Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Glass God (Urban Fantasy)

In The Glass God, the latest novel in the Magicals Anonymous Series by Kate Griffin, Sharon Lu, consummate magical community social worker, and the Magical Anonymous Support Group must again save London from potential death and doom. Matthew Swift, the Midnight Mayor, is missing. He seems to suspect that something bad is about to happen. He tells Kelley, his amazing personal assistant, that if anything happens to him, Sharon should be made Deputy Midnight Mayor, given an umbrella that he found, and, of course, given donuts. Becoming deputy mayor is a major undertaking for a young shaman in training, but Sharon and her faithful assistant and druid Rhys rise to the task. They discover that Old Man Bones is about to unleash the plague on The City because someone is stealing his sacrifices. In addition, the very office of the Midnight Mayor is at stake, because Matthew is neither dead nor alive. If he were dead, someone else would have the mark of the Midnight Mayor appear on their hand and take over the role to protect London from magical harm. If he were alive, he could fight the forces of evil or, suggests an Alderman, be killed so that another person could take his place. An upcoming group suggests that the Midnight Mayor and Old Man Bones are old magic and a new god should take over control of the magic of London. Can Sharon, Magicals Anonymous, and the Aldermen work together to save London?

While The Glass Gods is so, so much more amusing than the novels in the Matthew Swift Series, it does contain scenes of horror and moral dilemma. While Sharon and Kelley are sometimes portrayed as somewhat fluffy characters, their dark sides definitely come out in this novel. They both continue to grow. Whether Griffin meant to do it intentionally or it is a flaw in the novel, at times there is overlap in the characters of Sharon and Kelley.  In a few spots I couldn’t tell them apart. For most of the novel, they are very different characters.

The Glass God is lots of fun, and I missed it when I was done reading. Griffin sees to hint at events to come, so I am curious how the storylines will play out.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Matthew Swift & Magicals Anonymous (Urban Fantasy Series)

Okay, so they aren’t great literature. I don’t care. The Matthew Swift Series and Magicals Anonymous Series by Catherine Webb, writing as Kate Griffin, are fun, interesting, and occasionally thought provoking. They are “good reads” that help me forget about my life for awhile. For all practical purposes, they are one series or perhaps a series and a follow up series. The settings are the same. Storylines continue from one series, especially the fourth book in the Matthew Swift Series, to the other.

So much of magic in literature is based on a worldview that is centuries old: bell, book, and candle. What if magic evolved or had an upgrade? Kate Griffin shows us that world. Creatures are made up of things, particularly discards, from an urban environment. The Electric Blue Angels were created from the remnants of energy left in the phone lines. One of the monsters was created from old shopping bags. Griffin shows us how fairies, Medusas, Scylla, banshees, shamans, and others change to adapt to the modern, urban environment. Magic, instead of being created from nature, is created from what is available in the city. Matthew uses such things as beer bottles and kabobs for his magic. In one of the novels, a summoner is described as an emotionally immature, teenager techno-geek, who orders part of what he needs on-line.

The combined series take place in modern-day London. Griffin begins by saying that there are two groups that oversee London. The first is a mundane group of officials that preside over public ceremonies, go to events where food is served, and take care of the ordinary cares of The City. The second group was created at the very birth of The City to preserve it, particularly from errant magical forces. The second group is composed of black-clad Aldermen with heavy duty magical powers and is traditionally led by the Midnight Mayor, who in some ways is an intimate part of The City itself. The City is personified by an ancient dragon, who is both London and its people.

I started by reading the first book in the Magicals Anonymous Series, read the four books in the Matthew Swift Series, and then read the second, latest, book in the Magicals Anonymous Series. I am not sure how much I missed or gained by reading the books out of order.

The Matthew Swift Series is, appropriately, about Matthew Swift, a murdered sorcerer reincarnated along with the Electric Blue Angels. He is both a “he” and a “we.” The series is a bit on the depressing side. Matthew is, for the most part, alone. He is often betrayed. By creating the Magicals Anonymous Series, it seems that Griffin is appealing to readers who basically liked the first series, but wanted something a bit more upbeat. In the new series, Sharon Lu leads a support group for the magically challenged. She and her cohorts work together to save The City. Although still dark and horrifying at times, the second series is warmer and funnier, while preserving much of what was good in the first series. At least in the first two books, Matthew continues to have a role, as does his personal assistant, Kelley, and his apprentice, Penny.

Yes, a reader can understand and enjoy Magicals Anonymous without reading the Matthew Swift Series. On the other hand, the reader would miss part of the backstory.

Matthew Swift Series
Magicals Anonymous Series

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Minority Council (Urban Fantasy)

You can’t save everyone…You can’t save those who don’t want to be saved…You can’t save your friends…You can’t save yourself. 

When I finished reading The Minority Council, the fourth novel in Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series, I was left wondering whether the Minority Council was filled with misguided evildoers or with self-sacrificing individuals who had tried to teach Matthew Swift a much needed lesson in being the Midnight Mayor of London. The Minority Council is decidedly less depressing than The Neon Court. Yes, a number of people die, some horrifically. But, Matthew has a perky new personal assistant, and in this novel he is not tasked with saving London from some dread fate. In addition, Penny continues to be “student, savior, and punishment.”

Three people ask Matthew for his help. The first is Meera, a fairy dust addict. The second is Nabeela, who works for the regular Council and is trying to uncover the cause of one young man’s death and the disappearance of the souls of numerous other young men. The third is the Beggar King, who is concerned about the disappearance of a number of his subjects and warns Matthew not to trust anyone. Matthew soon learns about the existence of the Minority Council, composed of Aldermen who “carry on the tradition of what the Aldermen have been, of what the Midnight Mayor should be.” Matthew attempts to undo the wrongs done by the Minority Council and others, but will he pay a horrible price? Matthew definitely grows up as Midnight Mayor in this novel.

Some of the last sections of the novel introduce the reader to the characters who will take center stage in the Magicals Anonymous series. In a way I am sad to see the Matthew Swift series come to a close. While it was a bit dark, it also had some interesting character development and, of course, wonderful urban magic.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Neon Court (Urban Fantasy Novel)

On one level The Neon Court, the third book in Kate Griffin’s (Catherine Webb) Matthew Swift Series, is depressing and dark. Late in the book Matthew lists all the people who have died while he tried to solve his and London’s latest magical problems. Matthew comes across as both a hero and an antihero. (One of the few bright spots in the story is the addition of Penny, his apprentice, who unknowingly almost destroyed London in The Midnight Mayor.) But on another level, The Neon Court is a wonderful example of urban fantasy and has some very thoughtful character development. Matthew brings a lot of heart to the role of Midnight Mayor. Griffin explores his complex relationship with Oda, a woman determined to eradicate magic in London. By the end of the novel, Griffin has fully described how Oda became “psycho-bitch,” making the story that much more tragic.

In the beginning of The Neon Court, Matthew find himself magically summons to a burning building. He finds Oda with wounds that should have killed her and uses his magic to rescue the two of them. As the story unfolds, he discovers London has some major magical problems. Two rival magical factions, The Neons and The Tribe, are about to start a war. The Neons are beautiful, neo-fairies. The Tribe members, made up of magical folks who don’t fit into any other group, are as ugly as the Neons are beautiful. Both have been told that whoever finds the “chosen one” will win the war. Meanwhile, Matthew discovers that Oda has become possessed with an entity called “Blackout;” anyone who looks at her start bleeding from their eyes and usually dies. Also, London has become shrouded in an unending night, and slowly more and more of the outer areas are becoming inaccessible. To help Matthew, the Aldermen give him Bakker’s last breath, connecting Matthew with part of Bakker’s consciousness. Bakker was the last person known to defeat Blackout. Matthew, Penny, Bakker, the Aldermen and others attempt to rescue London before it disappears.

