Showing posts with label Books: Fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Books: Fiction. Show all posts

Monday, January 13, 2020

Books: Daughter of Smoke & Bone series

Daughter of Smoke & Bone
By Laini Taylor
Copyright 2011
418 pages

Days of Blood & Starlight
By Laini Taylor
Copyright 2012
513 pages

Dreams of Gods & Monsters
By Laini Taylor
Copyright 2014
613 pages

This is a trilogy by Laini Taylor that I recently finished. I read the first one in September and I've read the last two since Christmas, as they were presents from a friend.

While these are long, fat books, they read quickly.

There may be spoilers in this, so don't read it if you don't want to know anything about the series.

Basic premise: a race of humanoids who are called angels and a race of chimera, also called demons, live on a planet named Ertz. At one time there were portals through to earth, but those were lost to time. However, the chimera found a way into Earth and went back and forth between the planets. The angels and chimera were constantly at war.

Our heroine is Karou, who initially starts out as a very far-out young woman who loves art and lives in Prague. She was raised by the chimera who live in Earth, and frequently runs errands for them. She has a bit of super strength, stealth, and speed, and has been trained in many types of fighting. Her main errand is to collect teeth and take them to Brimstone, who is described very much like the archetypical devil.

However, the ways in and out of the world that Brimstone has created have been found out by angels, and they are destroyed. Karou attempts to find Brimstone but instead is confronted by an angel, Akiva, who means to kill her but finds something about her reminds him of an old love.

For he had once been in love with a chimera, but she was killed.

As the story unfolds over the books, we learn that chimera are revived many, many times, brought back to life magically into new bodies and sent forth to fight. Angels are bred by one man with many concubines, so that they are all half-brothers and sisters trained only to fight. They aren't allowed to have a life or anything, just fight chimera.

It's a Romeo and Juliet kind of thing. Akiva realizes Karou is his love of 18 years ago, only she was remade as a baby and then raised up by Brimstone, instead of being instantly put back into a body to fight. This was to hide her from the head Chimera wolf-like dude, who wanted her for his mate.

Akiva and Karou feel like they have a destiny to stop this long, long war between angels and chimera. The story revolves around their efforts to accomplish this, although like any story, they go the long way around. Of course, it takes a lot of convincing to have angels and demons on the same side, I suppose.

And as with any romance, whether it's fantasy or main stream literature, the characters have trouble being together and finding their true love.

The last book was what I expected except the author brought in a MacGuffin character whom I could have done without. I thought that took away from the story and ultimately added nothing, really.

All in all, though, good reads and very helpful for recovering from my upper respiratory infection. I will look up this author again.

5 stars for books 1 & 2
4 stars for book 3

Monday, December 30, 2019

Books: The Overstory

The Overstory: A Novel
By Richard Powers
Kindle Edition
Print length: 502 pages
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Since this book won the Pulitzer and many other prizes, I think I'm supposed to have liked it.

I did not.

Maybe it's because I read it on the Kindle - but I think the Kindle helped me to see the failures in the book.

It's a nice book. Lots of pretty writing, and a strong environmental message. Thoreau would be pleased to read it, I think.

I found it tedious. I felt like it needed editing, and it could have lost about five of the nine characters in it. I had a difficult time keeping up with who was whom and why they were doing what they were doing; a circuitous route around the American Chestnut ended poorly and rather stupidly, if you ask me.

Some reviews say the book ended on a positive note, but I didn't see anything positive about it. Mostly the message is this: trees good, people bad. People are going to kill all trees and end life on earth as we know it.

The only way to save it is to make it a big virtual project, like taking the "catch a Pokémon" game and turn it into cleaning up a stream or something.

Ok, then.

Other reviewers thought the characters were well drawn; for the most part, I found them to be caricatures and not characters. They all represented the fringes of society, the people who don't fit into the cogs and run the mainframe of consumerism and capitalism that now drives the mechanisms governments have put in place to create a new species of human doings instead of human beings.

These can be interesting people, those who don't fit into the well-oiled machine, but Powers managed to make them rather uninteresting if not eye-rolling. The only character I liked was Patricia Westerford, a scientist who put forth the initial journal article that trees communicate and their roots intertwine and they protect and feed off of one another. She was belittled for her work and only later recognized as the pioneer in what is now a commonly held scientific theory - that trees and plants have their own ways of communicating.

One thing I've not seen mentioned in other reviews about this book is the treatment of women. Women are given the patriarchal treatment here; they are not heroines or heroes. In fact, of the four main female characters, two die, one is maimed and scarred, and the other is unable to have a child and forced to spend 20 years caring for her husband who has a stroke (and she's a faithless wife, too). The men all trundle off to live other lives until one guy stupidly writes down their escapades as activists and a young nameless woman finds his notes and turns him in. And then only two of them end up jailed.

One young man, a computer whiz, is portrayed as a brilliant mind trapped in a crippled body, and he is unable to understand the beauty of nature except through the lenses of his made-up virtual worlds. He ends up a multi-millionaire, though the author does not treat him especially kindly.

I had a difficult time getting into this book; it was a slog to read. If my book club hadn't been reading it, I would have put it down around a third of the way through and never finished it.

Personally, I would not have missed out on much. I already knew that trees talk to one another, that the forest and the natural world communicate in ways we simply do not yet understand. I have always known this, just as I know that whatever it is we are destroying will be returned in some form that we have yet to imagine. New and different trees, or different, more hardy vegetation, will eventually spring up and overtake our cities. I've seen it. I've been to the remains of local towns that were abandoned, and I've seen their structures overrun by nature's steady progress to retake the ground.

Maybe city dwellers, people who don't think outside of themselves, and folks who've never spent a lot of time in the woods will find this message endearing and take it to heart.

It is a good message.

