Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

I don't feel like this book should qualify as YA fiction as the genre stands today. Themes in YA novels are more complex nowadays than what's included in this book. That doesn't make it any less of an exciting adventure to read, but I'd recommend it more for an elementary school student than a junior higher.

That being said, what book isn't fun to read when it takes you on an adventure among well-known fairy tale characters? Alex and Conner, twins who've recently lost their dad in a tragic car accident, are turning 12. Their grandma hands them down a book of fairy tales read to them as young children. The kids are struggling with all the changes to their lives since their father's death and the book gives them something familiar to hold onto. Alex especially clings to the stories - reading them doesn't make her feel so alone.

That's when the magic kicks in and suddenly the twins are transported to a world where fairy tales are real. The Charming brothers have almost all found their princesses and Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel all have kingdoms to look after. The twins are trapped in this world and must collect a series of items to enact the Wishing Spell so they can return home.

Along the way, the twins meet many iconic storybook characters, learn more about the land they've fallen into, and uncover secrets and themselves and their family. It's a fast read because the story doesn't really ever slow down, and it's a fun read because you already know most of the characters and can kind of guess where the story is heading.

Would I recommend an adult pick this up for a quick read like I did? Not really. But, reading it with or to your favorite third grader sounds like a wonderful activity.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

This book is ultimately about a quest to save magic. It has all the makings of an epic journey - long travel, many obstacles, singular hero whose payoff in the end isn't as expected. The quest however has two starting points, one for Quentin who, as King of the magical realm, Fillory sets out on a sea voyage to far away islands and one for Julia, a Fillorian Queen whose foray into magic impacts the whole plot. Both characters are actually from Earth, Brooklyn to be exact, lucky enough to be gifted the ability to use magic.

We met both characters in The Magicians  as Quentin matriculated at Brakebills, a secret college for magic and then went on to discover Fillory's existence. Julia's history is a bit of a mystery. She learned magic on the "streets" having not gained admittance to Brakebills. We get her complete story here as the narrative jumps from her past to the present which focuses on Quentin.

And that basically covers the general plot. Too much happens to know which details to extract here and take you further into the story. I don't want to give too much away. The basis of the quest is to locate a series of keys. Aside from the final purpose these keys have, they're also able to open invisible doors to other lands. You can go through them but can't return to Fillory since the key always stays behind. In this way, the quest takes Quentin and company back to Earth as well as to the Neitherlands, a sort of transportation terminal with openings between worlds. On these side trips, Quentin reconnects with characters from The Magicians and learns more about the state of magic throughout all worlds.

Grossman turns magic into a gritty, violent, passionate thing. It's not pretty. It's often coated in desperation. This is probably what magic would really be like. I like how the fantasy genre is turned sideways with the fantastical tempered by danger, death, and sadness. You feel like you're getting a complete picture of magic as it would be.

I have no idea where the story will go in the third and final book in this trilogy, but I'm happy to say that I'm interested in finding out.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde expertly delves into the Y.A. genre with the first book in his Chronicles of Kazam. Not only does Fforde put magic into this world (a popular Y.A. theme these days) but he also covers relevant issues for readers - preserving the environment, making ethical decisions, etc.

Like all Fforde series the world we find ourselves in here is an alternate version of today with enough similarity to our present to feel familiar even with significant differences. In this world, the ununited nations are at a time of relative peace having lost many during the Troll Wars. Magic is dwindling and once-great magicians have been relegated to rewiring homes without pulling the wires out of the walls. Jennifer Strange, at just 15-years-old, runs Kazam Mystical Arts Management, a cross between a retirement community and a talent agency for magicians. Running Kazam complete occupies Strange's life until the premonition of the last dragon being slayed by a dragonslayer starts popping up everywhere.

From there, things pick up pretty quickly for Strange and life as she knows it gets even more complicated than it was before. When not fending off death threats, marriage proposals, and sponsorship deals Strange becomes the last dragonslayer faced with doing a job she doesn't feel right about. She simply doesn't want to have to kill anything let alone the very last dragon.

Then, there's the mysterious spike in magic and whispers among the magicians of Big Magic returning - a total game-changer.

As always with Fforde, the characters are all unique and interesting from their very names (Tiger Prawns is my favorite) down to their personalities. Nothing boring around here, but then how could things be boring with magic in the world and a dragon to battle? The best thing about all the characters is how human they feel. They're imperfect, confused, good-hearted, conniving; simply human. Magic hasn't transformed them into characters who rely solely on their power to achieve their goals. Decisions have to made and outcomes have to be worked for. Even the dragon feels human-like by the end.

I know I've been reading a lot of Y.A. fiction lately and a lot of Fforde as well, but I still must recommend this book. It was a great adventure and I look forward to the next installment as it slowly paddles its way across the 'Pond.'

