Friday, March 13, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Author: Junot Diaz
Riverhead, 2007 
352 pages (Kindle edition)

I bought a Kindle 2 a couple of weeks ago and this was the first book I chose to read on it. I really had no idea what to expect. I just bought it because the description sounded interesting. 

The plot centers around a young man named Oscar. He lives in New Jersey but his family connections are in the Dominican Republic. Back during the years when Rafael Trujillo ran the country, Oscar's grandfather - a prominent physician/scholar/writer - got into a bit of trouble with the dictator. Since then, the family has had an amazing streak of bad luck. This bad luck was deemed a sort of curse that had been put on the family, and considering all that Oscar's mother went through in her life, it's amazing that Oscar was even born.

All of his life, Oscar's been . . . different. He's an intellectual, a sci-fi geek, with an amazing propensity toward fantasy. He's also obese, with a perception of himself that isn't anything like how the world sees him. He reminds me of the main character in Confederacy of Dunces. I feel sorry for him until he gets on my nerves - and then I no longer feel sorry for him and want the book to end. But each time I think we're wrapping things up, the narrator takes me in a new direction. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao seems neither. But for some reason I feel guilty for feeling that way.

My review falls short of the kudos this book probably deserves. I believe it is a first novel for the author, and if that's true, it's definitely a fine debut. This is the type of book they make you read and analyze in university classes. On the whole, it's interesting (I never knew all the historical stuff about Trujillo and the DR). It took me a long time to figure out "who" was telling the story (it's not Oscar) and I also had to work my way through (or ignore) many of the Spanish phrases and DR localisms. (I found out that the Kindle 2 dictionary doesn't recognize Spanish! English only.) 

Almost everything in the book is tragic, including the end to Oscar's brief life, which is foreshadowed even in the title so you know it's going to happen. The question is why, and if you read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, you'll find out.

Rating: 3.5 stars. 

As to the Kindle, I'm finding it to be really easy to use. Just about everyday there's some type of free book to download, and I've been taking them even though they're not my usual genre. So, don't be surprised if you read some reviews of really stupid books on here soon. Oh, well. 

Friday, March 6, 2009

Rebel Angels

Rebel Angels
Author: Libba Bray
Random House, 2006
583 pages

This is the second book in a trilogy - I reviewed the first book (A Great and Terrible Beauty) on 25 December 2008 in case you want to check the archives. Actually this is one of those rare instances, I think, where the second book is better than the first. Although A Great and Terrible Beauty did a good job of setting up the scene and introducing us to Victorian-era England and all the main characters (Gemma, Felicity, Ann and Pippa), Rebel Angels is full of action.

It's nearly time for Christmas break at Spence Academy, that excellent boarding school for girls. Mysteriously, a new teacher arrives (in the middle of the night). From the beginning there is something unsettling about her, and Gemma soon begins to suspect that the teacher is an enemy of the Order, a secret band of special women (including our main characters, of course - as well as Gemma's late mother, whose murder set off Gemma's self-discovery that she is the long-awaited new leader-figure of the Order).

Christmas break comes and the girls go to their homes in London - except Ann, the scholarship student, who has no home to go to. She is taken in by Felicity and the girls concoct a story that Ann is the recently-discovered heiress of a (nonexistent) Duke with connections to the Russian royal family. The behaviors of the society class of London in the late 19th century are as amusing as they are disgusting, and we learn a lot about how people in Gemma's world treated each other and those who were different. A dark secret of Felicity's will be revealed . .  we learn how she came to be known as the strong one. In the meantime, Gemma is dealing with some issues of her own . . . her father's secret drug addiction, for one.

As the title suggests, there are allusions to Milton's Paradise Lost - throughout Rebel Angels I wondered which of the girls would fall from grace and was kept guessing. Pippa was the obvious, but power-hungry Felicity and desperate Ann kept getting themselves into situations. It soon became apparent that "fallen" could refer to a number of the secondary characters, as well.

We learn more about Kartik, the young Indian man with whom Gemma became acquainted in the first book. A couple of sparks fly between them - will it lead to anything? Hmmm. We're not even really sure if he can be trusted. Two other new interesting characters of note (in addition to the new teacher) are Nell, a girl who lives in the insane asylum where Gemma's brother Tom works, and Simon, a dashing young man of Gemma's class who wants to court her. How will she respond to that, especially when she has an underworld to save?

A lot will happen in the 2 to 3 weeks covered by this book, and it's a mesmerizing page-turner, especially in the fantasy sequences when the girls are in "The Realm." Things don't always turn out as expected - even in the end. I guess that's why it's a trilogy. I definitely want to read the third book.

Rating: 4.5 stars (slightly more than the first book)