I just wasn't entranced with the story or the method of storytelling.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Thursday Thirteen

Bookish Questions and Deep Thoughts

1. In the novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelly, who is really the monster? The man who created life from dead body parts, or the thing created?

2. In the Ann of Green Gable series, by L. M. Montgomery, Ann Shirley is a curious child. Her curiosity causes her lots of trouble. Is curiosity a good thing?

3. In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo makes a decision to leave his home in order to protect it from great evil. He gives up everything to ensure that goodness survives. Would you leave your home to protect someone else? What would you give up to ensure the safety and security of humanity?

4. In the Harry Potter series, Hermione is a bookish character who actually knows the spells that Harry does not and often needs. However, her contribution is downplayed although her loyalty to Harry and protecting others is not. Is knowledge less than loyalty?

5. In the Stephanie Plum series of books, Stephanie is frequently kidnapped, shot, knocked unconscious, or otherwise hurt. She rebounds very quickly and doesn't suffer from PTSD. Do you think there are people who would not be bothered by such trials? Or is this portrayal of a resilient character unrealistic?

6. In the Stone Barrington series of books by Stuart Woods, the main character always gets his man in the mystery. He also always gets the woman - a different woman in nearly every book. The women are generally stereotypical characters and not rounded out. Do you think this is the way men see women, or is this a writer's shortcut?

7. In the Alphabet mysteries by Sue Grafton, Kinsey Milhone, her lead character, is a tough woman detective who doesn't delve into fashion, bake cakes, do needlework, or do other "womanly" things. Do you think it is necessary for a women to lose her "womanly" notions in order to function in a man's world?

8. In the book Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author takes herself completely away from her world in order to restore order to her soul. Have you ever taken a journey to find yourself? Do you think such a quest is necessary in order to grow as a person?

9. In her memoir, In Pieces, Sally Fields reveals that she was molested by her stepfather and that she has mental health problems stemming from an abusive childhood. Yet she went on to become a famous actress. Do you think that Fields' and her success is the norm for people who experience childhood trauma? Or is she an aberration?

10. In A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L'Engle, three children leave home to save an adult. Do you think children are capable of doing such actions in this day and age? Or is this pure fantasy?

11. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice finds a strange new world that does not resemble anything she knows as reality. In modern physics, the many worlds theory advocates that each decision we make creates a different universe, so that there are in fact thousands upon thousands of universes in existence. Do you believe there could be different universes? Could the rabbit hole simply be a writer's device that creates a portal into another universe? Or is Alice only dreaming?

12. In Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, the main character is a young girl of about 7 who raises herself alone in the marsh. Is this believable? Do you think a child that young could survive all alone without assistance? The same instance occurs in Island of the Blue Dolphins, but that book is set in the 1800s and the heroine is a little older. Which book seems more believable?

13. In The Hunger Games series by Susan Collins, Katniss must kill or be killed. Do you think her befriending others as a strategy to stay alive is feasible? Is this similar to the show Survivor, where people "make friends" and then stab one another in the back? What does this say about humanity, that we can be friendly to someone and then turn around and shoot them? Are we, really, human?

Thursday Thirteen is played by lots of people; there is a list here if you want to read other Thursday Thirteens and/or play along. I've been playing for a while and this is my 628th time to do a list of 13 on a Thursday. Or so sayth the Blogger counter, anyway.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

The Hunger Games Trilogy

The Hunger Games (2009)
Catching Fire (2010)
Mockingjay (2010)
By Suzanne Collins

I recently completed the audiobooks of this trilogy. I have not seen the movies.

These are dystopian books with a young heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who knows how to shoot a bow. In this world, the Capital (a crazy evil place - think Oz in orange and on steroids) holds The Hunger Games every year. Names are chosen from each of the 12 districts that surround the Capital, and a young man or woman must go to the games and fight for his or her life.

Katniss's sister, Prim, who is just of age to go, is chosen and Katniss takes her place instead. Katniss is about 15, I think, when she goes through her first Hunger Game.

Long story short, she and her fellow competitor from District 12 team up, which apparently is a first, and in an act of defiance vow to kill themselves rather than destroy one another. They both win the Hunger Games.

But the next year is the 75th year celebrating the Hunger Games, and the President, whose name is Snow (and his breath smells like blood), declares that former victors in the Hunger Games will return a second time to fight to the death. So Katniss and Petre (not sure of spelling since I listened and didn't read the book) go off to the games a second time.

Only this time the rebels have found the face of their cause: Katniss, whose mockingjay pin has become a symbol of the resistance of the strong arm of the Capital. The resistance intervenes and saves Katniss, but Petre is caught by the Capital and tortured.

Katniss is taken to District 13, an area the Capital has long proclaimed as a dead zone, but it has an entire world underground. Here the rebels have a stronghold and they set about to make Katniss the face of the rebellion. This means a lot of TV promos, but Katniss is having a difficult time with all that has gone on. She's killed people, people have died because of her, and District 12, where she lived, was blown up at the end of book 2. She's a bit distraught (you think?).

Anyway, she finally pulls it together and the rebels take each District, and then head for the Capital. Katniss is determined to kill President Snow. Along the way, though, she has begun to have misgivings about President Coin, the woman ruler of District 13, and her ability to lead. After the rebels take the Capital, killing Katniss's sister Prim in the process, Coin takes over and Snow is put on trial. Katniss had been promised she could kill Snow, but as she aims her bow at Snow, she suddenly turns and puts an arrow in the heart of Coin.

Months later, she's been found not guilty (although she didn't go to any trial, I guess they didn't do it that way), and she goes back to her house where she holes up. Petre finally reaches her and they marry and have children, who play on the meadow which is really a mass grave.

It was well written and an intriguing story. I found some of Robin Hood in there, somewhere, although the author says at the end of the audiobook that the story is based on Greek mythology. It was the kind of book I could listen to while I was driving or folding clothes.

