Wednesday, July 31, 2013

And That's Still One Mohican Too Many

The Last of the Mohicans
by James Fenimore Cooper
Published by Oxford University Press
1 Out of 5 Stars

If time travel were possible, I'd go back in time and assassinate James Fenimore Cooper before he ever put pen to paper (in this imaginary scenario, let it be known that I also possess mad ninja skills). Why do I hate Cooper so much? Let me count the ways:

1) His never-ending description of every rock, twig, river, etc., with which the main characters come into contact. No pebble escapes his scrutiny, no leaf his lingering gaze. This book would have been 3 pages long without the description. And even then, it would have been 3 pages too long.

2) Native American dialogue is limited to the occasional exclamation of "Hugh." Not Hugh as in Hefner, but something more like "huh." They're a quiet people, apparently. I'm shocked they don't greet each other by saying, "How."

2 1/2) While we're on the subject, they're all stereotypes of either the noble savage variety or the "me big chief Ugh-a-Mug gotta have 'em squaw" variety. The whole thing is a racist piece of crap. And don't tell me that Cooper was reflecting the beliefs of the time because, while that may explain the racism, it doesn't explain away the crap bit. 

3) Practically every speech by Hawk-eye will contain some bit of dialogue such as, "Even though white blood runs through my veins." Lest we forget he's white since he's been hobnobbing with the natives for so long. 

4) Those damn women just keep getting kidnapped. 

5) For an action story, it's mind-numbingly boring. To illustrate, I give you a riveting, action packed scene in which Duncan, the British officer, tries to distract le Renard Subtil (also known as Magua, also known as Wes Studi in the film) with a discussion of French etymology: 
'Here is some confusion in names between us, le Renard,' said Duncan, hoping to provoke a discussion. 'Daim is the French for deer, and cerf for stag; elan is the true term, when one would speak of an elk.'
Dash cunning of him, don't you think? It sure would have sucked if he had just attacked him with a knife, a gun, or even a rapier wit. Apparently Duncan's plan is to wear down his enemy with sheer boredom.

6) Everyone is known by about three or four different names, because anything less would have been confusing. Right, Coop?

7) Did I mention that it's just frickin' boring? I would rather slam my head in a car door than ever read this book again.

The best part about the book is that there are entire sections in French. For once, lack of knowledge about a foreign language has paid off! I was practically giddy with excitement when I encountered entire pages of French dialogue as it meant, mon Dieu!, I got to skip the entire page.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Three Thors? Triple Your Pleasure, Triple Your Fun!

Thor:  God of Thunder Volume 1 --  The Godbutcher
Written by Jason Aaron
Illustrated by Esad Ribic
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

This is my first comic book foray into the world of Thor, so I have no allegiances to previous incarnations or storylines. Despite my love of mythology, I have actively avoided Thor because a) he can look seriously ridiculous in that winged helmet (I'm thinking more of the 60's and 70's incarnations here) and b) I'm not a fan of Thor-on-Earth (or Midgard) stories. For these reasons, Thor: God of Thunder is a good fit for me. The artwork by Esad Ribic is beautifully detailed and realistic, avoiding a contemporary look and opting for muted colors and shadows that give it a weighty, epic feel. Jason Aaron avoids too many Thor-on-Earth storylines and, with the exception of a very brief present day encounter with Ironman, Thor's visits to Midgard consist of 800's A.D. visits to Viking villages for some Asgardian R & R: battles, booze, and babes. Despite liking the character, it's always been difficult for me to suspend disbelief long enough to accept a Norse god in present day times--apparently I have no trouble with men in high-powered iron suits, green giants who are less than jolly, a super serum making a super soldier, hell, slap a cape on anything else and I'm buying--but the gods in the present day has always been a nugget I've had trouble swallowing (this is also part of my aversion to DC's Wonder Woman). Because Thor's interactions with Earth are almost exclusively limited to the place and time period of the people who worshiped him, this never bothered me one whit. Not one whit, I say!

So, on to the story. Yes, as promised, there are three Thors: the young, arrogant Thor who has not proven worthy of Mjolnir; the present day Avenger Thor, who has begun to doubt the worth of the gods to mortals; and the future King Thor, who has succeeded Odin as the All-Father, but is a broken, crippled god waging war by himself. In all three stories, the enemy is Gorr the Godbutcher, a being who, for reasons known only to him, has made it his mission to destroy the pantheons of every culture and every religion throughout space and time. Possessing a curious weapon, Gorr butchers the gods, good and evil alike, to free mortals from their whims. As the three Thors desperately try to stop Gorr (in three different timelines), there will be aliens, time travel, gods never before seen, eternal cities, thunder and lightning, weapons with unpronounceable Norse names, and, by Odin's beard, there will be ale! 

It's a fun narrative, although the one bit that doesn't quite work for me is Gorr. I like his style, sure, but he looks like Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter. His motives are never quite clear and, when they are, seem pretty cliche. In addition, Gorr's weapon doesn't seem like something that would possess the power necessary to quickly dispatch hundreds of gods with some pretty awesome powers of their own. The idea of a slayer of gods is an intriguing one and I just wish there had been a more original concept behind the why and how of Gorr's death-dealing agenda.

The Original Ragin' Cajun

Gambit Classic:  Volume 1
Written by Chris Claremont, et al
Published by Marvel
4 Out of 5 Stars

Oh, hell, yes! This is just what I was looking for. Gambit is my favorite X-Men character, mainly because I like a good anti-hero. Keep your Captain America and Superman--I like a character whose morality you can't really get a bead on. Also, his Cajun heritage and life in New Orleans make for an intriguing background.

The first story in the graphic novel is the comic run that introduces us to Gambit when he steps in to save Ororo, the X-Men's Storm, who has physically and mentally regressed to her pre-teen self. Her memory of the X-Men has been obliterated as her life as a thief in Cairo, Illinois, parallels her earlier life as a thief in Egypt. Storm and Gambit unknowingly plan a heist on the same mansion, not knowing of the other's existence, and certainly not knowing that it's a trap set up by the Shadow King to catch Storm. Gambit helps Storm escape and a bond between thieves is born. This storyline is interesting, but it can be confusing for those unfamiliar with the story about Storm's regression and frustrating for those who want more resolution as it simply ends where Gambit's importance to the narrative concludes. 

