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.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Alchemist of Souls-Anne Lyle

Alchemist of Souls-Anne Lyle

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 501
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel (Series:Night's Masque)

When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods--and a skrayling ambassador--to London. Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador's bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems.

I loved this. I'm thrilled it's the first of a series even if I have to wait to continue reading it because I want more of it! Well-written with a deft and engaging blend of fantasy and alternative history. The historical novel aspect is well researched with just enough detail to make the whole setting be TUDOR without bogging you down too much which allows you to appreciate the light touch of magic that makes the Skraylings sufficiently foreign without making them incredible which in of itself is incredible.

What really makes this shine is the characters. Each one is well-fleshed out and likeable. They have strengths and weaknesses and you get to know every character so well you could have met them at a party...even the skraylings! The feminist in me is thrilled with her crafty way of making an adventurous female who does things without making such a role in Tudor England implausible. The political intrigue keeps you on the edge of your seat...really, it's brilliant and like a person in the midst of the political intrigue you never know what exactly is going on and where the next strike is coming from. At the same time, nothing is simplified, gender, faith, and family are problems in addition to the strangeness of the Skraylings. The balance between tension and action is kept by the exact pacing. I mean, she begins by world building (with some action) and setting the scene and then just ramps up the tension and plots and character development that races towards a conclusion that is just. great.

I am waiting anxiously for the sequel. 

I caught an interview with Anne Lyle who started with the question of how to make a conquest of the New World more difficult after reading Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel which makes this the best reaction to that book ever.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Religion for Atheists- Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists: A Non Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion-Alain de Botton

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 312
gender: M
nationality: Switzerland
year: 2012
Non fiction

What if religions are neither all true nor all nonsense? The long-running and often boring debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is finally moved forward by Alain de Botton’s inspiring new book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false—but that it still has some very important things to teach the secular world.

It should come as no surprise that this has ruffled feathers on all sides!

I've always had a bad personal relationship with religion-spirits and pseudo-historical leaders all strike me that absolute wrong way but as an archaeologist I've always been drawn to the interplay of religion, politics, and communal systems. It's an interplay that continues to this day and I've never identified as an atheist precisely because there are aspects of religion that seem to be necessary to communities from ancient to modern-there are aspects that seem to be integral to human existence since they pop up as needs that must be satisfied. In the past, they've been often been met by religions but there is no need to rely on it in the future or in my personal life.

So yes, I already have an affinity with de Botton's thesis. However, I do disagree with the implication of his formulation of it. He seems to find secular society impoverished and religious societies as rich which at times seems highly naive. My personal dissatisfaction with religion sometimes hinges on religion's failure to deliver on some of the things de Botton tells us to incorporate into our lives and his incorporation of religious ideas into our societies sometimes fails to address why they've already failed as well as sometimes just seeming a bit NewAgey-hokey (like Temple to Introspection). I mean, he completely lost me in his last chapter on institutions...we already have highly failed versions of those! Also, the book is heavily Roman Catholic influenced.

But even with those misgivings I loved it because some things like community and aesthetics need to be said. Throughout he preaches clarity and introspection and displays it in his writing which is clear and precise. Community (non-virtual) for instance is clearly lost to us in this modern world of alienation and pure privacy. Some of de Botton's suggestions are such that we can actually work to learn from and it's true that there is a distinct secular failing to organize rituals that make us want to go to meetings...

Above all, I loved his chapters on aesthetics and architecture. As you can see from my 617 entry strong architecture tag and my not-lightweight ecclesiastical tag, I spend a lot of time appreciating the aesthetics of places of worship so I give you a few quotes:


Ugly buildings were shown to contain equivalents of the very flaws that revolt us at an ethical level. No less than people, ugly buildings can be described using terms like brutal, cynical, self-satisfied or sentimental. Furthermore, we are no less vulnerable to their suggestions than we are to the behaviour of ill-intentioned acquaintances. Both give licence to our most sinister sides; both can subtly encourage us to be bad.”

