Monday, June 24, 2013


TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
Random House - June 4, 2013
320 pages

Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators--Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown--set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War.
Dublin, 1845 and '46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause--despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to the American slave.
New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs from Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland's notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.
These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on.

(Spoiler level: Minor/moderate)

Whew! That was about the longest summary I've ever had to find. I tried to condense it as much as possible, but then I wouldn't get the whole story.

So, I picked this book up because I saw two things that interested me: Ireland and strong women. There are about four stories shown, and so it's really a motley semi-anthology.

Lily Duggan/Frederick Douglass: I really enjoyed this one. It may have been my favorite part of the entire thing. I liked Frederick Douglass's descriptions of the potato famine and his interactions with the various Irish people. Lily Duggan was barely mentioned in the first part except when she ran off to America after meeting Douglass. I'm not sure I would have enjoyed page upon page of description of a seventeen-year-old Irish maid going about her daily business, though.

Emily Ehrlich/Alcock and Brown: This one I had more mixed feelings about. I enjoyed the broken family/single mom aspect of Emily and her daughter Lottie, but later Emily marries one of the aviators in something I found a little too hard to believe. The Emily story had the main part of TransAtlantic, which was a letter that Alcock and Brown were supposed to deliver from Newfoundland to Ireland. I preferred the first part of this story to the second.

Lottie Carson (nee Ehrlich)/George Mitchell: I wasn't as big a fan of this one. I think it was because I wasn't much a fan of George Mitchell. Well, he at least wasn't that great in what I read. He could be a perfectly nice man in real life. In the story, though, he has a much younger wife and a newborn that he said he was so sad to leave behind. Lottie, on the other hand, I enjoyed. Good books should make you feel something, and I generally felt bad for her when she tried to play tennis but was much too old.

Hannah Carson: Ah, now the interesting part of the Hannah Carson story, as I'm sure you've noticed, is that she meets no one famous. Hannah has no living family now that her mother Lottie and son have both died, the former of old age and the latter of The Troubles. Her story mainly revolves around whether or not to open the letter that Alcock and Brown carried across the Atlantic. While certainly interesting, it didn't captivate my attention like the others.

Overall comment: One of my biggest pet peeves in any novel is when they try to do something creative with the dialogue. In some books they only put one quotation mark to either side instead of two. In Mockingbird, which I detested for other reasons as well, people talked with italics. In TransAtlantic, people talk with an emdash followed by straight text. No quotation marks or anything. I am not a fan.

Grade: B+

Knight or Knave

Knight or Knave by Andre Norton and Sasha Miller
Tor Fantasy - June 2, 2001
320 pages

Times are changing in Rendel. The old King is dead, and the foolish Prince Florian has assumed the throne. Florian's mother, Queen Ysa of the House of Yew, still controls the land from behind the scenes, but her job grows more difficult every day. Her unworthy, headstrong son is harder to control than her husband was, and she must spend more time than ever masking her own movements. Her husband's illegitimate daughter Ashen, heir to the nearly dead House of Ash, still causes trouble by her very existence, and must never be given an opening to the throne. The barbarian Sea-Rover clan presents problems from the edge of the Bog, Ysa's newest magical ally has been exposed as a traitor, and nothing is going as Ysa had planned.
And the still unknown yet encroaching threat from the North continues to grow.
Through births and deaths, marriages and duels, love and betrayal, magic and force, the four houses of Rendel can only survive by the strength of their unity--but is unity possible in such a court of intrigue as this one?

When I was in middle school, we had this thing called the "class story". Every person in the class wrote the next chapter of it. You got some people who knew how to write and would make everything smoothly connect while adding their own personal style and throwing in a twist. Then there were the people who made Jackie Chan come in and nuke everyone except a rabid squirrel. (I'm serious, that was seventh grade.) Knight or Knave was kind of like that on a smaller scale.

You get parts that help move the story forward and you get parts that bring it to a screeching halt. You get parts with characters that have good attributes, flaws, motivation, and ideas, and you get parts with characters that are completely black-and-white. All of the black-and-white characters, though, are shallow. You get parts that are great and you get parts that are...not great.

Now, after dedicated research on both of the authors, I'm going to choose to believe that the better parts were written by Andre Norton and the worse parts were written by Sasha Miller. That being said, I may possibly be continuing the series out of interest, which is what happened with Knight or Knave after To The King a Daughter, but I certainly won't be devouring it any time soon.

Grade: B-/C+ (I'm in the middle on this one)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Black Beauty

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Jarrold & Sons - November 24, 1877
281 pages

"We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words."

When his beloved owners are forced to sell him, Black Beauty leaves his life as a young, carefree colt behind him and embarks on a working life of misery. Cruelly treated by his new masters, Anna Sewell rails against animal mistreatment in this poignant tale of a horse whose spirit can not be broken.

