Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Eye of the World/Robert Jordan/832 pp.

As promised, this is a review of the first book in Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series. (I read the prequel, New Spring first, although it was written later.)
Moiraine Sedai and Lan Mandragoran have spent much time searching throughout the land for the child who will become the "Dragon". In the backwater Two Rivers area, they realize they have found him when the village is attacked by evil creatures. The creatures target three teen boys specifically - Rand, Mat, and Perrin; Moiraine and Lan take the boys away, hoping to take them to safety at Tar Valon. The Eye of the World follows the group's journey, as the boys realize each of them will play an important part in saving the land from The Evil One.
I mentioned in my review for New Spring that that book assumed a knowledge of certain terms used throughout the series; luckily, many of those terms are explained in greater detail in this volume. There are also a series of maps of different areas of the land in which the story takes place, and the ever-helpful glossary at the back of the book.
I really enjoyed this volume (even more than I liked the prequel), so I think I will continue reading the series for a while longer.

Section of wikipedia article which explains the premise behind the series.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner/Alan Sillitoe/144 pp.

This is one of the best collections of short stories, by an artist I'd never heard of, that I have ever read. Sillitoe was born and raised in Nottingham, England, in a working-class family. At the age of 14 he left school and went to work with his father in a local bicycle factory. The stories in this collection mostly deal with families like Sillitoe's - poor factory workers living in cramped, dirty houses where the noise, soot and grime of the nearby factory is a constant part of their lives.
The title story is about a young man (Colin) who robs a bakery and is sent to a borstal, a sort of part youth prison, part reform school. The governor (warden) of the borstal gives him the opportunity to run cross-country meets for the prison track team; Colin is a good runner, and the governor thinks he will help him to win against a posh private school and get the borstal some good publicity. Throughout the race against the private school, Colin is way in the lead, but he stops running shortly before the finish line, intentionally losing the race to show the governor he is in charge of his own life.
"Uncle Ernest" is about a veteran of World War I who has suffered a mental breakdown due to his experiences in the war. There is an almost childlike innocence to him; when he meets two young girls at a diner, obviously poor and hungry, he offers to buy them something to eat. He continues to meet the girls at the diner, and the older of the two begins taking advantage of his innocence, getting him to buy them other things. Unfortunately, Ernest's motives are misunderstood by other patrons of the diner; they (and the police) assume he is a pervert, and warn him away from the girls.
I enjoyed all the stories in this volume, but I think my favorite was "The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller". Frankie is a young man of about twenty, who has the mental capacity of a younger boy; he acts as general (though he prefers to be called sergeant-major) in the neighborhood boys' skirmishes with other groups of boys. World War II is approaching, and Frankie assumes that when the war starts, he'll go to join his father's regiment; obviously, when the war does begin, he is rejected for service and ends up assisting the local civil defense patrols. This story is obviously at least partially autobiographical; Frankie addresses the narrator as "Alan", and Alan is a writer of stories about his old neighborhood. Sillitoe uses the story to reminisce about his own childhood and to express regret over having "moved on" to be a well-known writer who seems to have lost touch with his roots.
Reviewers have compared this book to The Catcher in the Rye, calling Colin a "British Holden Caulfield". It's easily one of the best collections of short stories I've ever read. Unfortunately, this copy of the book will not be going back into the MULSA book sale - it was missing a front cover when I got it, and has lost several pages since then. However, I note from MERLIN that there are several copies in the Libraries' collection: MERLIN

Thursday, July 21, 2011

American Uprising / Daniel Rasmussen / 317 p.

Daniel Rasmussen, a young white historian, retells the little known story of a massive slave rebellion held in January 1811 in Louisiana along the German Coast.

Slaves Kook, Quamana, and Charles Deslondes led a revolt of around 500 slaves by its brutal termination. They used Carnaval as the time to strike during the break from sugar cane cultivation and as a guise for clandestine meetings that would go relatively unnoticed.

This quick and fascinating read illuminates the story of this little-known slave revolt and its cover-up by Gen. William Claiborne, situated within the culture of the times, Southern slavery, and plot and intrigue of American annexation of West Florida. And it's all in HarperLuxe (larger print for those of us with weak eyes)!

For more information, visit the author's website:

Friday, July 15, 2011

Purge / Sofi Oksanen / 390 p.

