Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Ambrea's Read Harder Challenge, Part 3

I’ve discovered some more books as part of my commitment to the Read Harder Challenge of 2016, and I’ve found some great stories in my explorations.  I’ve 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 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 readers hanging on the edge of their 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 it evoked, 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.)

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 on 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 is a story of sorrow and loss, a tale of desperation in which he tries 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.  Tananarive Due is an excellent writer, and I highly recommend picking up My Soul to Keep.

Last, I worked on Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.  Having read a portion of the play during a theater history course 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 were fated to be.

A Doll’s House is an interesting play, not action-packed or suspenseful (like Something Strange and Deadly or My Soul to Keep above).  For the time period, it’s a thought-provoking work and, even now, it raises a lot of questions about women as spouses and mothers—and it makes one wonder about the typical roles of women in society.  It’s a play that’s designed to make an audience think, rather than thrill.

I thought it was fascinating to see how Nora managed to flaunt convention, managed to get what she wanted and needed 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.  Personally, I found it was slow going, but I think it’s definitely worth reading once, especially for readers interested in theater.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Remembrance by Meg Cabot

Reviewed by Christy H.

In the early 2000s, Meg Cabot had a big hit with her Princess Diaries series. But at the time she was also writing several other young adult series including a couple under the pseudonym Jenny Carroll. These two series, 1-800-Where-R-You and The Mediator, were my personal favorites but they seemed to fall by the wayside for Princess Mia’s adventures.

So much to my surprise, and twelve years after the last installment, Cabot has released a new book in the Mediator series for adult readers. A quick primer: Suze was a teenager who had the ability to see and speak to ghosts – also known as a mediator. She used this gift to help the ghosts find closure and move on to the other side. It was a pretty straight forward job until her family moved into a new house, and she met a cute and charming ghost named Jesse de Silva. And promptly fell in love with him. Remembrance picks up with an adult Suze Simon navigating life after college graduation and planning her upcoming wedding to the no longer dead Jesse (long story). Oh, and she can still see dead people.

As if planning a wedding, searching for gainful employment, and helping ghosts find eternal peace isn’t stressful enough, Suze now has to deal with her former classmate and fellow mediator Paul Slater forcing his way back into her life. Paul has bought Suze’s former family home – the place where Suze and Jesse met for the first time. Paul threatens to have it demolished which he insists will bring paranormal havoc to Suze and Jesse’s happy relationship.  Destroying a ghost’s former resting place is apparently a no-no, even if said ghost is alive again. Paul, however, will resist bulldozing the house if Suze agrees to a date – one that includes physical intimacy– so he can prove that he’s no longer the aggressive, overbearing boy he was in high school. Makes sense.

Despite the synopsis, not a whole lot happens in this book. Well, I suppose it does but the interesting parts don’t take place until more than half way in. Suze sees a ghost then talks about it (and her past) on the phone. A lot. I didn’t really mind Suze’s clunky exposition at first; it had been so long a little refresher was fine. But then she started explaining things that we had already read about, and it grew tedious. It was just extra padding because there is no reason this book should be as long as it is. 

And on a completely unrelated note, why does Suze constantly correct people over the relationship with her stepbrothers and nieces? (“He’s my stepbrother. Those are my stepnieces.”) It was just so odd to me; especially to say it in front of three little girls who Suze supposedly adores. (Hearing my favorite aunt constantly correct people over that wouldn’t make me feel so good.) Even her stepbrother’s wife corrects him when he refers to Suze as his sister. I honestly had to re-read that line because it was so rude and petty. It’s not as if they hate each other (they all get along really well) so it was bizarre.

Over all, it was just ok. It was pretty slow, and grown up Suze still acted like teenage Suze. I didn’t hate it, but most of my goodwill is nostalgia love. I do wonder if I went back and read the other books I loved so much – would I be disappointed in them too? Or has Meg Cabot’s writing become halfhearted? Maybe both. If she continues to write Mediator books, I’d be willing to give it another shot. I just hope she puts a little more life in this series, no pun intended.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Reviewed by Ambrea

In The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt chronicles the unfortunate misadventures of Eli and Charlie Sisters, the infamous Sisters Brothers who have made a name for their work as professional hitmen and guns-for-hire.  Now, working for a wealthy man known simply as the Commodore, Eli and Charlie are headed for Sacramento in search of Hermann Kermit Warm—and subsequently kill him and return what he’s stolen from his boss.