The second storyline is the more traditional Gambit narrative, set against the backdrop of New Orleans and the Assassins' Guild and the Thieves' Guild, as Gambit, who has now joined the X-Men, returns to the Big Easy when he learns his wife, the Assassin Bella Donna, is not dead, but lies comatose in her father's mansion. Prior to this, Gambit struck up a flirtation with Rogue, whose powers prevent any physical connection between the two. Gambit is now torn between the life and love he had in New Orleans before his banishment and the new life he has with the X-Men and the prospect of a a relationship with Rogue. This is definitely the superior story in the collection as it takes the time to focus on Gambit's background as Remy LeBeau and develops his character's Louisiana roots beyond the occasional dash of French phrasing and dialect. The star-crossed love of Gambit and Rogue is also made more poignant by Rogue stealing Bella Donna's memories as a means of having the physical intimacy she longs for with Gambit but is constantly denied. Rather than comforting Rogue, it makes her desire for Gambit all the more tragic. 

For those already familiar with Gambit's background, this is an excellent collection. For those not as well-acquainted, it could be a potentially confusing start, but I think ultimately rewarding as long as you don't expect too much resolution from the first storyline.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Safe Bet

The Perfect Play
by Louise Wener
Published by William Morrow
4 Out of 5 Stars

So I bought this book because I thought it would be about poker. And it was, kind of, but mainly that cover and blurb is doing some serious bluffing because it's about much more.

Audrey Ungar should be satisfied with her life--she's in her early thirties, she's traveled the world, she's a math genius, and she has steady employment, loyal friends, and the perfect-for-her boyfriend. However, for Audrey, there will forever be one thing missing: her father. Suffering from a gambling addiction, her father abandoned the family when Audrey was eleven years old. Audrey does everything she can to bring her wayward father's attention back to the family: she becomes a math prodigy and, when her genius gets her everyone's admiration but his, she turns to shoplifting. Because of his abandonment, the adult Audrey feels the need to obsessively control everything in her life. 

Audrey's world is shaken, however, when her step-father reveals that her father tried to keep in touch with her long ago, but her step-father discouraged him because he felt the impact on Audrey could only be a negative one. This admission causes Audrey to seek out her father through the only thing he loved: the game of poker. Doing so brings Audrey into contact with Big Louie, an agoraphobic, obese, former card hustler who promises to teach Audrey the game and use his tournament connections to help Audrey track down the man who gambled away her childhood happiness. Such help doesn't come freely and Audrey finds that she has an impossible debt to pay for Big Louie's help. 

The Perfect Play has very little to do with the game of poker and is more about the chances, gambles, and fortunes that shape our own lives. In learning about poker, Audrey's really seeking to understand the man who left her behind. But the danger in doing so is that Audrey probably already understands her father better than she realizes: both are mathematical geniuses, both have obsessive personalities, and both have a laser-like focus that shuts everyone else out. As Audrey becomes better at the game, we begin to wonder if Audrey realizes how precariously close she's coming to living out the sins of her father and risking everything and everyone she should value. 

Louise Wener also sets up some clever bluffs throughout the narrative. Some things that seem a little cliche or implausible are turned on their head by the novel's end and a few of the plot lines that I scoffed at as predictably heading toward a particular end cleverly dodge in a different direction. Her strongest suit is creating believably flawed, yet incredibly likable characters. I really, truly like Audrey--something I can rarely say of women in fiction. The dialogue is often witty and funny, in a day-to-day sort of way. These conversations sound like those real people with genuine senses of humor and close relationships would have.

If the novel has a flaw, it may be that the poker game we all knew the novel would eventually be heading towards happens at the very end and seems somewhat rushed, lacking any real sense of tension. But, really, in the end, the novel isn't about the game anyway. It's about the players.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Oh, I Wish I Weren't in the Land of (Make-Believe) Cotton

Salting Roses
by Lorelle Marinello
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
1 Out of 5 Stars

Salting Roses purports to be a novel brimming with Southern charm. Oh, it's brimming alright. Ridiculously so. Welcome to the land of Southern stereotypes and Bible Belt cliches. This is right up there in Sweet Home Alabama territory and if Reese Witherspoon is looking for another romantic jaunt in a charming make-believe South, here it is. If you haven't guessed by now, I'm not the target audience for this novel, so maybe it's unfair for me to proceed from here. But like that's ever stopped me before.

As a baby, Gracie Lynne Calloway was left in a bucket on her uncle's doorstep with a note from her mother asking him to watch her for a spell. A spell soon turns into 25 years and Gracie, now an adult and nursing old emotional wounds from being labeled the town bastard of Shady Grove, Alabama, is in for a shock--she's not who she always thought she was. A stranger (who is literally tall, dark, and handsome, just in case we miss that he's our prospective love interest) brings her the news that she's actually the kidnapped daughter of the wealthy financier Conrad Hammond of Connecticut. She has been named the sole heir of $650 million dollars. What's a simple Southern girl with a love of baseball and a cushy job in the backroom of the local grocery store to do? Why, turn it down, of course! Because if she accepted it, there would be no plot complications and we wouldn't have this trite little novel. Gracie has been raised to distrust those born with a silver spoon firmly in mouth and fears the money will bring too many problems to her quiet and unexceptional life. Yeah, I'm not buying what they're selling here. $650 million dollars? Who wouldn't accept that? At least one could accept it and proceed to do a lot of philanthropic good (of course, I would just use it to wallow in pure hedonism, but different strokes for different folks).

There are several things that ruined the book for me:

A) These are all stock Southern characters that are presented as though they are supposed to be quirky. They're not. They don't even dance around the edges of eccentric. We've seen them a thousand times before in literature and in movies. If you're going to play up the quirk factor in Southern literature, go big or go home.

