Saturday, June 29, 2013

Magic in the Wild, Wild West

Native Star

by M. K. Hobson

Published by Spectra

4 Out of 5 Stars

Take a pinch of the Wild West, a dollop of whimsy, just a dash of romance, and a heaping helping of magic and you apparently get the perfect summer read.

On the surface, The Native Star is fairly formulaic. There's the Austen-esque dynamic of the stubborn and headstrong (but always proper beneath it all) woman who finds herself at odds with a pompous and equally headstrong jerk (who remains, fundamentally, a gentleman beneath it all). I have to admit that I'm a sucker for this dynamic because nothing triggers my gag reflex quicker than a simpering and whiny heroine, unless it's the "here I come to save the day" uber-perfect hero. Circumstances arise that force these two into unwelcome proximity to one another for the duration of the novel and witty banter between crises ensues. This is pretty standard stuff and even the less sophisticated readers among us can probably make accurate predictions as to where this plot is headed, but . . .

. . . holy shit, was this fun! While the basic narrative is standard, the world building is delightful. Set in the west during the Reconstruction, the United States has always relied on magic to grease the wheels of commerce. There are three primary types of magic practitioners: sangrimancers (who rely on gruesome blood rituals to tap into their power), animancers ("earth" magicians who draw upon nature to heal), and credomancers (faith magicians who draw upon the beliefs of others to make the impossible, well, possible). There's much in-fighting amongst these magical traditions, as well as opposition to magic in the form of religious zealots and the increasing threat of science as a replacement for magic. Several reviews have labeled this as "steampunk," which is misleading as there are no gimmicky, steam-powered gizmos and gadgets. Everything is fueled by magic (as one reviewer said, this is "witchpunk"--a term that seems much more accurate). There are zombies, Native American holy women, murderous spirits, fantastic magical devices, as well as witches and warlocks of every stripe and color imaginable. There are quirky little details (my favorite being the idea of a "squink," a word created by the combination of the words "squid ink" and meaning to lessen the power of a credomancer by clouding his ability to believe in himself).

The Native Star is clever, witty, and intelligently written light reading when you just want to reconnect with the joy of a rollicking journey whose only destination is to enchantment. There are no deeper meanings, no pompous literary preening, no need to bust out the theory books to figure out what is up with the symbolism. It's just fun. And sometimes that's more than enough.

Friday, June 28, 2013

No--Thank You

Thank You, Jeeves

by P. G. Wodehouse

Published by Overlook Hardcover

4 Out of 5 Stars

For the past couple of years, the name P. G. Wodehouse kept popping up in interviews and articles about some of my favorite people (most notably Hugh Laurie and Neil Gaiman, among others). They praised him as THE master of British comedy. Since I admittedly like my comedy British, I decided it was time to give Wodehouse a try.

The thing with Wodehouse is that he creeps up on you. During the first few chapters, I thought, "What's all the fuss about?" There is some admittedly clever language and the strange turn of phrase, but nothing laugh out loud hilarious. In true Wooster fashion, I thought, "Everyone who loves this man must have gone potty. They're seriously off their onion. What a rummy bit of business this is." And then it happened--a smile here, a titter there, a giggle, and then laugh out loud hilarity. Particularly hilarious are Wooster's attempts to go to sleep while being constantly awakened by the far too diligent local lawmen, Jeeves' plan to smuggle Wooster off the yacht where he's being held captive (which results in Wooster spending a good portion of the book in black face), the quest for slabs of butter, and the maniacal replacement for Jeeves (who quit Wooster's employ because of his disdain for the banjolele).

Many of the jokes aren't subtle in that you know exactly how one event leads to the creation of a particularly vexing problem for our man Wooster. However, that doesn't rob the book of its fun as the anticipation of the event lends itself to a certain joyful giddiness when the events do indeed come to pass.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Classic Elmore Leonard

Out of Sight

by Elmore Leonard

Published by William Morrow Paperbacks

4 Out of 5 Stars

Bank robber Jack Foley didn't plan to take U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco hostage when he escaped from prison, it just sort of happened. It's one of those in the wrong place at the wrong time scenarios. And as so often happens when two people spend any quality time together in the cramped trunk of a car, especially if one has just spent part of the evening crawling through a tunnel carved out of the odiferous Everglades muck and the other is hiding a Sig Sauer between her thighs, love and attraction quickly blossoms. And they say romance is dead.

What follows is typical Elmore Leonard, which is to say amazing: snappy dialogue, complex characters, and a fast moving narrative. Leonard books aren't traditional crime/mystery novels. Sure, there's usually a crime and unsavory characters abound, but that's not the point of his books. Leonard's novels are character studies. He examines the lives of the not-so-bad-guys while simultaneously acknowledging that there is plenty of badass evil in the world. Take Jack for example. Leonard doesn't sugarcoat the fact that Jack is a criminal. He robs banks, he's good at what he does, and it's the only life he's ever known. He's no Robin Hood; his only interest is self-preservation and making easy money. He knows it's too late to go straight and try to live a normal life. However, does this automatically negate the fact that, in terms of personality, Jack is just a damn likable guy? No. And that's what draws Karen to him, despite her instincts. These two aren't idiots: they know there's no happy ending for them. There's a moment that they can choose to take advantage of or not. And does any of this negate the fact that Jack has gotten himself mixed up with some truly bad people? Nope.

This is one of those cases of "wish I had read the book before I saw the movie." I really hate it when this happens because I can't help but picture the actors as the characters, which robs me of the opportunity to "see" them for myself (which was particularly jarring in the case of Karen Sisco who, in the book, is slim, willowy, and blonde--in other words, the physical opposite of Jennifer Lopez, though Lopez was good in the role).

And in a continuation of Why I Hate the Kindle: I was sitting in Bass Pro Shop (not my favorite place in the world, but heaven on earth to my husband) in St. Louis and reading this book. A very nice lady sat down on the bench next to me and asked if I had seen the FX show Justified, which led to a very serious and intellectual literary conversation (okay, so maybe it was just about how hot Timothy Olyphant is in that role and what Leonard books the series is based on). My point being: would she have approached me if I had been sitting with my non-descript Kindle? Maybe, but maybe not.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Stops Short of Enchanting

Garden Spells

by Sarah Addison Allen

Published by Bantam

3 Out of 5 Stars

In Bascom, North Carolina, everyone is destined to live up to their family name. Clark women are lascivious femme fatales, Mattesons will be wealthy and put family duty first, Hopkins men always marry older women, and the females of the Waverley clan always manifest a quaint magical talent. Fate is heavy-handed in Bascom. There's no escaping your name and there's no escaping your heritage, even though Sydney Waverley, just like her mother before her, has tried.

Sydney grew up a Waverley, but didn't embrace the stigma associated with her name in the way her sister, Claire, did. Sydney's been everywhere, man, but her free spirit has finally been trapped by an abusive husband and her commitment to her 5 year old daughter. When Sydney finally musters the courage to escape, there's only one place for her to go--back to Bascom and a sister who despises her. When Sydney returns, she must confront the past, mend her relationship with Claire, and embrace what it means to be a Waverley--all the while knowing that trouble is most likely following her and could threaten the very lives of those she loves the most.

Garden Spells is a nice little book. Just awfully darn nice. Everything's beautiful and brimming with Southern charm, the characters could have been pulled off the street in Mayberry and sprinkled with pixie dust, and we know there's a happily ever after awaiting everyone. I'll give Allen credit--there were some unexpected thorns and rough edges in a plot that was as insubstantial as an angel food cake (this also means that I laughed my ass off when I read the 1 star reviews on this book to find so many readers of "wholesome" novels were disgusted and couldn't go on when the first F bomb was dropped or during the first sex scene), but it was predictable and sweet and light-reading. It was the perfect book for vacation because I didn't have to think much and I could easily pick the plot line back up after being distracted. However, that's generally not what I'm looking for in a novel, so I don't think I'll seek out any more Allen books (although I already have The Sugar Queen on my shelf--it may go with me on my next vacation, but that will probably be my last encounter with Allen's particular brand of magical realism). There were some groan-worthy moments (such as when Ariel Clark is described as smelling like "peaches and cottonwood"--wtf kind of fragrance is that? Who smells like a cottonwood?), but there were some characters who held some undeniable charm for me. The most interesting character, unfortunately, wasn't a main character (I found the Waverley sisters to be rather tiresome). It is Evanelle, an elderly relative of the Waverley sisters, whom I found the most interesting. Evanelle's peculiar talent manifests itself as a compulsive need to give things to people--specific things which always turn out to have a purpose, though Evanelle never knows what that purpose is when giving (at one point she is overwhelmed by the need to give a woman a box of condoms, even though the woman's husband was left impotent after a WWII injury; however, she has been having an affair and ends up pregnant because she doesn't accept Evanelle's gift). The chain of events that occur after Evanelle presents a gift to someone are often the best stories in the novel.

