Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Patience Stone: Atiq Rahimi

The title The Patience Stone: Sang-E Saboor comes from a Persian folktale about a magical black stone, the Sang-E Saboor, which absorbs all of the pain and suffering of the people who speak to it. The legend goes that when the stone has taken in too much sorrow, it will explode all of the pain and suffering on the world and that will be the day the world ends. This folktale is the key to this short novel about a woman who sits with her comatose husband in a room somewhere in the fractious Middle East.

Atiq Rahimi has written an incredibly poignant and moving story about a woman’s liberation. In the Middle East (and in many other places, as well!), women face harsh criticism and must obey strict rules of conduct. There are some who believe that these rules of conduct are archaic and should be thrown off. Rahimi is one of them, as illustrated by his novel. The woman in his book is a wife and mother who is caring for her husband in a single room while guns blast in the street outside the window. Her husband was shot in the neck, and is alive but comatose. It is this state of living unconsciousness that allows the woman to talk to her husband as she never has before. She derides him for his behavior in their marriage, and she reveals some of her innermost secrets to him. She speaks to him as a wife would never be allowed to speak to her husband in their culture. She speaks to him as she would to the Sang-E Saboor.

What Rahimi has done with his novel is given a voice to an entire population of women who have been held silent for centuries. The Patience Stone is an incredible volume of important weight. If women worldwide are ever to have equality, then it is of dire importance that their stories be heard and understood, no matter how painful it is to hear. Rahimi is putting the pain of a real life in our faces and we must have the strength to listen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Last Olympian: Rick Riordan

In the final volume of the Percy & The Olympians series, Rick Riordan unleashes every demon in the Underworld for the battle of the Titans and Olympians. Percy and his friends are faced with a prophecy that makes one of them a hero, but at a very high cost.

I have loved every minute of the Percy & The Olympians adventure. Many people (myself included) have drawn parallels between Percy and Harry Potter. While there are some similarities, Percy has something Harry does not; Percy is the boy next door. The first chapter of The Last Olympian is Percy and a mortal girl named Rachel, sitting in the car, watching the ocean. The awkwardness of that moment is captured perfectly, as Percy contemplates how he feels about Rachel and whether he has the gall to kiss her or not. The teenage boy-girl tension is interrupted, of course, by the ultimate battle.

Percy has the unfortunate mission of leading an army of half-bloods in a war against the Titan lord, Kronos, who has inhabited the body of a half-blood, Luke. The significance of this is huge for Percy. Luke was the first friendly face he met at Camp Half Blood, and Luke was also the person who helped get his friends Thalia and Annabeth to the safety of camp. Annabeth, Thalia, and Percy struggle to face the fact that in order to defeat Kronos, they will have to kill their friend Luke.

There is a lot of assumed knowledge in this book, so it definitely requires the reading of the first four books in the series. The Last Olympian is the final chapter in which some questions are finally answered, and everything ties up neatly. The adventure is an action-packed, non-stop ride, riddled with favorite old characters as well as new. If you’ve already read the first four books, you don’t want to miss the finale.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Christmas Blizzard: Garrison Keillor

If you know who Garrison Keillor is then you already know that he is a tall-tale-teller. It is believed that most of his stories are based in some sort of fact, but he has exaggerated and embellished to the point of tall-tale standards. He is a bit like the grandfather at family gatherings who starts stories with phrases like “When I was your age, back in 1931…”, and then he goes on to tell an unbelievable tale that usually ends with some sort of moral or lesson along the lines of “…and I never stole from Old Barnaby’s garden again after that, so let that be a lesson to you!” His non-Woebegone holiday novel, A Christmas Blizzard is everything we expect from Keillor.

James Sparrow is a wealthy man who lives with his wife in a 12 room apartment on the 55th floor of Wabasha Tower in Chicago. He is a multimillionaire with odd eccentricities, like his fear of metal water pump handles. On the brink of the Christmas holiday, James and his wife make plans to celebrate on the warm Hawaiian beaches of their second home in Kuhikuhikapapa’u’maumau. At the last minute, James’ wife becomes ill and he gets a phone call from a family member in Looseleaf, North Dakota, informing him that his beloved uncle is on his death bed. James makes the decision to make a quick trip back to his despised hometown to say goodbye to uncle Earl, only to find himself trapped in Looseleaf by a blizzard. What ensues is one of Keillor’s tall tales of family, redemption, and humor.

Keillor has the ability to spin tales that aren’t quite wholly believable, but are also so wonderful that you hope every detail is true. It seems impossible that cooky cousin Faye would shed her clothes in below freezing temperatures and jump into an ice fishing hole; yet, we all have a family member who seems just crazy enough to attempt it. And while we may have never spoken with a wolf who claims to be the soul of a dear departed friend, it’s not hard to believe that we sometimes encounter animals who assure us with their nature that our loved one is safe and happy in the afterlife.

A Christmas Blizzard is a thoroughly enjoyable holiday novel and a quick read, from a wonderful story teller who reminds us to be grateful for what have and to never forget where we came from.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Living Dead In Dallas: Charlaine Harris

The second book in the Sookie Stackhouse series, Living Dead In Dallas refers to the nest of vampires living in Dallas, Texas where Sookie and Bill are sent to investigate the disappearance of a vampire. While staying in Dallas, Sookie encounters some new supernatural beings as well The Fellowship of The Sun—a group of anti-vampire extremists who want to see the entire race of vampires and their supporters eradicated.

Charlaine Harris is a brilliant writer, in that she has created characters that readers latch on to. Sookie and Bill, as well as the less significant characters are all very real and relatable, despite their being vampires and shape shifters. I have now read two of the Sookie Stackhouse books, and I admit that I am hooked! I want to know what happens to Sookie in the same way that I would want to know what happens to my friends. Will she become a vampire and get to live all of eternity with Bill? Is she really in love with him, or does she just love that she can’t read his mind? And now that the oldest vampire around—Eric—has taken a shine to Sookie, will she enter into a relationship with him?

Living Dead In Dallas is not a wonderful story; in fact I think I preferred the first Sookie Stackhouse novel (though that may just be my own personal aversion to all things Texan). However, this book is filled with new characters and Harris has expanded her vampire-friendly society, which makes it kind of exciting. There isn’t a lot of deep thought required for these novels; they’re just for fun, and that’s exactly what I’m getting from them!

The Sunflower: Richard Paul Evans

The Sunflower is the story of an orphanage in Peru, called El Girasol (Spanish for The Sunflower). It is at this orphanage that a jilted woman heals from a broken heart and finds a new purpose. Richard Paul Evans is the author of several other uplifting novels, many of them with the underlying theme of God’s hand in the lives of mortal men. In The Sunflower, God’s hand is illustrated as the one most often questioned. A repeated quote in this novel is “Seek not your destiny, for it is seeking you.” Evans is emphatic that while we are planning our lives, God is conducting us in other directions. It is how Paul, a successful ER doctor with a fiancé and lucrative future ends up the director of El Girasol in Peru. It is also how Christine is dumped by her fiancé a week before the wedding and convinced by her best friend to go on a mission to Peru. It is how Christine and Paul’s life paths cross and become intertwined.

Evans is one of those rare writers who is able to evoke emotion in not only his characters, but his stories. El Girasol is a real place—an orphanage in Peru where Evans did some mission work and met the real Paul Cook who told his love story. So while the characters are real, it’s easy to give them depth and easier still to make the reader like them. It is the story of their romance that is so beautiful—how two broken hearted people can fall in love with each other in the dangerous Peruvian jungle.

The story is really a very simple one, without a lot of excess. It is simply a love story. The descriptions of Peru and the Amazonian jungle are inspirational and made me ache to travel again. El Girasol is a wonderful place where anything is possible for a group of orphans, as well as their director.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dead Until Dark: Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris is the author of the Sookie Stackhouse series—the books on which HBO’s True Blood is based. As a resident of the deep south, Harris writes the Stackhouse novels with authority, bringing Bon Temps, Louisiana alive with dark, foreign descriptions. While her story and descriptions are vivid, her characters sometimes lack dimension. I find Sookie Stackhouse to be the weakest of all Harris’ characters; she is a telepathic waitress who falls in love with a vampire (and has all the personality of Twilight’s Bella Swan).