On to the Minority Council, the last book in the Matthew Swift Series.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (Mystery Novel)

Reading the latest installment in the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series by Alexander McCall Smith is always like catching up with old friends. Reading the fourteenth book, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, was no exception. I found a Mma Ramotswe who was less sure of herself, questioning her role as a detective. While Mma Makutsi adjusts to motherhood, the relationship between her and Mma Ramotswe also undergoes a transformation. Even the seemingly unchangeable Charlie is transformed by the end of the novel.

For me, Mma Ramotswe’s cases take a backseat to the character development in The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. In one case, Mma Ramotswe tries to find the source of a mysterious feather sent to the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon and later of a smear campaign. In the second case, Mma Ramotswe is asked by a lawyer to disprove that a young man is the rightful heir to an inheritance.

Clea Simon has a very nice review of The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon in The Boston Globe.

I never get tired of reading the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series. While I am reading the books, I always feel that people are basically good and that life will somehow turn out alright in the end.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Sound and the Furry (Mystery Novel)

Each year I look forward to the next novel in Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie Series. How can I do justice in a blog to a series where the protagonist is a dog, yet the books are not in the least bit cute? Bernie, the human detective, is all male; a man I would imagine that many female readers would love to meet in person. Chet, as the narrator, offers a world of scents, tastes, subtle sounds, and subtle movements that most humans rarely think about. He often uncovers clues long before Bernie does. But how can he explain them to Bernie? Bernie is the problem solver and the how-to guy. Together they are a team that solves cases.

The Sound and the Furry, the sixth book in the Chet and Bernie Series, sends Chet and Bernie far from home, to the Bayou of Louisiana. The story begins innocently enough. Bernie and Chet drive past a prison work gang, where they see a perp they had sent to jail. It turns out that Frenchie is worried about his missing brother, Ralph, an inventor and one of the only honest people in his family. For a fee, Chet and Bernie agree to go looking for him. Before they leave, Bernie is assaulted by a mysterious gang member and a person from a major detective agency offers Bernie a more lucrative case, which would require him to give up the Ralph search. Bernie sticks to his principles. Once in Louisiana, Chet and Bernie uncover a family feud, a story of missing shrimp, oil covered birds, and drugs. Oh, and Chet smells a “froggy, toady, snaky, with the peppery poopiness mixed in” coming from parts of the swamp. Bernie soon learns that things are not as they appear to be. Bernie and Chet work together to try to find Ralph.

I love both the storyline and craftsmanship of The Sound and the Furry. The setting is fresh. The only things that I missed were not seeing more of Suzy, Bernie’s girlfriend, and of Iggy, the next door dog.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Midnight Mayor (Urban Fantasy)

As I am reading the Matthew Swift Series by Kate Griffin (aka Catherine Webb), I am delighted by her spin on modern day London and on magic. She describes magical creatures made from the castoff debris and information of a city. She describes the people and the things that we know are there but don’t really acknowledge. She describes how people in a city relate and disassociate from one another. She describes the Life of the city, as if it were a living entity. Much of what she writes about resonates with what I have experienced in places, particularly in cities. While I had mixed feelings about A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor, the second book in the series, lived up to my expectations. The novel has a good heart and just the right touch of humor.

Matthew and his electric blue angels are back. As the novel opens, he finds himself lying on the ground bleeding after answering the phone. His hand has odd markings burnt into it, and specters are soon chasing him. As things gets worse, Aldermen arrive at his home, blaming him for the death of the Midnight Mayor, who died about the same time as Matthew’s watch stopped. Only a sorcerer could have killed the Mayor. And, because Matthew is the only sorcerer in London, things don’t look good. To even further complicate matters, Matthew discovers that he is the new Midnight Mayor and London is in danger from some unknown source. One of the major clues is a mysterious message that keeps on appearing: “Give me back my hat.” Who killed the Mayor? Whose hat was taken? What does it have to do with the fate of London?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Madness of Angels (Urban Fantasy)

I find the idea of urban magic appealing. It takes what I consider a ho-hum genre, fantasy, and makes it fresh. Part of the fascination is being enticed to look at my everyday world differently. If there were such a thing as magic, where would it be? How would it work?

In A Madness of Angels, Catherine Webb, who uses the pseudonym Kate Griffin for her adult books, takes the reader into the world of urban magic. The story takes place in modern day London. After being dead for two years, Matthew Swift finds himself emerging from a phone line in his old house. He is still himself, a sorcerer, but he is also a we, the electric blue angels, “creatures of left-over life, creatures of surplus feelings whispered into electric energy” in the phone lines. Matthew discovers that almost all of his former colleagues have been murdered. He, as both an I and as a we, sets out to revenge his death, which he attributes to his former mentor. He also sets out to find out who resurrected him.

A Madness of Angels is Kate Griffin’s first adult novel and the first book in the Matthew Swift Series. I had read and loved Stray Souls, the first book in a new Kate Griffin series that is based on the Matthew Swift series. I wanted to know the backstory behind Matthew Swift. From that perspective, I was disappointed. A Madness of Angels is not nearly as fun as Stray Souls. But, as a first adult book from a young adult novelist, the more serious tone makes sense. I enjoyed the description of the magic. Matthew Swift is an interesting character. I am also very curious to know how, or if, Madness of Angels evolved into Stray Souls. I’m at least up for one more book in this four book series.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Way West (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Again he felt greatness, smallness and greatness both among such wild riches. And, seeing the (wagon) train winding behind him, he thought with pride of it, of the onwardness of its people, of their stubborn, unthought-out yondering. 
The Way West by A. B. Gutherie helps bring the time of the Oregon Trail to life. This 1950 Pulitzer winning novel follows a wagon trail from Independence Missouri to Oregon. It gives the readers glimpses of what this experience must have been like for these pioneers: the hardships, the dangers, the beauty, and, yes, the conflicts.

I was especially touched by how women endured the trail. They left their homes, where they had a certain amount of security, for a life of hardship. Not only did they have to do most of the chores that they had done in Missouri, without the “conveniences” of a house, but they also had to help with the wagons. Many of them were pregnant. A wandering child could easily meet with death. In one poignant scene, Gutherie describes the worn hands of a woman who had once done fine needlework.

I sometimes forget how hard won this Atlantic to Pacific coast United States is. I often think of the military, but I seldom think of all the pioneers. This book helped me to feel grateful for their sacrifices.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Women of Genre Reading Challenge

Cue the confetti throwing trolls. I completed the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge!! This year’s challenge was relatively easy: read twelve books by women authors whose stories I had never read before. The books had to be from one of the genres represented on the Worlds Without End website: science fiction, fantasy and horror. The challenge gave me an opportunity to sample some Young Adult books. I was also surprised to find that I actually like some horror stories.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Stray Souls (Urban Fiction)

“The spirits of the city are missing and it’s not natural and it’s not evolution and it’s not right…” 
A Shaman-in-Training tasked to save the City. An Apprentice Druid with psychosomatic allergies. An Obsessive Compulsive Vampire. The High-priestess of The Friendlies. A Banshee with a penchant for modern art. A Giant, Flesh-Ripping Doggie. A Goblin who is the Second Greatest Shaman Ever.