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs

As a big fan of the TV Show, Bones, I decided I should read at least one book in the series that inspired the show. I watch the show because I like the characters so much and because of the science used to solve the crime each week. I knew there would be some differences between the show and the book but I didn't realize how many.

Let me first say that, like the show, the book was very clinical in its descriptions. Unfortunately, it takes a lot longer to muddle through a written, jargon-filled, clinical explanation than it does to watch it on TV. I found the technical explanations in the book got in the way of the action; you lose the momentum of the scene.

However, Reichs is good at the slow build necessary in a suspense novel. We meet Temperance Brennan working in Canada as a forensic anthropologist. Female bodies start coming in with enough similarities to put Brennan on the track of a potential serial killer, but the police don't believe her. In an effort to prove her hypothesis about the murders, Brennan starts investigating on her own, gets into trouble, and becomes a target for the killer herself. While some of the action is a little predictable, the book definitely got my heart racing in a few places.

It was really the characters that bothered me most and is the primary reason why I won't be delving into this series. Brennan in the show is actually a much better character than Brennan in the book. She's just too vulnerable in the book, too prone to emotional overload. I like the steadier version of the character we see on TV. Then, because the story takes place in Canada, there's no Booth. There's a Booth-esque character in that, of all the police, he's most inclined to listen to Brennan and she keeps checking out his butt so there's an attraction there too. More central in the story is Claudel - an extremely rude investigator whose prejudice against Brennan just doesn't match up to her high level of qualifications for the work she's doing. Claudel is too much of a hater.

Overall, this is a good, procedural crime suspense novel. It has all the components - murder, mystery, surprises, danger, etc. - so if you go into reading it with just a scientific interest in crime and no preconceived notions stemming from a TV show, you'll do just fine.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 1

It felt good to get back into some YA fiction, especially when it didn't involve vampires or dystopia. This is the real world as we know it today with the tiny difference being that all the Greek gods are actually real and still thriving...and still creating demigods.

Percy Jackson is just a normal "troubled" kid; severe ADHD, frequently getting kicked out of school, struggling with an unhappy home life, but strange things start to happen as he becomes a teenager. He can read ancient Greek, a monster posing as his math teacher attacks, a pen turns into a sword. All the strangeness leads up to the discovery that he's a Demigod with a serious problem: Zeus has accused him of stealing his lightning bolt. With the help of Grover, a satyr, and Annabeth, a fellow Demigod, Percy is charged with the quest of traveling to the Underworld to retrieve the bolt from Hades and prove his innocence. He's prepared for his quest at Camp Half Blood where Demigods are trained to be Greek heroes. Of course, the quest is more than Percy bargained for, but he's given the many chances to show off the heroic stuff he's made of.

There's no shortage of mythological Greeks in the story either - the part I liked the most about the story. Medusa runs a garden shop/statuary, Ares is an angry biker, Charon, the boatman across the River Styx, has a think for expensive Italian suits, etc. The mix of Greek myth with a modern adventure is so perfectly done in these characters, you real feel like that how these ancient gods and creatures would have evolved. And, I like Percy. He's confronted with these outlandish truths about himself with no time to process them and just accepts that change in his reality. He takes all the doubt that's perfectly normal to have and faces it head-on. It's obvious from that start that Percy is a real hero.

On a side note, I checked this book out from the library which I've rediscovered taking Olivia to story time each week. I forgot how much I loved the crinkle of the cellophane book cover on a library book. I found myself adjusting the book in my hands more often than I really needed in order to hear that sound. Of course, the drawback of the library is that now I have to wait for the second book to be back on the shelves.

Percy goes on four more adventures in his series and I'm looking forward to reading Book 2. It's so much fun getting caught up on Greek mythology without having to "travel" back in time to ancient Greece.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Shades of Grey #1 by Jasper Fforde

There is just a hint of Vonnegut in Shades of Grey paired with the newly popular theme of, "our future society is hiding something that happened in the past that would prove the people currently in power are evil." It's pretty great.

Let me first preface this biased review by telling you Jasper Fforde is one of my favorite authors. His stories are smart, funny, and very in-depth. His characters are witting, awkward, and treacherous. His stories are the complete package and his worlds are always fully imagined.

Shades of Grey takes place in a society pretty far into our future. Humanity has mutated so their eyes no longer dilate to see at night. They also can only see one hue of color and in varying percentages of fullness. If a person's bloodline stays relatively pure - marrying those of like color - offspring have a high percentage of visibility in their specific color. If two people who have visibility in different primary colors marry, their children will see a secondary color. If too much mixing between colors occurs offspring will eventually see no color and become a grey.

