Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Moloka'i: Alan Brennert

You know how, when someone you respect proclaims the glory of a book, and you are compelled to immediately go out and find a copy? That's how I came across Moloka'i by Alan Brennert. It was my father who read the book after he received the recommendation from someone else...which seems to be the way with this author. I believe that word-of-mouth has garnered him a great amount of fame. His fourth publication, Moloka'i is about the fifth largest of the Hawaiian islands and the strange culture bred there in it's years as a leper colony.

Rachel is just seven years old when she is taken from her family because of wounds that aren't painful, and red splotches on her skin that won't heal. In the late 19th century, Hansen's Disease, or leprosy as it is more commonly known, was a death sentence. It was a misunderstood affliction that remained a mystery for nearly a hundred years; known as the flesh-eating disease, it condemned it's sufferers to physically painless disfigurement but endless emotional anguish. Spitfire Rachel is already more familiar with leprosy than she'd like, having already seen her uncle Pono shipped off the Moloka'i. When her turn comes, her sole comfort is knowing that uncle Pono will be waiting for her. What follows is an intimate exploration of what life on the island of Moloka'i was like during it's years as a leper colony. Rachel is housed  in the school for girls, and then in the home that her uncle shared with his leper wife. While traversing the bureaucratic wilds of a Hawaiian island that has been left to die in the Pacific Ocean, Rachel comes of age and learns a great deal about love and the many ways it appears.

I found myself addicted to this story. Why? Am I secretly fascinated by leprosy? Do I like a good cathartic read? Does the rocky butte known as Moloka'i appeal to me? Maybe all of the above. Here's what I know for sure. I like Rachel. I like her from the very beginning, when she is just a little kid, disobeying her mom, arguing with her siblings, and cherishing the dolls her dad brings back to her from overseas. Rachel is not a complex character--she is actually very simple. She is just a little girl who is ripped away from everything she knows at a young age, and is forced to find good in the new world she finds herself in, or die slowly, miserable with her lot in life. It's not as if she is living in the lush green jungle of Maui or the white sandy beaches of Oahu. Moloka'i was chosen as the leper colony because it was considered undesirable land. Very little could grow on the mountain of rock, and the ocean meets the sand in only a few stretches. I wanted to imagine that Rachel was aging in a beautiful paradise, but the reality is that she was watching her friends die as she aged and became more disfigured. And yet, this isn't a sad story. In fact, it's sort of uplifting! It sounds impossible, but it turns out that Rachel's life serves a purpose and she touches so very many lives. Her resolve never fizzles, as she wakes every day determined to live. Brennert's book is a fictionalized account based on true events that should make any sane person feel at least a little sad at the way so many people were treated. Instead, he has written a story that exposes only a few of the horrors suffered by the afflicted, and turned it into a relatable story of inspiration. I can't help but admire him!

Rating: $$$

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Washington Square: Henry James

As a long standing fan of Henry James, I picked up Washington Square expecting the Henry James version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Summarized as the tale of docile Catherine Sloper, the daughter of well-to-do Dr. Sloper, Washington Square is a study in "the moral consequences of the callous exploitation of trust and the ruthless manipulation of a tender heart." Moral consequences! Callous exploitation! Ruthless manipulation! AND a tender heart? Sign me up! What I found instead, was a challenging read about a lifestyle so far removed from my own that I struggled to choke it down.

To begin with, try to keep in mind that Washington Square takes place in the 1840's New York. An era when roads were still traversed by carriage, but the electric lamp was on the verge of appearance. Things were changing in many ways, but there were still only a handful of options for a young woman: get married, become a wealthy spinster, or be a governess or house maid. I am generally able to acclimate to this idea fairly quickly, however the harder pill to swallow is the idea that a young woman's worth is based first in her appearance, then in her wealth, and only lastly in her personality. Catherine Sloper is the young, marrying aged daughter of Dr. Sloper, who describes his daughter as one might a dog. She is not clever, but she is very "good", which is fortunate because she is so uncomely. She is loyal, which will favor her in marriage to whomever will settle on her. "Dr. Sloper would have liked to be proud of his daughter; but there was nothing to be proud of in dear Catherine." (7) Catherine is spoken of in such terms that offend me on her behalf! I can only assume that this characterization of the young woman from her own father's mouth is meant to illustrate either her extensive shortcomings, or his attitude of negativity. I am prone to believe in the latter, but here's the draw... this story has no resolution.