Stray Souls by Kate Griffin is a fun, fun twist on the Urban Fantasy novel. Griffin mixes together quirky characters, support group principles and customs, a compelling assignment, and a healthy dose of fantasy to create a novel that made me laugh a lot.

Sharon Lu’s mantra is “I am beautiful. I am wonderful. I have a secret. The secret is…” Part of the secret is that she occasionally walks through walls. She takes the initiative and, with the help of Facebook, starts a support group called Magicals Anonymous. Think church basement and good snacks. Her leadership skills bring her to the attention of the mysterious Midnight Mayor. He recognizes that she is a burgeoning shaman and gives her the task of saving the City. It turns out that someone is stealing the souls of places in the city. A large, supernatural dog is ripping people to shreds. And, Greydawn is missing. She is the presence that accompanies people in the early morning and lets them know that they are not alone in the City. The Midnight Mayor connects Sharon with a teacher, a great shaman who has some major issues. Sharon also finds her spirit guide, who sounds a lot like a game show announcer. Sharon, along with her newly found tribe, work together to “Save the City.”

While Stray Souls is a fun romp, it is also a well crafted novel. Despite being supernatural, the characters are likeable and believable. Griffin is spot on when she describes the feeling of being alone at 4:30 in the morning, the time when Greydawn is present. To me that is soul stuff, something deeper than I would expect from a fantasy novel. Sharon’s upbeat, take charge manner reminds me of the personality that so many of us have adapted at times, particularly those of us who have dealt with the public on a regular basis. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Town (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Was there something deeper and more mysterious in his mother’s philosophy than he and his generation who knew so much had suspected; something not simple but complex; something which held not only that hardship built happiness but which somehow implied that hate built love; and evil, goodness? 

I was reading one of the last chapters of The Town by Conrad Richter when I realized that I was sobbing. Up until that time, I wasn’t sure that I even liked the book. I felt like I was just plodding along, determined to finish yet another one of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction books. Sure, there were some beautiful scenes. But, after reading more current, popular fiction with fast paced plots and witty narrators, reading this novel felt like a chore. Yet, I realized that it touched my heart. I knew these characters. Perhaps I even was one or more of the characters.

The Town won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is the third novel in Richter’s The Awakening Land Trilogy, which begins with pioneers settling in 1795 Ohio and ends with the citizens industrializing the town that eventually rises up. If I had read the first two novels in the series, I am sure that I would have had a very different impression of the story. For example, I would have better understood the importance of the trees. Still, I could easily follow the plot.

Most of the chapters revolve around Sayward, the founder of the town and the mother of ten children, or her son Chancey, the runt of the family who was never expected to survive into adulthood. In many ways they are foils to one another, Sayward’s hardiness versus Chancey’s frailty. A number of chapters are about Rosa, the illegitimate child of Sayward’s husband, a respected judge. Rosa provides yet another foil to Chancey. He imagines that he isn’t really his parent’s son. While Rosa doesn’t realize that she is the Judge’s daughter.

I’m still not a great fan of slow moving, period piece novels, but The Town has many beautiful scenes. In one, Sayward finds out her long-lost sister is still alive, but the reunion proves more bitter than sweet. In another scene, Sayward, who has spent a life-time feeling animosity toward the trees, brings some saplings home to plant in her town yard. Over and over, Sayward makes one concession after another, yet until the very end she remains a strong, admirable woman. Part of me wishes that I had read the series from the very beginning so that I could read more about this woman.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Deep Down (Supernatural Mystery/ Fantasy Novel)

Black Dogs. Moving Shadows. Reapers. Death. Disappearing People. 

Deep Down by Deborah Coates is an enjoyable, forget-about-your-life-for-a-few-hours, novel. It is a direct sequel to Wide Open and combines elements of the supernatural with a touch of mystery.

Briefly, Halle is in the process of leaving the Army and is at loose ends as to what to do next. She thinks her days of seeing ghosts are over. But, things quickly turn weird. She has encounters with a black shadow that floods her with images. Halle begins to see mysterious black dogs that almost no one else can see. Her elderly neighbor begins to attract these black dogs and enlists Halle’s help to get rid of them. Meanwhile, Halle encounters a bizarre car accident, which is a copy of the one that killed Boyd’s wife. When Halle investigates further, she meets Holloway, who was responsible for the original accident and allegedly died as a result of it. He starts stalking Boyd’s sister-in-law. In addition, some of the town folks are disappearing. Halle sets out to uncover what is going on, enlisting the help of some interesting characters, which include a medium and one of the black dogs.

I didn’t enjoy Deep Down as much as I liked/loved Wide Open. Maybe some of the novelty wore off. I did enjoy how Coates deals with ideas about death and lost, which almost all of us face. I liked the supernatural elements and the various characters. The black dog is an interesting sidekick. I would certainly read any sequel, but I am not pining for it the way I do with some other series.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Drowning Girl (Mythic Fiction/Gothic Novel)

Hauntings. Ghosts. Sirens. Wolves. Mermaids. Drownings. Ravens. Schizophrenia. Suicides. Myths and Legends. Music. Paintings. Numbers. Murders. 

When I first started reading The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan, I thought it was a bunch of semi-coherent ramblings. I was confused how it could have been nominated for five awards -- 2012 Nebula, 2012 Shirley Jackson, 2013 Locus Fantasy, 2013 Mythopoeic, 2013 World Fantasy – and won the 2012 Stoker. In time I began to see the patterns and the forms, the play of themes, the interplay of the literal and the metaphoric.

Briefly, the story is narrated by Imp, a lesbian and schizophrenic, whose mother and grandmother both committed suicide. At the beginning of the novel Imp talks about a painting, "The Drowning Girl," that she saw in a museum when she was eleven. Imp rescues two women. The first is Abalyn, a transsexual, who makes her living writing reviews of video games. Imp finds Abalyn’s belongings out on the sidewalk after a messy breakup. Imp takes her back to her apartment, and they soon become girlfriends and lovers. The second woman whom Imp rescues is Eva. One night when Imp is out driving, she sees a naked woman along the side of the road. Imp takes her home. The true story of Eva, if it ever is actually revealed, is woven throughout the novel. Why does Imp think she met Eva twice? Why does Imp think that there are two Eva’s? What really happened between Imp and Eva? Who is (are) the “drowning girl”?

The Drowning Girl is not an easy novel to read. It has some intense themes, and it requires mental energy to work through the ideas. I won’t even pretend that I had it all figured out by the end. Even after finishing the novel, I still am seeing how all the ideas fit together.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Wide Open (Supernatural Mystery/ Fantasy Novel)

Okay, excluding some very necessary, quick breaks, I read Wide Open by Deborah Coates in one sitting. By the second page, I was deep into the story. At the end, I was grateful there was a sequel. I wouldn’t call it a "great" book from a literary standpoint, but it is a very engaging story. But then again, I am partial to mystery/fantasy hybrids.

Briefly, Halle comes home to South Dakota, on a bereavement pass from serving in Afghanistan, because of the death of her sister, Dell. Halle learns that suicide is the most likely cause of death. She also learns quite quickly that she is being accompanied by the ghost of her sister and the ghost of a fellow soldier. She soon meets Deputy Boyd, one of the few people who believes that there is more to Dell’s death. Halle first tries to uncover the truth of Dell’s death, but soon her goal changes to preventing more deaths. Boyd, himself, proves something of a mystery: what does he really know; is he a help or an obstacle. Halle has only ten days of leave to accomplish her mission.

