Here are some scary book suggestions for after the trick-or-treating. And don’t forget to give a book for #AllHallowsRead!
Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category
Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, tagged 11/22/63 by Stephen King, 11/22/63 Readalong, A Clockwork Orange by George Orwell, All Hallow's Read, Halloween Reads, Happy Halloween, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman on October 31, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
“What was the first book to terrify you?” asks Jenn of Jenn’s Bookshelves.
For me, it was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
What was the first book that terrified you?
Phantasmagorical is how I would describe Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
That is not to say this is a book of pure fantasy. Gaiman grounds his story in the ordinary, as told from the viewpoint of a seven-year old, unnamed boy. His father burns the toast each morning, his sister annoys him, and his great excitement is the weekly arrival of the new SMASH! comic.
This story feels real even as it veers off into the fantastic. The monsters are both human (his father, the opal miner) and supernatural (Ursula Monkton), and the shadows that lurk are predatory. There’s also a clever and creepy-crawly twist on the space-time theory of wormholes. All of this becomes plausible via Gaiman’s dark magical realism.
However, it is the emotional pull that gives this book its heft. Gaiman really taps into the fears of childhood, whether it’s the need for a hall light at bedtime or the helplessness of being in the grip of a menacing adult. The reader feels how important a kitten, or a new friend, can be to an awkward, bookish boy.
The whole story is permeated with a sense of loss—the loss of childhood, the loss of familiar things, the loss of loved ones. We first meet the narrator as a middle-aged adult, returning to his boyhood home for a funeral. The house is gone, replaced by tract housing, and most of the area is beyond recognition.
This particularly resonated with me, as I too went back to my childhood home to find that all the places once sacred to us kids were gone. The forest, where we believed a witch lived; the apple grove, where we climbed trees; and the tiny fish pond—all scraped and replaced by new houses with manicured gardens.
Though most of the novel takes place when the narrator is seven, this is not a children’s book. There are some very mature and disturbing themes. The bathtub scene, in particular, really rattled me, and my one complaint is that Gaiman never fully resolves this. I think best for parents to read first.
Early on, the young hero tells us that he “liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories.” This seems to be exactly what Gaiman is aiming for with The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It is a mythical, frightening, and mostly satisfying read.
Halloween Reads on Word Hits:
Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Nonfiction, tagged books, crime nonfiction, Death in the City of Light by David King, Serial Killer in Occupied Paris, true crime on October 25, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
David King’s true account of a serial killer who roamed Occupied Paris during World War II served up an Mx3 triple play: murders, a monster, and mayhem. “The Monster of rue La Sueur” is what the French press dubbed Dr. Marcel Petiot, a well-respected and charismatic physician who led a macabre double life.
Petiot was convicted of murdering 26 people and suspected of killing nearly 60. The total body count could not be confirmed because most of the victims were chopped up and later found scattered around the city.
The doctor had set up a SAW-esque torture chamber, fitted with large hanging hooks and also a sophisticated Lumvisor viewer, so he could watch his victims suffer a slow, confused death. King offers an interesting look at the emerging field of forensics, as the police tried to identify Petiot’s victims from a mound of smoldering body parts.
The mayhem of wartime Paris worked to the killer’s advantage. Chillingly, he would lure desperate refugees to his lair by the dark of night, offering a safe passage out of France. At that time, people often disappeared at the hands of the SS, so few questions were asked when they did. French detectives initially held back on their investigation, believing that they had stumbled onto the work of the Gestapo. Petiot managed to elude authorities for months during the chaos of the German evacuation, the Allied Invasion, the Liberation of Paris, and the subsequent purge of the French police in which the detectives on his case were arrested for collaborating during the war.
King imbues Death in the City of Light with a smoky, atmospheric look at life in Occupied Paris: shrouded street lamps, air raid sirens, food shortages, a thriving underworld, and growing distrust among neighbors. As such, this book reminded me of Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City.
