Friday, December 21, 2012

Phantoms of Breslau-Marek Krajewski

Phantoms of Breslau-Marek Krajewski

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 272
gender: M
nationality: Poland
year: 2005
Novel in translation (Eberhard Mock series)

It is 1919 in Breslau. The hideously battered bodies of four young sailors are discovered on an island in the River Oder. When Criminal Assistant Mock arrives at the scene to investigate, he discovers a note addressed to him, asking him to confess his sins and to become a believer. As he endeavours to piece together the elements of this brutal crime, Mock combs the brothels and drinking dens of Breslau and is drawn into an insidious game: it seems that anyone he questions during the course of the investigation is destined to become the murderer's next victim

At times this Baroque novel is a discomforting read since all the women are prostitutes and called by every name. In fact the entire profession is constantly referred to in the most derogatory terms possible. This contempt mainly flows from Mock but is strangely overlaid with regret and empathy. But that faded into the background mainly because of the fascinating Mock, the detective, and because it adds to the atmosphere of war haunted (corrupt) and newly minted (decadent) Poland. This gritty background marks this hard boiled detective novel as fairly unusual. I was reminded at times of the vivid atmosphere of Red April though of course the novels are set in very different places/times/situations-they are similar in that despite the grislyness of everything you still read avidly. (Also, both share disturbing cover art.)

Mock, himself, is just fascinating. He is haunted by numerous personal demons in the form of nightmares-which cause him to drink constantly. He was active during the war and from that has a bitter and cynical view of humankind and a special disdain towards any former informers. The narrative is as jaded and twisted as Mock's thinking and the two play off each other that makes for a compelling read as Mock violently alternates between worry, love, and his demons as he encounters corruption and decadence. In fact, the narrative is so vivid, it's almost decadent in its own right.

Mock's narrative is interspersed with the rantings of the murderer. As the book goes on these rantings are increasingly insane, disjointed, and difficult to understand. This is the occult part of the novel and it remains unknowable. Remarkably, you literally have no idea who the murderer himself is until the very last chapter which makes this truly a detective novel.

I seek to read more Eberhard Mock novels especially since this leaves you with a cliffhanger of an ending, not of the plot itself-that is solved- but of Mock's character.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sickness-Alberto Barrera Tyszka

La Enfermedad (Sickness)-Alberto Barrera Tyszka

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 151
gender: M
nationality: Venezuela
year: 2006
Novel in Spanish

Dr. Miranda is faced with a tragedy: his father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has only a few weeks to live. He is also faced with a dilemma: How does one tell his father he is dying?

The main bread and butter of this intense novella is the tragic story of Dr. Miranda who has to tell his father he will die soon. The father and son dynamic and relationship was pitch perfect. There's an inherent awkwardness with the soon to die and its awkwardness tempered with confusion because no matter how much you love the person you never know what to say and do. I wonder if Barrera has lost his father because so much echoed my own experience...which made this a bit difficult to read for me. It's all done beautifully though in flowing prose and literary intelligence that remains not overly intellectual. This is a novella exploring our ideas about mortality.

Intertwined with Dr. Miranda's dilemma of dealing with cancer and his father is the story of one of his hypochondriac patients, Ernesto, and his secretary. This is also a story of lonely people who get wrapped up in compassion and see in each other reflections of themselves.

I read this in Spanish because I picked this up at random from the library's tiny Spanish section but I imagine the writing could translate nicely into a clear English prose.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Red April-Santiago Roncagliolo

Red April-Santiago Roncagliolo

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 271
gender: M
nationality: Peru
year: 2006
Novel in translation


Red April evokes Holy Week during a cruel, bloody, and terrifying time in Peru's history, shocking for its corrosive mix of assassination, bribery, intrigue, torture, and enforced disappearance - a war between grim, ideologically driven terrorism and morally bankrupt government counterinsurgence. Mother-haunted, wife-abandoned, literature-loving, quietly eccentric Felix Chacaltana Saldivar is a hapless, by-the-book, unambitious prosecutor living in Lima. Until now he has lived a life in which nothing exceptionally good or bad has ever happened to him. But, inexplicably, he has been put in charge of a bizarre and horrible murder investigation. As it unfolds by propulsive twists and turns -full of paradoxes and surprises- Saldivar is compelled to confront what happens to a man and society when death becomes the only certainty.

I found it hard to get into at first but I'm not sure why because once I fell into the flow, I couldn't put it down. It starts out with some comedy in which there is optimism and clear signs that this is a country to love but then proceeds to kill all that off. This is not quite a detective novel. I'm no stranger to gritty and tough-to-read books but this is definitely amongst the most gritty. It is set in one of the most violent places, Ayacucho in Peru, where the communist party began its bloody reign of terror in 1980. In the book, these terrorists are still terrorizing but are more swept under the carpet. The deaths are described in detail and they're grisly. There's rape and bombs and animal cruelty. This is one of the worst periods in Peruvian/Latin American history and you feel it deep in your gut while reading Red April.

Saldivar is completely unable to handle the situations he encounters as he's straight laced to the point of inflexibility and his ability to have personal relationships is so stunted it's ludicrous. In a way, he reflects the country which tries to handle the situation but fails to do so. He is haunted by his mother, history, memory, and blood. It's a rough read since it's unrelentingly bleak.

You could take at its face value and simply read it as a rather entertaining (for violence-liking sensibilities) read or delve into its rather intelligent core (the mystery is in fact solved). I put the sideways first because I spent far too long just horrified by the book but in the end, I appreciated it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

WWW Trilogy-Robert Sawyer

WWW Trilogy: Wake, Watch, Wonder-Robert Sawyer

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 354, 350, 336
gender: M
nationality: Canada
year: 2009, 2010, 2011
Novels- WWW Series

Wake: "Caitlin Decter is young, pretty, feisty, a genius at math, and blind. When she receives an implant to restore her sight, instead of seeing reality she perceives the landscape of the World Wide Web-where she makes contact with a mysterious consciousness existing only in cyberspace."b
Watch: "It calls itself Webmind. An emerging consciousness within the World Wide Web, it has befriended Caitlin Decter and grown eager to learn about her world. But Webmind has also come to the attention of WATCH, the secret United States government agency that monitors the Internet for any potential threats-and wants it purged from cyberspace."
Wonder: "Caitlin Decter discovered Webmind, the vast artificial intelligence that spontaneously emerged from the World Wide Web and changed the world-from curing cancer to easing international tensions. But the Pentagon has declared war on it, recruiting hackers to delete Webmind out of existence..."

I'm doing things differently because unusually for me, I read Wake and immediately took a bus to take Watch and Wonder out of the libraries across the city.  I never do that-I'm usually fine waiting, reading a few books in between. They were just that good. There's so much math, brilliant ideas, clever people, and interesting plotlines that it's just unbelievably good. If you like your books intelligent, this is the series for you.

I was first intrigued by the blind protagonist, Caitlin. This is all too rare in non-inspirational books, a totally blind but comfortable with it protagonist? Say it ain't so. And then she gets a truly beautiful concept of being able to see the internet with all its connections. Then a high functioning autistic who has a family and a job and you know, people just deal with it it's a deal but it's not really a big deal.

