Friday, December 1, 2017

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Masada is a powerful place because it has a powerful story, and the magnitude of what happened there so long ago eloquently comes through in Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers. Told through four, first-person accounts, we re-live not only the trials on Masada itself, but the invasion of Jerusalem and the flight of the Jews from the holiest of cities.

Each narrator has a different piece of the story to tell, sharing their own struggles and sorrows even as they guide you up to the tragedy which forever marks Masada. Yael is only a child when she's forced to leave her home with a father who doesn't love her. She grows into a determined and resourceful young woman over the course of her journey. Revka is a fighter amidst all the horror and tragedy she witnesses. She's fiercely loyal to her family and friends. Aziza is trapped between genders, happiest as a warrior navigating the uncertain times by taking action. Shirah is known as the "Witch of Moab," and possess more passion and intelligence than one would imagine for a woman forced to survive on her own. All four women come together inside the dovecote as they care for the Masada doves who help sustain the community, for a time, in more ways than one.

What struck me most about this story was how unique each character was, even beyond the four, central storytellers. When you hear about Masada, from a historical perspective, the community of Jews who lived out there are just that, a big group. Because individual stories would have to be primarily fictionalized, that personal element was always missing. It never detracted from the impact of the story. It didn't stop the tears in my eyes as I watched the sun come up standing on the mountain where my ancestors gave their lives. But, I'm glad Hoffman made character development such a critical part of her story.

This really is a beautiful book, full of hope and sadness that mirrors the environment Masada was -- a temporary oasis in an unforgiving desert. Hoffman builds such complete characters into this hopeless tale, giving them so much life, that it is painful to read the inevitable as the book concludes. She makes her women smart and strong, resilient and defiant in ways that make them all survivors regardless of how the story ends. Never once did anything feel out of place in the narrative; it's a perfect combination of history and imagination.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dovekeepers and highly recommend it. Hoffman is a favorite author of mine in general, but this departure from the relative present, so far into the past, is really something special.

Other Alice Hoffman books reviewed on this site:

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

This book was simply a great read. The tone, characters, and story played perfectly with each other.

With a hefty nod to Shakespeare's collected works, The Weird Sisters, introduces us to Rose, Bean, and Cordy, three sisters having crossed over into adulthood with issues. One can't convince herself it's okay to leave the sleepy, little college town they all grew up in as daughters of a professor. One is forced to return home against her will as a consequence of living it up too much. The last sister, more of a wandering soul, isn't sure if she's home for good or just passing through. They're reunited to help their parents cope with their mom's cancer treatment.

By no means is this a perfect family. The author makes no pretense of that, yet the endearing imperfections of each character, interlaced with Shakespearean quotes and a unique narrative touch (the sisters narrate collectively as 'we') propel you along though a story of personal growth and life-defining choices, ending with the three sisters finding their place and their happiness.

I'm hesitant to call this a beach read or chic lit when trying to put this into a genre even though the focus is on female characters. The edges of this story are softer than that, lacking the sarcasm and exaggerated criticism you can typically find within these popular book categories. This story feels honest and simple in an engaging and pleasant way. You're going on a journey of personal discovery with each sister as they just get over it -- the 'it' being different for each sister.

Riding alongside the story of these sisters is Shakespeare. He's an interesting passenger, bringing originality to the, "my family is so weird," statement we've all uttered at some point. The girls are named for Shakespeare heroines, they've memorized just about all of his plays, and they constantly fill conversational voids with direct quotes. Their father is most guilty of this, as the professor whose passion has brought these girls up reading the Bard rather than watching TV. 

I feel like this is a book to be passed on to other readers, that it will leave you feeling content with the time you spent getting to know all the characters in the small town of Barnwell. It's not a page-turner, but a complete story about interesting people. I feel as if you don't see books like this as often anymore, with a more subtle gimmick to differentiate itself. It's a standout read for me and one I highly recommend.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Taltos by Anne Rice

I finally finished re-reading The Mayfair Witches Trilogy. I feel as if I put off this last book because there was nothing drawing me to it. I didn't remember what happened, and was pretty sure that nothing jaw-dropping was within its pages. I was right.

This trilogy definitely fades as the books go on in excitement and depth of character. I feel as if the characters you meet in the first two books, who are so vivid, dim considerably in Taltos, and while the mythology of the series is fully flushed out, it's missing the combination of history and character development that shapes the other two books.

Everyone is second-guessing themselves in Taltos or simply out of their mind. Frankly, it's annoying. These are all characters who have seen so much, who know so much of the story, who are able to make definitive decisions and take immediate action - what's happened to them? Maybe Rice shouldn't have wrapped up so much of her story, maybe she should have left more pieces open-ended. I certainly feel she should have left more conflict than we ended up getting.