Can I express to you how much I love this novel adequately? I don't think so, but I'm certainly going to try.

You may have noticed, loyal blog readers, that this book has been in my "Currently reading" section for quite a while. It's not because I disliked Black Beauty, as the above paragraph clearly shows, but rather because I got bogged down reading several other books.

As a self-described "3/4 animal-rights activist", I wholeheartedly agree with the particular messages that Sewell is trying to send. While I eat poultry and keep a pet, I am fully against the mistreatment of horses, especially by using a whip to drive a horse past its breaking point. Even though I already felt this way before, Black Beauty is enough to change the majority of people.

Grade: A

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Last Werewolf

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
Canongate Press - March 1, 2011
293 pages

Meet Jake. A bit on the elderly side (he turns 201 in March), but you'd never suspect it. Jake is a werewolf, and after the unfortunate and violent death of his one contemporary, he is now the last of his species. Although he is physically healthy, Jake is deeply distraught and lonely to the point where he is actually contemplating suicide--even if it means terminating a legend thousands of years old. It would seem to be easy enough for him to end everything. But for very different reasons there are two dangerous groups pursuing him who will stop at nothing to keep him alive. In Jake, Glen Duncan has given us a werewolf for the twenty-first century--a man whose deeds can only be described as monstrous but who is in some magical way deeply human.

(Spoiler rate: Minor)

First, the sexism. There are fewer female werewolves (called "Shes") than males (well, I suppose that since Jake is the last werewolf and he's a man, there would be fewer Shes). I thought that there was going to be some completely scientific explanation for it, such as the metabolism of women doesn't hold up with the werewolf virus or something like that. Nope! It's because women are so much more sensitive. They'll make their first kill and stay up all night crying about it, then swallow a silver earring to kill themselves. Great.

Second, the actual writing. First of all, there are some downright confusing sentences where nothing makes sense. Either a word or proper punctuation was missing to make it simply wrong. Second, I counted multiple instances in which there was a period missing. Third, there was the use of language. I have nothing against obscenities in literature when it advances the plot or is used for characterization purposes. I get it, people talk like that. It doesn't mean that every time that you come to a human body part you have to use one of the "terrible c-words" to describe it.

Third and finally (and this is more of a minor aggression than the sexism and writing above), about three-quarters into the novel, maybe more, the book switches viewpoints. While we were hearing all of Jake's thoughts up until then. For the next part, we hear about Talulla, who I'm just going to say is someone very special to all characters involved. No major spoilers here. I'm fine with multiple viewpoints, having handled everything in A Game of Thrones, but the problem is that if you are in a first-person novel and switch the viewpoint, you have to tell the reader right away. I was about two pages in when I realized that it was no longer Jake's thoughts. Everything made sense again.

There is a sequel, however, to The Last Werewolf. It's called Talulla Rising. Since it's about Talulla, it solves the sexism and (I hope) the viewpoint problems. Talulla is also a much more sympathetic protagonist than Jake is. No matter how much of a train wreck The Last Werewolf may have been, it was still an exciting romp, and with a change of personality, the sequel will be on my list.

Grade: C-

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
MTV Books/Pocket Books - February 1, 1999
256/224 pages

This is the story of what it's like to grow up in high school. More intimate than a diary, Charlie's letters are singular and unique, hilarious and devastating. We may not know where he lives. We may not know to whom he is writing. All we know is the world he shares. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it puts him on a strange course through uncharted territory. The world of first dates and mixed tapes, family dramas and new friends. The world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite.

Through Charlie, Stephen Chbosky has created a deeply affecting coming-of-age story, a powerful novel that will spirit you back to those wild and poignant roller coaster days known as growing up.

(Spoiler level: Minor/moderate)

I cheated. I watched the movie first and then decided to read the book. I tell you right now that they are both awesome and rather close. Of course, it's pretty obvious that they would be close, as Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed the movie version. In this case, it actually helps you move through the book.

This is another epistolary novel that I didn't slug through, joining the ranks of Where'd You Go, Bernadette and, in a distant time, Carrie. Charlie addresses letters to someone he just calls "Friend" about his time at school. He proceeds to make friends with seniors and only seniors and then scares all of his fellow freshmen, as well as the sophomores and juniors. As a result, he will live out the next three years of high school completely and totally miserable, as he has no hope of making friends except with younger kids, but the kids in his class will probably tell them ahead of time to "Watch out for crazy Charlie! He punched a kid in the face and completely blacked out!"

The book is frequently cited as being on various banned or controversial book lists because of the content that it deals with, and trust me on this case, it certainly does deal with a lot. Suicide, abortion, abuse, homophobia, the list goes on and on. Some complaints have revolved around how the book deals with all of these, but I think that it handles them pretty well.