I found so much to like about Wide Open. Halle is a very strong protagonist and yet I could identify with her grief. She struggles with the idea that she has some contact with her sister’s ghost—an enigmatic presence, but the experience is not the same as having her sister alive. I liked the pacing. Other than the ghosts, Coates waits until the middle of the book before she reveals that there is anything supernatural going on. We learn about Halle’s backstory fairly early in the story, but Boyd’s backstory is not revealed until close to the end. I also appreciated that the novel defies some formulas I associate with mysteries. I hope this is a beginning of a series in which I can look forward to reading the next book each year.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Understanding Comics (Non-fiction Book)

Understanding Comic: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud is a good “think” book. Not only does it educate the reader about the world of comics, but it also expands the reader’s way of looking at media and art. I believe that a person does not necessarily need to have a strong interest in comics to benefit from this book.

Briefly, as the name implies, Understanding Comic: The Invisible Art looks at comics as art. Appropriately, the information is presented in the form of a comic, with the author speaking to us from inside comic book panels. The author begins by trying to define what a comic is and looking at them from a historical standpoint, starting with “comics” from ancient cultures. The author goes on to discuss such topics as:
  • How people and their surrounds are represented, 
  • The relationship of different panels to one another within a particular comic, 
  • How time and space are treated within a comic, 
  • How visuals are used to express an invisible world, 
  • The relationship of words to pictures in a comic, 
  • The artist’s purpose and path in creating comics. 
Understanding Comics helped me look at comics in new ways and whet my appetite for new types of comics, for example Japanese style. It also gave me cross-genre ideas. For example, I could see the effect of authors using more or less information to describe their protagonists. By not focusing on some details, I could more easily imagine myself as the character. In the world of social media, I thought about how the picture and the background or graphic work together to create a message. While this is a very easy book to read, it also has the potentail be a very inspiring one.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Fool’s War (Science Fiction Novel)

Artificial Intelligence. Religious Faith. Prejudice. Conflict. 

I had a mixed reaction to Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel. On one hand, it has some really interesting ideas, many of which work well. On the other hand, I was left feeling like something was missing.

Briefly, Al Shei owns a spaceship, that transports cargo, as a kind of timeshare with her brother-in-law, a man of questionable character. Al Shei hopes that eventually the money she makes will be able to buy a dream spaceship for her much loved husband and her children. When Al Shei has her turn, she finds that her uncle has hired a Fool for this trip. Fools are highly respected individuals who “were entertainers, confidants, clowns (and) functioned as pressure valves for long trips and cramped quarters.” Al Shei also finds out that her brother-in-law has left a package on the ship. When things begin to go dramatically wrong, Al Shei desperately tries to find out more about the package. Eventually, Al Shei and her crew uncover a plot that could cause an unprecedented war.

Fool’s War has a number of strong points. For the most part, Al Shei as a character works for me. She is portrayed as a devout Muslim woman, but she is also a shrewd employer and a loving wife. At the end, she is a woman who must reconcile conflicting parts of herself. For the most part, I liked how Zettel dealt with Artificial Intelligence. She made an interesting conjecture on how an AI could become sentient. She also did a good job at describing the many action scenes where an AI is in the Net. Some of the scenes portray conflict, but others portray the love and caring of AI’s for one another.

Some ideas could have been developed more. There were some relationships between the crewmembers that could have been more fully explored. If the book had been part of a series, I would have loved the idea of the Fools to have been uncovered very slowly. The cadence felt wrong to me. It felt like the plotline launched into the conflict too early and stayed there too long. I needed more plateaus, where I could just breathe and soak in the characters.

All and all, I’m glad that I read this book.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Mistification (Fantasy / Horror Novel)

You do not understand. Without the magicians, all the ugliness would be revealed. All reason for living, all excuses for our existence would be destroyed. Society and civilization would collapse into anarchy.
I have only read a few horror novels in my life. So, while my local library classifies Mistification by Kaaron Warren as a horror story, I am reluctant to do so. Yes, at times it looks at the dark side of human nature. Yes, there are some violent scenes that involve the supernatural. But, for me, it is a novel in which the author has used various scenes and stories to communicate ideas and feelings about magic, healing and superstition.

Briefly, the novel is composed of one overarching plot with dozens of short stories interspersed. The major plotline involves Marvo. The story opens with his earliest memory, being eight years old and being hidden from men in green who want to kill him. Years later, when he finally leaves his hiding place, he learns about who he really is, a magician, about his mission, and about the world he has only been exposed to through television. Along the way he meets Andra, a witch and healer, and they create a magic act together. Marvo has a need for stories, “seeking stories like they were drugs.” Marvo attempts to fulfill his mission as a true magician, while avoiding the death he foresees in a vision.

I found Mistification fascinating. The novel is dark and too sexually explicit for young adults. I didn’t find it uplifting. I couldn’t relate to the characters. With the exception of the last part of the novel, the plot didn’t excite me. Yet, I enjoyed the story because it conveyed so many interesting ideas and feelings.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Woman Who Died A Lot (Science Fiction Novel)

Everything seemed somehow peaceful, even though the day did not portend well for a number of reasons, an inevitable murder being one of them and a cleansing pillar of fire for the other.
The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde, the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, is a delightful romp in an alternative reality. As with the previous books, I was only a few pages in before I found myself laughing out loud. This novel focuses less on the world of literature than the previous books and a little more on science fiction. New readers will have no clue what is going on; you really have to start with the first book in the Thursday Next series, The Eyre Affair. On the other hand, fans will have the satisfaction of seeing a number of plots from previous novels wrapped up.

Briefly, in the beginning of the book we learn that Swindon is destined to be smitted by God, and Friday, Thursday’s son, is destined to murder a young man. Thursday, of course, would like to prevent both of these things from happening. Her sixteen year old daughter, Tuesday, attempts to prevent the smiting, while also pursing young men and some interesting science projects. Thursday is rejected as head of the newly reactivated SO-27 and instead appointed as head of the Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library. To complicate matters, Thursday occasionally finds herself in another body. Jenny’s existence continues to be cause for concern. And, of course, Goliath continues to be up to no good.

Besides having an enjoyable time reading The Woman Who Died A Lot, I continue to admire Jasper Fforde’s world building. This alternative history is so wonderfully quirky and yet the characters feel very real. I found The Woman Who Died A Lot easier to read than the previous books in the series because it contains fewer allusions to literature. Again, I can hardly wait to read the next book in the series.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds (Mystery Novel)

But Cat says that you’re always interfering. She says that you get mixed up in all sorts of things and that you help people. She told me. And everybody know it. They know that if they need something sorted, they can go to you.”
In the above quote, Eddie, an employee of Isabel's niece, perfectly sums up the Isabel Dalhouse novels. The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith is the ninth novel in the series. It is part mystery, part philosophical musings, and part a gentle look at life. It appeals more to our right brains than our left.

Briefly, Isabel is approached by a “friend” whose friend, Duncan Munrowe, has had a very expensive painting stolen. In a bold move, the thief has chosen to use an intermediary to negotiate a type of ransom. Isabel tries to find out who stole the painting while she also offers emotional support to Duncan.

But the novel is really about people. Duncan ‘s relationship with his children takes center stage. Isabel and her husband Jamie are at odds with Grace, their beloved housekeeper, on how to best raise Charlie. Isabel learns more about Eddie’s painful past. Isabel struggles with biting her tongue and being kind.