It's a short and simple story that goes like this. Catherine meets a man named Morris Townsend. Morris is said to have no money as he lost all of his own on a wild lifestyle of gambling and women. Morris sets his eye on Catherine, which arises suspicion in her father. After all, she is a plain girl, without cleverness. Why on Earth would an attractive play boy like Morris take interest? Obviously it has to do with all of her money. She already receives an annual stipend from her deceased mother's estate, and upon his death, Catherine will inherit the vast majority of Dr. Sloper's fortune. The good doctor takes it upon himself to warn his beloved, loyal daughter of the dangers that come with being courted by someone like Morris. He will woo her for her money, only to spend all of it and leave her destitute, at which point, having no moral fiber at all, Morris will leave poor, dumb Catherine in the gutter. Thinking to outwit the young man, Dr. Sloper forbids Catherine to marry Morris, on penalty of losing her inheritance. Believing that Morris will lose all interest in his daughter once she has been cut off from her impending wealth, Dr. Sloper refuses to bend despite Catherine's emotional pleas to accept her undying love for Morris Townsend. The young woman finds herself torn between her heart and filial obligations. She has spent these years sheltered in the care of her father, who now threatens to remove that care should she marry Morris Townsend, who seems hesitant to make her any promises for the future. To further complicate things, Catherine's meddlesome aunt Lavinia finds the idea of an elopement terribly romantic, and is constantly intruding on the couple, encouraging them first to wait out Dr. Sloper, and when that doesn't work, to rush out and marry in secret. When it becomes obvious that Dr. Sloper will never relent, Morris breaks the engagement. Because he doesn't want to interfere with the loving relationship of father and daughter, as he says? Or because he doesn't want to be the cause of her unhappiness? Or, as Dr. Sloper suspects, because he has no interest in a woman without a fortune. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I can say that there is no happily ever after. For anyone. No one is really satisfied, and our omniscient narrator doesn't provide us with any black and white truths to indicate Morris' motivations.

I can say without a doubt that this is my least favorite Henry James novel. As a debate in morals, I suppose this might be an excellent text to study. Who is the most moral character? Who is the most virtuous? My inclination is of course to tout the honors of Catherine who bravely faces first her father, and then Morris, prepared to do whatever is asked, to take any punishment, in favor of being true to her heart. On the other hand, it is Dr. Sloper who sticks, inflexibly, to his position. We may assume that seeing his daughter broken-hearted would be painful for him, but he refuses to budge, and goes to his grave refusing to honor Catherine with her inheritance. However, I have to wonder just how much he loves his good and loyal daughter, considering the way he speaks about her, and then treats her. Regardless, I think it's fair to say that Morris has little moral fiber. If we are to believe that he takes leave of Catherine for the sake of her relationship with her father, then I suppose he is to be considered honorable. However, if his love was as pure as he says it is, I can't imagine that a little thing like disinheritance would drive him away.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is, I didn't much care for it. And I apparently have a really hard time with books that don't end with obvious resolutions.

Rating: $.5

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Rebecca: Daphne du Maurier

I first came upon du Maurier's Rebecca in a fellow book blog, despite it's standing as the classic that established du Maurier as one of the most popular writers of her time. But frankly, the story didn't capture me. An unnamed young woman, working as a companion to a stodgy old lady in Monte Carlo, encounters a handsome, wealthy, intriguing (read tall, dark, and handsome) gentleman whom she falls in love with. They get married, they honeymoon, and then they settle in at Mr. de Winter's home, Manderley. Side note, I simply love an estate with a name! Ah Manderley, where the head of housekeeping, Mrs. Danvers, still holds a flame for the late Mrs. de Winter, and where our young narrator believes her tall, dark, and handsome husband to regret their union due to an undying love for his deceased first wife. Sounds kind of, dare I say, dull? I now know that's because I was never introduced to Rebecca as a mystery. What sounds like a somewhat uninteresting tale of romance, is in fact an emotional roller coaster.