And then there's this amazing concept of a AI that becomes self-aware out of China's isolationist tactics. Mixed in all this is primate language. All of this is to explore the idea of language and interconnection. Then within all this, Sawyer is also asking questions  about power, information, the origins of consciousness, and the right to self-determination. There's humor too in all this, fighting with spam for instance.

The final novel, Wonder,  is full of action between governments and Webmind (the emergent AI). There's a great atmosphere of suspicion and tension. All told, each of these novels could have stood alone but as a trio, you develop a real sense of the science involved and so you stop thinking about it and instead focus on losing yourself into the story.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Sailor Who Fell Out of Grace with the Sea-Yukio Mishima

The Sailor Who Fell Out of Grace with the Sea-Yukio Mishima

the facts
satisfaction:up
pages: 130
gender: M
nationality: Japan
year: 1963
Novel(la) in translation

I've read Mishima before. His stories are not full of much delight but rather are twisted tales of the darker sides of people. He was popular in his time as a writer though so I suppose he in some ways reflects a post war Japan exploring boundaries and taboos. 

This novella is definitely twisted and dark as it centers around a rather perverted thirteen-year-old boy who is a bit too much in love with his mother. Thankfully no actual incestuous sex happens but consider yourself warned because this boy's corruption goes further. It all functions as a camera obscura upturning of ideas and the contrast between opposites and it's key to Mishima's densely subtle style. He divides the book into summer and winter, obsession and alienation, and numerous other stylistic devices contribute to this feeling of splitness.

This is a misanthropist and nihilist novel that pushes most events to their worst outcome. It's full of alien attitudes and so is definitely worth reading for that alone. Then there's the fact that in barely 130 pages this is such a strong and full read because between the horrible parts, there's the love story of a sailor and a widow which puts the whole thing into perspective. Give it a read because it's a tightly written book. It's poetic and beautiful without being poetic and beautiful at all mainly because some passages don't click while others resonate while nothing detracts from the whole.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Between Shades of Gray-Ruta Sepety

Between Shades of Gray-Ruta Sepety

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 336
gender:F
nationality: USA
year: 2011
Novel, YA

Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life--until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father's prison camp.

First off, this has no relation to the latest gray bestseller. None whatsoever.

This was brutal. The simple writing cloaks the very detailed and depressing story to stay true to the reality. I'm sure we've all read YA books about the World Wars, countless Holocaust books and Nazi Germany as well as tons of American and British GIs stories and of course the whole espionage genre. Less well published are the stories of Eastern Europe and Western Asian. Here is one of them showing exactly how horrible Stalin was and how he killed 5-10 million people. Tension is racketed high from the first sentence and kept higher as Lina's journey to Siberia went on. By focusing on this girl, this family, Sepety makes the scale of the atrocities into something we can experience. And even better, Sepety balances this tension with some hope. It sounds corny to say I liked how love triumphed over the horror but within this book, it was not corny or contrived. I'd really like to recommend this book to anyone interested in the Soviets or WWII.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Appointment-Herta Müller

The Appointment-Herta Müller

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 214
gender: F
nationality: Romania
year:1997
Novel in translation

"I've been summoned. Thursday, ten sharp." Thus begins a day in the life of a young factory worker during Ceausescu's totalitarian regime. She has been questioned before; this time, she believes, will be worse.

For the reader, this is a surprisingly quick read. Müller's delivery is staccato and spare and the prose does not dwell but rather matter of factly speeds the story along. The narrator however is not having a good time and the prose serves to heighten your fear for her because within those tight phrases is the story of a woman who is doing anything, anything she can to keep sane. From the counting of stains, the focusing on her good luck charms, to the recounting of her life, she is constantly erecting and strengthening the mental walls she needs to endure another interrogation.

The feeling of Ceausescu's regime (never named, nor is the country mentioned, makes this woman's story more universal) is dominating, full of officials and the downtrodden. The privations and the torture all feel quite realistically dreadful. Excellent read!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

People of the Book-Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book-Geraldine Brooks

the facts:
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 368
gender: F
nationality: Australia
year: 2008
Novel

this ambitious, electrifying work traces the harrowing journey of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century S pain. When it falls to Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, to conserve this priceless work, the series of tiny artifacts she discovers in its ancient binding-an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair-only begin to unlock its deep mysteries and unexpectedly plunges Hanna into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics.

I'm of two minds about this book. It was an entertaining read.

The parts set in the past are beautiful. The writing is strong, setting is well realized, and the tensions are strong, believable, and sensitively treated. Occasionally the ignorance of other religions seemed too much as an opportunity to show off Brooks's elementary grasp of religions but for the most part Al-Andalus, Sarajevo, Vienna, and Venice were lovely sections to be reading.

The narrator, the modern day conservator, Hanna, however was problematic as a character and as a plot device. Brooks manages to make book conservation into an exciting job which isn't seen too often (and it is better treated than Indiana Jones treats archaeology) but beyond her fascination with her task, Hanna is unrealistic. The characters she interacts with are one dimensional and the dialogue hard to believe. Her relationship to her mother moves far away from dysfunctional and into the realm of ummm, no. She is not a likable character and perhaps if she didn't exotify mixed race people as really attractive mutts, I could have looked past that. Also, how can a barely 30 year old take time off from school yet gain 2 BAs, MA, PhD, involved apprenticeships, AND the kinds of jobs that will give her such a strong international reputation that lands her a job with sole responsibility for the Haggdah? Really now. And then it's SOOO easy to drop book conservation and pick up outdoor art conservation? A completely different field with different skill sets? And she's not the only one, she keeps meeting very important people who are the same age. Maybe I'm just jealous because that's pretty cool sounding but in real life, it takes much more time to gain that many degrees and chances are, people in positions of power, like head curators, tend to be more 40s-early 60s.

Yeah, so I really didn't like about half the book and really loved half the book. The parts with Hanna are interspersed with the historical parts but it's still easy to skip one half for the other.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

She Devil in the Mirror-Horacio Castellanos Moya

She Devil in the Mirror-Horacio Castellanos Moya

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 178
gender: M
nationality: El Salvador
year: 2000
Novel in translation

Laura Rivera can’t believe what has happened. Her best friend has been killed in cold blood in the living room of her home, in front of her two young daughters! Nobody knows who pulled the trigger, but Laura will not rest easy until she finds out. Her dizzying, delirious, hilarious, and blood-curdling one-sided dialogue carries the reader on a rough and tumble ride through the social, political, economic, and sexual chaos of post-civil war San Salvador. A detective story of pulse-quickening suspense, The She-Devil in the Mirror is also a sober reminder that justice and truth are more often than not illusive.

Until the end, I did not enjoy reading this book. Why?

I hated Laura. So much. This is a one voice, one narrator monologue and Laura is insufferable. She's a meddling, critical, racist, classist, hysterical person who always thinks she knows best, impedes in the investigation she's so hysterical about and is often wrong and is incapable of acknowledging the about faces she engages in. Corruption pours from every pore of her skin.

My teeth were set on edge while she talks about her friend, a 'paragon' of society who would be in most other societies, considered a somewhat immoral person and then Laura has sexually charged encounter with all her friend's lovers. And there're a lot of them.

