Sunday, February 28, 2010

Review: ArchEnemy

Spoiler alert: This is a review of the third book in The Looking Glass Wars series. By its nature, the review will reveal at least part of what happened in The Looking Glass Wars and Seeing ReddIf you want the first two books to be a complete surprise, which is my personal preference, stop reading now and leave this page.

Wonderland is in trouble.  Homburg Molly has unwittingly assisted King Arch to disable Imagination throughout Wonderland — which wouldn't be so bad if it didn't also disable Queen Alyss' strengths.  The only comfort is that Redd is similarly disabled, so Alyss doesn't have to worry about that enemy.

Arch appears to be Alyss' enemy.  He also appears to have used Redd for all he thinks she's worth, and he's cast her aside (and not for the first time).  But is Arch working alone?

The caterpillar oracles are being maddeningly obtuse yet again — and breaking pretty much all tradition by speaking with those other than the ruling queen, including Molly, who receives the single smoke-formed word: "Y-O-U."  They know not only the future, but all possible futures, which would be baffling at best if they weren't hookah-smoking caterpillars.

Confused yet?  Don't be.  Frank Beddor starts in the middle of the action and never lets up.  He weaves a story as intricate and beautiful as the silk from the oracle caterpillars.  Each strand is clear and precise, easy to follow as part of the bigger picture.  (However, if I read one more reference to a "gwormmy-" anything, I was going to gwormmy someone.  A little Wonderlandish goes a long way.)

In this novel, relationships are very important.  Dodge has come to a conclusion about his life with Alyss, whom he has sworn to protect and can't help but love.  Can a member of the guard love the queen whose safety is his life and still do his job?

Hatter has lost a love but found a new one.  He cannot but protect Molly, and he chooses the most unlikely of places to keep her safe, with the most unlikely of protectors.  Together, they find another who can unlock the secrets even Molly can't understand — and may ultimately save not only Wonderland, but the worlds that benefit from its imagination-power.

Arch's relationship with the Heart Crystal is central to this book.  He sees it as the antithesis of his power: without imagination, Wonderland will need him.  The caterpillars, those obtuse, confusing oracles, give him clues that appear to be to his advantage and offer him the tools to achieve these goals.

Redd and Alyss are in the same boat, so to speak.  Robbed of their powers, they view each other differently.  Redd thinks she knows Alyss' powers, and Alyss knows she has not yet seen the depths of depravity and cruelty of her aunt.  However, when the playing field is even, will their antagonistic relationship remain as volatile as in the past?  Can they be equals, allies — even co-rulers?  

The oracles have changed their relationships with the reigning royalty.  Have the oracles gone off their mushrooms, seduced by tarty-tarts and ready to sacrifice all to an entity known only to them?  What do they know about this entity, and what future are they steering Wonderland toward with almost reckless abandon?

All of this unfolds as the Usual Suspects line the opposing sides of the chessboard: Bibwit Harte, Vollwrath, Doppelgänger, Blister and a few other familiar faces.

In the end, it is a satisfying sequel to a unique, unequaled series.  Beddor calls the collection a trilogy, and I would be satisfied with this story to be completed with this book.  However, if he finds more story to reveal, I'll be first in line to see how he shuffles the deck.  Read the trilogy in its entirely, in the proper order, and enjoy.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Edible Books

Cakes by Russian bakery Zhanna of St. Petersburg, Russia:
 
  
 

Check out more of these amazing totally edible works of art at English Russia.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: The Friday Night Knitting Club

The Friday Night Knitting Club is about as chick-lit as you can get: a group of women share their lives and become friends over knitting needles. They laugh.  They cry.  They grow.  They change.  So, what's different about this novel?  Not a lot — however, in this case that's not a bad thing.  Sometimes, if the formula works, you need to just go with it.  Kate Jacobs did just that, and with great success.

I liked the story of The Friday Night Knitting Club.  It was the main character I didn't like, which made liking the novel that much harder.