There's not much to say for this book. Most of the plot points to share would create spoilers for the story. All I can say is that everyone gets what's coming to them and all the fear we're left with from The Witching Hour and Lasher is heavily tempered by the end of Taltos so that you don't really care what's next for the characters you've followed through the series. It's still an amazingly intricate story that's worth reading, but maybe don't feel guilty if you pass on the third installment.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Circle by Dave Eggers

This is a terrifying story. It's so disturbing in so many ways, yet it lacks the stereotypical components of a thriller - there's not really much suspense. It reads like a matter-of-fact piece of fiction where the world of the story is presented and we're given insight into the lives of a few characters. It's an interesting duality.

So, why am I so freaked out?

Because it could actually happen.

At the root of The Circle is the concept of privacy. Are we really entitled to it? In this technologically-driven age so we really need it? Couldn't full transparency solve all the world's problems? The employees at The Circle believe so as they endeavor to destroy everyone's right to privacy (because it's like keeping a secret from the world.) By encouraging its employees to think up and then develop new software to bring people together and/or keep tabs on certain people, the company is quickly growing into the sole owner of information, and most everyone, somehow, feels like this is a good move. This is what completely freaks me out, the idea that I could live in a world where I owned none of my own information, where I wasn't in control of who knew what about me as a private citizen. Actually...what's worse is thinking of a world where it's acceptable to demand full transparency from everyone. That expectation alone feels unethical and dangerous, not to mention a little stalkerish.

But, that's the ultimate goal of these 'circlers' - opening up the world - and Mae quickly becomes the star employee espousing this mission no matter what it costs those closest to her. From humble beginnings as a customer service rep, Mae rises in the ranks to become the first fully-transparent employee at The Circle. Wearing a camera on her chest pretty much all the time, she's only allowed to turn it on for brief periods to use the bathroom. If she takes too long, her viewers get testy. She becomes a live You Tube channel more or less giving the world insight into The Circle. 

Mae ends up taking massive swigs of the company Kool-Aid forcing transparency on her parents and ex-boyfriend in a way that makes their lives unbearable, and Mae simply can't understand why they can't handle it. Shouldn't everyone want to share every moment of their life with the world? Aren't they doing the world a disservice by keeping secrets? This mentality of the world having a right to know is taken beyond an acceptable limit with frightening consequences.

By the end of the book, I was left with the icky feeling of having just witnessed the brainwashing of an entire society all in the name of technology (and no such thing as TMI.) Getting passed the fear imposed by the subject matter, the story is a fully flushed-out journey with such a colorful variety of characters making things interesting, eventful, and surprising. This is a good read for the summer, but don't agree too much with the "great" ideas coming from 'circlers.' You don't want to complete the circle.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris

I loved this book for two reasons. Firstly, the nostalgia factor. I was a kid of the generation defined by the introduction of home gaming systems. We got our first Nintendo one year for Hanukkah and it changed everything. Throughout my childhood, Mario, Luigi, Sonic, Eco, and so many more characters impacted conversations and culture. This story is part of my story, so it was so very interesting to follow the timeline of productivity and technological evolution. Secondly, business and marketing practices before the advent of social media are simply fascinating to me. How people built products and conceptualized strategies to get consumers interested, especially in such a competitive landscape as the gaming industry, is so varied and intricate that it's exciting to read about. So essentially, this book let me 'nerd out' in two totally different ways, making it a great non-fiction read for my generation.

The other aspect to this book that made it engaging, content aside, was the style in which it was written. Rather than simply report the facts or tell the story, Harris took on a narrative approach to the content so you feel as if you're reading fiction when you're not. It built anticipation, let you connect better with the people in the story, and allowed a long timeline of events to flow quickly and seamlessly.

A lot happens in the story of Nintendo, Sega, and Sony (Playstation) during the 80's and 90's when video games and gaming consoles become something individuals can own in their home. The sense of competition and one-upping each other created a rivalry where anything was okay in the name of success. Primarily Nintendo and Sega went at each other as best they could to be the top gaming company and the scales tipped in both directions over the years, although Nintendo ultimately won. That wasn't a surprise. The surprise lay in learning more about how each company ran their business. What obstacles they faced from a corporate perspective, how much timing meant in the game, and who the key players really were.

After reading this book, I wanted to sit down with the then-head of Sega and just have coffee. I wanted to write a nasty letter to the then-leaders at Nintendo for their strict business practices, and I wanted to chastise people (no longer at) Sony for being too over the top. It was a race full of cheap jabs and powerful marketing campaigns, but the competition between these companies shaped the way we know personal gaming. They pushed each other to do better - create better graphics in games, better consoles - to continually innovate. It's a powerful story on the power of healthy competition.