I found out about this book from the Estonian guy in my book group.  Its author is a 33 year old Finnish-Estonian woman who first conceived of the story as a play.  The novel is the first to win both of Finland's top literary awards, the Finlandia and the Runeberg.

Looking at the cover, which features a thin young woman wearing an apron, working at a counter with a lump of dough and some apples and looking behind her, with a slight air of unexplained tension, an American reader might surmise that the title refers in some way to eating disorders.  It does not, at all.  Instead, it is a reference to the the Soviet persecution of large segments of the Estonian population after World War II.  One of the two main characters of the book was a young woman during that bleak period, and the other one, a younger woman, also has a personal relationship to that word. 

The action of the novel opens in 1992, when the two characters come together, but this action is interspersed with a written diary of another character from the past, and other written documents, and the narrative bounces between decades, between the 1930's and 40's and 1992.  Even translated into English, the language of the novel is obviously literary yet not pretentious.  Somehow, the reader does not shrink away, even when terrible events, and perhaps even more terrible non-events, play out. 

Before I read Purge, I asked my Estonian friend what rings true to him in terms of his own perceptions of rural Estonia, and he said, well, the flies...the constant swatting of flies.

Like the movie about rural Missouri, Winter's Bone, it has harsh and difficult parts, yet it left me more reflective than dismayed.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Iron Thorn / Caitlin Kittredge / 512 p.

In the city of Lovecraft, the Proctors rule and a great Engine turns below the streets, grinding any resistance to their order to dust. The necrovirus is blamed for Lovecraft's epidemic of madness, for the strange and eldritch creatures that roam the streets after dark, and for everything that the city leaders deem Heretical—born of the belief in magic and witchcraft. And for Aoife Grayson, her time is growing shorter by the day. Aoife Grayson's family is unique, in the worst way—every one of them, including her mother and her elder brother Conrad, has gone mad on their 16th birthday. And now, a ward of the state, and one of the only female students at the School of Engines, she is trying to pretend that her fate can be different.

When we meet Aoife (pronounced Ee-fah, in case you were curious), she is an Uptown girl enrolled in the School of Machines (one of the FEW girls enrolled there) waiting to go mad.  However, notes from her estranged brother convince her to escape school and Uptown and head for her father's mansion in Arkham to find and help her brother. What she discovers there is crazy beyond her wildest dreams.

I loved the characters in this book. Aoife was a character that I really, truly enjoyed reading about.  She was..different.  She has this chip on her shoulder about the madness that is a part of her family and the looming eventuality that it will probably affect her as well. But...she's also got a bit of an attitude.  She's cautious but she's not afraid to pursue the things that are important to her.

The whole world that Kittredge has created is really spectacular.  There is a little bit of everything for everyone! Seriously! It took me a little bit to get into the language with all the crazy inventions and such (welcome to steampunk, I suppose, lol), but once the plot gets going you can't put the book down! Don't let its size/length stop you from picking this one up. It's a fabulous read.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof/Tennessee Williams/158 pp.

The second of a pair of Williams plays I read recently. "Cat" takes place in the bed/sitting room of Brick and Maggie Pollitt in the plantation home of "Big Daddy" Pollitt, Brick's father. Big Daddy is a rich man, owner of a huge plantation; the occasion that takes place in the play is the celebration of Big Daddy's birthday and his (supposed) clean bill of health from recent medical tests. All the family members (except Big Daddy and his wife, Big Mama) know that the medical tests actually came back positive for cancer, and they plan to gently break this news to Big Daddy.
The play chiefly deals with Brick's relationships with Maggy, Big Daddy, and Brick's brother, "Gooper" (Cooper). Brick and Maggie haven't slept in the same bed for quite some time, partly because of Brick's worsening alcoholism. Big Daddy wants Brick to overcome his alcoholism and general indifference to the world so that he can take over the running of the plantation, while Gooper and his wife try to get the plantation for themselves by making Brick look bad in front of Big Daddy and Big Mama. A subplot of the play is Maggie's questioning of Brick's relationship with his best friend, Skipper, who recently committed suicide; Maggie wondered if Brick and Skipper were homosexual lovers, and slept with Skipper to challenge their relationship. Her confrontation with Skipper is what resulted in his suicide, and the suicide is what has caused Brick's heavy drinking and general apathy.
Williams' handling of the interactions of this "Old South" family, his willingness to deal with topics like alcoholism, cancer and sexuality at such an early date, and the sometimes autobiographical nature of the story make this an interesting and entertaining read.

