"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened
and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you
and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse,
and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was."
Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Goldberg Variations

Goldberg Variations
Goldberg Variation
Susan Isaacs

The Summary
"Imagine King Lear as a comedy...

"Elegant, amusing, and profoundly nasty tycoon Gloria Garrison, née Goldberg, has a kingdom to bequeath to one of the grandchildren she barely knows.  They're all twentsomethings who foolishly believe money isn't everything.  Just shy of eighty, Gloria doesn't wish to watch the minutes tick by while the three dither over the issues of their generation--love, meaning, identity.  She has summoned them all from New York for a weekend at her palatial home in Santa Fe.  she has a single question to ask them:  'Which one of you most deserves to inherit my business?'  Gloria never anticipates the answer will be 'not interested' three times.  She created a brilliant, booming beauty business, Glory Inc., that not only does well, but does good.  And they say 'no'?  What's so grand about their lives that they would reject such a kingdom?

"Daisy Goldberg is not only mad for movies, she's part of the film industry:  East Coast story editor for one of the biggest studios.  Her brother, Matt, the über-sports buff, has a great job in public relations with major League Baseball.  And their cousin Raquel Goldberg, half-Latina, all Catholic, is a Legal Aid lawyer.  They may like their work, but do they really like their lives?  Would they be so foolish as to hold against their grandmother the pain she inflicted on every member of the family?  As far as Gloria is concerned, this isn't about tender feelings.  It's about millions of dollars; it's about living a life the ninety-nine percent dream of and the one percent know.

"The weekend is full of surprises, not only for Daisy, Matt, and Raquel but also for Gloria.  Memories have a way of intruding at the most inopportune times.  And is Gloria's tough hide as impenetrable as she always believed?  Susan Isaacs is at her formidable best in Goldberg Variations, a novel that is both wickedly witty and a deeply moving tale of family and reconciliation."

The Good
Goldberg Variations is a pretty enjoyable novel.  I liked that it was based on Shakespeare's King Lear; in fact, that's what actually attracted me to it in the first place.  However, what kept me involved was Gloria and her caustic personality.  She's rather horrible--abrupt, unsentimental, tough, rather cold-hearted when it boils down to it--but she's an unexpectedly great narrator.  I was hooked pretty quickly.

Plus, I couldn't wait to see how (or if) Gloria and her three grandchildren--Daisy, Matt, and Raquel--would manage to reconcile.  It's rather interesting to see how they all interact, surprising to see the little connections between them that make them family.  I also found it fascinating to see how the characters grow.

Susan Isaacs uses multiple narrators in her novel, which, in this case, works rather well.  Daisy, Matt, Raquel, and Gloria are all enjoyable and engaging.  They are candid, introspective, and interesting, certainly enough to keep me invested as the story continued.  I was pleasantly surprised by the final chapter, because I really didn't expect things to turn out the way they did.

I really like that the author kept me on my toes.

The Bad
Although I mostly enjoyed Goldberg Variations, I found it took a very long time to build up the plot.  The character and plot development is very slow; in fact, the whole weekend seems to take ages.  The last chapter wraps it all up in a nice little bow--and it made me wonder, "What took so long?"

As a side note, I also want to point out that I don't care very much for books which feature multiple narrators from the first-person point-of-view.  While I think Isaacs did a pretty good job of incorporating multiple narrators, I'm still not a fan.  I prefer a single narrator, rather than several at once.  It makes the book simpler and easier to read, and it seems to make it easier to connect to the characters.

But that's just my personal preference, rather than a problem with the book.

The Ugly
Family drama.

Gloria really is quite a terrible grandmother.  Not that everyone else in the family is always very understanding or particularly nice.  The rift between them all is rather painful with one generation after another escalating and transmuting the damage.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain

When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain
Giles Milton

The Summary
"In this first installment of his outrageously entertaining series, History's Unknown Chapters, Giles Milton delves into the little-known stories from history, like when a cook aboard the Titanic pickled himself with whiskey and survived in the icy seas where most everyone else died; or the man who survived the atomic bomb in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Covering everything from adventure, war, murder, and slavery to espionage--including the stories of the female Robinson Crusoe, Hitler's final hours, Japan's deadly balloon bomb, and the emperor of the United States--these tales deserve to be told."

The Good
I enjoyed this book much more than I expected.  Actually, I shouldn't say that because I expected quite a lot from a book titled When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain.  This is a book that, as my coworker pointed out, "you pick up just for the title alone."  And, honestly, I have to say I agree.

Giles Milton's book is filled with fascinating tidbits of information, weird history, and incredible stories that seem almost too strange to believe.  It's fun and it's interesting without being too overwhelming or dense.  It's divided into short, quick sections, which makes it easy to plow through a whole chapter in a matter of minutes.