The only complaint that I have about the book is what Charlie knows and doesn't know. He appears to be relatively clueless about sex, but he knows much more about drugs, smoking, alcohol, etc. (For those of you who read the book, I'm choosing to ignore the pot brownie part, where it's obvious that he doesn't know what he's eating; other times he knows about marijuana, acid, etc.) He has also read an otherworldly amount of books, but yet, once again, clueless about sex. I'm guessing he hasn't read Lolita.

Grade: A-

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Little, Brown and Company - August 1, 2012
335 pages

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old be, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her family reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an obscene world.

(Spoiler level: Major in the third paragraph)

Let's start with the news praise: OMG this book is totally hilarious and full of heart with lots of crazy twists and amazing, unforgettable characters and everyone should buy this because it's so totally amazing! A+++ (okay, hopefully no magazine actually said that, but you get everything that's being said about the book)

Now for my praise: The book is completely fast-moving. It's an epistolary novel consisting mostly of emails between Bernadette and her virtual assistant in India as well as Bernadette's nemesis Aubrey Griffin and her friend Soo-Lin Segal. While I don't normally enjoy epistolary novels, I found this one to be quick. There are also little breaks of straight information. Bee and Bernadette are fully-developed characters with dreams, hopes, etc.

And finally my problems: First and foremost, the ending seems completely rushed. Everything was wrapped up way too soon. It especially felt wrong in that Semple makes it sound like everything's going to be okay when the circumstances say that in no real situation it would be okay. If you ran away from home and your husband is the baby daddy of a coworker, things are not going to be okay. Period. End of story. Second, everyone says that this book is hilarious, but there were very few points that I found truly funny. Third, Bee and her friend Kennedy are 15-year-olds in eighth grade. I understand that Bee would be a year behind, because she was born with heart defects that led to multiple surgeries. But Kennedy is totally normal and therefore should be thirteen turning fourteen, not fourteen turning fifteen. There is no explanation as to why she would be a year behind.

In a nutshell: Everyone adores this book. It's fast with a couple of remarkable characters, but the ending feels incomplete, it's not as funny as everyone says, and there's no explanation as to why eighth graders are fifteen.

Grade: B

Homer's Odyssey

Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by Gwen Cooper
Delacorte Press - August 25, 2009
287 pages

Once in nine lives, something extraordinary happens...
The last thing Gwen Cooper needed was another cat. She already had two, not to mention a phenomenally underpaying job and a recently broken heart. Then Gwen's veterinarian called with a story about a three-week-old eyeless kitten who'd been abandoned. It was love at first sight.

{Spoiler level: Minor)

I'll tell you right away that if you are a cat person and read this, your immediate impulse after closing the book in completion will be to run out to your nearest humane society and adopt a special needs cat. It doesn't even have to be eyeless; it can be plain blind, or three-legged, or deaf, or even those little two-legged cats that have to have wheels to move around. So just keep that in mind when you're reading; resist the urge to get a special needs cat on impulse.

Onto the story! Now, you may have noticed that it said "three-week-old eyeless kitten". Homer had a horrible eye infection and was brought into the vet's office. The couple who brought him showed interest in keeping him until the vet said that she was going to have to remove his eyes if he wanted to live. They no longer wanted him. The vet performed the operation and stitched up his eyes. She then asked around if anyone wanted the cat. Gwen Cooper didn't want one, but she came over to see him and then adopted him.

You have to care something about cats to really appreciate Homer's Odyssey, or you'll find yourself without any kind of feeling for the blind, eyeless kitten. I personally laughed and cried at all of Homer's exploits and what he did for Gwen and the other cats he lived with.

Another thing that you have to know is that the novel may make more sense to you if you actually live with cats. One angry Amazon reviewer said that he felt it was illogical that Gwen would know what Homer was trying to say from his meows. I've owned a cat for nearly five years now, I know what she's trying to say most of the time. My cat was also one when I got her, and so if you raise a cat from its very kittenhood, you'll have an even closer bond and know what everything's about.

So the bottom line is: if you love cats and have owned one at least sometime in your life, you will find this book wonderful, but if you either are indifferent to cats or have never owned one, you may not appreciate it. And if you think cats come from Satan, why would you even pick up this book? The cat takes up three-quarters of the cover!

Grade: A

The Storm: Dogs of the Drowned City

The Storm: Dogs of the Drowned City by Dayna Lorentz
Scholastic Press - June 1, 2011
224 pages

When a hurricane forces his family to evacuate without him, Shep the German Shepherd is confused. Where is his boy? Will he ever return? And what will Shep do in the meantime now that the extra bowls of food -- not to mention all those tasty things he found in the big cold box -- are gone?
Then another dog shows up at Shep's window and convinces him to escape. There's food outside, and a whole empty city to explore. Shep just wants to go home...but the adventure of a lifetime is just beginning.