I kept reading mainly because the language creates a pace that is like falling head first down a well. I genuinely cared about whether the police would be capable of finding Olga Maria's murderer so I kept going and I'm thrilled I did. You always knew Laura was an unreliable narrator and Moya really handles the last twist so well that the entire book in hindsight ended up being so great.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Year of the Hare-Arto Paasilinna

Year of the Hare- Arto Paasilinna

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 135
gender: M
nationality: Finland
year: 1975
Novel(la) in translation

While out on assignment, a journalist hits a hare with his car. This small incident becomes life-changing: he decides to quit his job, leave his wife, sell his possessions, and spend a year wandering the wilds of Finland-with the bunny as his boon companion.

Let's be frank, I wanted this to be an absolutely beautiful book. I've always wanted a hare/rabbit companion that hangs out and goes everywhere with me. And tell me, is that not the cutest cover you've seen in awhile?

Don't get me wrong, it was a good book. Well paced as a story of a man going through a midlife crisis. He completely drops out of his competitive stressful life and instead lives an idealized life as menial worker who goes from manly job to manly job.

There's an emphasis on manly jobs. This is a story of a man, and this man hangs out with nature. It's a lads book full of manual labor (and how his body is suited for it), drinking, hunting, and of course, the stereotypical annoying wife. As I am not a man, do not idealize manual labor, hate hunting, and have no annoying wife, there was really very little I could relate to at all.

Then there was the fact that every Finn he encountered was a horrible person. Everyone up in Lapland was decent but the Finns? Terrible, which kind of ruined any kind of suspension of belief I was engaged in. While I'm capable of believing that yes, a man and hare could hang out together and move from manly job to manly job, I have difficulty believing how horrible the Southerners were...and I'm pretty much a lifelong Northerner myself (obviously not of Finland but other countries).

I'm aware this is a picturesque novel (i.e. the Spanish style that is a satirical humorous story of a lower-class person surviving by his wits alá Don Quixote) but I guess the humor was so deadpan I missed it for about 2/3s of the book. 

I still marked my satisfaction with an up because there's a very specific, absolutely hilarious bunch of scenes which I will not spoil for you.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Chronicle of a Death Foretold-Gabriel García Marquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold-Gabriel García Marquez

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 122
gender: M
nationality: Columbia
year: 1981
Novel(la) in translation

"The story revolves around the events leading up to the brutal murder of Santiago Nasar, in Colombia at around the 1950′s, recounted by the testaments of the inhabitants of the town 27 years after the crime. We come to see that Santiago Nasar was killed by Pedro and Pablo Vicario, twin brothers of Angela Vicario. Her husband for two hours, Bayardo San Roman, returned her to her family having found out that she was no longer a virgin when she did not stain during their honeymoon. She puts the blame on Santiago Nasar as the one who took her virginity, and the twins set out in the morning to hunt him down, to reclaim their sister’s honor. Whether or not Santiago Nasar was truly guilty of the said crime was never revealed."

Marquez is a classic author and for good reason. This is one of his shortest but it's also my favorite of his works. Told with a journalistic or police report tone, the narrative is nevertheless twisting and turning in and out of sight. There's flashback upon flashback interspersed with the stories of the villagers. The narrator may or may not be reliable just as Santiago Nasar may or may not have deflowered Angela. 

The range of stories that are told in this brief book is pretty much breath taking. There's the story of the helplessness of women (men are the active actors), the story of the indifference of religious figures, and a culture stuck between past and progress. Every character has a name and backstory but Marquez spends just enough time with each one so you sort of know each person but you don't truly know them. 

It's a truly unique narrative that in the hands of a lesser author would probably devolve into confusion but by weaving the tragedy (and it still manages all the melancholy of a tragedy as the twins announce to the entire town their intentions as if they want to be stopped) and fate together, Marquez keeps us on track. Fantastic writing

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Calligrapher's Daughter-Eugenia Kim

The Calligrapher's Daughter-Eugenia Kim

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 375
gender: F
nationality: USA (of color)
year: 2009
Novel

"In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny, though her country—newly occupied by Japan—is crumbling, and her family, led by her stern father, is facing difficulties that seem insurmountable. Narrowly escaping an arranged marriage, Najin takes up a new role as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end. Najin pursues a coveted education and is surprised to find love. After one day of marriage a denied passport separates her from her new husband, who continues alone to America. As a decade passes and the world descends into war, Najin loses touch with her husband."

Talk about setting the scene. I really liked this book because of the way it followed the history of the time. I mean, the historical fiction of this book was great. There's a great sense of place-the setting, rebellion was believable. South Korea 1915-1945 was undergoing dramatic drastic change with the Japanese invasion. The Japanese tried to force Korea into being Japanese with no memory of Korea. When WWII turned, Japan truly exploited Korea for all its resources for the war effort. And of course you know that even when the Japanese leave, the Korean Wars of the 1950s are about to erupt. Truly a particularly taunt and unstable period to be Korean and which gives this story a very dramatic background. Kim uses particularly painterly prose to paint her pictures.

So Najin is born to a very traditional father who resists the Japanese efforts to ruin his culture. He is a calligrapher and thus has strong ties to the traditional culture. Her mother however is Christian and that informs the moral environment of the family. She, however, carves out her own life lived to her own ideas about independence. She escapes an early marriage, lives with the last princess, becomes a teacher, and when she marries, defies tradition. Pretty much just a strong female heroine since this is the story of Najin's character development. The best thing is that she's not the only complex character. All the characters are well rounded and there are few demons in this story.

It's all gently told with a pacing that mimics the ebb and flow of history itself. Full of struggles and triumphs with a satisfying ending.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Stranger-Camilla Läckberg

The Stranger-Camilla Läckberg aka The Gallow's Bird

the fact
satisfaction: up
pages: 381
gender: F
nationality: Sweden
year: 2006
Novel (translation) (Patrik Hedström series)

"A local woman is killed in a tragic car crash. It's a strange accident - the victim's blood contains high alcohol levels, but she rarely drank a drop. The case marks the end of a quiet winter for Detective Patrik Hedstrom. Meanwhile, a reality TV show begins shooting in the town, and as cameras shadow the stars' every move, tempers start to flare. When a drunken party ends with an unpopular contestant's murder, all eyes turn to the cast and crew - could there be a murderer among them? The ratings spike as the country tunes in to a real life murder mystery. Under the unforgiving media spotlight, Patrik tackles his toughest investigation yet..."

Scandinavian crime is apparently very popular and often the crime novels I pick at random from the library choices are indeed from Scandinavia. The Stranger is enjoyable for what it is. Popular crime. Läckberg handles the convoluted plot very well and writes fairly clearly. The pacing is well done (fast) and the crimes are grisly but not overly so. It's really all well done but I really have some difficulty articulating why I enjoyed it so much. If you like crime thrillers (which I do), this is a great one to read.

The writing is at times a bit exasperating. There's a lot of details about the personal lives of the characters that is completely extraneous to the plot. The characters that are not involved in the crime plotlines are a bit archetypal straying to stereotype. The crime plots are well pieced and the twists are great but unless you love the characters, the wedding preparations might get a bit annoying.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Song of Achilles-Madeline Miller

Song of Achilles-Madeline Miller

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 352
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2011
Novel

"Achilles, "the best of all the Greeks," son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful— irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods' wrath."