Harris’ greatest achievement in Dead Until Dark is not the descriptions of Louisiana, or the lackluster characters, but the society she has created in her books. In her world, vampires have “come out of the coffin” (a charming turn of phrase that reminds the reader that vampires are a minority), and are living amongst general population. They feed off of “fang-bangers” who are essentially blood prostitutes who allow themselves to be bitten, but not drained. Vampires who choose to “mainstream” may choose to live on the synthetic bottled blood, made available in most bars and restaurants (the stuff even comes in flavors—A negative, O positive, etc).

Dead Until Dark introduces the reader to the protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse—a pretty young woman who is uneducated, but not stupid. She was born telepathic and that talent has caused her no end of grief all her life, so she has chosen to live as simple a life as possible. She has learned, over time, to control her mind. She is able to put up her guard and block everyone’s thoughts, but it takes a lot of energy. Sookie lives with her Gran, and has ever since her parents died. Her older brother, the charming (and fairly sleazy) Jason, lives in their old house and works at a non-descript hillbilly job. He spends his time chasing skirts and getting drunk. Overall, the characters and town of Bon Temps are about as interesting as any four-way stop called a town.

In walks Bill. Bill Compton, also known as Bill the Vampire. After the vampires gained public freedom, he chose to return to his old homestead in Bon Temps. In about 24 hours, he meets and falls in love with Sookie, who finds herself equally enamored. However, as with any small town, bigotry still exists in Bon Temps, and when people start showing up dead, all eyes turn to Bill. Just because vampires have been given rights, doesn’t mean everyone likes them. This is where Harris reeled me in. She has taken a fairly innocuous fad—vampires—and created a beautiful analogy for bigotry. We live in a society that claims to accept all people and wants to give all people fair and equal rights. But the reality is that fear exists, and that fear turns into hatred. That’s when the lynch mobs show up. Which is exactly what happens in Bon Temps.

The real murderer is not a vampire at all. Harris wraps up her story by solving the mystery and allowing Sookie and her vampire to ride off into the sunset. Well, into the next book, anyway. I have to mention that the first season of True Blood is taken almost exactly from this first book, save a few minor characters and unimportant events.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Brokeback Mountain: Annie Proulx

Brokeback Mountain is a short story that Annie Proulx included in a collection of shorts titled Close Range. It is a tale about two old fashioned cowboys—rough, gritty, and aggressive men—who spend a herding season on Brokeback Mountain together, working with a herd of sheep. In a short span of time and very close proximity, they discover something in one another that they have each longed for all their lives. They connect on a level that is intangible to both of them. Startled by the discovery, they never title their love, refusing the terms “gay” and “queer”. Each man marries and has children, while maintaining their friendship. They both know the possible consequences of being caught together.

I find it difficult to read a book after having seen the movie, because I will inevitably place the movie actors in the roles of the characters without giving the writer the chance to describe them. Brokeback Mountain doesn’t have that problem. Proulx is such a fantastic writer that in the 55 pages of her short story, she is able to illustrate the characters of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist with such clarity that the Brokeback Mountain movie actors are separate characters.

When Brokeback Mountain was made into a movie, it was garish and romantic. Grown, straight men cried, and young gay men held their heads a little higher. I personally feel that it was an incredibly important film, and it was some of the best acting either of the leading men have ever accomplished. Reading the short story gave me further insight. Proulx writing is clever and very real, setting her above other writers. The gruff adoration of two cowboys for each other isn’t treated like a Hollywood love story—it’s told as honestly as if Ennis del Mar had sat down and wrote the story himself.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming: Joshilyn Jackson

I read The Girl Who Stopped Swimming in about two days. An innocuous hardcover volume with an alluring title and cover, this book is possibly the hardest I’ve ever had to review. I simply have no idea where to start! It is so filled with story, emotion, social commentary, and fantastic writing that I find it hard to separate the elements and gather my thoughts into any kind of cohesive form. That said, bear with me as I try to articulate this novel into a review.

Laurel sees ghosts. She was haunted by the ghost of her uncle Marty after he died in her childhood, but he disappeared from her nights when she moved to the gated community of Victorianna when she got married. Now she’s living a relatively average life as a wife to computer programmer David, and mother to teenage daughter Shelby. Average until she wakes up one night to find a dripping wet neighborhood girl standing in her bedroom. The ghost is that of Molly, a neighborhood kid and friend of Shelby. Molly’s ghost directs Laurel to the swimming pool in the backyard where Molly floats, face down and bloated. The death of the neighborhood girl is a trigger that sends Laurel and her family on an emotional roller coaster. Laurel brings her willful sister Thalia to stay with her, which brings past events into light that explain why Marty’s ghost haunted Laurel as a child. While facing long repressed demons, Laurel tries to maintain her grip on her family, who are rapidly unwinding.

Around the edges of this story is a theme of social morality. Laurel and Thalia were rescued from an Appalachian life in a small town called DeLop by their strong-willed mother who pulled herself out of the mining town through a successful marriage, never to look back. DeLop is described in cruelly clear detail as a place where children never graduate junior high school, and people develop addictions to ward off the misery. Laurel tries to protect Shelby from the ugliness of such a place by never taking her back to visit the cousins left behind. When Shelby shows interest in knowing how the other half lives, Laurel bends, allowing Shelby to make a DeLop pen pal named Bet. In Bet, the differences between Victorianna and DeLop are highlighted. Where Shelby is educated and healthy, Bet speaks with the twang of her DeLop upbringing and is starkly malnourished. Joshilyn Jackson has put a lot of thought and care into the details of illustrating the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

While this novel could easily be about the accidental drowning of a young girl and stop there, Jackson is unmerciful in her efforts to make the death only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much meat to this story that it hooks the reader on many levels. I felt my heart strings tugged and my guts wrenched, my mind working overtime to figure out whodunit and my anxiety peaked as the story unraveled. Jackson is definitely a writer worth reading.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Seventh Son: Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card has a knack for writing about different planes of time. Most known for his Ender’s Game series, Card writes about a differently imagined future or past in an accessible way that feels less like sci-fi, more like philosophy.

Seventh Son is an alternate historical fiction, meaning it’s written about an imagined history. One in which the folk magic of early settlers of America is widely popular. Families protect their homes with hexes and some individuals are believed to have special gifts. It is also a time when the seventh son of a seventh son is believed to hold great power and is revered for his status in the family. Alvin Junior is such a son.

Al Junior was born to the Miller family, and at the moment of his birth, it is obvious that he is a special child. His family dotes on him and respects his natural abilities. However, there is a dark force hovering at the edges of Al Junior’s life, waiting for the opportunity to take the child out of the world where he will do so much good. It is a traveling story teller named Taleswapper who helps Al Junior understand what he is and what his purpose will be. He is the sole Maker who can battle the Unmaker and help move a new country into the future.

Card has presented a story that is mystical and magical, but also theological. There is an inherent battle of good and evil at play in this novel that the reader will unwittingly take part in. Al Junior is a vulnerable character that instantly earns sympathy, and it his protection at the center of this novel.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Visions of Sugar Plums: Janet Evanovich

Known for her hilarious, action packed mysteries, Janet Evanovich takes her leading lady, Stephanie Plum, on a romp of a holiday ride in Visions of Sugar Plums. Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum finds herself four days away from Christmas with no decorations or presents in sight. Waking up to find a sexy hunk of a man in her kitchen, she starts on a Christmas adventure she won’t soon forget.

The hunky blond goes by the name of Diesel and proclaims himself to be of the supernatural variety. He says that he was sent to her to give her some holiday cheer. I know that at this point, the novel sounds like it’s on its way to becoming a bodice-ripper romance. On the contrary, Diesel and Stephanie find that they are facing the same foe. While Stephanie is on the hunt for a man named Sandy Claws who jumped bail, Diesel is looking for Sandy’s nemesis, Ring. It doesn’t take long for Ring to zero in on Stephanie and her efforts to lock Sandy behind steel bars for the holiday. Stephanie shrugs off the absurdity of supernatural beings with single word monikers and dives into the madness. As Christmas inches closer, the panic over Christmas trees and presents, family dramas and parent-pleasing increases. In some ways, the story is incredibly realistic!

