Monday, October 31, 2011

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion — 256 pgs

R is a zombie living in an abandoned airport with his hive of hundreds of others like him. Though he’s much like the others who hunt and eat the living and who stand around looking slack-jawed and moaning most of the time, there’s something a little different about R. Ostensibly, he would be considered one of the undead by an outsider, but R is extraordinarily perceptive for a zombie. When he and a few other zombies stumble onto a human hideout and begin to feed, something strange happens. This hideout is filled with resistance fighters, and when R first kills and then eats the brain of a young man named Perry, he begins to subtly change even further. It turns out that Perry was in love with a girl named Julie, and from the moment R’s lips touch Perry’s brain, he discovers that he is also strangely drawn to the girl, whom he saves from the massacre and takes back to his hive under the cover of darkness. As R changes further and his emotions begin to be emboldened and heightened by Perry’s stolen essence, he starts to take great risks for Julie and she for him. This means they will both escape  from the hive and infiltrate the stadium-like city that the living have taken up residence in, moving from one dangerous situation to another. But can a zombie truly find love? And just what is this change that’s taking hold of R? Does it mean there’s an end to the virus that turns men into monsters? These questions and more will be colorfully and excitingly answered by Isaac Marion in Warm Bodies — a book that’s not only an edge-of-your-seat necrotic thriller, but a strange and incongruous love story as well.

Zombies seem to be the hot thing in literature these days, and though I haven’t been bitten by the vampire bug, I do enjoy stories about werewolves and fairies, so I thought the next logical step would be to try my hand at reading a zombie book. I chose this one because I was intensely curious about its premise and because it seemed Halloween would be the perfect time to read it. It wasn’t really a scary book per se, but there were some stomach-turning descriptions that might make a sensitive reader uncomfortable. I had a lot of fun with this book and speculated on how it would turn out the whole way through. It’s funny to be saying this, but this book, though it dealt with the undead, was very human and in some ways very touching.

When we first meet R, he’s only subtly aware that he’s slightly different than the other zombies he cohabitates with. There’s an underpinning of humanity still left in R and he questions the things about himself and the others that he can’t understand. Life is pretty grim for the zombies. They can’t really think, read or communicate, and one of the things I loved about this book was the way Marion could create deft and nuanced conversations between creatures who couldn’t speak more than four short words at a time. There was a curiosity in R that made him question himself and that enabled him to see the differences between him and the others, but it wasn’t until he consumed Perry that his spark seemed to genuinely ignite into some sort of cohesive awareness.

When R eats Perry, he basically seems to ingest the boy’s soul. That soul is not willing to give up and become food, but worms its way into the consciousness of his attacker and morphs him into something different. I got the impression that Perry had a mission and that he wouldn’t let death circumvent him from completing it. In an instant, R becomes aware of Julie and an overwhelming desire to protect her forms within him. Julie, of course, takes some time to warm up to R, and there are some touching scenes of two very different types of creatures trying to bridge the distance between them. It’s a huge feat for an author to make a zombie lovable and empathetic, because, let’s face it, he’s stinky, gory and undead, but Marion manages to make his readers care for R and Julie and their budding relationship. As they both begin to understand their predicament and try to bridge the gap between dead and undead, there are numerous moments of clarity interspersed with moments of danger.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, for Julie is one of only a few thousand survivors who’ve been trained to kill a zombie on sight, and when she decides to take him to her encampment, neither zombies nor humans are happy. But R and Julie know that something is changing, and amidst the danger and prejudice, they need to let both sides know. Soon they are being pursued by three separate groups: the zombies who are in the midst of changing like themselves, the humans, and the overseers of the undead; and each group has a different agenda. Meanwhile, R’s consciousness is blooming to life and he’s beginning to assimilate even further. What Marion does with this story and with its characters is amazing, for he crafts the kind of tale that keeps his reader marvelling at the strange similarities between two very different tribes of creatures and imbues even his mentally and physically challenged characters with a strange effervescence. There’s danger lurking around every corner, and R and Julie must dismantle it all and give these changing races a second chance.

Though this wasn’t exactly the story I had been expecting in my first foray into zombie literature, it did keep me entertained and invested. I grew strangely enamored of R, despite his obvious limitations and my initial off-putting reaction to him. The book wasn’t overly graphic but there were some scenes that could sour a stomach to a degree. I would have to say this was a pretty good read for me and it left me with feelings that I hadn’t been anticipating when it was all said and done. A very solid and strangely endearing debut. Perfect for this time of year.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bossypants by Tina Fey — 288 pgs

In this jovial and unabashed new memoir from Saturday Night Live alum Tina Fey, the actress and writer shares a host of hilarious stories about her family, her early life and friendships, and her eventual rise to fame in the television industry. Tina tells her history with a wry and self deprecating verve that makes every revelation seem as if she is herself performing the acts of her life to a eager and playful audience. Whether she’s sharing her memories of her zany experiences at theater camp or giving us the lowdown on her farcical beauty regimen, Tina’s wry and unaffected delivery will have even those readers who are comically challenged wiping away tears of laughter. This isn’t your standard memoir that shares the linear progression of a life; rather it’s a collection of witty and punchy anecdotes of a woman who is unrepentantly amusing and down to earth.

This was a book I chose to experience on audio, as I had heard that Fey narrated the audio version herself, and I have to conclude that I made the right choice. One of the things I most loved about the book was that Fey’s delivery was spot on throughout. She never devolved into yelling or using over the top voices, which is something I really appreciated. She told her story with a matter of fact tone that was not only winning but made the story easy to relate to, despite the worlds of difference between my life and hers. I liked her style a lot, and think that if you choose to read this book, the audio is definitely the way to go. Fey is wise and witty and chats with her readers in a very convivial and conversational way, making these stories seem like they’re being shared by a close girlfriend instead of a major television star.

So, was it funny? Oh my gosh, yes! A lot of the time I was listening to this book, I had a big dumb goofy grin on my face, or was giggling. I took this audiobook to the store with me while I went about my grocery shopping business and I got the weirdest looks from people because I was bobbing my head along with glee at Tina’s remembrances and truisms. I found her stories to be wacky and strange, but they never came near that invisible line that crosses into contrivance. There were so many things to enjoy with this book, but one of my favorite chapters had to do with the strange coolness of her father, Don Fey. I also liked the bits about her stint at theater camp and her first job experience working at the front desk of the Y. The section on her honeymoon experiences on a cruise almost made me wet my pants. It was all funny and told with a simplicity and straightforwardness that highlighted just how naturally funny Tina Fey really is. I had worried a bit that the book would get tiresome and be somewhat over-the-top, but it all played out just perfectly.

Though the book didn’t really tell the story of Tina’s life in the way most would expect, it did relate anecdotes her childhood, teenage years and adulthood, and it did so with the unmistakable zest of a woman who isn’t afraid to laugh at herself and the people around her. Fey was never cruel though, and I appreciated that. Many of the people she chooses to highlight in her stories were people who had some kind of substantial impact on her life. There’s even a brief skit that comes directly from Saturday Night Live that showcases Tina playing the ubiquitous role of Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler playing Hillary Clinton. It was utterly hilarious.

