"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review #2: Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis

Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the wood...

Imagine a world where there are no books, where nobody reads, where nobody thinks for themselves. Where the world is run by machines, by robots. Where the human race is, quite literally, stoned, and often self immolates for no discernable reason. Welcome to a dystopian 25th century America. Reading has been outlawed, books have been destroyed, the public at large has been drugged, and the government is run by an intelligent, never-aging robot whose only desire is to be able to end his life.

Mockingbird centers around three characters: Spofforth, the suicidal leader who was designed to be incapable of killing himself; Paul, a university professor who has illegally taught himself to read by watching early 20th century films; and Mary Lou, a woman who asks questions, refuses to believe the answers, and finds herself the only pregnant woman left in the world.

While Mockingbird is definitely not my usual genre, I really enjoyed it. It reads like an homage to Farenheit 451 and Brave New World, and is not a little scary. We live in a world of machines and electronic devices, all designed to make our lives better. But what if all the artificial intelligence we're manufacturing kills all the natural intelligence we already have? Already, there are studies that suggest we're getting dumber as a species. We don't need to know the answer; there's an app for that. If another country wanted to cripple us, they wouldn't send a nuclear bomb - they would just turn off the internet, and we would be powerless. Mockingbird may be considered science fiction, and while I agree with the science portion of that label, I'm not so sure it's fiction. And that's terrifying.

Review #1: Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

Once in a blue moon, someone gives you a book that you would have never picked up on your own, and you can't put it down. Shantaram is one of those books.

Set in Mumbai, India in the late 70s and early 80s, Shantaram is the semi-autobiographical story of Lin, an escaped Australian convict. Lin was serving nineteen years for armed robbery when he escaped over the prison walls, hopped a few planes, and wound up in Mumbai. What follows is a sweeping story that takes the reader from the slums in the shadows of the World Trade Centre to the palaces of the Indian mafia, from unincorporated villages with no power or running water to the caves and mountains of Afghanistan, from the shackles of Arthur Road Prison to the delicate freedom of Colaba, from Leopold's (which made me think of nothing so much as Rick's American Cafe) to the House of the Standing Babas.

To try to explain what this novel is about is futile, because it's about everything. It's about humans and relationships and friendships and torture and blood and redemption and enemies and philosophy and shame and loneliness and war and peace and money and poverty and power and betrayal and prison and suffering and perseverance and triumph and glory and life. And it's about love. At its heart, Shantaram is a love story, written to the country that Roberts fell in love with, written to the men who changed his life, written to the woman he loved, written to the friends who saved his life.

Roberts is a supremely gifted writer; his prose is superb and seductive. He holds nothing back, laying his heart shamelessly bare on every page. He will make you laugh, make you cry, make you angry, make you hopeful, make you think, and make you beg for more. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review #9: The Queen's Fool, by Philippa Gregory

The Queen's Fool is one of those books that sat on my bookshelf for awhile, getting passed over time and again for something else. I don't know if it was the cover (it does look a little romance-y) or the blurb on the back, but it never really jumped out and demanded to be read. Then one day, I found myself reaching for it, and I couldn't put it down.

Set during the tumultuous years after King Edward's death in the sixteenth century, the novel tells the story of Hannah Green, a young Jewish girl who escaped Spain and the Inquisition with her father, but not her mother, who was executed before they left. Hannah is hired as a fool for the young and inexperienced Queen Mary, and is immediately swept in to the intrigue that surrounds the palace and the royal court. Half in love with Robert Dudley, one of the palace consorts, unsure of her place - and safety - in the court, forced to keep her father's profession as a printer secret, forced to keep her identity as a Jew secret, and tempted to defect to Elizabeth's court, Hannah's loyalty to Mary is tested at every turn.

I'm not a sixteen-century English historian - my knowledge of that era is limited to what I can vaguely remember from junior year literature, a handful of movies, and some trashy romance novels - but Gregory paints Tudor London with such a vivid brush that I found myself wanting to learn more about these characters, these kings and queens and consorts and fools and spies who really existed. And that, I think, is the mark of a great story.

Review #8: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

One of my closest friends hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) a few years ago. She's an experienced hiker; she did the Appalachian Trail a few years prior to that. (And we're talking through-hike. All eleventy million miles of it. Both the AT and the PCT. This is something I would never do. I don't pee outside, let alone hike. I'm not really sure how it is we're friends.) Anyway, my hiker friend happened to be visiting while I was reading Wild, and I asked her whether she'd read it, what she thought of it. She paused for a moment, gathered her thoughts, and then said, "I liked the book. I'm not sure I liked her, though." And that sums up my feelings about this memoir pretty succinctly.

