12.30.2013

The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook

The Aftermath
Who bears the blame for World War II and Germany's crimes against humanity? Are all Germans guilty? How do you punish the guilty once you find them? How do you wipe out National Socialism in Germany so that it never comes back? In The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook, these questions are everywhere and there are no easy answers.

The Aftermath, according to the author's afterword, is partially based on Brook's grandfather's experience in post-War Germany. Houses were requisitioned for British, French, American, and Russian officers in the various occupation zones. Brook's grandfather made a deal with the original family to share the house. From that idea, Rhidian Brook spins out his tale of guilt, revenge, and putting the past in the past.

Colonel Lewis Morgan is given a house in the Elbchausee area of Hamburg, a house that belonged to an architect who is now trying to get a Perilschein, a certificate that shows he was vetted and found to be "clean" of the taint of Nazism. Morgan's family soon joins him. The arrangement is fraught from the beginning. Rachel and Edmund Morgan have been told not to fraternize with the Germans, because they are "different" and because they may be former Nazi Party members. Herr Lubert and his daughter, Freda, don't exactly feel lucky to still be in their homes because of the constant reminders that they are being constantly judged. Freda is especially angry. The former Bund Deutscher Mädel had been thoroughly indoctrinated by the Nazi regime. On top of it, she blames them for killing her mother during a fire-bombing. Even though the house is large, it struggles to hold all that distrust under its roof.

Colonel Morgan, a British officer, has been tasked with trying to rebuild this corner of Germany and oversee de-Nazification efforts. Unlike most of his colleagues and fellow officers, Morgan has some sympathy for the starving people around him. He does not see them as automatically guilty of the terrible, unspeakable crimes of the Second World War. In spite of his generosity, Morgan is targeted by Freda's unbalanced lover, Albert Leitman. Meanwhile, Morgan's wife grows closer to their upstairs lodger, as the architect has more sympathy for Rachel's grief for her dead eldest son than her husband seems to have.

There are so many aftermaths in The Aftermath that it's a wonder no one collapses under the psychic load. Rachel has her grief. Morgan has his impossible task. Freda has her anger. Herr Lubert is caught in the endless vetting process. And there are the inevitable questions, historic questions that still don't have satisfactory answers. Does each German alive during Hitler's era who didn't resist guilty? Does collective guilt really exist? How to the victim's of Nazism get justice?

12.27.2013

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One
The word epic has become undervalued. An epic should be a story of a hero who does mighty deeds, saves the weak, and destroys evil. That could be taking on Trojan warriors, killing a cannibalistic monster, or traveling to the underworld to save one's beloved. Nowadays, people use the word epic as an adjective for things that are distinctly not epic. In fact, it's hard to imagine what an epic would look like in our day and age, now that monsters are all psychological and the underworld is a cultural/religious belief meant to comfort the dying and their loved ones. And yet, authors can still manage to create wonderful adventure stories that could be our generation's epics. These new heros may not be fighting actual monsters, but it sure feels like they are. Yesterday, I started reading Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, expecting a fun story set in a virtual reality. I knew there was some kind of contest. I just didn't realize how much it would feel like Beowulf or The Odyssey. Critics will probably take issue with my comparison here. My response is: just because it's fun doesn't mean it can't be epic. So there.

Wade Watts is a teenager living in a slum in mid twenty-first century in a dystopian America. Flu has wiped out a lot of people. The Great Recession has rolled on and on. The American government is increasingly irrelevant. Most people live and work in OASIS, a virtual reality so robust that it can support millions of players in millions of quests on millions of worlds as well as support the global economy. OASIS was created by a highly talented geek named James Halliday. When Halliday dies, after amassing a large fortune, a video is released in which Halliday offers his fortune to the person who finds the easter egg he placed somewhere inside OASIS. There are three tasks that the winner must pass before they can find the egg. Players around the world have looked for five years for the first key and task by the time Ready Player One begins. Wade is surprised to stumble upon that key after his Latin teacher says something that helps him figure it out. Being poor has put Wade at a disadvantage because he can't afford to travel much inside OASIS or buy cool gear. But once he earns that first key and gets on the trail for the second, Wade finds himself playing in an entirely new class.

Finding the easter egg depends on being able to puzzle out riddles based on Halliday's encyclopedic knowledge and love of the American 1980s pop/nerd culture. There are times when Cline goes a little overboard talking about various text adventure and early video games or WarGames or some other bit of 80s trivia and you'll have to plow through a few pages to get to the next part of Wade's adventures. This is the only flaw I saw.