To begin with, du Maurier starts at the end. One of the most famous first lines ever written, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," takes place after the last page of the book. The trick is that by the time you get to the last page, you have been on such a journey with these multi-dimensional characters that you have forgotten how the story began. Which I suppose is a real testament to the meticulous story-telling of du Maurier. Her characters don't fall in love, they share quiet moments that bond them together. The narrator isn't just a young companion to a stodgy old lady, she is an incongruously naive girl who has traveled at the side of her employer. The staff at Manderley aren't just background housestaff, they are characters with motivations and emotions of their own that are described by their dialogue and their actions. To say that du Maurier has written a fine novel is an understatement. What she has really accomplished is the creation of an entire world that stands on it's own, and she has done so with a murderer amongst her cast!

I admit it takes a bit of time to become fully involved with Rebecca, but isn't that the way with real people? Humans are apt to share bits and pieces of themselves with us in small manageable chunks. So it is with Rebecca; we are slowly introduced to our cast as well as the Manderley estate. The many secrets are parceled out like rations so as not to spoil the mystery all at once. This isn't one of those mystery novels where you get an intuition from the very beginning about "whodunnit". Instead, the reader learns tidbits of information as our narrator does, never knowing more than the young Mrs. de Winter.

Simply stated, this book isn't for everyone. It's a classic mystery with a touch (maybe more like a handful?) of the Gothic tale. It's not action packed, and the murder is over and done with by the time we pick up the book. It is, however, an intriguing little mystery with twists and turns and a very fine line between good guys and bad guys.

Rating: $$.5

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Glorious Return?

Salutations my reader friends! It has been just over a year since my last review. Where have I been? Why did I disappear? Have I quit reading? The answers are, Work, Work, and Heck No! You see, once upon a time, I was an unemployed reader looking for something constructive to do with my time. So I started a blog about the books I read. I loved my blog, and I dedicated a lot of my time to it.

But as sometimes happens, I was hired, and then promoted into a job that...well, that sucks the life out of me. I work all day, I go home, I cook dinner, I do various tasks required of an independent adult, and then, if I'm lucky, I read for a few minutes before falling to sleep. This schedule leaves fairly little time to devour books and then compose concise reviews. So I (guiltily) abandoned my book blog.

Now here we are. A year later, and I am still reading, and I still want to share the books I find! I find my day job tedious and dull, not to mention unfulfilling, so I am rededicating myself. I don't want to reset passwords for the rest of my life and look back only to see that I accomplished so little. Reading and writing are my passions! I was recently asked what I hate NOT doing in my daily life, and the first thing that popped out of my mouth was "reading". So here I am. Back. to read as much as I possibly can, and tell you all about it. My posts will surely be fewer and farther between than in the past, but I do promise to keep posting. I hope you enjoy reading with me.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larsson

I have a tendency to be behind the times. If a book series is a huge hit and sells out everywhere and makes all of the top ten lists...chances are I haven't read it yet. By the time I picked up my mass market paperback copy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I think the third book in the series had already been published. And it wasn't until last week when I finally picked up the hefty volume and decided to dive in.

Here's the thing about this book. It's not a story you can love. First of all, it moves achingly slowly through the first half, and then rushes right to the end in a way that left me feeling a little like I had just nearly drowned and come back to life, gasping for air and totally disoriented. It's also incredibly painful. Every character in this book is wounded in one way or another. It is worth noting that the original Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women, which tells you something about the kind of people who populate Larsson's novel.

