Tuesday, May 31, 2011

World (Book) Without End

Like many people I watched the mini-series on Starz of Ken Follet's epic tale of love, intrigue and cathedral building Pillars of the Earth.  While I had not read the book, I was completely drawn into the mini-series, which featured a stellar cast and a pretty decent script.  Before embarking on a long drive to visit my parents in northern Michigan, I decided to download the audiobook of Follet's follow-up effort to Pillars of the Earth, called World Without End. Fifteen hours in the car and two months later, I have finally gotten to the end of the story.

World Without End follow the small English town of Kingsbridge, the same town featured in Pillars of the Earth.  World Without End advances the story a couple of hundred years-the tale begins in the early 14th century.  The cathedral that Tom and Jack Builder envisioned stands tall and proud, as do the monks that live and work there.  On a bright autumn day during the fleece fair, four children go exploring in the woods.  The stumble upon a knight, fighting for his life against two armed men.  One of the children manages to kill one of the men, and the knight is saved.  The knight has a secret, which he buries in the forest.  This sets off a chain of events that leads to love, murder, treachery, betrayal, a bridge, an awful lot of sex, and the tallest tower in England.

As historical fiction goes, Follet's work is first-class.  Given the enormous amount of detail about 14th century Follet is either really detailed in imagining his fictional settings or the book is meticulously researched.   I definitely know more about medieval town politics than I ever thought I would. 

Like many young girls, I decided after reading too many fairy tales that I wanted to live back in the days of kings and queens, courtly love, all that...yeah, not so much.  The amount of superstition, sexism, and classism in 14th century England made me want to punch something, hard.  I'm not unfamiliar with the lack of social justice back, back, back in the day, but I got sucked into Follett's characters and his fictional village such that every injustice left me frustrated and angry and swearing at various fictional people in my car.  In the end, everything turned out exactly as I would have wanted, but I suppose when  one book covers the better part of 50 years that's not as unbelievable as it sounds.  Frankly, it just confirms my firm belief that in the end, everyone gets what they deserve.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Book Geek's Dream

It has become more and more obvious to me, in part thanks to a thought-provoking series of posts from The Reading Ape, that there is a very clear culture of reading among serious readers, and a strong subculture specific to book bloggers.  We have our own jargon, common practices, etiquette...all of it built on a foundation of love for books and storytelling.  So it comes as no surprise to me that I had to find the book blogger community to find Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series.  Fforde's books are a treasure trove of literary references and inside jokes any serious reader, especially of classic literature, should feel right at home in what is a decidedly strange world.

I just finished The Eyre Affair.  It is the novel that introduced Thursday Next, a SpecOps agent on the LiteraTec squad-that is, the group that is responsible for protecting the great books from harm.  While this includes rather ordinary things like verifying manuscripts for authenticity, it also includes some decidedly unusual things-like traveling into the book in pursuit of an evil villain out to destroy the great works of literature.  The Eyre Affair is a rather strange combination of literary discussion and science fiction, all rolled up into a thriller format.

I will admit that the structure of the novel didn't always sit well with me, and I'll have to read more to see if the rules that govern his particular universe stay consistent.  There are a lot of moving parts in this novel-Thursday herself and her past, a time-traveling father, a giant corporation (named Goliath-not the most subtle name I'll admit) that secretly runs things behind the scene, and a bullet-proof super-villain who can't be seen on camera and can apparently change the molecular structure of glass.  Intrigued yet?

What I loved about this novel is the creation of a world where literature is so important to everyone that an entire arm of the government is dedicated to it.  In Fforde's world, the Marlovians and Oxfordians feel so strongly about their positions they go door to door like Jehovah's Witnesses trying to get converts, as though Shakespearean authorship study is a religion (frankly, there's just as much evidence for some of the authorship theories as their is for some religious beliefs, namely not much)  Some literary movements actually took up arms to fight for their literary theory, though that does seem like taking it a bit too far.  Imagine a world where people cared that much about reading and books.  That's not to say I thought this book was without its problems-the characters were not that well developed, and the action jumped around a bit.  But as fun, escapist reading for readers, this book was a winner.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Minor Character Love

This week's Top Ten topic, from the brilliant bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish, is Top Ten Minor Characters.  It's interesting that this topic came up this week, as I am finally reading The Eyre Affair, which is full of talk about minor characters and how taking them out of books is a crime.  I'm going to try not to let this list devolve into Top Ten Sidekicks Redux, but I admit to having trouble thinking of enough minor characters to fill a whole list...besides, there are no small parts, only small actors, or something like that...

10.  Octavia, Venia, and Falvius from The Hunger Games-These three were Katniss's prep team for the Hunger Games, and along with her stylist Cinna were in charge of getting her support from wealthy capitol residents.  I'm not sure why I found them so charming-they are completely shallow and not that bright, but something about them just struck me as endearing.



9.  Robin Castagna, from Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware series-Robin is Alex's love interest, a musician who makes and restore guitars and other stringed instruments.  She provides the perfect compliment to Delaware's rather driven nature.  I was so upset when they split for a couple of books, but they are back together and all is right with the world.



