Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A and Z March through the Middle: Middlemarch Part 2

This year, Aarti and I have decided to wade deeply into a classic book of literature that we hadn’t been exposed to before. We thought it would be fun to break up our reading into sections and post a little bit of our conversation and reflections on what we’ve read. This is really different for me because I’ve never really shared a classic with anyone before, but I knew that if I had Aarti along for the ride, it would be much less intimidating and more of a full experience. So we have embarked on our read of Middlemarch by George Eliot with some eagerness, despite the fact that neither of us really knew what the book was about. There are some slight spoilers in this second section, as they were a little hard to avoid! I encourage you to hop on over to Aarti’s site today and see the second part of of our conversation. So without further ado, onwards to Part 2!

Zibilee: Okay, so I totally got my groove on in this part of the book! I liked it a lot more than the first part, and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a little more used to Eliot’s writing or because this part of the book seemed more playful at times to me.

Aarti: Oh, I’m so glad! I was so worried that you were going to struggle through a massive that you didn’t enjoy at all, so I’m very happy that you are enjoying the book more. And I agree- I think Eliot’s sense of humor comes out more and more as the story goes on, but at really subtle, witty moments.

Zibilee: I find it really interesting that Bulstrode is so awful about Fred, and the way that he’s just so stingy and sanctimonious! I mean, he knows that he needs to set Fred’s reputation to rights and he just doesn’t want to do it out of priggishness. I started to really become irritated with him and his behavior. So morally smug and malicious. I’m glad that was resolved, but when Fred discovers that his generosity is far from being truly generous, I wanted to give him a hug and console him. Bulstrode is so much the toad!

Aarti: I agree. So many men in this book are really very extreme in their personalities. Mr. Peter Featherstone is such a Scrooge who just wants to control everyone, and no one likes him. Mr. Brooke is a very silly person who seems to embody the “Jack of all trades, master of none” phrase. Mr. Casaubon, whom we’ve discussed in great detail already, is a jealous and insecure man who doesn’t have any empathy in him. Bulstrode is, as you say, a toad. I think Eliot is really playing with how different personalities react and respond to their circumstances. These men have already been molded and defined by the wealth they inherited and the power they have amassed, but Fred is (hopefully) still able to change and become a different man.

Zibilee: I was wondering about that last point you made, because they all seem to think that living off an inheritance or being supported by someone is such an odious thing, and I wondered where their money came from. Nobody except a select few seem to work, and that makes me wonder how everyone is getting by and able to be moneylenders and patrons of the younger generation. It also begs the question as to why they think they’re so superior to the other townspeople who do have to work to make a living. I guess it’s that old money vs. new money thing, but it still makes me confused. There seems to be a social strata that people can’t break free from, and the ones at the top are boorish and selfish.

Aarti: Well, it may be a little unfair to say that the top is only comprised of boorish and selfish people, but I can see where you get that impression. I think a lot of it has to do with old vs. new money, and people born into the gentry (as loosely defined as owning a country house with tenants) vs. people who were not.

Zibilee: Every time I see Bulstrode on the page, I just inwardly cringe because he’s just acting horribly.

Aarti: Yes, as Farebrother pretty damningly describes him, “I am opposed to Bulstrode in many ways. I don’t like the set he belongs to: they are a narrow ignorant set, and do more to make their neighbors uncomfortable than to make them better. Their system is a sort of worldly-spiritual cliqueism: they really look on the rest of mankind as a doomed carcass which is to nourish them for heaven.”

Zibilee: I also totally didn’t see the Mary and Fred intersection coming, and was smiling because I knew you were hoping for that! I think they would be so good together, but of course there are all these self-imposed limitations on Mary, and she, I think, isn’t being true to herself. Fred seems like a very passionate person, but I wonder why all the people in this book don’t have the sense to shake off all of these financial fetters and just go about things in their own way.

Aarti: Yes, I know what you mean! It’s hard from a modern perspective to feel sorry for Fred, who is basically just sitting around waiting for his uncle to die in the expectation that he’ll inherit a large sum of money and have to do nothing of import with his life. I really like the way Eliot plays this between Fred and Mary- Mary, who has worked so much of her life and has no respect for the way Fred is hoping to live his, and then Fred who wants Mary so much but has no real ambition of his own. I really look forward to seeing how these two go along in life together.

Zibilee: I have complex feelings for Fred because, as you say, he’s just sitting around waiting for his uncle to leave him money, but it’s obvious that there’s something in him that seems to break out of the mold of most of the men of the town. He’s also capable of such intimate and expressive feelings, as evident in the conversation he has with Mary. I think Fred hasn’t realized a way to reach his potential and I want to know why he feels so impotent as to how to obtain a living without having to sponge off someone else and why everyone feels he’s sort of a failure. I think he’s gotten himself into some kind of predicament and he’s stuck somehow, but I like him. I don’t necessarily like the way he lives, but there’s a feeling in him that I can appreciate.

Aarti: Yes, he is certainly the easiest male with whom to sympathize! I think he’s just sort of aimless and lets life happen to him instead of going and doing things himself. But honestly, even his attempts to “earn” money really just involve speculation, such as when he tries to buy a horse cheap and then sell it for more later, and (shocking!) finds that it didn’t work out well for him at all. He means well, but doesn’t seem very intelligent at all. But I agree- it’s hard not to like him!

Zibilee: I hate the way Bulstrode is manipulating Lydgate, though I do think that Lydgate is at times a little full of himself. I liked the way that Eliot examines him and all his personal tastes and beliefs. He seems like he’s an idealist and, at one time, rather passionate. Though I do think that after his failed attempt at love, his passions diverged from the personal and became more scientific. I like him, but I’m a little concerned that he didn’t speak up for Farebrother, who seemed to me the more obvious and capable man, but then again, one needs to be kept in the good graces of Bulstrode, as we have obviously seen!

As you can see, this section inspired a lot of passionate indignation on both my part and Aarti’s, and I’m glad that I’m enjoying the book as I delve further into it. For the rest of our conversation, hop on over to Aarti’s site and check out our thoughts!

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Giveaway and an Announcement!

Last May I reviewed a book called The Kings of Colorado, about a young boy named William who is sent to a penitentiary ranch after a fight with his father turns violent. At the ranch, Will learns the power of loyalty and friendship amidst the brutality of the other young inmates and the staff alike. It was quite a powerful and visceral read that left a deep impression on my psyche and kept me pondering long after I had turned the final page. You can read my complete review here. Now, here’s the part that I love! I’ve been generously offered one copy of The Kings of Colorado to give away to one lucky reader. No bells and whistles, no strings. If you’re interested in winning a copy of the book for yourself, fill out the brief form below. The winner will be chosen by random.org on February 17th and notified by email and on the blog. Good luck to all of you who are entering! I think you will find this to be a very engaging and powerful read.

And now for the announcement: The 3rd Annual UCF Book Festival will be held this year on March 31st, 2012. This event has been one of the highlights of my year and I’ve had the chance to meet some wonderful authors from all over the country. I also got the chance to sit in on some of the wonderful panels that were hosted. If you’d like to see the highlights of last year’s festival, click here. This year’s roster is impressive as well, so check out the website. I’m looking forward to being there in all my nerdy glory! Stay tuned for more information as it arrives.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cinder by Marissa Meyer — 400 pgs

Linh Cinder is a teenage girl living in the city of New Beijing and working as a mechanic to pay the debts of her awful stepmother Adri. But Cinder is more than your typical teenager living among the masses of the city, because she is, in fact, a cyborg. After a terrible accident when she was just a child left her body irreparably broken, Cinder has been rebuilt into the ultimate mix of human and machine. With the help of her android partner, Cinder runs a fix-it shop in a hut located in the city’s crowded marketplace. When Prince Kai unexpectedly visits her shop in order to have her repair his tutor android, he’s instantly smitten with the her, not realizing that she’s half machine. But Cinder’s love life is only half the story, for a powerful plague is sweeping the planet and there seems to be no cure. With Prince Kai next in line for the throne and an evil contingent of malicious outsiders visiting the palace eager to secure a marriage alliance with the prince, New Beijing isn’t the safest place to be at the moment. As Cinder endlessly toils at the behest of her cruel stepmother, she unwittingly exposes one of her step-sisters to a danger that alters the landscape of her world. Now Cinder is in a world of trouble, and though she feels an attraction to the prince, everything changes for her when the authorities take her into custody and they begin to find out the real secrets of this cyborg. In this fast paced and highly original retelling of the Cinderella story, the shape of the fable is altered dramatically into a dystopian love story unlike any you have ever seen.