Evanovich has spun a deliciously fun little holiday yarn, using her eclectic cast of characters, including the foul-mouthed Lula, who appears in one scene wearing red Lycra pants and a sweater adorned with a giant felt Christmas tree. I can’t say that there’s a lot of mystery to this novel, but it is certainly entertaining.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost: Richard Rushfield

Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost is a pitch-perfect story of what happens when a new era swallows an old mentality. Richard Rushfield had the opportunity of experiencing Hampshire College at a time when the 80’s nihilism movement was overcoming the drug-induced era of hippie love.

Rushfield’s memoir is a delightfully structured, well written narrative. Beginning with his pre-enrollment days as a kid without social label, Rushfield discusses the realities of a “hippie school”. In its heyday, Hampshire was a college built on the foundation that learning shouldn’t be structured. The student body was a notoriously drug-addicted clan of mixed social circles, while the staff consisted of free-loving, free-thinking hippies who encouraged students to “try it out” whenever faced with something new.

Through a series of well-timed events, Rushfield falls in with a campus clique known as The Supreme Dicks, who are the most hated people at Hampshire. A group of lackadaisical layabouts, The Supreme Dicks lived by a certain standard of nonchalance. It is in his descriptions of the Supreme Dicks housing that Rushfield’s writing really shines. As I read about the food-encrusted paper plates stuffed between couch cushions, stagnant smoke-filled air, and industrious cockroach population, I could feel a layer of grimy apathy climb over me. Such were his descriptions of dorm life at Hampshire, that I could feel the weight of bitter nihilism.

Having discovered that college was a place where teachers didn’t take a roll call, Rushfield reveled in his freedom by not going to class at all, opting instead to loll about in the dingy quarters of his dorm. With a track record like his, it seems a miracle that Richard Rushfield ever graduated. His memoir is filled with the rollicking adventures of a young man on a college campus where one could do no wrong. The era of hippie love and free thinking had created an atmosphere where all expression was artful and censorship was to be banned. However, in the 1980’s, the hippie movement at Hampshire college faced its first set of campus rules. Class completion became mandatory, and disciplinary action could be taken against students for almost anything. The response was nihilistic, with a student body turned aggressive and determined to hold onto its apathy.

Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost is a meandering narrative, with no moral theme of divine intervention to tie it up neatly. It is a very real—one might even say gritty—story of how complicated it can be to come to terms with responsibility in an atmosphere where apathy rules. Rushfield is a talented writer who brings every scene and emotion to life without trite clichés.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Adderall Diaries: Stephen Elliott

Memoirs are, by nature, self indulgent writing. As readers we overlook this fact, hoping that the memoirist has something interesting or humorous to say. The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott is a mixed bag. At times it is a confusing rant about the life of a drug addled writer, but then it turns into the focused story of a fascinating murder. It’s a story about Elliott’s traumatic childhood, his adult penchant for sadomasochism, and his thin connection to a man on the outskirts of a high profile murder trial.

Stephen Elliott is not new to the writing world. He has written one other memoir as well as four novels and one volume of erotica. For him to begin this text by mentioning that he is battling his writer’s block by abusing the ADD medication Adderall, does not bode well for the book.

My struggle with this story is that it reads the way a man abusing Adderall would speak; it’s unfocused and wandering. I was never sure where he was taking the story, or what it was really about. The lone anchor in the story is a murder committed in 2007. A high profile computer programmer married a Russian mail-order bride, had two children with her, and after almost ten years together, murdered her for suspected infidelity. It’s an interesting event, and I’m sorry Elliott didn’t spend more time developing that story. Instead he writes about his teenage years spent living on the streets and in group homes. He writes about the strange array of dysfunctional relationships he enters. And of course, he talks about drugs. None of these things connect to the murder he is trying to write about.

Here’s the rub; Elliott is a fantastic writer. He commands a mastery of the English language. He writes with brutal honesty and ugly imagery. It is reminiscent of the Beats who wrote the garish truth (Ginsberg comes to mind). And though he is writing this self indulgent memoir, he does so by shining a light on the darker side of alternative lifestyles. He writes about sadomasochistic relationships and Adderall in his coffee as commonplace. Elliott writes about a world that most of America doesn’t even know exists, and he does so without shame. For that alone, Elliott deserves some kudos.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Girls' Poker Night: Jill A. Davis

Jill A. Davis was a comedic writer for the Late Show with David Letterman. This tidbit of information leads me to want to believe that she is going to be a Good Writer. In my opinion, A Good Writer is someone who knows the rules of fiction writing and adheres to them unless deviation is absolutely necessary for the sake of the story. The writing in Girls’ Poker Night is conversational with too much of the Late Show for my taste. Davis wanders as far from the rules of fiction as possible without entering the realm of the Beats, and for no apparent reason. Her conversational writing style doesn’t add to the mood of the novel. Instead, it exhausts me to the point of frustration. However! Once I became accustomed to the writing, the story itself—buried as it is—is charming.

For the first half of the book I wasn’t at all sure where it was going. There was no anchor to keep me hooked on the plot. Girls’ Poker Night is written in short vignette style scenes, sometimes related, but generally they read more like a series of random diary entries. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and the wandering writing of Davis made me uncertain of which direction Ruby was headed. Is this a self-help book disguised as a novel about a woman who is forced to muster up her courage? Or is it a trite Sex and the City style romance novel? The truth is, it’s kind of both.

Ruby Capote is a humor columnist who sets out to change her life. She leaves her somewhat odd boyfriend and the boring, go-nowhere life she has, in exchange for a job in New York. She reunites with some of the girls from college and starts up a venting circle in the guise of a Poker Night (hence the title). In her New York life, Ruby is forced to muster up the courage to face her personal fears regarding relationships—fears that many of us might relate to all too well! While simultaneously taming psychological demons, Ruby enters into an unstable relationship with the perfect man, who just happens to be her boss.

A reader like me is commiserating with Ruby one moment, and hollering at her idiocy in the next. Anyone who has struggled with relationships will want to warn Ruby against foolish mistakes, while also empathizing with her choices. She is a completely relatable character who also happens to be hilariously witty. While I don’t love the conversational writing style, I do love Ruby’s quips and clever insights.

I realize that my review of Girls’ Poker Night might seem unclear, so I’ll simplify. Writing? Not so great. Plot? Relatable. Main Character? Charming!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When You Are Engulfed In Flames: David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a short story writer who has gained a bit of notoriety over the years for his sharp wit and keen observation of the dysfunctional family dynamic. In reading some of his previous work, I was entertained and frequently provoked to compare my own dysfunctional family to the family he describes as his own. Sedaris doesn't hide the reality from his readers, rather, he illuminates how dysfunction makes a family what it is. I have never thought of his writing as funny at the expense of his family, but simply shining a light on some of the more humiliating facets of an average American family with the result of loving them all the more.

When You Are Engulfed In Flames is less about his family and more about the world at large. Perhaps it is the focus on others that makes me uncomfortable. Somehow, it's acceptable to point and laugh at your own family, but pointing and laughing at others is just cruel. In this collection of short stories, Sedaris does a lot of travel--Paris, London, America, Japan--and he manages to find something to poke fun of everywhere he goes--hygiene, language barriers, local customs, etc. At least he remembers to mention that he does plenty of things worth poking fun at as well.

The last story in this collection explains the title. It is called "The Smoking Section"; a recount of his efforts to quit smoking after a twenty-some year habit. This may have been my favorite chapter because of my personal relationship with nicotine, or because of the humor. In an effort to change his scenery and habits, Sedaris and his partner Hugh go to Tokyo for three months. It is a common belief that to quit smoking, one needs to change one's habits and hangouts. If only every smoker could afford to pick up and move away for three months!

My overall opinion is that while Sedaris is a witty and humorous writer, this particular collection relies too heavily on making entire cultures the butt of his jokes. Even when it's just a single person, he seems to be pointing and laughing in that big bully way that says "See? At least I'm better than that guy!"

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Twilight Hunger: Maggie Shayne

This may be the hardest review I've ever written. What do I write about a book that should never have been written? About a cliched plotline, poor writing, and transparent characters? What do I write about monotonous and tired dialogue, weak "surprise" twists, and thinly veiled erotica? To critique this book would mean to find something valid about it, which seems utterly impossible. Still, I will try.