The book is also about philosophy. Some of the discussions are abstract. What do we owe to future generations? How important is ethnic identity? Others are to close to home:
It was all very well being the editor of a journal of applied ethics; you could deliberate to your heart’s content on the rightness or wrongness of action, but none of it was real; not until somebody actually came up to you, as Duncan now was doing, and said: "Tell me what to do."
Part of me wonders why I read the Isabel Dalhouse novels; perhaps they are a bit highbrow for me. I don’t know much about art. I can’t relate much to wealth. I’ve never even been to Scotland. Yet, I know I sleep better when I have read one of Alexander McCall Smith’s books during the day. I feel more compassionate towards people. I look at life differently. I find myself replaying scenes in my mind. I find a kind of gentleness walks with me throughout my day. For me, The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds is not only a book; it is also a balm to soothe a troubled soul, at least for a few hours.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Pinterest Kick Start (Non-fiction How to Book)

I confess that I joined Pinterest because I wanted to be entered in a contest to win $500 of free clothes. I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured out enough to pin five pictures to my board. Pinterest Kickstart by Heather Morris and David Todd was a nice book to help me better understand Pinterest. After reading the book, I consider Pinterest as both a social networking site and also as a medium/tool for working with ideas.

Pinterest Kickstart is both a technical book and an idea book. It talks about how to navigate Pinterest and describes some of the apps and sites to use with it. The book also describes uses for Pinterst, everything from planning a wedding to promoting an event.

For those of us who are visual thinkers, Pinterest Kickstart offers inspiration. I already started to put my reading list on Pinterest. The book is relatively short and not particularly technical, but it is a good starting point for those of us new to Pinterest.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Trains and Lovers (Novel)

The moon is all about love,” he said. “The moon is about how we love others. About how we just want the best for those we love. We want them to be happy. We want everything to work out for them. The moon wants that for us, you know. That’s what the moon is.”
The recently released Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith is a novel about love. Like most of AMS’s novels, this one is best experienced with the heart.

The premise is that four people are sitting together on a train traveling from Edinburgh to London. Each one tells a story – actually I’m not sure whether the fourth person tells the story or just reflects to himself. At least three of the stories reference trains in some way. One story is about an art student who takes an internship at an auction house and falls in love with a woman who has a possessive father. A second story describes a Scotsman who moves to Australia and takes a job at a remote station. As part of his contract, he is required to have a wife. A third story describes what happens when a young man misses his train and meets a young woman who is waiting for her roommate who doesn’t show up. A fourth story describes the lifelong relationship between two boys who meet near their parents’ summer homes.

Part of me feels that AMS chickened out by not telling the story of gay lovers. Yet, considering his many fans, maybe it was a necessary step. Metaphorically, he pushes the envelope without bending it out of shape, alienating some of his readers.

For me, each of the stories in Trains and Lovers is a little world that I wanted to explore further. This day after finishing the book, a lazy Fourth of July, I spent some time musing about each storyline. Trains and Lovers is a small book, but it is thought provoking.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tales of the South Pacific (Pulitzer Winning Fiction Book)


I might argue that Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener is primarily a book about what happens while Navy men and women wait and prepare for action in the South Pacific Islands during the Second World War. The book is a hybrid, short stories that together tell an overarching story. The book won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which that year had been changed from the former category of Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. In 1949, Tales of the South Pacific was made into a successful musical.

Two short stories especially tugged at my heart. In the first, “Mutiny,” Norfolk is planned to have a strategic airstrip built on it. When an officer goes to the island to find out what the delay is all about, the inhabitants teach him about the emotional history of the island. In the second touching story, “The Cave,” a brave Brit goes behind Japanese lines and gives radio broadcasts, which help with the Ally war efforts. To some of the Americans waiting on the islands, he is a type of folk hero. To others, he is an obsession. When the broadcasts abruptly stop, some of the listening Americans set out to find out what happened to him.

Oh, I am oh so tired of reading all the war stories among the Pulitzer winners. I enjoyed many of the short stories in Tales of the South Pacific, but others were a chore to read. I was glad that some of the short stories take on issues of prejudice and racism. I also was grateful that much of the book looks at human nature. Most of the stories have a certain depth to them. I am also glad that the Pulitzer award category is expanded to include a book of short stories. I finished Tales of the South Pacific curious to see the musical.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Redshirts (Science Fiction Novel)

The red shirt,” Abnett said, “You know, in the original Star Trek, they always had Kirk and Bones and Spock and then some poor dude in a red shirt who got vaporized before the first commercial. The moral of the story was not to wear a red shirt. Or go on any away missions when you’re the only one whose name isn’t in the opening credits.” 

If the Thursday Next Series  and the Star Trek Series has a baby, it would be Redshirts by John Scalzi. In many ways, it is as much of a novel about science fiction as it is a science fiction novel. For the most part, it is a fun romp, although it does have some touching and thoughtful moments. The novel was nominated for both a 2013 Hugo and a 2013 Locus Science Fiction award.

Very briefly, Andrew Dahl is newly assigned to the ship Intrepid, along with a few other people. They soon realize that something is very odd about the ship. People die in totally bizarre ways on away missions. Some of the long-term crew members sustain massive injuries and yet always survive, healing within a week. The other crew members try to keep a low-profile. There are dramatic moments that don’t seem to make sense. Jenkins, who is in hiding on the ship, has an outrageous theory. But, when Dahl and his friends test the theory, Jenkins’ theory looks more plausible. Together they attempt to stop the mysterious deaths.

When I first started reading Redshirts, I was confused because it seemed so poorly written. How could this novel possibly be nominated for two awards? As I read further, I found it enjoyable in a sort of Alice through the rabbit hole sort of way. I like the fresh perspective. 2312 is still my pick for the 2013 Hugo award, but Redshirts has a strong appeal for those of us who have watched science fiction series week after week.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

2312 (Science Fiction Novel)

Now I remember why I hate Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels; I have major problems putting them down. Sleep, food, work, whatever, I just want to read the book. 2312 was another one of those books. As of this posting, the novel won the 2012 Nebula award and was nominated for the 2012 BSFA, 2013 Campbell, 2013 Clark, 2013 Hugo, and 2013 Locus Science Fiction awards. So, I am not alone with enjoying this novel.

Briefly, 2313 is set in the same world or a very similar world to the Mars Trilogy. In the opening of the novel we learn that Alex, a very influential woman in the solar system, has just passed away. Alex left some unfinished business, but she had worked in secrecy, keeping the information from her beloved granddaughter Swan. Despite being over 100 years old, Swan is something of a wild child. She soon meets close associates of Alex, including Wahram, a froggy looking man who is a lover of routines. While Swan and Wahram are coming back from attending a concert away from the Mercury city of Terminator, the city is attacked and destroyed. The two go into an underground tunnel and spend days hiking through it to a place where they can be rescued, thus creating a bond between them. How and why was the well-protected city destroyed? What were Alex’s important projects? Why are strange people showing up and are they a type of quantum computer? If people can terraform planets, can they also revive Earth? 2313 turns out to be a pivotal year for the solar system.

Be aware that 2313 is definitely not appropriate for young adults. If I had a preteen, I don’t think I would want them to read about how bi-gendered individuals have sex.

At times my brain wandered to Asimov’s Foundation Series. I found myself wondering “Did this happen in the Mars Trilogy or the Foundation Series?” Maybe, it is just me.