Many of the other reviews have compared this novel to Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, another magical realism book about two polar opposite sisters from a magical family, and some other readers have gone so far as to suggest that Allen has plagiarized Hoffman. I don't think that's quite the case, but the similarities are hard to ignore. However, I enjoyed Practical Magic immensely because there is an undertone of darkness and menace, which Garden Spells lacks. Also, Hoffman includes a little more magical realism while the magic in Allen's book is pretty light. In fact, Allen might be best labeled as "Hoffman-Lite." And that's why I think I'll stick with Hoffman from this point on.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Bit of a Cross to Bear

The Fiery Cross

by Diana Gabaldon

Published by Delacorte Press

3 Out of 5 Stars

When I finished this, my knee-jerk reaction was to give it a 4 star. However, after some consideration, I have to be honest with myself and say it was really just a 3 star read. The Fiery Cross is the 5th book in the Outlander series, a fantasy/romance/historical/time travel/everything-but-the-kitchen-sink series which began when Claire Randall, on a second honeymoon in Scotland, is thrown back in time from 1946 to Scotland during the Jacobite uprising that ended tragically at the battle of Culloden. While stuck in the past, she of course falls in love with a Highland warrior named Jamie Fraser. Through four long-ass novels, they've been separated and reunited and managed to get themselves right smackdab in the center of any significant historical event taking place in the 18th century, Jamie's natural ability to lead heightened by Claire's knowledge of what the future holds. In The Fiery Cross, Jamie and Claire are now living in America with their daughter, Brianna, and her husband, Roger. Jamie finds himself in the role of "laird" to a group of Scottish immigrants who populate his land grant known as Fraser's Ridge.

I freakin' love these novels and that's why it pains me to say that I'm suffering from PTDGD (Post-Traumatic Diana Gabaldon Disorder) at the moment. Gabaldon has always written massive tomes stuffed full of historical detail and it's clear that this woman does her research, which sets her novels apart from the typical offerings of historical romance. This isn't just costume drama. However, I don't think I've ever read a novel in which so much happens and, yet, nothing really happens. The novel is so focused on the minutiae of day-to-day life (pigpens are built, militias are gathered and disbanded, fields are plowed, laundry is done, buffalo are hunted) that any narrative momentum is nil. It just doesn't go anywhere. There are rumblings of the American Revolution in the distance, but no real battles (other than a brief interlude in which Jamie gathers together a militia to help the governor put down the Regulators) and the one driving narrative thread--the hunt for Stephen Bonnet, who raped Brianna in an earlier novel--fizzles with no real resolution (clearly to be picked up in the next novel). Admittedly, all of the mundane tasks of daily life are vividly brought to life and readable because the characters are so likable, but Gabaldon can certainly beat a dead horse. As evidence, I offer the following:

1) She repeatedly overuses some words/phrases (sardonic, gimlet eye, wry smile, and everyone's mouth twitches at the corner with suppressed amusement at some point in the novel). Everyone's eye color is commented upon in every other paragraph. Details that diehard fans should be aware of by now are tediously repeated.

2) I read more about breastfeeding than I ever wanted to--Brianna's breasts spend so much time hardening between feedings of her offspring, Jemmy, they should be given their own novel. And I won't even comment upon the milk-sodden love scene. Let's just say it gave a whole new meaning to "Got Milk?" Blech.

3) Why does Roger MacKenzie still listen to Jamie? Sure, I know Jamie is his father-in-law and Roger wants to impress him, but Jamie is constantly sending Roger out on dangerous solo errands to give Roger (who is from the future) a chance to prove his manliness in a time when men are defenders, providers, apparently tireless lovers, etc. However, Roger always almost dies during his undertaking of these tasks. He is hung, nearly burnt to a cinder, beaten to within an inch of his life--how much more must Roger endure? Just let him stay home for a couple of chapters. Sheesh.

4) The alternating point of view is vexing to me. Some chapters are told in 1st person from Claire's point of view (and these are definitely the more interesting chapters, especially since you are reading about historical events from the perspective of someone who is conflicted about what knowledge she brings from the future and the dangers of revealing too much; it's easy to forget that there's a time travel element when Claire isn't narrating), but others are told in third person from other characters' perspectives. Most of these are told from Roger's point of view. Strangely, we never really get anything substantial from Jamie or Brianna's point of view.

5) Some chapters seem shoehorned in just because they were too darn cute to leave out. In particular, these chapters serve to show how clever someone is or how adorable little baby Jemmy is. Don't care. Don't give a shit. Move on.

And then there's James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser himself (or Himself, as he's often called in the novel, denoting his social position of laird). God, is there anything this man cannot do? As much as I love the character of Jamie, it's becoming increasingly obvious to me that he's female catnip (although he does not sparkle; he's the anti-Edward Cullen and yet they both share a similiar function--to make women long for men that do not exist and would probably be endlessly exasperating if they did). First off, he's the physical embodiment of masculine perfection: tall, well-muscled, blazing red hair, piercing blue eyes, fills out a kilt quite nicely (if you know what I mean--and if you don't, read the book. Gabaldon will make it quite apparent). He's a fierce warrior and yet a well-educated intellectual who is just at home in the courts and palaces of Europe as he is on a battlefield. He's multilingual and can read Latin, Greek, French, etc. and quote from high literature at a moment's notice. He can be a brutal or tender lover (depending on whatever Claire's in the mood for). He can be a man's man and then inexplicably lapse into shy boy-like behavior and whisper sweet nothings. Men of the world, give up. Compared with Jamie Fraser, you fail.

Despite all of this, I still enjoyed the novel. The relationship between Jamie and Claire has somewhat mellowed, although not in a bad way. There's still plenty of ridiculously hot sex between the two, but the relationship isn't marked by the fear of Claire going back to her own time through the stones. I also enjoy the good-natured vulgarity that runs throughout the characters' speech and the humor with which Gabaldon writes. And for all of my bellyaching about all of the details of 18th century life, I will concede that if anyone can make it interesting, it's Gabaldon. I will be reading A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the 6th book in the series, but I'm definitely going to need a lengthy respite between the two.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

House Built on Shifting Sands

The House on Oyster Creek

by Heidi Jon Schmidt

Published by NAL Trade

3 Out of 5 Stars

Love can cause us to do some really dumb shit. Take Charlotte for example. Emotional, naive, and needy Charlotte fell in love with an idea--the romantic notion that she could somehow emotionally connect with and save Henry Tradescombe, the distant, reclusive, excessively liberal and aggressive intellectual of some noted repute as a journalist. In return, Charlotte would be sculpted and molded by Henry, who is twenty years her senior, and gain entree into the world of the New York intellectual elite. What she gets instead is a petulant and sadistic husband who worries more about global warming, the Bush administration, and quoting obscure poets than he does about his own wife or daughter. Of course, Charlotte doesn't come to realize this until years later. She is resigned to her fate, however, because she at least has her four year old daughter, Fiona, and a life that, however emotionally starved it may be, is one of comfortable wealth and reputation that many would envy.

Charlotte's life is thrown into upheaval, however, when Henry inherits his family estate on Cape Cod and Charlotte, in a sudden act of defiance against Henry's neglect, takes the reins and moves the family to the house of Henry's childhood. While adapting to life on the New England coast, Charlotte meets Darryl Stead, an oyster farmer and jack of all trades who--you guessed it--"completes her." Now Charlotte is torn between her obligation to her marriage and her longing for Darryl. To complicate matters, by selling off a piece of the property to a wealthy prick, she may have single-handedly destroyed the entire economic system upon which Darryl and the other oyster farmers depend. Ain't love grand?

Some things I liked:

1) Schmidt perfectly captures the distrust of newcomers (especially of a higher socio-economic class) inherent in rural small-town America. The town of Wellfleet closes ranks against Charlotte when it becomes evident that she wants to be part of the community, believing that her romantic notion of pastoral life is just a whim that she can indulge in because her wealth allows her to try on lifestyles as easily as trying on designer clothing.

2) The characters are, for the most part, realistic. There were some stereotyped town eccentrics, but Schmidt does an excellent job of portraying the inner-life of a woman who worries that she may have made the wrong choices in life and it may be too late to do anything about that without destroying the web of relationships that are delicately attached to her. Her struggle between what's right for her family and what's right for her is real and authentic. I can even see how she would fall for Henry, ass though he is. Who hasn't had the "crush on teacher" syndrome, however fleeting? It's just that most of us have these crushes while we're still in high school and are thus jailbait to the object of our affection (which tends to effectively thwart any romantic entanglements).

3) This is a nice "slice of life" book that avoids depicting life on Cape Cod as quaint and idyllic. Schmidt shows the back-breaking labor, the desperation, and the poverty of families just trying to make ends meet. These are the people who are left behind everytime the tourist season ends to face the bleak realities of winter and survival. It was also interesting to read about life in a New England fishing community, a place to which I have never been, and Schmidt provides just the right amount of detail in this respect.