The hunt for the easter egg is a geek's version of the quest for the Holy Grail. The quest was designed by Halliday to find a "worthy" successor. Wade keeps a diary of Halliday lore that he calls his grail diary, where he puzzles through the tasks. As if this weren't difficult enough, Wade and his friends and allies have to fight off paid players from a company called IOI. Halliday's will didn't say anything preventing a company's representatives from trying to find the egg. If those players, known as Sixers win, they're contractually obligated to turn over control of OASIS to IOI. It's well known that the company will start charging for access to OASIS and change it from a geek paradise to a corporate cash cow. The Sixers are quite willing to stalk and even murder any other player they think has a shot at finding the egg before they do.

Like the original Grail quest, the search for Halliday's easter egg is also about Wade discovering who he wants to be and what's really important to him. Ready Player One works on so many levels. I went looking for fun, and I found it. But I also found a book that I'm going to recommend to a hell of a lot of people.

12.26.2013

Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 28 January 2014. 

Europe in Autumn
Even with the European Union erasing barriers to trade and travel, Europe is still a fractured continent. There's too much history and too many languages for the continent to forget its many borders. And in the future imagined by Dave Hutchinson in Europe in Autumn, all those barriers spring back to life and new countries create even more borders. This possible future Europe would be a spy novelist's dream because the only easy way to travel would be clandestinely. Fittingly, the novel is as fragmented as the setting. Europe in Autumn tells the story of Estonian chef-turned-courier, Rudi, in a series of apparently chronological stories.

The novel opens in Krakow, in a small restaurant, where Rudi works as a chef. A group of rowdy Hungarian mafioso stop by for dinner, even though Restaurancja Max is supposed to be protected from this kind of thing. The next day, the restaurant receives a visit from their protector's organization and Rudi finds himself with a new job. In the new Europe, sometimes people need to travel under the radar or under different names. Sometimes packages or information needs to be delivered quietly. Les Coureurs du Bois, named after the old French trappers. Rudi is trained in their old-fashioned spy lingo and techniques, but the first time out, he's captured and interrogated by the government of one of the new countries.

In the story-like chapters, we see Rudi grow from novice to journeyman spy and courier. Then something goes terribly wrong in Berlin. Rudi is told to work with a partner after a partially failed mission. Then he finds that partner's head inside of a train station locker. Even in an irregular occupation, this is too much for Rudi. He's never able to get back into the groove after that. It doesn't help that someone is messing with him. Some mysterious organization is hunting him, trying to get him to back off of his hunt for the people who are screwing up his life and hurting his family.

In the last third of Europe in Autumn, Hutchinson starts to present his chapter-stories from the perspective of tertiary characters who happen to be people Rudi needs to find his tormenters. It's frustrating, because it's hard to follow Rudi's adventures from that kind of remove. We only get to see the edges of the action. These stories demand a lot of attention and deductive ability to be able to follow the plot. Like Rudi, you have to fill in a lot of gaps to figure out what's going on and why. It's worth it. I love when writers break the mold the way Hutchinson does here. The ending left me wanting more.

12.22.2013

The spoof that lived

I've been recommending Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm to a lot of people lately. I may have started a small revival in my library. I was surprised and delighted to see this short article by Sam Jordison in The Guardian about Cold Comfort Farm and other parody books that have outlived the books or topics they were making fun of in the first place. Jordison quotes another reviewer who cites Three Men in a Boat and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. What a curious phenomena where the punchline outlasts the set up.

Still from Cold Comfort Farm (1995)
These books, and other like them, survive because they have enough originality and solid writing to make them funnier on their own. When I recommend Cold Comfort Farm to people, I often tell them what Gibbons was mocking. But I don't think it really matters. You could read this as a woman visiting and helping her deranged relatives in the country. Or with The Hitchhiker's Guide, you only need to know the conventions of science fiction to to laugh. (Although Douglas Adams would have been funny in any genre, I think.)

It's amazing think that people can still find books that are decades or even centuries old jokes funny. Though, when I say that, I'm reminded of all the people in my eighteenth century literature class when I was an undergrad getting offended by Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. Satire doesn't seem to age as well, or maybe its that harder-edged humor doesn't age well. Silliness seems ageless.

What will be really impressive is if these books are still making people laugh in two thousand years' time. I found this review of two books of ancient humor in The New York Times Review of Books from back in 2008 that gives many examples of jokes and funny stories that just don't translate or aren't funny because our culture is so different from ancient Rome or Greece. While digging around for old jokes, I did find these gems:
A student invited to a meal didn't eat. When one of the guests asked him why he wasn't eating, he replied, "In case I appear to have come for the food."

A student writing to his father from Athens, thoroughly proud of what he had learnt, added, "I hope I will find you charged in a capital case, so I can show you my skill as a lawyer."

12.21.2013

A Different Kingdom, by Paul Kearney

I received a copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers. It will be released 28 January 2014.