If you’re the type of reader who shies away from audiobooks, I would recommend you take a chance on this one. It’s very easy to listen to and laugh along with, and it’s broken up into small parts that are very easy to digest when you only have a few minutes to spare for listening. It’s also funny as all get out and had me in stitches and wanting to share quotes with
everyone I encountered. I loved this book, and would have to heartily recommend it to those readers who love well timed comedy, or for those who are interested, even tangentially, in Fey’s life.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey — 480 pgs

Ten year old Marie Antoinette is just a girl living amongst her many brothers and sisters in the Austrian court when her severe and rigid mother informs her that she will soon be wed to the Dauphin of France. This Marie is not happy about, and as she is little more than a child, she comes to regard this future match with much dread. But when the French ambassador sees Marie for the first time, it’s clear that she is unacceptable for many reasons, and her mother, fearful of losing Marie as a bargaining chip for Austria, begins a campaign to educate and beatify the young girl. Many torturous treatments are embarked upon and soon Marie’s head is being stuffed with knowledge and a new language as well. When she finally embarks on her journey to France as the Dauphine, future queen of France, she is scared and confused. Things do not improve when she meets her husband the Dauphin, as he is taciturn and seems almost oblivious to her presence, which shames and confuses her. But it’s the French court that really does a number on Marie, for its vulgarity and backbiting begin to threaten French/ Austrian relations almost immediately and Marie’s naive alliance with some of the courts rabble-rousing relations begin to undo all the things she has worked so hard to attain. As Marie’s loyalties and sympathies are tested and flaunted, she becomes an unwitting pawn in a very dangerous game of international intrigue and drama. But it’s her relationship with the Dauphin that is a constant prickle in her heart, for although he’s beginning to regard her with kindness, certain obstacles cannot seem to be overcome. It’s with an undeterrable sense of spirit and willingness that Marie Antoinette begins to undertake a plan that she hopes will one day bear fruit, and as she navigates the succinctly dangerous French court,  the shining jewel that will one day become the Queen of France begins to develop and polish her lustre. Both enveloping and provocative, this is the first thrilling book in a trilogy dealing with the remarkable life of Marie Antoinette.

As this is the first book of a trilogy, it dealt with the early years of Marie Antoinette’s life, from the time she was first contracted to marry the Dauphin of France at 10 to her eventual rise to the throne as Queen of France at 15. But this wasn’t a YA book. For the most part, this was a book about a humble girl of great origins who had to scrabble her way into the role that awaited her whether she wanted it or not. The young Marie was easy to sympathize with for the most part. Though she was young and had some flightiness about her, it was angering to see her being forced into more and more elaborate beauty treatments and rituals in order to satisfy the French ambassador. This included being fitted for what can only be described as medieval braces, and the descriptions of these scenes had me wincing in discomfort as Marie’s teeth were barbarically realigned by a master dentist. The sad part about all this is that Marie was constantly made to feel inferior and ashamed of herself in her natural state; a situation that reminded me of the way society treats the young women of today, constantly telling them that they are not quite good enough to deserve attention and reverence. Not only were her looks criticized, but her mind as well, and it was her mother’s stern admonishments and iron fist in the matter of Marie’s future that made her not only unapproachable, but sometimes cruel as well.

The second and more pressing concern for Marie came when she entered France as the Dauphine. All the rigorous preparation she had endured seemed to count for nothing, as she became aware that the court of France and the court of Austria were entirely different animals. Though Marie wanted to form an attachment to her new husband, the Dauphin, only a few years older than her, seemed impervious to her charms and the lack of marital harmony between them sparked rumor and speculation among the gossipy French court. Another problem Marie faced was her inability to tell when she was being manipulated to someone else's advantage. This rapidly brought problems for her and marred her already tenuous standing at court. For Marie, life was all about balancing her newfound relationship with her husband and her people with the good opinion of the reigning King Louis. In these sections, Marie’s good nature seemed to abandon her and she became somewhat smug and intractable, which of course brought reprobation down on her head. Part of the problem was that the French and their court were so much more manipulative than the court of her home, and all too soon, Marie found herself caught up in these plights as well.

What Grey manages to capture in this book is not only the coming of age story of Marie Antoinette, but the heightened drama that took place surrounding her eventual marriage to the Dauphin and the delicacy that was required for her to get herself beyond the traps that others had set for her. It was a delicious story that I ended up devouring in one sitting, not only because it was filled with the fascinating minutiae of court life, but also because Grey’s version of Marie Antoinette was one that I could immediately sympathize with and become concerned for. It was the type of historical fiction I hunger for, where people and places come alive, and where the past seems just as immediate as the life that you or I live today. Grey’s style and language drew me in from the first moment and carried me away to a place I wasn’t familiar with but that I felt at home in from first blush. I had wished the book was longer so that I could have found out the answer to some of the more puzzling aspects of Marie’s future, but I guess I’ll have to be patient in waiting on the next installment.

If you’re the kind of reader that prefers their historical fiction to be well rounded and character driven, this is definitely the book for you. There’s enough intrigue and court scandal to envelop even the most picky reader of this genre, and this version of Marie Antoinette is one that delights and sometimes confounds. I loved this book, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Marie will go next in her rise to the throne of France. I’m also looking forward to seeing the strange progression that she will face with her new husband, the Dauphin of France. A very entertaining and rich read, filled to the brim with historical detail. Recommended to readers of historical fiction of all stripes.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington 320 pgs

Alice Bliss is a fifteen year old girl whose entire world is changing. Alice is very close to he father, Matt, and has just discovered he’s going to be shipping out to Iraq, much to the dismay of his wife and children. As Matt tries valiantly to prepare his family for the difficulties ahead, Alice vacillates between feeling confused, angry and proud of her father in various measure. Most of Alice’s frustrations seem to be directed at her mother, whom she feels a great amount of resentment towards. When Matt finally ships out, it’s all Alice can do to hold the small family together as her mother slowly falls apart. With the help of her best friend Henry and a small group of family and friends, Alice and her sister, Ellie, must learn to reorder their days and their priorities as Matt’s absence stretches on. Soon they must rely on the strength and kindness of the community around them not only for support during the difficult days ahead, but most importantly when they receive unexpected news from the front. In this emotionally resonant and powerful coming of age story, the difficult tale of one family being shepherded and held together by an unusually headstrong and resilient young girl is shared in all its glory and heartbreak.

When I first read about this book over on Dawn’s website, I was immediately intrigued. Normally, I really love a well constructed coming of age tale, but the fact that this book was so timely and topical made me even more eager to explore it. When I was contacted to review the book, I learned of the Where’s Alice Bliss? project, which is an attempt to get the book into the hands of as many people as possible with the help of After having read and thoroughly enjoyed my copy of Alice Bliss, I am now in the process of registering my book and releasing it into the wild for another reader to enjoy and pass along.

This was an extremely powerful book, and through the use of flashbacks, direct and powerful writing, and a strong emotional core story, the story of Alice and her family is shared in a way that was not only affecting, but ultimately sobering and full of intensity. Alice was a lovely character who was not only recognizably a teenager in her attitude and angst, but who was also remarkably well rounded and loyal to the father whom she so loved. As Alice repeatedly reflects on the lessons that her father has taught her, she goes to great lengths to accomplish the tasks that would normally be his to complete. The sections that detailed Alice’s impatience to create the winter garden in just the way her father had taught her were filled with the inexpressible reverence that Alice has for her father. By trying to emulate his work ethic and tasks, Alice was paying her father the utmost honor and compliment in a time when she was brokenhearted over his absence.