4) The novel avoids the cliched ending that I thought it was careening toward and had a more mature, realistic resolution than I expected. That's all I'll say other than I thought the ending was perfect and satisfying.

Some things I didn't like:

1) Despite all her protestations to the contrary, I saw Charlotte's attraction to Darryl as a repeat of what had happened years earlier with Henry. Again, Charlotte is in love with the idea more than the man; this time she's in love with the hard-working, salt-of-the-earth, brawny shouldered working class man who will take her away from her stilted marriage and awaken passion in her that she's never known (okay, it doesn't say that, but I was getting strong whiffs of this stank with or without it being directly stated). Darryl is damaged goods and Charlotte has set herself up to once again save the man who can't be saved--which she spends the better half of the novel doing. To which I could only shake my head and think, "Stupid girl."

2) Some disjointed leaps in time and sudden, unexpected switches in the point of view made it somewhat confusing. Not overly so, but just enough to irritate the piss out of me as I tried to pick up the thread of the narrative once again.

3) Every time Charlotte and Darryl had one of their heart-to-heart talks, the dialogue read like a trite script submitted to Lifetime. For your groaning pleasure:

"I just want to come over there and drag you up the stairs and . . . make love to you. . . . " He spoke so roughly she likely should have been frightened, but naturally she was thrilled.

"I want you just as badly! I think about you all the time. I think, if we'd met each other when we were younger . . . but . . . "

"If you knew me back then you'd have spit in my face."

"I'd have made love to you like it was my religion."

Puke, buzzard, puke. Nothing triggers my gag reflex like this kind of romantic nonsense. (Granted, my idea of romance is a little along the lines of Ash in Army of Darkness saying "Gimme some sugar, baby" while revving up the chainsaw that has replaced his arm. But I digress.)

Overall, this is a quick, enjoyable read when Charlotte and Darryl aren't trading sweet nothings. Because Schmidt has done so many other things so well in the novel, I'm willing to forgive that.

More Than an Average Adventure Tale


by Terry Pratchett

Published by HarperCollins

4 Out of 5 Stars

Young Mau is a boy living on an island he knows only as the Nation. He has been sent to the Boy's Island where he must survive until he can, using only the tools of the island, build a canoe that will take him on the return voyage to the Nation. By doing so, he will prove that he is a man and the village will celebrate as he sheds his boy's soul and takes on his man's soul.

Except, when he returns, there are no fires. There are no feasts. There is no one to welcome him home. What is there is death, destruction, and the dawning realization that the Nation, a powerful island tribe, has now been reduced to a population of one. If Mau dies, then the Nation--its heritage, its ancestors, its religion--will die, too.

This book had two strikes against it when I picked it up: 1) it's marketed as young adult and 2) my one foray into Pratchett's writing, The Color of Magic, was underwhelming. So Nation was a very pleasant surprise. This isn't young adult literature in the sense that it's written strictly for a younger audience, but I think it has been labeled as such because the protagonist is young and, now that no one is there to perform the rituals that will draw his man's soul to him, wonders if he'll always be more than a boy but less than a man.

What seems to be a deceptively simple adventure tale on the surface has levels of complexity as it explores issues tied to colonialism, existentialism, feminism, and racism (and one must admit that's an impressive collection of "isms"). As Mau works tirelessly to bury the bodies at sea according to custom, he begins to--as so many do after a traumatic and life-altering crisis--question the gods and everything he's ever been taught to believe in. This confrontation with the void is complicated by the fact that Mau suddenly hears what may be the voices of the gods speaking directly to him. When he comes into contact with whites, he questions whether or not his people, who seemed to have everything, were really inferior savages.

Now, if all that sounds terribly tedious and didactic to you, WAIT--THERE'S MORE! There's also action, adventure, romance, and humor. There are tsunamis, shipwrecks, mutineers, kings, secret passages, sharks, beer, cannons, and a foul-mouthed parrot. And there's a damsel who can take care of herself, thank you very much.

And that's the wonderful thing about this book. It causes the reader to think while being entertained. And Pratchett accomplishes all of this without being preachy or trying to substitute his answer for your own. In fact, his message seems to be that you must have faith in something--whether it's a god, a science, or a nation. As long as what you believe in is good and furthers mankind, your faith is not wasted. Perhaps his stance is best summed up by one of the characters:

Everything I know makes me believe Imo [the god of the islanders] is in the order that is inherent, amazingly, in all things, and in the way the universe opens to our questioning. When I see the shining path over the lagoon, on an evening like this, at the end of a good day, I believe . . . I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science. (366)

In Nation, as in life, there are no easy answers, but, as in life, it's one helluva ride.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Come On In--The Water's Fine

Skinny Dip

by Carl Hiaasen

Published by Warner Books

4 Out of 5 Stars

Joey Perrone is pissed--and she has every right to be. On their second wedding anniversary, her husband, Chaz, surprises her by booking a romantic Carnival-style cruise. He surprises her again by getting her drunk, throwing her overboard in the middle of the night, and leaving her as shark bait. What Chaz doesn't know is that Joey survives by clinging to a wayward bale of Jamaican weed. She's found, exhausted and a little worse for wear, by Mick Stranahan, a recluse who lives on a private island and shuns the mainland after being forced into early retirement from the police force after killing a politically well-connected criminal. If fate dealt Joey a cruel blow that night on the cruise ship, it's certainly making up for it by creating the perfect situation in which to exact revenge on her philandering and murderous husband. What follows is a bizarre, tangled, and amusing revenge scheme that reveals just what a lowlife Chaz Perrone really is.

Carl Hiaasen books are quick, funny reads with a soul. Skinny Dip is full of quirky characters (such as Tool, the bodyguard with a bullet lodged in the crack of his ass and a penchant for collecting roadside crosses; Red Hammernut, the Yosemite Sam like billionaire making big profit off of thwarting EPA rules; Ricca, Chaz's mistress who has, shall we say, some peculiar artistic tendencies when it comes to personal grooming), implausible plot lines, and witty dialogue. However, for all of the absurdity, there is an underlying environmental message about the Everglades and how big money and political influence can circumvent the very agencies who are trying to do right by our planet. The message is never preachy; Hiaasen simply uses the characters and the plot to point out how corporate corruption is going on beneath our very noses and how industrial farming's mismanagement of natural resources is making itself felt in our water supply, our land, and in the animals who inhabit the very ecosystems we're destroying. However, if you're not looking for an environmental message, that's cool--still consider giving Hiaasen a try. There are plenty of zany capers, madcap adventures, and fun to be had.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Beautifully Crafted, But Emotionally Distant

The Yellow Birds

by Kevin Powers

Published by Little, Brown

3 Out of 5 Stars

I've put off writing this review for a few days now while I mulled the book over because something in it just didn't work for me. And this, indeed, is a conundrum, because this novel should have been tailor-made for me. Generally speaking, I'm a fan of contemporary war novels. I don't enjoy them as escapist entertainment; I take them seriously and I respect them because I want to learn, I want to listen, I want to know what it's like to go to war without actually having to go to war. In some ways, I see it as a duty. If we're going to ask young men and women to fight and die for our country, to risk physical and emotional maiming, we sure as hell need to know precisely what it is we ask of them and honor their service by asking them only to fight when absolutely necessary. Sadly, this hasn't always been our country's policy.

And so I read The Yellow Birds, a novel that is haunting, lyrical, and radiates the pain of taking part in and being witness to slaughter. Written by Kevin Powers (himself an Iraq War veteran), the novel is told using first person point of view, giving our main character, John Bartle, his own voice. In chapters that alternate between his service in Iraq and his painful return home, Bartle internally explores his own guilt and emotional agony over the brutal and inexplicable loss of his friend, Murphy, and the role he himself may have played in the incident.

The fragmented, non-linear structure and sometimes broken, redundant syntax are clearly meant to reflect a narrator whose sense of self has been shattered and, in sifting through the pieces, he is exploring his culpability and who he is meant to be after the war is over. There are some poetic lines and descriptions that are emotionally piercing in their perfection.

All of this should have been right up my alley and yet, for most of the novel, I was strangely unaffected by the account. I had an academic appreciation for what he was trying to achieve and a profound respect for his own service and his attempt to capture the experience, but still felt emotionally distant from the work. In part, I think it is because John Bartle's conflict is so internalized that it's difficult to connect because he keeps everyone at a distance after the death of Murphy. I also think that, if we had the scene of Murphy's death earlier in the narrative (Murphy's death is mentioned continuously throughout, but the circumstances are not revealed until the very end), it might have better framed exactly what John is grappling with for the first 3/4 of the novel. However, I think the main factor is this: to date, I have read no finer depictions of the war experience than those found in the works Tim O'Brien.