Moreover, I loved that I learned new things about history that I never knew.  Like the man who survived two nuclear explosions, one at Nagasaki and one at Hiroshima.  Or the cook who survived the sinking of the Titanic by, he claimed, drinking enough alcohol.  Or Agatha Christie's eleven missing days, during December 1926--before she was found in a distant hotel under the name of her husband's mistress.  Or how Lenin's corpse was preserved and put on display, his brain being donated to another institution for study (and his heart entirely disappearing).

Sure, it sometimes gets a little gruesome and, admittedly, a little weird.  But it's fun and fascinating, grabbing your attention and holding it by offering new and, if possible, even more incredible stories.  It's worth reading, especially if you love history or even just weird, unexpected facts.

The Bad
Giles Milton's book is not an in-depth study of human history.  Primarily, it focuses on historical events starting in 1912 (i.e. the sinking of Titanic) and ends somewhere in the 1960s, which means if you want to look beyond the twentieth century, you may have to look elsewhere.  It's a great book for an overview of facts, rather than a detailed examination of events.

The Ugly
Some of these stories have a (relatively) happy ending, like the cook who survived the sinking of the Titanic, or the seamstress who lived on an inhospitable island for 2 years before she was rescued, or the heroic dog who saved his fellow soldiers during World War I--or the real life Captain America who was twice turned away by the army, and eventually became a highly decorated veteran of World War II.

Other stories, however, are a little more brutal:  the pair of explorers who died on Mount Everest, the assassination of Rasputin, the Englishwoman who adopted several children and subsequently murdered them, or the poor individuals who were put on display before a jeering mob.  These stories, for me, often provoked disgust or sympathy.

Some of these stories are disheartening, some of them are daunting because they reflect an especially dark chapter in human history that, while intriguing and strange and downright weird, are often cringe worthy.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How to Train Your Dragon

Little, Brown
How to Train Your Dragon
Cressida Cowell

The Summary
"Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III is a truly extraordinary Viking hero known throughout Vikingdom as "the Dragon Whisperer"...but it wasn't always so.  Travel back to the days when the mighty warrior was just a boy, the quiet and thoughtful son of the Chief of the Hairy Hooligans.  Can Hiccup capture a dragon and train it without being torn limb from limb?  Join the adventures as the small boy finds a better way to train his dragon and becomes a hero!"

The Good
How to Train Your Dragon is an excellent book.  It's fun and original and, for a kid of a certain age, it's an awesome book.  It's geared for a younger audience, which is obvious in the writing, but it's still appealing for its silly sense of humor and it's originality.

I really liked the diversity of dragons.  Like the movie of the same title, How to Train Your Dragon has a fantastic variety of dragons with unique skills and traits.  You have dragons that fly and dragons that swim or stomp around; you have dragons the size of a small fruit, and dragons the size of mountains; you have dragons that breath fire, dragons that spit poison, and dragons that chew with their sizable teeth.

It's fun and exciting to see what new dragons the book will introduce next.

Otherwise, I'm afraid I don't have much to say about it, because it's such a short book.  At just a little over a hundred pages (with illustrations taking up a sizable handful of those), it's not a lengthy endeavor by any means.  It's just good, wholesome fun:  Hiccup landing into trouble as he's trying to train his dragon, Hiccup and Toothless struggling to get along, Hiccup coming up with ingenious ways to fight and train dragons.

It's a great kid's novel, and I highly recommend it.

The Bad
I loved watching How to Train Your Dragon.  I loved the diversity of the dragons, the oddball story, the funny and endearing characters.  Honestly, I was a little spoiled by the movies--and so I was a tad disappointed by the book.

Don't get me wrong, it's a great book.  I loved Hiccup, who is shy and thoughtful and nervous, and I couldn't help but enjoy the Hairy Scary Librarian.  (He only received a mention, but I was tickled at the idea.)

But I would warn those who loved the movies shouldn't go into this book with the same expectations or story in mind.  Don't judge the book by its movie, as the saying goes.

The Ugly

And dragons fighting to the death.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Read Harder Challenge (Part Four)

I have three more books to add to my list for the Read Harder Challenge:
  1. Read a nonfiction book about science.
  2. Read a book originally published in the decade you were born.
  3. Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness.
First on my list is How to Read the Solar System:  A Guide to the Stars and Planets by Chris North and Paul Abel, who host The Sky at Night on BBC.  I'm actually really glad I finished this book, because it offered me insight into the solar system that I certainly didn't have prior to reading North and Abel's book.  While it is a bit dry and quite dense, I should point out that How to Read the Solar System is not a bad book.

Pegasus Books
I mean, I was sometimes very bored when the authors went into great detail about indicating how amateur astronomers should find a specific location in space--like how to find a particular moon by Jupiter, or which filter to use use in order to observe the sun (helpful, if I understood where one might find such filters.  Or if my telescope worked properly), or pinpointing the exact degree to which one might adjust a telescope to find Venus--and I found myself losing interest.  Quickly.

