Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Musician's Daughter

The Musician's Daughter
Author: Susanne Dunlap
Bloomsbury USA Children's Books, 2008
336 pages

This gem of a mystery is set in eighteenth century Vienna. Theresa Maria is the teenage daughter of a violinist who works for composer Josef Haydn. When her father is mysteriously murdered on Christmas Eve, Theresa Maria does all she can to keep the family together. She takes a job as copyist for Herr Haydn, while conducting her own investigation into her father's murder. Along the way she will meet people who defy stereotypes, and others who perpetuate them. In the end, she will have her answers, but she will also have an education about people, politics, and what it means to stand for something you believe in.

Theresa Maria is a strong female in an era that was not particularly kind to females. (It wasn't lost on me that she was a namesake of Empress Maria Theresa, another strong female.) Other interesting characters in the book included a rather nasty and lewd uncle, a handsome Hungarian musician, a sympathetic and very admirable Haydn, and a band of Gypsies - a group of Roma people living on the outskirts of Vienna. 

Living in Vienna this year really helped me mentally navigate my way through the places mentioned in the book, like the Hofburg, the Danube River, and the Prater. I found myself feeling a little "homesick" for Vienna. The only thing missing was a good Vienna coffee shop - but the time had not quite come yet for that institution.

Unlike the other book I reviewed today, The Musician's Daughter got the Aunt Mariandy Seal of Approval for my niece, and I left it on the nightstand of the room we share at Gramps and Granny's house so she'll find it next time she visits.

Rating: 4.25 stars - an overall good read with some nailbiting moments.

Betwixt

Betwixt
Author: Tara Bray Smith
512 pages
Poppy, 2009

I bought several Young Adult books when I was in North Carolina last week, hoping to pass them along to my niece after I read them. This book promised appeal to fans of the Twilight series, and it had an interesting cover, so I bought it. However, after reading it: 1) I don't think it should be classified as a Young Adult book; and 2) I can't recommend it. Which is sad, because there are many things the author does right. Her three main characters reflect diversity - I especially loved that she had a Native American character. The story itself is quite interesting (three teens realize they have "special gifts"). But it's obviously set up to be yet another trilogy or series, and Twilight it ain't.

There are way too many boring parts where nothing much is going on. The adults in the book don't seem to care about their children. There's way too much darkness for a YA book. The "F" bomb, and references to drugs and sex are common. There is even a bondage and rape scene that seems to go on forever. How this came to be classified as a YA book, I'm not sure. 

I cannot believe I spent time reading this book. I must have been thinking that eventually it would get better. I guess this is what happens when you choose a book for its cover.

Rating: 2 stars.

If I'd read the reviews on Amazon.com, I wouldn't have bothered with this one. 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Random House, 2003
403 pages

Jane Austen meets the Supernatural in this Victorian-era “Young Adult” nail-biter. Sixteen-year-old Gemma, the daughter of British expats living in India, is longing to visit her home country. For some reason, her mother doesn’t want her to go. This only brings out Gemma’s rebellious nature. Suddenly, her mother is killed under mysterious circumstances just after Gemma experiences the first of many frightening “visions.”

Gemma finds herself getting her wish: she’s placed in the Spence Academy, an English boarding school. There, she goes through trials and tribulations of being the new girl: dealing with cliques, bullies, and adult authority figures while continuing to experience her “visions.” The goal of Spence is not so much to educate girls but to transform them into society wives and mothers. Gemma connects with three other girls: beautiful Pippa, who’s about to be married off to a man older than her father; contrite Felicity, whose thirst for power seeks to fill a gap left by absent parents; and Ann, the poor orphan who is at Spence on scholarship and knows that in the future she’ll be no more than a servant to the girls who are now her peers. Together the girls enter into a pact that has long-lasting (for some, eternal) consequences, and along the way they learn what really happened to Gemma’s mother.

A Great and Terrible Beauty provides strong female characters while also commenting on the social order of the Victorian era, a time when keeping up appearances was more important than truth and substance. I don’t think my niece is quite old enough to appreciate this book (it’s probably better for readers 16 and older), but I did, and I already bought the next book in the series – Rebel Angels

Rating: 4.25 stars.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Scholastic Press, 2008
374 pages

I was browsing Stephenie Meyer's website a while back, when I noticed she was recommending this book as being one of the best she'd read in a while. I filed that away for later. "Later" came last week, when I had a Borders coupon that was burning a hole in my wallet. I bought The Hunger Games with the intention of giving it to my niece after reading it. This is the excuse I use for all the Young Adult fiction that I read - which probably seems like a lot. :-) 

The setting is post-apocalyptic North America, and sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the main character and narrator, lives in District 12 in what used to be Appalachia (sounds like West Virginia or eastern Kentucky based on her descriptions.) Truthfully, her life kind of sucks. Her Dad died in a coal mining explosion a few years ago, and her Mom hasn't been the same since. Katniss took over the role of family breadwinner by illegally hunting in the woods outside the fence that surrounds their community. Despite numerous obstacles, she's made a life for herself and her small family, which also consists of her 12-year-old sister, Prim. 

Prim is the complete opposite of Katniss: she's a fragile girl, not a survivor at all. So when Prim's name is drawn for the annual Hunger Games (think Olympics, but fighting to the death), Katniss volunteers to take her place. The winner and his or her family will never go hungry again. This is Katniss' story as she completes in this event, which is so huge that citizens of Panem (the name of their country) are forced to watch as the teenage contestants scheme, plot, and kill each other off. It's the ultimate reality TV show.

The Hunger Games is not as violent as you might think, and there's way more to the story than gruesomeness. In a lot of ways this is more of a book for adults, in the vein of "V for Vendetta" (the movie) in that there's an underlying current of rebellion and what the government does to people who rebel. I would not want to live in this dark, ugly world. But that's the whole point and the thing I most like about Katniss: she makes the best of one bad situation after another. That's what makes her a true survivor. We can learn a lot from her and from The Hunger Games.

Rating: 4.5 stars - way, way better than I thought possible.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Coldest Winter Ever

The Coldest Winter Ever
Author: Sister Souljah
Pocket Star Books, 2006 (originally published 1999)
430 pages, plus 100+ pages of commentary

A couple of weeks ago while ordering coffee, I noticed that the barista was reading a new hardcover book by Sister Souljah and we got to talking about it. The barista was very enthusiastic about the new book (Midnight) because it was supposed to be the sequel to one of her favorite books of all time, The Coldest Winter Ever. Meanwhile, when I visited the library last weekend, I happened to see three brand-new paperback copies of The Coldest Winter Ever on the new arrivals shelf. I picked one up out of curiosity . . . and was immediately transported to the raw, urban world of Winter Santiaga.

Winter, so named because she was born in the middle of a January storm, is the oldest of four girls. Her father is a big-time drug dealer in Brooklyn and her mother, who was 14 when Winter was born, is a self-described "bad b*tch" whose primary focus is on looking good and spending money. The Santiaga family includes Winter's younger sisters - Porsche, Mercedes, and Lexus - and an extended circle of aunts, uncles, cousins, and others, most who have some role in the "family business." Winter's father is the clear leader, however, so she (and her mother and sisters) are treated like royalty by everyone in their community.

We follow Winter's life from the ages of thirteen to twenty-five in this book. She really is a spoiled princess, used to wearing expensive designer clothing and having everything she wants. Despite the type of work her father does, he is a very loving father and husband. So this is one thing I have to say I like about the book: it may have some stereotypical characters, but they do not always behave in the stereotypical manner. 

One day, quite out of the blue, Winter's father moves them to a new home - a mansion in the Long Island suburbs - and tells them under no circumstances to go back to Brooklyn. At first, Winter hates her new life and misses her friends and the city. She feels like a prisoner. But she soon gets used to the luxuries of affluent suburban living. Cash is everywhere and the family spends generously on cars, jewelry, furnishings for the house, and lavish parties. On weekends they "import" their family and friends from Brooklyn and it's like nothing has changed.