I am so far from a classicist, I work primarily with Neolithic archaeology. As an undergrad, half of the time I felt like most classicists were only concerned with gay subtext. A department devoted to giggling sex obsessed geeks who tend towards writing fanfiction. This is a completely unfair representation of my classics department of course, but I am somewhat bitter about having to reread the Odyssey's most boring bits and being condescended to because I don't speak Ancient Greek.Thus, I really am a strange candidate to read a book based on the Illiad written by a classic professor.

Even odder, I enjoyed it. A lot. Despite the fact that it takes a bit of gay subtext and ramps it up into an overarching love story in which love tries to win at all odds (a main tenant of fanfiction). In the Illiad, Patroclus has a good relationship with his father, not so much awe of Achilles, is older than Achilles, is an active fighter, and marries a woman for love. These glaring errors didn't bother me though.

Miller writes well. The Bronze age palaces and Trojan camps are imagined as real places full of the most idealistic Greek mythical people. I actually liked it. Miller managed to artfully craft a fresh feel to a love story. She took a character I'd previously not thought about much (Patroclus) and made me start to genuinely care about him because he turns into such a complex character. Achilles turns from a brutal killer fond of games into a grieving character ultimately very sympathetic.

I give Miller all the credit. She has crafted a great love story that manages to not be saccharine using wonderfully ornate prose. Her pacing is brilliant which sweeps you straight into the story.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Chocky-John Wyndham

Chocky-John Wyndham

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 153
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1968
Novel

"Matthew's parents are worried. At eleven, he's much too old to have an imaginary friend, yet they find him talking to and arguing with a presence that even he admits is not physically there. This presence - Chocky - causes Matthew to ask difficult questions and say startling things: he speaks of complex mathematics and mocks human progress. Then, when Matthew does something incredible, it seems there is more than the imaginary about Chocky. Which is when others become interested and ask questions of their own: who is Chocky? And what could it want with an eleven-year-old boy?"

Wyndham, at times, is slightly dated (in this case, he's a bit idealistic about radiation and as usual his female characters leave much to be desired) but his storytelling is tight and top notch. His novel/las have tight and subtle plots and I always enjoy both the overt plot and the subtle understory he crafts. You always know, just know, how it's going to end but Wyndham takes you on a good journey there. This is a strong case of how an intelligent alien life could make first contact. I bought the premise. I liked it even.

This is a great example of good science fiction. There's no in-your-face techno jumble and there's no need to create a whole new world because the science fiction is integrated into a contemporary (1960s) typical suburban atmosphere. The pace is controlled not frenetic which allows for a slow contemplation of the implications and possibilities. That allows for a quick suspension of belief. The point of view (from the father) allows for the reader to be taken from skepticism to believing. Subtle manipulation.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Dead Lovely-Helen Fitzgerald

Dead Lovely-Helen Fitzgerald

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 298
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2007
Novel

"Krissie and Sarah had been best friends since they were children. But cracks start to appear when Sarah and her husband Kyle who have been trying unsuccessfully to have a baby and Krissie accidentally becomes pregnant following a drug-fuelled dalliance in a Tenerife toilet cubicle. Then one night friendship turns to betrayal, and to murder."

I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed it. The first page seems like you're about to read this gritty and crude detective novel but then it gets funny. There's funny ha-has going on and funny irony going on and it's funny. There's a lot of trying to shock and outright absurdity but it somehow ends up really funny instead. It has a head-long rush of a pacing strategy that makes it very hard to put down. I read it while flying at 4am and waiting hours in airports and I still enjoyed it. That's really impressive.

Probably most of that was the good characters. Sometimes Fitzgerald uses archetypes but she fleshes them out enough that you end up liking them anyway. The main three characters are terrible and do selfish horrible things but you end up rooting for them anyway. Even better, considering the aggressive marketing towards women this book has, is that there is no clearly bad character guy and no downbeaten character that's somehow all of womankind. We're not supposed to empathize or sympathize with the character, Sarah, who wants a baby and in fact, Krissie seems more true to real life because of her irritation with Sarah's obsession. This is the dark side of female friendships tempered with the good things that remind you why you're friends.

This book is not for everyone. This is a commercial book but not one that's in the same mold as most. It's over the top, full of swearing, crude sex, and absurdist humor. Read the first full chapter to see if you borrow/buy it.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Railsea-China Miéville

Railsea-China Miéville

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 376
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel

"On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can't shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it's a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he'd bargained for. Soon he's hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea."

Taking its cues from Moby Dick, Railsea is amazing. I liked Moby Dick (I skimmed over the pages of whale killing tools details) but I never found that to be a problem or block for enjoying Railsea. Miéville as usual has changed his style (only ampersands, there's no "and" in this book) to create a brand new world that has a little bit of similarity to the Iron Council mainly because it's also set on a train. Railsea is a completely different train world though. The ground, the railsea, becomes more dangerous than the ocean. It's hinted that this is a natural disaster, that this is a book set in the future after Earth has been through the heavy metal age and plastizoid and aliens have ruined the upper atmosphere (so maybe you can classify this as a dystopia). The railsea is inhabited by moldywarps and other very dangerous creatures that seek to eat humans the second they touch the railsea at times. The only way to travel safely is on the network of rails. The trains that travel these rails are specially built for their functions (there're archaeologists in this book!) and on the mole hunters, the captains are Ahabs who make their search into symbols. They embue their obsessions with language and they become stories, they are not searching for their particular quarry, they are searching for meaning. It's a great homage to Moby Dick. But the book goes further because Sham Yes ap Soorap stops being a mole hunter and ends up on a very special type of train and the book splits into various narratives. The captain's search for meaning and Sham's search for the beginning, the explanation of the beginning of the rails.

Miéville has created mythologies, religions, political struggles, and even has inserted a sly criticism of current society. It's a great full bodied novel that is easier to get into than some of his others. Listen, I love it. I love the diversity of family situations, strong female characters, and even gender ambiguity. I'm so glad to have read it and that Miéville is clearly capable of continuing his strengths (this is his most recent).

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Frozen-Mary Casanova

Frozen-Mary Casanova

the facts
satisfaction: up
page: 256
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2012
Novel

"Set during the roaring 1920s in the beautiful, wild area on Rainy Lake where Minnesota meets Canada, Frozen tells the remarkable story of Sadie Rose, whose mother died under strange circumstances the same night that Sadie Rose was found, unable to speak, in a snowbank. Sadie Rose doesn’t know her last name and has only fleeting memories of her mother—and the conflicting knowledge that her mother had worked in a brothel. Taken in as a foster child by a corrupt senator, Sadie Rose spends every summer along the shores of Rainy Lake, where her silence is both a prison and a sanctuary."

This rather unique kind of narrative is well executed. The heroine, Sadie Rose, is lovable and you find yourself rooting for her from the first bit. Her silence hides a very strong mind that despite being sheltered is nimble and quick. She seems to be a good example of how stimulation from an early age can produce robust and capable people. Her life however, is and has never been ideal and yet she manages to both be her own person and overcome her problems despite people who approach her with hidden agendas.

The servants, Aasta and her husband, are great characters. Almost more lovable than Sadie Rose, they are fonts of small wisdoms and support. Something that is completely absent from the upper class family that Sadie Rose lives with. There is a distinct bias against the upper class throughout the book since they are the ones causing all the problems, creating situations, are oppressive and have hidden agendas. They all have secrets. In contrast the lower classes, the servants and the love interest are comparatively helpful, supportive, and have only benevolent secrets. The 1920s setting kind of works out like that I guess.