There are so many things that I liked about 2313. I liked the world building, and there are a lot of worlds. Asteroids are being hollowed out to create terrarium worlds. I liked that hard science, sociology, politics, and philosophy are presented in the descriptions of the solar system. I enjoyed the characters. Wahram is the perfect foil to Swan. I enjoyed the fast moving plot, including the mystery aspect of the story. I enjoyed the structure of the book. Robinson sets long descriptions –such as how to create a terrarium-- in small chapters apart from the main storyline. This novel is definitely worthy of its numerous award nominations.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Pseudoiteratives (Quotes from 2313)

In 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson describes “pseudoiteratives.” The last couple of days I have been thinking about all the pseudoiteratives that I have had over my lifetime and the one or two that I currently have. I know that pondering this idea will ever so subtly permanently change the way that I look at my world.
He needed order, and a project; he needed habits….Of course there was no such thing as a true repetition of anything; ever since the pre-Socratics that had been clear, Heraclitus and his un-twice-steppable river and so on. So habits were not truly iterative, but pseudoiterative. The pattern of the day might be the same, in other words, but the individual events fulfilling the pattern were always a little bit different. Thus there was both pattern and surprise, and this was Wahram’s desired state: to live in a pseudoiterative. But then also to live in a good pseudoiterative, an interesting one, the pattern constructed as a little work of art.
Oh yes, I have been where Wahram is. I think of the times that I have moved to a new city, suffered the loss of a major person in my life, left or taken a new job or project.
Life is at most a pseudoiterative. Each day has its particulars. Performing the same actions day after day, in a ritual to ward off time, to hold the moment, does not remove these particulars, but rather burnishes them. The animals, our horizontal brothers and sisters, remind us; each day lived is a kind of adventure, a success. Nothing ever repeats. Each breath is a new suck of the atmosphere, a gasp for life. A hope for experience. Feel that and go on.
Oh, these two quotes are so beautiful. This is why I read, to have someone describes ideas like this that change my perspective on life. Thank you, Kim Stanley Robinson.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

All the King’s Men (Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel)

I wondered if he (Willie Stark) believed what he had said. He had said that you have to make the good out of the bad because that is all you have got to make it out of. 

When I first started reading All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, I couldn’t stand it and did not think that I could possibly continue reading it. By the time I finally finished, it was one of my favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels. Not only did it win the 1947 Pulitzer Prize, but it was also made into numerous movies.

Briefly, All the King’s Men is the story of Willie Stark, who goes from being an idealistic “sap” running for governor to being the “Boss,” an intimidator of all those who would oppose him. The novel is also about Jack Burden, the narrator of the story, whose “friends of youth” get tangled up in his loyalty to the “Boss.” The results are tragic.

I was initially turned off by All the King’s Men for a number of reasons. The sentences are long. I mean really loooooooong, with lots of intricate detail. The novel has long paragraphs, which are parts of long chapters. Then, it is about politics, in the South during the 1930’s, no less. This is definitely not my thing, at all, whatsoever.

The turning point for me was a chapter where a college-aged Jack Burden researches the life of a relative, Cass Mastern, who lived around the time of the Civil War. Mastern’s affair had tragic, unexpected consequences. Suddenly the detail that I found painful early on in the novel allowed me to feel transported into the story. A few chapters later, Warren describes the summer that a young Jack fell in love with his childhood friend Anne. I found both of these chapters amazing.

By the time the storyline got back to the politics, I felt like I was reading a totally different novel. I was emotionally invested in the characters. I was moved by the numerous tragedies towards the end of the story. I pondered the moral character of Jack Burden and his role in what happened.

I was impressed by the artistic talent of Warren. The detail draws the reader into the story. The sentence length, which actually does vary length after the opening chapters, creates tone and emotion. The philosophical ideas that Warren raises are provocative.

I am so glad that I didn’t walk away from this novel.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Akata Witch (Young Adult Fantasy Novel)

 Leopards. Lambs. Juju. A Serial Killer. Mentors. Masquerades. Uniqueness.

While Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor is a young adult fantasy novel aimed at the preteen crowd, I still found it enjoyable to read. I liked the setting of Nigeria. I liked all the feel-good elements: celebrating your uniqueness, working together as a group, finding a mentor, uncovering your true identity and talents.

Briefly, Sunny is a twelve year old girl who was born in the United States and moved to her parents’ native country of Nigeria. She is taunted and bullied by her classmates because she is an albino. She is befriended by Orlu, with whom she becomes friends. She then becomes friends with Orlu’s friend, Chichi, who helps her discover who she really is, a Leopard Person, a person with magical abilities. Along with Sasha, an American boy, they are taken under the wing of a Leopard teacher and taught Leopard ways. Finally, as a group, they are given the task of defeating Black Hat, who has been murdering children so that he can perform powerful magic.

Akata Witch is well written. Nnedi Okorafor creates a fascinating spirit world. While much of the story is upbeat, it does deal with some dark elements of life. This is definitely a book I would recommend for a preteen.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ash (Young Adult Fantasy Novel)

A Stepmother. An Orphan. Fairies. A Curse. An Agreement. A Huntress. An Eligible Prince. Choices. 

Ash by Malinda Lo takes the basic story of Cinderella and gives it some major twists. While this young adult novel is popularly considered a lesbian love story, it can also be interpreted metaphorically as a young woman claiming the power of her inner feminine — think Carl Jung.

Briefly, twelve year old Ash loses her mother after a very brief illness. Ash is devastated and spends long periods of time sitting and lying on her mother’s grave. During some of these episodes, Ash becomes aware of a fairy world, a world that her father and popular society now deny. One of the male fairies takes a special interest in Ash. Her father soon remarries a woman with two daughters. After Ash’s father dies, her stepmother claims that he left a huge pile of debts. In order for Ash to pay off the debts, she must work as a servant to her cruel stepmother. One of the twists is that the King usually has a Huntress. At a party where Ash is excluded, the current Huntress is one of the few people to recognize Ash and her pain. Later,a new Huntress and Ash experience numerous coincidental meetings. At the end of the story, Ash must make a life changing choice.

Although Ash is aimed at the young adult audience, it also spoke to me as a middle-aged adult. It poignantly describes the longing I have felt for the people in my life who have died. It describes surrendering to the conditions in our lives and then rising above them. It describes love. This is a lovely fairytale, and I hope that people don’t avoid it because of any labels attached to it.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Guard of Honor (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

A Birthday Celebration. A Fight. Publicity. Airplanes. An Army Base. Segregation. Officers. WACs. 

Guard of Honor by James Could Cozzens won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1949. I have mixed feelings about the novel. On the one hand, it is a long novel, over 600 pages, that has very little action. Much of the story is filled with discussions, politicking, and verbal sparring. On the other hand, the novel is well-written and describes some interesting aspects of WWII.

Briefly, the novel takes place over three days in 1943. Most of the story takes place on an Army Air Base in Florida. We are first introduced to some of the characters, mostly officers, who are flying to the base. While trying to land, their plane has a near collision with a plane filled with African American officers, who are just about to begin a special project on the base. Benny, a war hero, assaults one of the black men, increasing racial tension in the story. In the meantime, a huge birthday party, complete with a simulated air attack, is being planned for General Beal’s birthday. The characters also must contend with publicity, including a leak of “confidential” information.