B) I'm not a fan of romance novels and had I known this was a romance in Southern fiction clothing, I would have ran the other way. However, even I know that in a good romance novel there has to be some will-they-won't-they tension. There's none here. We know as soon as Sam Fontana walks in the door and Gracie starts having dirty thoughts that he's the man she's been waiting for. And if you're pissed over a plot spoiler, be upset with the novel--it makes no pretense that it will turn out otherwise. There's not even the introduction of another prospective suitor to throw the seasoned romance reader off track.

C) Serious crimes against vocabulary in the overuse of the following words: sass, sassy, Yankee, princess, and sugah. Apparently,we're all sassy down South and we hates us a Yankee. Foghorn Leghorn has more character complexity.

D) A plot that gets more and more ridiculous as it goes on. If this had been reined in a bit and been a realistic portrayal of realistic people then something could have been salvaged. As it is, when I managed to suspend disbelief long enough to wrap my mind around one nugget of ludicrousness, here came a side order of absurdity.

I like Southern fiction when it's done well. If you're looking for good Southern/regional chick lit, might I suggest The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, or Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani. If you're looking for authentic Southern lit, read Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell, True Grit by Charles Portis, Ava's Man or All Over But the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg, or anything Larry Brown. They're all preferable to Gracie and her whining about being a $650 million dollar princess. Now, I'm gonna go put me some sugah in a glass of iced tea and sass some poor unsuspecting soul. I hope it's a Yankee.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

For Once, I'm Not Interested in Shoes

In Her Shoes
by Jennifer Weiner
Published by Atria
2 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

***Some mild spoilers ahead***

Typically, this isn't my kind of book and, if the rating system allowed for half stars, I would have more accurately given it a 2 1/2. This is one of those it was the right book for the right time scenarios. I had just finished reading Nineteen Eighty-Four andFahrenheit 451 and, suffering a dystopian hangover, needed something light that didn't involve too much thinking. This certainly fit the bill. 

From the get-go we have a stereotypical plot: two sisters (one pretty but dumb and the other smart but plain) who are insanely jealous of one another despite their bond. However, this stereotype exists because there is a component of jealousy in many same-gender sibling relationships. No matter how much the two love one another, siblings often feel as though they are being compared to one another by parents, family, friends, society at large, and examined for deficiencies that become obvious when compared against their genetic foil. The smart one always wants to be pretty; the pretty one always wants to be smart. The athletic one secretly wants to be a book nerd; the book nerd always wants to be able to dunk a basketball. The one with curly hair always wants straight hair; the one with straight hair longs for curly locks. We end up envying precisely what the other hates or loathes in himself or herself. Maggie and Rose are no exception. There's some rich material to work with here, and Weiner does realistically portray the root causes of the sisters' envy for one another. She also takes some chances: further complicating their relationship is their mother, whose mental illness leads to her death while the girls are still young; the beautiful Maggie suffers from a debilitating learning disability that effectively limits her chances at success in the entertainment industry (she can't read the teleprompter during an MTV audition that she would have otherwise had in the bag); Maggie betrays Rose's trust to such a magnitude that their relationship may be beyond repair (no one can hurt you like a sister and Weiner takes advantage of the opportunity to challenge the sisters' relationship). Oh, and thank heavens she didn't take the route of making the overweight Rose thin by the end.

Having said all of that, there were certainly some things I did not love. There's a subplot involving the long-lost maternal grandmother that slowed down the narrative for me. Also, Maggie and Rose just weren't likable characters. These are not two women I would ever want to know in real life. They're self-involved and often petty. I'm also not buying that Rose quit her job to become a dog walker, nor that Maggie lives in the Princeton library and miraculously becomes a literary genius (by the novel's end, Maggie's reading every great literary classic she can get her hands on and spouting poetry like a water fountain). I'm not saying that someone with a learning disability is incapable of doing this, only that Weiner never plausibly made me believe Maggie was capable of doing this. If there was one perk of the inclusion of Maggie's reading of One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, i carry your heart with me(i carry it in by E. E. Cummings, and several classic literary texts, it's that it reminded me that there are certainly better books out there and, even though Weiner's work was somewhat humorous and mildly entertaining, maybe my time would be better served reading some of those. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

As If Nazis Weren't Bad Enough . . . Vampire Nazis!

American Vampire:  Volume 3
Written by Scott Snyder
Illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque and Sean Murphy
5 Out of 5 Stars

I can distill my review of why volume 3 of American Vampire is my favorite in the series down to two words: Nazi vampires. 

Seriously, does anything else need to be said? Probably not, but just try to shut up my enthusiasm for Snyder's series.

In volume 3, we follow our American vampires and those who love to try and stake 'em into World War II. In the first storyline, Pearl's husband, Henry, is enlisted by the Vassals of the Morning Star (a society of vampire hunters who have made an uneasy pact to keep Pearl and Henry safe) to join a team being sent to the island of Taipan to wipe out an indigenous vampire. When they arrive, they find a vampire unlike any they've ever seen: these vampires retain nothing of their former humanity, can turn a human in a matter of minutes, and are particularly vicious. To complicate matters, the first American vampire, Skinner Sweet, jealous of Henry's relationship with Pearl, sneaks aboard with the intention of killing Henry. 

In the second storyline (which is by far my favorite), Felicia Book and Cash McCogan are sent to a remote European castle to track down a rumored cure for vampirism. What they find instead is a Nazi plan to utilize vampires as the ultimate killing machines.

Felicia Book is a particularly interesting character. The daughter of a vampire and a human, Felicia has a huge chip on her shoulder as she has been raised to avenge the death of her father. She's one bad ass mamma-jamma and Snyder hasn't clearly addressed exactly what genetic side effects she may have from her supernatural parent. It will be interesting to see how she continues to develop as a character. 