A Different Kingdom
Every place where humans have lived is steeped in history. In some places, however, the history is every far from what we can see and sense everyday. In Ireland the barrier between past and present is terribly thin, maybe thinner than most places. The protagonist of Paul Kearney's A Different Kingdom, Michael Fay, tumbles through the barrier one evening as he's running home for dinner. He sees primitive people in fox and wolf skins before he finds his way back. Between the ages of eight and thirteen, Michael travels back and forth between his present--1950s rural Ireland--and a sinister forest peopled by tribes and villagers and monks and monsters that have washed up over the centuries.

Kearney also moves back and forth through his narrative. As Michael grows up, Kearney jumps forward in time to show a grown Michael trying to escape from the wood in the company of a beautiful woman named Cat. For the first third of the book, the two timelines stretch toward a meeting point. A rough the halfway point, Kearney shows us a third version of Michael, a washed up alcoholic who's life has never been the same after he left Cat and the forest. We also get to see just what happened to Michael in the forest to traumatize him so much.

Thirteen-year-old Michael, in love for the first time and settling into the rough life of the Fox People, decides to go on a quest. He believes that the terrifying hooded man who rides through the forest and commands the werewolves and goblins and other beasties is holding the soul of his Aunt Rose captive. Aunt Rose was sent away when Michael was young to have a child, but died. When he is told that the Fox People believe the hooded man steals souls, Michael decides that he must set her free. And Cat, because she loves Michael, reluctantly agrees to go with him.

As Michael's quest goes on, he learns more about the strange creatures that live in the forest. He learns about the struggle between the first pagan settlers and the Christian monks who came later. Life in the forest is a fight for survival. Michael thinks of it as living constantly on the edge of life and death. The older Michael misses it. He doesn't fit in the modern world anymore.

Michael's quest does not end well, but Kearney gives him a second chance in a stunning ending that I didn't see coming. The forest Kearney created was so frightening and primeval that I didn't know if Michael could win any kind of victory. You're going to have to read this highly original tale to find out if he does.

12.20.2013

When It's a Jar, by Tom Holt

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. 

When It's a Jar
When It's a Jar continues the demented but entertaining story begun in Doughnut. Using highly inexplicable technology, Theo Bernstein not only made it possible to travel across the multiverse, but also created the multiverse in the first place in that book. Theo's multiverse has a few problems. For one thing, no one's really figured out the rules yet, not even Theo. Another genius, Maurice Katz, has managed to trap the creator in a jar in the laboratory of his multi-billion pound corporation. In another universe, Maurice Katz (the underachiever version) is sent on a hapless quest to free Theo.

The Maurice Katz we come to know has been seeing various personifications of the Fates, Duty, Fun, and two different Fisher Kings. But he can't make sense of their warnings and advice because he couldn't be farther from the hero they all seem to think he is. Even after he slays a hydra that appeared in his bedroom, Maurice still can't accept the fact that he's an actual Hero. If anyone would the hero, he thinks, it would be his friend Stephanie, who joined the Army and enjoys blowing things up. But Stephanie disappears after the incident with the hydra, inspiring him to take lackluster action to try and track her down.

It's only after taking a job at Carbonec, Inc. does Maurice spring (stubble) into action. He manages to rescue Theo's brother, Max, who fills him in about his destiny with usable detail. While the first third of the book meanders a lot as Maurice tries to figure out what he's supposed to do and how he's supposed to do it, things pick up rapidly after Max shows Maurice how to travel by doughnut (go with it) to other universes. When It's a Jar ends with some highly entertaining revelations about the multiverse Theo created.

I always have a good time reading Tom Holt's books. They're full of chortle-worthy word play and jokes, references to all kinds of literatures and myths, and a willingness to play around with all the rules. When It's a Jar is not quite as coherent as Doughnut was, so you may have to read slowly to understand all the twists and turns of Maurice's journey. If you like your fiction on the wacky side, though, When It's a Jar is well worth your time.

A Curious Coincidence

A few months ago, I read a very detailed review of North Korea's tablet. I know that's an unusual beginning to a post on a book blog, but stick with me. The review listed the books that the few citizens who could afford a tablet were allowed to read. Most of them were Party philosophy and politics, but a few were pieces of Western literature that did not show the West in the best light and were therefore safe. I found it interesting but not earth-shattering. After all, they were writing about North Korea.

Last week, the news about Guantánamo Prison's list of prohibited books broke. The list is bafflingly random. I can sort of see why a prison might not want Alan Dershowitz's Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking our Declaration of Independence or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because, like the books permitted in North Korea, they might "get aide and comfort to the enemy" or some rot like that. Here's a partial list The Guardian was able to put together.

Though I would dearly love to rant about it, this post is really about the curious coincidence that two supposedly opposing forces are banning books for roughly the same reason. (I have no idea why the fairy tales on the Guantánamo list are there.) It also shows me that, even in this digital age, books can still frighten the people in charge. Perhaps its because reading is a solitary occupation, where you can be alone with ideas. Readers can find hope and meaning and perspective in books. A good story can transport you miles and years away from where you really are.