Suddenly, everything goes wrong. Winter's mother is shot in the face during a visit to Brooklyn. The disfigurement of this once-beautiful woman is the first in a series of really bad things that happen to her - and to the rest of the family. Winter's father is arrested, and everything the family "owns" is seized by the government. All those family members and "friends" who used to be so supportive scatter to the four winds. Winter's sisters are taken by Child Protective Services, and since she is underage (seventeen by now), they're looking for her, too. So Winter goes on the lam, fighting for survival.

Winter is physically attractive, and has no difficulty getting attention. Sexually active since the age of twelve, she has no inhibitions whatsoever and sees sex as one of the most powerful tools a woman possesses. (She has a lot of partners and speaks openly about her feelings and experiences, so if you don't like reading this type of stuff, you might not want to read this book.)

There is one man she cannot charm with her feminine wiles. His name is Midnight - a mysterious soldier in her father's army (and the main character in the recently-released book of the same name.) Try as she may, Winter cannot manipulate this man - he's not like any man she's ever met. For one thing, Midnight is fascinated by Sister Souljah (interesting that the author placed herself as a character in the book) and often listens to her on talk radio. Eventually Winter will meet up with Sister Souljah and even attend a few of her "Womanhood" meetings. But will they do any good? Will Winter get herself together, or is she destined for a life of crime and suffering? 

You will just have to read it to find out. The commentary at the end gives further insight into the characters and provides "the story behind the story" from the author's perspective. So be sure to get the 2006 version if you want to read that.

By the way, after finishing The Coldest Winter Ever, I got on Amazon.com to read the reviews of Midnight. Those reviews are mixed. It seems as if Midnight is not the sequel some people were expecting. Instead, it's more of a prequel, and Midnight is the only character in both books. Many readers are disappointed about this. Still, I think Midnight sounds interesting, so I will have to put it on my list of future reads.

Rating: 3.5 stars. 

Monday, December 15, 2008

Darkfever

Darkfever
Author: Karen Marie Moning
Bantam Dell, 2006
348 pages

This first-of-a-trilogy (so far) by an Indiana author who typically writes "Highlander Romance" novels is more of the Paranormal Romance (what a friend of mine calls Monster Porn - LOL) genre. It was recommended by another friend who enjoyed the Twilight series so much she read all four of those books in a couple of weeks. We're all looking for something, anything, to give us our fix now. (I still haven't read the fourth Twilight book because I just don't want it to end. But I'll have to read it soon b/c everyone else is passing me by.)

OK. Back to Darkfever. The main character is a 22 year-old bartender and Southern Belle named MacKayla Lane. (I'll just accept that instead of complaining about the horrible spelling of the name that should be spelled Michaela. I hate modern phonetic spellings.) Fortunately, everyone calls her Mac. She's a spoiled brat who's been given everything on a silver platter - well, that's my perception. But that was before she and her parents found out that Mac's older sister, Alina, had been murdered while studying in Dublin, Ireland.

Turns out, Alina tried to call Mac's cell phone on the day she died, but Mac had just dropped the cell phone in the swimming pool, so she didn't get the call until sometime later when she replaced her phone. Alina's frightened, cryptic message prompts Mac to high-tail it to Ireland to solve the murder, since Dublin's Finest can't seem to figure it out. Mac, in her pink cropped pants, silver sandals, long blonde ponytail and I'm-Not-Really-a- Waitress nail polish, almost immediately begins encountering the strange. A crazy woman approaches her in a pub and calls her an O'Connor, which makes no sense to Mac since she's a Lane. While walking back to her inn, Mac gets lost and passes through a strange, dead part of town. By a strange twist of fate she lands at an incredibly well-lit bookstore, and there she meets Jericho Barrons, the mystery man who will become her mentor when it becomes clear that she is a sidhe-seer ("SHE-seer"), or one who sees the Fae (fairies.)

There are some evil fairies out there - and some who are just, well, interesting - like V'Lane, the Prince of the Seelies (Light Fairies), who has this, well, interesting affect on women. (I imagine him as looking sort of like Fabio back in the 1980s, and having that magnetic throw-your-panties-on-the-stage affect that Tom Jones had in the 1960s. Or so I was told.) Mac begins learning her way around this new paranormal world. Along the way she solves the mystery of her sister's murder, but gets deeper into her new role. The "old" Mac transitions into a warrior - the symbolic cutting of her hair (and dying it black) and wearing all-black clothes instead of her previously-preferred pastels and bright colors. Look out, she's becoming a serious Goth Chick! Yet the old woman (whom she will see again) insists that she is an O'Connor and not a Lane. Mac begins to question her parentage, and Alina's.

The cliffhanger in this book is so tight that you really want to pick up the next book right away, without a break. 

Rating: 4 stars - OK, so I'm kind of embarrassed to give it 4 stars, but the truth is, I liked it, this is my blog, and I calls 'em like I sees 'em.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Authors: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Dial Press, 2008
278 pages

This is not a title that would typically appeal to me, yet it called to me like a siren. It was highly recommended at all three of the major online bookstores whose web sites I visit regularly, and it has high user ratings. So, in the interest of pop culture, I bought and read it. I was so not disappointed.

This epistolary novel is presented as a series of letters to and from Juliet Ashton, a writer looking for her next book topic in post-World War II England. Out of the blue she receives a letter from a farmer in Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands between England and France) who has somehow come across a book Juliet once owned. In his letter he mentions his membership in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Juliet's curiosity is arouses, and they begin a correspondence which eventually leads Juliet to visit the island.

Not many people realize that a part of Britain flew under the Nazi flag during the War, but it's true. The Germans occupied Guernsey for nearly five years. From here, bombers took off to conduct raids over London (Juliet remembers the bombing raids well. In fact, her flat was destroyed by a bomb.) The people of the island had virtually no communication with the outside world during this time. They were told that London had been bombed to ashes, and there was a great deal of additional sadness brought about by the fact that many islanders had sent their children to England as a preventive measure in advance of the Germans' arrival, and were unable to contact them. For five years, they had no idea if they were dead or alive (the children or the parents).

The German Organisation Todt used slave labor to construct fortifications along the islands. The laborers - mostly from Eastern Europe - worked under horrible conditions and were given very little if any food, so they often strayed away from the camps in search of something, anything to eat. If locals aided them, they were arrested and sent away to concentration camps on the continent.

So along with a good story, you also get a history lesson in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The book is absolutely alive with interesting characters, from Isola, the local "witch" who sees everything as black or white, to Booker, the former servant who by fate, became a master. Everyone in the book has a story. But perhaps the most interesting stories are those of the people who are not there to tell them: fiesty Elizabeth, mother of young Kit; and Christian, the German officer who was respected by the locals because he did not treat them like enemies. Their stories are told secondhand by the people who knew them.

You'll laugh a lot while reading this book. But keep the tissues nearby, because there will be several opportunities for tears. Save a tissue for the author (Shaffer) who became ill not long after she got the publishing contract and unfortunately did not live to see the book's publication and success. Sad.

Rating: 4.5 stars. Giving it a little extra for originality - and because I learned something new about WWII history.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Bootlegger's Daughter

The Bootlegger's Daughter
Author: Margaret Maron
Warner Books/Hatchette Book Group USA, 1992
261 pages

Sometimes you just need something "light" to read. (I may be about to go through a "light reading" phase to balance an otherwise complicated life, so bear with me if you start to see more of these types of books.)

I had been seeking a mystery series set in the South, and came across this one (set in my home state of North Carolina) at my local B&N. According to its cover, The Bootlegger's Daughter won several awards in its day, including the Edgar Award and the Agatha Award (both awards for mysteries). The first few pages are filled with excerpts of praise from critics and other writers - including some well-known authors. So my expectations were pretty high for a $6.99 trade paperback.