Beauty alludes to, and can remind us about, virtues like love, trust, intelligence, kindness and justice”

Everyone who has ever looked at pictures of beautiful art to lift their spirits can probably relate. And this is just my personal example of the moment that this book spoke to me. I think this is a book people should read with an open mind (and resist judging on the merits of his suggestions alone).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Secret River-Kate Grenville

The Secret River-Kate Grenville

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 349
gender: F
nationality: Australia
year: 2005
Novel

The Secret River is the story of Australia's white ancestors, who wrested a new life from the alien terrain of Australia and its native people. London, 1806. William Thornhill, a Thames bargeman, is deported to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia.

I ended this book on a note of anguish. The horrors of colonialism just pluck at this special place of hatred in me which may be unfair but still, I just can't help it. While reading this I just hated Thornhill for being such a weak man who found violence and British arrogance as the only solution, and Sal for being almost delusional. This is my knee-jerk reaction since these are very bigoted characters in today's world.

In 1806 however, this is a story of a Thornhill, a settler who, against his will, was wrested from his homeland and sent to the bewildering colony of Australia and falls in love with a particular piece of land. This love for land and his family causes him to ally with the most despicable type of settler (which Thornhill is not) and commit colonial cruelties to keep it all safe for himself and his family. Throughout the book their precariousness is clear despite their best efforts and their struggles in London also plucked that special place of hatred for that system. This was pretty much a bog standard family with no special reserves of hatred or bigotry.

Which makes it all so much worse in Australia. With Sal constantly pining for England and ignoring the beauty of Australia and Thornhill simply out for himself, it was almost inevitable that something really terrible would happen. Since this is colonialism, it was the Aborigines who end up suffering the most. The book was accurate in that at first relations were decent between the whites and Aborigines but then descended into tensions but quite frankly, it seemed like the whites' fault.

Well-written this novel is and it certainly evoked many, many feelings, I had to give it a side because of all the anger it caused me with its conclusion of Thornhill on his estate wondering why he couldn't feel as much satisfaction or security from the land itself. ARGH. That one note of judgement in what is otherwise a very balanced and nonjudgmental book, I don't know, whipped my fury horse into gallop into a rant of how inexcusable it all was.

Great book. Quite frankly, all great fiction ought to leave you conflicted and FEELING and this book delivers.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Art of Choosing-Sheena Iyengar

The Art of Choosing-Sheena Iyengar

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 277
gender: F (blind)
nationality: Canada (of color)
year: 2010
Non fiction

Whether mundane or life-altering, these choices define us and shape our lives. Sheena Iyengar asks the difficult questions about how and why we choose.

Well done Sheena Iyengar. I was on the verge of returning all of the books dealing with choice, happiness, neuroscience, psychology because it really seemed like I was beginning to read the same book over and over and along comes Art of Choosing to prove me wrong and show me that indeed-there are things being said that I haven't already heard several times wrapped up in an engaging and well written package.

She draws upon anecdotes, her personal experience, as well as the whole field to provide a broad perspective on human choice and effectively shows you the implications of each type of choice and the processes that cause us to choose. She weaves her main point-the difficulties and strengths of our ability to choose-through the entire book to make sure we always understand why she is asking the questions she is. I liked the mix of the scholarly and almost-colloquial language that occurs throughout. For instance, in the second chapter she describes her parents' wedding in bright language and goes forth to apply that to the dry world of scholarly psychology. Her writing is calm and patient but forces you to pay close attention. Her later chapters force introspection and highlight your role into making sure your own choices are not being influenced by the myriad ways they can be.

Fantastic.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Virgin of the Seven Daggers-Vernon Lee

Virgin of the Seven Daggers and other stories-Vernon Lee

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 230
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 1962
Short Story Collection

Classic Gothic horror. Contains: Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady, A Wedding Chest, Amour Dure, A Wicked Voice, Legend of Madame Krasinska, and The Virgin of the Seven Daggers.