Georgia is a modern woman, single mother and entrepreneur.  She owns a yarn boutique on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and lives in a two-bedroom apartment above it with her pre-teen daughter, Dakota. And she is a royal pain in the patoot.  She's a "tough" and "strong" woman because she keeps reminding herself of it, rather than letting her actions do so — which they wouldn't have.

She's not a real people-person, which in such an intimate setting as a craft store should have been a detriment — and yet having two good assistants who work part-time in the shop relieved her from "friendly" duty.  She hasn't mastered the art of idle chit-chat, which I can understand, but after 12 years of retail work?  And yet she has these people flocking around her.  Time after time, people come to her to try to connect, and all she can give them is a weak smile and lament in her head that she's not set up for that kind of relationship.  Yet her shop is filled with a cast of characters that is fabulous, diverse and interesting.

I also didn't much like Dakota, Georgia's 12-year-old daughter.  She was over-the-top and annoying rather than precocious.  That may be a good description of a pre-teen, but it wasn't a likeable one.  Plus, I didn't think she was fully or fairly formed.  She throbbed on the edge, more of a prop than a person, a setup for Georgia and James, the one who got away (but not before he fathered a biracial child who would try to give the story a tint of multicultural relevance). 

But back to the cool cast of characters.  I loved Anita, the older woman who helped Georgia from the beginning and, when she needed it, found a safe place to land.  She was smart and resourceful, wealthy enough to be comfortable without fretting over growing old in what can be a cruel city, loving and supportive and delightfully independent.  I loved the fact that she was smart enough to keep her mouth shut but not too smart to keep out of what needs to be meddled with in Georgia's life.  Frankly, without Anita, Georgia would have been a lonely introvert with a confused kid.

I found Darwin amazing.  She should have been the least likable character because she was such a contrarian with such a flimsy cover.  However, like so many insecure people who want to be a part of the club they envy and criticize, she threw up barriers that cried to be knocked down.  She was so busy trying to decide what she wasn't going to be that she forgot to see what it was she wanted to be.

Lucie sounded true to me: a woman who hadn't found a life partner but wanted a life and a few of the trappings that goes along with love and family.  I didn't approve of how she went about trying to live this life, but it proved the old axiom of "jump, and the mattress will be at the bottom of the ragged ravine to soften the impact."  Or something like that.  I also liked the connection Lucie made with an unlikely companion, and how that evolved a few characters in ways that were rather unexpected but welcome.

I also loved Gran, Georgia's grandmother.  She was a little pat for me, exactly the kind of salt-of-the-earth elderly lady in a small Scottish village one would expect, but she was lovely and perfectly written for the story.

The story itself was a little long in coming.  It didn't as much feel like a story but people crowding into a shop for a while to eat the creations of a precocious child whose mother perceived her as the next Julia Child because she liked to bake.  Georgia's story had to be told first, from the beginning to present, about her love life.  Not until an unrecognizable thorn in her childhood side walked into her life did you understand Georgia's alleged toughness.

However, the party got started when we began meeting a few of the characters.  Some remained in the background, which isn't bad — except the choice of background characters made little sense.  Some of the women closest to Georgia remained shadow characters, doing what they were meant to do but not much more, which was unfair to the reader.  Why not them?   Why a few out of left field?  True, they were quirkier, but there wasn't a 'normal" character in the bunch.  (Don't even start me on the few men of this novel.)  I suspect the rest of the characters are either jettisoned in the next two books of the series, or developed in the sequels (Knit Two and Knit the Season, both released on the same day last autumn).

I felt the pangs of all that went on in the worlds of the women, despite Georgia's shrill voice and temper at certain situations.  I thought one of the most important elements was rushed in almost in a desperate attempt to make us cry by the end of the book.  (It worked.)  I resented it, though I know that sometimes that's what life does.  It didn't make me like Georgia any more either, which I hope it wasn't intended to do.