Alice’s relationship with her mother was much more complex. I think to some degree every teenage girl has issues with her mother at times, but in this story, Harrington allows her readers to see that Alice’s grievances towards her mother were at least in some measure deserved. It was interesting to read this book and realize that I sympathized with the young female teenage protagonist rather than the parental figure, and can only conclude that Harrington did such a marvelous job in creating Alice in such a realistic vein that I felt her anger and confusion as my own. I can’t say I really liked Alice’s mother all that much, as I felt she could be too self-focused and selfish at times. I cannot presume to understand what life might be like for a woman whose husband is serving overseas, but to me, Alice’s mother came off as somewhat devoid of empathy for her two daughters who were obviously struggling.

The extended cast of characters were very well executed as well, and I found that Harrington created a full compliment of realistic and human characters with whom to surround her starring family. I particularly liked Alice’s uncle Eddie and the way he took the family under his wing as a male caregiver when Matt’s absence began to be truly felt. It was also surprising that Harrington decided not to shy away from a very emotional and heartrending plot line when push came to shove. This wasn’t an easy story to read at times, and there were moments when I was reduced to tears in contemplating the lives of the Bliss family.

While this was a more serious book that I had initially expected, I think it’s definitely an important and relevant read for today’s time. While there was a tremendous amount of emotional growth in the titular character of Alice, the book also examined the way war can change the landscape of a family and a community. A highly intelligent and emotionally moving read, and one that I would highly recommend.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


I know this post is coming a little late in the game, but since I just formally decided yesterday to join all the festivities, I guess it’s not surprising that this post is a little delayed as well! So, I have joined, and have been reading since the early morning. I will not be posting updates as I don’t want to clutter up your readers, but I am ambitious and I'm hoping to read quite a few things. I've picked some longer books to start with and will be interspersing them with some graphic novels, I think. Right now, I'm in the middle of Becoming Marie Antoinette and should be starting on Daughter of Smoke and Bone later this afternoon or early evening. As for the graphic novels, I'm not exactly sure what I'll be reading yet. I wanted to wish all the other participants a wonderful Readathon and let you all know that I will resume commenting in my regular fashion on Sunday. Good luck all you readers out there!

Friday, October 21, 2011


I’m a little late in announcing the winners for some of my giveaways, but better late than never, right? So without further ado, I would like to congratulate my winners!

The winner of a copy of Love at Absolute Zero is Margaret!

I have 4 winners of a paperback copy of She Makes It Look Easy and they are:
Jill at Rhapsody in Books Weblog!
Carrie at Nomadreader!
Anita at A woman, a wife, a mom!
In addition, Jill at Rhapsody in Books Weblog also won the grand prize of a $10.00 Starbucks gift card!

The two winners of Wildflower Hill are:
Audra at Unabridged Chick!

Congratulations to all of these winners, and a huge thanks to everyone who entered my giveaways. If you weren’t a winner this time around, stay tuned, as there are more great giveaways to come!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Eilis Lacey is a young woman living in 1950’s Ireland, and though she’s happy living at home with her mother and older sister, the opportunities for advancement in her small town are very scarce. When Eilis’ older sister wrangles passage for her to America, Eilis is at first unsure and frightened, but later begins to anticipate a great adventure to be played out overseas. But the new life Eilis steps into is very different than the one she thought she would have, and between her scrabbling between a job working behind the counter of a department store and her night classes in accounting, Eilis is not sure she made the right choice. Along the way, Eilis garners a few new friends, like Father Flood, the priest who sponsored her trip to America and who also hosts a weekly dance for the Irish youth of the city; and a handsome young man named Tony who will make Eilis question whether her place is in America with him or back with her family in Ireland. In this quiet and subtle tale of an immigrant’s foray from the home of her birth to the bustling and busy streets of New York, Toibin shares the triumphs and heartbreaks of Eilis Lacey, a girl from across the ocean who wishes to someday have it all.

This was a very quiet book. From the first descriptions of Eilis’ life in Ireland and her winnowing prospects, there was a subtlety and gentleness to the writing that was at first alien to me. I’m sort of used to immigrant stories being full of emotion and bustle, and this one was a distinctly quieter affair. Part of this may have had something to do with the fact that I listened to the audio version of this title, and narrator Kristen Potter’s voice and vocal inflections were very smooth and subdued. I really think the mixture of the vocal talent and the stylistic features of the book is what made it feel like a very calm read.

Eilis is the kind of character that’s immediately easy to relate to. She’s kind and solicitous of her family, especially of her mother and sister whom she lives with. Though she has an internal drive to become independent, there’s an element of dependency in her that is fostered by her living arrangements and her inability to secure a good career for herself. During the beginning of the book, I was very intrigued by the portrayal of small town Ireland and the way the community seemed so clannish at times. Though Eilis finds work in the general store, her employer is a woman who doesn’t respect her and treats her rather shabbily. Because of her lack of skill, this seems to be the best that she can do, and her prospects are very limited if she chooses to remain in Ireland with her family. It was clear to me that changes needed to be made if Eilis was ever to find her way in the world, and I rejoiced when her sister arranged for Eilis to live, work and study in New York. As she prepares to leave home, Eilis is excited but reluctant to leave her world behind, and her mixed emotions surrounding her new adventure really rang true to me.

Her adventure begins the moment Eilis boards the ship that will take her to America, and all of her changing circumstances are met with a wide-eyed wonder and a willing spirit. She makes some very different kinds of acquaintances on the boat and finds herself marveling over the different values and lives that the other passengers lead. When she arrives in New York, Eilis becomes a border at Mrs. Kelly’s house, where there are a number of other girls who are working in New York and trying to start new and independent lives. A few of these girls were rather catty and mean, and Eilis struggled to separate herself from their grasping and gossiping ways while also ingratiating herself with them so she didn’t have to be without allies. Though there was a lot going on at the boardinghouse, Eilis had to work hard to rise above, especially when she became a favorite of her landlady, a relationship the other borders begrudged her for. As Eilis begins to work at the department store and take night classes, she discovers that there’s still a tense push and pull to life that she can’t escape, no matter where she resides.

The central conflict in this novel, I felt, was the relationship between Eilis and Tony, a young Italian-American man who tries desperately to sweep the level-headed girl off of her feet. Tony has grand plans for his relationship with Eilis, and though I never got the feeling he was taking advantage of her, he could be emotionally pushy in a way that held a curious mix of solicitousness. Through their entire relationship, Eilis struggles with her feelings for Tony and wonders if she’s making the right choice by tying herself to him. Toibin writes about this conflict in Eilis’ heart with frankness and immediacy that I not only appreciated, but admired. Eilis comes alive in the pondering of her heart and soul, and comes to see her relationship with Tony as something she’s slightly unsure of, regardless of his love for her. I wasn’t happy with her eventual show-stopping decision though, and felt that the ending was a bit forced and that Toibin went in an unnatural direction in his conclusion.

I had a very nice experience listening to this book but the ending somewhat diminished my satisfaction of the whole. While there weren’t a great amount of plot elements winding their way through the narrative, what was there was cohesive and believable. I would be curious about perhaps one day experiencing this book in print, as I’m interested in whether or not I would still consider it a quiet book if seen in a different shade of media. Those readers who love immigrant tales and coming of age tales would do well to grab this book, but when you reach the conclusion, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna M. Johnson — 278 pgs

In this candid and revealing memoir, a young woman reflects upon a life spent in the shadow of a traveling evangelical ministry. Donna Johnson can’t remember a time in her childhood when she wasn’t involved with Brother David Terrell and his ministry. When her mother, Carolyn, sold all she owned and packed up herself and her two children to join the “sawdust circuit,” Donna was merely two years old. Amidst the huge tent filled with wooden chairs, she witnessed believers flock to the preaching and healing of Brother Terrell, a man of God with feet of clay. As Donna begins to grow and understand what living among a group of traveling evangelicals is all about, she witnesses powerful healings at the hands of Brother Terrell and sees the massive amounts of cash that is being funneled into his organization.