The main character, Deborah Knott, is a thirtysomething lawyer who, tired of courtroom b.s., decides to run for a judgeship. Meanwhile, the eighteen year-old daughter of her law firm partner wants her to solve a mystery. When the girl was a baby, she and her mother had disappeared and after three days her mother was found dead, while she was found strapped in a baby seat just feet away, dehydrated and near death. Who killed the girl's mother? The girl, now a young woman, wants to know.

As the mystery unravels, a series of letters to the editor apparently written by Deb appears in local papers. Only she didn't write them. Is someone trying to sabotage her campaign, or keep her from solving the mystery? Suddenly - two other murders. Are they related? What do they have to do with the murder 18 years ago?

The Bootlegger's Daughter is predictable and formulaic, but interesting to me as a native Tar Heel because I recognized the names of some North Carolina politicians: Jim Hunt (former Governor), Harvey Gantt (former mayor of Charlotte), Thad Eure (the late longtime Secretary of State) and Mike Easley (Senator) to name a few.  My favorite character, by far, was Deb's father, Keziah - the one-time bootlegger. In the book-turned-movie in my mind, he was played by Paul Newman. 

Did the book meet my expectations? I'm not sure. I liked it well enough, and it certainly provided me with the light reading I needed. But it wasn't great.

Rating: 2.75 stars

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Heaven and Hell

Heaven and Hell
Author: Don Felder (with Wendy Holden)
John Wiley & Sons, 2008
332 pages

One day back in 1978 or so, my cousin Gordon was home on leave from the Navy. He had recently bought some new Bose speakers for his stereo that were the size of small refrigerators. I dropped by his house not long after he hooked them up. He tested them with "Hotel California", which he said was the most amazing song ever recorded.

Right then and there, I became a fan of The Eagles, and especially of the person who was responsible for this music. That person was Don Felder, and Heaven and Hell is his book.

Subtitled My Life in The Eagles (1975-2001), this is an autobiography of the man who was always my favorite Eagle. Felder shares tales of his upbringing in Florida as the child of a working class family, his rise to fame and fortune as a member of one of the most well-known bands in the world, and his dismissal and the resulting lawsuit for wrongful termination from the band. As a fan I ate this up. Felder has always been the "enigmatic Eagle" about whom little was known. In this book, he tells all.

I remember when hell froze over and The Eagles got back together in the mid-1990s. Don Felder impressed me so much in the Hell Freezes Over concert video with the acoustic version of "Hotel California" not just with his amazing talent, but also because he seemed so real, and like he was really enjoying himself. He looked like an ordinary kind of guy in his faded jeans and flannel shirt - not like a Rock god at all. And I suppose that is one of the endearing things about Felder. He could be your brother, or cousin, or neighbor down the street. But he is a heck of a guitar player.

He tells some funny stories about growing up in Gainesville, Florida. One in particular that had me chuckling was his explanation of why he didn't become a Baptist. His mother was Baptist, and took him to that church on a regular basis. At some point his mother pressured him to get baptized. He was going to go through with it, until he witnessed the baptism of a rather large woman. It seemed to young Don that the preacher held the woman under water just a little too long - or maybe he couldn't hold her - and she struggled as if she were drowning. Don decided the Methodist church across the street was more to his liking, since immersion baptism was not a requirement there.

Of course, there are some not-so-funny stories, especially those dealing with drugs, sex, and other aspects of rock and roll that those of us who are old enough to remember the 1970s have heard before. Only these have names attached. Felder was no saint, but he takes responsibility for his actions.

I learned a lot about The Eagles, as a band and as individual members. There were actually seven Eagles. The originals were Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley. Felder was asked to join the band while they were recording the On The Border album in 1974. Leadon and Meisner left the band and were replaced by Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmidt.

Random interesting things I learned about Felder from the book: 1) he knew Stephen Stills, Bernie Leadon, and Tom Petty when they were teenagers, 2) he's a licensed airplane pilot, 3) he's very tech savvy, surfs the internet, etc., 4) he's a licensed realtor, and 5) he married his high school sweetheart, and they were together for 29 years. 

If you're at all interested in Felder, The Eagles, rock and roll history, or are just looking for a good autobiography, I recommend this. It took me back in time and I wound up purchasing Hotel California on a fourth format. Previously, I had the album, the 8 track tape, and the CD. Now I have the iTunes version. And it really does sound good on Bose speakers - even the tiny iPod docking station type. :-)

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Secret River

The Secret River
Author: Kate Grenville
Text Publishing, 2005
334 pages

When I was in Sydney last month, I did a search on Amazon.com for books about Australia and came across this book. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (a very important prize for contemporary fiction written by authors from the British Commonwealth and Ireland), this story is about a young Englishman who through a sad series of events ends up on a convict ship sent to Australia back in 1806. William Thornhill is the epitome of survivor, and Grenville's descriptions of his ups and downs leave you feeling like you've ridden on a rollercoaster. Despite his human shortcomings, Thornhill is a likeable fellow, which makes it that much harder to get angry with him when he does stupid things.

His wife, Sarah or "Sal", is one of the most interesting female characters I've encountered this year. She's a saucy gal who grew up wealthy compared to dirt-poor Thornhill, and they fell in love at an early age. Thornhill was an apprentice to her father, who owned a sort of water taxi service in London. Things seem to be looking up when Thornhill gets accepted by the local guild as a true apprentice. But when Sal's father dies unexpectedly, their world falls apart.

Grenville's descriptions of their hunger will leave your stomach growling. It almost seems a relief when Thornhill ends up in jail - until you read about the horrible jail conditions of that time. When Thornhill is sent to Australia as a convict (his death sentence for theft was commuted in exchange for his transport), she becomes his legal "master" for a certain number of years. The humor between them is nothing sort of sweet. They are as close to soul mates as any other fictional characters I've read about, maybe even more than Bella and Edward!

Eventually, their ever-growing family ends up taking a chance homesteading on a hundred-acre plot two hours by boat from the nearest town. Here, they begin eking out a living as farmers, supplemented with Thornhill's boat, which he borrowed money to purchase. Their hard lives are complicated by the local natives (Aboriginal people) whose lifestyles are very different from the Europeans. While the Thornhills are busting it everyday to run the farm, they see the natives just living day to day without much effort. They don't understand this lifestyle any more than the natives understand theirs. Eventually the tensions escalate . . . until one day, Thornhill has to make a decision as to who will survive.

The ending may not be happy (for the natives), but it's based on historical records of similar events that happened at that time. Grenville supposedly got the idea for the book and characters based on her research into her own ancestry.  Given that an estimated 20 million Australians living today descended from convicts, this story or stories like it are probably not all that unusual. 

I came away with an increased appreciation of what my own ancestors went through during times of hardship (which was basically all of history up until, say, my parents' generation). And I'm even more aware now of what a miracle it is that any of us are here.

Rating: 4 stars.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Teach Yourself Thrifty Living

Teach Yourself Thrifty Living
Author: Barty Phillips
Bookpoint (McGraw-Hill), 2007
213 pages

I'm lucky to live in a city that has a very good public library system and my neighborhood has an an awesome library. I like the feature on IMCPL's web site that lets you search and reserve books online.  An email tells me when my books are in, and I just stop by my branch and pick 'em up. But sometimes, I like to take my time and browse the shelves. This is how I found Thrifty Living a few weeks ago.

This is not normally my kind of book, but in these uncertain economic times, hey, anything helps. Thrifty Living has plenty of useful tips. It's written by an author from the United Kingdom and is thus peppered with unusual (to this North American reader) words and phrases. Here are some examples:

Example 1
Don't get hooked on lotteries. If you fancy the odd flutter, decide how much you are willing to spend . . . and don't go over that amount

Example 2
Life insurance only benefits those who come after you but may be mandatory if you have a mortgage. 

