Sunday, May 31, 2009

Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson

When reading a book that is touted as a "Hugo Award Finalist" and a "Winner of the Philip K. Dick Award," one has high hopes. After having finished Darwinia I am significantly less enamored of well-known science fiction award winners.

My husband and I discussed why Darwinia had garnered so much attention from the authorities. Especially for a book that was just not that good. I will say, my avid science fiction reading husband liked the book much more than I did. He appreciated the premise on which the book was based. Which is exactly why we think it got the award recognition it did. Which begs the question, what is the premise of the book?

In the year 1912 a "miracle" occurs which changes the world. Europe has disappeared and is replaced with a very foreign land known by contemporaries as Darwinia. A debate emerges between whether this is a biblical proportions miracle or something more sinister. Explorers scout the hinterland à la nineteenth century Livingston expeditions and discover something unexpected. Attention getting, yes. Novel descriptions of a new world to replace the ever-familiar European landscape, yes.

In my opinion, however, that's not enough. The book needed to be either 150 pages shorter, or 600 pages longer. Darwinia is divided into 4 books and it needed to genuinely be written as four separate well-developed novels. Instead the four books are all too short and lack necessary details to full-flesh out the story that Wilson wanted to tell. The other option would have been for Wilson to take out extraneous detail and write a 200 page book. He gives copious details about Guilford Law's first wife which amount to nothing and are not necessary for the story. He goes into great detail describing the world of Darwinia, which is interesting, but only if he were setting up a lengthy trilogy. As it stands, I felt myself falling asleep in the middle of descriptions.

I hadn't heard anything about this book, and I know why. I can't imagine it has a very wide readership. Like I said, the premise is novel. But the book is not fleshed out as it should have been.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Rowan by Anne McCaffrey

I rarely reread a book. There is just too much literature out there to read once that I can't waste time on any book twice. But, I broke my own rule to reread the first in Anne McCaffrey's Rowan series. A group of friends were reading it for a book group, I wanted to participate, and I didn't remember the details well enough without actually going through the whole book again. (Why I didn't remember the details is because a) it was almost eight years ago and b) it was during my first year of grad school and everything I did that year leaked out of my brains a long time ago - especially if it did not relate to school).

That having been said, I liked this book better the first time. Not that I have changed that much but my reasons for reading were different. The first time I read it as a complete escape from reality. I needed something different and removed from real life. In that vein, I really enjoyed the world and the story that Anne McCaffrey put forward. The Rowan takes place in a futuristic galaxy in which a percentage of humans have telekinetic power, ESP, and empathy. Those with Talents work to transport goods and services between planets.

This time I was reading the book with a goal in mind - to discuss it with other readers, not all of whom are science fiction fans. In that venue, I like the book less. It is still good escapist literature. But, it does not stand up as a stand alone book very well. Without all the other books in the series The Rowan seems poorly developed. The world is engaging but the characters need greater depth. And the ending is hurried and not as well developed as I would have liked.

For semi-science fiction fans, McCaffrey is best known for her Dragonridgers of Pern series. Like that series, these books are great for younger readers - post-young adult but too young for certain adult themes. This series does speak to a slightly older audience as the role of parenting is a key issue. I would give it to an avid junior high aged reader in a heartbeat.

An enjoyable second read. But not thrilling enough to make me pull out the rest of the series right now.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

I have conflicting feelings about this book. On the one hand, I don't want a book that offers a pat Hollywood ending. On the other hand, a hefty dose of stark realism leaves me overwhelmed and looking for a bit of escapist literature. I know I can't have it both ways but finishing this book left me... squirmy. Odd choice of words, but I find myself mentally flip-flopping this book through my mind.

The premise of Ten-Year Nap is that four women find themselves at loose ends as they discover that their children no longer need them in the same way they did when they were younger. As the story revolves through the lives of the different characters, the innerworkings of their lives develop. It would be too easy to say that they all want to go back to work or that they all want to stay home. Wolitzer does a good job of looking at the individuality of life experiences to show how what one mother wants makes no sense for another mother. I respect that aspect of her book. Moms are ridiculously hard on one another and Wolitzer shows that they need to focus on themselves and not make assumptions about what should or will work for someone else.

The book also jumps back, in short intervals, to examine the lives of the mothers' mothers (and a couple of famous completely unconnected women). Wolitzer shows what each of the characters' moms wanted for her daughter. Examining the difference in the expectations of the previous generation's women strengthened the story because it helped to show how and why the 40-something women acted as wives and mothers.