And then I wondered if I were going to write a dystopian novel, what kind of world would I create, and I looked at the newspaper this morning. My only thought? The world we live in now. That's dystopia.

Friday, February 02, 2018

I Blame Rowling

Recently I read two books, one completely self-published and another that was published through what is an imprint of Amazon publishing.

The completely self-published book, Haven, by Kate Roshon, was well-done although I could see where it could have benefited from an editor. There were very few typographical errors, which was great, but there were a few areas where I wanted to say "show don't tell." However, it was a good story and I applaud the author (whose husband plays in a video game with me, just so you know), for nice work. For a totally self-published book, this was good and well done, and one of the few self-published books I would recommend if you read science fiction. If I should chose to publish in this manner, I can only hope I do as well with all of the editing and creating a cover and all that goes into making such a book.

Haven was a dystopian tale with hope. I'll leave it at that because I don't want to give away much of the story.

The other book went through a total editing process with a team of editors via Amazon. The book was free to me as a Kindle First book (if you belong to Prime, you get a free book at the beginning of each month; the books so far have all been from Amazon's own publishing imprint, Lake Union Publishing). Daughters of the Night Sky, by Aimee K. Runyon, was a historical tale about women who flew planes for Russia during World War II. It was an interesting fictional look at a historical fact I knew nothing about, and I enjoyed the read.

However, both of the books had what I have come to call the Rowling Syndrome. It's actually a literary device known as an epilogue. She didn't invent it and it is not unique to her, but the ending of her series of children's books is the most famous example I can think of.

In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling ended the story (and series) not where it should have ended - with Hogwarts retaken, the Death Eaters defeated, and Harry saving the world, but with an epilogue that I (and a few others) disliked. The epilogue took away any imagination of the characters' future lives by writing about how Harry married Gini and Ron married Hermione and they had little kids and lived happily ever after.

These two books I recently read had the same sort of endings. The stories reached points where they should have ended, but the authors went forward in time to each main character's old age and showed how their life played out.

I know some people like this kind of completeness in an ending, but I rather prefer the idea of the story ending in a good place - but with room left for one to imagine what else might have happened, rather than being told how things went on to end.

In Harry Potter, for example, I would have preferred to not know who married whom, or what they ended up doing with their lives. I would have liked to have imagined that for myself (and I would never have married Hermione to Ron). It is the same with these two books I just read. I'd rather have imagined the futures of the two women in each story from a certain point, and not seen how things turned out for them.

Sometimes it is good to let the reader use her imagination. If the character has any appeal, I like to fantasize about what might have happened, who she ended up with, how the rest of her life might have played out. Having it all laid out for me there on the page seems to take something from me.

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Books: X

By Sue Grafton
Copyright 2016
Read by Judy Kaye
Unabridged Audio
13 1/2 hours

I have read or listened to all of Sue Grafton's novels. The last couple have left me wondering what she was doing. Stretching her wings as a writer, I suppose. Unfortunately, all of this flapping has left Kinsey Milhone, the much-loved female detective of the alphabet series, a bit lost.

In X, Grafton has three subplots going, but no main plot. Even my husband, who listened to the first part of this book with me on our drive to Pennsylvania and back in September, noted the lack of a plot. Trust me, he is no book connoisseur, and if he noticed, then there was no plot.

Apparently as the series winds down, Grafton wants to bring back old characters - I know she brought up the name of several minor characters throughout this book - and I felt like she was trying to wrap up not only the books but her story world, too.

Maybe Kinsey will find some other way to fill her time by the time we hit the final two books.

In this story, a betrayed spouse outwits Kinsey by pretending she's someone she's not in order to steal a valuable painting from the former husband. The new folks who have moved in next door to Kinsey and Henry do not seem to be who they say they are. Kinsey has a banker's box with an envelope in it that seems to mean something, but she's not sure.

The latter subplot was probably meant to be the real mystery, but there wasn't enough meat on that story to make a book. It also ended with a thud. I will say no more in case you want to read the story.

The reviews on Amazon are all over the place on this one - some people give it a four, some give it a two. I don't think it was one of Grafton's best novels, by any stretch of the imagination, and I think she is searching for a way to wrap up this series. She started writing it in 1982 and with the last books staring her in the face, she has to be wondering what's next. This book felt like a writer wandering, trying to figure out what's next.

I also thought Kinsey did a few things in this book that a good, ethical detective would not have done, and that bothered me.

Of course I will read the next books, just like I plodded through Janet Evanovich's bad books in the teens of the Stephanie Plum series (though I admit I am a few books behind on that now).

If you've never read Grafton's books, go back and start at the beginning. If you pick up with X, you will be lost and left wondering what all the fuss is about.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Books: The Collector

The Collector
By Nora Roberts
Read by Julia Whelan
16 hours
Copyright 2014

The Collector by Nora Roberts brings us the story of Lila Emerson, a professional house sister and novelist with an unabashed habit of looking out the window with binoculars to see the little "movie stories" of the lives of the people who live in the next apartment complex over.

Unfortunately, she sees a woman murdered, and things go downhill - and uphill - from there. Roberts brings us an interesting and intriguing story of murder for art, and two strong central characters to carry the story through to its deserved, if not unexpected, ending.

She meets Ashton Archer, brother of one of the other victims murdered in the apartment, and together they set out to solve the mystery of the brother's death. Roberts does a nice job exploring the art world, and is close on her facts. She talks about eight missing "Imperial Eggs" made by Faberge for the Russian imperial family - mostly true, except the Faberge website says there are only seven missing eggs. She also overstates their value a bit - but it's fiction, and it rings true, so what the heck. How many people google the objets d'arts mentioned in books, anyway?

Additionally, Roberts brings in the story of  Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the lost girl who many thought was not killed by secret police in 1918. It's a nice touch and an interesting bit of history to bring to the fore.