However, here's the other thing about this book. It is intense and exciting. It is exhilarating and emotional. Not unlike the mafia, once you're in, you're in for life. The characters are so well written and well developed that they become fully dimensional people. This is one of those books which people talk about as if it were a real story, repeating bits of dialogue as if they had heard sound bytes on the evening news. For all it's faults, and certainly every book has one or two, this novel has become a part of our culture.

The story, as I mentioned, starts out slow. Mikael Blomqvist is a newspaper reporter who is being tried for libel against a very large, very powerful company. There are a ton of facts and pieces of history and some lame, limping outlines of a relationship that Mikael has with his editor. Meanwhile, we meet Lisbeth Salander who is under guardianship due to a history of anti-social behavior and general balking at authority. Her most recent and most lenient guardian has just passed away and she has been awarded to a new court-appointed guardian who seems hell-bent on lording his control over her. Lisbeth works for Milton Security, which appears to hire her out as a freelance private investigator. She has this uncanny ability to uncover every minuscule secret of a person's life without their ever knowing. It is this talent of hers that brings her together with Mikael Blomqvist. Mikael is hired by Henrik Vanger to investigate, and hopefully to solve, the 30 year old disappearance of his niece, Harriet. Mikael and Lisbeth become an intimate team in the effort to unravel the many mysteries of the Vanger family and discover what happened to Harriet.

The mystery is meticulously woven and then uncovered, the characters are dimensional and intelligent, the surprises are many, and the heroics are indeed heroic. Lisbeth Salander is both inspiring and pitiful. Mikael is at once brilliant and doltish. The mystery is predictable, and then completely shocking. As a warning to more sensitive readers, I do have to say that there is foul language, violence, and sex. However, it all felt right. Larsson has me hooked and I'm anxious to see what unfolds in the next book.

Rating: $$$

Friday, December 16, 2011

Burnout: Adrienne Maria Vrettos

Burnout is the story of Nan, a teenage girl who wakes up the morning after Halloween with no recollection of the night before. She wakes up on subway train wearing make up and a costume she doesn't remember. The problem is, while this would not have been unusual for Nan six months ago, she has since been through rehab, confronting her demons and leaving blackouts in the past. I was instantly intrigued by the idea of this mystery, so I was very excited when I won this book from GoodReads FirstReads.

At the heart of this novel is a girl who, I think, just wants to be good. Her home life is kind of a mess, so when she meets outrageous Seemy, Nan desparately wants to be her friend. Where Nan is big boned and amazon-esque, Seemy is petite and lithe. Nan is grounded and steady; Seemy is flighty and spontaneous. Nan falls in love with Seemy who prefers to avoid complex emotions in favor of one-night-stands with losers. Friendship with Seemy means skipping school to get drunk in the movie theater, or stand guard while she hooks up with a random guy in their sacred Carriage House. Despite it being a damaging friendship, Nan hangs on tightly to the lively girl who makes her feel special. Nan is a relatable character--most people, at one time or another, have been willing to forego rationality for the sake of affection from someone they love. For this reason, I care about Nan and how she came to wake up from a blackout after so many months in recovery.

I don't want to ruin the mystery, but I will say that not every question is answered...much like real life. There is some real terror in this story, inducing a heartwrenching kind of ache for these girls who are making choices that will impact their lives in significant ways. It's a fast read with memorable characters. Vrettos deserves the many accolades she has received this year for her stellar writing.

Rating: $$.5

Received courtesy of GoodReads FirstReads.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The It Girl: Cecily von Ziegesar

I am pretty far away from high school popularity. I attended high school in a very small town were popularity was incredibly relative. I don't recall any one particular girl whom everyone wanted to be or be with, and if that girl existed, she certainly wasn't me. My high school experience was such a unique one that I'm intrigued by girls who are willing to do and say and wear things outside their comfort zone for the sake of popularity. I suppose that curiousity is what led me to The It Girl.

