who chose not to be baptized into the church after a traumatic event in her childhood.  Pray for Silence starts with the discovery of an Amish family murdered in their own home-mom, dad, and five children.  Violent crime is very rare in the Amish community, and Kate can't imagine what the motive could be.  But the Amish have the same human fallibility as the rest of us, and it soon became apparent that at least one of the family members was hiding a secret that put their entire family in danger.  Kate once again teamed up with state bureau of investigations agent John Tomasetti, who shows up in Painters Mill after being suspended for a failed drug test.  Their budding relationship continues, both of them dragging their respective baggage, and tripping over it more often than not, in their desire to be together.

The horrific nature of the crime scene stands out starkly against the backdrop of the peaceful Amish community, though the bulk of the action in this novel takes place in the English community, not the Amish.  Castillo does a decent job of describing the Amish community, their history and traditions, in such a way that it does not feel stereotypical.  Where she is pretty stereotypical, however, is in the characters of Kate and John.  I mean, to read most mystery writers, one would assume that all detectives are damaged, stand-offish, and terrible at relationships.  Add the fact of Tomasetti's drug and alcohol problems, and you have a caricature of every hard-boiled detective ever.  Luckily I don't read her books for creative characterization, but for an engaging story set in an unusual setting, and that Castillo delivers on.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday-I Have Issues...

...or rather, these books tackle tough issues.  That's the theme this week over at The Broke and the Bookish, the lovely bloggers who host Top Ten Tuesday.  I have a while theory of reading as social justice, and have been meaning to get back to building my Social Justice Books page here at Book Addict Reviews, so coming up with ten is a cakewalk.  I'll put the adult titles here, but if you ware interested in social justice-themed books for children, check out my post at Second Childhood Reviews.

1.  A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini:  I have a friend who has told me she is glad that I was around on 9-1 so I could explain who the Taliban were and what was happening in Afghanistan, since she had never heard of them.  I think that this book does the best job of describing what life was like under Taliban rule.


 2.  The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien:  I just read this book of short stories/vignettes from O'Brien's experience in the Viet Nam War, and I think that it has important things to say about war in general and what it does to the young people we send into it.



3.  The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood:  Patriarchal, tyrannical theocracy based on biological control of women anyone?  Oh, wait, that's right, we aren't that far away from that it some parts of our country, where a woman's right to choose is being eroded more and more every day.


4.  Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison:  Amazingly powerful book about child sexual abuse and domestic violence.  And on a related note...


5.  The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison:  All of the above, only adding racial identity and racism to the mix.


6.  Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean:  When horrible people do horrible things it is in our nature to dehumanize them and turn them into monsters who deserve death.  What Sr. Prejean's work does is remind the readers vividly that people on death row are as human as you or me, and that if we as a society want to continue executing them, we need to do it with an understanding of our shared humanity.

7.  Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg:  This roman a clef details Feinberg's life as a butch lesbian in New York in the years directly before and after the Stonewall Riot in 1969.  Feinberg has since identified as transgendered, and wrote another book about the historical treatment of transgendered people called Transgender Warriors that is really fascinating.


8.  Zeitoun, Dave Eggers:  This true story details what happened to an Islamic immigrant named Zeitoun and his family in the days after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  Zeitoun stayed in New Orleans, and after the storm spent his days rowing around his neighborhood rescuing people and feeding pets left-behind-that is, until the US army arrested him as a terrorist...


9.  And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts:  Shilts' book recounts the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and how homophobia and bigotry kept doctors and scientists from recognizing, researching, and treating the disease more quickly and efficiently.


 10.  The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perotta:  Perotta gives us a thoughtful look at the abstinence-only vs. comprehensive sex education debate.  But guess which one still leads to fewer unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases?  Knowledge is power, people!



Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sister, by Rosamund Lupton

Sister is a good example of why I refuse to put up my nose at genre fiction.  Billed as a mystery novel with a plot that sounds like something ripped from today's headlines, Sister is actually a novel about love and family and grieving and acceptance.

Sister follows the story of Beatrice, a British ex-living in New York, as she tries to solve the murder of her younger sister, Tess.  Free-spirited Tess, an artist living in London, is discovered in a men's toilet in Hyde Park, an apparent suicide.  Beatrice refuses to believe that her sister would have taken her own life, and begins to dig into the events surrounding the last weeks of Tess's life, looking for a key to her murderer.  Despite the fact that nearly everyone believes that her sister killed herself, and despite the fact that her quest pushes away some of the people closest to her, Beatrice eventually discovers the sinister secret at the heart of her sister's murder.