I’ve been really excited about reading this book from the moment I saw its cover. Cinderella as a cyborg, you say? Why, yes, I think I will! I haven’t read very many fairytale retellings, but there was just so much of interest to me about this book, and the buzz has been pretty good too. When I read Jill’s review, I knew I needed to move this book up on the stack and give it a go, and what I found was not only original but full of the kind of intrigue and conspiracy that is easy to relish. It was a fun book to say the least, and my only real complaint is that I have to wait so long to find out where this series is headed.

Though this story keeps the bones of the fairytale intact, its innards and skin are of a very different construction. There are several elements going on throughout the novel, and even the less urgent story lines are worked with fluidity and a cohesiveness that I can see will set the stage for books to come. The main difference between this tale and the original is that the love story, as it were, isn’t the main plot element vying for the reader’s attention. In Cinder, the love story takes a back seat to political and social intrigue, guaranteeing that readers are kept dancing to Meyer’s delicious tune of discord, disease and redemption. There’s no page space wasted in this tale, and though the book is long, it blows by in a whirlwind of secrets, intrigue and plot twists. I also liked that the writing was fast paced and graceful without being overly embellished, which worked well for this type of story.

Some of the twists were not all that hard to figure out and I deciphered one of them very early on, but such was the creativity and ingenuity of this book that I wasn’t displeased by this at all. In fact, as I raced through the pages, I was waiting for the big reveal in order to see how it would be shaped and twisted to fit the narrative. The worldbuilding was done on a small scale, and I’m eager to see how this is amplified in the next installment and the repercussions it will have on all the major players. The idea that this series will be a quartet doesn’t really bother me because there’s a lot about Cinder and her cohorts that remains shrouded and unclear to me, and I would relish the chance to see a more advanced look into the world they populate. With each thread of this story, I can see infinite possibilities for drama and pathos on a large scale, and it’s plain to see that several interesting developments are in the process of being uncovered.

I also liked the cleverness and insatiable evilness of the antagonists in this tale. As outsiders to the planet, they are focused on total domination, and their particular brand of magic is not only enticing, but devious. Queen Levana, the leader of this nefarious race called the Lunars, has the ability to wield superior mind control skills and can keep even her own subjects from seeing her true appearance, which she masks with a powerful glamour that none can deny. She also has the ability to make people do whatever she wills them to do, which in this situation is a rather terrifying prospect. It’s not only these character embellishments that make for intriguing reading, but her total lack of compassion or decency that make her the baddest of the bad. Cinder certainly has her work cut out for her with this evil witch! As the story closes, Queen Levana has yet to be fully dealt with but there are signs that this problem will be solved in future installments, though there is slight closure to this book in terms of a few plot lines.

If you’re looking for a fairytale retelling that’s markedly different from anything that has yet been published, this is the one to go for. It’s perfect for teens and adults alike and has the added benefit of packing a powerful punch of a main character who is spunky, clever and has a lot of heart. It was a great read for me and I'm eager to discover what’s in store for this cyber-Cinderella. Recommended!

Cinder is also available on audio from Macmillan Audio, and I've heard that the audio production is outstanding. To check out a sample, click below.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear — 320 pgs

Maisie Dobbs is just beginning to organize her own private investigation service in the city when she receives her first client. This distinguished gentleman requests that Maisie tail his wife, who he thinks may be deceiving and cuckolding him. What Maisie discovers will involve a group of seriously injured soldiers from the Great War and a secret facility designed to hide these men from the world. But this isn't just a straightforward mystery, for as Maisie reaches back into the past for the answers to her investigation, she also reflects upon the singular circumstances that have brought her to this time and place in her life. When Maisie was only fourteen, her mother took seriously ill and died, leaving her coaster-monger father to raise her alone with only a pittance to feed and clothe her. Maisie's father, Frank, seeks to rectify this situation by engaging Maisie as a housemaid in the the estate of Lady Compton, a well do to woman who feels the tug of social reform in her blood. When Maisie is discovered using the library in the middle of the night, Lady Compton gets an inkling that this girl may not be the typical run of the mill housemaid. She immediately sets up a situation whereby Maisie can be instructed and mentored, eventually earning herself a place at Cambridge University. Though Maisie longs for the intellectual life, her conscience eventually leads her to the front lines of the Great War as a combat nurse. Working tirelessly to save the lives of the young men she is faced with, Maisie finds herself in the arms of the handsome and intelligent Simon, a privileged and skilled doctor. But Maisie and Simon's future is far from assured, and as they struggle forward together into the present, Maisie must face one of the most difficult choices of her life. Working backwards from the past, this first book in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series weaves the aspects of a mystery novel and a historical fiction novel seamlessly together to form this singularly unique tale of one young woman's ambition and her desire to fly in the face of expectations.

I'm not normally a reader of mysteries, so when my book club chose this book, I felt a few minutes of panic. Would I be able to get into the story and characters? What if the mystery was too cheesy and didn't hold my attention? What if I figured out the crux of the mystery too early and the book began to drag? I was so worked up about the fact that this might not be a good read for me that I kept putting it off and shoving it down in the pile for weeks and weeks. When I did finally get to it I was really surprised to discover that this wasn't your typical mystery, and the fact that it had a lot of historical elements made it a really good choice for me.

Though this book ostensibly starts with a mystery, very early on the story takes a turn into historical fiction. I learned where Maisie came from and how she became a scholar, nurse, lover and detective. These sections of the story were very well written. It wasn't hard for me to empathize with Maisie, and it was interesting to see the proverbial rags to riches story told in a very different way. Though Maisie doesn't become rich, she becomes accomplished, respected and very comfortable in her chosen profession, though she does have to inch her way through some very difficult and demanding situations. I think one of the reasons I liked her so much was because she seemed at times vulnerable but never powerless. I liked that she demonstrated such fortitude and that she never let anything stop her from accomplishing her goals. Though I probably wouldn't have made the same choices that she did, I respected her value system. She changed a lot throughout the book, but her changes never felt forced and the fact that she remained steadfast to her beliefs really made me cheer for her. As the historical section winds down, another mystery is added to the mix, and this time it's a mystery of Maisie's past.

Though I really liked the book, I felt that the mystery aspects of the story were a little less than impressive. I'm not sure if this is because I sometimes quickly lose interest in mysteries or if the mystery in this story was somewhat simple and less nuanced. It seemed that the mystery aspects were a little forced at times and I wasn't really convinced that I should care all that much about it. Also, as Nymeth mentions in her wonderful review of this book, some of Maisie's crime solving behavior seemed a little disingenuous. By this I mean that she often mimicked people's postures and inflections, and by doing this, she was immediately struck with revelations about the criminal and crime. I just didn't buy this at all. It was just too easy and lacked the creative flair that I had been expecting. I also thought that the denouement of the mystery wasn't all that satisfying. It all seemed very simple, and I had been hoping for something a little more sophisticated.

One of the things that made this book so interesting was the sections that dealt with the Great War. The war affected not only Maisie and her contemporaries but all of the general population. Many men were killed, injured and disfigured. Mothers lost both sons and daughters as they were either shipped out to become soldiers or medics, and there was a huge gap left in society that was unable to be filled. One of the things that this book addresses is the injuries, both spiritual and physical, that some of these young men suffered. It wasn't enough for them to have given their capabilities in battle, for more often than not, these same men came home utterly changed in so many ways that society couldn't deal with. The basis for the main mystery of this book focuses on this subject in great detail and paints a picture of a generation of men who came home to a family that couldn't recognize or cope with them. I found all this rather sad, and because it was based on historical fact, it spurred me on to search out more information regarding the war and it's effects.

