Monday, June 29, 2015

Frog Music - Emma Donoghue

Frog MusicOh, dear, I seem to have a problem, and that problem is walking home from the library with mountains of books that aren't actually on my to-read list.  This would be one of those books.  Why did I pick it up?  I don't know.  It was partly the cover; I have a thing for silhouette covers.  I don't know why.  This one is made of frogs, which is kind of cool, even if I'm apparently blind because I didn't realize that until I was more than halfway done with the book.  Partly it was the title.  Frog Music.  It's kind of whimsical, isn't it?  And partly it was the first paragraph of the description, which mentioned San Francisco in the late 1800s, a heat wave, and a smallpox epidemic.  I love historical fiction, so the whole combination sounded ripe for the picking.

Frog Music is, by the way, not nearly as its title would lead one to believe.  The title's a complicated thing, referring to a lot of different parts of the narrative, none of which are really central to it.  I mean, I guess it could be, symbolically, but plot-wise it's not really all that relevant.  Anyway, instead of being a whimsical, character-driven novel (what I expected; obviously not reading beyond the first paragraph of the description did not serve me well) this book unravels as a novel of frantic suspense.  The book begins with the murder of Jenny Bonnet, best friend of Blanche, the main character.  Blanche, though in shock, is convinced that she knows the identity of Jenny's murderer, and in the aftermath of the shooting sets out to both find justice for her friend and seek out the location of her missing child, known as P'tit.  The novel jumps back and forth, between the days after the murder and the weeks leading up to it.  Supporting characters are found in Arthur and Ernest, who share...interesting...relationships with Blanche, which mainly involve lots of sex and spending lots of Blanche's money.

Blanche is a really intriguing character for this story, far more so than Jenny, who is supposed to be the interesting one, being a cross-dressing, singing, high-wheeling, quirky character.  Blanche, on the other hand, is...different.  She works as a dancer doing "leg shows" at a burlesque, which involves stripping and singing and having rendezvous with the men who come to see her.  Which Blanche enjoys.  Which is cool.  I mean, the whole exploitative nature of the industry of stripping and prostitution isn't cool, but that Blanche enjoys her sexual liberation (Is it liberation if it's always been like that?  She doesn't become liberated at any point, she just is.) is refreshing.  There is some slut-shaming, but it doesn't come from Blanche.  Instead, it comes from men--which is, though unfortunate, not surprising, and definitely historically accurate.  There are actually a lot of unfortunate but historically accurate aspects of this book.  Examples: how unwanted children are treated, how illness is treated, how women who wanted any form of independence are treated... The list goes on and on.

As far as quality goes, I liked this, but I didn't love it.  I probably wouldn't re-read it.  I found the timelines hard to follow for much of the book (the fact that Donoghue has to blatantly say which day it is from time to time indicates that it's hard to follow to being with) and while the setting and murder plots were interesting (Who is the murderer?  WHO?) but I didn't find Blanche's search for P'tit to be that thrilling.  Her sudden change of heart regarding him seems to have been rather sketchy, as is pointed out by several characters in the book, and I'm not sure I fully believed it.  I think Donoghue did a great job of researching the time, place, and plot (the book is based off a real unsolved murder) but that all the strands weren't necessarily as well-woven as they could have been.  I also couldn't have cared less about the musical aspects of the plot.  While I know that the songs were supposed to be significant to the parts of the plot that they appeared in (and I can see how they tied in) I just didn't care about them.  They lent flavor to the setting, sure, but they just weren't up my alley.

I also found Jenny to be annoying, which meant I really didn't care about her death in the first place.  Oooops.

3.5 stars out of 5, for the solid setting and language (which was quite lovely) and Blanche.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton

The MiniaturistFor a long time, I was skeptical about reading Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist for several reasons.  I don't really like the historical period the author uses as a setting.  It has a religious element.  And to be honest, something about that cover just creeped me out--something uncanny valley-like, maybe?  I don't know.  But the library had it in their popular reading section, so I snagged it, and boy am I glad I did!

First, let's address the concerns I had going into the book.  The time period didn't actually prove to be an issue.  Other than an occasional mention of someone's collar (dear lord, fashions in the seventeenth century were ridiculous) this book could have been set in many historical time periods.  And as for the religious aspect, it's used more as setting and plot flavor than an actual preachy element, which was good.  It was even necessary for the plot of this book.  And this book, I should say, is everything that I hoped Hannah Kent's Burial Rites would be, but wasn't.

The Miniaturist is about Nella Brandt, who is recently married and moves to Amsterdam to be with her husband, a prominent merchant, and his sister.  But married life isn't anything that Nella thought it would be.  Her husband Johannes, while nice, doesn't seem to be interested in her, and gives her a toy house built to replicate their own to occupy her while he's off doing other things.  Marin, Johannes' sister and Nella's new sister-in-law, runs the house with an iron grip and refuses to let Nella step in as the new mistress.  Every night, Nella hears whispers and doors closing, but doesn't know where they're from.  In desperation for something to do, she writes to a miniaturist to procure items for the mini house Johannes gave her, planning to furnish it with dreams of her life and future.  But when the first package comes, it has items that Nella didn't order in it, ones with strange and foreboding implications.  Nella requests that the packages stop, but they don't, and to make matters even creepier, the items she's already received seem to be changing to reflect events around Nella and her new family.