Life for Donna is far from easy, as her mother’s relationship with the already married Brother Terrell is not at all simple. Her desire to traverse the circuit with him forces her to put her children in the care of other believers who are sometimes abusive and cruel to Donna and her younger brother. When the legend of Brother Terrell’s healing and sanctity begin to grow, so does his ministry, but this only increases Donna’s anxieties as her mother finds new and ever crueler people with whom to leave her children and becomes dangerously embroiled in an illicit relationship with the preacher. As the years pass, things become ever more complicated until everything about the ministry begins to implode. This is the life story of a young girl who was completely immersed in the life and lifestyle of a group of traveling evangelists, and her struggle for acceptance and belief in a God who she never felt she fully understood.

This book was very revelatory for me. I’m a big lover of memoirs, and the more unusual they are, the more enjoyment I got out of them. I went into this one with a lot of curiosity and questions, and was ultimately rewarded handsomely. I’ve been somewhat familiar with evangelical preachers throughout my life, and although theirs are not beliefs that I espouse, I know quite a few people who get very caught up in this type of ministry. I think what it all boils down to is the very charismatic way these men of God end up subtly manipulating the people who follow them. Despite the fact that some are truly gifted with the power to heal, often it’s their own human foibles that destroy what they are trying so ferociously to build. Such was the case with Brother Terrell and his ministry. While many would argue that he was a righteous man of God, the facts about his life tell a very different and sordid story.

Most of this book made me angry and astonished. As Donna tells of being repeatedly left in the care of nefarious church followers and embroiled in a world of overwhelmingly dogmatic religion interspersed with flagrant adultery, I became increasingly jaded and distrustful, both of Donna’s mother Carolyn and especially of Brother Terrell. According to Donna, who is a reluctant believer to this day, Brother Terrell did indeed have the capacity to perform miraculous healings. I met this revelation with a lot of skepticism and incredulity. How could a man who was living such a shameful secret life be the possessor of such an incredible gift from God? Why were the children of these people so neglected and foisted onto people who didn’t take care of them? I was astonished to discover the magnitude of the deceptions that were being perpetrated and horrified to learn that many of Brother Terrell’s followers were sacrificing their last financial resources so that the man they called “the prophet” could buy multiple properties and travel about in a personal airplane. It all made me indignant.

Because of the way Donna was raised, there existed in her an understandable confusion about the Lord. She lived her whole life in a state of fear and dread, which I must say is a very different experience than I had living in a faithful home. There was a sharp dichotomy between what Brother Terrell preached and the things he did, and Donna saw it all. All his fasting and healing didn’t erase the fact that he was stealing money from those who needed it most and conducting many adulterous affairs that produced several offspring. In addition, I found it reprehensible that the children of these unions were hidden and made to feel like shameful secrets. But it was Donna and her brother’s plight that really twisted my heart, as they were shuffled from home to home, forced to live among people who were abusive and dishonest. It seemed to me a chaotic existence, and for all the good that those children saw under the tent, there was a great deal of tumult that followed them everywhere they went.

When all is said and done, it’s true that everything done in the dark will eventually come to light, and such a fate wasn’t eluded by Brother Terrell. I found this somewhat satisfying, but only to a certain degree, for by the time that he finally got his comeuppance, many lives had been altered and painstakingly rearranged forever. In Donna’s emergence into adulthood, there was a lot of shame and apprehension about sharing her past with the people she came into contact with. It was clear that Brother Terrell’s deceptions had farther reaching consequences than anyone could imagine. For Donna’s mother, Brother Terrell’s final betrayal stung bitterly, and when I reached the section that dealt with this, I was filled with ill will towards the man who had bilked his followers and ramshackle family out of safe and well constructed lives. It was with growing anger that I realized that even though Brother Terrell was made to pay for his sins, that hadn’t stopped him from trying to rebuild the ministry that his lies had torn apart, and the book closed on a scene that had me marveling with disbelief.

While this book evinced some strongly negative emotions in me, it was the kind of tale you can’t help but follow eagerly to its startling conclusion. It was written in a way that evoked feelings of not only total belief, but ultimate doubt. Those looking for a memoir that stands above the crowd should definitely look here. It’s a story you won’t soon forget about a very magnetic man and the way that magnetism changed so many lives, both in positive and negative ways. A very interesting reading experience. Recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Donna M. Johnson has written about religion for The Dallas Morning News and other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, the poet and author Kirk Wilson.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, October 4th:Joyfully Retired
Wednesday, October 5th:Melody & Words
Thursday, October 6th:Bermuda Onion
Monday, October 10th:Chaotic Compendiums
Thursday, October 13th:In the Next Room
Friday, October 14th:Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Monday, October 17th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, October 18th:Amused by Books
Wednesday, October 19th:Book Addiction
Thursday, October 20th:Books Like Breathing
Monday, October 24th:BookNAround
Tuesday, October 25th:Life in Review
Wednesday, October 26th:Sara’s Organized Chaos
Thursday, October 27th:Broken Teepee
Date TBD:A Fair Substitute for Heaven
Date TBD:Colloquium

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad — 256 pgs

In this loosely constructed and emotionally unwavering novel, the reader is transported across the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan where the nomadic tribes of these regions live a life of brutal and uncompromising sacrifice. The story begins with the death of a couple who are travelling with a very young child. The couple, who have been attempting to flee desert justice for their ill-advised relationship, leave behind a young boy who is assimilated into a nearby tribe. As circumstances begin to revolve around the boy and his untethered companions, he soon finds himself in the company of another set of companions, and then another, ultimately becoming a solitary wanderer who finds himself in the strange position of being a member of all the tribes, but realistically, a member of none.

As Ahmad tells the stories of these desert nomads and their dying way of life, he shares the humble sacrifices and hardships of the people who make their home among the temporary camps they build in the unforgiving desert wastelands. As the wandering falcon travels the miles, he discovers that his identity and fate are inextricably tied to the tribes and learns that the nomadic way of life is nearing extinction. Both verbally sparse and atmospherically lush, The Wandering Falcon is the story of a boy turned man in the throes of an unimaginable migration that will involve both his body and his soul.

This was a book I feared I would have trouble reviewing, for while I was caught up in the story, it was harder to put my finger on the threads that held the story together once I put the book down to think on it. Though the book is described as a novel, there was a fluid style to it that made me regard it as more of a group of short stories that each featured a brief appearance of the wandering falcon. I grew more relaxed about the story when I started to think of it in this way and was better able to fully invest in it and enjoy it. Though the subject is ostensibly the titular character of the wandering falcon, this book was more of a homage to a dying and alien way of life.

A lot of the story revolved around the intricate ways of life that embody different groups of nomadic desert tribes. Due to recent changes in their countries’ laws, these nomads are finding that their movements are being increasingly restricted, particularly across national borders they have long crossed freely. These restrictions cause the tribe members to become increasingly angry and disillusioned. The groups become more and more secretive when it comes to their migration habits and patterns, and at times, this puts them at serious and deadly risk. As the wandering falcon moves from group to group, he begins to embody all that is ephemeral and free about these people and their way of life.