Though this book was met with mixed success, I did really enjoy various parts of it. I think if the book had been infused with a little more historical flashback, it probably would have been a better read for me. I also think that if the mystery was a little more involved and complex it might have been more of a hit. I think the main problem was that this book combined two very different types of storytelling and the effect for me was that of a little lopsidedness. I'm not sure if I will be continuing on with this series, but I am glad that I gave this book a chance.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta — Audiobook Review

Unabridged audiobook production recorded by Macmillan Audio.
Narrated by Dennis Boutsikaris
Run Length: 10 hours 18 minutes

The Rapture has come and gone, and for the town of Mapleton, things just haven’t bounced back in the way that one would expect. After what becomes known as The Sudden Departure, many are disillusioned and confused, and strange cult-like groups have formed in the town, making the more normal residents wary and hostile. For a handful of people, that fateful day remains haunting and sorrowful; but for others it marks the beginning of a change in their circumstances that can’t be evaluated or measured. From the Mayor who has lost his wife to one of the cults and his eldest son to an enigmatic man who fancies himself the risen Messiah, to a lonely woman named Nora who’s whole family disappeared on that strange day, the people of Mapleton can’t help but feel like this was either some colossal mistake or a very bad joke. Each of them lives life in the hollow spaces left behind by their recently departed. As the members of the Guilty Remnant excise themselves from their families and take to communal living, a vow of silence and a religious compunction to use tobacco, they come to believe that their efforts will make it impossible for them to be left behind again. Meanwhile a group of adolescents try to make sense of this strange new world where they’ve been left behind to roam in the absence of close friends and family. In this deeply human and provocative look into the aftermath of a calamitous event, Tom Perrotta gives us a slice-of-life novel that explores the myriad of ways that people fall apart and how they hold it all together in the light of a mystifying and frightening tragedy.

I’ve been pretty excited about this book since a few months before its debut, and had hoped to read it a lot sooner than I did. The always generous and wonderful Heather over at Book Addiction kindly lent me the audio version, and though I had a copy of the book in print, I decided audio was the way to go with this one. The audiobook was expertly narrated by Dennis Boutsikaris, a voice that I haven’t heard before but that was very well suited to the story. His vocal inflections held just the right note of hope interspersed with sadness that I think Perrotta was going for in his work. I was pleased with the audio performance of this novel and would be happy to hear Boutsikaris read again.

I was really glad to have read so many reviews of this book before attempting it, because, in a stunning reversal, hearing about the nuts and bolts of this story enabled me to be realistic about what to expect from Perrotta’s book about the Rapture. Namely that there was no real examination of how or why it took place and there was no final revelation in the conclusion as to what would happen next. Many people felt disappointed by this, but I felt that knowing that there would be no answers on this front moved narrative obstacles out of my way and let me see the story for what it truly was: an examination of a town that was dealing with the aftermath of a shocking and bizarre situation. At its core, this is a story about people: their sadness, their joys and their ultimate reliance on each other. In this way, it was a lot like Perrotta’s other novels, showcasing the human plight of a group of people who were tenuously connected.

There were some really interesting plot elements here, and one of my favorites was the path taken by the Guilty Remnant. Though it was made clear that these people weren’t forced to be part of this movement, there did seem to be an element of brainwashing that took place among the members. In later developments, the GR, as they are known in the story, do some terrible things to garnish themselves with a certain elite status among the remaining citizens, and I felt some of this was also done to draw others in. I also found their reasoning for using tobacco as a religious statement to be pretty interesting as well as very personally counter-intuitive. The GR seemed like a pretty scary organization, but it begged the question: what lengths will people go to when the unexpected and untenable happen and their world and sense of personal and familial safety are severely compromised? The book also made me question what reaction I would have if an event of that magnitude took place. How would I deal with it?

Overall, this was a rather melancholy book, but once again, that’s something that I’ve come to expect with Perrotta, and I didn’t mind the solemness because it was not only well deserved but carried merit and deep emotional resonance. There were some  snicker-worthy moments, but all in all, this was a book that reflected the more serious emotions of grief, loss and a sort of emotional stagnancy that each of the characters embodied in their own way. It was about the choices that people make and go on making after the unthinkable happens and they realize that life continues to go on whether they like it or not. It was about the frailty underlying the power of our emotional exchanges and it examined the separate paths that each person travels on the road of grief.

All in all, I was pretty pleased with this book and the imagination and heart that Perrotta displayed in his rendering of this story. Is this book about the whys and hows of the Rapture? Not really. It’s more an examination of life and the emotional  inconsistencies that we all face on a day to day basis. It’s about the human condition, and that’s one of the reasons that I enjoyed it so much. Perrotta is a master who excels at painting the infinitesimal with discrete intimacy, and if that’s the kind of thing that you appreciate, you will love this book. Recommended.

Click the player below to check out a sample of the audiobook and to hear Dennis Boutsikaris’ engaging and lively rendering of the tale.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A and Z March through the Middle: Middlemarch Part 1

This year, Aarti and I have decided to wade deeply into a classic book of literature that we hadn’t been exposed to before. We thought it would be fun to break up our reading into sections and post a little bit of our conversation and reflections on what we’ve read. This is really different for me because I’ve never really shared a classic with anyone before, but I knew that if I had Aarti along for the ride, it would be much less intimidating and more of a full experience. So we have embarked on our read of Middlemarch by George Eliot with some eagerness, despite the fact that neither of us really knew what the book was about. I encourage you to hop on over to Aarti’s site today and see the first part of of our conversation, where we address some of the immediate perceptions that we had of the book. Our opinions differed, so there should be much there to interest you. Then head on back and read the conclusion to our discussion on Book 1 of Middlemarch. It’s quite a story, even though neither of us are exactly sure what’s happening yet!

Aarti: I also really like Mary. I hope that we get to see her interact with Fred more as I think those two would have very fun conversations. I also have a feeling there may be some romance brewing between Dorothea and Ladislaw, do you? The way he was introduced and their first thoughts toward each other make it seem very likely, in my mind.

Zibilee: I liked Mary too. She seems sensible and also very pragmatic and candid, which I like because she’s sort of the opposite of Dorthea in some ways. I do hope that there is some interaction between Fred and Mary as well. They both seem like they have a similar approach to the world, you know? I know it's specifically stated that they won't marry, but I sort of hoped that they would discover they were in love, or something like that!

Aarti: WHAT? But I want one between them! I will respectfully continue to hope for it, even if it’s not going to happen :-)

Zibilee: And yes! I do think that there will be some sort of relationship between Dorthea and Ladislaw. It just seems like Eliot is setting them up for that. I actually like Ladislaw but think he’s a little smug. Every time I see his name, my mind thinks coleslaw! The names in this book are sort of weird!

Aarti: I was also really drawn to the amazing turn for metaphor and simile that Eliot has. Some examples:
“…the remark lay in his mind as lightly as the broken wing of an insect among all the other fragments there, and a chance current had sent it alighting on her.”
“the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook.” (Oh, I love the idea of an amorous rook!)
“the text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime.” (So true, people read so much into things)
“He has got no good red blood in his body,” said Sir James.
“No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass and it was all semicolons and parentheses,” said Mrs. Cadwallader. (So witty!)

Zibilee: I have to say that some of the metaphors and similes are rather inventive, but some of them I haven't appreciated as much as you have. I love the one about the blood and the semicolons, and a few others have stuck in my mind, but I sometimes overlook those refinements of narrative when I’m reading a lengthy book. I tried to highlight a few of the ones that I liked, but it was a little difficult on the Kindle so I stopped doing it, and now I can't remember them! I also liked the one about the insect wings. I wish I could remember more of them!