And that is a marvelous thing. No one should get between a reader and a book because of the ideas that reader might think. Hell, no one should get between a reader and a book because it's wrong to ban ideas.

12.19.2013

The Exiles Return, by Elisabeth de Waal

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 7 January 2014. 


The Exiles Return
The Exiles Return, by Elisabeth de Waal, is a resurrected manuscript. Written before the author's death, it is at last being published. Like most resurrected manuscripts, there are some problems with the pace and there's a chapter missing its first page, but it's got a surprisingly modern spark for something that was written in the mid-twentieth century.

Sometime in the early 1950s, three people come to Vienna. One is a returned refugee. The second is a rich American whose father owned property in the Inner City. The third is the child of immigrants who is sent to her Austrian family because she is a "problem child." The first exile to return is and was a chemist. While his wife has made a success in New York, Kuno Adler has always been waiting until he could go home. When his wife and daughters refuse to leave America, Dr. Adler returns on his own. He takes advantage of the reinstatement policy to get his old job back at his old Institute. His new boss doesn't care for the intrusion, but he is content to leave Dr. Adler to his work.

The second exile to return, Theophil von Kanakis is so rich that he can afford anything that catches his eye. He has a love of eighteenth century artifacts and young, handsome boys. Von Kanakis gets away with a lot, because he does so much to restore pre-war Vienna. There's something a little sinister about him, but strictly speaking, von Kanakis doesn't do anything wrong except try to make his corner of the world elegant and scandal-free. Von Kanakis is a collector and tends to think of the people around him as acquisitions.

The third exile is not actually an exile. Her parents were. Peter and Valery Larson settled into American life so smoothly that they have no intention of returning to Austria. Their daughter, Marie-Theres, however, does not fit in. She doesn't care for the busy lives of everyone around her, but she doesn't know exactly what she wants out of life. Her mother sends her to live with her Austrian family at the family schloß. Their laconic way of life suits her well until her cousin becomes engaged and a family friend takes her place as the new, interesting guest.

The three protagonists' stories touch each other as secondary characters appear and disappear and their stories tangle together. Marie-Theres becomes involved with von Kanakis' lover. Dr. Adler falls in love with the lover's sister. De Waal begins her story with a prologue that you'll quickly discover is the ending of the novel. As the three protagonists' lives got closer and closer to each other, I began to feel a creeping dread because I knew it was all going to end in tragedy. The Exiles Return is an incredible story--three stories, really. I do wish de Waal had been able to work on it a little more, to edit it down a bit more. If de Waal had, it would have pushed this book from really good to great.

12.18.2013

Revolutionary, Alex Myers

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 14 January 2013. 

Revolutionary
Deborah Sampson has become part of the legend of the American Revolution. In 1782, Sampson cut her hair, disguised herself as a man, and enlisted in the Continental Army. Alex Myers gives us her story in the competently written Revolutionary.

As Myers writes it, Sampson's enlistment was more about escaping her life as an unattached woman in Middleborough, Massachusetts than it was about fighting to secede from Great Britain. Sampson felt hemmed in by all the restrictions placed on her that enlisting in the Army was the sanest option available to her. She feels a bit trepidatious about the possibility of being wounded or killed, but the fear disappears in her realization that she finally fits in as a man and as a solider. She
takes to drills and marching like a duck to water.

Sampson's disguise is discovered by a sharp-eyed corporal, though no one else seems to notice that she never takes her shirt off and only uses the latrine when no one else is looking. That corporal is wounded when loyalists attack and steal some horses from the Army and, shortly thereafter, Sampson makes her own discovery. The corporal is in the pay of the British. Before he can reveal her secret, Sampson tells her captain that the corporal has been passing on secrets.

Deborah Sampson
Sampson sees combat soon after distinguishing herself by catching a spy. Myers follows the actual history fairly closely, relating her wounding and self-doctoring and later serving as an aide to General John Paterson. When Sampson is wounded a second time in an accident after the end of hostilities with Britain, it's impossible to hid her sex from the doctor that treats her. Fortunately, Dr. Binney is willing to keep her secret, though he writes a letter for General Paterson that Sampson can deliver if she wishes. There's a coda at the end in which Myers depicts Sampson in her post-military career: giving lectures about her Army life for money while petitioning Congress for her military pension.

Myers does add a love story for Sampson, but as far as I can tell doesn't deviate much from actual history. As I read Revolutionary, I grew a little frustrated that Myers didn't dig as deeply into Sampson's psychology or spend a lot of words putting readers in camp or on the battlefield. The book struck me as a shallow treatment of a fascinating story. Revolutionary struck me as a treatment of Sampson's story for young adults more than anything else.