While not one of my favorite novels, Guard of Honor has some interesting aspects. It describes what happens to civilians who were already established in their careers and families and who now must function as Army officers. The novel describes some of the issues involved with trying to racially integrate the military during WWII. It shows a bit of the role of the Women’s Army Corp. It describes a bit of the Air Corp when it was under the jurisdiction of the Army and before it became a separate branch. From a personal perspective, I would have liked more focus on the African American Officers and on the WACs. Guard of Honor is a good novel but not necessarily an entertaining one.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Polar City Blues (Science Fiction Novel)

Murders. Psychic Ability. Politics. Artificial Intelligence. First Contact. Baseball.

Polar City Blues by Katharine Kerr is what I classify as an “I get by with a little help from my friends” novel. Sure, it is solid science fiction with a twist of mystery. Sure, it is packed with action. Yes, it definitely is an example of good world building. Yes, it has a strong heroine. But, what makes this an especially enjoyable novel for me are the different relationships, in all their various forms. I especially enjoyed how Kerr gives many of the characters, even the murderer, a backstory.

Briefly, there is a murder in Polar City on the planet of Hagar. The murder has far reaching political implications. Mulligan, a down on his luck psychic, is one of the first people on the scene. What he may or may not have learned about the murder puts his life in danger. Much of the novel is about finding the murderer before he finds Mulligan. As it becomes clear that the murderer is a hired assassin, the second mystery is the motive for the murder.

I purposely read Polar City Blues because Katharine Kerr is an author who I have not previously read and who is on the Women of Genre Reading Challenge list. As I read this novel, I thought to myself that this is an example of the difference between male and female writing. The basic plot line is typical Science Fiction fare, but the way it is developed is much more yin, feminine. I do not in any shape or form mean that this is a “chick novel.” It is rather that the novel looks more at the sentient (people) side of the story, like many of the mystery novels by women I enjoy, than at the technical or political side. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Bell for Adano (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

A Bell. A Major. Mule Carts. A Town. Americans. Fishing. Fascists. Wine.
I want you to be happy together. I want all of you to have as much as you can of what you want, without hurting anyone else. That is what I want for Adano. 
The Pulitzer Prize winning novel for 1945, A Bell for Adano by John Hersey, is a relatively unsophisticated story that speaks of human nature. It is both humorous and touching. It was made into a movie in 1945.

Briefly, Major Victor Joppolo, a former sanitation worker, is named senior civil affairs officer of Adano. He is the face of the Americans, who now have control of the town. He is a good man, who deep down just wants to be liked. At the beginning of the story, he asks various people what the town most needs. Repeated they say that it needs a new bell to replace the century old one that was taken by the Fascists. The bell represents the spirit of the town. Over time, despite resistance from others in the American military, he is able to win the hearts and minds of the people of Adano. He helps the town to get back on its feet and regain its spirit.

A Bell for Adano is an enjoyable little book. It was easy and fun to read. I do find it interesting that Hersey paints a relatively humorous and not so complementary picture of the US military so close to the time of WWII. The book could not have been without some controversy. I enjoyed the book enough to want to see the movie.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Natural History of Dragons (Fantasy/SF Novel)

A Childhood Passion. A Soulmate. An Expedition. Dragons. Scientific Discovery. A Mystery. Ancient Ruins. Smugglers.

Imagine being a young girl with a passion for science in an age where young girls are expected to be prim and proper, preparing to become the perfect wife. Now, imagine that passion is for studying dragons. The recently released, A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan is a memoir, told by an old woman, of how a forbidden childhood passion turned into a life-long career. Needless to say, the book is part fantasy, but it is also mixed with a good dose of mystery, some science, some adventure, and a bit of a love story.

Briefly, we meet Isabella at age seven when she is dragon-crazy, like many young girls are horse-crazy. She embalms a “sparkling,” a very small dragon, a symbolic beginning. In her early teen years, she dresses up as a boy in an effort to go on a dragon hunt. The results are almost fatal. She then goes through a grey phase where she gives up all things dragon and attempts to be the perfect daughter. Once she turns 16, her parents expect her to find a husband. Her sympathetic father hires a matchmaker, who makes a list of suitable candidates with extensive libraries that they would willingly share with their prospective wife. During a side trip with her brother to a menagerie, Isabella sees a dragon exhibit, where she meets Jacob, who happens to be on the list. He falls in love with her passion for science –well, really dragons. They marry. After a heartbreaking event, Jacob fully realizes his wife’s love of dragons. Isabella manages to convince Jacob to let her go with him on an expedition to study dragons. Something proper ladies just do not do. Once they arrive at their destination, they are confronted by mysteries. What has happened to their contact, who was supposed to meet them? Why are dragons, which normally ignore people, attacking them? Finding the answers will forever change Isabella.

I keep on using the word “beautiful” to describe A Natural History of Dragons. Yes, it has a strong female character. Yes, it has plenty of action and a well-developed mystery. Yes, it has likeable characters. But, what I experienced was a young woman with a passion, that ultimately brought her fulfillment but not without some major heartbreak. I’ve put this novel on my list of worthy award nominees for 2014.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Debris (Science Fiction Novel)

Debris by Jo Anderton is a novel that I would love to watch as a movie. It has a strong, but flawed female character. I could easily feel empathy for her. The novel has cool special effects and wonderful world-building. It also has a fast-paced plot. 

Briefly, the story takes place in the future, where people have learned to mentally manipulate pions, the very building blocks of matter. While the novel is clearly science fiction, the premise has a bit of the feel of magic. Tanyana is a skilled architect, who leads a circle of other pion manipulators. In the opening chapter, they are working on a magnificent – very expensive, very high profile– sculpture, when there is a tragic incident. The sculpture is totally destroyed, and Tanyana’s life is devastated. She loses her ability to see, let alone manipulate pions. She is left with grotesque scars. The government is more interested in having Tanyana make restitution, than hearing her side of the story. They tell her the incident is a tragic incident caused by her over estimating her abilities. She believes that she has been the victim of an attack by something she has never seen before. Against her will, Tanyana is surgically fitted with a “suit,” which will allow her to become a collector of debris, the byproduct of pion manipulation. This job is considered one of the lowest in society. The suit first looks like a series of odd, metal rings around various parts of her body. The suit begins deep in Tanyana’s blood stream. It can extend out to form tools or even a shield. It also has odd symbols on it, some of which allow her to be called to emergencies. Tanyana forms a romantic relationship with the technician who designed the suit and implanted it in her. In the rest of the book, Tanyana tries to adjust to her literal and metaphoric falls and to rise up again. She learns how to become a skilled debris collector. She makes new friends and allies. She uncovers the truth behind her “accident” and the strange things that caused it.

For me, Debris was more than just an exciting story. It hints at the yin and yang that work together to form our world. It describes overcoming a fall from societal grace. It talks about the power in “flaws.” Debris is the first book in the planned Veiled Worlds Series, and I am looking forward to reading the next book.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How Starbucks Saved My Life (Non-fiction Book)

Coffee. Mistakes. Second Chances. Famous Writers. Respect.

On one level, How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill is a feel-good book about a man in his sixties who is down on his luck and is offered a job at a local Starbucks. On another level, the book is a study in contrasts: a driving executive vs. a thoughtful barista, a life of privilege vs. a life of struggle, despotism vs. compassion and respect, opulence vs. simplicity.