Aarti: Really, I think what is going to keep me engaged in this book is how spot-on Eliot is in her description of people and their feelings (or lack thereof, in Casaubon’s case). I generally dislike long paragraphs of narrator descriptions, but in these cases, I really appreciate Eliot’s insights into a character’s thoughts and motivations. She understands and knows people so well, and it’s fascinating to read about them from her point of view. In particular, her long passage on Casaubon and how disappointed he is that he does not feel very happy about his engagement, and does not have great bursts of feeling, is wonderful. I felt so bad for the man (and terrified of him, quite honestly) because of the way he reacts. I unfortunately didn’t mark the passage I want to refer to, but there is a line that says Casaubon had read the great depths of feelings that poets confessed when they were in love, and decided that they were lying or over exaggerating because he, who had stored up so much happiness for his future and was marrying such a perfect specimen of a girl, did not feel those great depths of emotion upon his engagement, and therefore they didn’t really exist. I felt bad for him because I can in many ways understand the sentiment- there is obviously a feeling of, “I deserve this because I’ve waited so long for it.” But I was scared of him because it seems like he has no empathy in him- if he doesn’t feel something, he can’t conceive of someone else feeling it.

Zibilee: I also like the way she portrays her characters and think that she does a great job of delving deeply into their minds and getting to the very heart of what makes them tick. It's a little unusual but very very interesting. Casaubon's plight is really what I think a lot of people are like in some ways. Society has this driving force that sort of tells people that marriage and procreation are nonnegotiable facts of life, when the reality is that for many, it's not as simple as that, and sometimes it's even unwanted!

Aarti: YES. I know that you and I have had many detailed discussions on this very topic, but you voice it so well here. People have this feeling of inevitability about marriage- as though it’s bound to happen to everyone, and it’s going to be perfect, and all will be well if you finally have a ring on your finger. But you’re right- it’s so often very complicated and difficult and I’m so glad that Eliot respects that and delves into life after marriage, instead of ending with the “happily ever after” part.

Zibilee: I think in his case, he wants a wife to be a helpmeet to him and is marrying without passion, which is going to totally backfire. But it's hard to say, because Dorthea seems to know exactly what she’s getting into and is looking to be his helper and student. What I find irritating about him is that he’s pretending to feel all these nobler emotions and is feigning the softer feelings. Like you, I believe that could make him dangerous if certain things play out in a specific way. I think Dorthea will eventually have a passionate awakening and suddenly her marriage will be seen as the sham that it is. I’m intrigued and can’t wait to read further!

Aarti: Also, the characters seem to refer to a political situation a lot, so I did some digging and found this to describe the Reform Act as it relates to Middlemarch, with some good external links. Hopefully you find that helpful to you, too!

Zibilee: That did help, thanks! I have no idea what's going on in the political sections of this story, so reading that sort of gives me a little more of an inkling of what's going on.

Aarti: Well, that was a very detailed look at Book 1 of this novel! I’m so glad we’re reading this together - already, I feel like having the discussion has made me think more about the themes and characters than I otherwise would have. Looking forward to the rest of it, too!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Graveminder by Melissa Marr — 352 pgs

Rebekkah Barrow is coming home. After several unsuccessful attempts to escape and stay away from her home in Claysville, the news that brings her back is not good. Rebekkah has just discovered that her grandmother Maylene is dead, and it’s up to her, as the last of her family, to come and bury her dead. But Maylene had a secret that will come to harness Rebekkah in some very unusual ways, for she was the Graveminder, responsible for keeping the dead peacefully in their graves or dragging them back to the Underworld when they escape their earthy confines. Alongside the Graveminder works the Undertaker, the man who loves, protects and tethers these strange women to the living world. Now that Maylene is gone, it’s up to Rebekkah to assume the role of town protectoress and become the  touchstone and savior to the dead. When Rebekkah learns who her Undertaker is to be, she protests violently, for the man has a very long history of heartache with Rebekkah, and she’s so unsure of the role he will play in her life that she considers breaking free. But Rebekkah can’t worry about that now, for there are several Hungry Dead roaming the town and it’s only a matter of time before they come looking for the Graveminder and the Undertaker. Before all hell breaks loose on the world above, Rebekkah and her new partner must come to some sort of agreement with the otherworldly man who controls the other side. In doing so they learn that the only things that will keep them alive and tethered to this world are love, loyalty and a trust unlike any other that readers have seen before. Both richly provocative and intensely imaginative, Graveminder is the story of two worlds that can’t live together and the people who must keep them apart.

When this book came out in hardcover, I initially heard some good buzz about it and had been curious to read it. I had never read any of the books in Marr’s Wicked Lovely series, but I know that she has an intense fan base, and that those books, targeted towards the YA audience, are loved by a lot of people. When the opportunity came to review this book, I was elated and eager to get started. I knew so little about the premise, and everything I discovered between these pages was so colorful and brightly rendered that I had a hard time tearing myself away. Though there were some elements that I grew a little less enamored of, I really enjoyed Marr’s skill at worldbuilding and all the special touches and flourishes that she so expertly placed within the narrative.

The basic premise of this novel lies in an agreement that the town made several generations ago with Death himself. The dead need to be minded and kept where they are. If they get unruly and return to this world, they need to be escorted back to the Underworld. This is where Marr’s skills delight and enthrall. Her version of the Underworld is full of exquisite promise, full of inhabitants from every period in history, complete with habits and dress. There are gangsters and cowboys and high society ladies in rich and elegant costumes, and the city where they all reside is lush with various architecture styles that vary in complexity and are faithful even in their tiniest detail. There is Death himself, also known as Charlie, the gentlemanly trickster that holds all the cards and keeps most of them up his sleeve. Into this world comes Rebekkah, a wayward young woman who is one part drifter and two parts skeptical and heartbroken girl, who must claim the legacy left to her by her treasured grandmother. Just as the new Undertaker is commissioned, so is Rebekkah, and despite her disbelief, one trip into the land that houses the dead is enough to show her that her duties are real and very, very important. I loved the backstory that was given to cushion this world and the wide variety of characters that populated Charlie's domain. They were all very deftly created and fleshed out this world for eager readers like myself.

I wasn’t as crazy about all the vacillating on Rebekkah’s part regarding the nonnegotiable choice of protector. There was a push/pull with these two characters that was at first very romantic and true, but later became frustrating and at times even pointless. Rebekkah didn’t want him but she didn’t really want anyone else to have him, and in her secret heart, he was her only love. What was frustrating about this was the lengths she went to repeatedly deny this, and even when it was clear that she was lying to herself and everyone around her, it continued on in this vein up until the end of the book. All this felt like emotional filler and left me more than a little disenchanted when it came to the nuts and bolts of the story. I would have loved to see more progression when it came to this element of the narrative, but sadly, this was not to be. I guess I just don’t have a lot of patience when it comes to characters deceiving themselves in matters of the heart.

Rebekkah begins her stint as Graveminder already at a disadvantage, because some of the dead are already on the loose, causing a ruckus, and it’s a steep learning curve to get them contained. Here the book takes on the atmosphere of a supernatural thriller, and it was a welcome distraction from the relationship woes that Rebekkah is suffering from. I found this plotline to be both exciting and rather curious, because a lot of the backstory surrounding this possibly nefarious Underworld was revealed through the Hungry Dead who were making the town less than hospitable. This section was also rather unpredictable, which I also liked, and though I knew where Marr was going in relation to Rebekkah’s personal conundrums, this side of the story seemed fresh and groundbreaking in terms of the implications it made. Though everything was tied up at the end (not too neatly, I might add!) I suspect that this might be the first book in a series, because a lot of room was left in the narrative for further enhancement.