12.15.2013

Coming out of the literary closet

Every now and then, there will be a news story or blog post or literary article that claims that such-and-such a character is homosexual. The author of that piece will cite various passages to prove their point. The author will then use this evidence and their hypothesis to give their readers a new interpretation of whatever the text is. The problem I see is that these theorist are looking so carefully for evidence of homosexuality that they become like the people who can see the word sex spelled out in the sand being blown around in that scene in The Lion King. I can't see it.

Herman Melville, pro-gay writer?
Homosexuality is an important theme in literature. It should be an important theme. Esther Bloom writes one of the better "outing" posts I've seen, published on The Hairpin. Bloom doesn't have to force the issue the way writers do when they try to out Nick Carraway or Sherlock Holmes. Katniss Everdeen is a stretch in Bloom's article, but I think she might be on to something with Queequeg. Perhaps there are homosexual characters that have been overlooked.

Bloom's article didn't get me thinking about which characters might be gay so much as it made me wonder if forcing a character out of the metaphorical closet matters. When I help students frame their research question for literature papers, I always ask them to think about what the author meant by including this or that character or this or that plot device. If an author intended to create a gay character but didn't deliberately signal their sexuality to the reader and it doesn't impact the narrative, does it matter?

Back in 2007, J.K. Rowling suggested that Albus Dumbledore was gay*. It never came up in any of the seven books. The more I think about it, the more I don't think it matters whether or not a character is gay. What matters is that we can see characters that are gay in books where it isn't a big deal. I would love to see more books in which being gay is normal and unremarkable. If this idea takes hold in fiction, it can take hold in society.

_________

* Although, if it's an author doing the "suggesting," can it really be called a suggestion?

The Cormorant, by Chuck Wendig

I received a copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 31 December 2013. 


The Cormorant
Miriam Black's continuing saga gets a little darker, after two already dark entries in the series. I'm fearful of what Miriam will go through in the next volume. I might not be old enough to handle it. In Chuck Wendig's The Cormorant, Miriam drives south to accept a strange offer. A man in the Florida Keys has offered her $5,000 to tell him how he will die. Miriam can do that with a touch and $5,000 would go a long way to helping her raise her standard of living from squatting.

One would think that simply knowing how one would die would change the future. Miriam has learned, painfully, that the future can only be changed at great cost. Usually, changing someone's fate usually means killing someone else. And, usually, it means that Miriam is the trigger person. Her hard childhood and harder teen years have made Miriam a difficult person to be around. She's often intentionally cruel to keep others from getting close. It's an exhausting way of life.

When Miriam arrives in Florida, she quickly learns that an old enemy has surfaced. This old enemy is targeting all the people around Miriam to punish her for leaving him behind to be tortured and killed. When Miriam meets her mother again, when she hooks up with a girl in a bar, when she goes fishing with the manager of the hotel she's staying in, Miriam learns about their horrible deaths at the hand of this enemy. Wendig complicates matters by having Miriam narrate her story, her attempts to save people, to a pair who claim they're FBI agents. We have to wonder if Miriam will succeed and how she will escape at the same time.

The Coromorant is a fast, but tough, read. It's tough on the emotions as you see Miriam wrestling with her guilt and sense of responsibility and memories of a cold zealot of a mother, as you see her push people away. Wendig also gives us new revelations about what Miriam's mind is capable of, hinting at what we'll find in the next book.

12.12.2013

Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Longbourn
Pride and Prejudice is one of my sacred books. I've loved the story for decades, ever since I read it the first time. The majority of Pride and Prejudice re-tellings and rip-offs make me cringe when I see them reviewed. But Jo Baker's Longbourn intrigued me rather than made me shudder. It promised a fresh perspective and it delivered. Longbourn also gave me a thrilling love story to go along with that perspective. 

Sarah has been a maid for the Bennett family since Mrs. Hill rescued her from the poorhouse at age six. She's washed their laundry (including Elizabeth's muddy petticoats). She's fetched their shopping from Meryton. She's dressed their hair for assemblies and balls. But the events related in Pride and Prejudice remain at a distance for her. Longbourn follows that plot fairly closely, but Baker creates a lively story downstairs. Longbourn also turned the events of Pride and Prejudice around, inverting them in Sarah's story to show us how the limitations of the original tale*.

On the day that news arrives at Longbourn that Netherfield Park has be let to a Mr. Bingley, a new footman makes his home in the stable loft. James Smith is closemouthed about his past, igniting Sarah's suspicions about him. Meanwhile, Sarah finds Ptolemy Bingley, a former slave turned footman for Mr. Bingley, very charming. She finds him so charming, in fact, that Sarah resents Mrs. Hill's attempts to keep them from having any chance to talk to each other. As time goes on (and after Sarah does some snooping in James' loft), Sarah realizes that James is not the shady character she presumed. Her prejudices slowly vanish when she spots the signs of James' affection for her--the filled water bucket, the cleaned fireplace grates, the stack of fresh wood by the hearths. Sarah and James' love is not as tentative or as mannered as Jane and Bingley's or Elizabeth and Darcy's. Because they are servants, however, they have to hide it from everyone else or risk dismissal. 