Inside Out / Maria V. Snyder / 315 p.

For me, Inside Out was a book that really had a little bit of everything: a likeable heroine, attractive boys, rebellion, romance, tragedy...everything!  I know that I am a major sucker for dystopian novels but this one was seriously awesome. I can't believe I didn't read it before!

In the world of Inside, the "Uppers" and "scrubs" live separate lives--dependent on each other but not really knowing what life is really like for the other half.  The world (and all information that flows within it) is controlled by the Travas and the "Pop Cops." When a "prophet" from the Upper levels shows up talking about the Gateway, Trella is determined to put a stop to such dreaming.  To prove him wrong, she goes after his "proof" and along the way starts a rebellion the likes of which Inside has never seen...

Trella is a scrub, destined to spend her life in the lower levels as one among many doing the 'dirty work.' From the beginning, she presents herself as someone who doesn't want you to like her.  She keeps her head low and doesn't make friends. She has an attitude that doesn't allow her to get close to anyone--the only exception being Cog, a boy she grew up with who everyone likes.  However, I found it hard not to like her, despite her attitude--or make "like isn't the right word: RESPECT.  She's definitely a tough chick with her head and her heart in the right place when it counts.  She may be standoffish in the beginning, but she definitely grows throughout the book and it's fantastic to watch her personality develop and her attitude shift (slowly but surely).

We've got a couple of awesome male characters alongside Trella throughout as well.  First, there's Cogon (or Cog, as everyone calls him).  Cog is Trella's only friend. They were birth mates and he's always been there for her, even as she tries to push everyone away.  I loved Cog (like everyone else I suppose!).  He was so genuine that I think you couldn't help but love him! And then there's Riley, the Upper who Trella meets by accident when she's (illegally) exploring the upper levels.  The two of them are quite the pair! I loved it as they try to get to know one another and uncover the myths that each side has been fed about the other. Trella is so untrusting of people and Riley has to work so hard to earn her trust.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book! It was a great addition to all the dystopias that I've read lately and I thought that the society was developed superbly.

A Streetcar Named Desire/Tennessee Williams/142 pp.

This is the first in a pair of Williams' plays that I read. Blanche DuBois comes to stay with her sister, Stella, and Stella's husband, Stanley, in a run-down neighborhood in New Orleans. Written in 1947, the play documents the changing relationships among Blanche, Stella and Stanley, while showing the clash between Blanche, a member of the "genteel" Old South, and Stanley, a member of the new industrial working class. Stanley resents Blanche, who represents (to him) Stella's past and the "finer things" that Stella left to marry him. The action culminates in a surprising confrontation between Blanche and Stanley, ending with Stella siding with Stanley and having Blanche committed to a nursing home.

Legacy / Cayla Kluver / 496 p.

This historical fantasy fiction filled with romance and political intrigue sounded like something that would be right up my alley.  My overall thoughts were that this was a worthwhile read but it definitely could use a little polishing. The Kingdom of Hytanica has been at peace for many years.  The King is preparing to step down--just as soon as his oldest daughter finds a suitable husband to take his place. This is proving a bit of a struggle for Alera, for her father has basically chosen the next King despite Alera's disappointment with the match.  Then Narian comes into the story--an intriguing captive from Hytanica's bitter enemy...who turns out to be so much more.

The character development in Legacy was the best part for me.  Alera really struggles with the decisions that she makes and she develops throughout the story from someone who blindly accepts her destiny to someone who questions authority and, in the end, makes difficult decisions. Narian was a very intriguing character and I thought that Cayla did a fabulous job slowing uncovering bits and pieces of him to the reader while still leaving you guessing about the "real" Narian.

The only complaint that I really had about this book was that the pacing was a tad slow for me.  I felt like occasionally the story got bogged down in excessive details regarding the setting of each scene and the sharing of background information that didn't seem to have a purpose in the story.  I felt that the story could have moved along a bit quicker without getting bogged down in such details as each thing that they ate and what they wore and the items in each room.

