Monday, January 2, 2012

in 2012

In 2011 I really wanted to read 52 books (I include audiobooks) and I fell short. I read 48 books, but that's 7 more books than I read in 2010 so I improved. And in 2011 I achieved a long time goal of joining a book club, so that's also good. In 2012 again I make it my goal to finish 52 books (I've already finished 1). I've got audiobooks, a few great books joined my library as holiday gifts, I now own a Kindle and I'm in a book club ... that's totally a recipe for success, yes? I still have a demanding job and I've signed up to take 2 Continuing Ed classes, but I've recommitted (mentally) to this blog and reviewing all the books I read, plus I've started a blog about cover art - maybe that will help? We'll see how things go when I'm in the middle of the season, 2 classes and prepping to announce next season. Hmm.

What are your reading goals for 2012? Or goals in general?


Jasper Fforde and the Thursday Next series

I've written about Jasper Fforde's work before. I find that while I love and admire the imaginative worlds he creates and the clever stories within, his endings feel rushed, convoluted and yet, too neatly tied together. And yet, I've read all his books. Why? He's just too damn clever. The Thursday Next books suppose an alternate version of our reality in which reading is VERY popular and as such, requires Literary Detectives. Additionally, his protagonist is able to jump in and out of fiction, allowing her to discover Jurisfiction, the policing agency of the fictional world along with the Council of Genres and so on and so forth. Is your head spinning? The later books in the series get very heady and the reader must pay strict attention as Fforde introduces two versions of the written Thursday, meaning fictional accounts have been written in Thursday's reality about her adventures (novels which exist in our reality). Fforde also includes an extensive time travel plot involving the ChronoGuard. In case you can't guess, my favorite parts of his books take place inside fiction. I could do without the rest, but it's a package deal and the map of fiction at the beginning of Fforde's sixth in the series is a bibliophile's wet dream. I'm not kidding. Women's fiction and Racy Novel engaged in a severe border war? Of course. Cliffs of Notes, the Abridged Bridge, the Ungenred Zone and an island of Books Only Students Read. Convoluted plots forgiven!

If you are a big fiction nerd, read the Thursday Next series. I suggest not reading all the books at once. I find it more fun to be reminded and surprised by all the fictional in-jokes with each new book in the series. It's delightful fun and you'll feel smart while reading for getting all the jokes.


Review: Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera: a story fraught with expectations that precede it I  honestly had no idea what to expect. I picked up the audiobook a few weeks ago from the library thinking it was high time I learned about the story and that I was in the mood to listen to an audiobook at the gym. While I've always been a theatre geek, I somehow never saw a stage or film adaptation of the Leroux's famous novel. Over the years I've seen plenty of posters and heard snatches of Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical to have vague notions of the story, but as I listened to audiobook I didn't know much more beyond a few iconic images - the mask, a giant chandelier falling, a beautiful young woman, etc.

Leroux's story opens with the owners of the Paris Opera House and their dealings with the Phantom as they turn over ownership of the opera house to new management before delving into Christine Daae's mysterious relationship to the Phantom. Told in true Gothic style, Leroux sets the scene for superstition and amateur detectives. Maybe I've watched too many episodes of Law & Order (ok, I definitely have), but our crime solving and willingness to accept the existence of a ghost has changed in the last century, therefore some of the characters' reactions stupefied me. Accepting that a Phantom haunts an opera house, demands a salary (for what services rendered?) and usurps valuable seats in the opera house during every performance? Unacceptable. But, Leroux's story is set in 1880s Paris, so I set aside my grievances. Leroux has truly mastered gothic storytelling - his novel is at once horrifying and somewhat romantic. I take issue with the romantic side. I find Erik to be a creep. I cannot accept him as romantic. He's a wounded soul (yes), but he knows his actions are wrong, which is why he goes to such lengths to hide himself, his past and his present actions. He stalked a young woman, kidnapped her, threatened her and forced her to marry him. He has a torture chamber in his home. Really? That's romantic? He died of a broken heart? Give me a break. He displays all the classic signs of an abuser - verbally, physically and mentally assaulting his victim and then profusely apologizing to never do it again. Ugh.

So, I don't think Erik is romantic. His character fails to appeal to my personal sensibilities and by the end of the novel, I was fed up, however, I recognize that Leroux captured the romantic feel of his time. Part of my frustration may be from Henry Butler's reading (narrator of the audiobook) as he drew out the repetitive nature of certain sections, like when the Persian and Raoul are trapped in the flooding torture chamber I was actually rolling my eyes. I get it. They are trapped. They might drown, but I know they don't because this is all from the Persian's written account, which means he survived to write down the story ... get on with it! I just, ugh. I can't over how much I disliked the Phantom and his motivation - his love for Christine and desire for a wife. I know, I know, gothic = some element of death, but ew. He's described as corpse-like and she as a real living bride. It squicked me out.