Thrifty Living has sections on shopping rights, saving money on food and home energy costs, and the fine art of haggling -- just to name a few. Each section has tips and a test. The test questions are actually quite useful. Samples: (1) How can you prevent moth damage to clothes and household linen?; (2) Name five things you should not put on a compost heap;  (3) Name five items you should avoid buying in supermarkets. And my favorite: (4) What should you do with a bottle of undrunk wine? [My response: Why, drink it, of course!]

I laughed out loud a lot - which is probably what the author intended, since this can be a difficult topic - but I actually did learn several tips. One thing I'm going to do as a result of reading Thrifty Living is buy a wrap for our hot water heater. According to Thrifty Living, if you dress your hot water heater in an insulated jacket you can save quite a bit on your heating bill.

My favorite tip? Borrow books from the library instead of buying them. Sounds good to me . . . that is, until I get the urge to roam Borders or B&N.

Rating: 3.75 stars for the useful information plus laughs and smiles.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Host

The Host
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, 2008
619 pages

Despite the fact that I'm a big fan of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, I was really skeptical about The Host. Why? First, because it was billed as Meyer's first book for "adults." (It reminded me of when famous children's writer Judy Blume published her first book for adults -- disaster.) But also because of the subject matter: The Host is about a sort of parasitic alien species who invades Earth and forcibly takes over the minds and bodies of humans. Does that sound interesting to you? It didn't to me.

But Stephenie hasn't failed me yet, and once I got past the first couple of chapters and realized what was going on, I got totally into the story.

Melanie is the host - the young human who gets "implanted" with Wanderer, the alien so named because she has lived with other hosts on several other different planets. Usually when the alien enters the host, only the body of the host remains. But Melanie won't go away. She gets into Wanderer's head. Wanderer finds herself unable to resist Melanie's memories, and she is compelled to go off in search of the still-human Jared and Jamie, two of Melanie's loved ones. 

Off they go into the desert. Behind them is a Seeker (the aliens are all known by their professions, and Seekers are kind of like police who look for the remaining humans). This Seeker is really mean, which is unusual because as we are to learn, the aliens are a peace-loving, conflict-avoiding species. Melanie/Wanderer eventually find Jared and Jamie living in a cave system in the middle of nowhere with some thirty other humans. At first, the humans are not happy to see Melanie/Wanderer, and she is imprisoned. Eventually, she will prove herself not harmful. As her relationships improve with the humans, they also improve with Melanie and the two become very close. But will the Seeker find them, and if so, what will happen to them all?

This is a story of the conqueror and the conquered, of survival and human emotions, and of forgiveness and redemption. It's a love story, and a story about love. It's hard to know how else to describe it. Often as I was reading it, I had to put the book aside and just think for a while. There's a lot of philosophy in this book. 

So as weird as the plot may sound, I have to highly recommend this book. Put it on your list.

Rating: 4.5 stars. 

By the way, I bought the paperback version of The Host in Seoul. I also saw the paperback version in Vienna and Sydney. Why does the rest of the world get paperbacks before we do in the USA? Personally I prefer them over hardbacks, and not just for the price.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles

Korea: A Walk Through The Land of Miracles
Author: Simon Winchester
Harper Perennial, 2004 (originally published in 1988)
282 pages

I bought this book at Bandi and Luni's Bookstore in Seoul, thinking (by the appealing cover and subtitle) that I'd stumbled upon something really good. Simon Winchester has written lots of books, with several of them (The Professor and the Madman, Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World) appearing on bestseller lists and receiving high praise. So I was let down hard when this book didn't meet my expectations.

The author went on a walking journey of South Korea - from tourist haven Cheju Island to Panmunjom up by the DMZ and border with North Korea - in the late 1980s. Along the way he met some really weird people - most of them not even Korean but American or Irish or British. The American soldiers were a rough and rowdy bunch who all seemed to be sex maniacs. The other foreigners seemed slightly mad and/or alcoholic. His portrayal of the Koreans he met seemed to be just as stereotypical.

The only part about the book I liked (if "liked" is the right word) was the very first part, which was a chapter providing some historical perspective and background.

I was so disappointed, I couldn't read it all. Too bad, because having been to Korea I was really interested in reading a good book about it.

Rating: 2 stars, and that's being generous.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Author: John Boyne
David Fickling Books, 2006
215 pages

This is not a book I would have selected to read on my own, but it was highly recommended by one of my Vienna colleagues who hasn't done me wrong yet, so I picked it up in the young adult section of B&N recently and dropped it in the suitcase for the Asia trip. I started reading it last night but only read a few chapters before getting too drowsy. At 2:30 this morning, jet lag kicked in, and I was wide awake, so I started reading again and didn't stop until I was done (only about an hour and half later.)

It's about Bruno, the nine-year old son of an upwardly mobile military father during early 1940s Germany. Bruno seems to be a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow until the day he learns that his family is leaving their nice Berlin home for a place faraway due to his father's promotion. He calls this place Out-With, and he calls his father's boss the Fury. So it's not too difficult to figure out that Bruno's father is a Nazi, and the family is moving to Auschwitz.

Bruno hates his new home. It's boring. He misses his friends and the action back in Berlin, and he doesn't find a comrade in his older sister. One day while looking out the window, he notices some people wearing "striped pajamas" and slowly, he enters their forbidden world. From his innocent perspective we go on a bittersweet philosophical journey, meeting interesting people such as Pavel, the doctor who now serves dinner for Bruno's family, and Schmiel, the young boy (and character in the book's title) with whom Bruno strikes up a forbidden friendship.

To tell you more than this would surely be wrong. Don't be fooled, though - this isn't necessarily a book just for kids. A movie version is expected soon. I just hope it's done right.

Rating: 4 stars for the writing, but 5 stars for the message.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Heretic's Daughter

The Heretic's Daughter
Author: Kathleen Kent
Little, Brown and Company, 2008
331 pages

The Heretic's Daughter is fiction, but first-time novelist Kent is an actual descendent of Martha Carrier, one of the many people accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of 1692. Martha wasn't the first person accused, but she was the first person who stood up to her accusers. This is Martha's story told through the eyes of her daughter, Sarah.

I don't know about you, but I've always asked myself how people could have been so stupid to believe the antics of the girls who started the witch hunts. I've probably been swayed by watching too many bad dramatic versions of this story. But you know, there is always background information that we might not have that can help us understand why people behave the way they do. In this case, the people of Massachusetts (and the rest of New England) had just been through an outbreak of the plague that had killed hundreds of friends and relatives, and increasing violence between the settlers and Native Americans had people on edge. It was a bad time in general, and an especially bad time to be a woman who thought or behaved differently.

The story begins in the winter of 1690. The Carrier family has fled their home in another town for Andover to live with Martha's mother until the plague threat dissipates. Unknowingly and unintentionally, they bring the plague to Andover, and thirteen people (including Grandma) die. This begins a chain of events that will create great sorrow for the Carrier family.

Martha Carrier is at first portrayed as a cold sort of woman who has little interest in nurturing her children. She doesn't conform to the expectations of their "Puritan" society, which creates disorder in the family and community. Despite these shortcomings, Martha really is the backbone of the family and Sarah will eventually come to understand that perception is not always reality.

Sarah's father is also a nonconformist - and isolationist. A Welshman of large stature, he has a mysterious past and for the most part just wants to be left alone with his family. Sarah is perplexed that people in the community seem to fear him, yet from her perspective he avoids conflict and never stands up for his wife and children when they need it. The plot thickens as this subplot unravels.

Sarah - the heretic's daughter - experiences more pain and sorrow between the ages of 9 and 12 than most people experience in a lifetime. She blames herself for more than she should. And when her mother asks her to do something she's never asked her to do before - lie - she's not sure she can. Her journey will take her to prison - not a modern prison but a dark, danky, lice-filled cell where people are basically living on top of each other in human misery. Many of The Heretic's Daughter's characters are based on real people and situations, and Kent has translated her research well to fiction: At least one woman gave birth in prison, only to watch the baby die and then die herself. Children were accused and imprisoned, too. A four-year old girl was convicted of witchcraft and the judges actually struggled over whether to give her the death penalty.