Overall, I did enjoy the story that Cayla Kluver has started here and I won't hesitate to pick up the second book when it comes out. I must commend her on writing such an imaginative story at such a young age (as this story was first penned when the author was, I believe, 14/15).  There is a lot of promise in the story and I can only hope that books two and three move along a bit more quickly than this one.

Love Story / Jennifer Echols / 256 p.

Erin Blackwell moves to NYC to pursue her dreams of becoming a romance novelist, leaving behind he rlife on a horse farm and everything that went along with it. Including her grandmother's money. Erin's refusal to study business and take over the horse farm caused her grandmother to disinherit her and give her inheritance to the (good-looking) stable hand, Hunter.  Now, in NYC, Erin is working hard to get through her first year of college and putting herself out there in her creative writing class--even writing a fictionalized version of her own fantasy involving a horse farm and a certain stable boy. Then, her "stable boy" shows up unannounced in her creative writing class and wiggles his way into her life.

Erin was a character I felt like I could relate to. She made poor decisions, as many college freshmen do, and she showed over and over again that she had a lot of growing up to.  Yes, she was a tad whiny at times, but I don't know, somehow that worked with the person she is/was supposed to be (for me at least). Hunter was fabulous.  His undying love for Erin in the face of her stupidity is downright sweet.  He had a very stabilizing effect on the story overall as the very grounded character.

The ending felt a little "off" for me, but overall, for someone who is not generally a contemporary reader/fan, this book was a good read.  It was definitely a breath of fresh air to see COLLEGE students as the main characters in YA fiction.

The Confessions of a Trivialist/Samuel Rosenberg/219 pp.

Rosenberg is, according to the book's Foreword by Buckminster Fuller, a processor of trivia. When faced with a mystery, he "process[es] whole acres of trivia - significant details overlooked by others." In this way, he has been able to get at the (possible) reasons behind the actions of various historical figures, and uses that information to (re)create what Fuller calls "highly plausible but sometimes directly undocumented intimate episodes" in the lives of these people. By using these methods, Rosenberg gives us, in this volume, his hypotheses of events in the lives of Mary Shelley (creator of Frankenstein's monster), Herman Melville, Albert Schweitzer, and Lot's wife, among others. He includes an interesting chapter on the possible origin of the Santa Claus figure, as well as information about child-prodigy William James Sidis, who went from entering Harvard at the age of 11, to working subsistence jobs and collecting streetcar transfers (and writing perhaps the most boring book in the world, Notes on the Collection of Transfers).
While the book contains some pieces of interesting information (including an account of the author's 1955 interview of Schweitzer), I was turned off by the very thing that is Rosenberg's stock-in-trade - his tendency to make an assumptive jump in logic from a collection of random facts to a full-blown (alleged) episode in a person's life. While it is entirely possible that the figure of Dr. Frankenstein was based on Mary Shelley's father and her husband, we have no actual physical proof of that fact, merely the author's assumption and supposition. The book was enjoyable, however, for the new information (trivia) it gave me on Sidis, Melville, and the strange triangle of Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poet Byron.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains/Nicholas Carr/276 pp.

According to Carr, the advent of the internet has changed the way we as humans process information through our brains; due to the web format of small snippets of information or long articles broken up by distracting pop-ups and in-text ads and links, we are losing the ability to read (and perhaps, think) deeply. Carr traces the history of information dispersal, from the oral tradition to clay tablets, papyrus and Gutenberg's printing press, up through radio and television to the multi-media web-based formats of today. He presents scientific evidence that shows how the brain is constantly evolving, gaining and losing synapses connected to learning and memory. He also includes a chapter on the "googleization" of information - how the goal of the founders of Google was to apply manufacturing's process-improvement methods to the internet, and how that affects the way we search for and browse information on the web. (He also discusses Google's efforts to make all information available via the internet, including their huge book-digitization project.)
On a personal note, I was two chapters shy of finishing this book when it became due at the library. I took the book to the library, thinking I'd just renew it and finish it, but found that someone else had a hold on the book so I couldn't renew it. "No problem," I thought, "I'll just find a quiet spot here and finish the book." The irony is that I was unable to focus enough to do the deep reading required to finish the book, and had to settle for just briefly scanning the last two chapters!