The patient, determined French Police Chief Georges-Victor Massau came off much like the lead in a detective novel. Turns out, Massau was a great friend of mystery writer Georges Simenon and was in fact the inspiration for Chief Inspector Maigret.
King dwells on the sensational trial, but relegates the harrowing, firsthand account of the only victim who escaped to the endnotes.
Halloween Reads on Word Hits:
Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Favorite Books, Nonfiction, tagged Fire on the Mountain: the True Story of the South Canyon Fire, Normal Maclean, Prescott Firefighters, Yarnell Fire, Young Men and Fire on July 7, 2013 | 2 Comments »
“While oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if
compassion is a form of love.” —Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire
Mann Gulch, Storm King Mountain, and now, Yarnell Hill. Oh, it was awful to learn about the loss of those 19 brave Hotshot firefighters from Prescott, Arizona. It will be a while before investigators fully understand this tragedy, but the takeaway is that wild fires are erratic and unpredictable. So much so that even the most experience and elite crews are risking their lives each time they head out to the fire line.
For those looking for some understanding, I highly recommend Young Men and Fire (YM&F), Norman Maclean’s brilliant, wonderfully written account of the Mann Gulch Fire which killed 13 men in 1949. Maclean, who also wrote A River Runs Through It, did not live to see YM&F win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. Not only is this a thoroughly researched and fascinating investigative report, but the book is also an eloquent, moving rumination of an aged man facing mortality:
“It was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy, where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky, but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”
By odd coincidence, I was reading Young Men and Fire back in the summer of 1994, when 14 men and women were killed fighting a fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado. As in Mann Gulch, these firefighters were confronted with flames that suddenly changed direction and began racing uphill towards them. Unlike people (especially those wearing bulky protective suits and carrying heavy gear), fire typically moves faster going uphill than downhill.
Maclean’s son John wrote about this second tragedy in Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire. While it’s not the elegiac masterpiece of YM&F, John Maclean’s book is a compelling, page-turning read in the vein of A Perfect Storm. The younger Maclean shows how several seemingly minor human errors amassed together, leading the firefighting crew into an inescapable deathtrap. The snap of an American flag shifting into northwest wind (as noted by a National Weather Service forecaster) turns out to have ominous portent.
Like those fires, early reports are that the Yarnell Hill fire took a 180-degree change in direction. Indeed the last photo taken by one of the Hotshots does not seem to herald danger, but shows the men atop a ridgeline at a safe distance from the burn.
I’m ready for a reread of both books, as I try to come to terms with yet another group of promising, vibrant young people sacrificed in their prime. Thoughts and prayers of sympathy for their families and for the community of Prescott.
Meanwhile, I feel an immense gratitude and respect for those incredibly brave men and women, heroes, out trying to tame so many wildfires during this hot, hot summer. I think of Norman Maclean’s words, as I salute them:
“It is very important to a lot of people to make unmistakably clear to themselves and to the universe that they love the universe but are not intimidated by it and will not be shaken by it, no matter what it has in store.”
Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Favorite Books, Fiction, Literature, Rave-views, Top Ten Tuesday, tagged books, Favorite Books, Top Ten Books I've Read So Far in 2013, Top Ten Tuesday on June 25, 2013 | 14 Comments »
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly book blogger’s meme organized by The Broke and The Bookish. This week this topic is the Top Ten Books Read So Far in 2013.
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
Technically I read this late last year, but I just loved it! It’s even better than Wolf Hall. I had to give it a shout-out as I’ve been meaning to blog about Mantel.
Eventide, by Kent Haruf
Haruf returns to Holt, Colorado in his spare, inviting prose. This is a truly satisfying sequel to Plainsong, which I loved. I enjoyed but am not gushing over Benediction, his new book which takes place years later with a different cast.
My Ántonia, by Willa Cather (reread)
This achingly beautiful classic shows the hard life of early settlers in Nebraska. Cather paints a vivid and nostalgic picture of the last days of the red-grass prairies and that immense, untracked emptiness.