This book is creepy, and it is full of people with secrets.  Nella herself is pretty much an open book, but as the story progresses we learn that the other characters all have hidden dimensions which Nella can't fully see, and which have put them in the fast lane toward tragedy.  As Nella attempts to piece together all the secrets in her life, she becomes an anchor for the family, but she's too late--the damage of Marin, Johannes, Cornelia, and Otto's deeds has already been done.  There are definitely psychological elements at play here, too, addressing plot points that are never fully explained, leaving us guessing as to the miniaturist and her knowledge and intentions.  It's very, very spooky, but it was so well done that I can't fault it for not spelling everything out in the end; this is the type of ambiguity that is tantalizing rather than frustrating, and I loved it.

The one thing I didn't love about this book was that it's written in present-tense, which bothers me.  I think past could have just as easily been employed without the narrative suffering at all.  However, that's just personal preference, and I know some people love present tense.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a slightly creepy read that focuses on people over plot, and the implications of actions that are beyond one's control, but which impact one greatly nonetheless.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Skylight - Jose Saramago

20256571Character-driven novels are intrinsically hard to review.  There's no strong central plot drawing them forward, and without a strong central plot it's a little hard to convey what a book is actually about.  In this case, it's particularly hard for me, because I haven't read any of Saramago's other work.  The guy won a Nobel Prize for literature; there's obviously something big and compelling his writing, but I just didn't see that, and I feel like that means I missed something.
Now, part of that could easily be because Skylight is some of Saramago's early work, and consequently his writing isn't fully polished and hasn't completely developed into what it would presumably become later.  In the introduction, it's noted that many of the threads of story found in Skylight can be found in more fully-developed forms in works composed later in Saramago's career.  Maybe I should have read some of those first, so that I could make an apt comparison.  However, I didn't, and so here we are.
Skylight's main characters all inhabit the same apartment building in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1952.  The building is divided into six different apartments, and each apartment contains its own inhabitants with their own problems, though they are all intricately woven through each other.  Cobbler-philosopher Silvestre and his wife take in a boarder named Abel who is hoarding experience in life, but without a real purpose.  Across the hallway live Emilio and Carmen, Emilio's Spanish wife who raises hell because she feels trapped in her marriage.  On the second floor, a former prostitute named Lidia is now the mistress of a businessman, and across the way Justina deals with her womanizing husband.  On the third floor, a young woman gets a new job for Lidia's paramour, but the position only causes tension in the building, and a pair of sisters keep secrets from their mother and their aunt.
The book flap calls Saramago "the master of the quotidian," and indeed he does seem to have a wonderful way of capturing the everyday lives of his characters.  Without having a strong central plot, Saramago still manages to have a steady building of tension that leads up to a climax.  However, the novel seems to end abruptly, without several of the plot lines fully resolved.  While some of them are left open-ended but with a satisfying drop-off point, others are just...left.  Justina and Claudhina's plots are the most obvious examples of this.  I didn't feel like there was any indication of how those plots were supposed to go beyond the pages of the book.  I also didn't really feel drawn to Silvestre; his plots and character started off well, but as soon as he became a philosopher in addition to a cobbler, he lost a lot of my interest.  His ramblings to and with Abel about purpose and love and blah blah blah bored me, and it felt very much like Saramago was just preaching his own philosophy.  I don't mind when books have a message woven in, but I prefer it when it's done subtly, rather than it being repeatedly shoved in my face.

Still, overall, this was a lovely work of character and I enjoyed it.

3.5 stars out of 5.  (I feel terrible saying that.  This guy won a Nobel Prize and here I am giving it 3.5 stars.  Oh dear god, what have I done...not that it really does anything, but still.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Checking In - PopSugar's 2015 Reading Challenge

Why hello out there!  Can you hear me?  Probably not.  Though this isn't a book review, I thought it might be a fun thing to include on the blog for this week.  A while ago, I decided to embark on PopSugar's 2015 Reading Challenge, and I wanted to share my progress so far!  Here are the categories, how I've filled them, and how I'm planning to fill them.

-A book with more than 500 pages.  Done!  I read The Untold History of the United States earlier this year, and it clocked in at a whopping (and dense!) 784 pages.  Some of that page count is references, but the content still took up significantly more than 500 pages.  Fun fact: Peter Kuznik, one of the authors, is a professor at the university I attended and now work at!  Go AU!

-A book published this year.  Easy!  The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, because I love me a good historical romance and Julia Quinn is one of my favorites for a light and fast read.  This one came out in January.

-A book with a number in the title.  This one was a little harder, but I did read Island of a Thousand Mirrors recently, and that counts, because of the "Thousand" part.  Right?  Right.

-A book with nonhuman characters.  I read The Emerald Talisman back in March, and it has vampires in it.  I hated it.  The review can be found here.

-A funny book.  That would be Where'd You Go Bernadette, which had me giggling to myself on several occasions.  Definitely recommended!  Read the review here.

-A book by a female author.  This might be hard for some, but not for me, because for some reason I seem to unconsciously favor female authors.  But for now, let's go with Bread & Butter by Michelle Wildgen, which was a great character-driven book that revolves around a trio of brothers in the restaurant business.

-A mystery or thriller.  Well, I finally got around to reading Inferno, so I guess that counts for this!

-A book with a one-word title.  That's an easy one, too.  I read Sand this spring and absolutely loved it.  It's a fabulous science-fiction read in a really interesting setting with a great cast of characters.  I made the boyfriend read this one, and he really enjoyed it, too.