Twilight Hunger is, predictably, a story about vampires. Morgan De Silva is a screenwriter with a bad childhood (shocker!). She hermits herself away in an ancient old New England house where she finds the journals of a vampire named Dante. Using those journals, she churns out three screenplays that make it big on the Silver Screen. Of course she thinks they are the mad rantings of an old inhabitant of the house, but Dante is in fact one of the undead. When members of the secret Government agency dedicated to finding vampires follow the leads offered in Morgan's movies, Dante's non-life is threatened. Suddenly his secrets are made public, forcing him to seek out the writer who is revealing his methods. What ensues is a predictable living/un-dead romance filled with the terror of being hunted. As if loving a vampire would bring anything less.

Maggie Shayne has written 393 pages of what reads like fanfiction meets vampire erotica. The characters all speak alike, beginning sentences with "God" as an exclamation like "Gawd", which is just offensive: especially coming from a vampire. Shayne spends more time describing the sexual relations than the characters.

This book was a pleasant reminder that, in general, I really don't like vampire fiction.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ida B: Katherine Hannigan

Ida B. has a near-perfect life; she lives with her mama and daddy on a farm with an orchard, and they all spend their days together, learning, laughing, and loving. For a young child, it's the perfect existence. When she's five years old, Ida B. is sent to pre-school, which turns out to be a bust. So Ida B. is homeschooled, where she can spend her free time with the trees, the hills, and the brook. Life, in general, is about as pefect as pie.

But then tragedy strikes. Mama has cancer and has to spend time in the hospital. When she's released, there are medical treatments that take the shine from her eyes. Ida B. gets lost in the shuffle of a new kind of life. Mama is too sick to care for her, daddy decides they have to sell some of the orchard to pay for the medical bills, and worst of all, Ida B. will have to go back to school.

Katherine Hannigan has written the perfect young reader novel. It is simultaneously charming and heartwarming, moving and realistic. Ida B. is a wonderful character who makes friends of the trees and the brook around her home. Her mind is quick and imaginitive, and I loved her immediately. Best about this novel, is that it really is for all ages. There is something about Ida B. that we can all relate to. Everyone has experienced some sadness or loss that has made us want to turn off our hearts forever. Ida B.'s story reminds us that we can't stay stone forever.

I have to mention that something about this book made me think of Pom Pom the whole time. Maybe it's the vivacity of Ida B. or her community with nature, but this is a character who will warm your heart from page one.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: Alexander McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is now an acclaimed tv series, based on this textured novel about Mma Ramotswe and her life as a lady detective in Botswana. A little slice of Africa, this novel illustrates all of the beautiful and warm things about an ancient country, as well as some of the culturally significant differences that make Africa so foreign.

Mma Ramotswe is the daughter of a wealthy cattleman. The story starts out with the death of her father, leaving his wealth to Mma Ramotswe to buy a shop. She opens a detective agency as the only female private detective in Botswana. It's quite charming how she faces anyone who challenges her qualifications. In a male-dominated society, a female detective is suspect, but Mma Ramotswe knows what she's good at! She opens her doors and encounters all types of mysteries, from the disappearance of a young boy, to the wandering off of a husband, to the fraud of a lost finger.

Mma Ramotswe is a fantastic, warm, real-life character who is an instant friend to the reader. The people she encounters are all so colorful and interesting. This is not a fast-paced detective novel; just an entertaining group of stories about some Botswana people. It's fun and clever, and if you pay attention, you'll learn a little about African culture.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Last Thing I Remember: Andrew Klavan

Imagine waking up one morning, not knowing where you are and overhearing the order for your death. Imagine learning that everything you know about your life, your world, and even yourself is a lie. What would it take for someone to convince you that you are not who you think you are? How hard would you fight for what you believe to be the truth?

The Last Thing I Remember is a cross between The Bourne Identity and 24. It's fast paced and action-filled, with a likable protagonist. Charlie West is a 17 year old kid who sees the world in black and white terms--good guys and bad guys. He believes in America, in God, and in being the best guy he can be. He excels in all areas of life: school, karate, family. Life, generally speaking, is good.

Life is good, that is, until he wakes up in a cement cell, chained to a chair where he has been tortured, and overhears the order for his death. From that point on, Charlie is in a race to save his own life. Things get complicated, however, when he learns that he is being pursued by not just the bad guys (Islamic terrorists), but the good guys (American Law Enforcement) as well. Everything that Charlie has always believed about himself is put into question and he is forced to examine what he knows to be true versus what he is told about himself.

The tones of Patriotism and Religion are thick in this novel, which at first made me uncomfortable. However, as the story unfolds, the importance of those themes begins to make sense as a necessary part of the plot. Charlie West seems like a somewhat overdone hero--I mean realistically, how many 17-year-olds could un-arm and outwit a group of Islamic terrorists intent on ending his life?--but he is also plausible in many ways. He gets nervous around girls, he's shy, he dislikes his older sister simply for being an annoying older sister, he stresses out about grades and college. He is simultaneously a superhero and the boy next door.

The Last Thing I Remember is the first book in the Homelander Series, and my interest is admittedly piqued. I'm interested to see how the story of Charlie West is going to unravel.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sleepless Nights: Sarah Bilston

I want to start this review with a nod to Suzanne Williams who got this brand new book to me. I hope this is only the first of many review projects for the Shreve Williams publicity firm.

Sleepless Nights is the follow up to Bilston's Bed Rest. In this novel, we pick up where Bed Rest left off, with Q and her newborn baby boy, Samuel. Bilston has accurately captured all of the anxiety and stress that new moms feel. The sleeplessness is only one facet of those early days of motherhood. Q has the unfortunate task of managing a new born baby boy who has colic, causing round-the-clock crying and screaming.

Bilston has changed up some elements of her storytelling style in this novel, by adding the additional voice of Q's sister, Jeanie. I have to admit that I don't usually like the chapter-by-chapter change of voice, but thanks to Jeanie's spunky character, I looked forward to her narratives.

There is a lot of plot in this novel, between the new motherhood of Q, the confuddled love life of Jeanie, and the small town attorney's office that Q and her husband become involved with. I was expecting this novel to be more focused on the aspects of being a first time mother with a colicky baby, but the true-to-life story addresses the fact that everyday life does not stop when a baby is a born.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Brida: Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho may be one of my favorite authors. His writing is insightful and intense. He writes like a poet about the most ordinary things. In reading some of his previous novels, I have found reason to pause and contemplate. Unfortunately, Brida has given me very little reason to pause.

Brida is an Irish gal who wants to learn about the mysteries of the magical world. First of all, a reader has to suspend their notions of magic and continue with an open mind. Coelho's world of magic is not one of pointed hats, warty noses, spells, and black cats. The world of magic that Brida enters is based on the power of God and Love. Coelho writes about an accessible magic that involves tapping into intuition and the natural forces at work in the world. Readers of Coelho will understand that his writing is based in spirituality and not specific faith.

It's not the spirituality I'm avert to in this novel, but the plot. From a writer who can describe a journey as a worldwide exploration of humanity, comes this somewhat trite novel about soul mates and choices made on the path of life. Whereas I frequently read sentences in Coelho's books that I am impelled to write down and dissect, I found only two such sections in Brida. In short, I expected more enlightenment.

Of all Coelho's works, this has been my least favorite.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Testimony: Anita Shreve

At a private high school in Vermont, the lives of four teenagers are ruined when a sex scandal is made public. Testimony is just that: testimonies. Shreve has intricately woven the testimonies of various people involved in the scandal, impressively alternating the writing style to give dimension to each character.

Shreve impressed me with her novel Bodysurfing for reasons completely different from why this new novel impresses me. While Bodysurfing was intense with charged family emotions, Testimony is intense with scandal. The students involved give moving testimonies that are set against the parents' grieving accounts of the aftermath. There are a lot of characters in this novel, which is sometimes distracting, but I understand why Shreve includes them. She fills out a complicated story with rounded testimonies from all sides of the scandal.

This is not a story with a happy Hollywood ending. Ultimately, one student is dead and three others are robbed of their future prospects, all for the sake of one drunken night. It seems that Shreve directs the characters to explain motive. While blame is passed around, I'm not sure a motive is really present. Sometimes teenagers get drunk and do stupid things--who knows why?

I respect Shreve as a writer ; her skill is honed. She writes with creativity and insight, and her characters are always dimensional. She manages to take seemingly thin plot lines and infuse them with an entire world of emotions.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Exciting New Book News!