The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell
This is a twisty, pulpy, noir with a devious unreliable narrator. Rindell infuses her tale with the snazzy glamour of 1920’s New York: speakeasies, flappers, and lavish parties in the Hamptons.
Revolutionary Summer, by Joseph J Ellis
A fascinating and stirring read. Those who don’t normally read historical non-fiction will be quickly drawn in, and history buffs will find several new aspects to consider.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
I have long been entranced by the poetic, magical realism spun by Erdrich. This book also pulls readers along with a thread of suspense. This is not my favorite by Erdrich, but a very good book nonetheless.
Sinners and the Sea, by Rebecca Kanner
Kanner has given us a sharply drawn work of literary fiction that is also an addictive read. Narrated by Noah’s unnamed wife, this is a bit like Noah’s Ark meets The Red Tent meets the Titanic-in-reverse.
A Storm of Swords, by G.R.R. Martin
I cannot recommend these books enough! Martin has me totally wrapped up in this magical, mysterious realm. Be warned though—this series is unputdownable book crack.
Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella
Ah, another bubbly, chic-lit delight from Sophie Kinsella. This is one of her best and funniest, right up there with the first two Shopaholic books. Breezy, book candy. #BeachRead
Under the Dome, by Stephen King (almost done)
Ok, this makes 11, but I am surprised by how much I’m enjoying this! I haven’t read much King and was spurred to pick this up by the #DomeAlong group read. Suspense, psychological intrigue, and loaded with King’s trademark easter eggs.
What is the best book you have read so far this year? I’d really appreciate some book recommendations, please.
Posted in Book Reviews, Books, History, Nonfiction, Rave-views, Reading, tagged 1776, American History, American Revolution, General William Howe, History, Minutement, Revolutionary Summer by Joseph J Ellis, Spirit of '76 on June 20, 2013 | 4 Comments »
I really enjoyed Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph J. Ellis. This book offers several fascinating and new (to me) insights on that seminal time frame from May to October of 1776, which Ellis calls “the crescendo moment” in American History.
Ellis puts a somewhat sympathetic focus on General William Howe. Ellis explains the thought process behind Howe’s cautious military strategy, particularly his aspirations of diplomacy. Rather than crush the rebellion, Howe wanted to return to Britain having brought the Americans back into the fold. He believed, as did many of his countrymen, that the cry for independence came from a loud minority and not from the general American public. This was reinforced by the welcome he got when he landed on Long Island, then the largest concentration (with New York) of loyalists to the crown. Howe’s strategy was to demonstrate his martial dominance, thus bringing the Americans to their senses, and then negotiate peace with them. He had several opportunities early on to end the war with a decisive blow, but held back. Ellis adds a whole new intrigue to the dance between Howe and Washington, as we see each misinterpreting the other’s motives and moves.
Ellis also seeks to dispel the myth of the Minutemen, whom fables (and even schoolbooks) have credited with beating the British. In fact, these state militias were just that … only in for a minute. They were the last to show for battle and the first to desert. Washington complained to John Hancock, “great numbers of them have gone off, in some cases by whole Regiments.”
Instead, it was the trudging, poorly-rationed regulars of Washington’s Continental Army, who fought the hardest and who kept up the battle, which became a drawn-out war of attrition. The states preferred to outfit their own militias, or Minutemen, rather than supply a unified army. This was partially due to regional loyalties, the beginnings of the state vs federal clash, and also because “the very idea of a robust Continental Army was generally regarded as an American version of the British Army.” This mistrust promoted word-of-mouth praise of Minutemen accomplishments. The press happily went along and reinforced this.
Indeed, I was a bit shocked to discover how controlled and complicit the press was in furthering “the Cause.” While they prominently reported unfavorable news about Howe and the British, they kept silent on Washington’s dramatic setbacks. “Most of the population remained ignorant that the Continental Army had suffered any kind of defeat at all … American newspapers did not report it.” Very interesting considering that “freedom of the press” would ultimately be such a cornerstone of our constitution.