When Mr. Wickham arrives in narrative, the status quo is disrupted. Wickham doesn't feel the need to hide his laziness and lechery from the servants below stairs. He is much more villainous in Longbourn than Austen could ever have made him in Pride and Prejudice. When James interrupts Wickham attempting to "interfere" with the youngest maid, Polly, Wickham threatens to tell his colonel about James' past as a soldier and that his colonel should investigate why James is in England instead of with his regiment. To spare the Bennett household--and Sarah--the shame of exposure, James flees in the night. 

The last third of Longbourn is nail-biting as its plot stops shadowing the plot of Pride and Prejudice. Once Elizabeth and Jane are married, we no longer have a road map. Anything could happen. I'm glad that I had the chance to read this part uninterrupted because if I'd had to stop, I would have been very displeased. When I finished the book, I had a big grin on my face.

When you read Pride and Prejudice, Austen doesn't hint at the amount of work it took to create a life of relative ease for the Bennett family. Because the estate is entailed to Mr. Collins, the servants also have to wonder what will happen when Mr. Bennett dies because they might have to find new jobs. On top of this tension, Baker shows us that the servants are ever really off work. In their scant leisure time, they're still not at liberty to leave the estate or pursue relationships or speak up for better working and living conditions--or to even remind their employers to say thank you every now and then. 

I will always love Pride and Prejudice. But now that I've read Longbourn, I think my future re-readings will have a new layer to them. I will wonder about the lives of the servants that are briefly mentioned in the original story and wonder what is happening below stairs. 

__________

* I still love Pride and Prejudice, no matter how much other authors play around with it.

12.08.2013

Above, by Isla Morley

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 4 March 2013. 

Above
The reviews you may have seen for Isla Morley's Above will not prepare you for the experience of reading it. The reviews lead me to believe that this would be the story of a young woman who is kidnapped by a survivalist who believes the end times are coming. She spends the next eighteen years, some of it with her son, living in a decommissioned mission silo. But that's only the first half of the book.

Blythe Hallowell is sixteen when she is kidnapped by Dobbs Hordin, her school's librarian. She had thought Dobbs was harmless, though a little creepy. She trusted him enough to believe his story about a car accident to get into his Oldsmobile. That trust is quickly shattered when he drives her to the missile silo she purchased and chloroforms her when she tries to fight back. Dobbs just can understand why she wants to escape. He believes that he is rescuing Blythe from the end of the world, which he thinks is immanent. Blythe doesn't believe this. It doesn't jibe with her idyllic memories of Eudora, Kansas and her family. Dobbs only offers rants and crazy theories when she asks about what's going on above them.

Dobbs rapes Blythe almost a year after her abduction and Blythe gets pregnant. The child is stillborn. To make matters worse, Dobbs kidnaps a sick child as a replacement when Blythe's mental state deteriorates. This section of the book is completely gut-wrenching. It's almost a relief when Morley jumps ahead a few years. Blythe's second child, Adam, is a healthy and curious boy. It's a struggle to keep him entertained and out of Dobbs' way, but he helps Blythe to heal somewhat after those rough years. She can never forget that they are trapped. After Adam's birth, she's doubly trapped. She's caught between Dobbs' paranoia and Adam's constant questions about the outside world.

When Adam turns 15, everything comes to a head. Adam can't be put off anymore, but Dobbs' refuses to take him outside. Dobbs won't tell Blythe and Adam what's going on. He just says they can leave later, always later. There is a fight and Blythe stabs Dobbs in the neck. They escape. That's the end of Part I. Part II is a new adventure when Blythe and Adam discover that Dobbs was right about the end of the world.

Yes, I wasn't expecting that either. This revelation turns everything on its head. Dobbs is still a villain, of course. Nothing can excuse what he did to Blythe and Charlie (the sick child) and Adam. But when it turns out that there was a series of massive nuclear meltdowns around the world, Blythe can no longer see things in stark black and white. In Part II, Blythe and Adam have to adjust to a world that neither of them could have expected.

This book had me hooked from the first chapter, uncomfortably so. I had my heart in my mouth for Blythe the whole time I was reading Above. And that twist! I was so not expecting that Dobbs was right. There are some pacing problems at the very end, but this book is incredibly well written. Morley hits all right notes when in comes to Blythe's emotions and giving us just enough exposition to set the scene while not bogging things down. This was a terrific read.

12.07.2013

Wake, by Anna Hope

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 11 February 2013. 

