Saturday, June 28, 2008

Suspense and Sensibility by Carrie Bebris

As much as I liked Pride and Prescience, I didn't like Suspense and Sensiblity. The prologue ruined the entire book. From page one it was obvious exactly what the conundrum was and what problems it would cause for the characters in the book. I sincerely wonder why Bebris felt it necessary to give away the entire mystery before page one. I will admit, nonetheless, that the final explanation and wrap up of the storyline was interesting. I stayed up after midnight to finish reading. But, that decision was motivated half by a desire to find out exactly how she would conclude the novel and half by a desire to just be done with it.
Despite the very strong flaw of Suspense and Sensibility I still believe that Bebris is doing a remarkably good job writing in the style of Jane Austen. The premise of this book is that Elizabeth and Darcy have returned to London with little sister Kitty in tow to find her a husband. The complex interworkings of turn of the century London and all of its detailed rules of decorum are hard to mimic, yet Bebris has successfully sustained a believability in the Regency era plot. There are momentary comments that pass between Darcy and Elizabeth that I would question, but overall I think she has captured the essence of relations between men and women very well.
It is not surprising to me that in her acknowledgements Bebris thanks a Romance society. The books are a bit mystery, a bit fantasy, and a bit romance. It is the romance part that I think detracts from her abilities to write a true Austenian style book. She feels it necessary to introduce romantic quips between her two main characters. They are leading, but never overt. Nonetheless, from everything that I have read from the era, even the leading comments would have been unlikely even between a husband and a wife.
I had to go back and read a synopsis of Sense and Sensibility as I started reading this novel. The characters - not surprisingly based on the title - derive from Austen's first published novel. She incorporates the main characters, now a generation removed from the plot of the original work. The decision to introduce all of Austen's characters to one another is intriguing, but heavy-handed. I like the idea that each novel exists in its own world. To collide the worlds rings remarkably false. For me, while I recognize it as a selling point and a unique twist for Bebris, this choice detracts from the interest of the series.
It is rare that I find a first book better than subsequent novels. Often writers improve with time. But, in this case, I feel like the first book was a fun departure while the second book was just a cash cow. Now that I've started the third, I'll have to decide whether she continues to decline or if the second book was just a bad fluke.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris

Jane Austen is everywhere these days. From Bride & Prejudice to Becoming Jane from The Jane Austen Book Club (movie and book) to Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen's mystery series (Jane solves the mysteries in this series) fans of the regency-era author can get their share of Austen. Carrie Bebris is no slouch in the field either.
Bebris is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and has done her research. Her first novel, Pride and Prescience starts almost the moment that Pride and Prejudice ends. Jane and Eliza Bennet are marrying Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy as the book opens; Caroline Bingley is simultaneously announcing her own engagement to Frederick Parrish a wealthy American. Unlike many typical mysteries no one dies immediately. In fact, the death is only a very small moment in the overall storyline. Instead, the story is really a convincing sequel to Austen's book with the continuing adventures of Bennet and Darcy.
Bebris does a great job of keeping the characters true to the era. The costumes, the speech patterns, the social mores all blend in well with the early nineteenth century. The storyline does not delve into topics that would have been unfamiliar or uncomfortable at the time. The relationship between Lizzie, her sister, her husband, and her extended family continues logically from where Austen left off. In all, Bebris has proven her mettle as a true Austenian who knows the author, the era, and the norms.
As a diehard fan of all the Austen novels, I really enjoyed reading Bebris' first foray into the world of Jane Austen. It was like picking up a familiar book and rereading it but finding a twist in the end. However, the twist in the end might throw a few readers for a loop. This book definitely builds on the stereotypical gothic novels written in the 1800s. There is a hint of the spiritual. Not everything can be defined by science. Instead of solving the mystery using scientific method, Elizabeth Bennet solves it using her intitution and cunning. But, her intittion suggests something of the supernatural. If you don't like any hint of fantasy in your reading, this might annoy you (I know it did my mom who gave me this series). But if you're willing to spare a moment of suspension of disbelief (and really, should anyone be surprised by the foray into fantasy when discovering that the great Fantasy publishing company Tor released these books) this series is great.
I picked up Suspense and Sensibility as soon as I put down Pride and Prescience. One more quick warning. As familiar as I am with Pride and Prejudice, I have already found that I need to go back and read a synopsis of the original Jane Austen work in order to place the characters and better understand the interactions between everyone. Off to look up Sense and Sensibility.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Shade's Children by Garth Nix

My husband and I both enjoyed the Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix which led us to pick up Shade's Children. Nix is a mix between Stephen King for teens and Neil Gaiman. The book also has strong themes reminiscent of James Patterson's Maximum Ride series. Nix creates interesting worlds with intriguing plot lines. But he does tend to be a bit dark and... not gory per se, but he doesn't lack for death and destruction in his stories.