Let me say first that this is, in fact, a first rate mystery.  The plot is thoughtful and well laid out, and the story is not as formulaic as some mystery/thrillers.  But this book is so much more than just a mystery novel.  It is a love story about sisters, and a story about grief.  Every part of Beatrice's story-told as a letter to her dead sister-drips with raw, honest, sometimes painful emotion.  Every turn of phrase draws you in more deeply to Beatrice's state of mind, her regrets, her guilt, her anger, and her sorrow.  But you also begin to see Beatrice change, from the stodgy women she was quickly becoming, to someone stronger and more alive.  Her sister's death frees her from convention, allows her to become this person who makes waves, who questions authority, who is not afraid to say the hard or uncomfortable things.  Lupton's writing is almost poetic at times, giving the whole story an easy flow that draws you in and engages not just your logical, figure-out-the-mystery brain, but the part of your brain that appreciates beauty, even in sadness.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

I was born in 1970.  So while my life overlaps briefly with the Viet Nam War, I have no real memory of it.  What I do remember is going to downtown Chicago with my granny, and later with my parents, and seeing the faces of the homeless vets that were begging on the streets.  Wild-eyed, or blank-stared, the memories of their faces color everything that I have heard, read, or seen about the war since.  And I have heard, read, and seen a lot.  Stories from the fathers of friends who fought in the war, lessons from school, movies like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon-from these sources I have cobbled together a picture of that hot, wet, chaotic, horrific place and time.

But I am not sure that I have truly felt that I had even the faintest understanding of what it might actually have been like.  Not, that is, until I read Tim O'Brien's stunning book The Things They Carried.  Neither entirely fact nor entirely fiction, O'Brien uses a series of short stories and vignettes to tell the tale of Alpha Company, a group of soldiers based, in part, on the real men that O'Brien served with during the war.  The stories meander from stateside to the jungles of Viet Nam, from childhood to middle age, detailing how each experience prepares or informs or explains the person that Tim was or is or may yet become.

I will admit to having some difficulty at first with the non-linear narrative, and with the fact that I was never sure what was true and what was made-up.  But the genius of this work is that you soon realize that it doesn't matter.  In fact, the way that the book is put together and the inability to tell fact from fiction ends up doing a better job describing what living through that experience was like than any straight forward telling could.  O'Brien and his fellow soldiers lived a reality that most of us will never experience, and can never truly comprehend, where time was skewed, day and night traded places, where extraordinary circumstances became ordinary, and where the ordinary world as most of us know it became a dream that you couldn't let yourself believe in.

My favorite section of the book (if favorite is even the right word) is the story of how O'Brien almost ran away to Canada rather than go to war.  Part of O'Brien's extreme talent is an ability to use words to paint not just a visual but an emotional picture for the reader, and I was able to feel how deeply terrified he was at the prospect of war.  I felt his ambivalence about running away, about choosing the possibility of death over the certainty of shame and embarrassment.  But the thing I found most stunning, and the line I would consider the most "controversial" of the whole piece, is this, "I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Viet Nam, where I was a soldier, and then home again.  I survived, but it's not a happy ending.  I was a coward. I went to war."
Given the hyper-patriotism of the US since 9-11, and our unquestioning assumption that every soldier is brave and heroic,  this simple statement stopped me dead in my tracks.  It felt almost sacrilegious.  Are we allowed to say that not going to war is more courageous than going?  What does that say about us as a society, that we are find ourselves so often in armed conflicts?  Is it bravery and strength, or is it because we don't want to be judged as wanting by the rest of the world?  What would happen if our young men and women, en masse, simply refused to go the next time we try to send them into harm's way?  Would it be courageous or cowardly?  Regardless of where any one of us comes down on that particular idea, what O'Brien's work has done is illustrate for those of us that weren't there that nothing is as simple and straightforward in war as those of us sitting at home watching it on our televisions thinks it is.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monsters of Templeton

I admit it, I read this book because Stephen King wrote a blurb for the cover.  I don't usually read the cover blurbs, but when I see and author I love as much as SK has read the book I am considering, I pay attention.  That blurb was pretty much all I knew about The Monsters of Templeton before I started reading.  As a result, I was expecting a horror story...and why wouldn't I?  Stephen Freakin' King wrote a blurb.  What I actually got was something far more complex and indefinable.