I was much more interested in how he penetrated every room, corridor and mind in the opera house and more importantly - why? What deformity did he have at birth? For the most part those questions are answered in the epilogue. Leroux uses the epilogue to neatly describe Erik's troubled past, plot his tracks to the opera house and explain away his deep desire to be like everyone else ... by kidnapping a woman and demanding she become his wife. Yeah, that's normal.

Here's the thing: the novel starts off with a promising premise - the narrator is investigating the truth of the myth about the Phantom of the Opera using police reports, eye witness accounts and exploration of the opera house. I enjoyed the stories the ballet dancers told and even how the phantom swindled money from the managers of the opera house. Scaring the dancers is a bit creepy, but blackmailing the management, which reprehensible, is clever. If the story had stayed in that realm and unveiled the past and the tricks of the Phantom, that would have satisfied me. The focus on Christine, Raoul and Erik's love triangle frustrated me to no end. The love triangle diverted the story so much that when the managers receive their money back, they simply wash their hands of the Phantom and don't worry about him any more. Thanks for neatly tying up those loose ends devoid of any curious minds.

By the end of the novel I was bored. I never got caught up in the atmosphere of the novel. I just wanted to know how it ended and I didn't even care if Christine lived or if the Phantom let her go. I didn't find the characters compelling or care about their development of which there was little. The Phantom changes somewhat at the end by releasing Christine and we never see Christine or Raoul after their horrifying hours in the Phantom's home. From what I've read of the musical, the story is altered and some other reviews of the novel assert the musical and the movie are better. Having seen neither, I can neither agree nor disagree, however, I find it hard to believe that I will enjoy an iteration of a story that many accept as romantic in which a man kidnaps a woman and demands she become his wife. Not cool.


Friday, December 30, 2011

Tiffany Baker's The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

Truly Plaice, simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, narrates Baker's debut novel. Truly suffers from a thyroid disorder, causing her rapid weight gain throughout her life - childhood included. Compared to her beautiful and delicate sister in a small town circa 1950, Truly quickly becomes an outcast. Add to her physical woes the fact that her mother died while giving birth to her - she appears to be a source of grief for her family. Her well-intentioned, but undereducated father is ill-equipped to raise two young girls on his own. Truly spends much of her childhood ridiculed for her appearance, sheltered and a misfit. Baker's novel travels through Truly's life, reflecting on her relationship with her sister, her pseudo-family and the world. Told in omniscient first person, which troubled some reviewers, Truly knows details of events without explanation. This technique didn't bother me. I listened to this audiobook at work one week and I found the lyrical language, elements of mysticism and Truly's indignation at the mistreatment of misfits enjoyable. In her adult life, Truly discovers long held secrets in her small town, regarding alternative medicine, clashing strongly with her doctor brother-in-law and his long time medical family.

Truly is an empathetic narrator: she is concerned for the well-being of her family and understands all too well the impatience of the world with those who do not conform. The narrative felt like a southern novel, with its emphasis on family ties and heritage, the small town traditions and gossip and Truly's father's resistance to medicine. The novel is actually set in the northeast, which I repeatedly forgot while listening to the book. This story had a bit of everyday suspense - what happened to Truly's sister, what secrets did her brother-in-law and lifelong friend share, will Truly find happiness, will her nephew be ok without his mother, what is the magic of the quilt Truly finds? And these questions are answered, some rather predictably others with a bit of a twist and while the novel wraps up a bit too neatly for my taste, I enjoyed Truly's story and being along for the ride.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: Veronica Roth's Divergent

I'll admit I read this book very quickly - in less than 24 hours. A couple of friends recommended it, comparing its plot and addictive quality to The Hunger Games. I'm inclined to agree.

Divergent is another work in the canon of dystopian societies where the protagonist finds a way to break free - from Huxley's Brave New World to Lowry's The Giver to the more recent The Hunger Games and I am sure scores of others - dystopia in not a new topic, but it never fails to fascinate. The human race, in an effort to curb war, unhappiness, poverty and whatever else ailed it before the new regime, creates distinct groups of people. In Roth's Divergent, there are five factions: Dauntless (valuing bravery and courage), Abnegation (valuing selflessness), Candor (valuing honesty), Amnity (valuing peace) and Erudite (valuing intelligence and the pursuit of knowledge). As it usually the case in these novels, the new system initially brings the semblance of peace, prosperity and order, until discontent settles. Corruption, pursuit of power, pride, confusion - all the reasons for creating a system of order - all the reasons humans fight rise to the surface.

Roth's protagonist, Beatrice discovers she is divergent, meaning she can think for herself and displays traits of multiple factions; all dangerous qualities. She leaves her family's faction (Abnegation) and joins a dangerous breed (Dauntless), all at a time when her society is on the cusp of a revolution. Not quite as complex as The Hunger Games trilogy, the story is just as fascinating and addictive to the reader. I worried about Beatrice the way we (the audience) always worry about the ONE (thanks, Matrix trilogy). I think we strive to find our better society and when we realize it doesn't work, we want a savior (hey there latent Christianity, good to see you). Our culture loves the idea of one person who can fix our problems and even better when it's a young woman! Naturally there is a B-plot with a love interest for Beatrice, but it's rather unobtrusive on her character development and it's unrealistic to desire a young adult novel, featuring young adults who are not experiencing puberty. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if the featured relationship were not male/female, but Roth does explore Beatrice's inexperience with sexuality and her fear of what a relationship means. Points for that.