-A book of short stories.  I have a few candidates for this one; I was originally going to just go with Small Plates because I happened to pick it up from the popular reading section a the library, but after reading The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, I feel like I have to give that a shout out, too.  Review for The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is here.

-A book set in a different country.  Another easy category, for which I can take my pick from a variety of books.  I love reading books set in different countries, because I like to get a glimpse of places I will likely never go myself.  So for this one, let's go with Home is a Roof Over a Pig, which is a memoir set in China.

-A nonfiction book.  Again, not a hard one; I tend to read a lot of nonfiction.  But one that comes to mind that I really enjoyed is Careless People, which is about a murder that took place in the 1920s and how it might have influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was writing The Great Gatsby.

-A book based entirely off its cover.  Ugh, what a disaster this one was!  I read The Last Original Wife based on the cover, and I hated it.  It looked so beachy and light and lovely, and it was a disaster that made me angry.  You can read my review of it here.

-A memoir.  I read a lot of these, but for this particular category, let's go with All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, which is Rachel Manija Brown's memoir about growing up as an American kid in an ashram in India.

-A book you can finish in a day.  Ohhh, easy one.  I plowed through The Master Magician in a few hours, but found it sadly lacking in comparison to the first two books in the trilogy.

-A trilogy.  I devoured and adored Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy early this year, which is made of The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom.  These were some of the first books I read this year, and I absolutely loved them.  I'll definitely read them again, and they really got me back in the writing mood!

-A book set in the future.  I pretty much inhaled These Broken Stars over Spring Break.  It's a beautiful young adult sci-fi story with a wonderfully worked romance aspect, and I can't wait to read the companion books.

-A book with a color in the title.  Well, that would have to be Scarlet, Marissa Meyer's awesome sci-fi adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, which picks up where her sci-fi version of Cinderella, Cinder, left off.  I can't wait to get to Cress (which I've been putting off so as to eke out as much enjoyment as possible before Winter comes out--it cannot come soon enough!) and continue this series!

-A book with magic.  The magical Cobweb Bride definitely fits this category.  It got off to a slow start, but was utterly enchanting (haha, I'm so funny) by the end.

-A book by an author you've never read before.  Burial Rites by Hannah Kent fits this.  I liked it, but it wasn't as mind-blowing as it was made out to be.

-A book that was originally written in a different language.  I'm currently reading Skylight by Jose Saramago.  It's a beautiful character-driven novel that was originally written in Portuguese and wasn't published until after the author's death because of an early snafu with a potential publisher.  I'm enjoying it so far.

-A book set during Christmas.  I hate books that are set during Christmas.  I find them to be really gimmicky.  But I did read Married by Midnight earlier this year, not realizing at first that it was set during Christmas.  It was okay, I guess, but it didn't leave me rushing to pick up the others in the series.

-A book written by an author with your same initials.  Well, my initials are CH, so I'm going with The Paper Magician by Charlie Holmberg, which was a great Victorian-style fantasy about a girl who learns paper magic and has to save her tutor after his heart is literally stolen out of his chest.  I loved it.

Still To Go
-A classic romance.  I'm planning on squeezing in Wuthering Heights at some point, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

-A book that became a movie.  I'll be filling this one with The Monuments Men, which has been on my Kindle for ages but I haven't opened yet.  I don't actually read a lot of books that become movies, so this one was a harder category to find a candidate for.

-A book written by someone under 30.  Oh, this was a hard one to find a candidate for, because all of the authors I thought were really young are actually older than I thought!  Oi.  So, very reluctantly, I have decided to take up Veronica Roth's Divergent.  I've avoided it until now, but now it seems to have become unavoidable.

-A popular author's first book.  I wanted to go with a big author for this one, and because Terry Pratchett died recently, I've settled on The Carpet People.

-A book from an author you love but haven't read yet.  Well, I absolutely adore Tamora Pierce, but for some reason I haven't read Battle Magic yet, so that will fill this category.

-A book a friend recommended.  Uhm...I don't know about this one yet.  I'll have to ask around.

-A Pulitzer Prize-winning book.  Like pretty much everyone else out there, I'm going to knock this one out with All the Light We Cannot See.

-A book based on a true story.  I think I'm going to go with Seabiscuit for this one.  I think that counts.  The "based on" bit confuse me somewhat.

-A book at the bottom of your to-read list.  My to-read list is in a constant state of flux and doesn't really have a concrete "bottom," so at some point I'll just pick the most recently added book (which is, by default, at the bottom) and read that.

-A book your mom loves.  As my mother drunkenly told an Australian tourist while we were in Venice for my sister's wedding, her favorite book is The Thorn Birds, so I guess I'll be reading that for this category!

-A book that scares you.  I have no idea for this one, honestly.  Horror books don't actually scare me, so I think I might have to go with some nonfiction that's terrifyingly true.  We'll see where that goes.

-A book more than 100 years old.  Well, common domain books make this easy, and I think I'll continue my study of the classics with 20000 Leagues Under the Sea.

-A book you were supposed to read in school but didn't.  I was a good student and read the books I was assigned, and I could only think of one exception that wasn't an actual textbook: Affairs of Honor.  It's apparently about early congressmen, senators, etc. being bitchy to each other, so it shouldn't be too bad of a read.

-A book with antonyms in the title.  I honestly don't know.  I'll have to look for something, nothing comes to mind right away.