Jenny --a spin-off character from the Gossip Girl series--has transferred to Waverly Boarding School where she hopes to shed her good-girl image, and earn some popularity with her new risk-taking attitude. Thanks to a series of mishaps and little white lies, Jenny fast becomes the most talked about girl on campus. The best-looking guys are all vying for her attention, and her pretty, popular roommates Brett and Callie are fawning over her. Mission....accomplished?

The It Girl is one of those books that I couldn't put down, but I couldn't tell you why. This isn't a page turner, full of adventure and action, nor is it a breathless romance. Truth be told, it's a droll little tale of drivel about unreal characters. So I suppose that's a testament to von Ziegesar's writing that she can keep my attention even when the subject is as trivial as high school popularity. The characters are flat and uninteresting, the plot is thin at best, and my interest in the outcome steadily waned from the very beginning. And yet, I couldn't put it down!

Rating: $.5

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ash: Malinda Lo

Ash is the Cinderella fairy tale for the queer set. Instead of being the pauper girl chosen by the prince, this story features an orphan who is caught in a love triangle between a handsome fairy and a beautiful huntress. Malinda Lo challenges the social norms we receive as children and sheds light on the magic of love.

The role of Cinderella is played by Aisling, nicknamed Ash. The story begins pretty much the way we remember it--her mother is dead, her father remarries (enter the evil stepmother and two ugly stepsisters), and then her poor papa dies, and Ash is left in the care of her conniving stepmother. The twist is that this story takes place in a time when the fairy kingdom was a part of not-so-distant lore. Ash dreams about what life with the fairies would be like, and in her youth she commits herself to a future with Sidhean-- a handsome fairy she meets one night while wandering in the Wood. As she grows up, Ash takes on the role of servant in her stepmother's household, and has limited exposure to the outside world. When stepsister Ana sets her sights on winning the prince's favor, Ash is taken into the City for the Yule celebration. On that fateful night, Ash meets Kaisa, the King's huntress. Kaisa is strong and powerful, yet beautiful. Ash and Kaisa become intrigued by one another and their friendship blossoms over the Spring and Summer months when Ash is able to escape for a few hours to herself.. As the renowned ball approaches, Ash realizes that her love for Kaisa has outgrown the commitment she once made to Sidhean, but she cannot back out of her promise to the fairy. Knowing that the ball may be her last chance to see Kaisa, Ash asks Sidhean for the favor of a gown and carriage to take her to the ball. In traditional fairy tale fashion, Ash catches the eye of the prince, who asks her to dance, and spends the rest of the evening looking for the belle of the ball. In not-so-typical fairy tale fashion, after her dance with the prince, Ash runs to find Kaisa and share a moment with her. Realizing that she could never be fully happy with Sidhean, Ash must ask the fairy to release her so that she may have a life of love.

A friend of mine read and adored this book, and said that I had to read it because I would absolutely love it. While I didn't absolutely love it, I did really enjoy it. I love how Lo bravely knits together the classic Cinderella story with relevant themes of homosexuality and commitment. To my inner child, this story represents hope that true love will always win. It is also refreshing to read a novel that features a strong and competent female, as well as a love-lorn male. This "role reversal" is rare in young adult fiction these days, though it is desperately needed. Young women need strong and capable role models to counteract the simpering, vapid starlets of today's media.

While Lo is a great storyteller, I'm not a huge fan of her writing. Unlike her creative plot, her writing lacks inventiveness. While her descriptions are detailed, they weren't quite eloquent enough to take me to the scene. And though her characters are mostly borrowed from a well known storybook, she has done little to add dimension. That said, I am a sucker for a good story, and I am happy to recommend this novel based on its merit as a well-told fairy tale.

Rating: $$.5

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Heart Specialist: Claire Holden Rothman

By far one of the most engrossing novels I've read this year, The Heart Specialist is a groundbreaking debut by Claire Holden Rothman who is sure to gain notoriety with her eloquent writing and colorful story-telling. Inspired by one of Montreal's first woman doctors, this novel is a beautiful depiction of the battles fought by women to gain entry into the male-dominated medical field.