Shade's Children is no exception. The book is technically considered a young adult book, but I don't know if I would give it to anyone who would normally be reading young adult literature. It is relatively heavy. (Or maybe I'm just clueless about what young teens are reading these days. Call me old-fashioned, but I didn't read a lot of blood and guts until oh, college maybe.) The story takes place in a future Earth. One morning everyone under the age of 14 wakes up to discover that everyone 15 years and older has literally disappeared off the face of the planet. Earth has been taken over by Overlords who use their minions to fight amongst themselves. At age 14 children have a "Sad Birthday" a la Logans Run. They are taken to the "Meat Factory" where their parts are used to create more minions. Four children and Shade, an adult mind that exists in a computer, work to take back Earth.

If you like alternative futures, have a kid who likes fantasy/sci fi, or are a fan of Neil Gaiman then this book might be worth your time. It was a good light summer read, if a bit dark.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

I have never heard of The Bone People before this spring. Were it not for my university I still wouldn't know of its existence. But, Hulme's book was chosen (by whom, I'm not sure) for the incoming Freshmen summer reading book. The purpose is to have all incoming freshmen read a book in common. In the fall they will have a colloquium to discuss the book. And professors are invited to incorporate the book or relevant themes from it into the fall curriculum. I read last year's book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and loved it! So, I had high hopes for The Bone People.
I never got past the first fifty pages. To be honest, I cannot imagine why this book was chosen for college freshmen. Maybe I didn't give the book a fair chance. Maybe when I have a day that I can sit and really focus on getting into the story I will find it fascinating and worth reading. But, when I got the library email telling me to renew it for a second time and I realized that I had made no progress in the prior three weeks that it was not worth my time to renew it again. Off to the library it went.
The story takes place in New Zealand and revolves around an embittered reclusive woman, a young mute Maori, and his abusive father - or so I read on the back cover. But it is written in a highly unconventional style. I realize that this gives the book its literary merit and it is one reason why it won awards, but it is disconcerting to read. The same word might be spelled three different ways in the course of the story - which adds depth, according to Hulme - but which I find just annoying. Much of the story is told through the inner dialogue of the woman in a stream of consciousness style which is disjointing.
I will be curious to know how many students read this book. Will they honestly enjoy it? Or will the read it because some college letter told them they should/had to? Maybe I will post again in the future about The Bone People and wax poetic about the unsung litereary merit of Keri Hulme. But, I wouldn't hold your breath.

Dakota Home by Debbie Macomber

Lately I feel as though I have been reading a fair amount of relatively heavy literature (not in the classical literature sense, but in the deep and thought-provoking sense.) I needed a break which is exactly what Debbie Macomber is good for. Her books are romances in the traditional sense. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, they have a huge fight, for half of the book they continue to misunderstand one another. Eventually everything works out exactly like it should. Neat, simple, easy to read. Considering that it is summer, the boys are home and running crazy, I feel like I deserve to read this kind of thing for a while.
Dakota Home is the second in the Macomber Dakota trilogy. It is interesting to read the author's perception of rural life in the Dakotas. The story revolves around a town that was dying because of the failure of agriculture but has become a spot worth visiting. I like the simplicity and the pleasantness of the story. It does touch on relevant issues but not in a heavy-handed way.
When I'm not reading while sitting on the back porch and being interrupted every thirty seconds to stop a fight, push a swing, or check out a bug I'll pick up something deeper. But for now, Macomber works.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

As I started reading this book the first thing that came to mind was To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm not really sure why, other than the obvious Southern connection, but it is a lasting impression now that I have finished the book. I liked To Kill a Mockingbird and it stayed in my memory; I think Bean Trees will as well.
This was my first read by Barbara Kingsolver. She's an author I have seen and heard about for years. I have picked up her books repeatedly but never had an occasion to read one. Now that I have, I am not just aching to run out and get the rest of her books. Nonetheless I would definitely pick another one up to read at some point. I am currently also reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Kingsolver and it was interesting to see the parallels between the two books. Bean Trees was Kingsolver's first novel and there is a definite hint of autobiography in the story. I learned from her latest book that like her main character Taylor Greer, Kingsolver was a native of Kentucky and moved to Tucson. This similarity gives her descriptions of the two contrasting landscapes poignancy and realism.
The story itself of Bean Trees is intriguing. It takes a young woman who is trying to find an identity for herself away from her home town. On a cross-country trip she is literally handed a child to mother. The developing story follows the character as she learns how to deal with the idiosyncrasies of lower-middle-class life in urban Arizona.
I have the impression that Kingsolver's books tend towards a heavy-handed environmental or socially conscious message. Bean Trees is no exception. Although it develops slowly, by the end of the book there is not doubt what Kingsolver's philosophy is relative to "illegals" in the United States. And the importance of nature to her characters.
I'm glad that I have been introduced to Barbara Kingsolver. All things said, I like Animal, Vegetable, Mineral much more than Bean Trees. (But, I'll save that for another post; I haven't actually finished the book yet.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