There are many other interesting characters in the book, such as Sarah's favorite cousin, Margaret, who has visions; Margaret's likeable yet tragic father, the man whom Sarah simply calls "Uncle"; and Mercy Williams, the older teen just ransomed from Native Americans after a violent kidnapping years before.

The story is fascinating (it is historical fiction, after all!) The writing is tight, some of the best I've ever read from a first-time novelist. I read it in one sitting -- literally! -- on the plane from Chicago to Tokyo yesterday/today. Highly, highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cannery Row

Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Penguin Classics, 1994 (originally published 1945)
181 pages

I was in Monterey, California last week for the very first time, and was charmed by the quaint city and its surroundings. Although I didn't actually go to Cannery Row the place, I saw it from the bay one morning from the whalewatching cruise boat. It's changed a lot since the days John Steinbeck lived in the area, but I'm sure there were some things, such as the smell of the salty sea air, that were the same when he was there.

I read more than my share of Steinbeck in high school (The Pearl, Of Mice and Men), college (The Grapes of Wrath), and just for fun (East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent), but I could not remember reading Cannery Row. So when we visited the San Francisco Bay area after the trip to the Monterey Peninsula, I asked my friend "Q" if we could pop by B&N. I mean, if I wanted to read Cannery Row, I might as well start reading the book in California, right? Yeah. 

So I started reading it on the flight from San Jose to Chicago, and it went quickly. In fact, when we landed at O'Hare, I only had about 20 pages left (which I breezed through on the quick flight from Chicago to Indy.)

The setting is not so much Cannery Row but its surroundings. Back in the 1920s-1930s, Monterey was a major producer of sardines which came out of the bay (or from the area). Cannery Row was the name of the part of town where the sardines were canned. Several canning companies had factories there. It was hard, nasty work. Monterey was also home to a couple of military facilities (Army and Navy still have a presence there today) and it was/is also a port city, so it was not uncommon to see sailors roaming about the town. It must have been a happening kind of place.

In the preface to the book Cannery Row, the Steinbeck scholar-author writes that a British review of the book after it's original publication described it as (I'm paraphrasing) a book about nothing. I can understand why. The book does ramble a lot, and it's more about people and characterizations (Steinbeck's strength, IMHO) than it is about plot. There is a plot - sort of. And there are certainly lots of disasters. Some of them funny, others sad.

The characters in Cannery Row were based on stereotypes of real people that Steinbeck interacted with in his daily life there on the peninsula: Doc, the marine biologist, who collected and sold all kinds of marine life for scientific research and bought himself two pints of beer for just about every meal; Lee Chong, the Chinese grocery store owner who sold it to him (and would sell pretty much anything else to anyone else); Mack, the leader of the mostly unemployed group of men who rented space from Lee Chong; Hazel, one of the group members whose mother had so many children, she forgot to inquire whether he was a boy or girl when she named him; and Dora, the buxom, orange-haired madame of the local whorehouse. Each of these characters has a hard edge but a soft heart. For example, when the town gets influenza, Dora and her "girls" make and deliver soup and take care of the sick.

Some of the minor characters, such as Frankie (the child Doc tried to help) and the retired Army officer (whom Mack and his gang meet while on a frog-catching mission) only show up on a few pages, yet have long-lasting influence on the main characters and outcome of the story.

I laughed out loud several times while I was reading Cannery Row. Other times, I probably could have wept. This book may be "old" but human nature pretty much stays the same no matter how many years go by. When you get tired of modern fiction or books that really are about nothing, pick up something by Steinbeck, and get drawn back into some good writing. 

Tortilla Flat is supposedly the sequel to Cannery Row. I'll have to check that out someday.

Rating: 4.25 stars. And it won a Nobel Prize for Literature, too.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Eclipse

Eclipse
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, 2007
629 pages

I just finished reading the third book in the Twilight series, and I'm still hooked.  Book #3 is just as good as Books #1 and #2. This series is like crack, or Mountain Dew. The more I read the more I want to read.

Book #1 had some major action towards the end, and Book #3 has even more. The relationships between the three main characters get even more interesting. Oh, I wish I could write more without giving too much away. But for some reason, I just don't want to spoil this series for anyone.

However, I need a break. So I'm going to look on my shelf and find something else to read before I move on to the next book in the series. 

Read this series. Read this series. Read this series.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

New Moon

New Moon
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, 2006
563 pages

So my niece got me hooked on the Twilight series, and I wrote a review about the first book back in July. I could hardly wait to get back to the USA so I could read the other books in the series, which I ordered on Amazon.com from Vienna but had sent to my address in the States (because I was having trouble with my mail delivery in Austria).

I just want to say that people in at least four states and three countries - from the ages of 11 to 53 - are reading this series because of me. And they are all loving it. So Stephenie, please send the royalty check soon. :-)

OK. This is Book #2. Sometimes, the second book in a series is not as good as the first. Sort of like a movie sequel is not usually as good as the original movie.  I don't think this is the case with New Moon. I actually liked it a little bit more than Twilight.

My niece (age 12) and one of my friends (age 24) disagree with me on the grounds that their favorite character is not featured as prominently in New Moon as in other books. But it's really a matter of personal preference. You see, the plot thickens in New Moon. The vampire gets a rival.

New Moon draws a line in the forest, and you're going to have to figure out whose side you're on. This is where I have to stop because of spoilers. 

Just read it. And don't feel guilty about it.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

P.S. I immediately started reading Book #3 - Eclipse - after finishing New Moon. Consider yourself warned. :-)

Friday, September 12, 2008

New Europe

New Europe
Author: Michael Palin
Phoenix (UK) 2007
306 pages

Depending on your age and interests, you might know Michael Palin as a comedian (he was a member of the British Monty Python comedy group, and appeared in some of their more famous bits such as the Lumberjack and Spam) or the host of a number of travel documentaries, like Pole to Pole or Hemingway or Sahara. Or maybe you think he's the guy married to a certain Alaskan hockey mom (he's not.) Or maybe you don't know him at all. You should.

This book was given to me by a friend in Vienna just before I left to come back to the States. I wanted a book for the flight home and had several to choose from, including some good fiction. But I chose this one because it seemed appropriate, since I was leaving Europe. 

What a read! First off, Palin is an excellent writer (assuming he, not a ghostwriter, actually wrote the book.) The content supposedly comes from notes he took while filming the documentary of the same name (now available on DVD). By New Europe we're talking mostly about Eastern Europe - specifically that part of Europe which was behind the "Iron Curtain" until the early 1990s. So this book covers the trip that Palin and the documentary crew made through these countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kaliningrad (Russia), Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the former East Germany. (And I know that Turkey wasn't behind the Iron Curtain and that's why I emphasized mostly above.)

Of these countries, I have only been to the Czech Republic. Except for the time I walked about a quarter or a mile into Hungary from Austria. And I'm not counting Germany because I've only been to the part that used to be West Germany.  So really, for me, this was new territory.

When I was in Austria, there were lots of TV commercials promoting tourism of some of these places, especially Albania, Macedonia, and Turkey. Regarding the first two, I'm still not convinced even after reading this book that I would want to go there. But Turkey is high on my list. Palin spends quite a bit of time lingering in Turkey, and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, Turkey really wants to be a part of the European Union, although only a small part of that country is (geographically speaking) in Europe. Secondly, there's lots to see in Turkey. From the beautiful city of Istanbul with its incredible Ottoman architecture and the scenic Bosphorus, to Cappadocia with its amazingly strange land formations, to historical places like Ephesus (as in the book of Ephesians in the Bible). Sounds to me like Turkey's got it going on.

Other places I'd like to visit, especially after reading this book, are Slovenia (specifically Bled), Croatia (especially the cities of Split and Dubrovnik), the mountains of Romania, and the cities of Budapest (Hungary) and Krakov (Poland).