{Spoiler level: Minor)

This book goes ridiculously fast. You have to pay attention to what happens, because things happen in a matter of sentences and names are thrown at you at the speed of light. If you aren't 110% focused on what's happening in The Storm, something will happen and you'll be like:

Did he die? Who's that? And then you'll flip back a few pages.

Oh yeah. That's who we're talking about.

Not that all of that's a good thing. It's much better than the alternative, which would be slugging along at such a horrible place that you skip fifty pages and you still understand everything that's going on. I think I actually did that in The Tommyknockers at one point, but then decided that I should read the whole thing in order to give it a proper review.

I did have a bone to pick with The Storm. Shep used to be a fighting dog, but you don't get a lot of information about the bloodshed. It could have been a great opportunity to show people the horrors of dog fighting, but alas, it wasn't. All you hear is that there were puppies and old dogs, an old dog taught Shep about the Great Wolf and the Black Dog, Shep always killed his opponents quickly and with mercy because he didn't want them to suffer, and the dead dogs were never properly buried. He treats the cage and fighting as horrible, but readers are never shown those horrors. I suppose it's because this could be classified as middle grade.

Apart from that, it's a quick read with some well-developed characters (and others that you don't really get to know because there are so many, but that's like Warriors) and a strong plot.

Grade: B+

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Macmillan Publishers - 1894
97 pages

(Spoiler level: Minor)

One thing that I bet you didn't know about The Jungle Book is that it isn't all about Mowgli. There are other stories too. And the Mowgli stories are nothing like the Disney movie. There's no King Louie; the monkeys (or Bandar-log) have no leader because they are uncivilized.

Mowgli's Brothers: A lost human is taken in by wolves and named Mowgli. When the wolf leader Akela is toppled by the lame tiger Shere Khan, Mowgli gains fire from a human village and uses it to scare Shere Khan away. Interesting take on the life of animals in India. Sometimes a little boring. B+

Kaa's Hunting: Mowgli is taken by the Bandar-log, or the evil monkeys, when he's being taught about the jungle by Baloo. I love anything that portrays evil monkeys, and this one is a nonstop adventure the whole way through, unlike the previous one. A

Tiger! Tiger!: Mowgli is found by humans after leaving the wolf pack. When his brother tells Mowgli that Shere Khan has returned, Mowgli comes up with a plan to drive him out for good this time. Sometimes meandering and confusing, it brings a satisfying end to the Mowgli trilogy. B

The White Seal: Kotick, a white seal, searches across the world for a land where humans will not be killing his kind. A great case for the animal cruelty that results from hunting for animal skins. A

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi: A mongoose named Rikki-Tikki-Tavi must kill Nag and Nagaina, a pair of venomous cobras that want to kill the British family he lives with. This is probably one of the more popular stories, and it's simply meh. It's good, but not outstanding. B+

Toomai of the Elephants: Blech. The low point of The Jungle Book. An elephant trainer is taken on the adventure of his life by Kala Nag. Not only does it perpetuate the idea that elephant trainers are good, it focuses very little on Kala Nag's inner thoughts, which is quite a stylistic departure from Kipling's norm. D

Her Majesty's Servants: Animals of the British Army discuss their various lives while a British soldier who understands animals listens in on their conversation. Interesting take, but it could get confusing at times with a lack of "the horse said", etc. A-

Overall Grade: B+

If it weren't for the horrible and ridiculous "Toomai of the Elephants", the grade would be higher, so skip that if you can.

Monday, June 3, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
J. B. Lippincott and Co. - July 11, 1960
296 pages

"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

A lawyer's advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee's classic novel--a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with rich humor and unswerving honesty the irrationality of adult attitudes toward race and class in the deep South of the 1930s. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence, and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina and quiet heroism of one man's struggle for justice--but the weight of history will only tolerate so much.

(Spoiler level: Minor)

This classic frequently makes lists with titles such as "Books you have to read in school that are actually good". I happen to agree with those lists on this account.

When you open the novel, you don't completely understand what the narrator, Scout Finch, is talking about. It tells you that her brother Jem broke his arm when he was almost thirteen, and he was fine with it because he could still play football, even though that arm was deformed-looking. Scout then says that she believes the Ewells started it all. By the ending of the novel, you'll understand why Jem broke his arm and what the Ewells had to do with it all.

My one major complaint with To Kill a Mockingbird is that there is very little happening in the entire first part. It's mostly character building and an introduction to a theme. I doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird in its current state would have been published in today's market with that entire first part.

And that's pretty much all I have to say about this one. The rest of it is completely excellent in terms of character, plot, metaphor, setting, etc. I don't like writing long, flowery descriptions about the awesomeness of everything. I prefer the critical take. So deal with it.

Grade: A-