Now, that may not be fair to compare Powers to O'Brien, but I couldn't help it. Powers's writing takes several pages from the Tim O'Brien playbook. And I'm not saying Powers does this intentionally, but O'Brien's influence on war narratives is so profound that it has simply become one of the primary sources for how we write about and read about war. Fragmented narrative? Check. Shifting, alternating point of view? Check. Soldier goes AWOL? Check. Soldier returns home unable to re-assimilate into society? Check. Poetic, sometimes esoteric language incongruously used to depict the most horrific, base acts of war? Check. Rambling or broken syntax to depict the soldier's mindset? Check.

There were so many similarities that, every time I found one, I couldn't help but think, "Tim O'Brien does that better." And O'Brien allows us to emotionally connect with his characters in a way that Powers never quite achieved for me. I felt sympathy, but not empathy.

I'm keeping the book because I think a re-read in the future might change my perspective. Despite not being in love with the book, I do admire Powers for what he's done here and certainly respect his service to our country. Any novel that shows people the real cost of war is certainly worth the read.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Short on Bang

Bangkok 8

by John Burdett

Published by Vintage

3 Out of 5 Stars

Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is the son of a Bangkok prostitute (insert your own inappropriate joke regarding the juxtaposition of the words "Bangkok" and "prostitute" here) and a U. S. soldier. As a result, Sonchai is able to walk in both cultures, but belong to neither, and to understand the differences between the farang (a term used for foreigners) and the Thai mindset. He's also a devout Buddhist, which prevents him from taking part in the openly corrupt practices of the Thai police force. He knows far more about his mother's sex life than anyone should (probably "your mom" jokes have no affect on him since his mom has probably serviced everyone he knows) and is fixated on Western high fashion (to the point he can see a woman's shirt and tell which collection and season it's from). Clearly, he's a complex guy. And now, after the death of his partner, he's seeking karmic revenge against the person responsible for the murder. If he gets high on yaa-baa (meth) along the way and pole dances in a strip club, then so be it. Karma's a bitch, but even it must yield when Tina Turner's Simply the Best comes on the jukebox and demands a pole grind.

The murder mystery genre is not one that I usually enjoy, but I couldn't resist the setting--Thailand. Unfortunately, the setting was not enough to really hook me and consisted of what I (in stereotypical fashion, which apparently exists for a reason) imagined a white author writing about the underbelly of the "exotic Orient" would focus on: the sex trade. And it's not that I'm a prude about such things. Instead, it was just that this book contained so much of what I expected that I was, well, kind of bored by it. Everything meant to shock failed: interrogating an erotic performance artist while she shoots darts out of her va-jay-jay, a murder committed by locking the victim in a car full of cobras (cobras who have been hopped up on meth, by the way), the details of a sex change operation, a sadomasochist who comes to Thailand to indulge his darker fantasies, a sex starved blonde FBI agent who just can't keep her hands of Sonchai. Yawn. All of this is fairly predictable and the mystery itself has such a ridiculously laughable denouement that I couldn't feel satisfied with the ending.

However, despite its faults, I can't honestly say that I didn't like it. The chapters were short and there were some interesting glimpses into Buddhist thinking (however, I do question how accurate they are) and the Thai response to sex and prostitution as a means of empowering women. I'm sure there are better fictional sources for learning about contemporary Thai culture and, for that reason, I won't be continuing with the other books in the series.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Doesn't Play by the Numbers


by Rachel Ward

Published by Chicken House/Scholastic

3 Out of 5 Stars

Jem has an unusual gift--when she looks people in the eye, a set of numbers pops into her head. When she was younger, she thought nothing of this. However, when her mother dies of an overdose, the numbers suddenly make sense to 6 year old Jem: the numbers are the month, day, and year on which the person in question will die.

Now 15 years old, Jem has lived a tough life in inner-city London. Shuffled from foster home to foster home and understandably withdrawn and guarded because of her secret, Jem keeps to herself and avoids making contact with anyone else. Kind of tough to make friends when every time you look at them you’re reminded of the date they’re going to kick it, right? All of this changes for Jem when she meets Spider, an energetic boy from the wrong side of the tracks who forces his way into Jem’s life. The problem? Jem knows that Spider will die in two weeks unless she figures out how to manipulate the numbers. Things don’t get any easier for the two when they are spotted fleeing the scene moments before a terrorist attack on the London Eye. Now on the run, time and fate seem to be forcing Jem and Spider into dangerous situations that will surely result in Spider’s rapidly approaching expiration date.

I really enjoyed that Rachel Ward took some risks in this young adult novel. These are not the spoiled, beautiful teenagers that populate so much of this genre today. Life for Jem and Spider is grim and gritty, a lifetime of disappointment and failure all mapped out for them as victims of cyclical poverty and its associated pitfalls. They’ve both been in trouble with the law, and the reader can see how their inherent distrust of a system whose deck seems to be stacked against them leads to one poor decision after another. They’re also both stubbornly obtuse to the fact that they are as much perpetrator as victim in the downward spiral that is their lives.

The one fault that consistently nagged at me was that Jem’s gift is forgotten for entire chapters and seems almost secondary once the characters are on the run. From that point on, it’s a typical chase narrative with Jem and Spider struggling to stay ahead of the mounting manhunt. I was just expecting a little more of the plot to hinge upon Jem’s ability and was disappointed when it didn’t. If I had such a power, I would seriously be messing with some people’s heads. However, because of its strong characterization and one hell of an ending, I enjoyed it enough to give the sequel a shot when it becomes available.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Mystery is Why Did I Read the Whole Thing

The Mystery of Grace

by Charles de Lint

Published by Tor Books

2 Out of 5 Stars

**Some mild spoilers ahead**

On the front of this novel, Alice Hoffman is quoted as saying “No one does it better.” That’s not true. A lot of people do it better. Alice Hoffman, for example. Or Robin McKinley. Or Neil Gaiman.

Altagracia "Grace" Quintero is a self-described gearhead covered head to toe in tattoos, and she gets pissed when people judge her for her ink instead of her character. She loves classic hot rods (which she rebuilds), rockabilly and surf guitar, and Ford Motor Company (and she's a bad MoFo with a FoMoCo tattoo running down her leg to prove it). It's not important that you remember any of these things because she'll repeat them, over and over again. Oh, but other than her referring to her grandfather as "abuelo", you will have to remember that she's Mexican-American, which begs the question as to why this was important, unless it's so that de Lint can show off his limited and stereotyped surface knowledge of Mexican culture and the American Southwest. He must have watched a special on the Travel Channel.

Grace has just met the man of her dreams--John. Sure, he's pretty straight-laced and doesn't have any ink, but what he lacks in body art, he more than makes up for in . . . well, I'm not sure. It's just one of those "eyes locked across the crowded room" scenarios that leads to them going to bed together. But here's the problem for Grace: she's dead. Yup, kicked the bucket, pushing up daisies, groundhogs are bringing her mail, she has shuffled off this mortal coil. She's only allowed two passes back to the real world each year (Halloween and May's Eve) and, wouldn't you know it?, she doesn't meet her true love until she's all corpsified. Ain’t death a bitch? The rest of the novel is about these existence-crossed lovers trying to figure out how to be together. John, as he waits for the months to pass by, develops a stalkerish interest in—you guessed it—classic hot rods, rockabilly and surf guitar, and FoMoCo. Grace, as she waits, decides to rebuild a car in the afterlife. The afterlife Grace finds herself in isn’t heaven or hell, but seems to be a purgatory where people who die within the area in which Grace lived cross over, along with the building in which they died. So the landscape is constantly shifting, but everything else is pretty much just like life. The dead play cards, read books from the local library, listen to music at the local record shop, and basically wait for their two “get out of jail free” passes back to earth.

So what was my problem with this novel? Oh, there were so many. Weak characterization; long, tedious passages (the afterlife has never been so boring); conversations that offer shortcuts to exposition; and the fact that the last 1/3 seems to belong to a totally different novel. Some plotlines are just dropped altogether (for example, John just disappears off the page part of the way through the book after de Lint has spent so much time developing this relationship upon which the entire plot seems to hinge). This may be my first and last de Lint novel as I have the sneaking suspicion that the best thing about his novels is the cover art.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

There's Nothing Wrong With a Little Trouble

Trouble Will Find Me

The National

Released by 4AD Records

5 Out of 5 Stars

Melancholy is a word that has become synonymous with the indie rock sound of The National, but there are some surprises on their sixth studio album Trouble Will Find Me.  Don’t worry—for those who love the band’s trademark brooding nature, there’s still plenty of the outsider’s angst and alienation (Humiliation), the introvert’s painful interactions with a world he doesn’t understand how to be in  (Demons), addictive relationships that seem based more on the identification with another fragmented, damaged individual than on romantic longing (This is the Last Time).  However, the pervading darkness of previous albums seems to have given away (ever so slightly, mind) to, dare I say, the tiniest, faintest, is-it-really-there sliver of optimism?