Wake
Anna Hope reminds us at the beginning of her novel, Wake, that the word itself has three definitions. First, it's the aftermath of something. Second, it's a ceremony held after a funeral. Third, it means to awake. Wake gives us all three over the course of five days in 1920.

Hope gives us four interconnected stories. We meet Hettie, who dances with strangers for sixpence at the Palais. There's Ada, who can't forget the soldier son who died. And then there's Evelyn, who helps soldiers get their pensions while holding the memory of her only love who also died in France. All three are stuck in some way. As Hope unspools their stories, she also shows us the journey of the Unknown Warrior. This still unidentified soldier's body was carried from France to be reburied in Westminster Abbey "amongst the kings" on Armistice Day in 1920.

As Wake unfolds, revelations about the terrors and crimes of World War I come out. It becomes clear that even the people who weren't sent to fight were touched by the war. Hettie meets a veteran who enchants her but disturbs her. Edward Montfort was a captain during the war. The decisions he was forced make have turned him into a frivolous man and an alcoholic. Ada ends up seeking out a spiritualist who tells her to look to the man in her life who is still alive and to let go of her boy. Evelyn may have the hardest transformation of all. Her new co-worker, a wounded veteran, tentatively flirts with her. This flirtation, and a chance meeting with a man from her brother's company, spark new life in her.

Wake isn't so much about the events portrayed as it is about the emotions it evokes. It's a profoundly affecting read. Revealing the plot and the conclusion of Wake would ruin the effect of his incredibly skillfully written novel. The ending, the very last sentence, is a mark of brilliance. It will bother the hell out of some readers (a sure sign of genius in my book, 'scuz the pun).

Sheer villainy

A reader anonymously wrote up a list of their five top villains and it got me to thinking about my favorites. This reader's list is heavy on young adult books, but I don't think that's a bad thing. The villains in children's literature not only reach us when we're more vulnerable, but I think they're more elemental. Many of the villains I remember from my younger reading days were pure evil.

Iago torments Othello.
As an older (not to say mature) reader, the villains that scare me now are more ambiguous. These villains believe they're doing the right thing or they're out for revenge that doesn't seem all that unjustified. They share an utter ruthlessness to do whatever they think it takes to achieve their objectives. If you're a complete Machievellian, you might agree with them. And that's what scares me. 

So, here's my list of villains that scare the pants off of me:

  1. Iago: Perhaps one of the most effective tools in the villains' arsenal is to whisper doubts into another character's ear, to give voice to their darkest fears and make them real. Iago is a twisted man and he's at the top of my list because there is no arguing with him. He claims his goal is revenge, but his unstated motive is to sow chaos all around him. You can almost say he's an avatar of Loki. 
  2. Madame Defarge: I read A Tale of Two Cities years ago. The images that stuck with me are Sidney Carton's deeply moving speech as he sacrificed himself and Madam Defarge knitting away as revolutionaries plotted around her. The thing that really scares me about Madame Defarge is that I can understand her rage towards the rich and privileged. 
  3. Nurse Ratched: The scariest thing about Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was her voice. She was always eminently reasonable. If the story had been told from her perspective instead of from Chief Bromden's, she might have been a heroine who simply wanted to maintain an even keel for her patients. 
  4. Captain Ahab: Moby-Dick was assigned reading in my American Literature course when I was an undergraduate. Our instructor crammed too much into the syllabus that semester so we ended up skipping all the whaling chapters in favor of the plot chapters. I don't remember much about Ishmael or Queequeg, but I do remember Ahab's relentless drive to kill the whale. I remember the lengths, physical and supernatural, that he was willing to go to in order to destroy his enemy. He's a villain because he lost his perspective. 
  5. Mrs. Danvers: Mrs. Danvers, of Rebecca, makes my list because, like Iago, she has a quiet voice that says all the terrible things lurking inside the novel's protagonist's mind. She has no qualms about saying them in order to restore Manderley to the way she thinks it ought to be and to get revenge for her lost mistress. 

Police, by Jo Nesbø

Police
Jo Nesbø's Police gives us a Harry Hole we haven't seen before. For the first time in a long time, Harry is happy. He's not drinking. He's not alone. He has a job teaching at the police academy that keeps him far enough away from cases that he doesn't disappear into the chase. Because this is a Jo Nesbø novel, we know that something is going to pull Harry back into his danger zone.

That something is a strange series of murders of current and former policemen. The officers are being murdered at the scene of their biggest failures, where the victims of crimes they didn't solve died. Mikael Bellman, one of Harry's enemies from the police force, is the Chief of Police. Apart from his extracurricular activities, Bellman is by-the-book and hates any hint of his officers trying to use Harry's unconventional methods. Unfortunately, this means that little progress is made until Gunnar Hagan, Harry's old boss, pulls the old team together and sets them up as a secret investigation group in police headquarter's boiler room. As if this case weren't enough, Harry is being hounded by a student who thinks she's in love with him, Bellman's plots are unraveling, and someone begins stalking the daughter of the team's psychiatrist.