I'm not saying it wasn't a good book.  I learned something interesting about each of the planets and the different heavenly bodies that inhabit space, which was an important aspect of reading this book.  For instance, I learned that Io, one of Jupiter's dozens of moons, has tectonic activity (specifically cryovolcanic activity, since it's an icy wasteland); sound waves travel faster through plasma, which gives scientists the opportunity to measure the internal activity of the sun (since it's made up of plasma); and meteor showers are essentially the debris left behind by comets, like a dust storm that the Earth passes through during its orbit.

I enjoyed actually learning something new, even if it's not quite as useful as one might hope.  Like I said, it's not a bad book.  Just a little dry and dense and, dare I say it, pedantic.  It's not something I would read twice, but it's a vast well of information that's sure to hold appeal for readers who greatly enjoy science, astronomy, technology, and even mathematics.  It's definitely worth checking out, especially if you're curious about the solar system and the explorations humankind has made.  More importantly, it gets a point in my book for having an index, so I was able to easily look up the most intriguing bits of information.

Next, I looked at The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, which was more in line with my purview.  Titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne when it was originally published in Britain, Winchester's book underwent a slight change when it migrated over to the United States, becoming The Professor and the Madman--which was accompanied by the glorious subtitle, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.  I mean, how could I not be the tiniest bit enticed?

The Professor and the Madman is a story about the formation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), specifically one of the most prolific contributors in its history:  Dr. William Minor.  Minor was an American surgeon during the Civil War, who was eventually convicted of murder and put into a sanitarium; however, during his stint at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, he stumbled across a call for contributors to the dictionary.  Contacting Professor James Murray, who oversaw the entire project, he began to offer definitions for the OED and sent thousands of papers slips to Oxford, before his death in 1920.

As crazy as it might seem, it's all very true.

Like Erik Larson--who has written Devil in the White City, Dead Wake, and Thunderstuck--Winchester has a narrative quality to his work that makes it appealing without compromising the facts.  Winchester pulls from a variety of resources, including medical documents from Broadmoor (an infamous mental institution for the criminally insane in Crowthorne), correspondence between Professor Murray and Dr. Minor and other important individuals, as well as historical texts.  He uses information to benefit the story, supplying an electrifying narrative and, simultaneously, feeding his readers the true and unaltered facts.  It's all very, very good.

As for my final book, I read The Lives They Left Behind:  Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.  Although I suspect this final category--which recommends reading a book with a main character who has a mental illness--is referring to a fictional novel rather than a nonfiction narrative, I decided to run with the ambiguous wording and read something not about one character with mental illness, but ten.

The Lives They Left Behind explores the lives of Willard State Hospital patients who were admitted to the hospital during the late 19th and 20th centuries.  Penney and Stastny provides an in-depth look at some of the permanent residents at Willard, as well as offers a glimpse at the big picture of mental/psychiatric care during its formative years.  The book also provides photographs and illustrations that further illuminate the care patients received, and what sort of trials they went through with (or, in some cases, without) mental illness.
Bellevue Literary Press

Altogether, I found it to be a fascinating book.  It's an examination of psychiatric care that provides statistics, which can prove a bit dull, but it also connects on an emotional level and delivers nuggets of truth that are sometimes like a punch in the gut.  It's a tough read sometimes.  For instance, I had a hard time reading about the electroshock therapy that often caused patients to have convulsions, or the medications that were prescribed that often did more harm that good--or, worse, how some patients were treated even if they didn't suffer from a psychiatric disease.

Patients, like Ethel Smalls or Margaret Dunleavy, were most likely suffering from other conditions rather than mental disorder.  Ethel Smalls likely suffered from PTSD after losing her children and being on the opposite end of her husband's temper, enduring years of abuse that left her in a fragile state.  Likewise, Margaret Dunleavy was hospitalized after an uncharacteristic outburst due to a personal tragedy and chronic pain.  Neither woman displayed the usual characteristics of mental disorder, rather they were hospitalized because they were inconvenient.  It's a heartbreaking fact behind the stories of many patients.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

When in Doubt, Add Butter

St. Martin's Press
When in Doubt, Add Butter
Beth Harbison

The Summary
"As far as Gemma is concerned, her days of dating are over.  In fact, it's her job to cater other people's dates, and that's just fine by her.  At thirty-seven, she has her own business, working as a private chef, and has five steady clients who keep her hands full.

"There's Lex, the fussy but fabulous department store owner who loves oysters Rockefeller and retro party food; Willa, who is morbidly obese and needs to lose weight under doctor's orders but still believes butter makes everything better; a colorful family who may or may not be part of the Russian mob; an überwealthy Georgetown family in which the monstrously spoiled wife is "allergic to everything"; and, finally, a man she calls "Mr. Tuesday," whom she has never met but to whom she feels a magnetic attraction, in part due to his taste for full-on comfort food.