The cover image of Trouble Will Find Me features a female face bisected with a mirror, so that one half appears to be asleep while the other half is disconcertingly awake.  This duality of awareness and unconsciousness frames the album’s lyrical content, which often juxtaposes a cautious hope and weary resignation.  Lead singer Matt Berninger writes song lyrics that reject predictable patterns—opting for a word that doesn’t quite rhyme when a more clichéd one will do, or squeezing in more syllables than the music’s rhythm seems willing to allow because he has so much more to say.  The result creates complex surprises for listeners who have become jaded to the predictability of shallow pop lyrics.  His eccentric turns of phrase often focus on the mundane, refusing to idealize life in overwrought, poetic language because life itself in its barest, most raw form is poetry.  In The National’s distinct sound, it is Berninger’s resonant and haunting baritone and the band’s orchestral layers that bring eloquence and emotional weight to these everyday fears and neuroses.

Unlike previous albums, there is an unexpected buoyancy to the music, if not always to the lyrics.  In Sea of Love, Berninger fears the prospect of succumbing to love, despite watching others willingly surrender  (“I see people on the floor.  They slide into the sea . . . I see you rushing down [don’t drag me in]”).  His words worry that “If I stay here, trouble will find me,” but the upbeat tempo suggests that trouble may be just what he needs; perhaps it will take “trouble” to upset the routine and force him to live outside of himself.  Don’t Swallow the Cap reveals a speaker who recognizes “I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion.  I can’t get the balance right.”  This divergence is further emphasized by Berninger singing in the upper registers of his vocal range, layered over his own mumbling, more familiar bass.  The result is a pleasing rasp that suggests he’s closer to finding the balance than he might think. 

For the purists, there are still several more traditionally National tracks.  In Demons, an awkward Berninger resigns himself to an inability to maintain an optimistic outlook (“Every day I start so great and then the sunlight dims . . . When I walk into a room I do not light it up.  Fuck.”).  In This is the Last Time, the “sea of love” has become a swamp, sucking him under and yet “You’re the only thing I want.”  Repeatedly chanting “this is the last time” as a mantra, he seems to be trying to convince himself (and us) that he will eventually leave, though he knows the cyclical nature of the relationship will drag him down again.  In the achingly reflective Slipped, he is routinely drawn back to the place (emotional and physical) where a relationship fell apart, knowing his culpability as “I’ll never be anything you ever want me to be."

In terms of sound, Trouble Will Find Me has more in common with Alligator and Boxer than 2010’s High Violet, which featured a darker rock sound.  While I enjoyed the 2010 effort, this return to a more stripped down, poignant album is a reminder of why I fell in love with The National in the first place, and yet there’s enough difference here to hint at the promise of all that is to come.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Lost Its Way

The Lost Gate

by Orson Scott Card

Published by Tor Books

1 Out of 5 Stars

Tedium, thy name is The Lost Gate.

This book promises a lot with its spectacular opening chapter (I even remember telling my mom after page 25 or so that "This is going to be a good one"; thanks to Orson Scott Card, I lied to my mother), but quickly fizzles like a cheap firework. The premise is one that is becoming hackneyed: the gods of the ancient world did and do exist. However, Card's novel provides a unique take: the gods of the ancients were actually beings from a world called Westil. In Westil, mages with powers connected to the elements are the norm, but on Earth they are worshiped as gods. The Westilians travel from their planet to Earth through the magic of the Gatemages, those whose skill is to open portals to other places. In traveling through a gate, a Westilian's power is enhanced; therefore, traveling back and forth between worlds is necessary to maintain one's power. So far, so good for the Westilians--they can bounce back and forth between two worlds, earning devout human worshipers with every reappearance on earth, while increasing and refining their own particular brand of magery.

It's good to be a Westilian, until the Norse Gatemage, Loki, suddenly destroys all of the gates and those Westilians on Earth are left behind. As the centuries pass and one generation passes into another, the Westilian families go into hiding, removing themselves from the human world and intermarrying as they desperately try to keep the bloodlines pure as their powers begin to fade. They also splinter along ethnic lines, with the Norths (Norse gods) ultimately living in North America. Because Loki was their Gatemage, the other families blame them for their exile status. The families wage war on one another and all agree that, because Gatemages are tricksters and liars (and a living Gatemage could give one family a tactical advantage and eventual dominion over the others), a Gatemage born to any family must immediately be put to death.

Cool, huh? I thought so, too. And then the whole thing went to hell.

The novel takes place in the present day and is the story of Danny North, the son of the two most powerful mages of the North family. To everyone's disappointment, Danny appears to be a drekka--a Westilian who shows no affinity for any form of magery. Poor Danny. He just doesn't fit in. The only things he excels in are languages and the ability to get into places others can't--all signs of a Gatemage. When Danny discovers that is his latent power, he runs away for fear that he'll be killed.

There was so much potential here and yet so much went wrong:

1) Danny is an inconsistent and obnoxious character. He inexplicably undergoes a transformation from endearing and likable in the opening chapters to an irritating smart ass. You know that kid in class who was loud and convinced he was funny even though he was not the least bit clever? That's Danny. He'll say or do something that is apparently meant to be funny (and it's not) and think to himself, "Oh, well. I guess it's just the trickster in me." Just in case we missed it. He also employs a peculiar tactic when confronted by policemen: remove all of his clothing in a public place and somehow insinuate that he's being sexually assaulted. How weird ass is that? Especially since there are always plenty of witnesses who should be able to testify that no inappropriate advance was made toward the freak kid standing there in his tighty-whities. And this ridiculous scenario happens more than once.

2) There are several incongruent plot leaps. When something major happens to Danny, there's no reasonable explanation for it. I'm trying not to say too much here because I don't want to give away spoilers, but it's like reading the work of an elementary child ("So there was this horse and this horse loved to eat grass and play in the sunshine. And the horse had another horse friend and they went to this big mountain and then . . . there were ZOMBIES! Yeah, zombies, but they were dolphin zombies and since they were zombies, they didn't need to breathe water and so they pulled themselves up on land because they thought they wanted to see if chickens tasted like fish, but they didn't find out because ALIENS showed up! Aliens who were looking for purple glitter . . ." You get the idea. The dots do not connect.)

3) The novel's climax happens abruptly and the resolution seems forced. It has a very "gotta wrap this up" feel to it.

4) Danny obtains Nikes at Wal-Mart. If you can buy Nikes at Wal-Mart, I hate you because somehow you're getting the good stuff while our Wal-Mart sells us crap.

5) In one scene, Danny is practically raped by an emotionally unstable woman. Now, I'm no prude and I'm not going to make the same accusation another reviewer did, calling it "pornographic" (to which I can only say, m'am, you don't know porn if this met your criteria). My problem with it is the question of why? It added nothing to the story, it served no purpose, this character quickly faded into the background, Danny wasn't traumatized nor did it seem to flip his freak switch. It was superfluous and it's only intent seemed to be shock value. I'm all for shock value, but it has to come in a combo pack with purpose.

6) When Danny decides to attend a regular high school, he researches how to be the kid with secret powers who only wants to blend in by reading young adult literature. He even name drops some real titles, which made me wonder if this was literature's version of product placement. But, yeah, young adult fantasy lit, that's what I'd research because those glittering Cullens playing baseball in the rain sure knew how to blend in.

7) The best story and the one that probably should have been developed into the narrative of the novel was the alternating storyline of Wad on Westil. Those were the only chapters in which I was interested and they were filled with intrigue and plot twists and romance and suspense, yet they weren't given nearly the same page-time as Danny's boring little tale.

The Lost Gate ends with a cliffhanger that is clearly meant to hook the reader for the next book in the Mither Mages series. Needless to say, I won't be back for seconds.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Butchering Stories From Literature's Finest Authors

Deadpool Killustrated

by Cullen Bunn

Illustrated by Matteo Lolli

Published by Marvel

4 Out of 5 Stars

Scrooge Finds It's Time
to Pay Up
The Merc with a Mouth is distraught after the events of Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe as his battle to rid the world of superhuman heroes and villains has failed. Deadpool understands that the world he inhabits is a fictional one and realizes that you can't get rid of present day characters as long as their archetypes exist. So what's a smart ass mercenary to do other than threaten people smarter than he is to build a time machine to the "Ideaverse" so he can rampage through the literary canon like some kind of berserker Marty McFly?