In small bits and pieces a more developed and nuanced picture of what life if like for these tribes begins to be revealed with cautious care and great skill. Here are fierce loyalties and decades-old feuds, survival amongst the elements and terrible retributions. As a reader who views things from a Western world perspective, the plight of these characters often seemed hostile and strange to me, even unjust at times. The casual cruelty of a man who is stoned to death seemed unremittingly foreign to me, as did the prospect of women being sold to brothels or other servitude. But even though I didn’t understand the ways of this world, I did come to see that these practices were centuries old and had become so ingrained in these societies that, after awhile, my indignation was replaced by a insatiable curiosity that had me hastening through the pages to see what would come next.

This book was very intriguing in that it shined a brilliant spotlight on a culture that even now is becoming further and further relegated to the past. It wasn’t a happy or uplifting book, that’s for sure, but where the book excels is in its exploration and understanding of the lives that hinge on concepts that are foreign to most of the world. It was a rather short book, but in its impact, it had a tremendous payoff. A very thought-provoking read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck — 112 pgs

Lenny and George are “bindlestiffs” – itinerant ranch hands who travel the countryside making their meager way traveling from ranch to ranch performing physical labor. Lenny and George are different than most of the other laborers, for they tend to travel together and have formed a bond that’s seen as strange to other itinerant workers. Though George sometimes wishes he could be on his own, he feels somewhat responsible for Lenny; a man who suffers from mental and emotional difficulties and who doesn’t know the power of his own body. When George and Lenny abscond from a farm after Lenny has once again acted in an inappropriate manner, they find refuge at a ranch near Soledad. George and Lenny dream of one day owning their own land and being free, a dream they protect from others. Before these dreams can ever be realized, Lenny’s untoward actions put the two of them in danger again, and though George wants to one day be free, it’s his tie to Lenny that may prevent that from ever happening. Soon George must decide how to respond to the crisis that Lenny has once again unwittingly caused, but this time the magnitude of what he’s done might be impossible to erase. In this classic novel of friendship, loyalty and betrayal, two men who have nothing but each other must dance to the tune of violence and misunderstanding that only one of them has created while trying not to lose the very substance that holds them and their impossible friendship together.

While traveling home from SIBA in Charleston, Sandy and I decided to listen to the audio version of Of Mice and Men. I had never been exposed to the story before, other than perhaps seeing a skit about it on Saturday Night Live many years ago. Sandy had read it in high school but was fuzzy on the details, so it was a good choice for the trip home. We had both previously read East of Eden and loved it, so I had been hoping for something deeply awash in emotion and complexity when we started this book. Our audio narrator was Mark Hammer, and I have to say he did a fantastic job. His vocal inflections and the voices he created, especially in his portrayal of Lenny, were very skillfully done and lent the characters a whiff of life and believability that would have been completely missed had I read this in print.

Narrators and expectations aside, this was a tough book. Its length made Sandy and I think that it was more of a novella than a novel, but every utterance between George and Lenny was replete with pain, frustration and heartache. There were so many difficult emotions in this book that at times I groaned aloud at the emotional rawness that Steinbeck had captured. At times, characters would reveal themselves in a way that exposed their vulnerabilities and magnified their helplessness to such a degree that I became a little teary. There were so many characters that were grasping for acceptance and yearning for their worth and dreams to be realized that it was almost physically painful to hear all these encounters laid bare for the reader to see. There were some plot points that I could see coming from a mile away, and I’m not sure if that was because Steinbeck was just a master at foreshadowing or if it was because certain plot points have garnered so much attention over time that they were impossible not to have heard about.

George and Lenny had a very complex friendship. Because of Lenny’s limitations, George had to go beyond the bounds of friendship and become a pseudo parent to him, and this, more than anything, frustrated and angered George to a great degree. Sandy and I both felt that George wasn’t very nice to Lenny at times, and when he admitted to playing some cruel jokes on him in times past, I grew to dislike him. George was not a sensitive and understanding man, and often Lenny bore the brunt of his anger in a very real way. We both felt that George’s friendship with Lenny was not as altruistic as it first appeared, and questioned George’s motivations for binding himself so closely to Lenny. Was George in it for the right reasons, or was this a case of the strong subjugating the weak? After puzzling it over for awhile, I think it was possibly a mix of both.

Lenny, on the other hand, was innocent and naive, and his brute strength got him into all kinds of impossible situations. It made my heart haggard to realize that in almost every way, Lenny was a marginalized and ill-treated man who had no idea what he was capable of. I would have to describe his mental state as “simple,” though it was never discussed in detail. There were times that I pondered Lenny’s capacity for unwitting violence and I wondered aloud where in the world he might find a place where he would be safe and where others would be safe from him. I can’t say I found all this speculation to be enjoyable though, and most of the time I was very uncomfortable listening to this richly disturbing story. Steinbeck has a way of creating characters who seem to be living and breathing facsimiles of real life people, but in this book, the people who I was spending time with were damaged and damaging. Because of that, the book had a very dark and suffocating edge to it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What Alice Forgot by Laine Moriarty — 432 pgs

When Alice falls during her weekly spin class and gets a severe knock on the head, she wakes up to a different world. Alice believes it’s still 1989 and that she’s pregnant with her first child and deliriously in love with her husband. She believes that she and her sister Elisabeth share a close relationship, and her tragic friendship with a woman named Gina never existed. But in reality, it’s 2007 and Alice is the mother of three children who are by turns demanding and frustrating. Her relationship with her husband is a horrible train wreck in the midst of divorce, and for some reason, he can’t even speak to her civilly. Alice of the future has even drifted away from her sister, and seems to find her energies are best spent with her personal trainer and being the all-occasions social director for her children. She has the envy of all the other mothers and a clawing ferocity that drives her days. The only problem is that since Alice’s accident, she doesn’t remember any of this and she is puzzled as to why her life is so alien nowadays. As Alice reacquaints herself with her life and learns how much things have changed for both her and her family, she begins to question both her past and her present, and wonders whether it’s really worth it for her to regain her memory and lose all that she so loves about her past life. Funny, introspective and provocative, What Alice Forgot is a novel of the bliss and surrender of forgetting and pain and work of remembering.

There was a lot about this book to love, and in the way Moriarty presents her story, the narrative almost has the feel of a domestic and romantic mystery. From the minute Alice appears, she’s already lost in the past, her accident and its seriousness just revealed, her life of the present receding backwards. Of course, there’s much confusion surrounding this life that Alice doesn’t remember, and it’s in her naivety and cluelessness that the reader is able to sympathize and commiserate with the much less complicated and even keeled post-accident Alice. I was along for the ride with her, and was just as surprised as she was to find her husband treating her savagely and her kids a rag-tag bunch of rugrats. In Alice’s wide-eyed wondering at a world that had so obviously changed, I found a character I could cheer on and puzzle with: a woman who while once at the center of her world, could now only orbit it confusingly.

As Alice adjusts to her new circumstances, it becomes clear that the Alice of the present was an altogether harder woman that the Alice of the past. Like a diamond, she’s brilliant, shiny and indestructible, but also cold, unforgiving, and at times very smitten with herself. Conversely, the Alice who wakes up after that bang on the head is not only confused, but a little less jaded and sure of herself. Groping for understanding, Alice finds that her friends of the past don’t know her anymore, her children are entities unto themselves, and her husband is not a fan of 2007 Alice. While I was reading this, I began to ask myself how I would feel had I woken up in Alice’s predicament. What would 1989 Heather think about the Heather that I’ve become? This book was ripe with the kind of speculation that imprints itself on the reader and it actively engaged me in playing the what-if game to an endless degree. It was not only a serious look at the ways in which people evolve into faint and homogenized versions of themselves, it was comically amusing in its portrayal of a woman who failed to recognize herself in any way that was concrete.