-A book set somewhere you've always wanted to visit.  I haven't decided on this one fictional locations count?  Like Narnia?  Or other historical periods?  We'll see.  There's some serious potential here...

-A book that came out the year you were born.  I don't know yet for this one.  Anyone know any good books published in 1991?

-A book with bad reviews.  I haven't decided yet on this one, either, but I'm dreading it...

-A book from your childhood.  The obvious one that comes to mind is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  This might finally give me the excuse to order that new box set I've been eyeing up...

-A book with a love triangle.  I've gotta fill this one with Endless Knight, Kresley Cole's sequel to Poison Princess.  I loved Princess (review here), but haven't cracked Endless yet.  But it has definitely got a love triangle.

-A book set in high school.  Pretty sure that Perks of Being a Wallflower is going to flesh out this category.  I kind of hate books set in high school, but Perks is supposed to be great, so I hope it won't let me down!

-A book that made you cry.  Can you really plan for these things?  I don't know.  I might have to re-read something to fulfill this...

-A graphic novel.  Sharaz-de is a graphic novel inspired by 1001 Arabian Nights, and I've been eyeing it up for a while now.  Plus, Scheherazade is pretty much my favorite fairy tale ever.

-A book you own but have never read.  That would be The Martian, which I've had for months but haven't read yet.  I'd better get around to it before the movie comes out, too, which I guess means I have until early October to complete this category.  Plenty of time my dear, plenty of time...

-A book that takes place in your hometown.  Well, despite some Googling, I couldn't find anything that takes place in Erie, PA, so I'm going with my second hometown here.  I'll be reading The Dressmaker, which, according to my research, takes place at least partially in Washington, DC.

-A play.  I haven't decided on this yet, though I'll probably keep it basic and do Shakespeare.

-A banned book.  Well, books in the US are never actually banned by the government, but according to a list of frequently challenged books, The Kite Runner fits this category.  I read A Thousand Splendid Suns, also by Hosseini, several years ago and liked it, so this should be a good contender.

-A book based on or turned into a TV show.  For this one, I think I'll go with Dead Until Dark, which as we all know was made into the hit TV show True Blood.

-A book you started but never finished.  I swear to year, this is the year I finally take down Vellum, which I have started multiple times but have never been able to complete.  But this time, I will do it!

Well, that about sums it up... I'm not halfway done yet, from the looks of it, but I've got time.  By the end of the year, these books are going down!  If you're out there, are you doing any reading challenges?  Or, better yet, do you have suggestions for the categories I haven't picked titles for yet?  Let me know!

The Cabinet of Curiosities - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Pendergast #3)

The Cabinet of Curiosities (Pendergast, #3)Oooooh boy.  Let me tell you right off the bat, thrillers generally aren't my thing.  I find their premises to be too flimsy to really enjoy, and the style they're written in doesn't agree with me.  Cabinet of Curiosities was no different in these regards, and I actually liked it even less than I like most thrillers--especially because it had a historical element, which is usually a plus for me and serves to get me interested.  But this  Gah.

So, what didn't I like about this?  Well...pretty much everything.  I only liked one of the myriad of characters, disliking the other twenty or so that populate the pages on a regular basis.  I disliked the protagonist, Special Agent Pendergast, immensely.  I hated him.  He was extremely unrealistic and unrelatable and there was absolutely nothing that compelled me to like him or root for him.  In fact, I would have been much happier if he had been killed of.  Now that would have been a plot twist.  I didn't like the fact that the authors felt like every character who appeared on the pages had to, at some point, be a point of view character.  I didn't like that the main plot of the story didn't get started until more than a hundred and twenty pages into the book.  That is absolutely ridiculous for a thriller, which should yank you in from the first page.  I found the ties between the main plot and the historical plot flimsy at best, and the plot device that drove it all completely unbelievable--even more so than in a Dan Brown novel, which are almost at the epitome of unbelievable.  I didn't like that all of the red herrings were so very obviously red herrings; not once did I believe one of the decoy leads was real, and the authors should have had me second-guessing myself at least once.  And I didn't like the length of the novel in general.  It could have been about a hundred and fifty pages shorter and been fine.  The climax--which, in a thriller, should hit hard and fast and leave you reeling--went on for far too long for it to really remain suspenseful, and instead I just found myself wondering when it would be over so I could move on to reading something else.

What did I like?  I liked O'Shaunessy as a character.  I liked that the story involved a museum.  That's about it.

This was a gift, and I feel bad for not liking it.  But I'm also confused as to how this ended up as one of NPR's "100 Best Thrillers of All Time," because if it really is one of the 100 Best Thrillers of All Time, then the thriller genre is in worse shape than I thought...because this was terrible.  At no point did I feel liked I needed to know what happened next; after every chapter, I would have been very happy going off and doing something else.  There's no real "page turner" quality here, no cliffhanger chapters that made me feel like I had to know what came next.  Instead, this was just bland.  I'd rather read Dan Brown than this, and considering how lackluster and anticlimatic I found Inferno, that's really saying something.

2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Mambo In Chinatown - Jean Kwok

18693922Oooooh, this was a complicated book for me.  On one hand, I loved it.  On the other, it frustrated me immensely.

