Tuesday, September 28, 2010

State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy

When reading a cozy mystery series there is suspension of disbelief and then there is "so far fetched I am having trouble with my disbelief turning into laughable disdain." What can I say; I applaud Hyzy for her attempt at a novel fun locale for her series. I think writing a series about the White House chef is creative. She admits in her acknowledgements that she can't have all the details concerning the White House kitchen completely accurate because of privacy and security. That actually wasn't what bothered me overmuch.

The plot of State of the Onion revolves around Olivia Paras, the assistant chef in the White House who gets involved in a security breech involving the president. With an inability to keep out of harms way, Ollie ends up the target of an assassin's wrath because she is the one person who has seen him and can identify him. As a chef, the book of course revolves around cooking and the kitchen. There are recipes in the back. So far, typical cozy.

My frustration came from the subplot which involved two warring Middle Eastern nations who come to the United States for a joint meeting. Hyzy could not logically put Palestine and Israel into the book so instead she created two made-up nations with "very different backgrounds." That destroyed it. By definition she had to write in generalizations. Her perceptions of Middle Easterners were stereotyped and one-dimensional.

Furthermore, I found the "rah rah the President is perfect we're so patriotic it makes everyone gag" to be over the top. Obviously someone who works in the White House has a healthy respect for our government and the office of the President. But to suggest that we are the only great nation who has all the answers is overstated.

Now, other people I know liked this book a lot more than I did. I'm a harsh critic when it comes to accuracy and realism. If you want a light fun story, Hyzy's not bad. I did get invested in the climax and discovery of the bad guy. It was also the right book to have when I needed something light, fluffy, and not too deep.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

I picked up Baker Towers on a whim at a discount bookstore. I had never heard of the book or the author. But the blurb on the back sounded engaging. I'm really glad I got the book. Haigh's novel grew on me as I read it. By today I wanted the peace and quiet to sit down and finish the story uninterrupted.

Jennifer Haigh has an interesting quality of saying a lot in a very few words. The story revolves around a miner's family in World War II-era Pennsylvania. In the first moments the father, a coal miner, keels over dead. The rest of the book follows his children as they navigate the world they inhabit from youth to adulthood. There are two sons and three daughters in the family who all take very different paths which continue to intersect.

Dorothy, the eldest daughter, moves to Washington DC to work as a stenographer to help out her family. Joyce, the middle daughter, enlists in the Navy after the War is over, returning home when her mother's health fails. Lucy, the baby, struggles with her weight and navigating a world devoid of me. George, the eldest son, returns from the War with grandiose desires he cannot fulfill. Sandy is the golden child of the family, yet he's always on the periphery of everyone's concerns. Each of the children, and eventually the grandchildren, flit in and out of their hometown and one another's lives as their circumstances change.

Haigh's writing is light but imbued with a lot of depth. She does not dwell on unnecessary explanations of feelings. Nor does she spend overmuch time describing imagery. Yet with a short turn of phrase an entire conversation makes sense. Although the book is only 320 pages long it feels like a much longer story. She intertwines the voice of the family members in a way to see a clear picture of their life through many eyes.

An unexpected pleasure. I hoped for a good book. I found a really well-written treasure about a time and place I personally really enjoy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Uncharted Territory by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is one of the most award-winning science fiction authors in the past twenty-five years. And yet her books will never be a part of the literary cannon. That isn't Willis' point. In fact, it is her ability to poke fun at so much of society that makes her books great. They are the antithesis of the cannon and yet everyone should read them.

Uncharted Territory is an odd little novella. At 160 pages it seems tiny compared to most of what appears in bookstores these days. But considering that more than half of Willis' work is short stories this book bridges the gap between her two types of stories.

The story drops you right in the middle of a fantastical science fiction world replete with explorers charting a foreign planet. The language is slightly off making it a bit of a challenge to immerse yourself in the story. The alien is inexplicable and speaks oddly. There is no immediate conflict to drive the plot. All in all, it sounds like many, many short stories.

The appeal of any Willis story is her ability to find the incredible humor and irony in seemingly serious topics. Most of the story explores the ridiculousness of treating native peoples and lands "with respect" (which looks bad when I write it that way). Obviously she takes the idea to the extreme in which the explorers are fined for leaving footprints in the dust which may irreparably harm the native flora and fauna. Trust me its funny.

But in the long-term the story is actually exploring gender-bending. One of the main characters is Evelyn - assumed to be a woman but of course a British male - who studies mating habits of alien species. As it turns out, he should be studying the mating habits immediately surrounding him.

This book has a limited audience appeal and universally relevant commentary. While not my favorite of her books by a long shot, Connie Willis remains a great author.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire AND The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

Last night I refused to interact with anyone in the house. I was bound and determined to finish Stieg Larsson's trilogy. On the one hand, I really wanted to know the outcome - how was he going to wrap up all of his story lines? On the other hand, I just wanted to finish the damn series!

Stieg Larssoon loves details! He goes into amazingly explicit minutiae for the sake of the story. In the long run I understand why he included every single aspect. Nothing was extraneous. It all tied together in the end. And all the sideline stories were crucial to bring the people together how and when he did. But... 250 pages into The Girl Who Played with Fire he *finally* set up the plot. It was somewhat laborious to keep reading and wonder where in the world he was going with his stories. Similarly, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest I had to wonder why I was spending so much time reading about Berger and her personal problems. It all made sense in the end, (there was one particular moment in the story for which it was necessary for Berger to implicitly trust Salander) but I don't know that that much space was needed for some of the information.