Ellis also spends a great deal of time on the Dickenson Draft, the first outline of the Articles of Confederation. Already there are kernels of unrest between those who would later become federalists or states’ rights advocates. And already there is a giant schism between the north and the south over slavery, so much so that southern states threatened “an End of the Confederation.”
Overall, Ellis kept me thinking and rethinking a period which I have read so much about. He peppers his arguments with erudite allusions to Aquinas, Thebes, Tolstoy, the Peloponnesian Wars, and such comparisons as Howe to Hannibal and John Adams to Cicero.
I highly recommend Revolutionary Summer! A stirring read with so much information for such a short book (only 185 pages). Those who don’t normally read historical non-fiction will be quickly drawn in, and history buffs will find several new aspects to consider. Finally, I also highly recommend Ellis’s book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Books and Film, Escapist Reads, Fiction, Rave-views, tagged Amy Einhorn Books, Book Reviews, books, Crime Fiction, Crime novels, Psychcological Thriller, Suzanne Rindell, The Other Typist on May 30, 2013 | 5 Comments »
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell is a twisty, noir page-turner. Fans of Gillian Flynn will definitely enjoy this book, which feels like Gone Girl set in the 1920s. Actually, strike that. The plot is totally different, nor is The Other Typist so dark. It’s snazzy!
What I mean is that Rindell also offers us an unreliable (and rather unsettling) narrator, Rose Baker, who spins out an alluring, slow-boiled plot.
Rindell sets the story in a New York City police precinct in 1923, when women have only recently been brought in as typists. I won’t divulge any other plot details, as the reveals will be best enjoyed firsthand.
The writing crackles with a sort of stylized, art-deco feel:
“We were headed into the long black nights of winter, and although it was only four o’clock, outside a cloudy sky was already turning from ash to soot. And yet inside the office there was still something vital, the peculiar sort of kindling that comes from human activity buzzing away in the falling dark of dusk. The electric lights still glowed, and the office thrummed with the sounds of telephones, voices, papers, footsteps, and the syncopated clacking of many typewriters all being operated at once.”
I was a tad concerned when I saw The Great Gatsby cited in the author’s acknowledgements page. That is sacred text. However, this is not an overblown attempt at replicating Fitzgerald. (Phew.) Though this would be a good pick for those who enjoyed the new film version of The Great Gatsby.
The Other Typist reads much like a paean to film noir classics of the 1940s and 1950s. At one point Rose says of another character, “Gib and I were building up a slow tolerance for each other, the way some people slowly build a tolerance for a specific kind of poison.”
Overall, The Other Typist is clever, atmospheric, and unpredictable. There’s a lot of buzz online about the ending—so avoid the spoilers!
Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Jane Austen, Literature, Nonfiction, Pride and Prejudice 200, tagged Book Reviews, books, Game Theory, Jane Austen, Jane Austen Game Theorist, Michael Chwe, Pride and Prejudice on May 20, 2013 | 1 Comment »
We all know that reading Jane Austen is good for you. Scientists at Stanford proved this last fall with MRI scans that showed reading Austen’s work boosted neural activity and even increased blood flow to the brain. Now, it turns out, we Janeites have also been unwittingly indulging in sophisticated Game Theory Economics.
Yes, Game Theory—the very discipline which garnered John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame) the Nobel Prize in Ecnomics.
UCLA professor Michael Suk-Young Chwe argues this in his new book, Jane Austen Game Theorist.
Instead of bothering with chalk boards and lengthy variable-laden formulas, Austen imparts economic wisdom via the subtext of Marianne Dashwood’s swoons—indeed, Chwe cites this as an example. Who knew that while I was reading about Fanny Price deciding which necklace to wear, I was actually engaging in “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation.”