I loved it for a few reasons.  First, it's pretty much like a Chinatown version of Take the Lead or Step Up or one of those other dance movies, which I love, but with an adult as the main character instead of a teenager.  I liked Charlie.  I thought she was a relatable main character, with a realistic backstory who struggles with a lot of things and is happy to finally find a place where she fits in and succeeds, without it seeming like she's been constantly victimized.  She takes care of her father and her younger sister and sees her family as a priority, but she's still a young American woman (technically, American-Born Chinese) who wants some measure of independence.  That longing for independence doesn't fit in with her father's views on the world; he thinks Charlie should be the obedient daughter, like she would be if she'd grown up in China.  Charlie's struggles to balance the two different worlds she enters were a great way of showing the cultural push and pull that can act on immigrant families and second-generation Americans.  I also really liked the cast of supporting characters, in particular Ryan (obviously) and Nina (also obviously).  They seemed very real, like they were real people in and of themselves and not put on the page just to support Charlie.  And the dancing aspect!  I loved it.  I wish I could ballroom dance, and while for some reason I thought this was a historical novel, something along the lines of Lisa See's China Dolls, I was very happy with the modern setting because of the whole competitive ballroom dance aspect it brought to the table.

The main thing I didn't like about this book is that it made me dislike myself.  There are a few reasons for this, and all of them have to do with aspects of the book I didn't like, but knew I was viewing unfairly, or did like and knew I shouldn't.

First, I pretty much wanted to punch Charlie's dad in the face for most of the book.  He was so set in his ways that he was completely unwilling to consider anything else: wanting Charlie to marry someone he's always known, preferably via matchmaker; using eastern medicine and witchcraft to treat Lisa's condition even when it obviously wasn't doing anything, and was convinced that Charlie couldn't make a single decision, from what to wear to where to work to who to visit, without his approval.  I knew this was a cultural thing, because Charlie's dad immigrated to the US from China, which is much more conservative with how children act in regards to their parents' wishes, and therefore I knew I shouldn't be upset, just understanding that there was a cultural divide.  But I still wanted to punch him, and that made me frustrated with myself.  Also, he really did an about-face at the end of the book that I think could have been handled differently.  In order for the ending to work, he needed to become more flexible, but I think it could have been made into a more gradual process.

Second, Lisa.  I wanted to slap Lisa just as much as Charlie did at times, and I knew that was wrong.  (Well, for most the book I didn't feel so bad about it, but then came the Big Reveal, and then I felt awful about it.)  I get why Lisa was so uncommunicative, in hindsight, because that's very typical for what she was going through, but at the same time I wanted to smack her upside the head and tell her she was being an idiot.  Which is stupid, because she's twelve, and was dealing with some horrible stuff in addition to feeling like her sister had suddenly abandoned her, and that made me frustrated with myself, too.

Third, Ryan.  I looooved Ryan.  I thought he was awesome.  I know not everyone did, and there are definitely reasons for that, and that brings me to the thing that I liked that I shouldn't have which makes me angry: Ryan and his girlfriend, Fiona.  See, for pretty much the entire book, Ryan is in a long-distance relationship with a girl named Fiona.  And yet he starts to get involved with Charlie.  I loved the dynamic between Ryan and Charlie, the sort of "it's forbidden but we really like each other and connect" sort of thing (I'm a sucker for that, I freely admit it) but it really bothered me that they were going along with it when they were both aware that Ryan was technically already in a relationship.  Infidelity is something I am not okay with as a plot device, and the fact that I liked Ryan and Charlie together even though Ryan had a girlfriend (even a conspicuously absent girlfriend) really bothered me.  I think the plot could have worked just as well without the girlfriend aspect, because Charlie wasn't really allowed to date Ryan anyway because he was a student, and I would have been much more open to that relationship if Fiona hadn't been an issue.

So, I was pretty conflicted about a lot of parts of this book, but at the same time I couldn't stop reading and I really loved the narrative as a whole.  Because of that, I can't wholeheartedly give it a glowing review, but this is definitely something I would read again--albeit maybe as a guilty pleasure.

Also, I kind of wish Todd got his own book.

3.5 to 4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Empire of Deception - Dean Jobb

22859560There's nothing better to kick off a weekend than a story about a swindler, amiright?  Okay...maybe there are a few better ways, but this book is pretty much like a true financial-crime version of Law & Order, which we all know is one of the best shows ever, so I can't think of many better ways.  In Empire, Jobb tells the story of Leo Koretz, who built a veritable financial empire (haha, I'm so funny) based on fake mortgages and stocks.  The mortgages were supposedly based on property in Arkansas that was used to grow rice--and indeed, the property existed, it just wasn't really worth anything, let alone what Koretz was getting for it.  The stocks, on the other hand, were a complete fabrication, based on a fictitious timber and oil company based in Panama.  Between the two scams, Koretz made off with several million dollars, much of it taken from his friends and family, who had become desperate to invest in Koretz's fake company after he repeatedly told them "no."  You know how it goes--the more someone tells you "no," the more you want what they're denying you.  And so it went here, until Koretz absconded and the truth came out.