I picked this up from the library shelf because of that cover art. And also, because it promised horror and I had just been disappointed with Miss Peregrine's. A classic Gothic horror should do the trick I thought and when I realized that Vernon Lee is a penname for Violet Paget, even better.

These are supernatural horror stories full of things that cause obsessions. Those obsessions caused sticky ends not unwelcome to the possessors. A portrait of a beautiful woman captures a historian, a tapestry prepares a young prince for his future, a woman whose death causes retribution, a dead soprano who tortures a 'modern' conductor who dares disparage his voice, a madwoman who possesses a young woman who dresses as her in jest, and of course, the titular Don Juan who makes a compact with the Virgin of the 7 Daggers before dabbling in necromancy.

The supernatural, magic and the unknowable provide hooks into the past. There are strong threads of historicity in that most involve past horrors that reach into the future. All but one of the stories are set in Italy making Venice into a set piece of a woman whose beauty is unreal, and Florence into the scene of a feud etc. They are very very good with Prince Alberic and Amour Dure sticking in my memory weeks after I finished the book.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children-Ranson Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children-Ranson Riggs

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 349
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2011
Novel, YA

"an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.


I put this on my to be read list after Raych gushed about it and I read the blurb. I'm sorry to say that I found it all kinds of disappointing. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't the book the blurbs say it is. And it wasn't creepy, at all. In fact, I felt like it was all sort of incomplete and everything was so...flat with flat characters and poor setting.


First, let me tell you some good things about it. The narrative is indeed adventurous. The story keeps you reading. The page weight makes it a nice reading experience. Ok, the story is the main reason this is a good book-it sucks you in and despite throwing you in a completely different story than you thought, it keeps you in. The main (male) character is fairly intelligent and reaches the same conclusions as the reader when faced with puzzles and mysteries and many of the twists are well handled with wit for the adults. Like when Jacob's grandfather is telling him about the monsters in Poland in the 40s and you're all like, yeah, the NAZIS but actually, there might have been monsters too...I was like, that's nice and clever, thank you Riggs.


Now, hear me out. I love me some picture and narrative mixing and I definitely love mix of fact and fiction but it was so clumsy in this book. It's not fair, I know, to compare it with Sebald's oeuvre (which I adore beyond belief) and Danielewski's House of Leaves (which I found actually creepy) but I did anyway. To me, it was so obvious the story was just stories given to photographs. So the characters were varied and unique but also flat-completely described in terms of their peculiarity (she floats!), now let's move on to the next photo. And then every photograph was described, in detail. No, not details or methods used pointed out but general descriptions like, girl floating in a flapper dress.Which is all good and well for the blind but makes it sound clumsy like middle schoolers just learning how to refer to a quote in their essay. That really, really, really got on my nerves. And a random nitpick about the photographs is that none of them were new to me-so they weren't creepy because I was constantly considering them in the context of my earlier experiences of them which kind of ruins the flow of the story and pretty much cuts out the creepy horror.


I might read the sequels (and it's oh, oh so obvious it's gonna have sequels) but I plan to make no effort to do so.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Gifted-Nikita Lalwani

Gifted-Nikita Lalwani

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 273
gender: F
nationality: India/UK
year: 2007
Novel

 "Rumi Vasi is 10 years, 2 months, 13 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes, and 6 seconds old. She’s figured that the likelihood of her walking home from school with the boy she likes, John Kemble, is 0.2142, a probability severely reduced by the lacy dress and thick woolen tights her father, and Indian émigré, forces her to wear. Rumi is a gifted child, and her father, Mahesh, believes that strict discipline is the key to nurturing her genius if the family has any hope of making its mark on its adoptive country."

Read lightly, this could be read as an indictment of the drive for perfection that characterizes Asian cultures. However, Lalwani delicately avoids this simplistic trap through an enthralling style of prose, the different viewpoints, and paradoxically the bravery with which she allows Rumi's world to implode into a parental nightmare. 