I have some very exciting book news for my lovely readers. Thanks to this lovely little hobby of a blog, I have been contacted by a publicist who will start sending me brand new books to read and review. My contact is Suzanne Williams at ShreveWilliams Public Relations.

This is a very exciting development for me on my path to a career in publishing and editing. I'm not getting paid at this point (other than all the free books I can read!), but this could very well be a step in the right direction.

You may have also noticed a change to my profile. I have decided to start writing under my literary name, Baley Petersen. It's slightly more "grown-up" than Chrissey, and I think it will hold a little more "cred".

But have no fear, readers! At the end of the day, I am still your dear Chrissey, reading whatever book comes across my path, and hoping that you're enjoying my books as much as I do.

Candy Girl: Diablo Cody

Before her Juno fame, Diablo Cody was a fairly average working class girl, living in Minneapolis, in a job she didn't much care for, writing on her own time, and generally strolling through life without much aim. And then she became a stripper.

Candy Girl is Cody's memoir of the year she spent in various nudie bars, taking off her clothes and dancing for money. The novella is subtitled "A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper". An innocuous girl in hippie clothing shows up at a seedy dive for amateur night and receives looks of doubt. She stumbles around on stage, unaware of her limbs and is ungraceful as well as uncoordinated. What would most likely end in a single night of unspoken humiliation for most, turns out to be the launch pad for Cody's new career. She fiercely admits that her strange interest in the sex industry is perverse and at one point she even goes into the depths of stripping out of pure curiosity and witnesses how dark and disgusting back room business can be. It's a fascinating journey into a dark secret of society that most of us turn blind eyes to.

Possibly the most fascinating element of this story is Cody's boyfriend. Jonny neither encourages nor discourages her new chosen career. He is steady as a rock, and becomes increasingly curious. He takes pride in his sexy girlfriend, and is there at the end of every night to snuggle her close and listen to her talk about her night at work. He is possibly the most supportive man in written history. Jonny and Diablo are now married and she claims they are the happiest people in all the U.S.A.

Diablo Cody is a fantastic writer. She is the Francesca Lia Block for grown-ups with a crude vocabulary. She is able to write both common and literately. A smart reader will instantly recognize that Cody is well read and well educated. Candy Girl is filled with all of the true-life minutiae of stripping including gross overshares of industry methods. Cody adamantly maintains that stripping was her fantasy choice. Never once does she allow the reader to feel sorry for her, because stripping was something she volunteered for. It's almost empowering, really.

I have a new hero in Diablo Cody. She is smart, witty, and extremely talented. The girl knows how to turn a phrase, that's for sure!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bed Rest: Sarah Bilston

Q is a twenty-something year old woman who has it all: high profile law career, devoted and successful husband, and a cramped apartment in New York City. On the "Modern Woman's List of Things to Do Before Hitting 30," there's just one more item to check off and that's to have a child. Getting pregnant was easy, as were the first 6 months. However, at a regular check-up, it is discovered that Q is not creating enough amniotic fluid and the baby may be in distress. Apparently the only cure for this condition is the old tried-and-true Victorian era method of bed rest. The Woman On The Go becomes The Woman On The Sofa. What ensues is a hilarious and sometimes touchingly poignant story of figuring out what's really important.

At first Q approaches her assigned bed rest with vigor. After all, who wouldn't want a free ticket to be a sloth?! She is waited on hand and foot and absolutely no one demands anything of her. She checks her email, watches re-runs of daytime TV, eats whatever she wants...it seems ideal. Then the third day rolls around and she finds herself bored out of her mind. Q gets herself involved in a neighborhood battle over black mold, and finds herself in the middle an extra-marital affair between her assistant and another lawyer. To add to the hilarity, Q is a Brit expat who has to frequently deal with the misunderstandings of her competitive family.

This was another piece of inconsequential chick-lit, but it was definitely entertaining. I found myself laughing out loud at parts, and wanting to holler at the characters in other parts. Rest assured, there's a happy ending with a healthy baby boy.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ender's Game: Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game is one of the Modern Library Reader's List Top 100 Novels; a list which I am trying to read through. It is also a novel I thought I had read in middle school or high school, but after reading it, I know this is my first read. I have heard of young adults reading this book, but I now think that the themes of warfare and psychological manipulation may be too advanced for some younger readers. I don't know that I would present this book to just any group of 8th graders--they would have to be mature and intelligent enough to comprehend the gravity of the story.

Imagine a world in which alien lifeforms have presented themselves as our enemy. There have been two previous wars with these aliens, and our world as we know it has changed completely. For one thing, space travel has become common and "big brother" monitors us by controlling our households. Families apply to have children, and at any moment a promising child may be taken away for government purposes. Ender is just such a child. He is the third child, which is a rare occurrence in itself. He is chosen by the government at the age of 6 to be groomed as a warfare commander. He is taken off Earth and put into the Battle school where he first learns how to fight, and then how to lead. He is a only a child, but the future of Earth and all mankind is put into his hands. The trick of it is, he has no idea. To Ender, it's just a big game that he excels at. He is aware that at some point in the distant future, as an adult, he may be chosen to be a commander, but he has no idea that he will fulfill that mission long before he is 16 years old.

Ender is a brilliant child who has equal parts aggression and compassion, making him the perfect candidate to lead an army. He can not only predict how the alien species will act, but he is strong enough to oppose them as well. He has quick thinking and is able to keep his army out of danger. He is also emotionally immature, frustrated by manipulating teachers, and heartbroken by a family that is never quite what he wants them to be.

Ender's Game has been heralded as "a scathing indictment of the military mind" (Library Journal). I read the military mind as malleable and gullible. Ender was an exception because he was aware of how he was being tested at every turn. He knew he was being manipulated and he used that knowledge to his own advantage. It is the other students at the battle school who illustrate perfectly the competitive and brainless spirit of military pawns. They act without question and have only success in mind. It is Ender who has to be reminded of how wonderful Earth is and that its human connections are worth fighting for. He simply doesn't have enough competitive spirit to keep him fighting without question.

To analyze this entire novel and discuss the many layers and themes would take at least an 8 page essay, so I'll leave the analyzing to someone else. I will state that I enjoyed the reading of Ender's Game and think it is an important novel. The most important aspect of the novel is in the last chapter. I believe it's true that compassion and understanding may well be the key to survival of our species.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Titan's Curse: Rick Riordan

I am loving this series! Rick Riordan has created a cast of characters who are real and relatable, adventures that are exciting and inventive, and language that is readable. As much as I love Harry Potter, Percy Jackson strikes me as far more average. He's dyslexic, slightly ADHD, and he has trouble relating to girls.

This third volume in the series presents problems specific to the latter of Percy's realistic traits. As his feelings for Annabeth grow, he is confronted with a new crisis involving the goddess Artemis and her pack of girl Hunters. Artemis and her hunters are perpetual adolescents who have sworn off boys, which poses a real problem when Percy is thrown in with them on a quest to save Annabeth.

In The Titan's Curse, Percy is forced to face more serious emotional and mental battles. Is he the one who will fulfill the prophecy that has the potential to bring down all of Olympus? As his relationship with his father improves at a snail's pace, Percy is given the chance to see how terrible an Olympian parent can be. How is he going to protect Camp Half-Blood against some of the most evil gods and monsters in the world? And as an unpleasant new twist, Percy must now also convince Athena that he will not be responsible for the downfall of Olympus. As Annabeth's mother, Athena is suspicious of Percy and his involvement with her daughter.

The series is going along at a fast pace, and I'm really enjoying it. I only hope that Riordan has the foresight to keep the characters in the forefront, opposed to Rowling's decision to progressively make the stories about the battles, leaving our beloved characters to fall flat.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Alias Grace: Margaret Atwood

In 1843 Grace Marks was arrested along with James McDermott for the murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housemaid Nancy Montgomery. Grace and James were employed by Kinnear and were accused of first murdering the maidservant and quartering her, and then shooting and killing the master of the house. The supposed motive for the murders was lust and jealousy, as the testimonies put everyone in everyone else's bed. Grace was just sixteen years old.