The vampire mythology continues to be the most intriguing part of the story. So many vampire types, developing over the centuries and in varying geographical areas, have led to distinct species with particular strengths and weaknesses. The introduction of the towering ancient vampires hidden beneath the Nazi stronghold is one that I hope gets more focus in future storylines. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Bottom of the Barrel

by B. H. Fingerman
Published by M Press
2 Out of 5 Stars

You know that scene at the end of Interview With the Vampire's film version where Lestat takes over the journalist's car? As he adjusts his lace sleeves, he notices Louis's voice on the cassette tape, and says, "Oh, Louis, Louis. Still whining, Louis. Have you heard enough? I've had to listen to that for centuries." That's the way I felt about Bottomfeeder. Oh, Philip, Philip. Still whining, Philip. For 200+ pages. It's safe to say that I've heard enough.

Bottomfeeder tells the story of Phil Merman, a Jewish vampire who is suffering a midlife crisis. Turned at 27 by an unknown attacker, Phil is now 54--half of his life spent as a mortal, half amongst the undead. After his inability to explain his new lifestyle to his wife or his (now deceased) parents, Phil has led a circumspect, solitary existence. He works at night for a photo archive (typically archiving photos of grisly crime scenes), lives in modest accommodations, and only hunts for the criminal and deviant elements among the homeless population. He's never sought out others like him and has rejected all human relationships--with the exception of Shelley, a sad alcoholic whose friendship Phil can't quite shake.

All of this changes when Phil meets Eddie Frye, another vampire who introduces Phil to vampire society--from bacchanalian bloodbaths, to a home for special needs vampires, to vampire group therapy. Suddenly Phil finds himself craving something other than blood: interaction with his own kind. As the friendship between Phil and Eddie solidifies, his relationship with Shelley deteriorates with potentially dangerous consequences.

I get what Fingerman was going for here--a vampire novel that is not the prototypical, romanticized vampire story most audiences have come to expect. And I do admire him for challenging these traditions. The lives led by his vampires are probably more realistic in terms of what vampirism would really mean. The isolation, loneliness, and compromised moral code are the tip of the iceberg (or fang, however you want to look at it). There's also the heightened senses, which are not pleasant. With heightened smell, sight, and taste, Phil becomes uncomfortably aware of how disgusting humans are. He can smell the unpleasant odors beneath the deodorants and fragrances; see the dry skin, stray hairs, and pimples as though through a magnifying glass; he can taste the layers of I-don't-want-to-tell-you-what-but-Fingerman-will on the necks of his unwashed victims. It would be like if you were put in a pen full of shit-smeared cattle and told to wander around until you found one you actually wanted to eat for dinner.

And that was an aspect of the novel I did not enjoy in the least. This novel triggered my gag reflexes far more often than I care to admit. I'm not talking about the blood and gore--that I can take. But Fingerman takes great joy in describing every ashy ass crack, every piss sodden newspaper, every used condom. I swear that every 10 or so pages he would bring in some hygienically challenged crazy person just to catalog every disgusting bodily function possible. Or he would have the main character step on a fluid filled condom. Apparently, New York is a condom-strewn wonderland.

The one thing that did keep my attention is the dark humor throughout which made Phil's voice engaging, when he wasn't whining about his circumstances. And I must say that, although I had one major plot twist figured out that factored into Phil's unnatural origins, it still led to an amazingly apropos ending.


Norse Code
by Greg van Eekhout
Published by Spectra
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

More of a 3 1/2 stars. I have to give Greg van Eekhout props for a very clever and interesting take on how Ragnarok might come about during modern times (I mean, the fire giant Surtr is wielding his sword from on high over a final battlefield that includes a Home Depot and a Costco, which made me smile). I can't say that I've read a lot of Norse mythology because it always seemed so fragmented and difficult to follow when I went through my mythology phase in junior high (the year Edith Hamilton never left my side), so I have no idea how accurate Eekhout's depictions are. Furthermore, I can't say that I care. It was entertaining and original, especially when compared with the current glut of vampire fiction on the market today. 

Also, I'm always worried about books like this (the ones that look like they'll be urban fantasy with a strong female heroine) because they tend to devolve into nothing more than a sexfest of a plot that goes something like this: "It's almost the end of the world--there's only one thing to do! Have dirty, sweaty, S&M sex since all is futile! And then lets do it again every 25 pages or so until we've exhausted the Kama Sutra." I was pleased that Norse Code never becomes a dressed up excuse for supernatural porn. 

A few minor issues that shouldn't stop anyone from reading the book:

1. The back cover makes it seem as though the entire story will be told from the point of view of Mist, a valkyrie whose purpose is to gather warriors who will serve in the Einherjar at the final battle. However, the book doesn't seem to have one main character (which is just as well as Hermod and the Aesir are far more interesting characters than Mist; in fact, her whole "I must save my sister from Hel" mission seems unnecessary). It also seems as though the book will focus on the NORSEcode project being used to track down descendants of Odin (a kick ass idea in every way that isn't really utilized or expanded upon). These aren't really problems, but it ticks me off when a book presents itself as one thing and then goes in a different direction--even if I end up liking it.

2. And the name Mist is a minor irritation because sentences like "Mist hung around Hermod's waist" caused my mind to put forth disconcerting images of a Norse god riding into battle surrounded by a Charles Schulz Pigpen-esque fog.

3. The characters seem to exist only to serve the purpose of executing the plot. We never learn about them in any depth. Normally, this would be quite vexing, but the book makes it clear that they are pawns of prophecy and fate so, in a way, they do exist only to set the chain of events in motion. However, it would have been better if they could have been a little more interesting along the way. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Monster Mash

by Mary Shelley
Published by Penguin Classics
2 Out of 5 Stars

While I did not enjoy this book, I am glad that I read it because it is interesting to see how different Frankenstein's monster has become after Hollywood and pop culture reinvented Shelley's creation. If you were to watch the film version of the movie and then read the book, you might be shocked to find that they're supposedly the same story. Despite this, I did not enjoy the book for the following reasons:

A) Ugh, Romanticism. Yes, yes. The trees, the mountains, the flowers are beautiful, but I don't need redundant reminders of the glory that is nature.

B) Not only did Frankenstein create a monster, but apparently an intellectual prodigy as well. Despite being dead gray matter, the monster's brain sure is remarkably intact and capable of learning at a rapid rate.