I really enjoyed this book, and if it wasn’t for the slight niggle I felt about all the back and forth whinging relationship woes, this would have been a stellar read. I’m certainly more than eager now to try out Marr’s Wicked Lovely series and will be rather excited to see which direction that series takes as well. Fans of worldbuilding and supernatural books will not want to miss this one, despite its slightly off kilter interpersonal and repetitious meanderings. A fun book to get lost in and savor. Recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Melissa Marr grew up believing in faeries, ghosts, and various other creatures. After teaching college literature for a decade, she applied her fascination with folklore to writing. Wicked Lovely was her first novel. Currently, Marr lives in the Washington, D.C., area, writes full-time, and still believes in faeries and ghosts.

[Melissa Marr on Facebook]
[Graveminder Facebook Fan Page]
[Wicked Lovely Facebook Fan Page]

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, January 17th:Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, January 17th:The Road to Here
Wednesday, January 18th:Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, January 19th:Wordsmithonia
Friday, January 20th:Lesa’s Book Critiques
Monday, January 23rd:Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, January 24th:Jenny Loves to Read
Wednesday, January 25th:Life in Review
Thursday, January 26th:Reviews by Lola
Tuesday, January 31st:Elle Lit.
Wednesday, February 1st:The Scarlet Letter
Thursday, February 2nd:Savvy Verse & Wit

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, January 16, 2012

East of Eden by John Steinbeck — 608 pgs

In this 1952 classic novel written by acclaimed author John Steinbeck, the lives of two very different families living in California's Salinas Valley intertwine through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The young Trask brothers, Adam and Charles, are raised by a stern military father who begins to subtly play favorites between the boys. This doesn't bother the affable and meek Adam, but the favoritism inspires a blind fury in Charles. When Charles unleashes his anger on Adam, their father sends him away to enlist in the war, leaving Charles behind to manage the farm alone. After many hard years in the service, Adam returns home to learn of his father's death. As the brothers work the land together in isolation, old problems begin to resurface. When a bruised and battered woman named Cathy collapses on their front steps one night, Adam decides to nurse her back to health and quickly falls in love. Though Cathy appears to be innocent and abused, she harbors a terrible violence and hatred in her heart and monstrous intentions towards those who stand in her way. Though Cathy successfully hides her soiled and dangerous disposition from Adam, Charles immediately knows that something is wrong. Adam and Cathy are married and quickly move to the Salinas Valley where Adam buys a prosperous farm and begins to make grand plans for his future. Among the other inhabitants of the valley are the Hamilton family, a large brood of Irish immigrants who have carved out a life for themselves on one of the most inhospitable patches of land in the area. Samuel, the patriarch of the Hamilton family, and Adam quickly become friends and confidantes. After Cathy gives birth to twins and runs away from Adam and the farm, it's Samuel who reaches out to the remaining Trask family and tries to help them through their difficult time. What follows is the complicated and painful story of the two boys, twins who are starkly different, yet somehow very much the same.

I was surprised to learn during my reading that, although this book is a classic, it was met with a harsh critical reaction. It seems as though many people thought that the characterizations were much too blunt and unwieldy to be artistic, and it was far from the critical success that it's thought as today. I, for one, believe that the characters in this novel are perhaps more relevant and believable in today's society versus how they would have been looked on when the book made its debut in the mid-fifties. It seems to be a novel that has come into its own, character-wise, and may indeed have been ahead of its time.

Steinbeck begins his story with a a very detailed look at the land in the Salinas Valley, and much of the first section of the book explains the area and sets the stage for the drama to come. It's only in the second or third chapter that we first get a look at the people who inhabit this story and find out their origins. Mild mannered Samuel Hamilton is introduced, along with his crowd of a family, and then the action shifts over towards the Trask household, where it remains for many chapters. From the beginning of the chronicling of the Trasks, the biblical symbolism of the Cain and Abel story runs thick throughout the narrative, a theme that will wind its way through the story until its conclusion. In fact, there are several scenes where the characters pick up this thread of symbolism and actively discuss its meanings and portents in regards to their own situations. I found this to be a very impressive feat of the narrative, for the reader and the characters seem to almost be discovering the same ideas and themes together, which lends a heightened relevance to all that is taking place.

As the action moves towards the second half of the story, the narrative begins to focus on the lives of the Trask twins, Cal and Aaron. These boys are beset by conflicting ideas of their futures but share the same questions about the whereabouts of their missing mother. Though Adam attempts to keep them in the dark about Cathy's malignant life and behavior, he can't help but see shades of the woman running through his children's personalities. Here again, various other aspects of the Cain and Abel story come into play within the lives of the Trask children. Through his artistry and juggling of the recurrent themes and symbolism, Steinbeck plunges his readers deep into the heart of what it means to sin and begs us to consider whether the sin of the soul is inherent or acquired. These are questions that plague both the Trask and Hamilton households, and the reader can't help but examine and ponder the evidence that the men so eloquently lay before them.

Here I must discuss Cathy's character. Her story takes up about a fourth of the book and was, I felt, brilliant in its execution. Steinbeck introduces her without much fanfare but states clearly in the narrative that there are some people who are born monsters, people who have no conscience or regret and who seem to bide their time, waiting to unleash all of their pent up hostility on the world when it stands in their way. Cathy, it turns out, is one of these people. She is a vile specimen who cannot even take pleasure in her destruction, for she has no sense of joy. She is like a predatory animal who seeks only to gain the advantage, no matter what the cost is to another. I found her to be shocking and truly one of the most heinous woman I've ever run across in literature. Her evil runs deep into the recesses of her mind and she pours violence from her soul in a flagrant disregard for anyone who is foolish enough to step in her path. I found it very odd that Adam wasn't able to see her as she truly was and, at one point, believed her to be a sainted woman. Charles, on the other hand, was able to see the evil in Cathy because her depravity was mirrored within his own soul and he found her to be a kindred spirit.

At its most basic level, this novel is an epic tale of family, but hidden deep within its tissues are stories of sin and absolution, grief and redemption, and the very difficult struggle between good and evil. Steinbeck tackles all of this in his tale, using his characters' lives as object lessons to his readers and posing his questions to them as they fall deeper and deeper into his story's spell. Among the very typical things that go on in his characters' lives, there are hidden secrets and endless possibilities posed not only by the characters and their predicaments, but by their thoughts and beliefs about themselves and each other. They are multi-faceted creatures, at once wise and naive, worldly yet sheltered, and though they claim to be able to see themselves clearly, they operate under false assumptions of themselves, living in the darkness of their limited understanding.

There's just too much grist in this story for this review to ever be able to communicate it succinctly, and although I feel that I've only scratched the surface, I invite you to delve into this book and plumb its depths with an aim at tasting the heady brew the Steinbeck offers you. It's the story of life, told through a small lens that captures the woes and heartaches of its characters in a way that everyone will understand, and a story that you can peel back layer after layer, exposing both the affirming and disappointing aspects of human nature. I was so glad to have experienced it and to have been able to have taken away such thought provoking messages from it. If you haven't yet experienced this wonderful book, I highly recommend it to you and envy the experience you will have reading it for the first time. A brilliant and beautiful book.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin — 352 pgs

Rachel White has always lived in the shadow of her best friend, Darcy, and when she’s forced to admit it, Darcy is the kind of friend who is perfectly comfortable stealing Rachel’s thunder. Darcy seems to have the perfect life: a glamorous job that rakes in the bucks, a great face and figure, and a handsome and sensitive fiancee named Dex. Rachel, on the other hand, is working insane hours at a law firm and hasn’t had a serious relationship for many years. Then, on the eve of her thirtieth birthday, a drunken encounter between Rachel and Dex causes the balance to shift between her and Darcy. Though Rachel is wracked with guilt over her indiscretion with Dex, she can’t help but feel that her fling with him is more than one illicit night of pleasure between them. Rachel is surprised when Dex seems to agree, and so the two begin to embark on a secret relationship right under the nose of the smug and contemptuous Darcy. As Rachel struggles between right and wrong, her feelings for Dex continue to grow, but it’s her refusal to push the issue that keeps the two tangled in a web of deceit. What is Rachel to do? Though Darcy is the frenemy that she’s known and shared so much with for so many years, Rachel’s feelings for Dex are unlike anything she’s ever experienced before, and the feelings seem to be mutual. Now the wedding is fast approaching and Rachel and Dex must decide whether or not to make a stand or to go back to the way things were with Darcy none the wiser. But just when all has been decided, a huge development takes place that changes everything. Can Rachel hold on to Dex and Darcy? In this tale of secret love and friendly contempt, Emily Giffin shares the story of Rachel White, the plain girl who gambles it all on a chance at lasting love, stolen right from under her best friend’s nose.