It was, of course, a great scandal at the time. A young girl, so innocent in appearances and history, being taken into the folds of an evil plot. There were also rumors that the maidservant had been impregnated with Kinnear's child before her death. It was a headlining news story in Canada, America, and Britain. The trial for Thomas Kinnear's murder was held first, and as McDermott and Marks were both found guilty and sentenced to death, the trial of Nancy Montgomery's death was never held as it was considered redundant. It was only the outcry by a group called The Committee For The Commutation of Grace Marks that she was not hanged until dead. She was instead sentenced to life imprisonment, which was very fortunate, as she was in fact later commuted and pardoned after serving just twenty-nine years of her life sentence.

Atwood has taken all of the transcripts and news articles, the psychological reviews and personal interviews into consideration. She has remained as accurate as possible in her fictional retelling of the story of Grace Marks. The problem there is that the stories are all so conflicting. Grace Marks tried to maintain that she was unconscious during the murders and had no recollection whatsoever of the twenty-four or so hours during which McDermott committed his crimes, but one of her many confessions states that she was an unwilling participant in parts of the murders. And McDermott himself gave multiple confessions, including one version in which he was a mere pawn in Grace Marks' plot, in which she wooed him with sexual invitations to convince him to do her bidding. Really, it's all very thickly layered on. I don't know how a jury ever managed to convict considering the complete lack of consistency. It just goes to show, when at a loss to prove your innocence, confuse 'em with as many stories as possible!

In my (para)professional opinion, after having read this novel as well as some other sources of fact, I believe that Grace Marks may well have been schizophrenic. During the times when she was unconscious, her witnessed behavior was different, and quite coarse in comparison to her usual prudish nature. Some psychologists chalked this up to her amazing ability to appear insane in an effort to save her life. Others argued it was a case of possession in needs of exorcism. Regardless of what is believed, I think that it's obvious Grace Marks was not in her right mind during the murders.

A note on the writing...Atwood is rather well known for her work in poetry. As such, I would expect her fiction writing to be concise and well-written. I found Alias Grace to be verbose and almost painfully long. Granted, when writing about a piece of history, a certain amount of expository is to be expected. I felt that it was perhaps overdone in this novel. For one thing, so much is said rather than shown making the text slightly dry to read. On the other hand, all of the information was provided, and I felt that I was able to make a reasonable conclusion of my own based on evidence presented. So perhaps the expository was necessary. I will have to read more of Atwood's fiction to make a fair judgement of her writing style.

Ultimately, I slogged through this novel in the interest of finding out The Truth, whatever it may be, and I think I discovered it by the last page. It was a very tedious read, but not without reward. Grace was only forty-six when she was released from the penitentiary and I can't help but wonder...then what happened?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Sea of Monsters: Rick Riordan

Hello again, lovely readers! I again have to make apologies for my delayed absence. Summer is always such a busy time, don't you think? Not to mention the fact that I have picked up a total of four books and read anywhere from three to one hundred pages of each before putting them aside. I finally found one worth reading, though, so let's get to it!

The Sea of Monsters is book two in a the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. I read book one (The Lightning Thief) when I was in Korea and have only now finally found the second book. To give you some background information, Percy Jackson is the son of the sea god, Posiedon. His mother, however, is a mortal, so Percy is what is known as a Half-blood. He's a little awkward, ADHD, and dyslexic. Percy is like Harry Potter's slightly annoying little brother. He's not nearly as goody-two-shoes as Harry Potter, but he's got the same hero angle. Percy also has two best friends--a half-goat-boy, and an overachieving girl. Sound familiar? To be quite frank, I think Percy and the Olympians is an excellent series to follow HP. A stranger in the bookstore last week asked me what might be a good series to follow Harry Potter. This person said that Twilight seemed a bit too...well, TOO. I agreed and suggested Percy and the Olympians.

In this second volume, Percy is once again faced with a challenge that will put him in grave danger. The monsters are just as vile and the references to mythology are ever-present. The exciting part about this particular chapter in Percy's life is that it's personal. He gains a brother and has to save his best friend from an amorous cyclopes. This chapter of the overall story is building up to what I am sure will end in some final battle of good versus evil. The god of the underworld, Kronos, is gaining in power and will likely become Voldemort-esque.

For adults, the similarities may be too much to handle, thus boring the reader. For young readers, however, I think that Percy will open a whole new world of monsters and heroes. If nothing else, Riordan is a great writer who creates a humorous narrator in Percy Jackson.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Awakening: Kate Chopin

The Awakening is a touchstone in feminist literature. Chopin was a fantastic writer who was shocked at the reception of this novel, so much so that she stopped publishing. It is the novel of a woman who questions traditional gender rules and commits herself to doing as she likes.
When it was published in 1899, such an idea was appalling to the general public. The Awakening was pulled from the presses and it was banned until after Chopin's death. She was devastated.

Edna is a gentlewoman of twenty-eight years, married with two children. As is custom, she spends her summers at a lovely resort, socializing with other gentlewomen. It is at the resort that she meets Robert, a handsome, doting young man who spends every waking moment catering to Edna's every desire. Edna takes his admiration for granted, thinking nothing of his puppy love. It takes nearly the entire story for Edna to admit to herself that she returns Robert's love--which is socially unacceptable considering her marriage.

This novel has long stood as a standard for the women's movement. Edna is an example of the overly pampered housewife who grows bored with her situation and begins to question her role in life. She takes baby steps towards her liberation; small, seemingly insignificant thought processes that turn Edna into a woman shirking her traditional role and expectations.

I had a really hard time with this novel. There were so many problems with this story. For one thing, I had to overcome the archaic language that includes words like "darkies" and "quadroon". I had to overcome my personal beliefs about the ridiculousness of a housewife requiring the assistance of a nanny (what does a woman do who doesn't work, doesn't clean house, nor does she care for her children?). I then had to overcome the outdated traditions of "calling hours" and making excuses for not being available for said visiting hours. All those things aside, the novel could conceivably take place today. Here is a woman who has bought into the role of wife and mother, who has replaced her own identity with that of wife and mother, who becomes frustrated and begins to question those roles.

I am personally a proponent of questioning societal norms, and I firmly believe that marriage does NOT make a woman the property of her husband. Unfortunately, because of the era, this novel moves slowly and negates much of the process of self discovery through excuses from the husband. Rather than feeling like a cheerleader for Edna, I felt aggravated, anxious for her to stand up and take her life into her own hands with some real Umph!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Alchemist: Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho earned a significant place in my heart when I first read The Devil And Miss Prym while in South Korea. I manage to pick up Coelho's novels when I most need his insights. The Alchemist is no different.

At it's core, The Alchemist is about the value of following your heart at all costs. One sentence that is repeated throughout the book is "When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to acheive it." What a fantastic idea! Santiago is our protaganist, a shepherd in Andalusia who takes the advice of various people he encounters who all encourage him to "follow the omens" leading to his dream. On the path of his Personal Legend, Santiago learns from everyone he meets--an important lesson for all of us living in this modern world. He encounters love, science, faith, danger, and all along he is reminded that it simply is what must be. Because as he is told time and time again, "it is written".

The theory is that when you heart wants something, it is because that thing is your Personal Legend. It is the thing you are meant to do, and all the universe will help you achieve it. Coelho is a deeply spiritual writer, who combines the mystical with ideas of God and Fate. I love that his writing is accessible to everyone, no matter their faith.

The Alchemist is another beautifully written volume from Coelho, and a valuable tome for anyone needing a nudge on the path of their own Personal Legend.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sundays at Tiffany's: James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet

For five dollars at Fred Meyer's, I picked up this book by James Patterson--an author I have generally no interest in reading. However, the title alone piqued my interest, being that I am an Audrey Hepburn fan for life and Breakfast At Tiffany's is one of my favorite movies of all time. Reading the back cover was what ultimately pushed me to buy the book; I mean, who wouldn't want to read the story of an imaginary friend come to life?!

Jane is a very lonely child who meets Michael--an invisible friend. He's not exactly imaginary--just invisible to anyone he doesn't want to be seen by. On her 9th Birthday, as per Invisible Friend Rules, Michael has to leave Jane and let her grow up in a world without invisible friends. Theoretically, she is to never remember Michael once he has gone from her life. (I would like to mention here that I find this completely plausible, as I had an invisible friend when I was a child whom I apparently spoke of at length. As an adult, I don't remember this friend at all). As an adult, Jane is still lonely and stuck in a life that doesn't belong to her. At just the right time, Michael sees Jane and she sees him and he sees that she remembers him, and it's fireworks. In a predictable plot, they fall in love and live happily ever after.