C) Didactic in the utmost. I could practically hear Shelley dragging out her soapbox everytime the monster appeared on the page to speak about the injustice done to him, man is the real monster, etc., etc., etc.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Liked, But Didn't Love

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
Published by Amy Einhorn Books
3 Out of 5 Stars

**A few mild spoilers**

I liked this book. I really did. But here's the problem: I wanted to LOVE it. And, maybe, if I had read it before all of the hype, I would have. As it stands, I can only say that it was entertaining, but unexceptional.

Set in Mississippi circa the 1960's, the story focuses on three women: Skeeter, a white woman from a wealthy family who dreams of becoming a writer; Abileen, an intelligent black maid (with a closet love of reading and writing) who happens to work for one of Skeeter's friends; and Minny, a spitfire who has trouble keeping her mouth in check around the white women for whom she works, putting her at odds with another of Skeeter's friends. The narrative is told, in alternating points of view, by these three women who begin meeting in secret to write an anonymous book about what it's like to work as a black maid in Mississippi. 

The book is funny, never veering too far off into heart-warming territory, and captures the dividing lines between race and class in the South. The characters are likable and the message is clear, but not overly didactic. And yet, there were a few things that bugged me enough to keep me from giving it a 4 star:

A) Other than a half-hearted stab at dialect, there's little to differentiate the voices of these three women. They have radically different backgrounds and personalities, but these differences seem "told" rather than "shown" in a truly distinctive voice for each character. 

B) The character of Skeeter goes through a transformation toward the end of the book and becomes a hippie. The catalyst: hearing Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changing and buying a mini-skirt. That seemed a sloppy and shorthand way of communicating a radical shift in values and perspectives. As a result, I just couldn't buy what Stockett was selling in terms of Skeeter.

C) What happened to the naked guy that Celia beat the holy living shit out of? The police never found him, despite the fact that he was last seen running through the woods with an unhinged jaw and what was apparently quite an impressive member in his hand. Bizarre.

D) Despite the fact that all of this took place during a particularly race-charged time period when blacks were beaten, lynched, etc. for crossing racial barriers, you never really feel like these women are in palpable danger. Even toward the end, things work out a little too neatly for them. Stockett pulled her punches, though she is to be commended for writing about the violence done to others during that time period. 

Final analysis: I liked it, I would recommend it, and I would read another of her books. 

A Recipe Worth Trying

The School of Essential Ingredients
by Erica Bauermeister
Published by Berkley Trade
4 Out of 5 Stars

The School of Essential Ingredients is a quick read focused on a Monday night cooking class held at a popular local restaurant, Lillian's. Lillian herself presides over these classes and, as someone who has always had an intrinsic understanding of the power of food to heal and comfort, she eagerly awaits each new class to see the transformations (some positive, some negative) that her students undergo as they respond to the food around them. The novel opens as Lillian welcomes her new students: a beautiful woman, a happily married older couple, a harried young mother, an analytic young man, an uncertain and undefined young woman, an older woman who is losing her memory, and a damaged man. 

Each chapter in the novel is told from the point of view of one of the students, as we find out more about their pasts, discover their reasons for taking the class, and witness how new relationships are forged. Just as the ingredients in a recipe blend together to create a new whole, so, too, do the lives of the students intersect in surprising ways.

I was initially drawn to this book because of its focus on food, which 
turned out to be the least compelling aspect of the book for me. Instead, it's the character sketches that held the most intrigue for me. To the outside world, these are ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, but as Bauermeister delves into each character's past, we find that the masks we present to the world hide life's scars, personal insecurities, and profound tragedies. Reading each character's narrative is a little like people watching--only instead of wondering what the lives of strangers are like, we actually get to peek inside their lives. The most accomplished of these narratives is the story of Carl and Helen, the older couple whose seemingly happy marriage, as we learn from seeing the story of their early life together from each spouse's perspective, was hard-earned and not as simple as they make it look.

In fact, the one thing about the book that almost sabotaged it for me by tipping the scales too much in the direction of saccharine sentimentality turned out to be the connections to food, especially in the form of Lillian. Lillian is presented as an omniscient mystic, who somehow always knows what lessons in food will actually translate into the life lessons her individual students need to pick them up, dust them off, and set them down the right path in life. While Lillian's own back story does provide a context for this, it did seem a little too contrived. However, it certainly wasn't enough of a distraction to prevent me from enjoying and recommending the book.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Read "The Good Earth" Instead

Pearl of China
by Anchee Min
Published by Bloomsbury USA
2 Out of 5 Stars

Pearl of China is a fictionalized account of the life of Pearl Buck as told by her best friend, Willow Yee. From Buck's childhood as a missionary's daughter in China to her life in America during Mao's Great Leap Forward, we see Buck's life through Willow's eyes and, as a result, what her work meant to the Chinese people. Having been raised in China, Buck is presented as more Chinese than American and as the only Westerner who could communicate the Chinese culture without bias, stereotypes, or misunderstanding.

This is a slim book and a fairly quick read, although it seemed longer because I found so much of the novel to be tedious. I appreciate what Min was trying to achieve, but I think perhaps a biography may have better served her purposes than a fictionalized account ever could. Its brevity is problematic in that events move quickly and the transitions are often choppy and unclear. The passage of time is difficult to track as entire decades may pass between one paragraph and the next. This also leads to seeming inconsistencies within the development of characters. In the beginning, Willow and Pearl despise one another and then, inexplicably, they're best friends. Both Willow and her father have problems with the faith preached by Absalom, Pearl's father, but both inexplicably become true believers (this is especially unclear in Willow's case). We never get to fully know Willow or Pearl, which makes it difficult to care about either.

Much of the novel, especially toward the second half, reads more like a textbook being narrated by Willow. There's a great deal of "this happened and then that happened," and this fact-dropping often stands in as evidence for the supposedly deep friendship between Willow and Pearl. As a result, I never really understood how these women became devoted lifelong friends. The second half is also set in Mao's China and for the last 100 pages mentions of Pearl are reduced to "Pearl was once again denied entry to China" statements. We have no idea what life was like for Pearl during this time period, although we do see Willow's suffering as a result of her inability to give up her faith in God (which would also be a rejection of Pearl). Even in what should be the most moving part of the novel, Willow's flat and toneless narration of events makes it difficult to connect with the characters.