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff tells the story of Willie Upton, the down and out descendent of the founder of Templeton, Marmaduke Temple.  She has fled back to her childhood home after a disastrous affair with her dissertation adviser.  Pregnant, depressed, sure she is losing her career and her life, she stumbles into town in the middle of the night.  The next morning, much to everyone's surprise, the body of a huge animal floats to the surface of Glimmerglass Lake-the fabled monster Glimmey, supposed-myth turned real.  Into the public chaos that ensues, Willie gets a little surprise of her own.  After years of believing that her father was one of three men her mother lived in a commune with in the year before her birth, she is told by her mother that her father is right there in Templeton, and has been all along.  When her mother refuses to tell her who the lucky man is, she goes on a quest to discover his identity-a quest that takes her back through her family's (and the town's) long and sordid history.

Despite the monster in the lake, and the ghost that lives in Willie's house, there is nothing scary about this book.  The true monsters of Templeton were the people who lived, loved, fought, and died there throughout the years.  In many ways, this book tells the story of a woman who is finally growing up.  Willie, who lived a fairly privileged and idyllic childhood in many ways, just was not able to get herself together out in the "real" world.  Despite the prestigious college she went to, despite her competence in her chosen field (archaeology, the symbolism of which is only now hitting me), Willie can't seem to take that last step into being responsible for herself.  Her pregnancy, her return to her hometown, her realizations about her mother, and most of all her research into her family, finally bring her to a place where she can find herself in the mess of high expectations, failed relationships, and career suicide that she left in her wake.

The story alternates between present-day Willie and characters from the past, and it is this narrative structure that shows how talented Groff really is.  She wrote sections of the novel as the journal of a 19th century woman, as letters between two 18th century women, as the son of the founder of Templeton, as a nameless Indian girl, and as the monster itself.  Each voice felt authentic, and each one revealed a little bit more about the sprawling family of which Willie was a product.  The story is intricate and multi-layered, and I think that the revelations about the various Temples, Upton, Averells, and others were well-paced.  While there is some magical realism, this novel is not really that.  While there are some historical fiction elements, it's not really that, either.  In the end, I think that this book defies any clear-cut description, which to me makes it even more intriguing and enjoyable to read.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday-Books All Teens Should Read

I am so excited to be participating in Top Ten Tuesday for the first time all summer.  Somehow I thought I would have more time for blogging on my summer break, but the truth is that I honestly don't remember what day it is most of the time.  I call it summer brain.  As a result, I usually remember Top Ten Tuesday on about Friday.  Anywoot, here's my picks for the ten books every teen should read.

1.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee-I realize that this is still on the high school reading lists in most places, so most teens are reading this book.  While I am a proponent of enriching the high school English curriculum with more contemporary works, this is one that should stay on the list forever and ever!

2.  The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood-I didn't read this until college, and it literally changed my life.  And I don't just think that female teens should read this.  Atwood's horrifying vision of what theocracy could look like is still timely for everyone.

3.  The Book Thief, Markus Zusak-OK, I admit I haven't read this myself, but everyone I know who has-youth or adult-has impressed upon me how amazing it is, and it is on my TBR list.  And on a related note...

4.  The Diary of Anne Frank-There is so much in this slim volume that speaks to young people.  And given the increasing polarization of our society over issues of class and immigration, there are plenty of lessons to be learned here about our shared humanity.

5.  Luna, Julie Anne Peters or Almost Perfect, Brian Katcher-Both of these titles are about transgendered youth, and they both give good insight into the struggles that transgendered people have living true to themselves and gaining acceptance from their families, peers, and society.  Given the recent spate of anti-gay bullying, I think that we need to be encouraging more teens to read books with GLBT themes.

6.  Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson-I think that this novel about a young girl finding her voice again after a sexual assault speaks to many young people who feel like they are powerless, even if they have not had a similar experience as the reason.

7.  Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut-Again, I am making a recommendation that I have not in fact read myself, but it is a gaping hole in my reading past that I plan to fill this summer.  And really, I am down with any anti-war book that we can get into the hands of young people.  I am eternally hopeful that maybe the next generation can find less-violent solutions than the previous generations.

8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky-Like Speak, only without the sexual assault and with a male protagonist. 

9.  A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini-I never really understood much about Afghan culture until I read this and The Kite Runner.  Given the continuing war there, I think people should understand more rather than less about what the stakes are, and I don't mean for the US, but for the Afghan people, if the Taliban are allowed to reassert themselves.

10.  Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews-Because really, you can only get away with it in high school...if you're going to read trashy novels about incest, do yourself a favor and only do it early enough to be able to claim youthful stupidity when you admit it later.