Edward Russett (a red) and Jane Grey (guess what color she sees) are our leads in a small town on the fringes of society. Russett (I love that Fforde gives all these characters last names that relate to how much of their color they can see) has come to town with his something-of-a-doctor-father who uses color samples to ignite physical reactions in people and keep them healthy. Eddie meets Jane who, after threatening to kill him a few times begins to open his eyes to the cover-ups and corruption taking place in their world. The impression this enlightenment leaves on Eddie is pretty severe due to his strict moral compass and his blossoming love for Jane. He joins the "resistance" and gears up to infiltrate The Collective.

We don't really find out much about the resistance but I can tell you honestly that society created after the "Something that Happened" has issues. When your motto is, "Apart. We are together," you know things are being covered up.

After a few deaths, plenty of secrecy, and lots of subterfuge we arrive at the end of a very exciting and unusual story that's really just the beginning of what I'll assume is going to be a great adventure.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

I feel like this book falls into the trap common for second books in trilogies - it takes all the intense, fast-paced action of the first book and slows it way down while subtly hinting at the climax coming in book three. This slowing down of the story can take something that started out very exciting and dull it down a little bit. I still like the series and still enjoyed the story but the tone here was so significantly different from A Discovery of Witches, that, if not for the repeat characters, it would be hard to tell the books belong together.

Shadow of Night has our heroes - Diana the Witch and Matthew the Vampire - travel back to the 16th century to track down a magical book Diana encounters in her present. This encounter proves extremely dangerous for Diana as we see in Discovery because it is believed this book contains the origins story for all non-humans who live in the world today. Diana is somehow magically bound to the book while her relationship with Matthew also has some alchemical link to it as well. They've also traveled back to hide out from those chasing Diana giving her time to explore her magic.

Matthew was actually already a vampire by the 1590's so he and Diana resume the life he's already lived in England among such historical characters as Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare himself. In addition to these historical characters, this book is overloaded with new characters to keep track of; a lot of whom are significant in Matthew's extensive vampire family tree. It's a lot to keep up with as Matthew and Diana are married again and really begin to build their romantic relationship which had it's negatives for me as well. At times, the relationship felt a little Twilight-ish for me with too much angst and over emotion, but at least we're dealing with two adults here instead of teenage hormones.

While I didn't really care for the intricacies of their romance, it was interesting to meet the rest of Matthew's family and go deeper into the hierarchical structure of a vampire clan. The witches and their magic get a little silly for me and I felt the historian part of Diana's character all but vanishes once she goes backward in time (and I really liked that part of her character from Discovery.)

The story was still a good read and definitely an adventure but just a bit patchy when compared to Harkness' first attempt. Not much of a cliffhanger either so am definitely curious to see where the story is going to go and what's going to happen in book three. I'm also a little concerned about how much will actually be crammed into book three to make up for the slower pace of this volume.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Shocking would be the single word to describe this book. You're reading along, getting most of the way through, and then BLAM! and the book wraps up. Obviously, I can't give away the shocking moment, but I'm warning you it's there. I was caught totally by surprise.

This is a complex story heavily linked to the Holocaust allegorically so while spared the Nazis and war stories, a no less disturbing story plays out for Beatrice (the donkey) and Virgil (the Howler Monkey). They've been isolated from society living on the brink of starvation in fear.

The story of Beatrice and Virgil is actually a play written by a creepy taxidermist who features pretty centrally in the book. Beatrice and Virgil sit, stuffed, near the taxidermist's desk. We meet the taxidermist as a fan of Henry's work (another layer of character). Henry is a writer and actually our main character although I found him much less interesting than the taxidermist, Beatrice, or Virgil. Henry is asked to help finish the play and gets sucked in because he's unable to create anything on his own at this point in his writing career. Doing everything he can to avoid his writer's block and the disappointment from his last writing endeavour, Henry spends way too much time working with the taxidermist who he knows nothing about. It's this relationship that leads to our shocking moment.

I wasn't sure about this book through most of the story. I felt like I caught on to things quicker (to a point) than Henry even though Martel does a great job of keeping his cards close to his chest until the very end. This is also a harsh novel. The writing feels rough and scratchy enough to make you squirm which doesn't make for a relaxing read. The best part of this book though is how much I want to talk to someone else about it. I want to find someone who has read the book and see what they think, talk through the scenes that disturbed me the most. I haven't read a book in a while that made me feel like this.

It's hard to recommend Beatrice and Virgil. It's not as if liking Life of Pi will mean you'll like this, but it's definitely a book to be appreciated for what Martel was able to create. He is an extremely talented writer and tells such intricate and complex stories always leaving the reader with a lot to think about.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

There is too much book in this book. The payoff isn't worth the 900+ pages it takes to get to the end of the story, which isn't actually an ending but rather one of MANY flashbacks. In fact there are so many flashbacks within flashbacks in this book I found myself frequently getting confused as to who was narrating.