While I do respect Min's attempt to show what Pearl Buck means to Chinese culture through Chinese eyes, one's time would be better spent reading Buck's body of work. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Here Comes the Bride . . . Now, Where's the Groom?

For Matrimonial Purposes
by Kavita Daswani
Published by Putnam Adult
4 Out of 5 Stars

Entering her mid-thirties, Anju has proven to be a failure as a daughter. Sure, she's well-educated. Sure, she has a successful career as a fashion publicist. Sure, she has remained a "good girl" despite living by herself in that den of iniquity known as New York City. But she's failed to do the one thing that would define her worth and ease the anxiety she's causing her ultra-conservative, ultra-orthodox parents: she still hasn't married.

And it's not Anju's fault. She's fasted, she's prayed, she's presented herself as meek and submissive. She's allowed her mother to drag her to every swami, fortune teller, and holy man she can find. She's had her birth chart read, her destiny foretold. She's tried to lighten her too-dark complexion. She's attended parties and reunions and the weddings of others, in the hopes of making a match--all to no avail. She's even tried online matchmaking for Indian couples only. What will it take for Anju to meet the man that others assure her has been born for her and, in the meantime, how can she balance her traditional Indian life with her increasingly independent American one?

Other reviews have listed two primary problems with this book: the lack of a clearly defined personality in the protagonist, Anju, and the perception of the novel as a piece of fluff with little to say. And, yes, this certainly isn't the type of novel that is going to deeply move you or offer profound insight into Indian culture. It also has an ending that is predictable and wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly. However, the aforementioned criticisms are a little harsh. 

First, the issue of Anju's personality, which to me is not a misstep on the part of the author, although it could seem that way to an American audience who would prefer a headstrong and fiercely independent protagonist eager to break the shackles enslaving her to a patriarchal society. But Anju is not American. While she has been raised in a family that loves her, she has also been raised to believe that who she is will always be defined by the man who protects her: first her father and later her husband. She has not been encouraged to become a fully realized person and therefore is waiting for her other half, who will define her existence by setting the boundaries of what her life will be. It should not be surprising that this protagonist hesitates to break with her religion and her heritage, despite sensing something is amiss with the expectations placed upon her. That she is uncertain, cautious, and hesitant makes her seem more real.

Second is the classification of the novel as mindless chick lit. Okay, I can't defend the chick lit part. And there are moments in the narrative when I became a little impatient with Anju's focus on designer shoes and the world of high fashion. But it could be argued that not accustomed to having a voice (or at least not confident enough to always use it), Anju is using fashion to communicate her values and her inner life to others. At home in Bombay, Anju tries to look the part of the fashionable and worldly expatriate, eager to show that she has become more independent, less constrained by social mores. Yet, while attending fashion shows in the U.S. and Europe, she opts out of the haute couture chic for traditional saris, demonstrating to Westerners her pride in herself as an Indian woman. Anju uses fashion in an attempt to attain balance and define herself: she does not want to lose that intrinsically Indian part of herself in America, but she does not want her desires and dreams to be subjugated to the search for a husband in her homeland.

And the novel, while perhaps simplistic in its presentation, is not mindless. Anju knows she is not just a disappointment because of her inability to marry; she knows it goes back to the day she was born: "And then I slid out, with a minuscule slit instead of the wormlike appendage [my mother] had been looking forward to seeing. Oh, God, she had delivered a daughter as a first-born. The unthinkable had happened" (102). Despite being a disappointment, Anju is not unloved and does not want to alienate her family by cutting all ties with her heritage and her customs. Her loneliness and alienation is real and will only worsen if she marries a white man, effectively becoming estranged from her family, or if she marries an Indian man whom she cannot love nor respect. And it's very easy for Americans (as just about every American character in the book does) to think that a family that would expect you to enter into an arranged marriage or to define yourself by who you marry doesn't really love you. But that's a bit hypocritical, no? 

For all of our supposed independence, isn't our culture just as marriage happy, just as eager to be one half of a whole? Think we're not as guilty? Say Yes to the DressThe Bachelor, at least a dozen Disney princess movies, and a wedding industry that sells fairy tales for a price that could put your first born through college suggest otherwise. I knew and know plenty of women who can't wait to get married because that's what they're supposed to do. They believe that's when they'll become who they were always meant to be--wives and mothers. The "arranged" bit isn't necessarily there, but a woman in her twenties is perpetually asked questions about her relationship status: Seeing anyone serious? 

And this connection is what Daswani makes work for her in For Matrimonial Purposes. By presenting us with a protagonist with one foot in New York and the other in Bombay, we may see a bit more of ourselves in Anju's experience than we're comfortable with. All of the American superiority begins to deflate as we begin to realize much of Anju's plight may also be our own.

A Waste of My Pennies

Penny for Your Soul
by Tom Hutchison
Illustrated by J. B. Neto
1 Out of 5 Stars

Penny for Your Soul is a trade from independent comic publisher Big Dog Ink and it is apparently their cornerstone title. The premise sounds intriguing: Danica, a demon who can trace her lineage back to old Lucifer himself, has established The Eternity casino in Las Vegas. In a more modern and lucrative take on the Charlie Daniels classic line of "I bet a fiddle of gold against your soul," Danica instead offers her patrons $10,000 to spend or gamble during their stay in the casino--the only catch is that you have to sign over your soul. Thinking this to be little more than a marketing scheme, people, of course, are more than willing to sign over this intangible commodity. Danica runs the establishment with Mary Magdalene, who had been sitting idly in purgatory, pining for Jesus (who apparently split and ran after their very mortal relationship), until Danica intervenes and offers Mary a position in the casino. The story hinges around heaven and hell realizing that Danica's earthly business is siphoning souls away from their intended eternal destination. What happens next? You guessed it--all hell breaks loose and the End Days begin.