I'm curious about where the next two installments take the story.  I might take up the second novel on another chilly day, with the fireplace blazing and some cookies and hot tea on the table next to me.  It was a nice winter novel, and I can recommend it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review: SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

What happens after we die?  It's a question all of us, from time to time, have pondered.  Even if we have no answers, we can speculate.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and writer, speculated through 40 different possible existences after death in SUM: Forty Tales of the Afterlives. He presents a series of unrelated snippets, each only a few pages in length, for readers to ponder.  The glimpses are brief, like a light that catches the eyes of a cat who freezes, eyes shining, before dashing away into the darkness of the empty field.

Not all of the ponderings are successful.  I began reading a couple to my husband David, who stopped me to ask, "Wasn't that a Twilight Zone episode?"  Honestly, David wasn't too far off.  The spirit was the same, though I would liken it to Night Gallery.  Those are the bizarre ones, seemingly tossed into the pack, almost as if he was padding the book to make forty.

Eagleman's speculates on deities are among his weakest stories.  The sex of a god, or plurality, or attentiveness or omnipotence, is hackneyed and overdone.  Give me something new, something on which I myself have yet to postulate.

When Eagleman takes the path less traveled, he is heartbreakingly, staggeringly, excruciatingly spot-on. I finished "Mirrors" with tears in my eyes.  "The Unnatural" would spark the interest of anyone involved with bureaucracy.  "Will-o'-the-Wisp" was a picnic steeped in irony.

The brevity is a blessing: if you like it, you can savor the taste of what you might consider perfection.  If you don't like it, don't worry: like Florida's weather, it will change before you know it.

It's an interesting experiment that is worth the risk.  Chances are, you'll find something you'll like.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Chris' Fill in the Gaps Top 100 List — Final!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: my fill-in-the-gaps book list.

The list is arranged alphabetically by author and will be read in no particular order.  I will offer a review or response as I read the books.

Now, I am not going to carve these into stones.  I give myself permission to adjust over the years.

What do you think?  Have I chosen books you love?  Did I miss one of your favorites?  Let me know!

Chris' Fill in the Gaps Book List


Things Fall Apart
Chinua
Achebe

Foundation
Isaac
Asimov

Pride and Prejudice
Jane
Austen

Sense and Sensibility
Jane
Austen

Sundays With Vlad
Paul
Bibeau
The
Lost Symbol
Dan
Brown
The
Good Earth
Pearl S.
Buck
A
Little Princess
Frances Hodgson
Burnett
The
Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson
Burnett

Cold Sassy Tree
Olive Ann
Burns
The
Land that Time Forgot
Edgar Rice
Burroughs

Tobacco Road
Erskine
Caldwell
The
Plague
Albert
Camus

Ender's Game
Orson Scott
Card

Death Comes for the Archbishop
Willa
Cather

O Pioneers
Willa
Cather
The
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael
Chabon
The
Big Sleep
Raymond
Chandler
The
Stories of John Cheever
John
Cheever

Girl with the Pearl Earring
Tracy
Chevalier
The
Woman in White
Wilkie
Collins

Moll Flanders
Daniel
DeFoe
The
Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot
Diaz
A
Tale of Two Cities
Charles
Dickens

David Copperfield
Charles
Dickens

Little Dorrit
Charles
Dickens

Oliver Twist
Charles
Dickens

Great Expectations
Charles
Dickens
The
Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre
Dumas
The
Man in the Iron Mask
Alexandre
Dumas
The
Last Cavalier
Alexandre
Dumas
A
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave
Eggers

Middlemarch
George
Eliot

Madame Bovary
Gustave
Flaubert

Where Angels Fear to Tread
E.M.
Forster
The
Corrections
Jonathan
Franzen
The
Quiet American
Graham
Greene

Goodbye, Mr. Chips
James
Hilton

Lost Horizon
James
Hilton
Les
Miserables
Victor
Hugo

Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale
Hurston
The
Lost Weekend
Charles R.
Jackson
The
Haunting of Hill House
Shirley
Jackson
The
Portrait of a Lady
Henry
James