As they make their way to California, Eli begins to question their journey—he feels disinclined to kill Mr. Warm, unlike his more ruthless brother—and his brother’s motives for wealth and fame.  He wonders whether his life is the one he wants or the one he has been forced to take, and he wonders, can he ever separate himself from his brother and live the peaceful life he once took for granted?

DeWitt’s novel, to say the least, is not your traditional western.  Strangely compelling and slightly absurd, The Sisters Brothers is a literary oddity with a ring of truth to it that makes it simultaneously humorous and very, very dark and sometimes more than a little weird. If it has a heritage, it’s more like the old “spaghetti westerns” from Europe than, say, Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour. It's a western but there's just something a bit off-kilter.

More than a strange tale about a pair of bickering, violence-prone brothers, DeWitt’s book explodes with unique and off-kilter characters that are strangely likeable, like Eli, or entirely disturbing and revolting, like the Commodore.  Speaking of Eli, he’s probably the sanest individual in The Sisters Brothers.  He’s a compelling, heart-warming narrator with an interesting story to tell, a hatchet to bury, and a life of his own to live.  I probably liked him best because he had a streak of compassion that was totally lacking in his brother, Charlie, and pretty much everyone else.

Eli, more often than not, was the odd man out.

Arguably, DeWitt’s novel is very well-written, nicely paced, and genuinely suspenseful with intricate—if highly unusual—characters.  However, I will point out that I sometimes found The Sisters Brothers to be absurd or just plain weird and strangely melancholy, filled with murder, insanity, bloodshed, mayhem, foul language, and death.  It’s certainly not a typical western with the dashing, heroic duo overcoming insurmountable odds, rescuing pretty damsels, uncovering buried treasure in the desert or taking justice into their own hands.  Charlie and Eli are pretty ambivalent toward justice and the damsels involved are a little less pretty, a little more ruthless; honestly, they’re just a screwed up pair of kids who started in the wrong line of work.  While it isn’t exactly the most compelling story I’ve ever read,   it isn’t a bad book. It’s just not particularly exceptional.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nevermore: Florida, Paris, Einstein's Lawn, and When Breath Becomes Air

Reported by Jeanne

The Thang That Ate My Granddaddy’s Dog by John Calvin Rainey was praised by our reviewer as a fun and funny read, though there are some more thought-provoking themes as well.  It’s actually a series of stories set in Florida, told through the eyes of Johnny Woodside, an African American boy who has moved with his mother and sisters from New York City to his grandparents’ rural home. Many of the stories have elements familiar to anyone who has grown up in the country, especially in the South, with extended close-knit families.

Kristin Hannah’s Nightingale has been a favorite for book clubs and has won the author numerous new fans. Set in France during World War II, it tells the story of two very different sisters who find themselves tested by circumstances. Vianne, the older sister, became pregnant as a teenager, married, and moved to the country.  Rebellious Isabelle was kicked out of a series of boarding schools and ended up in Paris. Each offers resistance and bravery in her own way toward the German invaders, and has been described as a tribute to all the women who worked behind the lines during the War.  While several Nevermore members had read and liked the book, it didn’t seem to work its magic on our latest reader.  She praised the setting and the ambiance, but said the characters didn’t ring true for her—a very important point in a book that is largely character driven.  She thought the book overrated.

Another reader felt his book was somewhat misleadingly titled.  Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter is a memoir about the author and her father who bonded over science conventions, beginning when they posed as journalists in order to gain admission to a conference. In the intervening years, the two attended numerous conferences, speaking with some of the most influential thinkers in the field of physics such as Stephen Hawking.  Our reader enjoyed the book, but was a bit disappointed that the focus was less on the science and more on the personalities.  He did recommend it, however.

Finally, a reader had high praise for When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon who is suddenly faced with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. In a moment, he is transformed from doctor to patient, and is faced with the need to determine how to best live out his life in the face of death.  This is a beautifully written book which asks a reader to consider life and what it means to live. This book should join other classics of the genre such as The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.