I expected a lot from this story, none of which I got. I expected something more along the lines of Hellboy or the John Constantine narrative, or perhaps Glen Duncan's novel I, Lucifer. Instead, all I got was a lot of scantily clad, impressively stacked T & bootylicious A. This story is presented with all the sophistication of a 13 year old boy who has just discovered his mom's Victoria's Secret catalog and didn't know girls could kiss each other until some late night Cinemax education. Danica and Mary Magdalene have some sort of weird sexual relationship going on with each other and with other women. For example, Mary smacks a subordinate female casino employee on the ass and says, "C'mon, you know you liked it." In another scene, Danica talks about how she should have been looking at the cross around Mary's neck instead of at her impressive cleavage during an exorcism. C'mon, fellas, you've all been there right? There you are, trying to force a minion of Satan out of your friend's body lest she forfeit her eternal soul, but, damn!, that exorcist has a spectacular rack! And before anyone chastises me for being homophobic, it's not the homosexual aspect that bothers me--it's the manner in which it's presented. It is so obviously what some ultra-hetero, beer guzzling, Spike TV watching man who thinks two women making out is just about the hottest thing in the whole damn world would write. Another example? A demon rips off an angel's wing and threatens to rip off the other if the two female angels nearby don't start making out while he watches. "Hey, Beelzebub, you've just successfully returned to earth and brought your legions of the damned with you. What will you do now?" "I'm going to use my evil powers to force hot chicks to make out and then I'm going to Hooters! I hear their chicken wings are crazy tasty!" 

Others may make the argument that, hey, these are demons we're talking about here. Of course they're going to have less than refined taste when it comes to their sexual escapades. Yeah, but that seems to be all they care about. Their sins are fairly lightweight--all of the other sins don't really get much play. It's all gambling and sex. When War is unleashed upon the earth, riding a red Ducati (I admittedly thought that was a bit of brilliance), he and Mary Magdalene are playing strip poker while war rages around them. Literally, strip poker. Just for the fun of it. It's not like the fate of the world hangs in the balance based upon the outcome of this game; they just want to see each other's bits and pieces, I guess. So, basically, the moral of the story seems to be don't worry about the Apocalypse, folks. It's going to be like one prolonged soft porn flick! 

The art and coloring are admittedly beautiful (though conventional), although all of the women are trying to out buxom one another with their gravity defying double Ds (if you enjoy a good buxom-off, this shouldn't bother you). However, the lettering contained SEVERAL grammatical errors, including repeated crimes against the "to/too" rule and using the word "eluded" instead of "alluded." I can forgive one or two grammar errors, especially in an indie, but this thing is full of them. 

In another review I stated that everything is better with a dragon. Boy, could this storyline have used a passel of dragons. Granted, they probably would have just had them humping through Armageddon. On second thought, no dragons for you,Penny for Your Soul!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Can't Say That I Was Moonstruck

Moon Called

by Patricia Briggs

Published by Ace

2 Out of 5 Stars

Move on. Nothing new to see here.

That's my biggest complaint about Moon Called. For someone new to the fantasy/supernatural world, it's probably entertaining enough but it definitely has the smack of "been there, done that" for the seasoned genre reader. I would have loved it 10 to 15 years ago.

Moon Called does have a few things going for it, especially the fact that too often books like this are just an excuse to have "things that go bump in the night" bump uglies in the middle of the night (*cough* Sookie Stackhouse *cough*). Usually they're just sex with fangs and fur--and nary a plot in sight. Not so in Moon Called. Nothing throbs, nothing is exposed, and there is a plot, albeit a fairly standard mystery.

The other thing the novel has going for it is the addition of Native American mythology to the supernatural genre. Sure, there are werewolves, vampires, gremlins, witches, and all the standard *yawn* European characters, but Mercy Thompson provides an unexpected dash of something new. Part Blackfoot Indian, Mercy is a skinwalker, a shapeshifter who can take the form of a coyote. So many possibilities here for something unpredictable and refreshing and . . .

That leads me directly to the other letdown of the novel. Mercy could be so bad ass, so awesome and instead she just serves as the observer through which we see the werewolf and vampire culture. It's possible to go entire chapters and forget how extraordinary she should be. Her character serves to provide info dumps on the supernatural world around her and, no matter how many times she claims to be her own agent and not a part of the werewolf pack, she sure seems like their bitch. Mercy's an in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time character, seldom shaping events or making choices on her own.

I do respect some of the choices made by Briggs and there are a few interesting spins on some fairly standard world-building, but in the end it's not enough to make me sign on for such a lengthy series.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

This Knife Dulls by the Trilogy's End: Chaos Walking

The Knife of Never Letting Go

by Patrick Ness

Published by Candlewick Press

5 Out of 5 Stars

In a world where we're bombarded with technology, our senses are often overwhelmed by the amount of noise and it's becoming increasingly difficult to find true quiet anymore (especially since most of us just plug into our computer or iPod as soon as it is quiet). A constant stream of sound and images feed us information, prod us toward rampant consumerism, and entertain us. I've become increasingly aware that many of my students seem uncomfortable with simple quiet--always wanting some sort of noise to help them concentrate and focus. It's sad that our world has become one in which quiet is such a rare and undervalued commodity. And that, according to Patrick Ness, is the inspiration for The Knife of Never Letting Go.

Inventive and unlike anything I've ever read, The Knife of Never Letting Go is billed as a young adult dystopian but there's very little that's young adult about it other than a 13 year old protagonist. In fact, a lot of the language is violent, graphic, and brutal by young adult standards, but it has to be to capture the world that has been created by Ness.

Todd Hewitt is only days away from becoming a man by Prentisstown standards. Prentisstown is a town on New World, a planet that is being "settled" by the people of earth. What's unusual about Prentisstown, though, is that it's a town that consists entirely of men. The women were killed twelve years earlier when the Spackle, the indigenous alien race, utilized germ warfare in an attempt to win the war against the pioneers. The men, however, were not entirely immune to this germ. Instead of killing them, it made every man's inner-thoughts (both verbal and visual) visible to those around him. There are no secrets in the Noise. As a means of coping, some men turn to drink, others attempt to run away, and some kill themselves. Life here is bleak under the totalitarian rule of Mayor Prentiss and the bizarre radical teachings of the holy man, Aaron. As far as Todd knows, Prentisstown is the only place on the planet.