The gist of the story is the quest for Dracula. Does he still exist? Is he a vampire? Where does he hide to have gone undetected for so many hundreds of years? A mysterious book, containing nothing but an image of a dragon is the only link to the possibility that Dracula is real. The book, filled with nothing but blank pages and this dragon image keeps finding its way into the hands of academics studying Vlad the Impaler. These mysterious books prompt deeper research into the life and death of Vlad with things getting increasingly dangerous the closer one gets to discovering the truth.

It's actually an interesting adventure story of Indiana Jones-esque proportions and would have been a fantastic read if it had followed the story in a more chronological order. Instead we are taken all over the place through flashbacking. Follow this if you can: the story starts in present time with a historian being charged with retelling a story from her youth. She flashes back to her childhood to get the story going where we then flash back to her father's time in graduate schools. From there, we have an additional, brief flashback to the youth of the father's dissertation advisor. So, most of the story bounces between our historian's childhood and her father's past. It's a jumbled mess clouding the exciting adventure of an academic leaving his books behind to go on a real search for truth.

I'd have to give away more plot than I want to and truly spoil the book to talk about a few other elements in the story that bothered me. Suffice it to say, I don't think Kostova flushed out her characters very well. I feel like she got too caught up in the chase to really think through the ultimate end for everyone. I also think she put plot points into her book that were totally undervalued in what they could have added to the story.

So, over all this book just falls short, but it was nice to read a Dracula story firmly rooted in academia, moving through real places in Europe full of dusty manuscripts and dank, medieval crypts.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

This is the third Discworld book I've read, and yes I'm reading them completely out of order. I lean toward the books about a trip of witches - Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick and they don't appear frequently. They're all so odd, so intelligent, so connected to the outcome of the story in their kingdom of Lancre; I absolutely love them even as Practchett works to make them as crochetty and/or whiny as possible.

Midsummer's Night is approaching and Magrat is to marry the King of Lancre if she can ever figure out exactly how to be a "proper" queen. Before the wedding can take place, the lords and ladies invade and the lives of every person in Lancre are put at risk. Who knew that elves were so evil their very name couldn't be said (so they were referred to as the lords and ladies)? Who knew that at midsummer the barriers between worlds weaken enough for people to pass through if they try hard enough? Between a witch battle, the return of an old love, and imminent death, Granny Weatherwax attempts the impossible to save Lancre. Equally effective, but with a completely different strategy, Nanny Ogg resists the distraction of her own love affair to help save the day. And, timid, clueless Magrat finds the courage (with a little help from an old helmet) to become a warrior. It's a busy wedding weekend full of as much humor as chaos.

Pratchett's wit and style leave nothing to be desired when visiting Discworld. Every character he writes is quirky and interesting and never bored (or boring). It's always a good idea to take a little trip to Discworld and make as many return visits as possible.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides has an amazing way with characters. They're all so complex and yet so easy to get to know. I've been a fan of Eugenides from the start and it has always been who he writes about that draws me in. The plots are great too, but it's how the characters react to what's going on around them that truly makes Eugenides' book hard to put down (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot).

The Marriage Plot follows three characters connected by the naive sense of love that emerges during one's college years. Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard are all attending Brown (in the 80's) when they meet as undergrads. All three are pretty smart and insightful students who thrive in academia. Madeleine is the literature lover, caught up in the world of writers like Austen. Mitchell is more of a theologian, thinking about seminary school. Leonard's area of study is science although he really just likes to philosophize and seem introspective. Mitchell (whose last name, Grammaticus, I just love) is in love with Madeleine; Madeleine is in love with Leonard; and Leonard is a manic depressive who need people more than he really feels any genuine emotion for.

The three graduate college and spend their first year in the real world coming to terms with their perceptions of love and reality. Expectations of the heart can really be unrealistic and over-romanticized and each character receives this rude awakening through their own personal journey even as their stories intertwine. In the end, you feel like everyone is going to be okay, that the big disappointment that first love can sometimes turn into will be something they'll all get over, but one of the three get a perfectly happy ending which just feels right as you're reading the story.

Eugenides shifts his focus between the three characters using a third person narrative that is extremely insightful into the mind of each character. You end up with the ability to view the same event from multiple perspectives with each telling feeling truly genuine. It makes you feel really present in the story no matter whose line you're following and a part of the inner struggles each character is facing. And you really do have to follow these characters as they travel all over the world from 1980's Calcutta where you could catch a glimpse of Mother Theresa to the opulence of Monaco.

Through this rich story of love, relationships, and personal growth toward adulthood, The Marriage Plot takes love and makes it difficult and real in an engaging and thought-provoking way and it's very much worth a read.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

As Printed Reference Books Become a Thing of the Past...