Three Men in a Boat
Jerome K
Jerome

Up the Down Staircase
Bel
Kaufman

On the Road
Jack
Kerouac

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies
Jean
Kerr
The
Poisonwood Bible
Barbara
Kingsolver
The
Jungle Books
Rudyard
Kipling
The
Man Who Would Be King
Rudyard
Kipling
A
Separate Peace
John
Knowles

Little Drummer Girl
John
LeCarre
The
Golden Notebook
Doris
Lessing

Sliver
Ira
Levin

Elmer Gantry
Sinclair
Lewis
The
Monk
Matthew Gregory
Lewis
The
Call of the Wild
Jack
London
The
Best of H.P. Lovecraft
H.P.
Lovecraft

One Hundred Years of Solidude
Gabriel Garcia
Marquez

Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia
Marquez
The
Road
Cormac
McCarthy
The
Member of the Wedding
Carson
McCullers

Atonement
Ian
McEwan

Lonesome Dove
Larry
McMurty

Moby-Dick
Herman
Melville

Peyton Place
Grace
Metalious
The
Seven-Per-Cent Solution
Nicholas
Meyer

Beloved
Toni
Morrison

Lolita
Vladimir
Nabokov

Suite Francaise
Irene
Nemirovsky
A
Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy
O'Toole

Doctor Zhivago
Boris
Pasternak

Bel Canto
Ann
Patchett

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert M.
Pirsig

Atlas Shrugged
Ayn
Rand
The
Fountainhead
Ayn
Rand

All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria
Remarque

Home
Marylynne
Robinson
The
Human Stain
Philip
Roth
The
God of Small Things
Arundathi
Roy

Midnight’s Children
Salman
Rushdie

Sarum
Edward
Rutherford

Frankenstein
Mary
Shelley

Enemies, A Love Story
Isaac Bashevis
Singer

Angle of Repose
Wallace
Steigner

Dracula
Bram
Stoker
The
Valley of the Dolls
Jacqueline
Suzanne
The
Magnificent Ambersons
Booth
Tarkington
The
Man who Fell to Earth
Walter
Tevis

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Hunter S.
Thompson

Anna Karenina
Leo
Tolstoy

War and Peace
Leo
Tolstoy

All the King's Men
Robert Penn
Warren

Brideshead Revisited
Evelyn
Waugh

Night
Elie
Weisel

Journey to the Center of the Earth
H.G.
Wells

Trainspotting
Irvine
Welsh
The
Age of Innocence
Edith
Wharton
The
Inimitable Jeeves
P.G.
Wodehouse

1001 Nights / Arabian Nights




Thursday, February 11, 2010

Books on the Horizon: Yann Martel Back in April

Fans of Life of Pi can mark their calendars: Yann Martel is at it again.  The gifted author will return in the spring with a new book: Beatrice and Virgil.

Random House of Canada has announced the publishing date of April 6 in Canada and to the rest of the world April 13.

I have a lot of reading to do to clear my plate for this next offering by Martel.  I first encountered Life of Pi while I was studying French.  The semester was halfway done and I took a short break by picking up some books to read as a treat at the end of the semester. I skimmed the first few pages of Life of Pi to see if I would be interested.

I was so intrigued that I had to hide the novel until after the semester was over so I could concentrate on the task at hand.  The wait was more than worth it and I consider it one of my favorite reads of the decade.

I must say, however, I am disappointed with the cover art shown above.  The artwork is a lovely design and exquisitely balanced and harkens back to the cover on Life of Pi, but I dislike book covers that make a bigger deal of the author and her/his previous books than celebrate the tome at hand.  I understand marketing, but I also understand readers: we will judge the book on whatever merits we assign it, whether Martel's name is at the top or bottom or in larger type than the title.

Publishers also know that won't stop me from reading Beatrice and Virgil as soon as I can — and looking for the author at a bookstore near me.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Review: Shades of Grey

"I like to take a very improbable situation and make it real, " Jasper Fforde said recently, in way of introduction to Shades of Grey, his latest novel.  And truly, what can be more improbable than a word devoid of color?