Deadpool Killustrated is a limited 4 issue storyline, which turns out to be a good call. While the first three issues were a lot of fun (and what I'm primarily basing the 4 stars on), the final issue fizzles with an anticlimactic ending (although, to be fair, the series will lead into the Deadpool Kills Deadpool story arc and may offer more resolution). The
Tom Sawyer Has Painted
His Last Fence
opening issues offer a wisecracking Deadpool gleefully slaughtering literary greats like Moby Dick, the Little Mermaid, Scrooge, the Little Women (who prove to be a tougher lot than one would think), Tom Sawyer, Scylla, Charybdis, and a host of other literary greats. Even the Senators who stabbed Julius Caesar have the tables turned in a single panel vignette. I have to admit, watching the carnage of literary greats who have plagued many a student with required reading was fun (although I got a little teary eyed when Bagheera bought it). The cover art alone is worth a depraved giggle or two. As Deadpool carves his way through the Ideaverse, the archetypal patterns begin to buckle and we see the characters shift between their traditional and modern incarnations, a trick author Cullen Bunn clearly has a lot of fun with.

It's not long, however, before Sherlock Holmes is on the case. Determined to track down Deadpool 
Can Holmes Solve the Case?
and put a stop to his mass murdering ways, he assembles a group of literary heroes: Natty Bumpo, Beowulf, Hua Mulan, and, of course, John Watson. Now that's a motley crew of literary misfits to rival The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And it's also a colossal letdown as these characters are limited in their actions other than showing up behind Holmes and looking menacing. If you're going to put together a group like that, for the sake of the multiverse, have them do something other than pose and lend literary street cred to the narrative.

Despite my disappointment with the final issue, it was still entertaining enough to be worthy of a 4 star.

You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive


by Elmore Leonard

Published by HarperTorch

5 Out of 5 Stars

Why did I love this book? Two words: Raylan Givens, my favorite kick ass modern day cowboy with a fondness for ice cream.

Pronto, however, is not exclusively Raylan's story, though he figures as a prominent character once he does arrive on the scene. This is actually the story of Harry Arno, a bookie who has decided that in one more year he's going to retire and go to Italy. Italy holds a special place in Harry's heart because he once shot a deserter there during World War II and it was there that he saw Ezra Pound (not once, but twice). This leads to a peculiar obsession for a man like Harry--he's an expert on Ezra Pound (the English teacher in me loved this quirky little twist), can quote lines from memory and reads Pound biographies despite the fact that he doesn't really understand his poetry (does anyone, really? And if you thought to yourself, "Why, yes, yes I do", then I think you're a damn liar). It's also amusing how his fixation on Pound affects those around him (his girlfriend, Joyce, memorizes all of the terrible things about ol' Ezra and even Raylan, after being assigned to escort Harry, goes to the library and checks out some of Pound's poetry, though he's puzzled by everything he reads and soon gives up). But I digress.

Harry's plan seems simple and obtainable, but, in true Leonard fashion, things go caddiwompas. The police want to bring down Harry's boss, Jimmy Cap, a 350 lbs. mob boss with a penchant for butterflies and sun tanning. So what do they do? They indirectly inform Jimmy that Harry's been skimming from him. The problem is that Harry has been skimming--for years, in fact. Jimmy Cap puts out a hit on Harry and, ciao, baby, Harry decides to move up his retirement date and leave the country. Raylan Givens is the U.S. Marshal who decides to go to Italy and try to save Harry from himself and from the hitman he knows has followed Harry.

I will readily admit to knowing nothing about the character of Raylan until watching Justified on FX. On the series, Raylan is a BAMF in a Stetson. That's played down a bit in the book, but I enjoyed it just the same. In the novel Raylan comes off as being a few bricks shy of a load--a good ol' boy in over his head, until you begin to realize that's the persona he's trying to project. It catches people off-guard and gives him an edge. No one knows exactly how to take him, but, make no mistake, Raylan is smarter than your average bear and is capable of extreme violence if necessary. If Raylan has a flaw it's that his sense of justice is so old school black and white that it creates a type of naiveté. In a world where words mean little, Raylan still expects a promise to mean something (after all, it's his willingness to take Harry Arno's word that allows Harry to elude Raylan's grasp twice and thwart his hopes of a promotion with the Marshals service). With his Old West code of ethics and hardscrabble Kentucky coal mining background, Raylan is a complex and entertaining character who makes for an intriguing juxtaposition with the world of Miami's crime syndicate. I'll definitely be reading Riding the Rap and tracking down the Raylan Givens' short stories to sustain me until the next season of Justified.

Riding the Rap

by Elmore Leonard

Published by HarperTorch

5 Out of 5 Stars

For those unfamiliar with the television show Justified, this novel (along with Pronto) serves as the inspiration for the story of Raylan Givens, a U. S. Marshal from Harlan, Kentucky, who has a gun on his hip, a Stetson on his head, and a chip on his shoulder. Torn between coal country's familial "code of honor" and his own desire to be an Old West cowboy meting out justice based on a dogmatic understanding of right and wrong, Raylan often finds himself in the questionable middle ground of moral decisions. At least, that's the tv version. In the novels, Raylan is an interesting character, but not nearly as angry or hell-bent on a path of self-destruction. I prefer the television version, but the books are still well worth reading and it's interesting to see how Justified has molded Leonard's original concept of Raylan into the perfect anti-hero.

In the novel, Raylan is not banished to Harlan, Kentucky, after shooting a local Florida mobster, so we don't get to see him interact with his past or the culture he left behind when he joined the Marshal's service. Instead, Riding the Rap picks up where Pronto left off. Raylan is still seeing Harry Arno's ex-stripper ex-girlfriend, Joyce, but is beginning to realize that their relationship has become something of habit. They're both sticking around because they have nowhere else to go. The fact that Joyce is now acting as Harry's personal chauffeur isn't helping things. A retired bookie, Harry is making final collections when a former client decides to kidnap him Middle-Eastern-terrorist-style until Harry breaks and offers to pay his own ransom. In the meantime, Joyce demands that Raylan look into Harry's mysterious disappearance and Raylan grudgingly begins piecing things together with his own peculiar investigative methods (which usually depend upon throwing people off guard with his cowboy in a suit persona).

There are some twists here that aren't in the series, and I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Reverend Dawn, a young psychic that readers suspect, despite some of her obvious scams, may be possessed of a limited psychic ability. The scenes where she and Raylan talk are full of Leonard's usual witty banter and sharp dialogue. (Suggestion for Justified producers: how 'bout let's kill Winona off and bring in Dawn? Just saying.)

In addition, there are some nice surprises for fans of the show when you see how key scenes in the novel have been translated to the television version. My favorite was the opening scene of the novel in which Raylan handcuffs Dale Crowe Junior to the steering wheel and has him drive himself (with Raylan riding shotgun) to jail. This was one of my favorite scenes in the television show. There were some slight modifications, such as he's now Dewey Crowe and a white supremacist from Harlan, but, for the most part, the dialogue was lifted directly from the book, proving how brilliantly Leonard's work translates to film.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Review of People of the Book (Or, Why I Hate the Kindle)

People of the Book

by Geraldine Brooks

Published by Viking Adult

4 Out of 5 Stars  

Brooks's novel is a fictionalized account of the real Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish religious text noteworthy for its inclusion of an illuminated manuscript and for its survival through turmoil and the hostility towards Jews that has erupted time and again over the centuries in Europe and Eastern Europe. The novel is told from the perspective of Hanna Heath, an expert in book restoration, who is called in to restore the text for display. While working on the book, Hanna finds a few curiosities that she keeps and carefully labels: a butterfly wing, a small sample of some wine stained pages, salt crystals, a white hair, and the notation of some missing decorative clasps. As Hanna investigates each of these items and their origins to gain insight into the Haggadah's past, the reader is presented with the story of each noteworthy item in its own stand alone chapter (stories that Hanna herself can never learn as the evidence she finds only provides her with a basis for conjecture and hypothesis). Each story is unique and not necessarily connected to the others. While the novel has been compared to The Da Vinci Code, it's a far cry from Robert Langdon's action-adventure chase through Europe in pursuit of an explosive secret that might change religion as we know it. Instead, the pacing is slower--the pacing of a scholar motivated by the desire to simply know, even if definitive answers aren't available. And, though the novel explores the nature of Jewish/Muslim/Christian relationships throughout the ages, it doesn't seek to lecture about morality or about what one should (or should not) believe.

Despite enjoying it, I will admit that People of the Book has some flaws. The story of Hanna Heath and her strained relationship with her ultra-feminist, professional mother is cliched and not given enough room to become a realistic exploration of a such a complicated relationship. In addition, a few plot points are contrived, but I can forgive that simply because the book appealed to the book lover in me, which is a nice segue way into . . . WHY I HATE THE KINDLE (and all other eReader devices).