I'd like to take a moment to talk about the books I keep on the shelf in my office. These books have never made it to a real bookshelf, they've always been close to where I work. Hardly used, they still hold significance.
1. The reddish binder - this is my novel. First draft completed a long time ago with just a few edits in the margins. It needs a complete rewrite and someday I will accomplish that feat. Everyone has a novel in their heads - an idea they think the world would want to read and I managed to get a first draft of mine down. Who knows if I'll ever finish editing it and getting published isn't a high priority right now, but just having it here inspires me.
2. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language - College Edition c. 1964 - My Dad's college dictionary. I love the way the pages feel (so thin) and how the book smells (old) and that when I hold it I'm connecting with my Dad. I've never not found the word I'm looking up in it even though modern slang is missing from its pages.
3. The Newspaper Designer's Handbook - My education in design began with looking at newspapers. This is the only design textbook I ever bought and it's worth keeping just incase I need to go back to my roots.
4. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual - While this edition is probably very out-of-date this was THE BOOK that taught me how to correctly  present information when writing. I learned useful things like Mass. is an acceptable way to abbreviate Massachusetts and that you should spell out all single-digit numbers. This book presented a whole new layer of detail to the way I wrote and has stayed close by ever since Freshman year of college.
5. MLA Handbook - who doesn't own a copy of this book? There are a lot of grammar rules and it's nice to have a reference tool close at hand no matter how often you write. More people should reread this book and give themselves a grammar refresher.
6. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont - This book focuses on what it's like to be a writer. I read this in college and it was the first time I connected with a non-fiction book on a personal level. Keeping it close by reminds me to keep writing.
7. Food Rules by Michael Pollan - while I don't adhere to most of these rules, this book reminds me you can convey your message simply. This book just screams, "stop trying to cram in all those SAT words and just say it," a useful reminder for writers.
8. Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors by Bill Bryson - Read this, it's just awesome.
9. The missing book (loaned out to my aunt) is Epictetus' Handbook. His philosophy is the only one I connected with in college and still agree with today. Among other things, he reminds me to not dwell on what's outside my control.

These books, all significant, make up my own personal reference section. They're not my all-time favorite books - I haven't even read them all cover-to-cover, but they mean a lot nonetheless. The reference book is a dying breed now that we can Google anything, but I'm going to hold on to my little office library. Not seeing these books every day would be a great loss.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

This book is actually a collection of short stories. Although all the stories take place in the same town and characters are connected through genealogy - each chapter is its own entity.

Moving chronologically through time, The Red Garden, begins with the founding of Blackwell, Massachusetts and moves up to the present. Each chapter (or story) jumps forward in time so as you meet new characters, you watch the town of Blackwell develop. That is actually the most fascinating aspect of this collection - how the town grows and changes as the book goes on. You see how real events become town folklore as time goes by, how names of places change over time, and how events that felt so significant in the moment fade from generation to generation.

I liked the town better than most of the people in it. I found some characters simply uninteresting and wasn't vested in their stories. At times I felt the stranger aspects of the stories (because nothing is totally simple with a Hoffman character) to be forced and uncomfortable. The narrative gets a little inconsistent too as we move into modern times. The greatest character is, in fact, the red garden itself, which sits in the back of the Founders' House and survives throughout the entire arc of time. The garden seems to hold some magic infused into it by the heavy emotions, Hallie, one of the founders, experienced while living there. Characters' interactions with the garden felt the most powerful.

Mostly, this was an interesting book about all that one town can survive - tragedies, heartaches, miracles, love, and families - and for that this is a pretty good book.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman

Let me start off by saying I really liked this book. Despite the fact that all the characters are sad and/or distraught, despite the fact that a horrifically tragic event takes place - the writing is simply amazing. The book is so vivid without being wordy. Sentences are expertly strung together to create a completely engaging story even while you cringe through the scenes.

I say all this first so the plot won't dissuade you from reading this book. Don't miss out because you're worried about the story being a downer.

The book begins in the middle of Emilia's story. She's already ended a marriage in order to create her own love story, becoming the hated step-mother in the process. Once a successful lawyer, Emilia is now an aimless soul who has just lost her own daughter to SIDS. In heavy mourning, Emilia is struggling to re-center herself while trying to connect with her five-year-old stepson. Not an easy thing to do when being around children plummets her deeper into the well of depression.

So, I wasn't kidding about this being a sad book, but it's not a depressing book. Emilia is just lost. She has too much to process and lacks the confidence to face it all head-on. This all makes Emilia feel human, feel real. It's not hard to connect on some level with her. Actually, all Waldman's characters are like this. Even William, the overly-informative stepson is described so clearly that you're able to get into this head just a little.

This is a book about compassion rather than despair and I really liked how reading it made me feel.

As a side note, Waldman is married to another amazing writer, Michael Chabon. If you've never read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay run, don't walk, and get a copy NOW!