From the moment I picked this book, I had a very hard time putting it down. There was just so much going on. And yet, Police doesn't feel overstuffed at all thanks to Nesbø's skilled juggling of storylines and character motivation. The other thing that had me hooked deep into this book was the slippery way that Nesbø writes cliff hangers. I want to shake the hand of the translator who preserved they tricky way Nesbø deploys pronouns and hides just enough detail to make you genuinely fear that a main character is going to die. And I'll keep falling for it because Nesbø has a history of actually killing off major characters just often enough that this time, he might not be messing with me. Even Jeffrey Deaver doesn't fool me the way Nesbø can.

Even the ending of the book hasn't let me go yet. I finished reading the book two days ago and I'm still worried about the character that Nesbø left twisting in the wind.

12.01.2013

Divergent and Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

I read both of these together in one volume on my iPad, so it's hard for me to separate them in my head enough to write about them. Here be spoilers.

Divergent
Veronica Roth has a spare writing style, leaving you to fill in a lot of detail as to what people and places look like. After reading so many books in which the author describes things in so much detail that you feel you know the protagonist's blood type and astrological sign, it's refreshing to exercise a little imagination. In Divergent, we met Tris Prior and her Balkanized version of abandoned Chicago. In Insurgent, Roth starts to draw aside the curtain and explain why Tris' world is so very odd.

Some time in the future, there was a disaster. We aren't given the details in Divergent. Roth drops us right into the middle of things, as Tris and her brother have their aptitude tests to determine which of the five tribes they would best fit into. Tris grew up in Abnegation, the tribe that devotes itself to selflessness and courtesy towards others. But she's never felt like she belonged. Being completely selfless was always a struggle for her. When the time comes to choose, she joins Dauntless because she feels a sense of kinship towards their quest for bravery. The training period is a struggle. Failing means joining the outcast factionless and a short, miserable, hungry life. Tris survives and thrives in her new tribe. Everything would be perfect if it weren't for the fact that Tris is Divergent; she has an aptitude for three tribes, not just one like everyone else. And, for some reason, if Tris is found out, she will be killed quietly, so as not to upset the status quo. All hell breaks loose on the day Tris graduates. A plot, hatched by the leader of the Erudite (who prize knowledge), causes non-Divergent Dauntless to become mind-controlled automatons who then attack the Abnegation leadership. Divergent ends with Tris and her friends and allies seeking refuge with Amity (peace-seekers).

Insurgent
Insurgent picks up Tris' story immediately after the events of Divergent. Everyone around her is scrambling to find out what's going on. No one, apart from Tris and a few others, don't know how far Jeanine Matthews of Erudite has manipulated their aptitude tests and neuropharmacological simulations. It's hard for them to believe. Dauntless allies itself with Erudite. Amity claims neutrality. Abnegation can't stand up for themselves. Candor (who value honesty) are browbeaten into allying with Erudite. All factions are threatened with violence if they don't send their Divergent members to Erudite so that Matthews can experiment on them, then kill them so that they don't mess up the five-tribe system. The tense stalemate doesn't last long, but there's a new wrinkle. One of the former members of the Abnegation leadership claims that Jeanine attacked Abnegation not because Erudite's propaganda claimed that Abnegation was hording food and luxuries, but because the tribe held important information that was supposed to remain secret from everyone. Insurgent ends with another violent clash between Erudite and their mind-controlled soldiers and the other factions and factionless.

As I read Divergent, I wondered how this society had come to be. The system was so strange and artificial that it could not have evolved naturally. Five different tribes, each devoting themselves to just one quality and actively suppressing others, will inevitably lead to conflict. It's not a stable system. And this flies right in the face of what Tris has been told about her city's origins—that they withdrew because they wanted to find a way to live in harmony through their various paths. Calling the five groups religions is as fitting as calling them tribes. The system sounds more like an elaborate thought experiment than anything else. At the end of Insurgent, I found out that my suspicions were right. It is artificial. It was a thought experiment played out in real life. And I'm going to have to want (impatiently) to see how it all plays out in part three to see what happens when Tris and her comrades venture outside of their city.

One of the defining characteristics of young adult fiction is how didactic it is. The genre is often as much about self-discovery as it is about entertainment. That especially apparent in this series. Almost every plot point and character can be read as a metaphor for something without much effort. That not a bad thing, as Divergent and Insurgent are fairly well written. I would say very well written but Roth is not a subtle writer and several of the characters undergo emotional whiplash as they're forced to do what the plot needs them to do.

It's still a fascinating story, in spite of its problems. I can forgive problems that spring from the author's purpose rather than from an author's lack of ability (e.g. the Twilight series). Besides, the main character of this series is a strong girl, who is conflicted but still heroic.