In a second and more heartrending plot string, Moriarty explores the difficulties and heartbreak of infertility. It seems that Alice’s sister Elisabeth has been having difficulties in this area, and it has completely warped her sensibilities and made her a woman whom Alice scarcely recognizes. As chapters rotate between telling Alice’s story, Elisabeth’s is also revealed, and it’s one of barely contained rage and cloistered disappointment that threatens to overwhelm her. I found that Moriarty really dug deep in these sections, exposing the painful fault lines of the repeated efforts and horrifying indignities of Elisabeth’s struggle through infertility. It’s a protracted and ugly battle that seems to be on an endless loop, eating away the flavor of Elisabeth’s days and her relationships with her family and friends. The pain of being childless in a world of mothers seems to puncture Elisabeth’s very soul, and it’s all Alice can do to witness what her sister’s life has become. As procedure after procedure fails, Elisabeth and her husband Ben are left with sticky hearts full of resentment and disillusionment that cannot be assuaged. A more compelling side story to this book could not be imagined.

Though I’ve attempted to encompass all the book had to offer, this review only scratches the surface of this imaginative, funny and compassionate story. This book was a wicked feat of imagination and I enjoyed every minute of it, whether they be funny outrageous moments, or sobering and reflective moments. This is the type of book that will make its reader stop and ask questions, which is something I’ve heard a lot of other reviewers say as well. It will engage your mind and your heart as you go careening along with Alice as she rediscovers herself and the life that’s now so alien to her. An emotionally engrossing read that was both clever and endearing. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fathermucker by Greg Olear — 320 pgs

Josh Lansky is a stay-at-home dad. The father of two very demanding children, Josh takes his responsibility as caregiver to his children very seriously. But he’s also a fledgling screenwriter who hasn’t found much success, and his relationship with his wife, Stacy, has bee trending toward cool these days. Josh’s duties are complicated by the fact that his young son, Roland, suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, and though he’s a winsome and lovable child, his demands and needs are unique. His other child, Maude, is an imperious three year old who seems to know just how to push everyone’s buttons. As Josh deals with his children’s foibles and crises while Stacy is away on a business trip, he has a lot of time to reflect on his situation as a stay-at-home dad, his relationship with the other mom’s in his children’s playgroups, and the insatiable gossip that comes with living in a socially progressive small town in New York. When Josh gets a dose of startling news about Stacy, he begins to discover that even though his life and day to day actions are prescribed, they are in no way guaranteed. As he navigates his way through the throng of thankless tasks that are de rigueur for a stay at home parent, Josh finds himself caught at the crossroads of a mental and emotional meltdown. In this novel, the reader gets to experience 24 hours in the life of Josh Lansky, a dad both sardonic and sly, whose take on life is truly one of a kind.

As Josh so eloquently mentions several times during this book’s narrative, this is not your typical Mr. Mom story. Josh is not only a competent and capable dad, but a very keen observer of the social strata that he is himself a part of. Though he’s sensitive and compassionate, there are times when enough is enough, and he lapses into some startlingly funny mini-rants over marriage, parenthood, pop-culture and life in general. Josh seems to have two warring sides to his personality: on one hand, he’s a nurturer, capable of giving his all to the children and wife who need him; but at the same time he feels like he’s trapped in a job that brings him no glory and is socially alienating. Olear does a great job of making Josh the kind of guy who is able to relate his grudges without being whiny, and even able to make a lot of his complaints humorously penetrating. As Josh navigates this rarefied world of caregiver daddies, he comes to realize that his is a job of small wars and hard won victories, compulsively aware of both his strengths and weaknesses.

One of the most interesting things about this book was the very realistic portrayal of life as a caregiver to an Asperger’s child. In brief bits of the narrative, Olear shares a bit about the history of the disease, juxtaposing it between the fictional development of Josh’s son. In Olear’s narrative, Roland is amazingly intelligent and focused, and has some very interesting and strange proclivities. But he can be violent and heedless at times, not able to gauge social clues that he so desperately needs to interact with others. Josh’s patience with Roland seems to be legendary, but there was a very real flavor of inscrutability and fear in Josh that had to do with Roland’s success in later life. As I was reading, I was wondering if Olear had himself ever been a caregiver to a child with Asperger’s, so genuine did his character’s thoughts and behaviors ring. It was also interesting to see how Josh dealt with Maude, both in relation to Roland and in her own tempestuous right.

I liked that Olear peppered his tale with so many pop culture references, and was surprised that I got all of them, for I am not much a follower of pop culture. As I was reading, I was wondering if because of the inclusion of so many of these references the book might not age well. Will these references mean much to readers even five years from now? I wondered if the material would seem dated as time went on. I also liked that this story was so candidly funny. When Olear relates a day in the life of his protagonist, he goes at it with both barrels, interchanging wit and sarcasm with deft humor at the turn of a dime. It was the kind of humor that begs you to laugh and groan alongside of it, for Josh seems to ever find himself in conundrums that are both realistically recognizable and strangely unusual. I admittedly felt a kinship to Josh, and felt that as a narrator he was a  combination of unforgettable and punchy in just the right measure. I also liked that this book secretly infiltrated what it was like to be in a mommy’s group: the gossip, camaraderie, and rivalries all playing out effortlessly in a homage to real life.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did, and most of my wonderment has to do with Olear’s flair for creating his protagonist that drew my interest right from the start. The witty dialogue and inventive situations were top notch, yes, but what really enraptured me in this tale was the humanness and believability of Josh Lansky, a father who was hanging on by his fingernails, but amazingly, keeping it all under control. If you’re a lover of great character driven novels, I urge you to give this one a try. It’s not only highly original, but inspired as well. Recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Greg Olear is the senior editor of the lit blog The Nervous Breakdown and the author of the novel Totally Killer. His work has appeared in The Rumpus,, The Millions, Chronogram, and Hudson Valley Magazine. A professor of creative writing at Manhattanville College, he lives with his family in New Paltz, New York.

Connect with Greg on Facebook and Twitter. Visit his blog and website.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, October 4th:The Scarlet Letter
Wednesday, October 5th:The Lost Entwife
Thursday, October 6th:Raging Bibliomania
Monday, October 10th:Like Fire
Tuesday, October 11th:The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
Wednesday, October 12th:Rundpinne
Thursday, October 13th:The House of the Seven Tails
Monday, October 17th:Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Tuesday, October 18th:Sara’s Organized Chaos
Wednesday, October 19th:Colloquium
Thursday, October 20th:Amusing Reviews

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

The Night Circus: A Q&A Session with Aarti

While I was reading The Night Circus a few weeks ago, I discovered that my great reading buddy Aarti was in the midst of perusing the book as well. I, of course, sent off an email asking her opinion on the book, and that began an impassioned series of emails, all discussing the various elements of this intriguing and unique book. For the first time, Aarti and I were having a very different opinion on a book we had chosen to read together, and our conversations about it were both interesting and very contrasting. Each time I read with her, I discover things I may have overlooked and find myself considering points that I may or may not have thought about before. Though we disagreed somewhat in our perceptions of this book, hearing her thoughts was invaluable to me. In Aarti’s dissenting opinion I found that I could see that some of the points she made were valid, and also that she’s a deft and decisive reader who sought to reconcile each bit of the story she was invested in reading. So, today Aarti and I have decided to post a bit of a question and answer session that revolves around The Night Circus. Our post has been divided, and you will find the second half over on Aarti’s site.