I’m not generally in the habit of reading chick-lit books, but I had been hearing good things about Giffin’s writing. So when I was casting about for a good audio read, I took a chance with this one, thinking it would be a mite different from my usual reads. I was pleasantly surprised. The audio version was preformed very skillfully by Jennifer Wiltsie, who had a frank and involving voice that lent itself nicely to nuance and captured the restrained intensity of feeling that Rachel always found herself mired in. It was an audio title that was easy and pleasant to listen to, and I blew through it pretty quickly.

Okay, so I have to admit that I’m not crazy about stories that feature infidelity as their main focal point, but for some reason, Rachel’s plight really won me over. I think most of this had to do with Giffin’s skill at making Darcy, the fiancee and friend from hell, such a flaming bitch. Darcy wasn’t only obliquely competitive, she was snide about it, and her path to supremacy over her friends is paved with lies, self aggrandizement and shameless self promotion. Oh, yes, and she was also supremely whiny and co-dependant. The only thing that stretched credibility for me was the fact that Rachael hung around for so long and put up with this nonsense. Darcy was that friend that you always feel slightly miffed about having to actually hang out with; the type of woman who is so dominant and pushy that she edges every female out of the room with the force of her vindictiveness and ill-humor. But she depends on Rachel even as she competes with her, and does and says some incredibly mean things to everyone around her.

Please don’t misunderstand and think that I’m trying to say that if you’re a big enough bitch, you deserve to be cheated on, because that’s not what I’m saying at all. In a perfect world, infidelity wouldn’t exist and people would have the cojones to just be honest and admit that things aren’t working or that they’re attracted to someone else. But this isn’t usually the way it works, and when someone gets itchy pants, they usually go a-hunting, much to the dismay of their partners. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t condone infidelity, but in this case, I could very clearly see why it was happening. There were a lot of factors to consider, and resentment, jealousy and spite were just the tip of the iceberg. There were also issues related to missed opportunity, lies and misdirection, all from some very surprising corners. In this way, Giffin manages not only to be relevant, but also believable. Rachel is not a tart looking to steal away her best friend’s man. In fact, she’s more of an unexpected catalyst between Dex and Darcy, which is one of the things that made this book so involving.

As the illicit affair lengthens and becomes something a lot more serious, revelations about all three parties are made and it becomes clear that there’s no real winner or loser in this triangle. There’s a point when things begin to derail and everything takes off in its own direction, good intentions notwithstanding. Of course, there are also a handful of other characters that were also very realistic and played their roles to perfection, but really, the main intersection was between the two women that loved Dex and the complicated web that ensnared both of them. At this point I must say that Dex wasn’t your typical horndog, which I appreciated. He had morals and scruples but at times he was a little bit of a wuss. I liked him, for the most part, but wondered how he ever got into such a tangle with Darcy to begin with!

This was a pretty solid book that I enjoyed more than I expected to. I think if I were to rate it as a chick-lit title, I would have to say it was a little more serious and less flippant, which is one of the reasons I think I enjoyed it so much. I would also recommend this one on audio, because Jennifer Wiltsie embodies Rachel beautifully and believably, and the audio moves by at a nice clip. Though this book has not totally convinced me that I need to dive right in to this genre, it was a pleasant diversion and a nice light snack of a read. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pregnant Pause by Han Nolan — 352 pgs

Elly has always been a handful, but now that she’s pregnant at 16 with her irresponsible boyfriend Lam’s baby, she’s in more trouble than she’s ever been in her life. Elly’s parents are not very sympathetic to her predicament, preferring to spend most of their time in Kenya caring for AIDS babies, a fact that has a lot to do with Elly’s being a wild child. When Elly makes a spur of the moment decision to marry 18 year old Lam, she hasn’t really thought it through and is surprised and more than a little disenchanted when Lam and both sets of parents agree. Now Elly and Lam are being shoehorned into a cabin on the grounds of a weight loss camp for adolescents that’s run by her new in-laws, where she and Lam will be expected to become counselors as well as prepare for their new baby. While Elly is debating her new choice of life for herself, she’s also surrounded by mounting pressure on all sides to hand over the baby to interested family members at its birth. As Elly journeys through her pregnancy at the camp, she discovers that the campers elicit strong maternal instincts from her, and it’s her befriending of one particular camper that touches her in an unusual way. But though Elly is growing and changing in more ways than one, Lam continues his wild streaks of rebellion, and it’s up to Elly to decide what she is to make of her life and the new life that is to be. But when the due date finally approaches, a string of unforeseen events takes place that turns Elly’s world completely upside down, and the cares she once had seem to fall away one by one. In this spunky and very deeply moving novel, Nolan shares the joys and sadness of Elly’s journey through the unpredictable vagaries of teen pregnancy and the way it brings out the true colors of all that surround her.

When I first heard about this book, I was sure it wasn’t for me. A teen pregnancy book is just plain scary to the mother of a teenage girl! But when I read Heather’s review over at Book Addiction, I got the impression that there was more here than met the eye and that this could possibly be a very complex and deep book that would ultimately make me think. The book did a lot more than that. It was snarky and funny without being offensive, and the revelations toward the end had me on the edge of my seat with with heartfelt urgency and more than a little astonishment. It was an unexpected book, and one that I enjoyed a lot.

Elly isn’t your average bad teen. It’s obvious that a lot of her behavior is in response to her parents’ disregard for raising their own daughter and choosing to pour their hearts into other children who they assume need them more. When the book opens, Elly reveals that she’s pregnant and that she is set to marry Lam, though she’s not really sure that’s what she wants. Elly is smart and sassy and holds no illusions that Lam will be the perfect father or husband. It’s almost as if her marriage to Lam is the result of a contest of wills that she didn’t really want to win. Lam is a very obnoxious character, and irresponsible is only the tip of the iceberg with this guy. As a reader, I knew Elly was making a mistake hitching her star to him, but it also became clear that her options were limited. As Lam and Elly’s marriage begins, Lam becomes even more irresponsible and obnoxious, and though Elly is forgiving and laid back about his issues, it’s clear that she and Lam will not have an illustrious future.

The camp where Elly and Lam have become counselors was a very interesting place for this drama to unfold. Here are kids who are struggling with their weight and self-image, and as Elly discovers, a lot of these kids have issues similar to her own. The campers run the gamut of snide and snotty to wounded and anxious, and Elly finds a way to deal with them all on her terms, and in ways that are unconventional but get results. Elly’s dealings with one camper begin to turn into a project of sorts to assist her in becoming more sure of herself and to gain the acceptance of the others around her. As Elly finds her niche among the campers, there’s more than a little drama on the Lam front, and a new forerunner for her attentions causes problems as well. This is all intricately arranged into a neat little bundle of intrigue that will manage to ensnare adult readers as well as teens.

The most interesting aspect of this book was the way that different members of both families hoped to take Elly’s baby for themselves. For most of the book Elly waffles about giving up her baby, never really deciding if she wants to or not. What was interesting to me was the way that these people seemed to only care for the life Elly was carrying and not for Elly herself. This is no revelation though, as Elly can see this for herself as clear as day. I found each side to be incredibly manipulative, as did Elly, and her frank assessment of these people delighted but also saddened me. When things come down to the wire, the stakes grow higher and the fighting family members truly revert to type in a downright disgusting display of behavior. It’s impossible not to be moved by what occurs during the last third of the book, and I was alternately shaking with rage and wiping away tears of confusion.