One aspect that caught my attention was the discrepancy Wolitzer felt existed between the 40-somethings and the 30-somethings. She seemed to feel that the younger moms had more active husbands - more likely to be stay at home dads, more supportive of raising young children. I don't know if I buy that distinction. Admittedly, I fall right in the middle of those two groups and I could see characteristics of both generations in my husband. So maybe Wolitzer knows something I don't.

In the end I'm glad that I read the book. I did spend a lot of time thinking about my choices and my friends' choices. I have gone over where I want to be in 5 years when my son is 10 years old and doesn't need me every day when he is in school. Because of this book I will try to focus on my own goals and not subsume myself solely to my role as wife and mother. But, the final outcome  for the mothers was so realistic that I was frustrated. A tinge of hyper-realism and Hollywood-esque endings would not have been remiss. I would like to think that ten years out, some women do end up fulfilling their dreams rather than just trodding through life. Maybe I'm just too optimistic.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear

I adore Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobb's books. I dole them out slowly because I wholeheartedly enjoy reading every aspect of her stories. She has a heroine who is both intelligent and engaging while not being drippy or overly pretentious in her knowledge. Plus, the time period of the series is one of my absolutely favorite historical periods. Writing a post about this book will likely just end up being a drippy fan letter to Winspear so bear with me.

Winspear does extremely accurate research into 1920s and 30s England. Her stories follow the character Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator who worked as a nurse during World War I. Each of the stories details a mystery that connects back to the events of the War. Winspear unearths a gritty, realistic, yet not gory explanation of The Great War. In her job as a PI, Dobbs must travel back through the experiences of veterans who have survived insurmountable experiences. This story looks at an artist who served both as a soldier and as a propaganda artist for the British government. Exploring the way that someone who saw the horrors of war and had to then convince others to enlist underscores a side of war that I have rarely found researched.

Whoever helps Winspear with her research does a fantastic job. The accuracy of the era is readily apparent. In this story Winspear has begun to underline the impact of the Depression on the British people. Not only does she faithfully depict the War, she also begins to explore the social class ramifications of the Depression on the people in London. Her work raises questions about British society's duties to its fellow man.

While I might classify the Maisie Dobbs books as cozies, they are infinitely more. To be honest, I have used examples from this fictional series in my classroom teaching because Winspear brings a realism and an emotionality to war that is rarely found in academic writing. I strongly recommend this series to anyone who likes mysteries, anyone who enjoys historical novels, and anyone who wants to read a more than competent writer.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I anticipated disliking this book. After all, another vampire book? I thought that phase had passed with Anne Rice, but apparently it is back in full force (cough cough Stephanie Meyer) - and with Dracula no less. Surprisingly, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and not at all because it was a vampire book. I would honestly say I liked The Historian, despite the fact that it was another vampire book.

Kostova has woven a detailed story together around a small group of academics who are chasing the historical roots of the Dracula legend. Quickly they realize that the legend is in fact true which creates tension as their lives are now in danger. The main character is a woman who is reminiscing about her teenage years when her father began the Dracula quest. Most of the story takes place in Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 1970s.

People's individual stories and letters appear from time to time as the Historian traces the lineage of the legend. The change in point of view can be a bit distracting. I like the way Kostova tells the story because it is reminiscent of historial research. Tracing the story through illogical means, making connections that don't appear obvious at first, finding snippets of unexpected treasure in unlikely sources: all of these details give credence to the book. However, as a reader, it slowed me down a lot. It was difficult to get into the right frame of mind and to remember whose story I was reading each time I picked up the book.

Anyone with an interest in Eastern Europe through the era of the Soviet Union would be intrigued by Kostova's work. The characters travel through Soviet satellites in the 1930s, 50s, and 70s. They encounter different political resistance and response depending on the era of their travels, which I thought Kostova covered extremely well. I feel like I have a better understanding of life in that region - completely independent on Dracula.

Two small nitpicky comments:

At one point I found Kostova's attempt at writing as a historian flawed. The way the character wrote his historical narrative did not ring true. I understand Kostova was trying to impart information for her reader, but a historian pre-1800 would not have been writing about national identity.

The other is a plot point. Kostova worked towards a big climax and she set up this incredible idea: I was hoping... And then, she didn't follow through. It seemed like 600 pages in, she was ready to wrap up the story. I so wanted another 10 pages of description and decision making for the main character. But, alas, she didn't.

Vampire lovers this book takes a novel approach to vampire lore that I enjoyed. And, vampire are bad again. Which oddly enough was refreshing. Fans of historical fiction written in a very true to life way will also enjoy this book, if they can get past Dracula. All in all, a good book. But 650 LONG pages. Pick this up if you're willing to commit some time to reading.