The story kept me interested and I consider it one of Roberts better books. Her later books seem to me to be better written, anyway - certainly showing that practice makes perfect, or at least better craft.

A Roberts book is always a decent way to pass the time, and this book is no exception. While I never missed my exit when I was listening to it, I did occasionally sit in the garage to finish a section before I came back into the house.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Books: Island of the Blue Dolphins

Island of the Blue Dolphins
By Scott O'Dell
Copyright 1960, 1988
177 pages

Recently I decided to revisit childhood classics - those Newberry Medal winners that made such an impression on me when I was younger.

Island of the Blue Dolphins was my first choice. The title has always stuck with me, and the idea of a young girl, alone on an island, a cast away with no recourse but to survive via her wits, has always appealed to me.

If I were still in college, I would choose this book to write a paper on. I could easily write a treatise on societies for one of my social science courses, or a study of femininity and females for a feminism class, or a study of writing for a writing course, from this small yet noble classic.

The story is based upon a truth - sometime in 1853, white men found a lone woman on a island off of the California coast. She is known to history as the Lost Woman of San Nicolas. Her rescuers, such as they were, named her Juana Maria. Wikipedia at the link has an extensive entry about the real person. She died within 7 weeks of her "saving" from her lonely vigil on her island.

O'Dell's book also was made into a movie, which would add further fodder to a college paper. If I have seen the movie, I do not remember it.

The author named his heroine Karana. She was a young girl of 12 who lived with her tribe on a large island off the coast. The tribe was annoyed by a pack of wild dogs but otherwise lived in harmony with animal inhabitants that included fox, otters, pelicans, and other birds.

Man, it seemed, would be their undoing. The Aleuts, another tribe from the north, led by a white man (O'Dell calls him Russian, I think, which would make sense given the time he wrote the book), visits the island. They come for otter and agree to a trade, but the chief, who is also Karana's father, does not like the trade. Suddenly fighting breaks out and after all is said and done, the men of Karana's tribe are mostly dead, save the old and very young.

The elder tribesman who takes over as leader decides to take a canoe and go for help from the mainland. A year (or two) passes and finally another ship shows up to take the entire remnants of the tribe away from their ancestral home. As the ship leaves, a gale blows up, and Karana realizes her brother has been left behind. She jumps from the ship and swims ashore, thinking the boat will turn around.

But the white men move on, afraid of the dark seas and the strong winds.

Shortly thereafter, Karana's brother is killed by the wild dogs, and the young woman is left alone.

The real Juana Maria apparently was left on the island alone for nearly 20 years. The young woman in O'Dell's book is there a long time - countless summers pass and she is no longer a girl when finally a ship comes for her. But the reader is unsure how long she exists alone.

The scene that makes me shudder in indignation is near the end, when the men sew together trousers to more sufficiently cover the girl, who is brilliant in her skirt of feathers and a special necklace. Of course she must be covered. Of course.

It is difficult to write a book about a single character. Characters must interact with one another. Dialogue? Not happening unless a character talks to herself. O'Dell manages to bypass this burden with animals - a dog here, birds there, and the land itself, which Karana talks to almost like a lover. She makes discoveries and learns how to do things she had seen men do, daring to use tools that only men were supposed to use. She is the epitome of a human, surviving, thinking, and being. Forced to live in the day because she had long given up hope of rescue, her needs were few. In O'Dell's book, anyway, she is not unhappy.

In rereading this book, only one thing struck me as out of place. Why did the young woman tame an older wild dog and not take one of the pups when she had the chance? Surely a pup would have been easier to tame. While I found this part off the mark, the story still holds together as well today as it did when I first read it 45 years ago.

It is an interesting exercise, going back to worlds I once I knew but which are now murky in my memory. I am not sure what my next book will be, but I look forward to the visit.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Books: The Nightingale

The Nightingale
By Kirstin Hannah
Copyright 2015
440 pages
Kindle Edition

The Nightingale is a best seller, deservedly so. I have read some of Hannah's other books (Magic Hour and Summer Island) and not necessarily been overly impressed, but she did a great job with this one.

In a rather timely piece, Hannah takes us to Vichy France, giving us a quick glimpse of the nation prior to Germany's invasion and then taking us on a heady journey following two sisters as they struggle to endure the hell that war brings. They have suffered rough childhoods - the early death of their mother and the abandonment of a father crippled by World War I.

Sister Isabelle, the younger, is in and out of boarding schools, and always searching for her father's love. Vianne, married and mother of one, lives in the family's older home in a more rural area. When war comes, each is impacted in different ways. Isabelle initially is sent from Paris to live with Vianne, and along the way sees the atrocities to come as a German plane guns down a legion of women and children before her eyes.

Vianne, more sheltered, thinks that things will only get so bad even though her husband leaves for war. After her sister disappears and heads back to Paris, though, things slowly become worse for Vianne as a soldier billets with her and she finds food and resources difficult. Then she must watch as her Jewish friend is herded into a cattle car on a train, and she knows her time has come to find her moral ground.

Isabelle, meanwhile, is keen to fight, and becomes part of the French underground. She leads downed Allied soldiers across the great mountain range that separates France from Spain, saving 127 flyers.
The book reads with historical accuracy - hopefully as well-researched as it seems to be - and the author manages an interesting trick of having the story told in "present day" (1995) by one of the sisters - only we don't know which one until the end.

It's a fast read even at 440 pages, and the intrigue and detail gives one much to ponder, especially if compared to the political climate of America today. Are we too doomed to determine our morality by the blood of our neighbors?

Certainly something to think about.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Books: At the Water's Edge

At the Water's Edge
By Sara Gruen
Copyright 2015
378 pages (plus author's notes & stuff at the back)

I have also read Gruen's first book, Water for Elephants, which readers may recall was made into a not-so-successful movie. (The book was better.)