First off, don't lecture me about how this is the future and I need to embrace it. If you own a Kindle, fine. Enjoy. I'm not suggesting that the privilege be taken away from you. However, I'll not be tempted by the siren song of fashionable technology. I love books. I love the way they feel. I like physically seeing the progress I've made as I turn page after page. I love the cover art. I love how books look on a shelf (in home decorating magazines, I delight in trying to identify the books on the shelves of well-appointed dens and studies). I like to select which books are going on vacation with me, agonizing over which ones might suit my mood. And, when I see someone reading a book, I will often become a creepy Peeping Tom of sorts as I try to catch a glimpse of the book cover so I can see what they're reading. I judge you by what book you're reading--if you're reading Neil Gaiman, I want to know you; conversely, if you're reading Twilight, I may be silently hoping that you get to join the undead (but in a more permanent dead sort of way). So much of that is lost with an eReader. And, after reading People of the Book, I'm aware of how much history can be lost. Not just the tiny fragments that get wedged into the bindings and between the pages, but the history of the people who owned and cherished the book. A world where physical books become obsolete and everyone has an entire library on one portable reading device is also a frightening possibility. How easy then for the next dictator to destroy our beloved texts. Smash one eReader and hundreds, thousands of books are permanently lost--far more efficient than book burnings. It's the impermanence of it all that scares me. Not only that, I think that obsession with books, recognizing and identifying with others because you notice the Christopher Moore font on the book cover or the tell-tell cover art of a Tim O'Brien paperback, helps create a reading community that we're connected to and a part of. How many chance encounters, spontaneous conversations, or just the simple nod of respect to complete strangers with whom we briefly feel connected when we realize we're reading the same author on the same bus--how many of those moments are lost when we're all carrying around the same reading device that indicates no individuality or reading preference to those around us? Will we feel as open to asking a complete stranger, "What are you reading?" Obviously, not all books are as important as the Haggadah, but I like to think that we all cherish our own quaint libraries and someday perhaps they will tell the world about who we were.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Oh, What a Web He Weaves

Anansi Boys

by Neil Gaiman

Published by William Morrow

4 Out of 5 Stars

A Digression and a Review:

When I was a child who was much too prone to being serious for her own good, there was a catalpa tree in our backyard. Now, if you don't know what a catalpa tree is, it's worth a Google. Catalpas are beautiful and exotic, with giant leaves we used as "plates" to have fairy-like meals of mulberry and honeysuckle (with mimosa blossoms as a bit of garnish), giant bean pods that hung down like sylvan fingers ready to ensnare an unsuspecting child, white orchid-like flowers that would shower down while we swung on the tire swing below. In its boughs, I could pretend to be Pocahontas, a female Mowgli, or Jana of the Jungle. I would climb up and look down to the ground so far below, filled with delicious terror at how impossibly high I was. This tree seemed massive--big enough to hold all of my dreams and wildest flights of fancy. It, to paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, seemed to hold dawn and doom in its branches.

As an adult, however, this tree that looms so gargantuan in my imaginary landscape seems small and shrunken, like a wizened grandparent, its limbs not so big, and I realize that, while I felt like I was climbing to the top of a skyscraper, I was barely 10 feet off the ground.

I bring this up because this is the closest approximation I can make to the difference between reading as a child and reading as an adult. As a child, there was a magic in stories, and I'm not talking about pixie dust and wands (although there was certainly some of that). There was a magic in not knowing (or caring) where a story was going. A magic to realizing why, hey, that main character is kind of like me. A magic to finding that you could read the same story over and over and over again and it would never get old and would never be the same story twice, not really. The colors were brighter. The emotions were palpable. There was nothing but possibility. And, yes, there's certainly still magic in the stories I read as an adult, but it's never quite the same, is it? I'm a little more jaded in that, as soon as I can predict where the story is going, I lose a little interest. There's a little more cynicism, a little more impatience with an "I've been here before" narrative, and a little more sadness in knowing that I can never immerse myself in adult stories with the same abandon as that 10 year old reading under the catalpa tree.

Now, I bring this up to explain that this is why I love Neil Gaiman. Gaiman can, more so than any other author, create that childlike awe of story within the adult me without telling a children's story. It's a peculiar and wonderful literary alchemy, this ability to take the adult world, the "real" world, and transform it into a place where one can find the same charm, humor, unpredictability, and enchantment found in the best children's narratives. And Anansi Boys is such a book.

A companion book to American Gods, Anansi Boys, follows the story of Fat Charlie, son of Mr. Nancy, a rascal of a man with a wicked sense of humor, an eye for the ladies, and a knack for purposely embarrassing his introverted, sensitive son. When Mr. Nancy dies, the now grown-up, soon to be married, and tenuously employed Fat Charlie is relieved that his father can never humiliate him again; however he soon finds out that life is not going to settle into a mundane, predictable pattern for him. He learns that his father was Anansi, the trickster spider god of African folklore, and he learns that he has a brother, Spider, who inherited his father's mischievous spirit and magical abilities. It's not long before the reunion between the two brothers breaks out into a serious (and frequently hilarious) case of sibling rivalry, with Spider usurping Fat Charlie's apartment, girlfriend, and life, and Fat Charlie going to extreme lengths to rid himself of his demigod brother.

Anansi Boys lacks the darkness of American Gods and is a much more whimsical, comedic read. Initially, this did cause a bit of a disconnect for me until I gave in to the story without trying to connect it with or hold it up to my expectations of American Gods. While following the adventures of Fat Charlie, I found myself laughing aloud and relishing each twist and turn in the story (as well as looking forward to the humorous "in which" chapter titles). Gaiman's love of story is evident and, as we learn through his depiction of Anansi folktales, the stories we tell and the stories we live are important not just for entertainment, but for creating the world as it should be. And the world as it should be is something as close as possible to a catalpa tree as seen through the eyes of a child--a place where anything and everything is possible, because that's where real magic resides.

Things Aren't Always Better With Will Smith

I Am Legend

by Richard Matheson

Published by Orb Books

4 Out of 5 Stars

Two points I want to make: A) the movie was crap, especially when compared to the book, and B) this is so much more than just a vampire novel.

First, the whole movie thing. In both, Robert Neville is the last human on Earth--and that is where all similarities end. If you've seen the movie, it won't ruin the book for you as the two are nothing alike. The setting is different, the protagonist is different (except for a shared name), the creatures are different (vampires in the book and nocturnal zombie-like creatures in the movie), and the plot points--don't even get me started on the plot points. I can understand why diehard fans of the novel were upset by the movie. This is a case of film ruining a superior narrative. Robert Neville's pain, perfectly captured by Matheson, just doesn't translate to the screen.

Second, sure it can be classified as a vampire book, but the vampires are somewhat in the background. What takes center stage in the book is Robert Neville's aching loneliness as he confronts the reality that he is destined to live the rest of his life without the hope of human contact or companionship--what's outside his door at night isn't nearly as terrifying as that prospect. The portrayal of his progression through the stages of acceptance is heartbreaking (the dog chapter was almost more than I could bear). Moral issues abound: what's the point in trying to survive if you know you're the last of your kind? Does it matter if you live to see another day? There are no easy answers, especially as his situation is given complexity by human nature's innate tenacity and stubborness. There's a lot to think about here, which makes it more satisfying than your run of the mill horror novel.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Fables and I Break Up

Redemption in Indigo

by Karen Lord

Published by Small Beer Press

3 out of 5 Stars

What a lukewarm cup of "meh." After all of the stellar reviews, I just knew this was going to be ah-may-zing, but, alas, it's basically a fable. Ever since Paulo Coelho's New Agey-craptastic The Alchemist, me + fables = nervous twitch. Because I start to develop a Community's Jeff Winger like aversion to the feeling that someone's trying to teach me something--and I never learn anything! This didn't turn out to be as didactic as The Alchemist because it's more focused on the storytelling than on the lesson, but just waiting for that other moral-of-the-story shoe to fall was mentally exhausting.

The basic premise of the story is that the deity known as Chance has become hardened toward mankind. Over the years, he has watched as men have squandered second chances and made a mockery/waste of the gift that is life. For this reason, the other gods no longer trust him with the Chaos Stick, the instrument of chance to nudge events toward a certain probability. The Chaos Stick is stolen from Chance and given to a woman named Paama who has proven herself to be kind, patient, and impervious to the suggestions of the minor Trickster deities who sometimes inhabit the bodies of insects and stir up mischief whenever possible. When Chance discovers Paama has his power, he sets about trying to get it back.

The story was marginally entertaining and it was at least a quick read, but even at that the plot seemed to drag on. This is not necessarily a criticism of Lord as the book does what it's intended to do: mimic the narrative style of a traditional storyteller who is in no hurry to get to the end of the tale and is even eager to follow parallel narratives to their endings before bringing the main story to a close. I suppose this storytelling style had a certain charm when villagers gathered around the campfire each night to listen to the newest installment of the tale (it's not like there was tv to watch or books to read, so I guess sitting in the dark and listening to an old man ramble on was the cat's pajamas after a long day of running from lions and whatnot). However, this meandering quality did not translate well into written form for me as I expected it to be more cohesive and more to the point. The plot itself was like a dog chasing rabbits in the middle of a hunt, and the characters were fairly uninteresting and one-dimensional (except for Paama, but even she was bland). Again, all of this is as it should be for a fable. What I've really learned from this reading experience is that fables and I need to break up and maybe see other people. Don't look at me like that, fables--it's not me, it's you.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Only Terror Was Knowing I Had to Finish It

The Terror

by Dan Simmons

Published by Little, Brown and Company

1 Out of 5 Stars

September 7, 2010: I don't want to talk about it right now. It's too soon and the pain is still too fresh. I shall review on another day.