Cheryl Strayed weaves a good story. She knows how to grab her reader from the beginning by starting out with a story of the forest literally swallowing her boot, leaving her stuck in the woods with nothing but crappy camp sandals, which are little more than knock off Tevas you can pick up at a gas station. Hardly conducive to hiking fifteen miles a day. With this opening anecdote, the reader realizes that Cheryl is a mess, both literally and figuratively.

Reconstructed from her trail journals, Strayed bounces back and forth from her journey to the events that led her to take those first steps in California. She details the tragic death of her mother at 45, the demise of her marriage, the actions that brought about her divorce, her struggle with drugs (heroin - this girl doesn't mess around), and her general feeling of being directionless. She describes the PCT, its wildness and unpredictability, her backpack Monster and the PCT itself almost becoming characters in their own right. Interestingly, it's the other people she meets on the trail - and who only appear for brief moments - that are the most brightly painted, not her family or her friends or her ex-husband, all of whom are written about pretty extensively.

I found Strayed difficult to sympathize with, but perhaps that's the thirty-something in me losing patience with the twenty-something Cheryl. I was shocked at her unpreparedness. This is a girl who had camped but never hiked, who did little to no research beyond buying a book and talking to people at REI, and who walked in to the woods with no direction, no plan, and no money. Perhaps that was the point, but she was so unprepared that, quite frankly, I'm a little surprised she survived. Luckily, and I wish she had spent more time on this, several people helped her out along the way, and by that I mean, taught her what she needed to bring, gave her food, helped her with shelter, and generally did things that kept her alive. 

Wild is touted as a journey from lost to found on the PCT, and I know without a doubt that she was lost when she went in to the woods. But I'm not sure she's as found as she thinks she is. Maybe none of us are.

Not Writing...

...my reviews. I've been reading, I swear, but actually writing? Turns out I'm not good at staying on top of that.

So I wrote two reviews today, and hopefully (hopefully hopefully hopefully), I'll get back on track.

With reviews and, you know, everything else.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review #7: Divergent, by Verionica Roth

I feel like everyone on the planet has read this book, so I'm not sure what else I can add to the discussion. We all know the story by now: a dystopian Chicago, teenagers who have to choose their faction - and their future as well, the brave young girl who goes against the grain, the realization that we may not all fit in to one neat little box, the older mentor she sort of falls in love with, the sacrifices of the parents.

I recognize that I'm not the target audience because I'm well over the age that YA authors are writing for, but it is nice to see a book that's not about vampires, a book that doesn't have a stupid girl in it, and a book that shows strong characters, both male and female, So often, I feel like the "strong girl books" paint the boys as weak, and that's as damaging as when we write weak females. I get so tired of the notion that either the girl or the boy have to be strong, that theyt can't be both, and that strong characters can't show weakness. Real people are weak and strong at the same time, and we need to teach our kids that it's okay to be both.

A friend (a high school English teacher, actually) recommended Divergent to me, telling me it was loads better than Hunger Games. I'm not sure I agree, and I don't really think the two can compare. They both have a strong female lead, but I felt like they were very different books. I enjoyed Divergent, but I also wasn't 100% compelled to rush right out and read the other two books in the series. I'll eventually get around to it, I'm sure, but I didn't need to immediately find out what happens.

Review #6: The Chase, by Janet Evanovich & Lee Goldberg

Oh, Janet. I love you. I love your slightly control freak women who don't exactly have a handle on their lives, your devilishly handsome men who like to live in the grey area of morality, and most especially, the wacky hijinks you cook up.

The Chase picks up where The Heist left off, with FBI Special Agent Kate O'Hare and master criminal Nick Fox (get it with the names?) secretly teaming up to recover a Chinese artifact that has gone missing. See, the Chinese loaned the US a bronze rooster awhile ago, and a rich Chinese guy wanted it back. Sure, no problem, except the rooster's a fake; the real one was stolen years ago. Nick hatches a plan, but you know what they say about best laid plans. Shenanigans ensue, and some of the old B characters come back for a cameo. My favorites are Kate's dad, a former Army Ranger (or something like that) who lives in his other daughter's garage, but can still, at 60+, save the day in a helicopter with a knife strapped to his thigh, and Wilma, a blowsy broad who can drive, pilot, fly, or steer just about anything.

This isn't a particularly challenging book, the mystery isn't a deep psychological thriller, but sometimes I don't want that. Sometimes, I want to read to escape, and Janet lets me do that when she takes me in to her weird, wacky worlds. Plus, also, Nick is kind of hot, so that helps. (Not Ranger hot - because nobody is - but I wouldn't kick him out of bed, and sometimes a girl needs to have a pretend white collar criminal boyfriend.)