This book, At the Water's Edge, starts off slow but gathered momentum after the first laborious chapters. For a while, the narrator was not someone I could relate to - a spoiled, wealthy woman who had never ironed a shirt in her life, who had married an insipid husband who could not be called a man. He was more like a boy-child.

The story was set during World War II and focused on Scotland. Madeline and her husband, Ellis, set off in the midst of a war to pursue the Loch Ness Monster because Ellis's father had once found fame with photos of the monster, though those photos were later proven false. So Ellis wanted to clear his father's name. Ellis was not fighting in the war because he was color blind, and his father, a Colonel, was ashamed of his son.

The duo take along Ellis's best friend, Hank, and they end up at a hotel/inn. Ellis and Hank essentially desert Madeline, and she makes friends with the staff and with the inn owner, a former captain in the army who is missing a finger and has a scarred body from early on in the war.

Madeline begins to find herself and learn more about life and the real world while her husband and his friend are off being playboys or something. Along the way, Madeline learns that her husband didn't really want to be married to her and that his color blind excuse was just that - an excuse.

I would not call this story compelling, gripping, or a page turner. I read it while I was eating dinner and finished it up over the weekend when the lights were out and I had nothing else to do but read by flashlight. I enjoyed the historical aspect of the novel - Gruen does period pieces well - but in general I do not find her characters to be people I like. Even though Madeline grows and turns into a better human being at the end, she still has a lot to learn about life.

The story does have interesting metaphors about monsters - the monsters in the lake, the monster in her husband, the monster of drug use, the monsters inside all of us who peek out from time to time. What we do with those monsters depends on a variety of things, I suppose.

If you can get past the first few chapters, the story picks up and becomes a better read. So if you decide to read this New York Times bestseller, hang in there.

3 stars

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Book Review: The Mulberry Tree

The Mulberry Tree
By Jude Deveraux
Read by Karen Ziemba
Copyright 2002
5 hours abridged

Far be it for me to knock an author who is widely published and apparently much-loved, but I was not overly impressed with my first Judge Deveraux book. Perhaps it was the abridgement that made it seem like a shallow story with a contrived ending.

Bailey James (formerly Lillian Manville) sets out to make a new life for herself after spending two decades as the fat wife of a billionaire who wanted her to be, well, his fat wife. The story made it clear that every time Lillian went on a diet, husband Jimmy sent her boxes of chocolates. Apparently he wanted to ensure nobody looked at her. Fat people are, after all, invisible to the rest of the world.

But then poor Jimmy died in a plane crash, and Lillian, hiding out from the multitudes of reporters who wanted glimpses of the fat widow, lost lots of weight. Turns out she also lost out on the billions, too - because Jimmy left her only an old farm in Virginia. His billions went to his two siblings.

Or did it?

At any rate, Lillian takes on a new identity and moves to Virginia, to find herself with an old broken down farmhouse with a mulberry tree. Later she learns there is some mystery that has to do with six young men, known as "The Golden Six." Somehow this ties into her husband and his mysterious childhood. Eventually she begins to try to figure out the connection.

Meanwhile, a handsome architect conveniently moves in with her and she and several other women take a forsaken Virginia backwater and put it on the map with a single commercial during a football game.

The ending was about as contrived as one could get, with the heroine doing very little work to resolve the "mystery" surrounding her husband and The Golden Six. Bailey had a little character growth during the book, but not enough to be satisfactory.

I do not, as a rule, read romance novels (though I like gothic suspense) so it is not surprise that I did not find this overly engaging. It was well-written though I think with a little thought the author could have come up with a more satisfactory ending.

3 stars (mostly for the decent writing and some character development).

Monday, March 14, 2016

Book Review: Them That Go

Them That Go
By Becky Mushko
Copyright 2016
Kindle Edition
(222 pages print edition)

Southwest Virginia author Becky Mushko* presents the reader with an intriguing coming-of-age novel that brings in folk lore, superstition, secrets, and traditions that often are overlooked by other writers in her new book, Them That Go.

Annie Caldwell, a senior in high school in 1972, lives in one of the "hollers" of Appalachian Virginia. She keeps to herself in school and has few friends. This is in part because her family is not wealthy, but also because Annie has a secret. She's one of the few members of her family line who have inherited a special gift. She can talk to animals, while her elderly aunt, whom she calls "Aint Lulie," talks to the dead.

She also has family issues. Her brother died in Viet Nam, leaving her mother depressed and her father overly caught up in his whisky. Annie retreats to Aint Lulie's house, where the elder aunt shares Appalachian lore and family history with her intelligent niece. “There’s always been them that go and them that stay in ever’ generation,” Aint Lulie says as she explains lineage to the girl.

Mushko offers a vivid account of the difficult life the hardy folks in Appalachia lived then (and for some, now). From emptying the slop jar every day to carrying in wood or planting gardens, the chores never end. Annie cares for her aunt without complaint - a good lesson for today's youth.

The quiet life of this Virginia backwater town changes when a young girl in Annie's class goes missing. Annie knows more than she can tell because the animals have spoken to her - so she has to choose between remaining unnoticed or announcing her special talents to her community.

This magical realism story is set in a believable world. Annie's magical gift sets her apart in a place already separated from the rest of the country. Her town is one of the forgotten landscapes that dot that area, filled with the characters frequently found in similar areas throughout Appalachia. Some of these characters speak in written dialect. This style of writing can be difficult for some readers, but Mushko handles it with great skill and the dialect adds to the magic of the story instead of detracting from it, as over-done dialect sometimes does.

Mushko has created an interesting character in Annie Caldwell, a young woman the reader won't soon forget. What might someone with her talent ultimately make of her life? Thankfully, the author offers us a foreshadowing of Annie's future the end of the book, giving a satisfying ending that does not leave the reader wondering.

The author is a retired English teacher who has published several other stories, including the Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin tale, Ferradiddledumday (2010) and a middle-grade paranormal novel, Stuck (2011). Other books available on Kindle by this author include Patches on the Same Quilt and four collections of short stories.