I didn’t expect this book to be as moving and penetrating as it ultimately was, and I ripped through it in one afternoon. Nolan manages to capture the feelings of her characters precisely and to engage her readers in Elly’s plight from the first moment she opens her mouth. Smart, funny and brash, this is a great example of YA that shouldn’t go unnoticed. It had all the moving parts to suggest that Nolan is an author to be taken seriously, and I loved it. A very touching read. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist — 496 pgs

In this supernatural and dramatic novel we meet Oskar, a young boy who is being mercilessly bullied at school, and Eli, a strange girl who might not be what she first appears to be. One lonely evening while Oskar is plotting revenge against the boys who are ruining his life, he discovers the strange Eli at the playground and is intrigued by her very obvious differences from the other girls he knows. But what Eli hides is much more than her physical differences. She has aligned herself with a horrible and unpalatable man to fulfill her needs, a man who will stop at nothing to give Eli the things she needs but who also wants a bizarre payment in return. Meanwhile, a group of ambivalent outcast alcoholics will become embroiled in Eli’s dangerous fight for survival, and one by one, they will all come to see that the little girl who looks so innocent and frail is in reality a powerful and savage enemy. But for Oskar, Eli will become an unlikely savior, one who has the power to lift him from the hands of his foes and bring him the peace he craves. In this tale of an unlikely and frightening little girl and her struggle to stay alive, readers will repeatedly cross between horror, betrayal and survival to a powerful climax that will leave them both stunned and cheering for the disadvantaged misfits that this tale so powerfully encompasses.

When I was casting about for a Halloween read, I briefly considered this book and got some great feedback from Sandy and Natalie that it would be the perfect choice. I didn’t read it at that time due to its length, but for some reason, I decided I wanted to start off the new year with a creepy and disturbing read and went ahead and got right to it in the first few days of 2012. What I found here was more than disturbing and powerful. It was a tale of suspense and grotesqueness that kept me completely engrossed and put a permanent grimace on my face the entire time I was reading. The monsters in this tale were in no way predictable and the cast of characters was so maligned and repulsive that I simply could not look away. It was a pretty impressive read.

I felt extremely sympathetic toward Oskar’s plight. What he went through was no ordinary bullying, and every time the perpetrators of his torture showed up, my stomach knotted with tension. Oskar lived a nightmare with these boys and there was no one to help him. It made me so angry to see that even the teachers at Oskar’s school refused to get involved and his plight reminded me that there are so many kids out there that are suffering the way that this boy was. When the strange Eli first appeared, I was moved that Oskar had found a friend, but later I realized that Eli was more than that: she was his power and his retribution. Though she was ill-dressed and more than a little malodorous, Eli began to move from the realm of monster to something closely resembling human in her interactions with Oskar. It was their friendship that kept my hope alive for these two confused little people, but there were secrets that Eli was keeping from Oskar, secrets that were chilling and more than a little stomach churning.

Yes, Eli was not what she first appeared to be, but even in her extremely dangerous and loathsome habits, she was not the real monster of this story. The real monsters were the terribly flawed people around her, including the repellent and utterly abhorrent man who was fostering Eli and ensuring her survival. In the mid-section of this book, this man undergoes a hideous change at his own hand and truly becomes the outward monstrosity that he has always been on the inside. The other true villains are the bullies who push Oskar to his breaking point, proving once and for all that the true freaks of nature are the ones that live among us disguised as normal people. One may argue that Eli is the real problem, the real instrument of evil, but I posit that this is only how it appears on the surface and a thorough reader will easily see that Eli is not the one to be feared, though she is far from safe and wholesome.

While I found this book to be highly disturbing for oh so many reasons, it was also captivating and it forced me to ask questions about the true nature of evil and about the innocence that abounds, even in those who appear to be anything but innocent. The book was filled with monstrousness of all types and there was no scarcity of brazen and horrific images, but at its core, this was a story of friendship and loyalty, trust and love. It may have been hard to see these altruistic nuggets amid the mire of ugliness that surrounded them, but the more I think on it, the more I come to believe that this was a story about faith, hope and the courage to do the things you must, despite the price you must pay to get them done.

Discovering and reading this book was quite an experience for me, for while a lot of it was hard to swallow and made my knees weak, it was like finding a diamond in a pile of refuse. It was disturbingly graphic and scary, but the fact remains that it told a very powerful story in a way that will captivate many. If you’re not a reader with a strong stomach, I would say that this one is better avoided, but if you can look past the gore and discomfort, this is a book that will blow you away with its implications. A truly one of a kind way to start off the reading year. Recommended.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh — 336 pgs

Victoria Jones is a victim of the foster care system. Given away at birth and repeatedly shuttled between loveless homes, it is no surprise that Victoria is both socially and emotionally stunted. But at age 9 she’s placed in the home of Elizabeth, a single woman who is also a vintner. As Victoria struggles with becoming attached to Elizabeth and growing into a healthy child, Elizabeth begins to teach her the Victorian rituals surrounding the language of flowers. The language of flowers is one of the oldest arts, and given that each flower has a meaning and an intention, what first only looks like a beautiful bouquet is transformed into a message to its recipient. From terse and abrupt to involved and intricate, Victoria begins to learn the definitions of the flowers and to access her innermost feelings through the art that Elizabeth so tenderly impresses upon her. But Elizabeth is also struggling with issues within her own extended family, and when Victoria takes it upon herself to garner retribution and secure her position in Elizabeth’s life, everything is changed in an instant. Now, many years later, Victoria has a chance to make amends in a very unusual way. Living the life of a damaged individual, she once again discovers the power of the language of flowers and their ability to heal her and erase her once unbearable past. But is it too late for Victoria? Can the damage wrought on her heart and psyche be washed away with delicate blossoms and hardy stems? It’s in Victoria’s journey that the past, present and future collide, and where the most painful and hopeful secrets must be uttered by the flowers and the secret messages they themselves deliver.

Though this book didn’t make it on my best of 2011 list, it was by far the best book I read over the last year. The reason it wasn’t there was because I hadn’t reviewed it yet and I felt a little silly raving about a book that I had not yet shared my thoughts about. I put this book off for a long while, and while my mind and all the other reviews I read were telling me it would be unforgettable, I had no idea how much this book would break open my soul and cause me to weep and grow anxious with anticipation. It’s not a happy book by any means, but it is a book that reflects on what it might be like to grow up damaged and what it might be like to try to unfurl all of those creased parts of your heart into a semblance of some type of normalcy.

At times this was a physically painful book to read. Victoria is so far from normal and so alienated that even her existence is one that most readers will find strange and unfamiliar. Growing up in the foster care system, Victoria has been through every permutation of neglect, from the loveless homes to the abusive homes and everywhere in between. When the book opens, Victoria is just turning 18 and is being emancipated from her group home, yet where she will end up is uncertain because she has no life skills to speak of. Emotionally, she’s still an angry child, and it takes several strange circumstances for her to even begin to be able to care for herself. She is the ultimate damaged individual and can’t tolerate being touched or have a normal conversation with anyone. It was hard to read about the life she was living, and when the opportunity came for someone to help her, I held my breath and urged her on quietly, afraid that she might turn tail and run.

When Victoria discovers that her affinity and knowledge of flowers and their meanings still survive intact inside her mind, she begins to slowly edge out into the real world and takes a job where these skills will serve her well. It’s here that she comes face to face with her past and a fragile and tentative bond begins to form between Victoria and a person from that past. But even as she goes forward, she’s unable to think and react in the ways that a normal person might, and her atypical behavior takes her further and further into the maw of irreparable brokenness and solemnness. I have to say that some of the things that she did during her struggles to become whole had my heart and mind twisting uncomfortably. Victoria is not normal, and though she’s not a bad person, she has almost no way of reacting to situations in a way that others would understand. It was almost as if she was a sort of primal and unformed person who only dealt with the visceral and who couldn’t understand even the basic underlying structure of being whole and emotionally healthy.