As I reread Pride and Prejudice for the 200th Anniversary, I will be subconsciously learning the mathematical analysis of strategic thinking. Just like when moms puree broccoli to hide in brownies. And all this time I thought I hated math.
Seriously though, tremendous kudos to Chwe for giving us yet another way to examine Austen’s work. If more economists read Austen, perhaps we could finally settle the debate over the Laffer Curve.
Chwe’s emphasis, however, is more on the political ramifications of Austen’s strategic thinking, and I must say I am fascinated by his approach. According to Chwe, Jane’s observations and theories can be applied to the Cold War stalemate, as well as to military mistakes made in both Vietnam and Iraq. And that’s just what I have gleaned from reviews and excerpts … I cannot wait to actually get my hands on this book!
Janeites, this would be a perfect pick for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013.
All this does make me feel better about myself, mathematically speaking. Even though I struggled with trigonometry in high school, I made it through each of Austen’s books twice so I must have actually been a math prodigy. I’m also feeling rather smug about opting out of ‘Intro to Economics’ in college for a course that compared Northanger Abbey to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (No joke—great class!)
One can’t help but feel bad for those poor souls who actually studied economics. Why bother with the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times when you can just read Emma? Or Jane Austen, Game Theorist?
Given that prominent economists like Thomas Schelling (Nobel 2005) endorse this book, I do wonder if the all-knowing Jane also offers clues as to how I should invest my IRA? I will have to keep this in mind as I dig into Jane Austen, Game Theorist, and when I reread Persuasion.
More Austen on WordHits…
Sinners and the Sea tells the story of Noah’s Ark from the viewpoint of his unnamed wife. It’s a fascinating and beautiful read. The novel has been favorably likened to The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, which I liked … but this book I loved.
Noah’s tale barely takes up four pages of the Old Testament (Genesis 6:9). Kanner fills in the gaps with an impassioned look at what life was like for Noah’s wife, the family’s struggle with the sinners around them, and the giant, terrifying adventure of the ark. The wife is a sympathetic narrator and quickly drew me into her story.
Kanner does a wonderful job conjuring up this ancient world with spare but vivid prose.“He turned and ran across the flat, sun-scorched earth so quickly that he sent up a cloud of dust. It seemed to pursue him as he got smaller and smaller and eventually disappeared into it.”
Kanner evinces the biblical tone and feel of the period without being stilted or dragged down by it. “Three hundred goats do not make a man a prophet,” says Noah. He is portrayed as rather gruff and rigid, but for me this lent authenticity to the book. Noah would have to be pretty hardened to take on such a task, knowing that everyone else in the world will die. Also, I really liked the shifting dynamic among the three brothers: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Kanner plays out the tension as the local villagers, who initially ridicule the ark, and then grow fearful when it nears completion. Once the waters come, the story takes on the panic of the Titanic in reverse, as people desperately try to crawl up the sides and climb aboard. Noah’s wife struggles with the sight of these people—the sinners—swirling and crying for help in the roiling seas. As the rains continue, she laments “I never knew how sharp water could be.”
After several weeks adrift, Noah admits to his wife that he misses the sinners. We realize this is partly because they are so alone and partly because preaching to them gave Noah a sense of purpose.
There are subplots and characters that I have not even touched upon, as I don’t like to give away too much. Suffice it to say, that Kanner did a great job of injecting human emotion (and some action-packed excitement) into a story that has become so rote in our culture. I also loved the way she wove in mythology: Methuselah, the long-lost mammoths, and the Nephilim race of giants.
Full disclosure, I met Rebecca Kanner a few years ago at a writers’ conference. (This did not influence my opinion. I bought the book myself and was not asked for a review.) Through Facebook, I’ve learned that she has a passion for literary authors such as Charles Baxter, Hilary Mantel, and Louise Erdrich. But, like me, she also devoured G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series and The Hunger Games trilogy.
I was especially curious to see what kind of book she would write. In Sinners and the Sea, Kanner has given us a sharply drawn work of literary fiction that is also an addictive read.