There's not much story to summarize, since you should, by now, know at least part of this story from your own experience as you go to turn on your gaming console of choice in your own living room or man cave. But, the whole story is worth a read, so I highly recommend this title for just about everyone who loves a video game.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 by J.K.Rowling, et. al.

It was wonderful to head back into the world of Harry Potter, although I did put off reading this book. As much as I love this series, I wasn't sure reading a script (vs a fully descriptive narrative,) would do it for me, but thanks to the imagery already established in the original books and movies, Harry's world is already so vivid, I was able to fill in the narrative blanks myself to complete the picture of this story.

At this point, Harry is a busy, working dad still grappling with residual fame from defeating Lord Voldemort. His middle child, Albus, is struggling as well, living in his father's shadow and viewing himself as the 'imperfect' son. It makes sense. One can easily imagine how hard it would be living in the shadow and dealing with the immense expectations of an extremely famous father. It gets worse for Albus when he's sorted into Slytherin and becomes best friends with Draco Malfoy's son. Both boys feel like outcasts as a result of their parents. How could they not bond together? Their solution, however to remedy this issue leads to an assortment of problems. Messing with time always leads to problems when you're not careful, especially when you radically change the past. 

I won't give anything else away as far as the radical events that take place as the boys mess with the timeline we've come to know, because there's something else at the heart of this book. Beyond the excitement and adventure set into motion by one, little time turner are two very powerful and universal themes: the past shapes who we are, and we cannot change that, and parents and children can find common ground to form a connection with each other no matter how out-of-reach it may feel.

I found this story more powerful than the novels. Maybe because, as a script, it was forced to be concise and tell a succinct story rather than get caught up in the descriptions of a narrative. I really enjoyed the play and haven't read anything so quickly in a long time. 

This is a must-read, if you haven't read it already, for all Harry Potter fans, especially those who have been missing the wizarding world.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Lasher by Anne Rice

Continuing my quest to reread The Mayfair Witches Trilogy, I'm realizing most of what I remembered about the books was all in The Witching Hour. It's nice to be surprised during a reread, but it's also disappointing. Most of the excitement I felt reading The Witching Hour fizzed out during my reread of Lasher.

Picking up where we ended in the previous book, Lasher is no longer a supernatural ghost-like being, he's human, having hijacked the unborn fetus of Rowan Mayfair, the strongest witch in the long Mayfair line. Lasher has essentially been inbreeding witches within the family for generations to finally have a witch who could help him become mortal. After his "birth" he quickly grows to adulthood, forces Rowan to run off with him, and begins working toward his ultimate goal - propagation.  He's not totally human, and has grand plans to repopulate the earth with his own breed. The catch, creatures like him can only be born from witches, from certain witches. All other women that conceive, die.

All the while, back in New Orleans, the Mayfair family is trying to find Rowan. Michael, Rowan's husband is trying to heal from a brutal battle with Lasher and subsequent heart attack, stifling the desire to tear out into the world and track his wife down. We also get personal with Mona Mayfair, a child in the family, whose powers rival Rowan's. Mona seems to be an unexpected side-effect to so much inbreeding in the family, a witch that popped up under Lasher's nose while he was cultivating Rowan. I like Mona because she's smart and because she takes the time to learn. She's a child who doesn't rely on any adult to take care of her. She's in charge of her own destiny.

So, all of this is going on and it feels like enough, but then comes backstory. True, we needed to have some holes filled in about Lasher's history and origins, but all of this comes out during two very long flashbacks, full of unnecessary detail. I assume Rice was trying to fill out the character of Lasher from his beginning, but it's almost too much. It dilutes the action going on in the present. It's great to eventually understand the origins of Lasher and the mythology around what type of being he actually is, a Taltos, but the overwhelming volume of detail detracts from the urgency we're faced with as Lasher tries to breed.

Eventually, Lasher tells his own story, going way back to his beginning, what turns out to be his first time as a human. It's a long and pious story that really does nothing to change your mind about what you think of the character. You still hate him. You still realize he's unemotionally evolved and dangerous, and you still want him to die. He could have just explained the history of the Taltos in one paragraph rather than going on for page after page.

I also found the ending a bit abrupt and not totally in line with the tone of the rest of the book. It made me not so excited to move on to the third book (but I will eventually.)

This was the first, adult, supernatural series I read, so I have my loyalties to it, but it's definitely not blowing me away like I remember it doing over 15 years ago.