8.  Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter-Poor Neville!  He just couldn't seem to catch a break, could he?  And I only loved him more after I found out what happened to his parents.  Such a sad story!



7.  Fletch, from Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster-OK, so he's a real person, and therefore not minor in the least, but I love reading about him as Jen writes about him.  He appears rather saintly, putting up with her snarkiness.  I admit to being convinced that Jen and I are destined to meet on the streets of Chicago and become besties, and then I would get to meet the sainted Fletch in person!



6.  The Town of Niniltna and The Park, from Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak series-I realize that choosing the whole town is a bit of a cop out, but there are so many interesting, quirky characters in this series that choosing one is almost impossible.  This series makes me want to lace up my mukluks, grab my parka, jump on my snowmobile, and ride down a frozen river.



5.  Miss Celia from The Help-Poor trashy Celia!  She is so out of her depth in the world of privileged Southern women, and her poor, stupid husband just doesn't seem to get it.



4.  Windsor Horne Lockwood III from Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series-Win, as he is known, is a rich and powerful child of privilege who is completely amoral but fiercely loyal to the few people he calls friend.  What's not to love?



3.  Moira, from The Handmaid's Tale-I'm not sure if it is the fact that she was a lesbian, or the fact that she refused to accept her fate as a Handmaid and ran away, but whatever the reason I always felt close to Moira when reading this book.  What happens to her is tragic, but I would not have felt it so strongly if I didn't also feel a strong connection to her.



2.  Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh-I know that he is all sad and stuff, but he makes me happy.  Perverse, I realize, but there it is.



1.  Lucy Farinelli, from the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell-She's slowly become a more major than minor character, but I loved her from her precocious, 10 year old start.  Kay's neice, only daughter of her flighty, many-times married sister, Kay has always taken care of Lucy as best she could.  Lucy is brilliant, a millionaire by 25, but emotionally stunted, especially after she is sucked in by the manipulative Carrie Grethen, who uses her love to try and kill Scarpetta.  She might be my current favorite character from this series.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Rediscovering the Punny World of Fantasy

For a period of a few years when I was in middle school and high school, I read almost exclusively science fiction and fantasy.  My love affair with science fiction started with A Wrinkle in Time, and my first fantasy love was The Wishstones of Shannarah.  I tore through the works of Terry Brooks, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Stephen R. Donaldson, Anne McCaffery, and Ursula K. LeGuin.  One of my favorite authors from this period was Piers Anthony.  His Xanth novels were always light and amusing, and better yet, there were a TON of them.  I spent whole weekends ensconced in my room with a pile of Xanth novels, reading non-stop while listening to Abba on vinyl.  That's right, I was a total nerd, but a happy one!

Then I went away to college, and spent my reading time on textbooks instead of reading for pleasure.  Between that and the fact that I'd lost my book supplier (my mother, who was somehow not willing to drive two hours just to take me to the bookstore for more reading material), I didn't read a Xanth book for a long time.  When I finally did get back to them, I was saddened to discover that the puns that I thought were so funny and clever in my teens now seemed a bit immature.  I remember how sad I was at not really enjoying the books as I once had.

Fast forward 20 years, and I am once again in love with a goofy, pun-filled series of fantasy humor.  Terry Pratchett's Discworld series was recommended to me by a friend years ago, but for some reason I never managed to pick up any of his books.  Finally two circumstances fell into place-morning door duty and an iPod Touch.  One morning at school while on door duty, in between buses coming in, I was exploring my new iPod Touch, and there in the iBooks store was Terry Prachett's Color of Magic for less than $5.  The universe had finally brought Prachett and I together.

The Color of Magic is the first book in the Discworld series, though not necessarily the first book chronologically in the Discworld mythology.  In The Color of Magic we are introduced to Rincewind, a failed wizard living a dissolute life in Ankh-Morpork, a large city on the Disc, a world being carried through the universe by four elephants that are perched on a large turtle A'Tuin.  Rincewind chances to meet Twoflower, a tourist from across the sea, who has a magic chest that follows him everywhere.  What Rincewind doesn't know is that he and Twoflower are pawns in a large chess game being played by the gods and goddesses of the Discworld.  Rincewind becomes Twoflower's tour guide and protector, and they travel around the Discworld meeting all manner of magical beings, heroes, and danger.  Despite being completely inept as a wizard, somehow Rincewind manages to take advantage of every piece of luck that comes his way to help Twoflower and himself survive.

The books is full of puns, illogical magical mythology, and humor, just like the Xanth novels.  But unlike Anthony's series, The Color of Magic also feels more mature. A combination of satire and silliness, The Color of Magic is a light read, with layers of meaning that can be thought about-or not-at your leisure.  Pratchett's books are like a big "wink wink, nudge nudge" to the fantasy community, at once spoofing it and enriching it.  If you, like me, loved fantasy as a youth but find it rather immature as an adult, then Pratchett's books may be right up your alley.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Jerkface!