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Dream by Harry Bernstein

This follow-up memoir to The Invisible Wall chronicles the author's life as he moves from England to America with his family. It focuses on the idealized version of America many immigrants had post-World War I and how devastatingly quickly that dream was dashed during The Great Depression.

I like a memoir to have something of the unusual about it and The Dream was severely lacking in this department. Bernstein lives a life full of struggles common (unfortunately) to immigrant families in the 20's and 30's. Money is tight, jobs are impossible to find, dad is an all read pretty predictably when you compare this one story to history. I even felt like events were foreshadowed in a style more akin to fiction - the set-up was all too perfect at times - that I never expected to see in a memoir.

Bernstein also relates stories in an overly-detailed manner. I felt like I was reading a diary at times of his day-to-day life. It was actually pretty boring.

To sum up the story, Bernstein, amidst all the trials of immigrating to the US post WWI finds love and lives an overall happy life. His siblings all struggle in different ways, but overcome too. The only sad character in the end is Bernstein's Mom, who suffers beyond the scope of The Great Depression, wanting only happiness and comfort for her children and dying before everything smooths out.

I would not recommend this book. I think you can find a more readable account of life during this time period if that's what you're looking for. I would suggest picking up The Invisible Wall though. It's an interesting story with enough unique elements to really make it an engaging memoir.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series is one of my all-time favorite collection of books. It's such a mix of literary references, fun, mystery, and fantasy - there's something new at every turn.

The sixth book in the series finds us again in the BookWorld which has finally been remade to be geographically similar to a planet rather than a library - so helpful. The real Thursday Next, who divides her time between working in the real world and BookWorld, is missing and the written Thursday Next, through a few of classic plot devices, gets on the case to try and find her. Of course, the BookWorld is so literal that nothing is simple to wrap up, but the real Thursday has to be found or else war might break out between the islands of Racy Novel and Women's Fiction (which in itself is a funny thought - porn characters vs fictional women's lib advocates.)

The great thing about this novel is the subtlety. Literary references, plot devices, writing techniques are all major components in the BookWorld that Fforde subtly and humorously weaves into the mystery story of locating the real Thursday and discovering why someone wanted her dead in the first place. Simple things like naming a cab driver Mediocre Gatsby (the brother of Great Gatsby) and having roads and squares named after authors who have found great success are just a few examples of how Fforde weaves the entire lexicon of literature into his stories.

An even deeper layer to this story is the character development of the written Thursday Next. She's battling her insecurities and uncertainties, pushing back against previous failures to really prove herself as an individual (while also staying true to the written version of a real person.)

The series is engaging and exciting and so much fun to read. Definitely start at the beginning though if you're new to Fforde with The Eyre Affair and enjoy!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

I'd like to start this review out with a little advice -- Don't claim you're paying homage to a great piece of literature in your modern telling if you're not going to stay true to the classic version of the story. Everyone will be comparing your book to the original story and when you deviate we will HATE it.

The Three Weissmann's of Westport focuses in on the lives of three women, a mother and her two adult daughters. The mom, Betty, has recently been uprooted from her home and is going through a divorce. Her two adult daughters, Annie and Miranda, decide to give up their own homes to live with their mom as she goes through the divorce in order to support her. This is the start of Schine's homage to Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. It's a well-known classic so you can probably imagine most of the plot from there yourself -- until Schine ruins it in the end.

Without the connection to Austen, this book is pretty good, but you can't read it without comparing it and that where the trouble sets in. Firstly, her daughters are just too old. Austen's girls are still young and most of that book has them struggling to figure out who they are as they grow into womanhood and face real life. Annie and Miranda have already sunk shoulder-deep into real life so you miss out on a huge element of their characters. It's not quite believable that women nearing their 50's would hold a lot of naivete in their characters.

Then, we get to the end of the book so let me just say SPOILER ALERT here because I have to talk about it in order to adequately illustrate my frustrations. In the end of S&S the eldest sister end up with the man she's been pining for through the whole book. She forgives him a secret engagement to another and lives happily in love. Annie (Schine's Elinor) does not forgive her real love and ultimately settles for sweet, older guy who has been hanging on the fringes of the story all along, working behind the scenes to help. This older guy sound familiar because he should -- he's the character who should have ended up with the second sister if Schine would have stuck to Austen's story. What happens to Miranda? She falls in love with a woman and finally realizes that she's gay.

So all the build up of a modernized Sense and Sensibility, all the familiar characters in one form or another come together and have you waiting for a specific ending, and then nothing. Why go to all the trouble to imitate another story just to write your own ending? I don't get it. Schine could have written this great novel about these three women, could have kept the story almost the same as it is and just left the allusion to a classic out of it. If I wasn't spending so much time comparing this book to the Austen I know I would have enjoyed it more.