The summary: In this enchanting novel of surreal imaginings and epic proportions, a battle unlike any you have ever encountered is enacted in a venue of dreamlike splendor. When two very powerful magicians decide to play a game that pits two of their students against each other magically, the consequences are far reaching and unexpected. For Celia, the daughter of the world famous Prospero the Enchanter, the competition that she will one day be engaged in means nothing to her other then ceaseless practice and mystery. To Marco, a boy who is being trained by the mysterious man known only as Alexander, the realities of the completion mean one day testing his skill against one whose abilities could possibly surpass his own. When the two elder magicians decide to create a magical circus as a venue to house this strange and volatile competition, the circus develops a life of its own. And the life of this particular circus is one of strange magical wonder and enchantments so unusual that it defies the understanding of even those who are charged to keep its secrets. As Celia and Marco use their venue for more and more abstract displays of their magic, a life and society begins to bubble up. The circus has a way of enchanting and ensnaring even the most casual observers, pushing the limits of comprehension and belief into the realm of imagination and dream. But when unexpected events threaten to not only end the competition but tear the beloved circus apart, Celia and Marco must take drastic steps to protect what they’ve built, and strangely enough, to protect each other, though the rules of the competition forbid this. With utter beauty and dreamlike interpretation, Erin Morgenstern gives us the brilliance and beauty of The Night Circus, and shares a space where imagination and power flow freely into the darkness, creating a brilliant and beautiful light.

1) This book had several different elements, from the artistic and surreal, to a set of very intertwined characters to a very complex and thought provoking plot. Which of these elements was the strongest for you, and which was weakest?

Aarti: I think that the author’s sense of place and ability to completely visualize her setting were the strongest points in this book. The whole idea of the night circus is described in such vivid and exquisite detail, down to the clock, the concessions and the tents. I feel like Morgenstern has a tiny circus replica in her house somewhere that she just keeps adding to as she thinks of new magical ideas. The setting was very vivid, and I loved it.

I think the weakest part of this story was the characters, which is unfortunate for me because I really enjoy character-driven novels. But the two main characters were vaguely-written, in my opinion; we knew more about their magic tricks than about their personality. And I never understood how they were tied to the circus and why it was such a big deal to try and “escape” the circus for them, so I suppose in that way, I think the plot was not that strong, either. I am much more willing to forgive a weak plot if I love the characters, but I don’t generally like stories in which I feel the characters are flat. I never understood how Celia and Marco evolved from lonely and shy children into fairly manipulative and confident adults, and I really didn’t buy their love story at all.

Heather: The strongest elements for me had to be the artistic vision that rendered itself so fully in the story, and the wholly unique and magical plot creation that Morgenstern imbued the book with. When we were discussing the book, I used the adjective “intoxicating,” and weeks later, I still feel like that applies. It was mystical and magical and had its own life about it. It was a book that took me to a place I hadn’t been before, and I agree that the detail with which she created the circus was deft and amazing. There were so many instances when I just marveled at the imagination of it all, and there was a feeling of unpredictability in the eclectic touches that really elevated the book into what I felt was a seething mass of magic and darkness.

It wasn’t until we started discussing your reactions to the characters that I started to realize that I was in agreement with you about them. I did feel like they were perhaps the weakest element, because they almost seemed to be showpieces that weren’t fully developed at times. I speculated a great deal about them because there was a lack of dimension about them. But I liked that they were blank slates that I could write my own feelings upon. I spent a lot of time in my mind when reading this book, creating feelings that may or may not have been intended in the narrative, which was different for me. I didn’t feel like this ruined the book for me though, because I tended to overlook their development a bit. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about them in that way until we really started delving deeper into our discussion. I also didn’t question their attachment to each other like you did, and instead just sort of accepted it without question, mostly because I felt they had been fated to end up with each other, and like they were somehow fulfilling a destiny that the entire circus hinged upon. I was caught up in the imagination of it all when I was reading, and only later was I really able to pick each layer apart and analyze them separately.

2) Which character did you relate to best in the story? Perhaps not the character that you liked the most, but the one that resonated with you the most fully?

Aarti: I think the character that I felt the most empathy for was Chandresh. He came up with the whole idea of the Night Circus, brought together all the brilliant minds to make it happen, and then was completely left out in the cold.He also was in love with Marco, but never had that love returned. I just felt so much for him, this brilliant mind, outgoing personality and great friend to all who then lost his way because of the Circus, through no real fault of his own. It was taken out of his control and he was made to suffer for it, and really, it’s because of Chandresh that I could never warm to Marco at all- he just seemed like such a sinister character to me after seeing the way he treated Chandresh. It was just so sad, and I felt so horrible for what the man was made to go through.

Heather: I really liked the twins the best. I know that’s cheating, because that’s two characters, but I felt they really embodied a lot of the innocence of the circus, and their ability to befriend and learn from everyone they came into contact with felt very genuine and altruistic. I also liked that they had such a special relationship with each other. There was something about the way they cared for each other and nurtured each other that really made me look forward to seeing them on the page. There was a lot of darkness in this story, and though some of it was peripheral darkness, the twins brought light, and that made them the two characters that I felt the closest to.

As you can see, there was a little dissension when it came to how we felt about certain elements of the plot, but in some things we agreed. To check out more of our conversation, hop in over to Aarti’s blog and check it out!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman — 608 pgs

In this tense and gripping historical fiction novel, celebrated author Sharon Kay Penman explores the reign of King Richard, son of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard, called Lionheart by some, is known for his courage and bravery on the battlefield, and having taken the cross and pledging his armies to the Third Crusade, makes the difficult passage to Outremer to wage a holy war against Saladin, sultan of the Saracens. Though Richard’s intentions are good, he’s made an alliance with King Phillipe of France, a man known for his cunning and duplicity. Richard also brings with him his new bride Berengaria, a princess of Navarre, and his beloved sister Joanna, queen of Sicily. Though Richard is anxious begin his conquest, he is unable to reach the Holy lands without many struggles and battles, both with the lords loyal to France and with other more dastardly kings. It’s a monumental struggle for him to reach Saladin and the war he so longs engage in. After many delays, Richard finally arrives in Outremer and begins to plan the battles that will live on in infamy. While Richard and his men are busily fighting the Saracens, King Phillipe and the lords loyal to him are secretly doing everything in their power to make Richard’s quest to liberate Jerusalem a failure. After many pitched battles, illness and setbacks, Richard begins to see that his mortal enemy, Saladin, is a more honorable warrior than some of the men he’s allied himself with. As the war rages on, and battle after battle begin to take a toll on the king and his men, it seems this war may never be won by either side. Soon Richard must look for new solutions to the growing discontent of his soldiers, as well as coming to terms with his own stubborn pride. Rife with political and military intrigue, Penman re-imagines the life of one of the most heroic and mercurial kings of all time, and shares the story of the greatest and most costly adventure of his lifetime.

I admit to being very excited about getting the chance to read one of Penman’s historical fiction novels, for I’ve long heard her name bandied about when it comes to celebrated and loved authors of the genre. I knew very little of the ostentatious King Richard going into this book, but this wasn’t a problem because Penman does a fantastic job of presenting her version of Richard in all his glory, might and mischievousness. This was a type of historical fiction I’m less familiar with, for most of the book was centered on battles and politics instead of the personal intrigues of history which I’m more accustomed to. I found that I had to read this offering a bit more slowly than other historical fiction because I didn’t want to lose any of the significance of the battle scenes or the scenes in the political arena.