Thanks to The Broke and the Bookish for hosting this weekly excuse for list-making!  This week's topic is Top Ten Literary Jerks.  Well, I guess the hero/villain dichotomy doesn't really work without Jerky Jerkerson, the jerky mayor of Jerkytown, Jerksylvania, so here are a few I found distasteful.

1.  Anne Coulter-I don't care if she's a real person (and that she isn't literary)!  She's still a bookish jerk!  She is everything that is wrong with the way politics is discussed in this country.  While we disagree about, oh, every single topic in American political and cultural life, I could live with that if she could express her disagreement without calling people names like the playground bully.


2.  Curly, Of Mice and Men-Curly was the boss's son, the little guy who liked to pick fights to try and prove what a man he was.  There should really be a sub-category of jerkiness just for boss's sons.  And to continue a theme...

3.  Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter-While not exactly the boss's son, he was a child of privilege who felt a need to hold it over everyone's head and generally make their lives miserable.

4.  Bill Sikes, Oliver Twist-He takes jerkiness to a whole new level.  I mean, is there any major crime he leaves undone?  Robbery, child abuse, domestic violence, animal cruelty, and murder-he's a one stop criminal shop.  Plus, he's a got a really foul attitude!

5.  Prior Godwyn, World Without End-I've been listening to the second installment of Ken Follett's epic tale of medieval cathedral/bridge building, and while most of the men in the novel make me want to run my car into the embankment with their sexism and superstition, Prior Godwyn takes the cake.  While you have to excuse most of the characters their ignorance due to, you know, the fact that they are living in 14th century England, he is purposefully and willfully deceptive, manipulative, greedy, and dishonest.

6. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda-While the Trunchbull has made my list of favorite villains and bitc..I mean, mean girls, this category seems prefectly made for Matilda's neglectful, conniving, hateful parents.  Thank goodness for Miss Honey!

7.  Big Jim Rennie, Under the Dome-Stephen King always has some jerky characters in his books, but very few rise to the level of Big Jim.  When the dome descends on his small Maine town, Big Jim, car salesman and city councilman, could have gone into action to help his fellow townspeople.  Instead, he steals their propane, gets anyone who disagrees with him thrown in jail and/or beaten, and tries to protect a meth lab that ends up destroying the whole town when it explodes.  That, and he doesn't even notice his own son has gone off the deep end.

8.  Daniel Cleaver, Bridget Jones Diary-I have to admit that I never read this book, only saw the movie version.  Chick lit isn't really my thing, but the movie had Hugh Grant in it, so there you go.  What I didn't realize going in was that he was the jerkface of that story.  Oh, but what a cute jerkface it is!

9.  Commander Fred, The Handmaid's Tale-Let's see, he and the other powerful men that killed the president and created a theocratic military regime keep fertile women as slaves, refusing to even allow them their own name, all for the glory of God and country.  And the description of the martial bed...ewwwww does not begin to cover it.

10.  Jack Randall, Outlander-When Claire finds herself transported back to 18th century Scotland, the first person she meets is this cruel, sneering man.  He later proves to be sadistic and single-minded in his desire to hurt her and have her husband Jamie as his own.  When Jamie is later captured by Randall, he is tortured and sexually assaulted by him.  Charming.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Spider Bones, Kathy Reichs

Back in my "only reads mystery and thrillers" days, I became infatuated with the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs.  I loved all of the smart, strong female detectives-Kinsey Milhone, Kay Scarpetta, Skip Langdon-but Tempe was one of my favorites.  Maybe it was the whole anthropology thing, but I devoured every book as soon as I could get my hands on it.

Then came the show Bones-so loosely based on this series that if the character didn't have the same name I would never have known they were related at all.  After the success of Bones, it felt to me like Reichs was calling it in with her books.  I know that there must have been pressure on her to keep churning out the books at the same one-a-year rate even after she started working on the show, but the last few books have been pretty thin-in numbers of pages, plot, and character development.

So it is with great pleasure that I am able to report that Spider Bones, her latest book, seems to be swinging back in the other direction.  In Spider Bones, Tempe investigates a drowning victim in Canada.  It seems like a clear case of accidental death, but there's a snag-the fingerprints identify the victim as a man who was supposedly killed in Viet Nam in 1968.  Tempe travels to Hawaii to the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or JPAC, a military agency tasked with searching out and identifying America's war dead from World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam.  What starts as a routine investigation turn violent when Tempe's work stirs up the interest of a local businessman with mob connections and a Samoan drug cartel.

While not as good as the best of her early books, this novel takes a step in the right direction.  The mystery kept me guessing, which can be hard to do since I've read so many mysteries and thrillers over the years.  The topic was interesting, and not something I knew before.  But what really makes this series for me is the interplay between Tempe and Andrew Ryan, the Canadian cop who she has an on-again-off-again relationship with.  If you're also a Reichs fan, I think that you will enjoy this one better than the last few.  I only hope they continue to go back to their glory days before the distraction of Bones.