My only problem with it would be that the ending seemed a bit too pat. Everything got resolved too easily and too neatly...it works but is a bit offputting given that the rest is so well done.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bull of Mithros-Anne Zourodi

The Bull of Mithros-Anne Zourodi

the fact
satisfaction: up
page: 320
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel

"It is summer, and as tourists, drawn by the legend of a priceless missing artifact, disembark on the sun-drenched quay of Mithros, the languid calm of the island is broken by the unorthodox arrival of a stranger who has been thrown overboard in the bay. Lacking money or identification, he is forced for a while to remain on Mithros. But is he truly a stranger? To some, his face seems familiar. The arrival of the investigator Hermes Diaktoros, intrigued himself by the island's fabled bull, coincides with a violent and mysterious death. This violence has an echo in Mithros's recent past: in a brutal unsolved crime committed several years before, which, although apparently forgotten may not yet have been forgiven. As Hermes sets about solving the complex puzzle of who is guilty and who is innocent, he discovers a web of secrets and unspoken loyalties, and it soon becomes clear that the bull of Mithros may only be the least of the island's shadowy mysteries."

Written as part of the Greek Detective Mysteries, this takes the place of sloth. I've not read any of the others and that's okay because this is a stand alone crime novel. The atmosphere of Mithros is well constructed and brought to life. The language brings everything to vividness and situations like with the army conscripts seem very, very real. There is a large cast of characters from the island itself and they're all interconnected in various ways (it's a small island after all) which gives rise to several little mysteries as side plots. What could be a very shallow crime is instead told with depth and tenderness.

The main character, the detective Hermes Diaktoros, is a strange man who is not quite beholden to anything really. There's no indication of whose authority he operates under and he is referred throughout as the fat man. That kind of annoyed me, there was no need for it. As someone somewhat otherworldly, Hermes has the ability to talk to people amiably and gain access to buildings and museums. He's old fashioned in a way but that suits him because part of his information gathering takes place in the kafenions which is of course where the older members of a community have got together and gossiped for decades. I've worked in small town Greece so I can attest that indeed, if you want to connect older events with current events, that's who you've got to talk to.

My only real beef with the book is that some of the mysteries got solved via visual cues but not the ones the reader is informed about. I guess that makes Diaktoros more effective as an other worldly detective but I personally like to be able to guess at the solutions to mysteries when I'm reading. I nevertheless enjoyed the novel so don't let that get you down.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Corrections-Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections-Jonathan Franzen

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 653
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2001
Novel

After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson's disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man-or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.

This is really a brick of a book-clocking in at 650 pages, it can get a little hard to get through sometimes. Part of that difficulty is that sometimes you feel like the characters are pretty unlikeable embittered upper middle class white people and why should you care? So I assure you, this is a book of anti-heroes.

I kept reading on though because this is one solidly constructed novel. Instead of jumping from one member of the family to one another, he instead focuses on each one. The pacing is well-done and the prose is smooth and precise. There's no real plot to be frank, the theme is really just about attempts to make things right, even if you fail at it. So each character makes all kinds of mistakes and fails to correct them and sometimes actually succeeds at fixing some and that allows the prose to just sprawl all over these people's lives which are more of profiles of these people rather than stories. The sprawl means that stereotypes get trotted out (mostly about Mid Westerners). Despite this I grew to actually care about the characters. Maybe it's Stockholm Syndrome but the more time spent with each character the more I cared about whether they'd be able to recover from their disastrous situations or not.

I guess the real lesson of the book is that life happens and if you're going to correct things-you better be actively participating in it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fog-Caroline B. Cooney

Fog-Caroline B. Cooney

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 153
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1989
YA Novel (Series: Losing Christina)

The Shevvingtons are perfect. Mr. Shevvington is the charming, handsome principal of Christina's school. His wife is a dedicated English teacher. When the Autumn fog rolls over the coast, Christian and Anya begin boarding at the Shevvington's home, where Christina discovers that nothing is as it seems. Anya is slowly losing her mind, and Christina knows the Shevvingtons are behind it.

I've read a lot of Cooney (I was a fan of hers while an actual YA) and this might be my favorite of her work. I actually found this creepy. The descriptions are good in that they seem to concentrate the creepiness of the whole thing. The changeability of the sea is put to good work to build up this murky backdrop against which the sinister Shevvingtons really manage to creep you out. There are a lot of things that don't add up and a lot is left to the imagination but Cooney manages to feed the imagination just enough to keep you intrigued and reading.

The ending is perhaps too strange. The Shevvingtons are left without a single motive except for malice (and I have no idea if that changes later in the series) which doesn't ring true. But you know, enough was left open that I enjoyed wondering what/who were the real villians. the Sea? the House? or the Shevvingtons?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

After the Fog-Kathleen Shoop

After the Fog-Kathleen Shoop

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 212
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2012
Novel

In the mill town of Donora, Pennsylvania, site of the infamous 1948 “killing smog,” headstrong nurse Rose Pavlesic tends to her family and neighbors. Controlling and demanding, she’s created a life that reflects everything she missed growing up as an orphan. She’s even managed to keep her painful secrets hidden from her loving husband, dutiful children, and large extended family. When a stagnant weather pattern traps poisonous mill gasses in the valley, neighbors grow sicker and Rose’s nursing obligations thrust her into conflict she never could have fathomed.

I loved the portrait of a woman in crisis. Her internal crisis is echoed in the family crisis and environmental crisis around her. The prose clearly conveys the dreariness of the poisonous fog covering the mill town and the panic of the town. And even before the fog hits, the descriptions of Rose's work is great at conveying the appalling conditions that the wives of mill workers were living in-a subject too often ignored for the horror of the mills themselves (though Shoop doesn't ignore that either). The historical fiction aspect was truly fantastic-you're drawn into this mill town's crisis and for that I liked reading it.

However, I don't know if I can accept the degree to which Rose is a controlling mess. It sometimes made Rose seem too unreal. It was pretty inevitable that when her kids were not following the paths she wanted for them that she'd have to fall apart. It was just, the degree of drama was incredible. I couldn't believe in the coincidence of all the various dramas. Rose has secrets, finds out about her daughter's secrets, and her husband may be lying to her and her son is definitely hiding something and is hurt anyway, and there's an extended family living with her too AND the entire town is dying off? Oh my goodness, it made for some difficult reading at times because there was so little joy. And then the conclusion comes and there's suddenly joy? After the downbeat drama of the first 180 pages, the conclusion came off as a bit too pat.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Twisted Window-Lois Duncan

The Twisted Window-Lois Duncan

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 172
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1987
YA Novel

When Brad tells Tracy that his little sister Mindy has been kidnapped by his stepfather, she promises to help him locate the child. Tracy is moved by Brad's story and defiant of the aunt and uncle she has lived with ever since her mother was stabbed to death. They find the toddler Brad is searching for, and Tracy arranges to baby-sit for Mindy, then turn her over to Brad.