Of course, Palin has some interesting adventures along the way, like the time he meets up with the White Brotherhood (a very large group of spiritualist paneurythmic dancers) at a camp site in Bulgaria , and visiting Bran Castle in Romania (where writer Bram Stoker got the idea for the Dracula character - no, Dracula wasn't real.) There are plenty of humorous situations, too. Like watching the Turkish oil wrestlers. Or having the massage in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic by a female massage therapist who told him she was going to "control his liver."

You just have to read it. Or maybe see the DVD.

Palin set out to discover this strange "new" old land and to see how the people who once lived behind the Iron Curtain are faring now as players in New Europe. Some, like Slovenia and the Czech Republic, are doing exceptionally well. Others are having a hard time making the transition from communism to capitalism. But all are unique and interesting in their own way.

Rating 4.5 stars. 

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Last Juror

The Last Juror
Author: John Grisham
Random House, 2004
505 pages

Once upon a time, I was a big John Grisham fan. I loved A Time To Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker and a couple of his other early books. But I got tired of the lawyer stories, and even more tired of the main characters ending up on some Caribbean beach, sipping daiquiris or whatever while their recently-swindled million dollars sits in a Cayman Islands bank. Then there was the Christmas story that was so awful, it really did me in, and I swore off Grisham.

So when a co-worker gave me The Last Juror, I gracefully declined. "I don't do lawyer novels," I said. "Oh, this one's different," my co-worker promised. It's about a reporter."

Indeed it is. It's the early 1970s. The main character is twenty-three years old and has recently moved to Clanton, Mississippi from upstate New York, where he was on some sort of extended undergraduate plan at Syracuse but dropped out when rich Grandma decided not to support him anymore. Grandma's in Memphis, so the main character (eventually he submits to being called 'Willie' by his Southern friends) heads down South in his Spitfire car. One of the annoying things about this book is Willie's continuous references to "my Spitfire." I'm sorry, but after the fifth or six time, "my car" would have been sufficient. 

(Speaking of Syracuse, one of the things I like about Grisham is how he calls universities by their common name. So Duke University is just plain Duke. And Purdue University is just plain Purdue. OK, back to the story.)

At first, Willie is just a reporter for the local newspaper. But circumstances change and suddenly . . . gasp . . . he's the Editor and Owner. As he settles into his new home in small town Mississippi, he takes a look around and sees how different things are from where he came from in New York. There are lots of stereotypical Southern characters and multiple references to Southern food, e.g., BBQ, corn bread, pecan pie . . . 

Maybe it's not really a lawyer story, but there are lawyers in the book, and judges, and criminals, and court scenes.  The basic premise is that a young man from a family of reclusive Southern mafia-types is convicted for the rape and murder of a young mother, and before he is sentenced, he threatens the jury. Some of the jurors can't bring it to themselves to give him the death penalty, so he gets life in prison. But gets paroled after only nine years. After he's out, jurors start dropping like flies. Of course, as things happen, Willie's writing all about it in his paper.

I didn't particularly like Willie as a character. He had certain characteristics that I admire. He has convictions, and is quite courageous in putting them into print, regardless of their popularity. But there was just something "empty" about him. I expected the vacuum to be filled by the end of the story, but it wasn't.

My favorite character was Miss Callie, the mother of eight children - seven of them with PhDs. Miss Callie is someone who becomes a really good friend and counselor to Willie - and I will leave it at that to avoid spoilers. 

Two of the secondary characters in The Last Juror seemed oddly familiar to me, so I had to investigate to be sure. Remember the Donald Sutherland character in the movie A Time to Kill? (Crotchety old lawyer?) His name was Lucien Wilbanks and he's the defense attorney for the rapist/murderer in The Last Juror. The other character is Harry Rex Vonner, the alcoholic lawyer played by Oliver Platt in A Time to Kill. Just a little Grisham trivia for you.

It was a light read, entertaining in places, and it went quickly. Great writing? Not really. But it made me look forward to my upcoming trip to North Carolina and all the good Southern food I'll be eating when I get there.

Rating: 2.5 stars. Sorry, John.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Boy Who Saw True

The Boy Who Saw True
Author: Anonymous (Edited by Cyril Scott)
Ryder, 2004 (originally published in 1953)
248 pages

Subtitled The time-honored classic of the paranormal, this book is presented as the diary of a young boy (probably around 9-11 years old, although his age is never specified) living in England in the 1880s.  Cyril Scott (the "Editor") claims that he received the diary some years later in the mid-twentieth century after the death of the diary's author. Whether or not this is true doesn't really matter to me, and to be perfectly honest, I didn't care about how the so-called diary was found anyway. It was the contents that interested me.

In the beginning of the diary, the boy (whose name is never stated) is beginning to show signs of having psychic abilities. He can see auras (he calls them "lights"); he can also see mythical creatures, like fairies. He gets "feelings" about people. He also sees spirits of dead people, including his grandfather and a man he thinks is Jesus Christ. 

The boy's parents are very conventional. His father is too busy working and making money to really pay much attention to him. His mother is extremely "Victorian" and worries too much about what other people think - especially with regards to religion and church issues.  Mildred, his older sister, is engrossed in her own life and has an antagonistic relationship with her little brother. Early on, we become aware that the boy is struggling because his family thinks he's either lying or cracked in the head when he talks about what he can see. 

At just the right time,  a new teacher comes into the boy's life. The teacher is a sort of "closet Spiritualist." At the time, Spiritualism was a growing phenomenon in England, but was still considered a bit out there as many people considered it a threat to the current religious thinking. The teacher learns of the boy's "gifts" and then works with him (behind the parents' backs, of course) to develop the gifts, thus making a lasting impact on the boy's life.

The boy is an inquisitive little fellow, and surprisingly open-minded.  He actually had me laughing out loud, and quite often. Particularly amusing are his descriptions of how his parents react when he asks for clarification on the Vicar's sermons. Examples (I'm paraphrasing): "What does it mean 'to covet thy neighbor's wife'?" "What does 'lust' mean?" "What is a harlot and why is it that I'm not allowed to say that word? - it's in the Bible."

The boy stole my heart, and he will yours, too.  Unfortunately, the "diary" part written by the boy ends way too soon. This is followed by sporadic other "diary" entries written as the boy grows into an adult. We learn what happens to him in life as his spiritual growth continues. I enjoyed the first part of the book far more than the last part.

This is a book that will challenge your thinking. So if you're not into thinking differently, and you're not interested in Spiritualism or the paranormal, then this is not the book for you. 

Rating: 3.75 stars (the "diary" part written by the boy would get 4.5 stars!)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007 (UK version)
367 pages

Several years ago, I picked up a book at the Indianapolis library called The Kite Runner. It was the only book that ever made me cry. Until now. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of two women in Afghanistan, spanning some forty years. The oldest woman, Mariam, is the "illegitimate" child of a rich man and a household worker. She and her mother are hidden away from her father's "real" family - which includes three wives and nine other children - but he takes care of them financially and visits Mariam every Thursday. She adores her father and pushes aside all the bad things she hears about him from her mother. 

A sad twist of fate separates her from everyone she knows as she is forced to marry a much older man. He's traditional, and very much at odds with the more liberal neighbors whose wives go out in public unveiled and whose daughters attend school and university.  As the Soviets invade Afghanistan, lines are drawn and sides are taken. Divisions continue to occur when the Soviets leave, years later. 

Meanwhile, we are introduced to the other female character, Laila. She is a generation younger than Mariam, and through another sad twist of fate they are drawn together. In order to avoid spoilers, I won't talk more about the plot. What I will tell you is that I read this book in one sitting, in about five hours on Sunday afternoon, because I couldn't put it down. 

This book has everything I like: history, a great story, and amazing characters.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is even better than The Kite Runner. I cried again - even more, this time - not just for the characters but for the fact that books this good just don't come along all that often. I'll probably have to wait another couple of years, or until Khaled Hosseini's next book comes out. Whenever that is.