Oh how you feel for Rumi. Her father wants the very, very best for her. The sections in his voice are bitter and isolationist from his peers but still invoke enough sympathy-he really wants her to succeed. Her mother desperately wants to be in India, and for that matter, so does Rumi who finds India is be free of the pressures of life in the UK. There's a good reason for that for her mother is trying to raise her daughter with the strictures of her own childhood not realizing that it'd render Rumi unprotected for the UK society she lives in. She is mathematically precocious, a talent ferociously nurtured by her father, but she still is a young girl and later a teenager. She wants to fit in, be able to do the things kids her age should do-buy candy, kiss the boy she wants to, and just be. But she is still driven by mathematics-she likens the boy she likes to amicable numbers. A truly unique viewpoint to be depicted in literature.

Her implosion and breakdown is quite natural. She becomes addicted to cumin and achieves her father's dream of reaching mathematical pinnacle. But the social and personal sacrifices leave her without any supportive framework and she steadily declines until she breaks free. Pretty much, in general, Lalwani's strength is how close this book comes to the truth. She takes some well known narratives, that of education leading to success and the immigrant need to secure themselves in their new countries, and explores them to their worst conclusion which retaining the humanity.

An excellent random find on the library shelves.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Graceling-Kristin Cashore

Graceling-Kristen Cashore

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 370
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2008
Novel, YA (series: Graceling)

"Katsa, a warrior-girl in her late teens with one blue eye and one green eye. This gives her haunting beauty, but also marks her as a Graceling. Gracelings are beings with special talents—swimming, storytelling, dancing. Katsa's Grace is considered more useful: her ability to fight (and kill, if she wanted to) is unequaled in the seven kingdoms. Forced to act as a henchman for a manipulative king, Katsa channels her guilt by forming a secret council of like-minded citizens who carry out secret missions to promote justice over cruelty and abuses of power."

I wanted more. The book ended with a reasonable conclusion and I wish it hadn't because I wanted to stay with Katsa and Po in that world and keep reading more. I guess, what I'm saying is that it was really good.

So it starts with Katsa being kind of a brainless killer girl, which to me is a pretty good start actually if nothing else because it's a strong female lead and since it was YA, there was hope for some character development. (I should mention that I didn't actually read any summaries of this book.) With the council you learn that nope, Katsa is not brainless or a servant but actually into social justice which is just, you guys, looooooads better and I settled in for a good read. So yes, there's the love interest (my editions cover called it a "romance novel" which is...not really the whole story) in the shape of a foreign Graceling Po but Katsa is such a strong lead (albeit emotionally distant/unavailable) that there's nothing contrived about the romance. Instead, Po is a great partner in that he's supportive of whatever she does and helps her grow. Ok, that sounds a bit contrived but it actually seems quite natural in the context of the novel. Forget my description, it's actually a great way of forcing Katsa to reevaluate herself on her own terms and thus learn how Graces might not always be what they appear to others but rather something much more personal. Oh! And I should also mention that there is a sensitive, and it's okay to be, male character AND a different strong female character who is actually way young.

So let's recap: this has a strong female lead, other strong female characters, good male role models, a unique world complete with a need for a map, characters who grow and change, and relationships that come through organically. Another in that series of YA classics that "wait, why haven't I already read this?!"
I immediately put this down and requested Fire (a prequel) and Bitterblue (a sequel) from my libraries.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bleakly Hall-Elaine di Rollo

Bleakly Hall-Elaine di Rollo

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 360
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2009
Novel

Monty and Ada last saw one another on the frontlines of the First World War, when Monty was a nurse and Ada an ambulance driver who drove like the devil. Now, the two friends have been reunited at crumbling Bleakly Hall, where Monty has been hired to look after the grumpy, gouty guests who have come to take the Hall's curative waters.