It's hard to say whether this book is worth reading. If you're an Austen fan - I'd say NO! If you actually aren't familiar with S&S then this would make a good beach read for the summer. It just left me feeling angry and appreciating works in their original form all the more.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Trilogy Takeover

Is it just me or is every story being told as a trilogy these days? Right now I'm in the middle of three different trilogies and can think of another I only recently completed. It's not that I mind having books to look forward to and familiar characters to revisit, it just all seems a little too coincidental. People aren't building long series or admitting that maybe one or two books are enough to tell their story - three seems to be the magic number. Hunger Games could have stopped at two, and I can't count how many other Young Adult books are emerging right now already listing the first book as one of three on the cover.

Thinking back to when I was a kid, I can only remember two trilogies (and one technically has four books in the series although you can argue the point that the 4th is a spin-off) - the Wrinkle in Time books by Madeleine L'Engle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Bet most of you didn't even know Little Women was a one of three, but Little Men and Jo's Boys were both excellent. What I do remember are the big series like Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High. Long before Harry Potter's seven books graced shelves everywhere, series like these two went on forever. It was like going back to an old friend each time a new one published and I liked having them around.

Feeling like you have to stretch or condense a story into three volumes is setting a poor precedent and could lead to stories being put through a formula they just don't belong in. So, I'd like to share my feelings to any future authors here -- don't fall into the trilogy trap! If you just write a good story, making it as long as it needs to be to tell the tale, and stop, you'll do just fine. If your book(s) is worth reading, people will buy it regardless of how many volumes it's in.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

This book is intense. Beyond the characters and plot points it's just an intense read.

Yes, it's another vampire book (technically) with witches and daemons to boot, and yes there's a love story that leads to all sorts of complications, but this book is so much more than these popular plot devices. We're not wrapped up in a bubble of love (see Twilight). We're travelling through our real world with two characters who value family and love, have passions for real things like science and history, but they just happen to be a witch and a vampire.

Diana, the witch, a descendant of two notorious Salem families, has chosen to set her powers aside to become a historian of alchemy. Matthew, an ancient vampire, is trying to identify the Mitochondrial RNA markers the make one a vampire (apparently your body chemistry changes after you're bitten), witch, or daemon. There are rules of association between these creatures and just like racial segregation - they're supposed to stay away from each other. In fact, all of these creatures exist undetected by humans until they start gathering together.

Thrown into all this is a book - a very old book - covered in layers of magic. It might contain the secret of the Sorcerer's Stone or it might hold the origin stories of these three creatures. We're not sure, but Diana accesses the book quite innocently only to have all hell break loose.

Not safe for many reasons, Diana and Matthew being a journey to find a safe place to hide. Along the way we meet their families, learn a lot of their secrets, and gain a better understanding of the secret and violent society that governs this group of "special" people. Uncertainty is ever-present and magic is uncovered. It's an intense, suspenseful ride and I loved every second of it.

It's so easy to get sucked into this story because the world is familiar. The history discussed, the places they go - each detail is tangible and fully realized. You feel how old Matthew is through his book collection and the people he talks about knowing first-hand. You feel how hard Diana struggled against her magic by going to the house she grew up in (a house very much armed with a mind of its own) and meeting her Aunts. This is really what the growing vampire "genre" should be; a story that has more volume that a forbidden love.

This was a fantastic read and as part of a trilogy, I can't wait for the next book to publish.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble

I think I'm too young and too happy with my life to identify with the characters in this book. None of my "rough patches" have been similar to theirs. This all sounds awful to say, but it very well may be why I found this book so boring. Granted, a lot does happen and the pace of the narrative was excellent - I just never cared for the characters.

The Reading Group brings together five women for a year's worth of monthly book club meetings. While they do talk about the books (although extremely briefly) the novel is more about the lives and families of the women and how much can happen in just one year. The book takes place in England, all the characters are British - a fact that doesn't usually bother me, but this time I kept getting hung up on the unfamiliar slang. Not understanding all the references that were made might have softened the impact of certain events in the story for me.

It's pretty easy to sum up our ladies into stereotypical characters: one whose husband cheats, the divorcee finding love again, one suffering a female mid-life crisis, the one coming to terms with the mortality of a parent, and lastly the one who thought she knew what she wanted in life but really had it all wrong. I think the simplistic packaging each of these women can fit into really detracts from the ability to form an emotional attachment to them unless you've gone through what they're experiencing. And, while they endure more than just what their stereotypical definitions entail, I found myself unable to be sympathetic.

If you look at the book as a whole, without concentrating on the characters themselves, I do really like the message - that it's the hard spots in life that can bring a group of people together. Especially when women come together, the bond that forms is unbreakable. It's amazing having close female friends to talk to about everything. I just didn't feel like this message was the main trust of the book. To me, this book was written to prove the point that life can be crap and is a lot of the time, but things usually work out (Oh, and read books). Not really a message I need to wait 400+ pages to get to though.