"For Gemma, cooking is predictable.  Recipes are certain.  Use good ingredients, follow the directions, and you are assured success.  Life, on the other hand, is full of variables.  So when Gemma's takes an unexpected turn on a road she always thought was straight and narrow, she must face her past and move on in ways she never would have imagined.  Because sometimes in life, all you need is a little hope, a lot of courage, and--oh, yes--butter."

The Good
I listened to When in Doubt, Add Butter earlier this year, picking it specifically for the evenings I walked my dog.  I originally chose it based on the title--and, if I'm being honest with myself, I probably picked it for the image of cupcakes on the cover--but I was pleasantly surprised by Beth Harbison's novel and Orlagh Cassidy's narration.  Filled with lots of crazy, quirky characters and heart-warming stories, When in Doubt, Add Butter is a truly fabulous novel.

Gemma was an excellent narrator.  Witty and realistic, plagued by all the regular hopes and fears of a normal woman who worries about her professional and/or financial state, she can easily connect with readers on an emotional level--and, more importantly, she's funny.  She's candid and she has a way of recounting her story so that it has an emotional impact and makes you laugh.  Coupled with Orlagh Cassidy's skills, Gemma comes to life in a way that is, simply put, spectacular.

Speaking of Orlagh Cassiday, I absolutely loved the variety and range of characters she could play.  I was suitably impressed by the emotion and changes of tone that signified specific characters, distinguishing particular personalities apart, that allowed her to convey the story to listeners.  When in Doubt, Add Butter seemed to take on a life of its own, and I couldn't wait to return again and again to the story.

Honestly, I can't think of any reason this book isn't appealing.  It features a fun and heart-warming story, oddball characters, food, an excellent narrator and a dash of humor.  I was immediately drawn in from the first chapter--and if I wasn't, I'd certainly have been hooked by the ignominious incident with a peacock in the second.

The Bad
No complaints.

Perhaps the plot was a bit predictable, like I totally called the identity of Gemma's mysterious "Mr. Tuesday," but, otherwise, I enjoyed the entire novel.

The Ugly
Mature themes would probably be the best way to describe some of the uglier aspects of When in Doubt, Add Butter.  It has an underlying seriousness that reflects the doubts and desperation that plague Gemma, and it picks at the financial and professional and emotional uncertainties that all adults face.

Along with the ugly realities of teen pregnancy.

It's a bit heart-wrenching, I'll admit.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Jane Steele

G.P. Putnam's Sons
Jane Steele
Lyndsay Faye

The Summary
"A sensitive orphan, Jane Steele suffers first at the hands of her spiteful aunt and predatory cousin, then at a grim school where she fights for her very life until she escapes to London, leaving the corpses of her tormentors behind her.  After years of hiding from the law while penning macabre 'last confessions' of the recently hanged, Jane thrills at discovering an advertisement:  Her aunt has died and her childhood home has a new master, Mr. Charles Thornfield, who seeks a governess for the nine-year-old ward in his care.

"Burning to know whether she is in fact the rightful heir, Jane takes the position incognita, and learns that Highgate House is full of marvelously strange new residents--the fascinating but caustic Mr. Thornfield, an army doctor returned from the Sikh Wars, and the gracious Sikh butler Mr. Sadar Singh, whose history with Mr. Thornfield appears far deeper and darker than they pretend.  As Jane catches ominous glimpses of the pair's violent history and falls in love with the gruffly tragic Mr. Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma:  Can she possess him--body, soul, and secrets--without revealing her own murderous past?"

The Good
As I am an ardent fan of Jane Eyre, I found myself equally enchanted by Lyndsay Faye's Jane Steele, but for entirely different reasons.  Unlike Jane Eyre, who lives with the hand she is dealt, who makes the best of a bad situation, who is uncompromising in her faith and her belief in herself (and, more importantly, holds herself to a rigorous moral standard), Jane Steele is a grievously flawed individual--and, most notably, a murderer.

She takes justice into her own hands, killing those who threaten and torment her.  She's a different sort of person from the quiet, plain Jane Eyre who wins the heart of Edward Rochester; rather, Jane Steele is tough and brazen, she's street smart and savvy, and she's a crafty, witty narrator who refuses to back down from a challenge.

I liked her.

Not as much as Jane Eyre, mind you.  There's something about Miss Eyre that makes her incomparable, something about her stalwart character that appeals to me on a personal level.  She remains true to herself and her heart.  And, for the era in which she lived, she's exceptional in that regard.

But Jane Steele was enjoyable in her own way, because, when she decides to make her own way in the world, she thwarts social convention.  Like Jane Eyre, she stays true to herself (even if it is her more "wicked" desires that manifest).  Perverse and humorous, Jane Steele is an interesting storyteller with a vicious wit and unflinching honesty.  She recounts every gory detail, letting you soak in the viciousness of her character--and the inordinate satisfaction of seeing justice served to those who believe they will suffer no consequence for their actions.