Initially, I didn’t like Richard very much. He seemed to be quite besotted with himself and very arrogant. While I did enjoy his jocular nature, I also thought he sometimes ruled a little inflexibly, and though he did seem to make a lot of concessions to the men who were allied against him, there were times when his resolve could be very thorny and his showmanship brash. As time wore on though, I began to understand Richard a little more fully, for he showed himself to be a very formidable warrior and he was greatly respected by his men. Even his enemies were reluctant to come head to head with him, and preferred to deal their blows in nefarious and secretive ways. At times, I did feel that Richard could be pompous, but he had an innate sense of chivalry and honor that I couldn’t refute, though I never changed my opinions about his mercurial nature. Richard was different than a lot of kings I’ve read about because he was first and foremost a warrior king, and earned the great respect of his subjects and lords for riding out to battle at the head of his men, instead of being barricaded behind castle walls giving orders.

One of the most interesting things about this book was the way Penman created such drama and intrigue on the page. The tense negotiations between Saladin and Richard, the very cowardly plots of the French king Phillipe, and the infuriating situations in Cyprus and Sicily were rich with significance and tension, and Penman had a way of exposing secrets and revealing critical information in a way that kept me breathless with anticipation and hungering for more. There were a few times I was sitting quietly on the couch reading and I would burst out with an exclamation that would draw attention from all over the room, so great was my surprise and investment in the book. Though I am by no means a great strategist or political enthusiast, Penman held me in the palm of her hand with the military side of this book as well. Everything was explained clearly and concisely, and I had no trouble ferreting out what some of these meeting and incursions meant to Richard and his men.

Though I though this book was an excellent and masterful work of historical fiction, I longed to see more of the plights of the women involved on the page. I was hungry for more information on Berengaria and Joanna and their companions, and though I did relish getting this very unguarded look at a mighty warrior king and his quest to reclaim the Holy Land, I would have loved to have seen more from the women’s perspectives. They were all highly developed characters, and each showed a great deal of strength and pluck while following Richard in his quest, but there were few scenes focused on them. Instead, I focused my attention on the ever intriguing Saladin and his strange but affable battle behavior. He was a villain that I was most curious about, for he was both bloodthirsty and bold, yet honorable and chivalrous as well. The cast of characters in this book were a varied lot, some insipid and weak, and others brave and wise, but all of them were fully imagined and very three-dimensional. I marveled at Penman’s ability to create so many characters with such depth, and felt that she wrought them all with a fine and delicate touch.

I enjoyed this book immensely and found great satisfaction in both the subtle nuances and the bold sorties that Penman so effortlessly created. Lovers of historical fiction will find many things to marvel over and contemplate in this book, and those new to Penman will discover that hers is a very capable hand in the creation and re-imagining of history. Penman is already working on the next book in this series, which is to be called A King’s Ransom, and if you know anything about me, you know I’m already looking forward to it. A decisive winner of the genre. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern — 400 pgs

In this enchanting novel of surreal imaginings and epic proportions, a battle unlike any you have ever encountered is enacted in a venue of dreamlike splendor. When two very powerful magicians decide to play a game that pits two of their students against each other magically, the consequences are far reaching and unexpected. For Celia, the daughter of the world famous Prospero the Enchanter, the competition that she will one day be engaged in means nothing to her other then ceaseless practice and mystery. To Marco, a boy who is being trained by the mysterious man known only as Alexander, the realities of the completion mean one day testing his skill against one whose abilities could possibly surpass his own. When the two elder magicians decide to create a magical circus as a venue to house this strange and volatile competition, the circus develops a life of its own. And the life of this particular circus is one of strange magical wonder and enchantments so unusual that it defies the understanding of even those who are charged to keep its secrets. As Celia and Marco use their venue for more and more abstract displays of their magic, a life and society begins to bubble up. The circus has a way of enchanting and ensnaring even the most casual observers, pushing the limits of comprehension and belief into the realm of imagination and dream. But when unexpected events threaten to not only end the competition but tear the beloved circus apart, Celia and Marco must take drastic steps to protect what they’ve built, and strangely enough, to protect each other, though the rules of the competition forbid this. With utter beauty and dreamlike interpretation, Erin Morgenstern gives us the brilliance and beauty of The Night Circus, and shares a space where imagination and power flow freely into the darkness, creating a brilliant and beautiful light.

I don’t think that anything I can say will do justice to this incredible book. At once wise and strange, the story was like nothing I’ve ever read before, full of bewitchment and wonder, but also very heavily steeped in character creation of the best kind. The book was a melange of lots of different elements, from the very unusual and fierce aspects of the competition to the more emotional sides that dealt with loyalty, compassion and love. What I enjoyed most was the Morgenstern’s ability to conjure up the kinds of astonishing imagery that appeared behind each black and white tent flap in her beguiling circus of magic.

There was just so much going on in this tale, from the use of potent and involving storytelling to the intense color and object symbolism, to the impressive themes and ideas that lie quietly underneath it all. But the good news is that it can be read on several different levels, and a first cursory read will probably be just as satisfying as a re-read in the aims of picking it all apart and discovering the clues and cues that Morgenstern so cleverly sprinkles throughout. Each small aspect of this tale was interconnected beautifully with all of its larger parts, which gave the story a great feeling of cohesiveness and life. Because of it’s fairy tale like feel and scope, certain aspects felt wonderfully alive and orchestrated, while other smaller bits felt like they just fell into the perfect place organically. It was a clever mix of storytelling and visual description that seemed to defy any preconceived ideas that I had placed upon it, and it was also a story that keep me trapped within its pages until its final and very unexpected conclusion.

A lot of this tale was just dripping with magic and alchemy, and as such, it reminded me a little of a mix between the Harry Potter books and the story in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. It wasn’t what I would call magical realism, as this world was almost completely overrun by magic and sorcery, so I would have to say it was more like a magical fable that openly portrayed characters that had one foot planted in the magical world, and one foot out. Some of the ways this magic was manifested was in the various exhibits at the circus, and let me tell you, a lot of these exhibits were wonderful, colorful, and strange. Glass bottles that captured pungent sensations and scenes through smell, labyrinths made of clouds that one could get lost in, and exotic ice gardens that were precise down to their smallest elements, Morgenstern captures them all with a heady mix of the dreamlike and surreal to share with her readers and characters alike, morphing the circus around and around the magicians who seek to outdo each other.

Though their prime focus began as outdoing one another, soon a strange fascination between the two springs up, which puts the competition and its irreversible results in jeopardy, for this is a competition that one of the magicians won’t walk away from. Though it seems that it’s all one big game of skill and exhibition, the realities are far grimmer and will lead to a heartbreaking choice that will forever change the circus and those who have grown to love it. There’s a stark inevitability here, and it shapes and forms all the people who have come build and love this particular circus, especially those who are using it to play their very dangerous and calculating game. Through the mesmerizing permutations of the tale, the fate of the magical circus is amplified across the hearts of its performers and creators, and it will take one stunning act of love and loyalty to undo the cataclysmic magic that both holds it together, and tears it apart.

This was a story told not only with fluidity and grace, but with an unerring sense of allurement and a perfectly crafted set of characters and narrative. It was not only a pleasure to read, but a pleasure to ponder over in many ways. While eagerly flipping through the pages, I came to feel a sense of excitement and wonder, almost as if I was seeing this strange and magical circus with my very own eyes. It’s rare to come across a book about enchantments that literally enchants the reader while they’re exploring it, but this is the feat that The Night Circus manages so brilliantly. A page turning feast for the senses, and very highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Blogger Template by Delicious Design Studio