It is an amazing series. Larsson has combined police procedural, John LeCarré style spy intrigue, and current social gender intrigue into an intricate and intriguing storyline. I won't debate the merits of Larsson's trilogy. Instead, I am going to take a minute to debate a few small issues I had with the series.

In the beginning of The Girl Who Played with Fire Salander is wandering around the Caribbean. As I said before, I understand the logic of setting up the story in the way Larsson does. But, given the character he had described in book one, I had a hard time buying some of her character traits in book two. Suddenly this sullen, untrusting girl is sitting chatting casually with a bartender and helping people out. It didn't fit for me. It was too abrupt of a change.

My husband and I have been having an ongoing conversation about the role of sex and violence in the series. We've debated why Bloomkvist has to take so many women to bed - is it necessary for the storyline to set him up as an individual who is very casual about relationships? is it indicative of Swedish society? or is it sheer selling value to include lots of sex?

My mother and I discussed why the series has gained so much popularity recently. Her conclusion: it's about Sweden which is currently "hot," and its for sale at Costco which seems to dictate bestseller list these days. I agree with both of her statements, but I would add that the intrigue of Larsson adds to the power of the series. Knowing that Larsson is dead and can't write anymore allows readers to wonder what was supposed to happen next.

I'm glad I read The Millennium Trilogy, as it has been dubbed. It's a fast-paced, interesting series that raises a lot of questions about how society views outsiders. But I also am glad I read it because it keeps me abreast with current trends. Now I'm ready for something without a lot of sex, violence, or coffee drinking. :-)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo is an international phenomenon. I have to believe everyone in the literate world has heard about this book in the past six months. My mom has read the series, my husband has read the series, friends have read the series. I finally decided I would bite the bullet and read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Too many recommendations tend to leave me cold; I find overwhelming praise often means I am disappointed in a book so I started reading with considerable trepidation.

Happily I can report I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as much as alluded to by other readers. Larsson writes a compelling book. His characters are not archetypes and yet he describes them well enough to make them believable. All things considered, Larsson does not lack for descriptive detail. Reading the second book in the series I find that he overwhelms with detail, but more on that later.

For anyone left who has neither heard of the book nor seen the movie, the plot revolves around a 30-year old mystery surrounding a teenage girl who disappeared from an island without a trace. Mikael Blomkvist, a veteran journalist suffering from professional problems, is brought in to reanalyze the facts and try one last time to discover what happened. Eventually he needs a researcher to help with his search and brings in Lisbeth Salander, the infamous girl with the tattoo. Lisbeth’s back story ultimately becomes the plot of the Larsson trilogy. In this book Blomkvit and Salander solve the immediate mystery. But Larsson sets up the conundrum for the next two books.

So many people have commented on this story that I don’t feel it necessary to once again rehash the merits of Larsson’s story or writing ability. Let me just reiterate a thought I had when I read Camera: the Swedes are a DARK people. The literature that I have read involves sex and brutality in concrete, detailed terms. I have no idea if this is a fair assessment of the population or merely the books which have been translated to English as having a cross-cultural interest. But either way, it is not a book to be read by the faint of heart. Sexual deviance is an assumed narrative in Larsson’s storylines.

As I write, I am halfway through The Girl who Played with Fire. So far, I like the first book better. But I’ve been told I have to finish all three before I can make any conclusive statements.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Slummy Mummy by Fiona Neill

First, let me say that I have learned after reading Fiona Neill's book Slummy Mummy that the term "slummy" in British English is more akin to our word sloppy as opposed to the more common usage of the phrase.

Second, let me point out that I did not expect to like this book. I didn't think I would hate it, but I also didn't pick it up expecting to read a great story or encounter great literature. I saw Slummy Mummy as a mindless diversion book.

Having those two caveats out of the way, I will admit I enjoyed Slummy Mummy more than I intended. Imagine, as a mother, your worst possible morning taking the kids to school, turn that day into a routine which occurs every day, and then add a good touch of humor. Now you have the basis for Neill's novel. Lucy Sweeney, the "mum" in the title is drowning in a sea of overwhelming motherhood. She cannot keep up with her kids' needs on a daily basis and her OCD husband does not seem to help the situation.

Sweeney finds herself competing with other school parents like the "Yummy Mummys," the "Alpha Mum," and "Sexy Domesticated Dad." The thing is, as a parent of school-age kids I would hate to admit I'm a slummy mummy, but I do know my fair share of yummy mummies and alpha mums. Neill's descriptions are really funny because they're so real.

On top of the humor, Neill tells a pretty good story. Sweeney finds herself unhappy with her personal life and turns to a flirtation with Sexy Domesticated Dad to push her out of her misery. The humorous antics and horrific moments in the story end up telling a good plot. Everyone is relatively redeemed in the end. but it actually made me stop and think about my own family situation. I hadn't anticipated that when I looked at the front cover.

It is diverting and not terribly heavy. The cover might forgo a read in public. But Slummy Mummy is worth the read.