Koretz did most of his swindling in the 1910's and 1920's, which leads Jobb to include more than a few allusions to The Great Gatsby, which doesn't really seem fair because other than liking parties and spending money, Koretz was nothing like the fictitious Gatsby.  However, the drama mostly takes place in Chicago and, to a lesser extent, Nova Scotia, which are two areas that are seldom examined in histories of the era, so getting a peek at them was awesome.  Koretz was busy swindling long before and long after Ponzi's fraud scheme began and ended, while Al Capone was clawing his way up the gang ladder, and while the entire nation was plunging head-first into the Jazz Age, which leads to a ton of colorful background for Jobb's tale.  Also getting some page-time is Robert Crowe, an attorney who once worked with Koretz and takes up the task of finding and prosecuting him after he escapes.  At times, the writing can get a bit dry, especially when Jobb dives off into using too many quotes.  Don't get me wrong, quotes are good, and can lend a lot of flavor to a book, but too many of them can be distracting and can let the mind wander while the action isn't advancing.  Overall, however, I found the writing engaging and the book a pretty easy read.  It's also much shorter than it initially appears, because a good chunk of the pages are devoted to notes on sources, which is a solid use of page space for any history book worth its salt.  But don't worry; footnotes and annotations don't weigh this one down, and the citations are tucked neatly away in the back where they won't distract you during your read.  Though if you do want to find the citation for something, that might make it a bit difficult...

Overall, though, a fun read. Not one of my favorite history books and not one I'm likely to read again, but good nonetheless.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Museum of Extraordinary Things - Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary ThingsFor Coralie, the extraordinary is everyday.  Her father owns and runs the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a small exhibit on Coney Island that some would term a "freak show," featuring people with various kinds of abnormalities, including Coralie herself.  Born with webbed fingers, she performs as a mermaid in her father's exhibit, along with a "wolf man," a "butterfly girl," and various other oddities.  Coralie is kept on a tight leash, and she dreams of knowing more about the world, a desire that is only further fueled when she glimpses a young man in the woods one night while she's pretending to be a river monster on her father's orders.

Eddie (born Ezekiel) Cohen is a photographer scraping by in New York City with his trusty pit bull Mitts.  As a child, he worked first in garment factories with his father, and then as a sort of child investigator, which played on a knack he has for finding things.  Following the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which Eddie photographed, a man approaches him asking Eddie to help find his daughter, who has been missing since the day of the inferno but who doesn't appear to have been a victim of  the flames.  This request sets Eddie and Coralie on a collision course, built on the strings of wonder and obsession as Coralie tests the boundaries her father has set and Eddie tries to solve the mystery of Hannah Weiss.

The writing in this varies between tell-y and absolutely beautiful, and part of that is due to the way the narrative is set up.  The chapters alternate between Coralie and Eddie.  Each chapter begins with a long section of italicized, first-person narration before switching to another section of third-person narration.  Switching the perspectives has the dual effect of being cool (it allows us to see into the main characters' minds more easily, while still moving the plot along at a pace that can be hard to accomplish in first-person) and jarring, because the transitions are so abrupt and obvious.  But Coralie's sections in particular can be lovely, because she has this strange flipped sense of the extraordinary; to her, the strange is commonplace and everyday things, like the other parks of Coney Island (especially Dreamland) are reasons for wonder, which makes common settings and events seem wondrous to the reader, as well.  Additionally, one of the climactic scenes (there are two: one regarding the Hannah Weiss plot and one regarding Coralie) seemed to fall flat, like Hoffman was in such a hurry to get on to the bigger scene that followed that she just glossed over what could have easily been an utterly spine-chilling event.  Another minor plot, dealing with Eddie and his father, didn't seem fully wrapped-up to me, but possibly others were satisfied with how that went.

There are also other parts of this book I would have been happier without knowing about, and I don't see that they were intrinsic to the plot.  The one that comes most to mind is the Dreamland fire.  I can see where Hoffman was going, framing the main narrative with two huge fires in New York, but at the same time, the Dreamland fire bothered me so much (spoiler: animals die, guys) that I really wished it hadn't been included, especially as it didn't seem terribly important to the plot.  It made everything very dramatic, I suppose, and I can see where the fire might also have been used as some sort of symbolism for the destruction of Coralie's former life or something like that, but I also felt like the same affect could have been achieved without a slaughterfest of innocent, loyal animals.  That one was a major downer for me and definitely tainted the rest of the ending.

Overall, though, I think this was a wonderful book.  It's a very different aspect of historical fiction, one that we don't see very often (though it does bear similarities to Palisades Park in some ways), and I enjoyed that.  The character of the time and place really come through in addition to the actual, living characters on the page.  The supporting cast was well fleshed out, instead of seeming like paper cutouts of people there only to support Coralie and Eddie.  I'd probably read this one again, despite the aspects of it I disliked; the pros outweighed the cons by a good deal here.

4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher - Hilary Mantel

20563988The fact that the title of this book references a fictionalized event (Margaret Thatcher's assassination--also not a reference to October 12th, 1984 assassination attempt) should be a pretty good indicator of the book's contents.  It's short stories, and all of them have this sense of being completely plausible while also being completely fantastic and utterly creepy.

I feel like I'm not a good judge of short stories.  I know I could never write one; they take a tremendous amount of restraint to do properly, and that's something I seem to lack when it comes to writing.  Mantel, however, has this quality in spades.  She knows exactly how much to reveal in each tale and how much to leave lurking in the shadows, where you can almost but not quite get a glimpse of it.  The topics covered in this collection are broad, from matters of extramarital affairs to dealings with the supernatural to just plain tragedies that are left so that they'll almost give you nightmares.  The endings are, in more than one case, menacing, and the writing style is so matter-of-fact that it's hard to believe that the world could be any other way.