My husband picked up this book because he liked some of Chabon's other books. He read it quickly, enjoyed it, and suggested I read it knowing that I like mysteries. Maybe it was my frame of mind, but I just couldn't get into the flow of this book. So much so that I read the first 50 pages, skimmed most of the book, and read the last chapter to see 'whodunit.' I don't feel like I missed too much.
Chabon has a unique style of writing. He is one of the few authors I know who writes a male equivalent to chick lit. The books deal with male bonding and problems more specific to men. In this instance I just did not feel engaged in the story line. Among other things I think my aversion had to do with the premise for the book. The story takes place in an alternate present in which Israel has fallen to the Arabs and much of the Jewish population has relocated to Alaska. As the novel starts Alaska is one year away from being given back to the United States (much like Hong Kong's return to China in 1997.) Being a historian I had a hard time relating to the premise.
In addition the book uses heavy Jewish jargon/slang which made it hard to read easily. I got the impression much of the book was tongue in cheek but I was outside the know and missed the joke.
I haven't told my husband yet that I have given up on yet another book that he recommended - another in that list includes Everything is Illuminated. He's also still waiting for me to finish the Gunslinger/Dark Tower Series by Stephen King. All in good time.
Since it is summer time and much of my reading will be done in the backyard while my boys run rampant around me, I think it is time for something light, enjoyable, and easy to read when continuously interrupted.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Claws and Effect by Rita Mae Brown

I picked up the ninth Mrs. Murphy mystery books by Rita Mae Brown because I needed something light. After Lionel Shriver and P. D. James I wanted something that didn't make me think deep thoughts. This book was effective for that. It was a light, breezy read.
I enjoy reading about the Crozet/Charlottesville area because I can relate to it. I like the dialogue between the animals and their environmental messages that shine through.
However, I'm getting somewhat tired of this series. I feel like Brown has kept them going because they're a cash cow. Each story she has a novel problem to solve, but they have become formulaic. And in this one the denouement was flat. There was no real surprise, no real expectation. The mystery was solved, the story was over.
I'll read the other Mrs. Murphy books because they're sitting on my shelf and because a light mystery is a nice break from time to time, but I'm no longer heavily engaged in the series.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

I read this book for my book group. It's not a book I would have normally picked up, nor would I even be aware of it had someone else not recommended it. I always enjoy reading things outside my normal scope, so on that level, it was enjoyable. But, if asked in one word whether I liked this book or not, my answer would simply be no.
Shriver writes about a lot of compelling topics. She brings to the forefront issues in relationships that are worth pondering. She did make me stop and evaluate moments in my own relationship. On that level, I found the story engaging. (oh, and it is very sexual. A LOT of the relationship angst dwells in minutiae of long-term sexual relations. I wasn't offended, but I honestly didn't need to know that much detail about anybody's sex life. - but I do give Shriver kudos for writing so blatantly about sex.)
In addition, the format of the book is relatively unique. If you have seen the movie Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow it has a similar layout. In the novel the main character has a choice to make in the first chapter - whether to kiss a man who is not her significant other. The rest of the book alternates chapters based on her decision. The first is her life having kissed Ramsey Acton, famous snooker player in London. The second is her life having resisted the urge.
Here's my problem with the book though. In order to follow the two story lines to their logical conclusions, the book becomes trite. The author essentially had to create polar opposite story lines to keep the reader reading. Reading the same information in each chapter would not have logically worked. In addition, it would be too easy for the scenario in which she cheated on Lawrence to end badly and the scenario in which she was faithful to end well. But it is almost more obvious to reverse those scenarios: she cheats, yet it all works out in the end and she's faithful, but in fact that was not the right choice. I spent most of the book just waiting for it to be over to see if I was correct in my assumptions. On a overarching level, I was.
Finally, I didn't like the main character (considering that I couldn't even remember her name until just now tells you how memorable she was). Irina McGovern has to depend on her relationship with a man. Admittedly relationships do define much of who were are but I grew to dislike the character in both story lines. She needed to grow a back bone, stand up for herself, and leave both of the men. It's hard to read 500 pages when you know you're just going to get repeatedly annoyed at the protagonist.
Now, I'm just curious to get to book group and see if everyone else loved the book. If they did, I may be sitting quietly for most of the evening, because I'm not sure I will have much to add that's positive.