Rating: 5 stars.  

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Elephant and the Dragon

The Elephant and the Dragon
Author: Robyn Meredith
W.W. Norton & Company, 2007
252 pages

I started reading this book in June before my trip to China and India. The first two chapters went quickly, but then I switched my attention to fiction, and my interest in this book waned. I finally finished it last night after skimming through several pages in the middle section.

The official title of this book is The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us. There are a *lot* of books out now about India and/or China and their emergence as global economic powers. This one is somewhat unique in that: 1) it provides significant historical perspective on both countries, including some stuff you might wish it didn't; and 2) it lays out several suggestions for how other countries (especially USA) can remain competitive. 

As to the second point, education is the key, and if the USA doesn't get its act together with regards to K-12 education, we're doomed.

The writing is excellent, and you'll certainly learn something from reading this.  You might feel a little depressed, though. I certainly did. 

Rating: 4 stars.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree

Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree
Author: Santa Montefiore
Hodder & Stoughton, 2001
547 pages

I was at the Buenos Aires airport, and I needed a book. There were not many English language books available at the bookstore, so my choices were extremely limited. I could have bought something by Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, or Nora Roberts. I chose this one because it was written by an Argentine author I had not yet read, and because it was partly set in Argentina.

This is a story about "forbidden" love, and also a story about mothers and daughters, husbands, wives, friends, and lovers, and the insipid things that drive people apart. Mother Anna is an Irishwoman who at a very young age fell in love with a dashing foreigner, Paco. Paco was from a wealthy Argentine family and Anna was a poor but beautiful and strong-willed redhead from a small town in the north of Ireland. Everything she likes about him in terms of being different and exciting, he likes about her. She leaves her family behind in Ireland and moves to Argentina to marry him, and has all kinds of issues fitting in. They have two sons and a daughter, and the daughter, Sofia, is really the main focus of the story.

When the story opens, Sofia is a fiercely competitive fifteen year-old who can't do anything to please her mother. Anna dotes on her sons, and this drives Sofia away. Sofia feels "different" in so many of the same ways that Anna felt when she was younger. They are so much alike, you'd think they'd be best friends. But, as is usually the case in life, they rather dislike each other.

When Sofia falls in love with someone she shouldn't, the story takes a turn, and we see additional parallels between the lives of Anna and Sofia. What we end up with is a novel that probably best fits in the Romance category, but also has an interesting (but predictable) plot which is interwoven with 20th century Argentina history, e.g., Juan and Eva (Evita) Peron, the war between England and Argentina over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas, and the economic crises in Argentina. I found the historical and cultural parts to be very interesting and for those elements alone, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Argentina or South America. Romance readers, or readers who view reading as a means of escape, will enjoy it for the storyline (which I found yukky.)

Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree in many ways is to Argentina what The Thorn Birds is to Australia. So if you liked the latter, you would probably enjoy this book very much.

Rating: 3 stars.




Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Witch of Portobello

The Witch of Portobello
Author: Paulo Coelho
Harper Perennial, 2007
268 pages

Paulo Coelho is an internationally-acclaimed, bestselling author from Brazil. I first heard of him a couple of years ago when I saw his book The Alchemist on sale at Borders. I bought The Alchemist, but haven't read it yet . . . it sits in a pile of unread books back in Indy. I bought The Witch of Portobello on Amazon.com.uk and had it delivered to my home in Vienna. When I was packing for my trip to South America, I thought: "Wouldn't it be nice to take along a book that has some connection to that continent?" I looked around and my eyes landed on The Witch of Portobello, so I brought it with me. I started reading it in Buenos Aires this weekend.

The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks by various people who are telling the life story of a woman who - by all accounts - is now dead. The woman, who called herself "Athena" after the Greek goddess of wisdom, was born in Romania, adopted by Christian parents from Lebanon, and raised in London. She's always been just a bit different. As a teenager, for example, she was strongly attracted to the idea of becoming a saint.

Over time, Athena evolves into sort of a guru and advocate for "God the Mother."  She's the kind of woman that The Establishment loves to hate because she inspires others to think differently, therefore threatening the status quo. But is she sincere, or just another religious megalomaniac? As the tale is told through the flashbacks, we encounter thoughts about love, freedom, and the divine feminine. There's a lot of philosophy in The Witch of Portobello, and apparently this is a common theme in other Coelho books.

It's a quick read, thought-provoking, and has a surprise ending that didn't quite sit well with me. 

Rating: 3.75 stars - a tidier ending might have earned an even 4 stars.

Now I'm freaking out because it's only Tuesday and I'm out of English language reading materials. Here's hoping I can find a bookstore in Argentina or Brazil where I can get something to read for the rest of this trip.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Translated by: Lucia Graves
Phoenix (Orion Books), 2004
506 pages

I know you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but the cover for the US paperback version of The Shadow of the Wind was so ugly, it gave me a migraine to look at it. Even though it was a bestseller a few years ago; even though I read the great reviews on Amazon.com and other places; well, I just couldn't get past the cover. Someone handed me the prettier European version recently, and I was able to get past my graphic nausea. And I discovered one of the best books I've ever read. Ever.

In fact, it's very challenging to write this review, because nothing I write will express how much I love this book. First, it's beautifully written. OK, maybe I should say beautifully translated, since it was translated from Spanish. Whatever the case, it's just a joy to read. The author and/or the translator have an incredible grasp of language. Really, in terms of pure writing, I can't think of anything I've read in a long time that was this good.

The plot - at least on the surface - is a simple one. A young boy named Daniel, son of a widowed bookseller, is taken by his father to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books to select a book that he will be "responsible for" forever. The book he chooses - called The Shadow of the Wind -is a great read, but no one seems to know anything about the author, Julian Carax. Suddenly, clues begin appearing, and Daniel becomes obsessed with learning more about Julian. Several people take an interest in the book - some want to buy it, others want to burn it. Daniel is torn between selling it and keeping his promise. There's also a "scary" person who keeps following him . . . does he have evil intentions? The plot thickens as smaller but very important stories are woven in to Daniel's story as he grows older and attempts to solve the mystery that is Julian Carax, while also solving mysteries in his own life.

Most of the story takes place in Barcelona, and much of it takes place in and shortly after the Spanish Civil War. Having visited Barcelona in May (and several of the key locations in the story, such as Montjuic, the Ramblas, Plaza Real, and Plaza Felipe Neri), it was easy for me to visualize these locations - which made it more meaningful. I remember seeing the pocks in the stone walls of the buildings at Plaza Felipe Neri - wounds left by the guns of war.

The Shadow of the Wind has some wonderful characters. My favorite is Fermin, the homeless man who Daniel and his father remove from the streets and make a part of their family. He's the classic example of the survivor - someone who's been through hell, but somehow made it, probably because of his endearing personality and sense of humor.

There are underlying themes in the book about forgiveness and redemption that will really make you think. In fact, it's interesting to me that although Daniel and his father often admit to being atheists, they actually display more Christianlike behaviors than some the book's so-called Christians. This is just one of several elements in The Shadow of the Wind that could be analyzed, if I had more time to write this review! But I don't!

The Shadow of the Wind is a mystery. It's historical fiction. It's action/adventure. It's fantasy. It's a love story (several love stories, actually.) It's everything. And you should read it!

Rating: 5 stars (Yes! Really!)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Twilight

Twilight
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, 2005
498 pages

Last year during the holiday season, I was doing some last-minute Christmas shopping at B&N and overheard a woman asking the clerk for suggestions on something to get a 12 year-old girl. I was a little surprised at the clerk's suggestion of this series, because I thought it was for older girls. But as the clerk so correctly pointed out: "Pre-teen girls don't like to read about people their own age, they like to read about people who are a little older." 