Jane Steele has a smart mouth and a strong (rather foul) vocabulary, and she has an unexpected knack for storytelling.  She's clear, she's concise, and she's candid, which makes her story all the more riveting and the mysteries surrounding her all the more interesting.  I enjoyed  watching her story unfold, enjoyed watching as the mysteries unraveled and the plot came to a bloody climax.

Overall, I was thrilled with the story.  It's certainly given me something to think about in regards to the pair of Janes who both adorn my bookshelf.  I've realized something very important about them:  Jane Eyre is the individual we aspire to be, while Jane Steele reflects who we truly are.

The Bad
Jane Steele falls into much the same category as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Meowmorphosis.  It's a spin-off of a favorite classic, which reflects in the writing.  It has some similar qualities, maybe even familiar names and text; however, I will note that Jane Steele is unique enough and filled with original writing that makes it enjoyable without feeling the work borders on plagiarism.

The Ugly
Murder.  Blood and gore.

It's not really unexpected, since she's a serial killer and she makes a point of warning readers at the very beginning of the book.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Crocodile on the Sandbank

Grand Central Publishing
Crocodile on the Sandbank
Elizabeth Peters

The Summary
"Amelia Peabody, that indomitable product of the Victorian Age, embarks on her first Egyptian adventure armed with unshakable self-confidence, a journal to record her thoughts, and, of course, a sturdy umbrella.

"On her way, Amelia rescues young Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has been 'ruined' and abandoned on the streets of Rome by her rascally lover.  With a typical disregard for convention, Amelia promptly hires her fellow countrywoman as a companion and takes her to Cairo.

"Eluding Alberto, Evelyn's former lover, who wants her back, and Evelyn's cousin Lord Ellesmere, who wishes to marry her, the two women sail up the Nile.  They disembark at an archaeological site run by the Emerson brothers--the irascible, but dashing, Radcliffe and the amiable Walter.  Soon their little party is increased by one--one mummy, that is, and a singularly lively example of the species.  Strange visitations, suspicious accidents, and a botched kidnapping convince Amelia that there is a plot afoot to harm Evelyn.

"But no villain, or mummy, is a match for the doughty Amelia.  How she arranges all to her satisfaction is just one of the pleasures of this delightfully witty mystery."

The Good
At the recommendation of a co-worker, I read--or, rather, listened to--Crocodile on the Sandbank and I found it to be a fun, lively little novel with excellent characters and a high sense of adventure.  I loved the setting and the intrigue, the historical anecdotes that the narrator liberally sprinkles throughout her narrative.  It's wonderfully fun and fascinating.

And, speaking of narrator, I really enjoyed listening to Amelia Peabody.

Amelia Peabody is a daring, sassy female protagonist with a dynamic personality and a scorching wit that makes her wholly unique in 19th century society.  She's quite intelligent, incredibly daring, and she's certainly not afraid to speak her mind.  After spending years in spinsterhood, she doesn't much care to ruffle a few feathers and step on a few toes, especially when it comes to hot-headed Radcliffe Emerson.

It's just plain fun, which, I think, is why I liked it so well.  It's full of mystery, romance, adventure, and intrigue, but it has a narrator who's thoughtful and intelligent and, occasionally, belligerent.  It's so much fun to dive into the story and see what happens next.

The Bad
Eleanor is pretty much characterized as the stereotypical shrinking violet, the helpless swooning maid in need of a heroic man--or, in this case, Amelia--to save her.  She's made of sterner stuff, obviously, but, as readers, we don't always get to see that side of her which I found to be a bit of a disappointment.  Amelia is bold and robust, so she often overshadows the softer spoke, more timid Eleanor.

The Ugly
You think the mummy might be the worst of it, but you'd be surprised especially whenever Lord Ellesmere and Alberto get involved.  It's really quite a mess and, when the unmasking comes, it's a regular Scooby-Doo episode.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Strange and Ever After

Strange and Ever After
Susan Dennard

The Summary
"It has been a tumultuous time for Eleanor Fitt since life as she knew it in Philadelphia came abruptly to an end.  While the Spirit-Hunters--Joseph, Jie, and Daniel--have helped her survive her brother's violent death and an invasion of Hungry Dead, Elanor has lost just about everything.

"And now, Jie is missing--taken by the evil necromancer Marcus.  Eleanor is determined not only to get her back but to end this nightmare altogether.  But to do so, she must navigate the hot desert streets of nineteenth-century Egypt amid the rising Dead, her unresolved feelings for Daniel, and her volatile relationships with Joseph and Oliver, her demon.  And it won't be easy.  Because now Allison, her friend from Philadelphia, has tagged along, becoming strangely entangled in Eleanor's mission.