Sundays At Tiffany's is kind of a hard novel to review simply because it's so formulaic. I mean, other than the invisible friend bit, it's the typical boy and girl fall in love, there's a predictable conflict and the resulting resolution. The characters are not especially dimensional, though not altogether unlikable. Basically, for what I would call an "airplane paperback", it's not a bad read.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Kitchen: Banana Yoshimoto

Kitchen is translated from the original Japanese novel by a gal called Banana Yoshimoto. This book was gifted to me with the forewarning that it was a bit odd. Death, Love, and Transvestites--oh my! So of course you know I was interested before even cracking the cover!

Kitchen is technically two different stories about completely different people. At first a reader might wonder why these stories were paired. Well, there are the obvious links of death, sorrow, and the love that carries us through the darkest hours. There is also a sense of the mystical in both of these stories. As though there is something surreal in the ugly reality of loss.

Yoshimoto is a brilliant writer. Of course, this being a translation, I can't say that with complete certainty, but it is my opinion that the heart of this novel is well expressed and that heart belongs to the author regardless of any translation. The descriptions are beautifully moving, and the similies that Yoshimoto uses to describe the emotions of each character are poignant and real.

Ultimately the stories in this short volume are about the deep, black sorrow of losing family, and how it takes the love of the living to climb back into the world of light. Sometimes the best love is born of an absolute loss. When someone we love dies, it's easy to forget that there is no real end. Yoshimoto brings the mystical wonder of afterlife into the lives of characters who are so enmeshed in their despair that only an experience with love can remind them to keep living.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Such A Pretty Fat or Why Pie Is Not The Answer: Jen Lancaster

LAUGHTER! That is the best word to sum up my reaction to this book. I don't remember the last time I laughed so hard at a novel. Such A Pretty Fat was not on any of my reading lists, I just happened to pick it up last time I was at Borders. I liked the back cover synopsis, and wanted a lighthearted book. I thought I might get a chuckle out of it, but I never expected that I would find myself laughing out loud on the bus ride home.

Jen Lancaster is a memoirist. She has written a few other books that I will probably be interested in reading now. This particular title is about her battle with weightloss. Having reached a size 24, she decides to take on the project of writing a memoir about dieting. Having never previously successfully lost weight, this battle is full of the ups and downs that every dieter has experienced. The complete lethargy that keeps one from exercising. The love-hate relationship one has with food while dieting. And the complete and utter disappointment at finding that every dieter in the world has some excuse to blame their weight on others. Jen Lancaster is witty and rough around the edges. Her writing is conversational and oh so very real. It feels like chatting with Jen over coffee. Or maybe coffee and pie.

I think the most likable aspect of this novel is that it's sort of universal. I don't think you have to be overweight to enjoy Lancaster's insights and her humor. I admit that there are times when I question the sensitivity of Jen Lancaster's writing, but overall, I find her completely marvelous.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Drown All The Dogs: Thomas Adcock

Drown All The Dogs is a paperback I picked up at a great little store in Portland called Murder By The Book. I bought this book years ago and am only now finally reading it. I think I needed to read this book as an adult, as it's pretty thick stuff. It's an Irish cop mystery intricately woven with Irish history and literature.

Neil Hockaday is a New York cop of Irish descent who spends his time in Hell's Kitchen, trying to fill the "hollow places" inside him. Ruby Flagg is his gal pal who gives strong, independent woman a good name. In an effort to solve the mystery of Hockaday's faceless father, Neil and Ruby take a vacation across the pond to visit old Uncle Liam. From there, the mysteries pile up faster than the body count, with Neil at the epicenter.

I'm still not sure I fully understand this book. The Irish Republic Army, Nazis, secret organizations, and so much convoluted patriotism create a web of deceit that our New Yorker cop has to untangle to reveal the truth about his family. Unfortunately, some places are so tangled and dark that they may better be left alone.

While reading this novel, I couldn't help but wonder how much our family history defines us. For some folks, I think that lineage is just history. For others, I think that family is defining. What ugly secret would it take for you to disown your familial history? Imagine that you learned that your ancestors had committed horrendous crimes. How would that effect you?

Adcock is not the best, most articulate writer being published, but his story is detailed and smart. It takes a real talent to incorporate so much information into a novel and keep it interesting. What could read like a history book, instead reads like a novel, with developed characters and a driving plot line.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Pact: Jodi Picoult

The Pact is the third book I've read by Picoult and I'm noticing a disturbing trend; her stories are real enough and written well enough to jar my mind. I find myself instantly sucked into the story, only to be smacked by an uneasiness stemming from the realness of her writing. I suppose that's a commendation for Picoult. For me, it's a good enough reason to put her aside from now on.

The Pact is a misleading title, but that's only appropriate, as Picoult so often turns her stories towards the end in an effort to confound her reader. Picoult lovingly calls this a Love Story, though the love that she writes about is implausible, if not impossible.

Chris and Emily are born to neighboring families. They are raised together, and live as much with each other as they do with their own parents. Picoult goes through great effort to illustrate the closeness of their relationship as children and how it develops during adolescence. As is probably predictable, their parents are cheerleaders for the blooming relationship between the children. When they are caught kissing for the first time, the parents are actually gleeful. While it's all a very sweet thought, I also know that growing up that closely with someone may lead to some physical experimentation, but ultimately the only relationship that blossoms is that of siblings. Picoult does make it clear that the sibling factor occurs to both Emily and Chris, but it is easy brushed away so as not to remind the reader of incest.

The pact is in fact a suicide pact, further stereotyping teenage melancholy, and simultaneously downplaying real depression. I can't say too much more about the story without giving it all away, though I will tell you that Chris spends the majority of the book in the county jail.

My biggest problem with this story, other than the close-to-home reality of it, is that this novel can't seem to decide who it's about. Emily? Chris? The parents? Whose parents--Emily's, or Chris'? There are a number of players in this story including a defense attorney with a teenage son of his own, and each character has a different perspective. In this way, there is no bottom line truth in the story. The reader spend almost 500 pages hoping to get to the answer and there is no single answer! What's more, the reader is told a crucial piece of information in the first hundred pages or so and waits through the rest of the book for someone else to learn this piece of information, but waits in vain. It was incredibly frustrating to me.

This book came highly recommended, as did the previous Picoult novels. I don't deny her readability as an author. She is, in fact, a terrific writer, and I can even appreciate the stories she tells. However, if you are a sensitive reader, who is easily effected by words, Picoult may be a dangerous trigger.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Watership Down: Richard Adams

Watership Down is another one of those books on my "must read" list. It is often alluded to, and even shows up on many canon lists. I expected to pick up a piece of epic literature; a novel that would change my view of the world, or at least make me think about it.

Obviously, I was unaware that it was about rabbits.

This is not a novel about a sinking ship. It is, in some ways, a novel about war, but mostly, it's a novel about rabbits. Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and all of the other rabbits are in hot pursuit of freedom. The novel is broken into four parts relative to the various parts of their journey. The rabbits leave their home warren to find a new home where they are free to be wild rabbits. Then comes the segment where they must intrude on a neighboring warren to steal away some females so as to propogate. There, they run into some trouble and it becomes a bit of a war story. But have no fear, there is a happy ending. Because after all, this is a children's story.

Yes, you read that right--it's a children's story. Richard Adams wrote this novel much like Rowling wrote Harry Potter--as bedtime stories for his kids. As a lit person, I have been well trained to look for the allegory in every story. I look for hidden meaning in subtle symbols. About halfway through Watership Down I found myself floudering, unable to explain what the story was really about. So I did some research and found an interview with Adams in which he explains that the book was comprised of just a bunch of stories he told to his kids. He did mention that he may have woven stories of his own military experience into the story. But ultimately, it was just stories for his little girls.

The book has never been out of publication, and has been made into a movie (a cartoon). Would I recommend it? Sure--read it to your kids!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Angels & Demons: Dan Brown

First of all, I want to apologize for being away from the blog for so long. I've had computer issues, and then I went on vacation. Needless to say, I've got a lot of catching up to do!