So there are lots of spoilers online for this book-watch out for those but in a way, it's difficult not to give it all away. It's a suspense thriller and there are twists and turns almost every chapter. Duncan never lies to you but rather jumps to conclusions that are in the wrong direction.

I don't know, I found myself tired of all the twists and turns midway through-I mean that some of the twists didn't seem to need to be twists at all. I had my suspicions of what was going on way earlier than Duncan wanted me to which made it all seem strangely simplistic despite the complexity of the narration. Part of the complexity was the shifting point of view between characters which struck me as a too obvious plot device that often didn't really move the plot along and thus was a too simplistic way of conveying information.

Ok, now that I've been Miss Negative over here, I have to applaud Duncan for not giving into what must have been a temptation to give you one of those wrap up chapters. This is something Duncan does super well and I'm glad her style stayed true. This is also a very nonjudgmental book- there's no stigmatizing language or behavior which is awesome!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

American Pastoral-Philip Roth

American Pastoral-Philip Roth

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 423
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 1997
Novel

Roth's protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father's glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in 1968, Swede's beautiful American luck deserts him.

I know Newark, NJ fairly well but the Newark I know is from the 1990s and 2000s and is dominated by Iberians. It is a city struggling to semi-rebuild and rebrand itself while shootings still occur on the sidewalks adjacent to a primary school. American Pastoral takes place in an older Newark-the beginning of Newark's downfall when it still remembered its glory days. Roth's evocation of that Newark is beautiful and tragic with strong prose. I have to say, that was above all my favorite bit of the book. The plot was good but I adored how the setting was brought to life. I also enjoyed the ramblings Roth went into about the process of glove making and industry.

I actually own this book and I intend on trying to hold onto it because I greatly enjoyed it. There are moments of great bewilderment (echoing Swede's) as you try to figure out how anyone could get into such a mess (the bizarre Rita character) and pain when you wonder how anyone could handle such a devastated daughter (nearer to the end). There are moments of pleasure and some very nicely turned phrases. And above all, I kind of adore books when the American Dream implodes for a white person so really, I was going to like this book no matter the skill of the author. It was somewhat hard to get into because Zuckerman is a bit of an annoying narrator in that he's constantly obsessed with Swede and likes to extrapolate from little information these grandiose ideas. It really got rolling when Zuckerman shut up and Swede's story was just let to unfold and implode and keep imploding and then it was quite difficult to put down. 

It's long and it's dense but it's masterful and I can now see why it's such a contribution to Roth's reputation (I've not liked my prior Roth reads). 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fear of Flying-Erica Jong

Fear of Flying-Erica Jong

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 340
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1973
Novel

"the ground-breaking, uninhibited story of Isadora Wing and her desire to fly free caused a national sensation—and sold more than twelve million copies. Now, after thirty years, the iconic novel still stands as a timeless tale of self-discovery, liberation, and womanhood"

So I get it how this could be ground-breaking. I mean, female sexuality? Say it ain't so! We still need a little bit more recognition of this today and so yeah, a book that frankly acknowledges sexuality and women enjoying sex would be groundbreaking after decades of shame and hiding.

But for me in 2012, there was a bit too much gratuitous sex. I mean, it was like I get it, she is a sexual being. SEXUAL BEING! But you know what, so am I and I have no need to be so crude because that's what Isadora was, crude to the extent that it wasn't sexy anymore. It instead was often awkward like hearing your gynecologist abandon scientific names for everything. Nor, let me tell you, do I think so constantly about it. It seemed that Isadora thought about nothing other than sex and psychology for 'chapters' at a time. What a one dimensional way to live life! It kept making me think about how men are accused of just thinking about sex every five minutes...is having a female character do the same really that interesting and groundbreaking? Or it is just as destructive to the idea of a sexual being as the male assumption is? It's like, hey, women have all these stereotypes about our sexuality-let's just adopt male stereotypes into a female character because we're just assuming that men have all the good things about life. It's not really ground breaking, it's depressingly patriarchially status quo.

Okay, that out of the way, Isadora is nevertheless a timeless character. She is human. A human female full of contradictions, uncertainties, fears and fantasies. This book is a product of its time with the strong threads of psychiatry throughout which was so heavy handed. I'm talking at least one heavily patriarchal psychology 101 theory every 5 pages. I hope that if this were written today, we'd not have that so much. It's Isadora's internal monologue (when she's not just thinking about sex) that's timeless with many "aha, that's true!" moments. Her actions though....could not relate to them at all especially since there was no attempt to not make Adrian a total douchebag. I suppose he's an acceptable character by 1970s standards (I'm in my 20s, what do I know about the '70s) but nowadays? Just grow up! He's soooo annoyingly immature. There was also no real plot, the book just kept going. It was as immature as the characters.

Quite frankly it was all a bit sordid and depressing. I mean, adult relationships were painted in such a pessimistic light! I still enjoyed it for those passages that really were timeless and you know spoke to me but those moments were few and in between. And the more I think about it after reading, the more I kind of hate the book.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Never Mind-Edward St. Aubyn

Never Mind-Edward St. Aubyn

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 181
gender: M
nationality: UK (Cornwall)
year: 1992
Novel

"At his mother's family house in the south of France, Patrick Melrose has the run of a magical garden. Bravely imaginative and self-sufficient, five-year-old Patrick encounters the volatile lives of adults with care. His father, David, rules with considered cruelty, and Eleanor, his mother, has retreated into drink. They are expecting guests for dinner."

I liked Patrick but really I'm a terrible audience for 'modern classic' British novels or 'possibly autobiographical' stories about the upper class. They just leave me so cold and antagonistic which may be the clearest sign that I ought to move. My favorite character was the American who gave us some humor and the rest of the characters are British to the core: from the precocious child to the utterly cruel father. I mean, David Melrose's utter horribleness might be a satire but it is not that far off from certain people whose acquaintance I've made.

Oh my goodness, what a ghastly set of characters being so dreadfully fashionably British! So pompous and upper class, their very existences are twisted by tedium and boredom with that barrage of mockery and insults that characterizes far too many British friendships. A self-inflated ego that matches nothing of the reality of their behaviors. If you could see my face, it'd just have the same disgusted screwed up expression. And you know, since I was so horrified by the entirety of the novel, the moment of child abuse didn't even register as a shock...I thought he such a horrible human being, it was not a surprise he'd do that.

The writing is clear and simple which probably doesn't help endear it to me but it floats other peoples's boats.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Our Kind of People-Uzodinma Iweala

Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, A Country's Hope-Uzodinma Iweala

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 219
gender: M
nationality: Nigeria
year: 2012
Non fiction

"HIV/AIDS has been reported as one of the most destructive diseases in recent memory—tearing apart communities and ostracizing the afflicted. But the emphasis placed on death, destruction, and despair hardly captures the many and varied effects of the epidemic, or the stories of the extraordinary people who live and die under its watch."

A not-depressing book about HIV/AIDS in Africa? Say it isn't so. The point was to counter prevailing white people ideas about the poor suffering promiscuous Africans with nuances and first hand stories giving an indication of the variety of experiences that exist. At times it was mostly just a calling out of the attitudes Western media really tries to keep strong but it also provided a better framework to understand, for example why HIV spread so dramatically perhaps due to the prevalence of polygamy. But rather than leave it there, Iweala provides a cultural primer to understand better what the African practice of polygamy entails rather than just assuming that there's a cross-cultural understanding. Which is great because my idea of polygamy doesn't exactly jive with the African practice and so I found it invaluable. Iweala puts the blame on everyone-the delayed governmental response, the conservatism that has naught to do with realities, and the stigmas placed on the ill.