"It will take all of Eleanor's powers of black magic, and all of Daniel's and Joseph's trust, to succeed.  But there will be a price.  And only when it is over will Eleanor truly be able to live a strange and ever after life.

"In the conclusion to this epic trilogy, which began with Something Strange and Deadly and continued with A Darkness Strange and Lovely, Susan Dennard will have readers on the edge of their seats, breathless with anticipation, and begging for this story not to end."

The Good
Strange and Ever After is, like the other books of the Susan Dennard's trilogy, pretty enjoyable.  It combines many of the same elements--the mystery, magic, and intrigue--I'd found appealing in her last novels, and it has many of the same characters I'd liked in the past.  Although the plot began to run a little thin after reading two books dedicated to the exact same subject (i.e. chasing down Marcus and stopping his villainy), it did a fair job of bringing the story to a close.

(Not to say that I was pleased with the conclusion, but more on that later.)

Egypt was also an interesting choice of location for the trilogy conclusion.  After spending an entire book in Philadelphia, then a second in Paris, it seemed like such a strange change of course.  Granted, I suppose the last two books hinted at the course of the story, but I have to say I was still a little surprised.  It was an interesting deviation--and, admittedly, I was intrigued to see where their journey would lead.

Like Something Strange and Deadly and A Darkness Strange and Lovely, I was oddly attracted to this novel.  It's something like a guilty pleasure:  no great epic, no poetic lines of verse, but a fairly enjoyable, action-filled story that drags you in and doesn't let go.  I wanted to see how the story would end, and I was determined to finish what I started, even if I did begin to lose a little interest along the way.

The Bad
I felt like this novel introduced too many new concepts to the story that it only briefly touched upon in the previous two.  For instance, it dives deep into Egyptian myth and belief, pulling ancient Egyptian gods from the ether, shining a bright searchlight on the realm of the realm of the dead, which it didn't even remark upon in past books.  Sure, it's hinted at by Elijah in the first book and it's explored in passing by Oliver in the second, but it truly comes to fruition in the third.

Which doesn't make sense to me.  The natural progression seems distorted, especially since it started to explore voodoo and necromancy, which feel like very distinct entities entirely separate from ancient Egypt.  It felt like a jarring transition, especially since I was very curious about Joseph's and Marcus's education in New Orleans.  I think that would have proved a more interesting direction, but that's just my opinion.

Moreover, I was quickly exhausted by the journey.  It felt like it lasted forever and it just kept adding twists to the plot, making the story last altogether too long.  I mean, I could have dealt with one less betrayal; likewise, I could have dealt with less about the intervening journey--or how much Eleanor wanted to kill Marcus (I could have done with less of her internal dilemmas)--and would have appreciated much more description.

After reading Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, which also takes place in Egypt, I realize what I missed in Dennard's final novel:  setting description.  It falls very short in the third novel and, as I think about it more, it's a great disappointment.  I feel like much of it was left to the imagination, leaving me to connect the pieces and envision the landscape from my own recollections of movie/TV cliches.

Yes, I was a little disappointed.

The Ugly
The conclusion.

Most of the time, I can live with the death of a familiar character if it seems necessary or if I'm braced for it.  I can handle tragedy, even if it breaks my heart.  I survived reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Markus Zusak's Book Thief, so I think I know how to handle the death of a main character and handle it gracefully.

That is, I may bawl like a baby and lament the death of my favorite characters, but I don't condemn the book for playing with my emotions or socking me in the gut.  It's part and parcel of the story.  While I may not like it, while it may be unexpected or heart-rending or just plain upsetting, I usually accept what happens and, sometimes, I even find those books that evoke the most emotion are the best ones I read.

For crying out loud, The Fault in Our Stars and The Book Thief are two of my favorite books.  I love them, and I will read them again and again despite the heartbreak I endure.

However, I didn't feel that way about Strange and Ever After.  When one of the main characters died--I won't say who, because I don't want to spoil the horrible surprise for other readers--it ruined my entire reading experience.  Sure, in hindsight, I can see a couple of the red flags that should have warned me as to what was going to happen.  And, yes, I can see how it set events in motion that brought Marcus to his knees.

But I don't care.

This one death, this one person who had to die for some ancient riddle to be solved, completely ruined the novel for me.  It seemed so entirely pointless, given what I know about the other characters and their abilities.  I don't care if the novel closed with the characters picking up the pieces, honoring their fallen comrade and moving on to a better, brighter future.  It simply isn't enough.  It will never be enough to redeem this novel for me.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Read Harder Challenge (Part Three)

I've discovered some more books as part of my commitment to the Read Harder Challenge of 2016, and I've discovered some great stories in my explorations.  I have managed to:
  1. Read a horror book.
  2. Read the first book in a series by a person of color.
  3. Read a play.
Usually, I don't read horror novels.  Dracula and Frankenstein are about it for me, but I have managed to read Stephen King's The Shining and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, among a handful of other novels that are considered good and scary.  And so, in order to satisfy my challenge criterion and read a horror story, I read Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard.