I really enjoyed this, particularly the "Winter Break" story (so creepy) and the titular "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," because even though I knew the attempted assassination was fictional, Mantel presented it so elegantly that I felt an urge to look up Thatcher and make sure I hadn't missed something (I don't think I did).  However, one thing I feel is that short stories are often rife with dimensions and symbolism that require deep study, and on a few of these ("Commas") I definitely felt like there was something I missed in reading.  I think several of these stories could bear with a deeper examination, but quite frankly I'm not the right person to do that.  I think this could make a wonderful book for a literature class, though--one that could provide excellent curriculum while also being an entertaining read for the students.  The slight touches of supernatural are enough to make one think, "But what if...?" while not straying into outright realms of fantasy, and the more menacing aspects of the stories (cloven hoofs and grubby hands come to mind immediately) send shivers down the spine.  Overall, I really enjoyed this, and I might look into picking up one of Mantel's novels (which are, I'm told, quite different) once I work through some of the other volumes currently in my possession.

4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, June 15, 2015

An Appetite for Violets - Martine Bailey

An Appetite for VioletsIn 1773, Kit Tyrone arrives at an Italian villa, looking for his missing sister.  He knows she should be at the villa, but all he finds is a decaying feast, the sister's pet pug, and a mannequin dressed in her clothes holding one of his letters and a beautiful ruby.  The story then jumps back six months and switches to the real main character, Biddy Leigh, as she describes the events leading up to the strange scene at the villa.  Biddy is an under-cook at an English estate, and Kit's sister Carinna is her new mistress, who orders Biddy and a few others to accompany her to France and then to Italy "for her health."  Along the way, Biddy records her travels in a book given to her by her ailing mentor and collects recipes.  There's obviously an air of menace about the trip, which Biddy realizes all along but can't fully grasp until it's in hindsight.  She matures greatly during her journey, from a young woman who only wants to marry her sweetheart into someone with larger views and ambitions.  It's a slow and subtle growth, as Biddy takes on more and more responsibilities regarding the traveling party, and was well-done.  I liked the love story (not the love story that the summary makes it out to be, however, which is a good thing; the real one is much better than the summary-hinted one could have been) and the slow buildup of tension, but there were still parts I didn't really like.

One of those parts was Mr. Loveday's chapters.  Loveday is Carinna's slave, and while he's a friend and accomplice to Biddy, his chapters are mostly reminiscences about his home island somewhere in Indonesia, along with the events that led up to his capture and sale as a slave.  While this was good background on the character, I felt like it could have been worked in better than Loveday just daydreaming all the time and not really doing anything else in his chapters; all of his action seems to be in Biddy's chapters, which makes his seem somewhat pointless.  The other aspect I wasn't fond of is that, even though this is a sort of mystery (What happened at the villa?) it's not really a mystery you can solve.  This is because of the way it's written--past tense, versus present tense--which I can appreciate, but if there's going to be a mystery, I like there to be at the least the possibility of solving it, even if I'm not usually successful in that pursuit.  In this, there's no real clues along the way, just the build-up and climax put forward very matter-of-factly.  There's also no real concern for Biddy, because even though some bad stuff happens to her, you know she's writing the story down after the fact, so she has to make it through.

Finally, the characterization of one of the supporting characters (the eventual love interest) bothered me.  Originally, he's fascinated by Biddy and sees to view her as an equal, despite a perceived difference in their classes and an obvious difference in their abilities.  But then, during the novel's denouement, that attitude completely vanishes and he turns into someone who expects Biddy to obey his every wish and not really do anything for herself.  It seemed like a very abrupt about-face without any real cause, especially because he knew what had happened.  If he had been like that the whole time, it would have been more bothersome as a love story but likely more historically accurate; instead, it just came off as awkward, and the man at the end seemed like a completely different person without any real cause, unlike Biddy's transformation (which definitely had cause).

I liked the inclusion of food as a marker for different events on the story, but at the end, I thought Biddy's musings on food and recipes turned a little too philosophical to read true, and the story probably could have ended just a couple of pages sooner without anything really being lost.  Everything is neatly tied up in the end, without any loose ends dangling, which was nice; everything finally comes full-circle, and everything ultimately gets explained.  Overall, I think this was a great book, and a very easy read despite its length.  I'd definitely read others by this author, though they might be some time in coming since it seems like this is her first novel.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Last Good Paradise - Tatjana Soli