Briefly, at the beginning of the book, Michael Gates Gill is a 63 year old man who is down on his luck. He was laid off from his job as a high powered executive ten years earlier and is now unable to support himself as a consultant. He is divorced with four grown children from his first marriage and a son by a woman with whom he had an affair. One day while having coffee, he is half-playfully asked if he would like to apply for a job at a Starbucks. Realizing that this might be one of his last chances, he jumps at the job. The book describes his struggle to master the job. It also describes his earlier life, complete with name dropping of the many famous writers he met over the years. He was a man used to giving orders and now finds himself taking orders from people he might not have treated with respect in his earlier life.

Carl Jung talked about exploring the less developed parts of our personalities in the second half of our lives. This seems to me what Gill describes in How Starbucks Saved My Life. We see a man who is very different from his younger self: more yin, nurturing, content, and sentimental. This is a lovely book that affirms what it is like to be a human being.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Happy Policeman (Science Fiction Novel)

Saying makes things so. What occurs is of no importance. What is important is perception. It is belief, not the act, that creates resonance patterns. You don’t have the right attitude. I try to make happy policemen. I don’t know why you insist on making unhappy ones.
Happy Policeman by Patricia Anthony is quirky and philosophical. This 1994 novel combines elements of science fiction, mystery, New Age thought, and odd small town characters.

Briefly, Dewitt, the policeman of a small Texas community, finds the Mary Kay lady murdered in an unusual way. Everyone is a suspect: the space aliens, who drive UPS trucks and furnish the town with all its needs; his own wife, an Avon Lady and a rival; the ex-husband; the doctor, an alcoholic; the mayor, a notorious pothead; the banker; the fundamentalist minister. The town has been isolated from the rest of the world since Bomb Day—when Reagan dropped the atomic bomb—six years earlier. The town has no idea what is on the other side of the line that the aliens have set up. By the end of the novel, the answer is revealed.  

Happy Policeman was a nice change of pace for me after I had read so many serious novels. Most of the time, I found it fun. At moments, I found it thought provoking: “Am I being ‘a happy policeman or an unhappy policeman?’” Towards the end, it raised questions of morality and justice. This is not your typical science fiction fare, and I was glad of it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Dragon’s Teeth (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Nazism. Communism. Socialism. Feudalism. Politics. Art. Music. Spiritualism. Family. Duty. 

In Dragon’s Teeth, Upton Sinclair brings alive the history of Germany during the 1930’s. Through the fictional character of Lanny Budd, the reader experiences the events surrounding the rise of Nazism. This novel won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel and is the third book in the Lanny Budd Series. The novel was written well before the end of WWII. 

Briefly, the novel opens with Lanny Budd’s wife Irma, an heiress, giving birth to their first child, Frances. Irma is a socialite and a celebrity. Much to his wife’s consternation, Lanny has a keen interest in Socialism. His half-sister, Marceline, has married into a Jewish family. Lanny has friendships that include Communists, Socalists, Capitalists, and Nazis. The first part of the novel describes various social engagements. In the second half of the novel, a number of Jewish members of the family are taken prisoner by the Nazis. Lanny uses his social connections and risks his life to try to get them out of Germany.

For me, Dragon’s Teeth did not get interesting until the second half of the book. The first part of the novel seemed like just another story about rich people, and I had to force myself to read it. Maybe I felt that way because I did not read the first two books in the series. The novel picks up once Lanny tries to rescue his Jewish family members. As far as I’m concerned, the novel would have been better without the first 200 to 300 pages.

At time, I found the politics and historical events interesting and at other times I found them boring. Sinclair describes the economic and social climate that provided a fertile ground for the rise of the Nazis regime. This made me think of some of the events in America and Europe these past few years. Knowing one’s history helps one more easily see the beginning of a potential repeat. Sinclair talks about Hitler being so mad that no one took him seriously. Sinclair says that the atrocities in Germany were so incredible that no one from the rest of the world believed what was happening. Reading the book helped open my eyes.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (YA Fantasy Novel)

Angels. Demons. Teeth. Chimaera. Sketches. Love. Family. Pain. Wishes. War. 

I suspect that in the not too distant future we will be talking about the actors in Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Right now we need to be satisfied to read this award winning novel by Laini Taylor. In 2011, it won awards for Publisher Weekly’s Best Children’s Book and School Library Journal Best Books of the year. It has also been on various best seller lists. The novel puts a fresh spin on the angel and demon myths.

Briefly, the novel starts out with a somewhat familiar theme. Karou leads a double life. In one world, she is a talented art student at a school in Prague, going through all the familiar emotions of a teenager. But, she also has a “family,” whom she can only visit by way of secret entrances. They are four chimeras, combinations of different species, and live elsewhere. She was raised by Brimstone, who looks vaguely like a demon. He gives her charms that allow her to manifest minor wishes. He often sends Karou on errands, all over her world, to collect different types of teeth. Her odd but familiar life is forever changed when she encounters an angel, who destroys all the entrances that allow her to be with her “family.” Why is she attracted to someone who should be her enemy? Who is she really and where did she come from? What does Brimstone do with the teeth he collects? What is the secret behind the wishes? Who are the real bad guys?

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is an enjoyable story, even for someone who is not a young adult. Taylor does a nice job of world building. The book smoothly takes us from a fairly familiar world to one that is rich in fantasy. The characters are multi-dimensional, having flaws and virtues. I look forward to reading the next book in this trilogy, Daughter of Blood and Starlight.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Maybe we can start again, in the new rich land – in California, where the fruit grows. We’ll start over.
But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me – why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of the moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. 
Wow. Novels like Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, are one of the reasons that I have set out to read the Pulitzer Prize winners. The novel is haunting and beautiful, tugging at the heart strings. It won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel and was made into a film the same year.

Briefly, the story is set in the Depression, around the time of the Dust Bowl. Tom Joad returns home from prison after serving four years for killing a man. He meets Casy, who has given up his life as a preacher. Joad finds his family home in Oklahoma has been destroyed by the bank, which has foreclosed on the land and is using tractors to force a few last crops of cotton before the soil loses its life. Inspired by hand bills showing an idyllic scene, the Joad family sell most of their possessions and start off for California. As they make their way by truck, they soon find that thousands of other families are doing the same thing. Once in California, they become migrant workers, despised and feared by the wealthy land owners.

On one level, the novel is depressing as all hell. Steinbeck does an excellent job of conveying the powerlessness of the families. On the other hand, this is a magnificent novel. Steinbeck conveys the strength of the families and the migrant communities. He does a wonderful job comparing the warmth of original farmers and the disassociation of the banks and the wealthy land owners. This is also a timeless novel; I saw parallels between what the people were experiencing then and what many people have experienced in the latest recession. Once again, this is a classic that even adults out of school can appreciate and savor.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Yearling (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Flag had eased a loneliness that harassed him in the very heart of his family.
The Yearling, by Majorie Kinnan Rawlings, is a mega-classic. It was the winner of the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. It was made into a 1946 award winning film. It is a novel that generations of children and adults have read and remembered.

Briefly, the novel is set in the Florida backwoods at the end of the 1800’s. Jody’s parents work hard to make a living farming. At the beginning of the novel we see Jody in his full, preteen innocence. Jody asks for “somethin’ to pet and play with,” something to love. After his father kills a doe, Jody adopts the orphaned fawn. They are as close as any boy and dog could be. As the story progresses, we see Jody learning about the harshness of nature and man: illnesses, attacks, floods, deaths. By the end of the novel, Jody has become a young-adult.

Times have changed. Despite being in the Children’s section of my local public library, The Yearling feels like a young adult book to me, especially with its graphic scenes of violence. Even as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was well written and had beautiful descriptions. I would encourage any adult who has not read The Yearling before to pick it up.