As Todd nears his 13th birthday, he finds something in the swamp that shouldn't exist--silence. Shortly after discovering this peculiarity and unable to find its source, he's forced to flee Prentisstown and go on the run with only his dog, a knapsack of supplies, a hunting knife, and a book written for him by his mother. To tell you the how and why for all of this would be to ruin the suspense that drives the entire novel. Todd struggles for survival and begins to unravel the lies that he's been told his entire life. During his journey, he discovers the truth about New World and about Prentisstown.

The novel is told in first person stream of consciousness, which really works because it's like we as readers are able to "hear" Todd's Noise just as the other inhabitants of Prentisstown would. It also means that we learn as Todd learns and, as his mind shies away to avoid truths that he can't yet accept, information is sometimes withheld from us. In addition, some of the words are written in dialect to help better capture how Todd sounds. There are some unusual narrative techniques used throughout, such as a different font to indicate the Noise of different individuals and animals (that's right--even animals have Noise; I particularly enjoyed the depiction of Todd's dog Manchee) as Todd encounters them. Instead of finding them gimmicky, I thought it a very effective way of visually demonstrating the intrusion of other people's thoughts into one's own.

In some ways, the novel reminded me of the television series Firefly, but only in that these space travelers are the new pioneers. While they have a lot of new technology, the struggle for survival is a very real one and never certain. The novel ends with one hell of a cliffhanger and I find myself for the first time in a long time wanting to dive right into the second novel of the series.

The Ask and the Answer

by Patrick Ness

Published by Candlewick Press

4 Out of 5 Stars 

**Some Spoilers Ahead for Those Who Haven't Read the First Novel**

I didn't so much read the first book in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, as inhaled it. Original and disturbing, Ness is not afraid to take some risks as he tells the story of Todd Hewitt, a boy about to become a man in Prentisstown--a town inhabited only by men. As we read, we find out that Todd lives on a colony planet so distant from Earth that it takes decades to get there. Upon arrival, the first colonists went to war with the indigenous inhabitants, the Spackle. In a desperate effort to defeat the invaders, the Spackle release a germ that kills all of the women. The men survive, but with a strange side-effect: they can hear each other's internal monologue. At least this is the story Todd was always told, but when he discovers a real girl in the swamp Todd is forced to flee for his life and learns that everything he thought was true is a lie.

The Ask and the Answer picks up where The Knife of Never Letting Go left off. Todd and Viola, whose uneasy truce forged a devoted friendship, are separated when Mayor Prentiss (the antagonist from the first novel) names himself President, quarantines the women from the men, and establishes martial law in New Prentisstown. As Mayor Prentiss exerts his power, a female rebel force known as the Answer rises against him, and Viola finds herself swept up by their cause. Meanwhile, Todd is forced to do President Prentiss's bidding in order to keep Viola safe. He's put in charge of managing the enslaved Spackle workforce being used to build the New Prentisstown envisioned by the President.

What is so fascinating about the novel is how Ness explores the brainwashing and mind games employed by each side as they use Viola and Todd as expendable pawns in their quest for victory. Viola struggles with the terroristic tactics used by the Answer against innocent civilians in the name of their cause, while Todd is forced to face his shame in killing a Spackle in the first novel as he witnesses the dehumanizing treatment of the thinking and feeling alien race. As Viola and Todd try to navigate the labyrinthine truths, loyalties, and beliefs that are relics from a war that occurred before either of them were born, they begin to question themselves and their trust in each other. This psychological complexity is heightened by the fact that the reader still isn’t sure who the bad guys and who the good guys are—if, in fact, there are any good guys. There are no easy answers and Ness forces readers to think through the complex issues of war, justifiable violence, and racism.

Monsters Of Men

by Patrick Ness

Published by Candlewick Press

3 Out of 5 Stars

If you read my reviews of The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer, you'll find that I was a smitten kitten with the Chaos Walking series. In the carbon copy world of young adult literature, these are inventive books with powerful themes resonating throughout. I have been anticipating the moment when I would finish the last book in the trilogy, expecting to savor the return to Todd and Viola's world. So what effin' happened that led to a tepid 3 star rating? I'm still trying to figure it out.

Maybe it was series fatigue or maybe I waited too long between reading books 2 and 3 (I hate getting locked into series books, so that is a possibility). For whatever reason, Monsters of Men never grabbed me in the way the first two books did. It felt repetitive. War with the Spackle, conflict between Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle, Todd and Viola don't know what to do, and round and round it goes. Each time I picked up the book, I felt like it was Groundhog Day--I could have sworn I read the same damn thing yesterday. The war is somewhat anticlimactic and I never felt any real tension. I'm rather out of sorts about this because I feel as though I somehow let down the book instead of the book letting me down. Did I miss something? Is there something I'm just not getting? These are the thoughts that plague me because I wanted, nay, needed to love this book. And I just didn't. Todd and Viola's angst over being separated is irritating to me because I could not for the life of me understand why they insisted on being apart ("Just walk your ass up the damn hill, Todd," I kept encouraging him throughout, but he never listened), Mayor Prentiss doesn't seem like that big of a bad ass threat, and the one twist the novel is relying on is fairly predictable.

Despite this, I liked the addition of the narration from 1017's point of view. Told in the language of the indigenous people of New World, Ness does a good job of making the voice seem alien and foreign. These chapters are somewhat difficult to read in terms of adjusting to the syntax and invented phrases, but it added to my ability to believe in the Spackle as a separate sentient species from humans. Also, the questions raised (is there morality in war, what makes a terrorist, how do we know when we can trust our leaders, is violence ever justified) are all complex and worthy of our attention. Ness skillfully asks these questions without glorifying war nor necessarily vilifying it, which makes this an above average young adult read.