The plainness of the Abnegation faction reminded me of The Giver and the strongly distinct factions reminded me of The Hunger Games. Roth fits nicely into the canon without distinguishing herself as revolutionary. I tore through this book because Roth knows how to build suspense - what is really going on with the Dauntless initiation, why does it seem like there is some larger plan at work and most importantly, what is the danger of being divergent? All these questions are answered while Roth does tee up room for a sequel: the revolution begins as the book ends. At its heart, this is book about a young woman finding her way in her world and figuring out who she truly is and I believe we need more books with a young female protagonist.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Book Review: Dotter of Her Father's Eyes

Though I haven’t read a single page written by James Joyce, I have always been fascinated by him and his life. It is for this reason that when I saw a graphic novel was coming out about Joyce and the relationship with his daughter, I knew that I had to get my hands on it. I was not disappointed. In fact, I intend on buying more copies to give out to friends and family because I think this graphic novel has an audience wider that Joyce fans or graphic novel readers.

This graphic novel actually tells two stories; that of Mary Talbot and that of Lucia Joyce. Mary, the author of the graphic novel, had a tumultuous and at times an abusive upbringing. Her father was one of the leading Joycean scholars who suffered from depressive bouts and violent outbursts. Interwoven with Mary’s story is that of Lucia Joyce who has a similar relationship to her own father as Mary had to hers. For those who do not know about Lucia’s history, she was a free spirit who was misunderstood by her parents and therefore suffered a tortuous life.

There are striking similarities between Lucia and Mary who both came of age during pivotal times in history; Mary during the 1950s and 1960s right on the cusp of women’s liberation, and Lucia during the 1930s which socially mirrored that of the 1960s with changing roles for women. Yet both women are hindered by their parents’ own failed dreams and subsequent anger which kept them from encouraging their daughters. Instead, they wished to see them cloistered in a traditional setting despite the societal changes that were taken place. Both of their fathers struggled intellectually and this was played out in their troubled relationships with their daughters; forever changing their daughters’ lives.

The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous and adds greatly to the story. Lucia’s story is told in illustrations that are defined but blend into each other as memories typically do. This was an interesting technique and very effective for her story.  Mary’s story is told in sepia while Joyce’s story is told in shades of blue. This technique works perfectly as sepia brings to mind old photographs while shades of blue conjures up melancholy feelings which fits each story. There are images of “today” which are in full color and have very defined panels. This only adds to the feeling of remembrance in the other sections.

At under 100 pages, this graphic novel accomplishes a great deal in very little space. There is not a wasted word or image. This is quite possibly the best graphic novel I have read all year. If you know anything about me, you know that Seth is my favorite graphic novelist...well now he has some serious competition as this book rivals my love for Seth’s work. I am buying a copy for every woman, literature-lover, and historian in my life (which is basically everyone in my life...). Though I have seen this labeled as a children’s book in various places, it is far from it. It is more mild than other graphic novels but it certainly deals with issues of abuse and mental illness which is for a more advanced audience. I really think that this graphic novel will appeal to graphic novel readers and non-readers alike. The book is very approachable and the story flows easily without any jarring transitions that could throw off those who are not typically readers of graphic novels.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Bloody Benders

I know that I said the Axeman of New Orleans was the best in the series, but I lied! Bloody Benders is by far the best. The illustrations are far more complex and intriguing. The story kept me hooked and strapped to my seat. In all due honesty, I had never heard of the Bloody Benders so some of my excitement could have come from being introduced to the legend. Still, this adaptation of the legend is very intriguing and perfectly fits the mysterious story.

In case you're like me and don't know the story, I'll rely it here. In 1870, John Bender Jr. and John Bender Sr. staked their claim in Kansas along the Osage Trail. Within a year, they have built a house, a grocery store and have sent for their family. The parents speak very little english and count on their beautiful daughter, Kate, to help them survive. The family dabbles in spiritualism and holds seances that have the potential to become violent. Yet, it isn’t until dead bodies start appearing in nearby towns that the Benders become #1 on the suspect list. That is if only the authorities can find them.

I absolutely love the graphics in this book; they're stark and eerie. Though they're in black and white, Geary is able to solicit great emotion and depth. The illustrations are simple, but they're far from being dull or drab. The clean lines and use of black and white (even without any gray) work well with the subject matter and atmosphere of the empty and vulnerable prairie.

This one is a bit different because from the rest of the series because the murders are clearly known. Instead, the mystery is where the Bender’s fled to and if they will ever be found. Still, like the other issues in the series, it is like watching an episode of unsolved mysteries with a little bit of a history lesson.