Pick this up if a) you're in a book club or b) you're past the point in your life where everyone you know is newly married or first-time parents.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

A little magic, some Salem history, and a missing book being traced through multiple generations of uniquely gifted women; The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a fictionalized account of a book containing recipes to heal just about anything. For me, the setting was the lure. Our main character, Connie, studies at Harvard and spends the one particular summer where we meet her in Marblehead, Mass. She's also in-and-out of Salem and Boston - my old stomping ground. So, the setting drew me in, but the story itself kept me speeding through the story.

The narrative shifts between the generations of women who have owned the Physick Book and Connie's search to find the book which has been lost for a few centuries. I'd say present-day when referring to Connie's part of the story, but her portion actually takes place in the early 90's, a more fitting setting since the lack of technology in everyday life at this time plays perfectly within in the story. Cell phones and laptop computers are replaced with pay phones and card catalogues.

Connie is in search of the Physick Book in order to uncover a new, original source from the Salem witch trials that will help launch her academic career. We see Connie's path to locate the book at the same as flashbacks to how the book was used centuries ago.

The great thing about this mystery story is it's not just about the mystery. Howe puts as much energy into her characters as she does the book and its historical context. We meet Connie's roommate, mom, academic advisor, grad student she's mentoring, and more as fully-formed characters (not just tiny side pieces). We get flashbacks into Connie's own memories as she begins to put the book's mystery together so we learn more about her beyond her search. Even Connie's Grandmother's house, Connie's home base in the novel, feels like a character. Howe doesn't assume that solving the mystery will be enough for the reader - she gives you so much more to be interested in.

Then, there's the element of magic. It's so subtle and yet important. No wands or any big fanfare, it just feels real. Unlike other books, the magic here is just an additive to our world, not some secret layer existing alongside the reality we know. It's something organic and feels like it belongs.

This book combines so many genres - historical fiction, mystery, fantasy - that is really does have something for everyone.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Crossed by Ally Condie

The second book in her Matched Trilogy, Condie takes YA fiction in a post-dystopian society with a strong, young female lead in a unique direction. Rather than concentrate on the action - essentially the fight against societal norms and control - Condie focuses on her characters and what leads them to the choices they make throughout the story.

In league with this focus on choice, Condie introduces a second narrator. While in Matched we only heard from Cassia, Crossed brings in the voice of Ky, her boyfriend, as a narrator. Both characters have led such different lives and are making choices from such different viewpoints that the action in the story really stems from the disparity in their thoughts and inner turmoils rather than any action taking place around them.

Because of this, I fell Condie kept the external action to a minimum. In Crossed, Cassia and Ky have both been sent to the Outer Provinces where a war is waging between Citizens and members of The Rising. Both of them escape their assigned locations and, along with some additional help, end up reuniting in The Carving - a cave system that felt a little Grand Canyonish to me. As they travel through The Carving trying to find the rebellion we learn about the history behind those who decided to live outside Society, Ky's past, and what both he and Cassia are willing to do for love.

This is a book about inner strength, about using what you know but also what you feel for others to make those hard choices that will define your life. It's so much more than the second part of an epic journey that could eventually bring down a corrupt way of life. I don't know what the final installment in this trilogy will hold, but I'm definitely looking forward to both the outcome for this world and of the lives of the characters we have really gotten a chance to know.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough

Mary Bennet, the middle sister in Pride and Prejudice never really had much depth of character. She wasn't an insatiable flirt like Lydia and Kitty nor of marrying age like Jane and Elizabeth. As a result, she floats through the story hardly noticed in Austen's extremely popular novel. This gives McCullough a lot of wiggle room to imagine a life for Mary well into spinsterhood.

Mary reaches her independence in her late 30's well after the marriages of all her other sisters and only due to the passing of her mother, the nosy Mrs. Bennet. Defying proper behavior of a single woman, Mary decides to explore the plight of the poor in England first-hand in order to write a book. She travels alone via transport used mainly by a poorer class of people which paves the way for all kinds of drama and intrigue.

In true McCullough fashion we're brought into a world where nobody is really happy to start with, yet they're all doing what need to be done to stay alive and take care of each other. While things improve for mostly everyone by the end the road isn't easy. Not everyone makes it. Full of lots of intense moments and heightened situations, Miss Mary Bennet's path to independence is an exciting story. The tone feels like a mix between a romance novel of today (without the sex) and a Gothic novel from the Victorian Era (without the supernatural element).

This was an interesting read although Mary doesn't feature as prevalently as I had thought before opening up the book. She's hardly a player until the last quarter of the novel. The narrative is more about the entire Bennet family and the people who have been pulled into their lives. I'd list this book as a quick, action-packed read good for a plane trip or somewhere where you have to sit and wait for a long time. If you really want to sample McCullough's work though and haven't read The Thorn Birds yet run out and get that today!