Well, after listening to the author, it's not totally out of the realm of explanation.  "Visual color," he explained patiently, "doesn't exist.  It is a product of the mind alone.  When you see a spectacular sunset.... reserve part of the praise for yourself."

So he imagined a world half a millenia in the future that was very tightly structured in which human beings saw only one color — and that ability alone determined their role and position in the world.  It's a world very much like English boarding school, complete with the early bird getting the bacon and bullying on the cricket field.

"It's a bizarre world, but highly practical," he noted.  And based on his literary vision, I must agree.

Fforde is one of those rare authors whose work is consistently excellent.  I never have been disappointed by a book by Jasper Fforde, and this book is no exception.  While unusual and complex enough to catch me off guard at first, I persevered: Shades of Grey is written by a writer whom I trust implicitly, one I would follow into the most improbable story.

Eddie Russert lives in a very tightly structured society with his father, a physician whose medical practice consists of showing patients certain colors as a curative.  The government assigns people to the town, even homes, in which they live.  Eddie made the mistake of questioning authority by suggesting a more sensible way to queue for meals, and his punishment was to be exiled to Ease Carmine, a small town on the outer fringes of civilization.  His father was assigned to be the doctor of the same small town because their color doctor recently died.  Along the way, the Russerts miss their chance to see The Last Rabbit by a strange encounter at a paint store: a Grey pretends to be a Purple (almost at the cost of his own life).  Soon afterward, Eddie has an encounter with a very rude young woman with a rather retroussĂ© nose.

Imagine Eddie's surprise when he encounters the spunky young woman again later in the day in his new town.  Only she wasn't on the same train, and there is no other way to travel that far that quickly — so he must mistaken, right?

The lowly Grey trying to pass himself off as a regal Purple and a disrespectful beauty are only the beginning.  There are homicidal Yellows, dishonest prefects, starcrossed Green lovers, a trip to an allegedly mold-infested town, a trip into the Night and more spoons than one could ever imagine in this utensil-starved society.

Eddie wants to keep his nose clean so he can earn enough points to return home and marry Constance Oxblood, a very old, influential family who can keep him in string for the rest of his days.  Constance isn't the best or even nicest person, but Eddie might test much higher in his red perception than even his father suspects, and such a marriage would be beneficial for the Oxbloods — and even more beneficial for Eddie's more modest family.

But that's before Jane has him digesting inside a yateveo tree, which is certain death (especially if one is upside down, as Eddie finds himself).

Confused?  I was.  It was a very foreign world to me, one that made me rely on the author's Web site more so than I had in the past.  I felt as though the characters were much like the troupe of blind people who take turns describing an elephant by what each could touch.  I was utterly lost until the wheelbarrow — then I felt like maybe I was just trying too hard.  When Carole told me she laughed at the description of the movie scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, I started the book a second time, convinced I had missed something.  (It actually was a great idea because I did understand more from the beginning the second time around.)

Fforde said he wrote the book with enough ambiguity so each reader would have a unique experience.  Readers were invited to their own interpretation of the story.

The story takes place close enough to our present time to where our artifacts still are available, but distant enough to where there is no frame of reference for them. The description of the Oz characters was bizarre because it were offered by someone using his own current frame of reference, but it made  sense.  (It made me wonder exactly what these "modern" people looked like, with tiny pupils, ZIP codes tattooed on their collarbones and bar codes in their nail beds.)

It was the titles of books in the modest East Carmine library that made me laugh out loud; it was like playing the game Mad Gab.  Try speaking to someone with the same inflection and vocabulary used in 1510 and I suspect it would be a similar experience.  (A similar comparison to one Jasper uses in an interview, I must disclose.)


Shades of Grey is the first of a planned trilogy and I am anxious for the next installment.  In the meantime, we have another Thursday Next novel to enjoy later this year.

And if you haven't read anything by Jasper Fforde, go pick up The Eyre Affair immediately.  You can thank me later.