She has won numerous short story contests and published extensively in regional magazines and in the Cup of Comfort series. Visit her website at or her blog at

*The author is a personal friend.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Books: Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones
by Jesmyn Ward
Copyright 2010?
288 Pages

This winner of the 2011 National Book Award deserved the accolades it received when it came out. This book was a read for my book club, and it is one of the better books I've read this year.

This is the tale of a poor family struggling to survive in the ten days prior to Hurricane Katrina, which created havoc and devastation in southeast Louisiana in 2005. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Esch, the nickname for a 14-year old black teenager who struggles to understand her three brothers and drunken father. They live on an inherited plot of ground, apparently on their father's disability check. Their mother died giving birth to the last son.

The story is heartbreaking in its humanity, and eye-opening in that it exposes the depths of poverty and how people struggle to survive in an America that offers them few options and no way to climb out of the Pit in which they find themselves. Living in Appalachia, I know families like this - the ones who sell tomatoes for a pittance to pay for extras, those who struggle daily to keep the roof from literally falling in on their heads. I've written about them as a news reporter and tried to make those of us who have more understand how fortunate we are.

Ward did an excellent job in writing this book, creating an inner atmosphere for Esch by using her school reading of mythology as a background for her life, along with the symbolism of a pit bull dog named China that her brother Skeeter was using as a fighting dog. The story opens with China giving birth, a fitting symbol for many things, including the little fetus growing inside the young teenager. The reader knows what's coming - the hurricane and its terrible winds and floods - and the reading speeds along as we try to determine who in the family will survive the calamity about to befall them.

The book makes one question how people survive at all - and how do people who already have next to nothing recover when the little they have is taken from them? This question is answered in a very direct way at the end, but that answer is not spelled out.

So I shall spell it out for you: when all is lost, we help one another.

This is a quick read - maybe four-five hours. Pick it up and wash it down. You won't be sorry.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
By Donna Tart
Read by David Pittu
32.5 hours
Copyright 2013

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in April 2014. The Washington Post titled its article about this, "The Disappointing Novel That Just Won a Pulitzer."

This book is 784 pages, and it was very long to listen to. It has taken me, literally, two months to hear it in my car. In desperation I finally listened to the final three hours of it in my office, taking up yesterday afternoon to get through the final three discs.

Did it deserve a Pulitzer? I don't know. If this was the best out there for the competition, then I suppose it won as it should. But I think perhaps there were better stories available, maybe unfound or unrecognized as such. It concerns me that the things we value these days are not golden, but instead are some kind of gilded and bronzed enigma that should be something, but isn't.

The Washington Post reviewer calls the book a junk shop passed off as something unique and rare, to paraphrase. I cannot disagree.

The plot is simple: a young boy, Theo, is in a museum with his mother when a bomb goes off. His mother dies. In the confusion of the explosion, Theo, at the insistence of a dying old man, grabs up a 1600s-era painting called The Goldfinch and shoves it into a backpack. In his shock, he finds his way from the museum and home. He has a bad family life anyway, with an alcoholic and gambling father who had left the family a year earlier.

Tart spells this out painfully, giving us a blow-by-blow of young Theo's heartache, his inability to understand all that is going on about him, his surprise when his father turns back up, though the reader knows (nudge nudge) that the boozer has come back only for the estate money, whatever there may be. The boy goes with his father to Vegas. He makes a friend, he learns to do drugs.

The painting comes to symbolize hope, fear, sorrow, greatness, love - all of life - for this young boy, who grows into manhood keeping this great secret.

The joke's on him, though, for all is not as it seems. I won't give away any more plot in case someone actually wants to read this book. But the story meanders greatly, going into much detail and depth about things that may or may not matter. Nothing is permanent in Theo's life and the story of the ephemeral quality of life is thematic throughout, but never satisfactorily explained by the author, not even in the dramatic musings at the end of the book. In the end, it's a nihilistic point of view, that we're all just here to pass through airports.

The first part of the book was engaging, and I suppose that was what kept me involved. The book read more like three books, and it was really one long character study about a damaged person. Perhaps it should have been some sort of series.

Tart's work has more than 21,000 reviews on Amazon. Forty-one percent of readers give it 5 stars. Ten percent give it 1 star.

I give it 3 stars. It was interesting enough, obviously, or I would have stopped listening to it a long time ago, but it seemed overly drawn out. The ending came rushing at the reader without any real sense of deservedness. Much of what happened to the character seemed to have no impact on him or whatever message the author was trying to impart.

Because of that, I have problems not so much with the book as I do with the fact that this is the book that won the Pulitzer. I think I expected better, and expectations sometimes can color what we read or hear.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Books: The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests
by Sarah Waters
Copyright 2014
Kindle Edition Version 1
(560 pages)

Looking at the nearly 1,500 reviews on Amazon, I see a mix of reviews about this book.

If I must give it stars, I give it three stars. This is not a five star book. It was on the New York Times bestseller list and it has received rave reviews, but I am not quite sure why.

To be sure, it's well written. At the end the author lists a pile of resources she checked for historical accuracy. The book is set after the War (although to be honest, I don't know if it was WWI or WWII, because ultimately it didn't really seem to matter that much). If the research is in this book, I am not sure where it is.

I felt manipulated almost from the beginning as I read. The author wanted me to think and feel a certain way, I'm sure, but using third-person limited omniscient to do that seems deceitful on the part of the author. The narrator was not the most reliable and I have never been one to like unreliable narrator books. I could not relate to the main character much, though I think the author wanted us to really like and feel sorry for Frances.

Generally, though, I found her tiresome, and when the book ended with a dull thud, I wished the woman had jumped off the bridge upon which she sat at the end.