Ok so maybe this was most informative because I'm a little white girl who has lived in the United States for most of my life and not exactly ground breaking but I thought it great for anyone who recognizes the giant gap that exists within our first world perceptions and the reality of life. The humanization of the problem allows for the hope of a gradual solution.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Diving Belles-Lucy Wood

Diving Belles-Lucy Wood

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 223
gender: F
nationality: UK (Cornwall)
year: 2012
Short Story Collection

"Straying husbands lured into the sea by mermaids can be fetched back, for a fee. Trees can make wishes come true. Houses creak and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants, straightening shower curtains and worrying about frayed carpets. A mother, who seems alone and lonely, may be rubbing sore muscles or holding the hands of her invisible lover as he touches her neck. Phantom hounds roam the moors and, on a windy beach, a boy and his grandmother beat back despair with an old white door."

I loved these stories to bits and pieces. Wood blurs the line between reality and myth taking many of her cues from Cornish folklore. Lovely and haunting language permeates these stories that manage to be contemporary with a timeless decidedly old style voice. Each story is self contained-the narrator's voice changes and the tones shift to match the mythical beast. Sometimes too much is left to the imagination and occasionally the allegory is heavy handed but nevertheless, wholly recommended.

Ok listen, it's hard to write about books so lovely. The stories are other-worldly but grounded in reality. There's also a great thread of humor such as the nursing home for witches but it's well balanced by mystery and wonder. The descriptions are clear and precise when Wood wants them to be because above all the characters are developed.

There are other reviews who'll take you through the symbolism and allusions of each story out there but I just found most of the stories so lovely I just fell underneath their spells and tried not to let myself over analyze and just suspended belief. Wood's stories lend themselves to that.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Ghosts of Spain-Giles Tremlett

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past-Giles Tremlett

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 454
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2006
Non-fiction

"The appearance, more than sixty years after the Spanish Civil War ended, of mass graves containing victims of Francisco Franco’s death squads finally broke what Spaniards call “the pact of forgetting”—the unwritten understanding that their recent, painful past was best left unexplored. At this charged moment, Giles Tremlett embarked on a journey around the country and through its history to discover why some of Europe’s most voluble people have kept silent so long. In elegant and passionate prose, Tremlett unveils
the tinderbox of disagreements that mark the country today. Ghosts of Spain is a revelatory book about one of Europe’s most exciting countries."

So what was this? A book on Spanish culture or a book on Spanish silence? I was never quite sure and the dodging back and forth to these two ideas of what a book could encompass really weakened my opinion on Tremlett's book. As a book on silence, this was actually quite good if you took out several of the middle chapters. As a book on culture, it was pretty lacking. The overall thesis was pretty weak and really, there was far too much emphasis on terrorism and Madrid. If you're going to talk about Spanish culture as a whole and claim that you give an outsider's objectivity then really, don't give me yet another precis on Basque terrorism. That's Madrid I hear, not objectivity.

Also, the chapter on Galicia was absolute rubbish. Tremlett seemed to have only gone to Á Coruña once and maybe stopped over in Santiago de Compostela-hardly the comprehensive travel he'd obviously done on the Mediterranean coast. The chapter was too confused and bemused and lost to really warrant inclusion into the book at all. Way to just propagate the Spanish stereotype that Galicia is a weird, otherworldly place that can't be understood so don't bother with it. Since I'm half-Galician, I don't really understand why Tremlett even bothered to talk about Galicia if the treatment was going to be so poor. It was actually worse than the Basque chapter focused entirely on terrorism with a few diversions.

Nevertheless, there were interesting anecdotes and I got directed to a few good references. Some of his insights were also very good such as his chapter on group mentality which is when I thought he shined.

But there was too much hair pulling from this semi-Spaniard to deal with so overall dissatisfaction.

If you want a book that portrays Spanish culture better, may I suggest Hopper's The New Spaniards? That also lacks a nuanced view of minority cultures in Iberia but it also doesn't aspire to be more than it is. 



Saturday, September 29, 2012

Kraken-China Miéville

Kraken-China Miéville

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages 481
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2010
Novel

"In the Darwin Centre at London’s Natural History Museum, Billy Harrow, a cephalopod specialist, is conducting a tour whose climax is meant to be the Centre’s prize specimen of a rare Architeuthis duxbetter known as the Giant Squid. But Billy’s tour takes an unexpected turn when the squid suddenly and impossibly vanishes into thin air."

This time Miéville takes on Lovecraft vibes to describe an amazing labyrinth of London all focused on Armageddons and apocalypses. Warring religious factions fight to be the end of the world and the cast list is longer than I am tall. It's Miéville's art that that doesn't bother the reader.

Two characters that stick in my mind. The memory angels just broke my heart-the dead one of the decommissioned museum and the angel following Harrow, breaking and diminishing. These museum guardians are the protectors of the ideas and memories held in our public institutions. To have them 'dead' really yanks at those heartstrings of this former museum employee. Then there's Marge's ipod guardian who gets 'fed' music and sings along and in return protects Marge. Adorable!

Anyhow, the plot is way too complicated for me to go through-the kraken is stolen and numerous factions get involved thinking everyone else has it and people go insane, and people attack each other, and a special faction of the police is involved...Listen, it makes much more sense if you actually read the novel and have Miéville's attention to detail wash over you and you meet all the people involved. There's dark humor to really grab you, urban grit to horrify you, and fascinating takes on dogma to keep you thinking. The mix of the realistic and impossible, the gruesome and awesome, the heart wrenching and the funny is just unbeatable.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Member of the Wedding-Carson McCullers

Member of the Wedding-Carson McCullers

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 191
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1947
Novel

"Here is the story of the inimitable twelve-year-old Frankie, who is utterly, hopelessly bored with life until she hears about her older brother’s wedding."

Well, you can see why it's a classic. It's a pitch perfect voice of the fickleness, the confusion and wanderlust of a girl coming of age. The manias, the feeling of stultification, of becoming were all there with a thread of discovering sex to spur a coming of age.

The story is, above all, lonely. Trapped in the warm kitchen and unaware of the world outside her own, Frankie is attempting to connect with others, to join with other people while rejecting Berenice and John Henry her actual companions. Her internal dissonance is discussed with clarity and allusion filled language with symbols galore including a piano tuner causing her great distress.

I could relate in that Frankie was having all this emotional turmoil for which she had no name and no idea how to resolve but otherwise I just couldn't love this book. Frankie was annoying, the whole atmosphere was so stifling, and the pace was so slow and purposeless. There are no surprises whatsoever and therefore no real conflict except for Frankie's which is treated with such agonizing slowness and allusion that I failed to feel like it was a conflict. I know this is a book beloved by many but if it weren't so short I would not have bothered to finish it despite the beautiful language.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Embassytown-China Miéville

Embassytown-China Miéville

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 405
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2011
Novel

"In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak."