 There is a running thread of theatre of the absurd throughout the novel. A decrepit curative water spa at the end of the era of those treatments is a very good setting to place some remaining survivors of the WWs. The hydro provides humor in the clash of old versus "young things" while feeding the melancholic feel of the main characters. And it's the main survivor characters who are the gems of this story. Each one has a different war story and reaction which is very true to life and so avoids the pit of toeing the national feeling. Monty is relentlessly practical-something which served her well in the war but keeps her detached in peace. Ada is handy mechanically, something which likely would not have been developed had she lived in peace but in many ways she is still restricted by her prewar class consciousness. Mae has to deal with her husband's war injury but cannot while he is struggling with this new picture of himself-from daring hero to wheelchair bound survivor. The other Blackwood brother hated the war but can't deny any of the lasting connections left over. Foxley is the quintessential shell-shocked spirit of a soldier with all the strengths (bravery) and weaknesses (women) of that archetype that cannot change to suit peace. There is also the characters of those dead in the war, Foxley/Blackwood brothers' co-soldiers and Monty's Sophia.

There is a bit of a gothic mystery about the book. The flashbacks to the war tell you, in bits and pieces, how the characters became who they are. You want to learn about Sophia and why Monty hates Foxley so much. You want to learn what happened to the Blackwoods and you learn about Belgium and London alike. There's almost two stories going on-that which has passed but you don't know of, and that which is going on, which you can't understand without the past. di Rollo's prose and style of writing handles this masterfully.

Let me get something off my chest, I am not a war novel fan. With the exception of The Things They Carried by O'Brien, I've not read a war novel that I recommend to others...and that one is of short stories. I'm not sure why, perhaps it's because I'm already anti-war and I'm more interested in the aftermath or those left at home or perhaps it's because the modern pointless wars have desensitized me but most war novels make me feel a bit like I'm reading the newspapers. So imagine my surprise that it was the war set pieces in Bleakly Hall that were my favorite parts. The details made those flashbacks seem very viscerally real and the combination of the flashbacks with the present aftermath made it all the better.


My main ambivalence really is that the detail of the hydro itself can really distract and thus somewhat detract from the narrative. I do recommend it to those who read it to enjoy it-this is not really a novel to dissect but rather one to let just affect you.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Happiness Hypothesis-Jonathan Haidt

The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science-Jonathan Haidt

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 243
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2006
Non fiction

Using the wisdom culled from the world's greatest civilizations as a foundation, social psychologist Haidt comes to terms with 10 Great Ideas, viewing them through a contemporary filter to learn which of their lessons may still apply to modern lives.

Really, I must have burned out on neuroscience/social psychology reads because I spent this whole book wishing there was more philosophy. Like the Optimism Bias, this was in a way, a run down of all the popular neuroscience books with many of the same case studies and ideas, but where Sharot failed to convince me of anything, Haidt stuck to his stated objective-What is Happiness? And how can we incorporate it into our lives? The connections are coherent and the book is readable in the extreme. Furthermore, let's face it, the conclusion wasn't that ground-breaking or new. Moderation is the key to happiness. A balance of philosophy and science, liberalism and conservatism, East and Western ideas are all integral to happiness. Seems like a no-brainer and quite frankly is what I guessed the book would end with from page one-there is no silver bullet.

I do wish, like the blurb on one of the editions says, I had started with Haidt when reading about happiness. It is a good primer, a good balanced beginning text. It coherently combines all the great ideas into a single narrative that offers many insights along the way. The up arrow in my satisfaction is due to this.

I adore his metaphor for our minds as a rider on an elephant. The elephant represents our emotional brain and the rider, our consciousness. Most of the time the rider is under the belief and misapprehension that it is under control and can do whatever it wants but the elephant is inherently more powerful than the rider and can easily get out of control. Throughout the book, Haidt refers to this metaphor as a way of demonstrating the practical applications of his ideas and it works. It works when he's talking about to what extent thinking makes it so, it works when he's talking about reciprocation, and it works even when he tackles why our modern obsession with happiness and riches makes us more depressed.

I recommend it to people who are curious about all this recent popular social psychology/neuroscience explosion of books about happiness, optimism, and why. Of all the books I've read lately about these types of subjects, this is the one I'd reread in a year when all of it isn't so fresh in my mind.