Frances and her mother must take in borders because her father frittered away their money, something they learn after his passing. She also lost several brothers to the war, and has forgone a relationship to care for her mother.

The new borders, Lillian and Leonard (note to author - names really should not be so alike, unless you really want readers to mix them up. Couldn't one of them been called something that didn't start with an "L"?), are carefree and different. They are the "clerk class" and as such a lower breed than the upper crust from which Frances and her mother have fallen.

I found it difficult to like any of these characters from the start, and never really warmed up to them. Had my book club not been reading this book, I am not sure I would have finished it. I like internal monologue as much as the next person, but there was too much of it in this long book. I would have like to have seen more of London in the time period, but what little was there was not drawn well and I really had no sense of place as I read. I might have well have been reading about a Martian family after some war on the Red Planet, so little sense of place did I feel after I read this.

Waters is a new author to me, and she is much acclaimed. I must have missed something or perhaps this story came to me at a bad time and I am not able to appreciate its depth and quality. I am sure if that is the case, my book club members will set me straight in a few weeks.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Books: King and Maxwell

King and Maxwell
by David Baldacci
Unabridged - 13 hours
Read by Ron McLarty with Ortlagh Cassidy
Copyright 2013

This is Baldacci's sixth book in his King and Maxwell series. The guy is a prolific Virginia author with several other series as well as stand-alone books.

I've listened to all of the King and Maxwell series and enjoyed each one. The characters of Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are well developed. There's always danger, political intrigue, technological savvy, and relationship complications. I don't know how the books read in print but I enjoy listening to them in the car.

In this story, King and Maxwell literally stumble into their next case. A rainy night, a young teenager running with a gun - bang, the book is off to a fast start. The young man, Tyler Wingo, learned hours earlier that his father, Sam, had been killed in action in Afghanistan. His stepmother wasn't too concerned that the young teen had run off.

Former Secret Service agent Michelle Maxwell felt all of her spidey senses tingling when she and Sean came across the situation. Something was amiss. Boy, was she ever right.

The duo begin investigating and soon a plot unravels that goes straight to the Whitehouse. Add in a psycho with revenge issues and you have the making of a big story that might cost the two private investigators their lives as they work to protect the young boy and uncover the truth.

I enjoy this audio version, which come across almost more like a radio play than an audio book. Using a male and female reader for the various parts was genius. The audio also added in special effects - gun fire, crashes, and a little ramp-up noise to alert the reader that there's something up and you should listen to the next part while the car is parked. Otherwise you'll forget you are driving.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Book Review: Top Secret Twenty-One

Top Secret Twenty-One
By Janet Evanovich
Read by Lorelei King
Approximately 6 hours

My latest "read" of a Stephanie Plum novel did not disappoint, though this is the first time one of the books has made me gag, literally.

I like listening to these books because Lorelei King does such a good job with the voices, and the dialogue works when listening. Storytelling, after all, is our oldest form of "writing," so I do not have the aversion to audio that some have. I like being told a story, especially if the reader has a good narrative voice.

To be honest, I would not spend valuable time reading these books, so that is why I listen to them while driving. Multi-tasking, you know.

In this 21st Plum novel, Stephanie spends more time with Ranger. I think in the last book, she hung out more with Morelli, her other boyfriend. She's in love with both guys so maybe Evanovich's plan is to alternate storylines for a while as our heroine untangles her feelings.

Plum, a bounty hunter, is on the trail of Jimmy Poletti, a car dealership guy who was also trading in sex slaves and drugs. Since he skipped a court date, Stephanie has to hunt him down. Unfortunately, his path leads to a trail of dead bodies, and also brings to her Randy Briggs, a distasteful character from previous books.

She's also helping Ranger with some of his special work, and is distressed to learn someone is after her tall handsome ex-Black Ops fellow. The two plot lines are not intertwined, exactly, though I must say Stephanie would be a very poor bounty hunter indeed if Ranger's men didn't give her a hand frequently.

These books are quick listens and even though I enjoy them in the car, I must say the car bombings, the deaths, and the stress, none of which seem to phase Stephanie except for an occasional leaking of a tear, have grown a bit tiresome. I wouldn't want to live in her area of New Jersey, that's for sure.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Books: The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Kindle Edition (513 pages)
Copyright 2013

The author of Eat, Pray, Love, a nonfiction account of Gilber's efforts to change her life, which I read, turns her attention to fiction and the 19th century in this character study and saga.

Alma Whittaker is born with a silver spoon, the only child of a self-made millionaire who found his fortune in botany and plants. Her father, Henry Whittaker, would have ended up dead or jailed had not another man of wealth, Sir Joseph Banks, who established the Kew Gardens in London, noticed the lad's keen mind. Banks sends Henry around the world to gather plant specimens for him. Henry eventually outshines his patron and sets up his own botanist world first in India and then in Philadelphia.

Along the way he chooses a wife, Beatrix, not for love but for her mind and family ties to another botanical family in the Dutch lands. She gives him Alma.

Alma is not pretty but she is brilliant. She is raised to think, to question, and to never take any answer for granted. There is little of the spiritual, the mystical, or the religious in her life, though her mother takes her to church every Sunday. The larger questions of gods and the universe are not where Alma's focus lies: instead, she is drawn to the minutia of the world, right down to the very dirt upon which we tread and take for granted.

I loved this character. I loved her inquisitive mind, her desires for constant learning, her need to make a difference in the world as she understands it. I love that she learns from her mistakes, that she realizes she is human, and that perfection is unattainable but one can live a magnificent and noble life anyway.

This story covers over 100 years, since it also tells her father's backstory, and during Alma's lifetime she experiences great minds and great wealth, and small minds and poverty. Throughout all of her trials, she is always thinking. She makes great contributions to science and in the course of her studies begins to understand the theory of evolution. While of course not as heralded as her male counterparts, she discovers that things change and mutate in order to survive the conditions placed upon them.