I fear that in writing this review I’ve made the book sound very dour and dark, and in a way it was, but in other ways it was beautiful and triumphant and uplifting. It’s the kind of book that grabs you from the inside and pulls and never lets you stop feeling, never lets you rest in the certainty of Victoria’s future, and it’s a book that will leave an impression on you a mile deep. As a bonus to the incredible story, the book also includes a Victorian dictionary of flowers and their meanings, which I found impossibly wonderful and very apropos. If you haven’t already added this one to your list, don’t wait any longer. It’s a book to be savored but also one that will first break and then heal your heart. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson — 368 pgs

For Christine, each morning is a nightmare. As she awakens, she is unsure where she is, who the man lying beside her is, and isn’t even sure of her own name. Due to a traumatic brain injury, Christine has the ability to make new memories over the course of a day but once she goes to sleep for the night, those memories are erased like the tide flowing up over the sand. One morning, upon reading the journal that she uses to kick-start her memory, she discovers a message written in her own hand. The message tells her that she cannot trust her husband, Ben. But why would Christine not be able to trust the kind and patient man who takes such pains to care for her? When Christine finally begins to write down the details of her daily life and her learned past, some strange and disturbing facts begin to emerge and her life becomes not only confusing to her, but terrifying. In this spellbinding novel of an amnesiac’s struggle to comprehend her life and the danger that surrounds her, author S. J. Watson builds the crescendo of unpredictability to feverish proportions and gently lures her readers in clue by clue, until finally the whole horrifying puzzle is complete and Christine’s life and circumstances are unveiled for all to see.

This was the November choice for the Books, Babes, and Bordeaux book club, and it’s a book that I picked for us because I had heard so many interesting things about it. Like What Alice Forgot and Turn of Mind, this book also dealt with a woman who was struggling with her memory, and like the other books, it was suspenseful. But for some reason, this book wasn’t as spine tingling as I would have hoped it would be. This may be because I listened to it on audio, and for some reason the narrator, Orlagh Cassidy, had some odd ways of speaking that took some of the urgency out of the tale. Though she was a great narrator, she never really got jazzed up or became frantic in her reading, which is something I would have expected due to the storie’s strange revelations and dire nature.

Overall, this is a story that had me thinking deeply not only about memory and how it affects our everyday lives, but specifically about the situation that the characters found themselves in. The frustration and uncertainty of never knowing who or where you were, the anguish of realizing that you’ve been mentally running grooves in the same track day after day for years, and the incredible loneliness that must accompany this kind of life must have been unbearable. I can’t imagine a life where even your family and friends are strangers and cause you to be frightened and suspicious and provoke fear from you every time you encounter them. There was a great interplay between Christine’s desire for connection and her fear of the unknown threaded throughout this narrative. Over the course of the book, the reader becomes privy to more and more of the secrets that everyone is keeping from her, while Christine seems to endlessly forget all her progress, day after day.

A few of the plot points toward the end of the book did end up stretching credulity for me a bit, but since I was very curious about what would eventually happen with Christine, I allowed myself to be swept away into the story and didn’t spend a lot of time questioning the things that I knew were a little far-fetched. As far as memory loss stories go, this wasn’t the best but it did leave me anticipating the eventual outcome and endlessly pondering Christine’s situation. Even now, I’m still thinking about the ramifications of this type of problem, and specifically, I’m wondering what happens after the final chapter. It was a different sort of suspense book, and one that I enjoyed, but I doubt it will be on any “best of” lists in the future.

If you’re the type of reader who enjoys suspense/thrillers with a little bit of an unpredictable edge to them, I would recommend this book to you but I would have to assert that the print version is probably better than the audio, and wish that I had read the book instead of listening to it. While I liked the book and thought it was a pretty solid read, I still maintain that if you want a great story that deals with some of the same elements and that will leave you twisting in your seat, head right out and pick up Turn of Mind.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline — 384 pgs

A Couple’s Review

Wade Watts is your average Joe, living in a future that has been so degraded and damaged that the only escape for most is to log into the virtual world of the OASIS and live out their lives there. In the OASIS, the rules of the real world don’t apply. You can be whomever or whatever you want, do things that are impossible in the real world, and perhaps even escape your hellish life. The OASIS, created by genius James Halliday, is the only bright spot to Wade’s existence. Since the day Halliday died there has been a serious competition underway. Halliday has hidden an “Easter egg” (a hidden message or item) inside the virtual world and everyone is trying to find it. To find the egg will bring untold wealth and power, and for a young man who is anything but powerful and wealthy, the promise of finding the egg is too great to ignore. Wade, along with several other Egg Hunters, known as “Gunters,” has been searching the OASIS for this egg for five years. One day, an unexpected development and a few strokes of luck land Wade smack dab in the center of the competition. Now it’s only a matter of time until the egg is found and control of the OASIS is handed over to the winner. But Wade and his fellow Gunters aren’t the only ones who want the egg; there is a much greater and more powerful force in play that will stop at nothing to get it. Now Wade must decide if he wants to band together with a group of fellow Gunters or go it alone and risk the wrath of some very dangerous individuals. Breathtaking and highly original, this action-packed novel will have readers cheering, even as they marvel at the virtual world that’s being constructed around them.

When the buzz started going around with this book a few months ago, I felt that it would probably be a perfect read for my family because we are all sort of geeky technology lovers, and Lord knows that we would probably go into paroxysms of distress if our Internet was taken away. I decided to give a digital copy of this book to my son and daughter and grab an audio version for myself and my husband to listen to. We shared it over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and thought it would be really fun to write a bit of a joint review. Both Frank and I are big on the 80s, and having grown up during that time period, this book was the perfect choice for us, and as it turns out, the kids loved it as well. This review will be structured a bit differently than most of my others, with both Frank and I having one paragraph to ourselves in order to share our thoughts with you.

Heather: I had a great time with this one, and though there were places where the story moved a little slowly, most of the time I was greatly entertained by all the nerdy little 80s references and the slightly dorky coolness of Wade. I think the choice of Wil Wheaton as narrator was absolutely perfect. He had just the level of energy, inflection and emotion to make this a stellar audio production. While I enjoyed the worldbuilding of the OASIS, I would have loved to see more worldbuilding outside the virtual realm, but really, there was very little to complain about. It had the perfect proportion of action, intrigue and 80s flavor that was able to ensnare me into a nerdy little tangle and get my blood pumping. There wasn’t a lot of predictability to this tale, which I also enjoyed, and I had a lot of fun trying to figure out where Cline was going to lead me and where the story would eventually end up. It was a perfect choice for all those readers who self identify as geeks or nerds.

Frank: Speaking of self-identified geeks... Hello! While not an 80s freak by any means, I did live my teenage years in that decade and I have a lot of fond memories from that time. I’m also something of a technophile, always looking around the corner for the next fantastic technology. This novel was a stunningly adroit melding of those two interests. The OASIS is the ultimate virtual reality: a three-dimensional immersive tactile experience where almost anything is possible. The clues to finding Halliday’s Egg all revolve around 80s trivia, since he himself grew up during that time. Some I was familiar with but a lot was new to me, which created the perfect balance to keep things interesting. In addition to 80s trivia, there’s action, adventure, romance (not too much!) and enough geeky fantasy to keep the most discriminating nerd salivating. I thoroughly enjoyed this book!

As you can clearly see by Frank’s reaction to this book, it’s a lot of fun for all types of readers that range through every level of the nerdy spectrum. What Cline was able to accomplish with this story goes way beyond a lot of other dystopians and cyber-themed books I’ve seen. It certainly was an immersive experience, and coupled with the fact that the narrative basically revolved around an immersive universe, everything about this book and these particular readers just gelled. A great read to share with that special geek in your life.
Blogger Template by Delicious Design Studio