After the semi-ambivalence I had about King Rat, Mieville's first novel, I tried not to get my hopes up about Embassytown. I sometimes get worried, when I love and adore an author's style, that they'll let me down and my opinion will forever be trampled a little. Really, I didn't need to worry one bit because Embassytown is fantastic.

So okay we're in outer space so far into the future the kids AND adults are talking language we 21st centuryers can't begin to understand and then there's the aliens, the Ariekei, who cannot even conceive of our noises being a language. The Ariekei use two mouths to speak and thus only altered humans, the Ambassadors, can speak to them. And it's important to keep in contact because Embassytown is the last outpost before the mysterious lighthouses that were put up to warn travelers of the immer of dangerous space as well as the source of incredible half living technology. Then the whole delicate diplomatic balance fails.

So this is a book about language. There's a lot of complicated linguistics going on in true Miéville fashion so there's the usual over-your-head technical jargon that I just adore. And that slang along with a different sense of time makes for a difficult first chapter but then the story about language really just sucks you in. There's a key question of what language actually is  and how it is possible to conceive of concepts you've no words for. The Ariekei manually build up their language and due to that, despite their complex and advanced technology, they are culturally a bit limited since they literally cannot lie. When they discover this, their world undergoes a crazy, mad revolution that no one was prepared for and their world has to burn down around them before they can build it up again. 

The politics, the characters, and the cultural changes are just brilliant. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Girl Who Fell From the Sky-Simon Mawer

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky-Simon Mawer
Trapeze in the US

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 302
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel

"Marian Sutro is an outsider: the daughter of a diplomat, brought up on the shores of Lake Geneva and in England, half French, half British, naive yet too clever for her own good. But when she is recruited from her desk job by SOE to go undercover in wartime France, it seems her hybrid status - and fluent French - will be of service to a greater, more dangerous cause."

I loved the character of Marian. Strong heroine with flaws and strengths like the rest of us except that she is a British spy in France. She is relatable, brave, and struggling to make sense of the many layers of intrigue and danger she is in as a Special Operative. She makes good decisions, she makes bad decisions and she worries about love and the past. As a fellow multinational I empathized with her struggles to understand who she is within an international conflict and at the end of the book I cared, a lot, about who was going to end up with and how her career was going to pan out. It's her coming of age story and it's a good dramatic one embedded with most of the elements of a good spy novel.

The book is well-researched and to my non-specialist framepoint accurate but something about the settings didn't ring true for me. It was like Mawer was always saying how dangerous Paris was but not actually showing it. It's like when my relatives tell me I really need to not go to 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia and I know it was a dangerous area in the 1970s but I don't really see the danger (this is perhaps a bad example because it's really not a dangerous part of Philly anymore thanks to UPENN police but I hope you sort of see my point). When I read Half Blood Blues, the danger of occupied Paris was so acute but when I read Mawer's prose, I didn't feel it.
Nevertheless, the heroine. She's great!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Half Blood Blues-Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues-Esi Edugyan

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 348
gender: F
nationality: Canada (of color)
year: 2011
Novel

"The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymus Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, is arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He is twenty years old. A German citizen. And he is black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there's more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero's fate was settled. In Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don't tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong ..."

I'm sure there must be a word for when a book is well written and you know it has all the elements of a good book but there's just something...lacking? So, told through this unreliable(?) narrator, this is an anxious war time book full of the languid prose of the jazz the band makes. The occupied city of Paris, the very danger of the occupation, oozes through every word. The novel is dark feeling like the windowless rooms they hide out in and everything seems potentially malevolent. The patois and the banter scream boy's club in the best way.

But then you have the modern voice of old men rehashing old stories and worries and the juxtaposition undermines each other. You really want to know what happened to Hiero and the details about the levels of the Nazi attitude to blackness (and the resulting stigma of course) have you thinking about the worst but allow enough wiggle room for the best but the book ends up feeling like a slog through towards the answer. It was like reading an academic article and just wishing the conclusion had occurred 18 dense pages ago. It kept me reading though so that's definitely something.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Night Dancer-Chika Unigwe

Night Dancer- Chika Unigwe


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 262
gender: F
nationality: Nigeria/Belgium
year: 2012
Novel

"Mma has just buried her mother, and now she is alone. She has been left everything. But she's also inherited her mother's bad name. A bold, brash woman, the only thing her mother refused to discuss was her past. Why did she flee her family and bring her daughter to a new town when she was a baby? What was she escaping from? Abandoned now, Mma has no knowledge of her father or her family - but she is desperate to find out."

A lovely feminist novel coming out of Nigeria,Night Dancer is a complex novel about the relationships between mother and daughter, tradition and modernity, and conformity and non conformity. The author claims the novel comes from a contrast between tradition and modern day life in present day Nigeria and that shines through every word. Mma is torn-because of her mother, she never had the traditional way of life, the traditional family and community she sees everywhere else. When she is alone, she discovers her mother and learns to respect her mother in ways she would not have imagined. This is where the novel shines-the complex relationship between the bitterness and rebellion of the daughter who learns exactly what she is rebelling against and ends up identifying with it. It's brilliant really even if sometimes I couldn't understand exactly why Mma seemed to hate her mother so much.

I also really liked how throughout the novel you never know what exactly happened to Mma's mother but you end up guessing one thing or the other. It's a kind of thriller like touch that heightens the emotion of the novel.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

King Rat-China Miéville

King Rat-China Miéville

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 421
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1998
Novel

Something has murdered Saul Garamond's father, and left Saul to pay for the crime. But a shadow from the urban waste breaks into Saul's prison cell and leads him to freedom. A shadow called King Rat, who reveals Saul's royal heritage, a heritage that opens a new world to Saul, the world below London's streets--a heritage that also drags Saul into King Rat's plan for revenge against his ancient enemy

I fell in love with  Miéville almost instantly with Perdido Street Station. My love was cemented with The Scar and was barely dented by The Iron Council's slight emptiness. Just as the beginnings of a real life romance, I thought things like "where have you been all my life?" and time with these books flew by while the time in my life before I knew Miéville was just impoverished in a way I had not realized.

You think I'm joking.

Well, it was time to see if my love for Miéville could survive leaving New Corbuzon and would extend to the rest of his oevre since he is the type of author who never writes the same thing twice. King Rat came first and it's his debut novel and as such...a little disappointing when compared to Perdido Street Station and so I ended up a little ambivalent-I'd enjoyed it but it's not as good as Miéville at his height. Which quite frankly is probably a good thing because it would so sad if his first novel was his best. There'd be nothing to look forward to. The characters and plot were unfortunately a little predictable as urban fantasy take on the Pied Piper traditional tale. That's not to say there were no plot twists and such but some of the dramatic reveals were not very dramatic if you catch my drift.

However Miéville's style is there. Instead of dazzling you with a fantastical science, he dazzles you with drum and bass and a gritty sewer London. The city and music burst to life on the page and they, more than characters, stick in your mind and carry the novel to strength. Even if you hate that kind of music, by the end of the novel you begin thinking, hmm, maybe I should revisit that. His style is striking and confidently in your face from page one when you get submerged into Miéville's creation of London.

And submerged you are...quite frankly, I read this in one day without sacrificing any of my errands and other projects.  It is a good book.

I also gotta point out that Miéville's treatment of Saul and his father is absolutely brilliant and real-a definite precursor to how his characters become later in his career.