September 17, 2010: It's been well over a week since my encounter with The Terror and the thought of writing a review still exhausts me, but here it goes.

I have read many glowing reviews of The Terror. That is, in fact, why I bought it. I mean, check out this kick ass plot:

Two British ships, the Terror and the Erebus, are frozen in the polar sea for years, waiting in vain for a summer thaw. This is, of course, based upon the doomed Franklin expedition, so we have some serious history going on here. Now, add to that a dash of the supernatural--something is out there on the ice. It terrorizes the men, seeming to materialize from nowhere. It's three times the size of a polar bear and has the vicious, bloodthirsty nature of a predator, as well as the keen intelligence of a man. It's like a giant cat toying with the two ships as if they were terrified mice in a corner. There's nowhere to go, guns don't faze the the thing the men dub "The Terror", and, now, the food supply is running out.

That's some frightening shit. It's the arctic. That alone is frightening. It can drive a man insane. It's the nothingness. The whiteness. The endless-ness. Howard Moon and Vince Noir knew not to take the tundra lightly.

And that's part of what ruined the book in the beginning. All I could think as I read the first few chapters was "ice floe, nowhere to go." I think that might have taken away from the tone a bit.

But here are some other more text-based reasons for the seething black pit of hatred that I have for this book:

a) History or supernatural, Simmons needs to pick a side because the two storylines always seemed to run parallel to one another and never quite came together. It was like, "Okay, for 100 pages, I'm going to have the men fearing for their lives as this thing attacks them. I'm going to build tension and suspense and have my readers empathetically shitting down both legs! And then I'm going to flashback for 50 pages to boring nautical talk amongst stuffy British types before the expedition and then spend 150 pages talking about Welsh Wigs and Goldner food tins and building sledges and maybe I'll even talk about buggering, but no mention whatsoever of the monster for another 50 pages!" Simmons was at his best when describing the encounters between the men and the thing on the ice, but these moments were so few and far between that I just got to the point where I didn't care anymore.

b) Too much historical minutiae. The book should have been 300 pages shorter. There were entire sections that didn't add anything to the narrative. I like my history like I like my men: short and concise.

c) Scurvy is some wicked bad shite. A slow death by scurvy is undoubtedly one of the worst ways to die. But do you know what's worse? A slow death by reading endless accounts of the symptoms of scurvy.

d) There are no likeable characters. In fact, there is little to differentiate one man from another. If you left out the dialogue tags, it would have sounded like one man having a conversation with himself. The only character I like is Pangle, who, alas, appears in just a chapter or two of this 766 page behemoth.

e) I was really pissed when I finally found out what the thing was. The main reason? THAT'S what I wanted to read more about. And it took roughly 700 pages to get to a point where I was actually interested and intrigued and it cut me off.

There were some bright spots. When Simmons wrote about the thing attacking the men, leaving bait for them and taunting them, he evoked moments that were truly terrifying and suspenseful. However, there just weren't enough of them. Sure, the attempts to survive against cold, hunger, and disease should have been compelling stuff, but they made for anemic reading when pitted against a terrifying adversary without name or shape. Also, the chapter in which the men throw a carnivale and erect tents that mirror the rooms in Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death is admittedly brilliant.

When it comes right down to it, though, The Mighty Boosh did a far superior job of capturing the terror of the arctic. When Howard admonishes Vince that "The arctic is no respecter of fashion," I still get chills. The same cannot be said of my reaction to The Terror

Friday, June 7, 2013

Emotionally Brave, But Underwhelming

A Question of Manhood

by Robin Reardon

Published by Kensington

2 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

This is a tough one, but I'm going to go with 2 1/2 stars. It's tough because I admire any young adult author who is willing to tackle the issue of homosexuality in a way that teaches the need for acceptance and understanding, but doesn't do so in a way that fails to acknowledge the powerful social stigmas and gender stereotypes that still hold sway over pre-teens and teens grappling with what it means to be gay. However, in terms of plot and timeliness, the novel just didn't deliver for me.

The novel is set in 1972 and Paul Landon's brother, Chris, is serving in Vietnam. The novel opens as Chris, the family's golden child who voluntarily enlisted to serve, is home on leave before the Thanksgiving holiday. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that much of my disappointment stems from the fact that I thought this novel was going to have a lot more to do with the Vietnam War and with the experience of a gay soldier. If it hadn't been for the Vietnam reference, I would have never picked up the book.) Chris is there long enough to basically set up the time period: he tells some war stories, he throws around some Vietnam military jargon, and brings his brother a pair of Ho Chi Minh sandals. These obligatory Vietnam narrative motifs are basically all we get in the way of setting; if it hadn't been for this early scene, the rest of the book could have just as well taken place in the present day. The night before he leaves, Chris finds out that his boyfriend, Mason, was killed in Vietnam. Paul hears Chris crying in the room next door and when he goes to check on his brother, Chris reveals that he's gay, makes him promise not to tell mom and dad, and tells him that he's going back to Vietnam to die because he has nothing to live for. A few pages later, the family learns that Chris died a hero's death shortly after returning to Vietnam. Talk about a wham, bam, thank you m'am set up. It's not subtle and a bit too contrived for my tastes.

This moves us into the part of the novel with which I was impressed. The aftermath of Chris's death is handled well and with attention to emotional truth. Paul's mother walks around in a catatonic state, his father responds with stoic bravado and advises Paul to be a man and be strong for his mother, and Paul doesn't know what the hell that means. As if the transition between child and adult isn't hard enough, Paul's coming of age is compounded by the burden of carrying his brother's secret, being denied his own guilt and right to grieve by his father, and wanting to break away from Chris's shadow as it's impossible to live up to a brother who was idolized in life and is now revered in death. Paul also grapples with his own questions about homosexuality: can it be cured? does one "choose" to be gay? is it a sin? if not, why is it illegal? what exactly does being gay with another man mean? It's easy for adults to brush these aside as stupid questions, but they only remain stupid and a breeding ground for prejudice if they aren't answered, and I'm guessing in the 1970's there weren't many open and honest answers that a suburban teenager could expect. In typical teenage fashion, Paul internally deals with all of this and makes some poor choices along the way and, in typical parent-of-a-teenager fashion, his father always misinterprets Paul's intent and motivation.

As punishment for his sins (little Paul visited a prostitute and got caught. Stupid Paul. First rule of visiting a prostitute when you're a teenager: don't get caught because you sure as shit don't want your mom to know about that), Paul loses all privileges and is forced to work in his dad's pet shop with J.J., a college student working there for the summer and--guess what?--J.J. is gay. Now Paul has the opportunity to work through the anger and the disgust he feels toward his brother, as well as his grief, since J.J. can be a stand-in substitute for Chris and guide Paul through the labyrinthine questions, prejudices, and stereotypes he has built up in his mind. And it's the pet shop section where the novel lost it for me again. You see, J.J. is the 1970's answer to the Dog Whisperer. He trains dogs who have been abused or neglected by their owners. And apparently every dog in the tri-state area has an issue because this part of the novel lapses into J.J. working his canine magic on dog, after dog, after dog, after dog. Believe it or not, this gets old after a while. By the time he made his 57th speech on dogs being pack animals, establishing his presence as an Alpha male in the dog's eyes, and hitching some sort of little chain around the dog's head, I was ready to hang myself with a leash. And I get what Reardon was trying to do here; J.J.'s amazing calm and ability with dogs comes from learning how to deal with prejudice and bullies. I just think we could have gotten that message after 3 dog training sessions and shortened this sucker up by about 50 pages.

So, here's my beef with the novel: this is clearly a didactic novel for teens, so why is this set during the 1970's against the backdrop of Vietnam? This is Vietnam-Lite and I know Reardon didn't necessarily mean this to be a Vietnam novel, but it seems to date and undermine the novel's message. It's a bit like reading Uncle Tom's Cabin; it's relevant for a particular time and place, but the message that slavery is wrong isn't one I particularly need to hear as I knew that to be a truth before reading the novel. Living in the rural South, I know there are still some vehemently held prejudices out there. However, I don't know that reading a novel about a brother grappling with his brother's sexuality in the 1970's is particularly relevant to a contemporary teenager. I think this could have been more powerful and timelier if Paul had lost a brother to the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, allowing for more of a contemporary connection with the character. However, I respect and admire Reardon's message and handling of the subject matter in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the issues involved.