Agnes White is a strange child who grows up to be a strange adult. Rather than playing with dolls, she prefers to dissect bugs and animals to study their biology. Agnes and her sister Laure are abandoned by their widower father, left to be raised by their stern grandmother who doesn't know what to do with outrageous Agnes. When Miss Georgiana Skerry is hired to be the girls' governess, Agnes expects opposition, but instead finds an ally in her educated governess. With Miss Skerry's encouragement, Agnes attends school and goes on to earn a college degree, which is no small feat at the turn of the 20th century. Her life becomes a battle of wills as Agnes tries to make a place for herself in the medical community, aligning herself with open-minded allies, fighting every day to prove herself worthy of her degree. While earning herself a reputation as an intelligent heart specialist, Agnes is also conducting her own research into the disappearance of her father who was once a well-respected doctor at McGill College, where Agnes now works as museum curator. Focused on her career and father, Agnes watches as so many of the societal norms for women her age pass by: courtship, marriage, children. Though she meets many eligible bachelors along the way, Agnes has fought so hard to be considered one of them that they hardly see her as feminine at all. It is only after she has been able to lay the mystery of her father to rest that Agnes is finally able to open her heart to the man who has been standing before her all along.

This book feels so much like Little Women. It's sort of angsty and the character of Agnes is so much like Jo March that they could easily be friends. Agnes and Jo are both so determined to have a career that they nearly miss out on love. I felt so breathless throughout this novel, hoping desperately that Agnes would finally open her eyes and let herself love the man who has so obviously adored her from day one. At times it was downright frustrating to watch as the pair stood so close to romance, but unable to close the gap because of social standards that kept either party from being too forward.

There are a lot of layers to this book. Honestly, I couldn't possibly give a proper description of this novel without giving away half the story, and yet, it doesn't feel bogged down. Rothman has woven together a lifetime of intricate details and pulled them together into a tight epic novel that exposes the harsh realities of gender roles while also telling a touching love story. She is a superb story-teller and skilled writer you don't want to miss.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Soho Press

The Throne of Fire: Rick Riordan

The Throne of Fire is Book Two in Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles series, featuring a brother and sister team who are trying to protect the world from the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. In this second installment, Carter and Sadie are on a mission to awaken the sun god, Ra, before Apophis is freed from the Duat (think of it as the underworld).

After the adventure of The Red Pyramid, Carter and Sadie have returned to Brooklyn to start a school for magicians, knowing that they will need to raise an army before Set returns to make his claim on the world. The school introduces readers to some new characters, most importantly Jaz--a feisty healer, and Walt--a good-looking charm maker. Having had a dream in which Horus directed Carter to obtain the three scrolls of Ra, The Throne of Fire opens with a heist to steal the first scroll from a museum. When things go a little sideways, the heat is on to stay one step ahead of Set and his plans to free Apophis. Of course awaking Ra and returning him to his path through the sky is no easy task, and Carter and Sadie will face new demons and monsters, as well as some ancient sibling rivalry on their path to Ra's new morning.

I think it's fair to say that I was disappointed with this book. The story is interesting enough, but it seemed slow-paced. I kept waiting for the action to pick up, which only happened at the very end. I also notice that Riordan's writing doesn't seem to be improving. There is little difference between the Percy Jackson narration and the Kane narration. The siblings are supposedly very different, having been raised separately--Carter is the darker of the two and was raised on the road by his archaeologist father, Sadie is the sassy girl raised by her grandparents in England-- and yet I don't notice when they switch narrators; Carter and Sadie have essentially the same voice.

Which is not to say it was all bad. My favorite part of Riordan's stories is the history. Ancient Egypt literally comes alive in this book, educating readers about so many Egyptian gods and their fables. The gods are colorful characters who add dimension to Riordan's world.

I have hope that the final book in this trilogy will offer more of the excitement and adventure that Riordan has taught me to expect.

Rating: $.5