Although I didn't initially lump Dennard's novel into the horror genre, I reconsidered my stance after necromancy and ritualized violence became involved.  The novel is pretty mild, all things considered--I mean, I certainly wouldn't put it at the level of The Walking Dead or Stephen King, or even Dracula--but it's still rather gory and riddled with a tough kind of suspense that leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat, hoping for more answers.  However, I think it's the zombies that pushed it over the edge and helped me give it a final designation as a horror novel.

I wouldn't call Something Strange and Deadly one of my favorites, but it isn't a bad book; in fact, I initially enjoyed it.  I liked the creepy atmosphere of it coupled with the turn of the century setting, and I even liked the story:  a wicked necromancer comes back from the dead to terrorize Eleanor Fitt, while the Dead continue to rise from their graves across Philadelphia.  It's an intriguing adventure, to say the least; however, I wasn't entirely thrilled with the story when I examined it in retrospect.  The phrase "shut pan" annoyed me to no end.  (Part of me began to think the author found a new, novel phrase and decided to run with it.)

Harper Voyager
Next, in reading the first book in a series by a person of color, I picked up My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due.  As the first book in the African Immortals series, My Soul to Keep fit the bill perfectly to fulfill this challenge and check it off my list.  I stumbled across it purely by accident, finding it in audiobook form from my local library's website--and I was immediately hooked.

I was intrigued by the premise:  an Ethiopian warrior stumbles across the secret to immortality and spends the rest of his eternal life alternating between identities, enduring a number of years as a slave on a Southern plantation, before becoming a Civil War soldier, a jazz singer, and, finally, a college professor and author.  His story is one of sorrow and loss, desperation in trying to hold tight to the ones he loves.  I was riveted from the first word, from the first moment the narrator spoke and started to weave a complex, beautiful story about Dawit--David--and his wife, Jessica.

At just over eighteen hours long, it took me a number of weeks whittling away at the story to complete it, but I have to say I was thrilled.  It's detailed and strongly written (and narrated by Peter Francis James, who has an amazing voice by the way), and it's absolutely riveting.  The story packs a punch, pulling together a myriad of religions, myths, cultures, and countries to create a flawless tapestry of history and suspense, beauty and sorrow.  I became emotionally invested in Dawit and Jessica's story, and I found myself hoping for the best outcome--and crying (just a little) when tragedy strikes.  I highly recommend picking up My Soul to Keep and reading it for yourself.

Dover Publications
Last, I worked on Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.  Having read a portion of the play during a theater history class in college, I was intrigued about the prospect of reading the entire play this time around.  It was just my good fortune that I found a copy of the play for a dollar at my local used bookstore.  It's almost as if it was fated to be.

A Doll's House is an interesting play, not action-packed or suspenseful (like either of the two entries listed above).  For the time period, it's thought-provoking and, even now, it raises a lot of questions about women as spouses and mothers--and what are the typical roles of women in society.  It's a play designed to make you think, rather than thrill you.

Personally, I thought it was fascinating to see how Nora managed to flaunt convention, managed to get what she wanted despite the restrictive constraints of her time that were placed upon her gender, and, more importantly, proved she was capable of making her own decisions.  It's a bit slow, but I think it's worth reading at least once, especially if you're interested in theater.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

How to Read the Solar System: A Guide to the Stars and the Planets

Pegasus Books
How to Read the Solar System:  A Guide to the Stars and the Planets
Chris North
Paul Abel

The Summary
"What exactly is the solar system?  We've learned the basics at school, but do we really understand what we are seeing in the night sky?  Expert astronomers Chris North and Paul Abel provide a fascinating guided tour of our solar system and explain its many wonders.

"They at all the major players including our more familiar cosmic neighbors--the sun, the planets, and their moons--as well as the occasional visitors to our planet--asteroids, meteors, and comets--in addition to the distant stars and what might lie beyond our solar system, including the mysterious Earth Mark II.  North and Abel recount the history of how our solar system came to be and decipher the myths that once shaped our astronomy.

"Through their cogent explanations of the latest scientific discoveries, they reveal how any amateur astronomer can view and interpret the solar system and enrich their understanding of our universe."

The Good
I'm actually really glad I finished How to Read the Solar System, because it offered me insight into the solar system that I certainly didn't have prior to reading North and Abel's book.  While it is a bit dry and quite dense, I should point out that it's not a bad book.

I learned something interesting about each of the planets and a whole assortment of facts about dwarf planets, the Sun, comets and asteroids, and more, which was one of the most important aspects of reading this book.