Dan Brown, the author of the well-known The DaVinci Code, actually wrote Angels & Demons first. This first novel of his is quite a bit darker than his other more publicized work. I was fortunate enough to catch a bit of an interview with Ron Howard and the main characters of the upcoming film and gained some insight into why The DaVinci Code was produced first. For one thing, as I noticed in my own readings, Angels & Demons jumps into the story without much character development of Robert Langdon. Whether that was intentional or if Brown simply became a more developed writer is unknown. In any case, Ron Howard felt that exposing the public to Robert Langdon in full dose by releasing Angels & Demons first, the audience would feel little empathy for a character who was basically a stranger. In The DaVinci Code, Howard was careful to help Tom Hanks fill out the character, and now, when we see him in Angels & Demons, he is a real person to us.

I think most important to note about this novel is that the Catholic church is no longer in direct light. It would be a simple overstatement to say that Angels & Demons is a story of good vs. evil, or wrong and right existing together to keep the checks and balances in place. This volume has a personal attachment that I didn't really feel from The DaVinci Code. The fact that this story involves men of the cloth isn't a condemnation because these men are drawn up as real people. The human element of this novel makes the murder and mystery all the more involved, and less about faith than it is about some of the basic human instincts.

To give a brief overview, Langdon is called in as a Symbologist Extraordinaire to help identify the creator of an Illuminati sign. What begins as an identification turns into a global manhunt. Meanwhile, a form of antimatter has been invented, and consequently stolen and is now being used as a weapon against Vatican City. It's a fascinating story from page one, if not slightly predictable once you get acquainted with all of the characters.

I enjoyed Angels & Demons, though I have to say, I think I preferred The DaVinci Code. Everyone told me that Angels & Demons was the better of the two novels, so I expected something to knock my socks off. I liked it, but I was far more intrigued by the mysteries of The DaVinci Code.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Breaking Dawn: Stephanie Meyer

In this finale of the Twilight series, Bella's world changes forever, and all the things that avid fans have been hoping for, finally happen. New characters are revealed, old characters are revisited, and yet another war is waged. Worlds collide when wolves and vamps are again tied to each other, and I can't help but feel that I have liked the wolves best all along and that this finale only confirms my admiration.

First of all, I have to say that I was anxious to hurry through this book just to be finished. My feelings about the Twilight series have waned considerably since cracking that first volume. I was told exactly what happened to all of the characters before I even picked up the first book, so this climactic novel was...well, anticlimactic.

The introduction of new characters in the final installment was unsettling. While I recognize the necessity of the characters for the sake of the plot line, as a writer I disagree with pulling in quite so many brand new faces with individual stories at the last minute. It seems obvious to me that Meyer didn't know how her series would end or she might have introduced these characters over the span. Which is not a flaw so much as a lack of forethought. I was once told that a good author never sets a gun on the nightstand unless they intend to use it--meaning no detail goes without purpose. In that line of thought, I find that Meyer puts a lot of guns on a lot of nightstands and then neglects them. I find myself questioning what happened to so-and-so character or such-and-such prop. Likewise, things tend to pop up in her stories that seem to appear from nowhere. While I knew that Meyer had to tie up her series neatly with all loose ends answered to, there were flaws with her conclusion.

For one thing, Meyer supposes that her reader is simple enough to unquestioning believe the incongruent actions of a character who has been steadfastly consistent. When Alice takes leave in an act of self-protection, none of the characters question it. An intelligent reader will spend the following 500 or so pages asking why the sudden change of character and suspect that there is a secret plan which will surely unravel in the final stages of the plot to help things wrap up neatly. It is predictable and placating--two qualities I despise in my reading.

All that said, there were parts of this novel that I enjoyed immensely. There is something inherently pleasing about seeing a beloved character get all that she wants. Also, Meyer has a subtle humor that presents itself through cranky characters and unexpected situations. Her characters grew flat throughout the series, but there were flashes of personality that appeared here and there to keep the story moving.

Now that I've read all four books, I can put Stephanie Meyer and her Bella, Edward, Jacob, Alice, Charlie, and all the other misfit characters to rest.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Body Surfing: Anita Shreve

Anita Shreve writes like a poet. This was a rich, decadent novel to read simply because of the writing. Shreve has the ability to invoke so much of the story through tone and language. From the very first words I was swept into a very specific time and place. The writing is such that I instantly felt as though I was finally reading a book written for adults.

Sydney is the hired tutor for the "slow" 18-year-old daughter of a well off family. The family is summering at their New Hampshire beach house where Sydney is expected to tutor Julie and otherwise stay out of the way. Shreve sets up a fascinating family dynamic that grows convoluted with Sydney's presence.

Body Surfing has something for everyone--romance, fraternal warring, mystery, and even a coming out story when Julie exposes herself as a lesbian. It's not the best story line I've ever read, but without a doubt, Shreve is one of the best writers I've read in a very long time. It was reminiscent of A.L. Kennedy, who is one of my favorite poets-turned-author.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Eclipse: Stephanie Meyer

In this third installment of the Twilight series, Stephanie Meyer makes a grand return to the drama that had readers riveted for the first volume. Heroine, Bella, is torn between her loyalties while a nearly-full-scale war wages. Though mortal enemies, the werewolves and vampires in Bella's life are forced to cooperate and face a new challenger head on. Meanwhile, a similar war wages within Bella as she considers her options: werewolf, or vampire?

When I read Twilight it was almost by accident. That first book had me hooked. Not because the writing was so amazing, or because I became so rapt with the reality of vampires living as close as Forks, Washington (I admit, Meyer puts a lot of energy into covering all of her tracks where the vamps are concerned, explaining away all of the stereotypes and various vampire lifestyle circumstances). It was the characters that drew me in to that first story about awkward Bella and the perfect Cullens. Without all of the drama, New Moon held my attention only briefly, but Eclipse is a return to the fast paced conflict I've been waiting for.

When I say that the characters are what keep me interested, I don't mean that I find them terribly empathetic or realistic. Truthfully, there are a lot of character flaws (and I don't mean character traits) that distract from their reliability. Alice with her un-ending cheerfulness, even in the face of Bella's moodiness. And Bella's undying passion and love for Edward, who often times guards himself to the point of coldness towards her. It's not a perfect puzzle by any means, but somehow, Meyer manages to make me like her cast. I find myself thinking of them when I'm not reading, wondering how they would relate in my real world.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nineteen Minutes: Jodi Picoult

Nineteen Minutes is the story of a high school shooting. It came recommended to me by a friend who said that Picoult is a great author, and from what I've read about the author, I was definitely interested to read something of hers. I must say, this is probably not the book I would have chosen to read first. As a high school student during the Columbine and ensuing Springfield shootings, I still suffer a little PTSD regarding high school shootings. I'll take this opportunity to inject my own personal view that technology has made traumatic events even more dramatic by making them readily, visibly available to the general public, and I'm not at all sure that it's a good thing.

As for the writing itself, Jodi Picoult is a good writer. As I tried to explain to a fellow reader, Picoult has the rare talent of infusing mass market publishing with some interesting phrasing. She's not the best writer I've ever read by any means, but she is better than many writers being published today. Picoult not only writes an interesting, empathetic story, but she does it well.

I say empathetic because she manages to make a large cast of characters dimensional. I don't think that Picoult intends for the reader to truly empathize with the teenage shooter, but she does write him as a very relatable character. My biggest frustration was that the omniscient narrator was completely neutral in tone regarding the boy, but the story itself did not allow for neutrality. The citizens of the small town where the shooting takes place swing between calling him a monster and a victim. A large amount of blame is placed on the parents of a teenager who showed all the warning signs. Well, if holing up in one's bedroom, wearing black, and listening to dark music are signs of an impending massacre, then almost every teenager should be locked up and questioned for motive.

The true genius of this story is the twisted ending. It is rare when an author can successfully turn a protagonist into a lifelong antagonist. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that the last 100 pages or so kept me riveted.

The underlying element in Nineteen Minutes is family. The shooter's seemingly normal home life contrasted with the dysfunctional household of the protagonist is a wide illustration of how family effects who we become. The story suggests that friendships are also crucial in personal development. Jodi Picoult has become an author well-known for her touching portrayals of the human condition. From what I can tell, her stories are often personal and emotional, teetering on the edge of trite sap, but she manages to pull them back into realism.