It got me to thinking about my niece. At the time, "J" was eleven and pretty much a non-reader. She never got into Harry Potter like her brother did: basically if he likes it, she hates it, and that's just their relationship. "J" needed to find her own thing. I decided it was my duty as an Aunt to help her find it. So I, like the customer who had asked the clerk for a suggestion, bought the first book in the series - Twilight

I presented "J" with the book early, three or four days before Christmas. She took it reluctantly and promised to give it a try. Next thing I knew, she disappeared to her bedroom, and she stayed away for most of the next 24 hours. When she emerged, she said: "This book is awesome!!! I can't wait to read the next one!!!" Clearly this was not the same child. Aliens kidnapped my real niece in the middle of the night and replaced her with . . . a reader. My Mom was so impressed, she went to B&N on Christmas Eve and bought the other two available books in the series. And guess what "J" got for Christmas?

I finally bought my own copy of Twilight last Spring, and brought it with me to Vienna, thinking that I'd read it while I was over here. The time finally came this weekend. I made the mistake of starting around 11PM on Saturday night. I got so into it, I was up until 3AM. So, warning number one: this book has the same effect on 44 year-old women as it does on 11 year- old girls. 

The plot is simple enough: high school girl moves to a new town, meets a boy who is a little different, falls in love despite what makes him different, they struggle with what people think; then an enemy comes to town and tries to ruin everything, so we get the conflict element. Really what we have here is a sort of modern gothic romance. And I will keep it at that, except to say . . . no pun intended but it sucks you in. So don't start reading this book unless you've got time to keep reading not just Twilight but the whole series. I've already ordered the second book from Amazon.

Rating: 4.25 stars, even better than I expected. Just wish I'd thought of it myself. :-)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Shantaram

Shantaram
Author: Gregory David Roberts
St. Martin's Press, 2003
933 very long pages

When we were in India a few weeks ago, my colleague and I saw this book for sale in the hotel bookstore, and she asked me if I'd read it (I hadn't). She said it was really good, and I almost bought it that night. But it was just so overwhelmingly huge. I promised myself I'd buy it later.  It was a pleasant surprise when, on our last day in India, my colleague presented the book to me as a gift to remember our trip. So I was able to start reading this book - which mostly takes place in India - while I was in India.

From page one, I was hooked. This book is like heroin (which has a part in the book, by the way.) It just gets into you, and you can't let go of it. Even when it drives you so crazy you want to pull your hair out. Which it does. You see, even though I liked it, there were parts of Shantaram that really got on my nerves. The bear, for example. I totally don't even get why that was necessary. If you read the book and you get the part about the bear, will you please let me know?

Here's the synopsis: an Australian man - a former heroin addict (long story) - is in an Australian prison for armed robbery. He escapes and makes his way to Bombay, India, where he meets some interesting people including slum dwellers, an alcoholic Frenchman,  a mysterious female, and a host of interesting international mafia types. (So far, it also sounds like the life of the author, who "in real life" did all of the above. At one point Roberts was Australia's "Most Wanted." It was while he was finishing his time in prison that he wrote this roman a clef.)

There's a lot of philosophizing in the book. Lin, the protagonist, is likeable enough, but very human. Torn between his desire to do good and a need to achieve his definition of freedom, he goes back and forth between good deeds and evil ones until ultimately, there is a need for some serious forgiveness and redemption - which, perhaps, there has been all along. There are so many layers to this book it's like an onion. Peel one away and then another appears until it falls off. Lin is a complicated character. He wants to be an intellectual - whether or not he actually is, I suppose, is up to the reader. He wants to be a good-looking man, but he isn't. Remember the "good" bad guys in the movie Pulp Fiction? Lin reminded me of them.

Of course, there's a woman. Or two. There was one in particular that I disliked so much, I would have killed her off in a very nasty way if I had been the author. Many characters are richly detailed - sometimes a little too richly - and there are several surprises. I was not happy with what the author did with one character in particular, who truly did not deserve what he got. But, like life, this book - this story - is not fair.

Shantaram is roughly divided into 4 sections: 1) the main character arrives in India and is learning the culture and meeting people. This was my favorite part. The trip to Prabaker's village is a joy to read.  The slum experiences added an interesting perspective. You learn what Shantaram means and why it is important to the story.  2) Lin gets in deeper with the "wrong" crowd, and a lot of complicated stuff happens. This section is surprisingly dark.  3) Even more darkness as Lin goes off "somewhere" to "do something" I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but this was the section I liked the least, and I'll admit that I actually skimmed through several pages just to get past it.  4) Finally, things start to come together and everything is explained, and the book winds down to an end. The ending is very smooth, probably one of the smoothest endings I've read in a long time. Clever, too. Points are gained here.

Despite anything critical I may have to say about the book, I did enjoy it - sort of. It could have been like a love-hate thing. At any rate, I couldn't put it down. And that says something.

Clearly, the author fell in love with India while he was there. His description of the country and people is one of the endearing qualities of the book.

A movie version is in production right now. I've heard that Johnny Depp plays Lin, and the movie should be out sometime next year. Usually, I don't think movies are nearly as good as the books they're based on, but I will want to see this one. If for nothing else, I want to see how they mess it up.

Rating: 4 out of 5 - might have been higher if it wasn't so bloody long.

P.S. No, I will not be posting reviews every day! I can't read that fast! But I am moving through my current book rather quickly . . . 

Deep Survival

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why
Author: Laurence Gonzales
W.W. Norton & Company, 2004
318 pages

Back in mid-June, I was attending one of those work things where they bring in a Suit to motivate the masses.  Our Suit wasn't really a Suit but more like Business Casual. He mentioned this book, and how it's one of the best business books he's ever read, even though technically it's not a "business" book, and how much he'd taken away from reading it.

If I hear anyone say the words "best book", I pay attention.  A few days after the work thing, I went to my local B&N to look for it, and found it in the "Science and Nature" section. I started reading it on the flight back to Europe, and found that I couldn't put it down. It was more interesting to me than sleeping (which I should have been doing on the overnight flight to reduce the jet lag.)

Gonzales has an amazing ability to weave a tale, inserting just the right amount of research, dialogue, and action. The slightly biographic element - his father's amazing World War II story - adds a nice personal touch and provides insight into the author himself. After all, if his father hadn't been through those experiences, perhaps Gonzales would not have become the adventurer and writer he is. The other stories about survival - or not - of fighter pilots, mountain climbers, hikers, sailors, and others will have you biting your nails. And the other stuff - the psychology, the history, the science - contributes to this "best book."

I took notes in the book as I was reading it, and when I was finished, I typed up a summary. Here are some of the points in the book that rang true for me. As you read through these, think of the business implications for each:

* When you think you know everything, you close yourself off to learning other stuff. This attitude can cause you to miss out on something important.

* Regarding chaos theory - yes, a certain amount of chaos in business is good, because it forces people to work harder and become more creative. But there can also be too much chaos, and this isn't good because it makes people (and the system) break down - and then nothing gets done. People can only deal with so much change at once. (Do you hear that, Suits?!)

* There are times when you need to question the rules and even break the rules. Many people who die in accidents die because they followed the rules. So, if you're in a building that's on fire, don't wait for "Security" to tell you to get out. Just get out.

* You're only lost when you believe you are lost. And when you believe you are lost, you will either: 1) find yourself, or 2) die.

* The best way to ensure your own survival is to help someone else. This takes you out of the victim mindset, which helps you rise above your fears. You start to see yourself (and others start to see you) as a Rescuer instead of someone who needs rescuing.

* To be able to survive in the world, you have to get out there and experience it.

* Versatility is one of the characteristics of survivors. You have to be able to perceive what's really happening and then adapt to it.

* A sense of humor is another characteristic of survivors. If you can't find the humor in a situation (no matter how morbid), you might as well give it up.

I really got a lot out of this book personally, and I think you will, too.  Maybe as you read it you'll recognize survivor characteristics in yourself. Or maybe you'll learn some new strategies to help you next time you're in a situation. It won't be a waste of your time. 

My rating = 4.25 out of 5.