21853659This has a fairly low rating on Goodreads, considering that I pulled it from the "Popular Reads" section of the library, and for the longest time I couldn't figure out why.  It seemed like it was going to be a really good study of character.  The story starts with Anne, a lawyer who aspires to be a "shark," and her chef husband Richard, who flee the country after Richard's business partner (and Anne's former lover) Javi embezzles money from their restaurant and lands all of them in a pot of trouble.  They grab the money they have left and head for a tiny resort in the South Pacific, somewhere near Tahiti.  Anne picks the place because it's completely unplugged--no phones, no internet, nothing.  While one of Anne's lawyer friends tries to straighten things out back in the US, Anne and Richard dissolve into island life along with the island's other occupants--guests Dex Cooper (occupation: rockstar) and Wende (occupation: muse) along with the staff (owner Loren, and multifuctional staffers/lovers Titi and Cooked).
For a while, this seemed like it was going to be an exploration of character and relationships, a novel that didn't really have a strong central "plot" so much as strong central "people," and that was fine with me.  The setting was wonderful, and I thought Soli did an excellent job of building the relationships and lack thereof among the characters, orchestrating a well-wrought drama that didn't need a lot of external plot influences in order to propel it forward and keep my interest.  And then...that all changed.  It's like Soli wrote half the book, and then saw a documentary about the affects of nuclear testing on the South Pacific and was so compelled by it that she felt a need to make it an intrinsic part of her narrative.  The book suddenly winged from slowly-built drama and character to talk of terrorists and staged kidnappings.  It just doesn't seem to fit.  The characters all abruptly find a sense of a purpose in a way that is completely disconnected from how the book seemed to be going before.  And then, after a bunch of what can be considered melodrama, it goes back to the way it was before--all serene and subtle and wonderfully written.  The switch of direction was jarring, and didn't seem to be particularly well done.  It had me gaping at the page in complete disbelief, because it felt like a different book entirely.
For the most part, I liked this.  The writing was very matter-of-fact, a style that I think lends itself well to character-driven works and works written with an omniscent point of view.  But, as mentioned before, the sudden switch in narrative left me jarred out of the story and altogether discontented with it until it resumed its original tone toward the end.  I was satisfied with the ending, other than one character's end scene which tended toward the purple end of the writing spectrum.  Because of that weird middle bit (I feel like it probably should have been worked into a different book entirely, instead of smashed into this one; the premise wasn't bad, but the execution and placement really was) I can't really endorse this whole-heartedly, and I can see why it has such a low Goodreads rating.  It was bound for 4 to 4.5 stars, but as it is, I feel like I can't give it that high of a rating.  I'd probably read something else from Soli, but I feel like I'd have to scrutinize the reviews on it first, to make sure that this disconnection in the middle isn't a recurring theme.

Oh, and there's a reference to Portal.
3 to 3.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Where'd You Go, Bernadette - Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere'd You Go Bernadette[?] is a novel about disappearing.  Everyone in this book is disappearing, and they're all absolutely crazy.  The titular Bernadette Fox, once a famous architect, has vanished from the architectural scene and is slowly being subsumed into soccer mom life (except her daughter, Bee, doesn't play soccer, but it amounts to the same thing, really).  But she's also disappearing from that, having a virtual assistant in India run all of her errands for her so she doesn't have to interact with other people, and then she up and disappears entirely, with no one knowing where she went or what happened to her.  Meanwhile, her husband disappears from their family and into his work, and the supporting characters (known almost entirely through documents they produce) are losing themselves in various ways, too.  Everyone in the book is falling to pieces in pretty much every way imaginable, and Semple does a beautiful job of showing how they're all collapsing on the inside but showing completely different faces to the world around them, making them seem far more composed and in control than they actually are.  Even teenaged Bee, who seems the most together of all of them, is slowly dissolving and un-becoming, disappearing into a completely different Bee as she starts the search for her lost mother.

This is, also, a supremely funny book.  There were multiple occasions when I found myself gasping or giggling out loud at some antic.  Who'd have thought that blackberry brambles could be so funny?  I didn't, and yet they were.  (The blackberry brambles, such an innocuous object, are still one of the cornerstones of this story; hardly any of it would have happened without--or, perhaps more accurately, with--them.)  A lot of this is due to how the book is set up.  The majority of it is a series of documents produced by the characters: emails to and about each other, newsletters sent out to the parents of Bee's school, stuff like that.  Normally I'm not a fan of document-based books, because they tend to be exhausting to read, but this one was extremely engaging.  Despite the characters not being "present" on the page, they were all easily distinguishable and knowable.  The documents trace Bernadette's difficulties coping with life in Seattle, which she tries to avoid by throwing herself into preparations for a cruise to Antarctica--which she simultaneously tries to avoid.  While Bernadette isn't actually "losing it," it looks to many people like she is, and things draw to a head and culminate in her vanishing.  After this point, there are some more documents regarding Bernadette's husband and the other people mixed up in the mess.  Then the book switches, and Bee begins narrating, telling about her search for Bernadette when everyone else has given up.

I also liked how mental health was treated in this narrative.  Bernadette has anxiety regarding some things, but she's not "crazy."  She's not even really agoraphobic, though the back of the book says she is; she does leave the house, routinely, for various things without any crippling anxiety.  She can cope with things and do them herself; she just prefers not to.  However, as she trusts more and more of her life to other people, particularly the Indian virtual assistant mentioned before, people begin to think she's mentally unwell, particularly the mothers of Bee's classmates, who frown upon Bernadette's decisions and lifestyle in general.  This was a wonderful example of how someone who's different--not bad, just different--can be completely stigmatized in an area beyond high school.  Mothers and other parents can be just as vicious as kids in this regard, and the book shows it well--as well as showing Bernadette being vicious right back.  Bernadette doesn't vanish because she's driven to the edge; she vanishes because other people think she has been, and she wants to show that they're wrong.  It's a great example of how people's preconceptions can cause utter chaos when really nothing is the way it was thought to be.

There were a few things that had me raising an eyebrow throughout this (particularly how easy it apparently is to escape from an Antarctic cruise ship, for multiple people) but in general I thought Semple did an extremely good job with how she structured the book; like all books, it requires suspension of disbelief, but once it gets going, everything fits so logically together that it's not a challenge to buy the narrative as a whole.  I pretty much read this in one sitting, and enjoyed every minute of it.

4.5 stars out of 5.