Her one big question, at the end, is humanity, and what she ultimately calls "the Prudence problem." Prudence, her adopted sister, gives up all wealth in order to work with abolitionists, to take in orphans, and perform other altruistic and charitable things. These actions, at the time thought to be unique to humans, are at odds with the survival of the fittest notions to which evolution lends itself.

This book is a great story of a strong woman, and I hope it serves an inspiration everywhere to women who find their lots in lives are not as they had hoped. Passion, it seems, however one finds it, can make a difference and help with happiness, regardless of circumstance.

5 stars

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

You may not want to read this if you've not see the movie, though I will try not to give away anything. This is mostly my impression of the movie and the series as a whole.


Yesterday we ventured out to see the final movie in Peter Jackson's vision of Tolien's tale, The Hobbit. The Hobbit is a prequel to Lord of the Rings, and as prequels frequently do, the movies raised a lot of questions, including the main one: if the elves and Gandalf knew 60 years prior to Lord of the Rings that Sauron had returned, why did it take so long for them to do something about it?

That question is not answered in its entirety in the theater release, so don't expect resolution. I have been buying the extended versions of The Hobbit, which includes more film footage and a story line not even included in the theatrical release, so perhaps the query will be better answered there. But I will have to wait until next fall sometime to learn it.

In my opinion, this last movie was the weakest of the six movies, which is a pity. One should not end something so wonderful as this series of movies on the lowest note. I never thought stretching The Hobbit out into three movies was a good idea because there simply wasn't enough material there. I liked Jackson's additions, as far as they went, but he either needed to veer away more from the book or simply have two movies.

Do not think I was disappointed in the movie. I was not. But  As movies go it was better than most, but I would rate it last of the six. I rank the movies (as movies) like this: The Return of the King, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Two Towers, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies. They should be watched in order, though, and taken as a whole.

One of the things that bothered me was the change in CGI and computer effects. They are better in The Hobbit, of course, than they were in Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings was filmed 12 years ago, and the technology has changed. That being said, I would have preferred The Hobbit to have been filmed in the older technology. I think that certain CGI characters should have looked like they did in the older films. The nine ring wraiths, for example, should have looked the same as they did in Lord of the Rings. And the Eye should have looked as it did in the first movies, except perhaps less. If the Eye was at full strength in Lord of the Rings, then it should have been weaker-looking, not stronger-looking, in The Hobbit.

These are, of course, picky little things, things that a geek like myself would notice. I doubt most of the theater-going public pay that much attention. I daresay they don't watch The Lord of the Rings movies two or three times a year, as I do.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies was a weak movie because of lack of character development. There was precious little of it, even though the movie moved along very quickly for 2.5 hours. Aside from Thorin and Galadriel, character development was minimal. Blood, at least, was kept to a minimum even though there are a lot of deaths. There wasn't even much plot, to be honest. It was just a big battle, so it was aptly named.

This is not a stand-alone movie. Anyone who sees this movie who has never seen the others will be completely lost. They will wonder what the draw is and why people love the story as a whole.

As with books, I am not much on stories that depend on things that preceded them to make them whole. A story that depends solely upon familiarity with preceding books or movies to move it along seems to me to be poorly told.

I cried at the end of this movie as I bid farewell to these much-loved characters and this series of movies. The Lord of the Rings has touched me in a way nothing else I've watched ever has. Though the books as a whole are irritating to me because of the lack of women in the stories, as allegory and commentary on humanity and society, they are difficult to beat. And Jackson, to his credit, did add some women into the stories to help offset the total maleness of Tolkien's books.

So I bid my farewell to Gandalf and Bilbo, to Frodo and Sam. I kiss the cheeks of Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn. I will revisit you on the small screen in my annual forays, and I will see you all in my dreams.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Books: The Book Thief

The Book Thief
By Markus Zusak
Copyright 2005
550 pages

The Book Thief is the story of a young girl in Germany during World War II. It was my book club's read for November. I did not finish the book and instead watched the movie.

The movie in no way does the book justice. Infrequently, movies surpass a book, but that is not the case this time. If you saw the movie and have not read the book, treat yourself to the book.

This novel is listed as young adult, and I am not sure why. I certainly would not give it that classification. I suppose it is because it is about a young girl and not an adult that places it in that category. I would put this in general fiction. Or literature.

Liesel at the age of 9 becomes the foster child of a German couple. Her mother leaves her there, for unexplained reasons, though there are hints that the girl's real mother is a communist and thus on the run. Along the way, Liesel's brother dies, and at his graveside she steals a book about grave digging. That is her first theft of books.

The story uses the theft of books as a thematic device, but this is really a novel about language and the power of words. Words have strength and beauty, but they are also hateful and ugly. The words we choose to use as human beings says a lot about who we are as people. The words we use as a society, the words we condemn or uplift, also says much about us as a whole. Hitler, the book points out, was a master wordsmith, and many people fell at his feet to follow his plan of world domination, among other things.

This book saddened me because I could not help but make comparisons - how do we differ today from 1942? Today we don't have leaflets, we have fake news outlets that call themselves media, and journalists who are anything but journalists, but who are instead entertainers playing journalists on shows like Fox & Friends.  It is all a numbers game and humanity is lost in the shuffle.

Humanity lost itself in World War II, as well. The book points this out subtly, but that theme is in the story line as well. Where does our humanity go, I wonder? How is it that we lose it so easily?

This story is told by Death. Death personified as a watcher and a soul-uplifter, though not in the ways of an angel. But in the ways of someone who catches the spirit as it slips from one world to the next. Death as a reporter, really - a journalist in the truest sense.

The writing in this story is beautiful, poetic, and lovely. Even when the words sting and one feels the whip of a German soldier, there is such craft and worthiness here that it is difficult not to see what is happening. These words are visual, and I applaud the author for his writing grace.

5 Stars