For instance, I learned that Io, one of Jupiter's many moons, has boasted volcanic activity (specifically cryovolcanic activity, since it's an icy wasteland); sound waves travel faster through plasma, which gives scientists the opportunity to measure the internal activity of the sun (since it's made up primarily of plasma); and meteor showers are essentially the debris left behind by commets, like a dust storm that the Earth passes through during its orbit.  It's fascinating, really.

While How to Read the Solar System isn't a book I would read twice, it's a vast well of information that's sure to hold appeal for readers who greatly enjoy science, astronomy, technology, and even mathematics.  It's definitely worth checking out, especially if you're curious about the solar system and the explorations humankind has made into space thus far.

More importantly, it gets an added bonus point in my book for having an index.  I was able to easily look up the most intriguing bits of information if I didn't feel like skimming.

The Bad
I will admit, I was sometimes bored with this book.  Like terribly bored, so bored that when I read it at night I fell asleep within a few minutes.  Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad book by any means, but I simply lost interest when the authors went into too great a detail.

Like when they explained how amateur astronomers should find a specific location in space, like how to find a particular moon by Jupiter, or which filter to use use in order to observe the sun (helpful, if I understood where one might find such filters.  Or if my telescope worked properly), or pinpointing the exact degree to which one might adjust a telescope to find Venus.

I'll be honest, if it didn't directly link to me in some way, I found myself losing interest.  Quickly.

The Ugly
I wish How to Read the Solar System had had more pictures and photographs to share.  I would have loved some full color photos from the universe, depicting images from deep in space or shots of auroras or pictures of the planets and the Sun.  It was a little dull without them.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Professor and the Madman

Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
The Professor and the Madman:  A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Simon Winchester

The Summary
"It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters.  The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions.  But hidden within the rituals of its creations is a fascinating and mysterious story--a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

"Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project.  Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary.  But Minor was no ordinary contributor.  He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford.  On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly--and mysteriously--refused.

"Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence.  Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him.  It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor--that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane--and locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

"The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history.  With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary."

The Good
I greatly enjoyed reading The Professor and the Madman.  I'd seen it in passing when I was collecting a stack of books and, of course, the subtitle caught my attention almost immediately.  After all, what did murder have to do with Oxford English Dictionary--and who was the madman supposedly involved with the entire affair?

I certainly had to find out.

Simon Winchester's book is an interesting creation.  Part narrative and part biography, it reminisces of Erik Larson's work in that it manages to make history sparkle, so to speak.  It makes history accessible and amusing, taking something that sometimes goes dry and stale, making it into a fascinating and informative epic.  Personally, I loved every bit of it.  It appealed to my love of language and my love of history, offering me glimpses into both the creation and history of the language and the history behind one of the English language's most comprehensive book.

Yes, I found it was sometimes slow going.  (I'm very prone to distraction, I'm afraid, and I had a lot of books on my mind at the time.)  However, I loved reading about Professor Murray and Dr. Minor.  Murray and Minor were both brilliant individuals.  Intelligent and bright and innovative, they were the backbone of the Oxford English Dictionary and they helped to make it the incredible repository of information it is today, but they walked two very different paths.

Minor was a man of means, a gentleman of wealth who became a medical doctor and participated in the America Civil War; Murray was an incredibly bright scholar, a self-taught gentleman who eventually became a professor at Oxford and editor for the OED.  Minor's experiences, especially the trauma he faced during the Civil War, helped to shape him in later years and eventually brought him into contact with the dictionary project, but Minor, while fascinating, was not nearly as intriguing to me as James Murray.

Murray received only a rudimentary education, before he was forced out of school to help support his family; however, he eventually continued his education, learned several different languages--including German, French, Latin, et cetera--and became one of the most notable gentlemen at Oxford after he became a professor and an editor for the OED.  In his studies, he even trained local cattle to respond when he called to them in Latin, which made him more than passably interesting in my book.

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Professor and the Madman.  Wonderfully detailed and crafted with remarkable narrative quality, Winchester's book was a fantastic read.  It appealed to me on so many levels as a reader by making history and the English language accessible, but I might be biased.  I found it simply the perfect combination of weird, wacky history and interweaving narrative.

The Bad
No complaints.

Honestly, it was an enjoyable book for me.  As a former English major, I was fascinated by the history of the language and the creation of the OED.  Granted, others who don't care as much for history and English may not find is as interesting or amusing as I did, but I think other readers will be able to appreciate the effort and skill Winchester put into his book.

The Ugly
Much of the Winchester's book wasn't very grim.  Yes, Dr. Minor was entirely mad; yes, he was put into an asylum for the criminally insane; and, yes, his psychosis was alarming and sometimes violent (i.e. the murder of George Merritt), but I found it wasn't particularly graphic or stomach-turning.  Nothing one hasn't heard before in a history book.

However, the bit about "self-abuse" (masturbation) and self-mutilation was a bit much, and I found myself feeling a little squeamish.