Monday, June 18, 2007

Three Recent Reads

I’ve just finished three very diverse novels.
The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova was an enormous volume (642 pages) that I’d hesitated to tackle previously for fear it was going to be too full of historical trivia, and therefore boring, or too fascinating, at which point I’d end up dropping everything else in my life and staying up all hours of the night to finish it.
It was, unfortunately, more of the latter than the former. I spent a great deal of time juggling my schedule so I could steal moments to read and reflect on the large and amazing plot of this novel. The story involves a young woman who discovers that her father is in possession of a book stamped with a large dragon woodcut symbolizing the reign of Vlad Tepes, also know as Dracula. She finds that her fathers mentor at his college has also received a book, and that both her father and her mother went searching for Dracula’s tomb, based on evidence they find in folklore, oral history, and ancient texts. Her fathers mentor disappears, supposedly spirited away by Dracula himself. The father follows, and so does the daughter, on a historical quest to find the truth about Vlad the Impaler. I found the authors blending of history and myth, legend, fable, ancient folk songs and monastic letters to be riveting reading. The plot did slow a bit on occaision, but it sped up again immediately, and drew itself to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. The book is a slow starter for those not interested in historical figures or vampiric legend. But I found it well worth the slightly slow beginning to get to the meat of the story, which had adventure, intrigue and a variety of fully-realized characters. I heartily recommend this book to all those interested in the bloody history of vampires.

The next novel I latched onto with all due fervor was the latest Sookie Stackhouse paranormal mystery/romance by Charlaine Harris, called All Together Dead. I’ve read every Stackhouse novel Harris has written, and though I can’t say I’m at all happy with our demi-fae heroine getting the crap kicked out of her in every book, I still love her spunk and her no-nonsense approach to all the supernatural creatures around her. Sookie reminds me a great deal of Harry Dresden in female form. She’s always there to drag others out of trouble, and she really cares about the fate of the world, or her world in Bon Temps, Louisiana, and those who inhabit it. She is always willing to put her life on the line to save others, just like Harry, and she’s always getting used (her telepathic powers are, anyway) by vampires or others for their own purposes and desires, without thought to the fallout for herself. This particular book involves a summit meeting of vampires for the purposes of putting the Queen Vampire of Louisiana on trial for the death of her contract husband, the King of the Arkansas vampires. Sookie is paid to be the Queen’s telepath at the summit, and she ends up, as usual, in the middle of a bloodbath of monumental proportions. She also has to deal with her feeling for her ex-boyfriends Bill and Eric, and her current feelings for Quinn, her were-tiger lover. Barry the “only other” telepath in Harris’ novels is back, as is Amelia the witch and Pam the vampire, Eric’s second in command. We find out how and why Pam was turned or made into a vampire by Eric, and something of what her life was like hundreds of years ago before she was turned. We attend Sookie's worthless brother's wedding to a shapeshifter, which was expected, but there are hints that the marriage will be a troubled one. We also encounter, once again, the fanatic nutball Fellowship of the Sun, who take religion to new heights of horror by attempting to wipe out as many vampires as possible with their terrorist acts. It is these sidekicks and second string characters that make Harris’s Stackhouse novels such a rich and satisfying read. Though we know Sookie’s honesty and her forthright nature, in addition to her mind-reading abilities will always get her into scrapes or serious trouble, we also know, as readers, that she has allies, and that she will inevitably triumph, though in this novel she pays an unnecessarily high price in being bonded to Eric through being forced to drink his blood for the third time. Those of us who love Sookie will be desperately awaiting the next novel to see if she is too much changed by this, or if she remains her old spunky self.

The final book I finished was one chosen by my Tuesday night book group at the library, called Ride a Painted Pony by Kathleen Eagle. It was supposed to be a romance novel, but I found it to be more modern fiction novel than romance. The story is about a young woman who, after having a baby with a mobster, discovers that said mobster finds her expendable as a jockey for his horses, but refuses to give up their child because he likes to “collect” people and flashy things. Lauren, the young woman, is taken for the inevitable ride by the mobsters henchman, who is supposed to kill her but, also inevitably, just beats her up a bit and leaves her unconscious by the highway, (she’s too cute to kill! He even calls her little girl, gag). Enter Lakota Sioux Nick Red Shield, a horse rancher and a decent sort of guy, for the most part, who nearly runs our protagonist over in the rain, and ends up rescuing her from the road, and taking her with him to pick up and deliver horses. Lauren gives Nick a false name (“Joey”) and refuses to tell him who beat the daylights out of her, though she lies glibly enough when a cop stops them on the road and asks her if she needs help. What I found hard to believe about the first third of this story was Nick’s reaction to this battered, bruised and black-eyed woman who is, of course, the clichéd petite blonde who weighs 80 pounds soaking wet and is all of 5 feet tall. He becomes sexually aroused at the sight of her, though she’s obviously wet and beat up and hardly sexy looking. This makes him seem like some kind of dog who can’t control his penis around members of the opposite sex, no matter what state they are in. Lauren/Joey also comes off as the typical damsel in distress who is so weak and wimpy that Nick has to bathe and take care of her like she’s a child. Eck. So much for women’s liberation or feminism. She falls in love with Nick almost immediately, and makes several sexual advances toward him that are eventually returned, but she has to seduce him, after all the descriptions of him getting so hot and bothered around her, and I found that hard to believe as well. Of course, because she’s a clichéd petite blonde heroine, she’s irresistible to men in general, and she eventually wins over the mobsters henchman (like that would ever happen!) and manages to get Nick and the henchman to work together to get her baby back for her, after her inevitable failure at trying to do it herself (she’s pathetic and weak, of course, and shoots the wrong guy in the shoulder, but that is to be expected of a woman, right? Ugh!) The Happily Ever After is in place by the end of the book, and everything happens exactly as you’d expect it to, with the heroine birthing another baby to round out the perfect family. Oh joy. Oh boring, predictable ending and plot. The lengthy dialog in the book wasn’t bad, for the most part, but the internal dialog of the characters was often laughable. The plot was even and regular, paced well and the prose was average, when it wasn’t riddled with clichés. Ms. Eagle has apparently written many romances, including the dreadful Harlequins, and she’s married to a Lakota Sioux, so she has some experience with the type of man she’s writing about. Still, she didn’t redeem the romance genre for me at all with this wimpy “rescue me, big Indian” heroine. I find it astonishing that women would rather read this tripe than good Science Fiction or Fantasy with a little romance thrown in, which is far more imaginative and intellectually stimulating, not to mention entertaining, than all the petite blondes breathlessly awaiting rescue in soppy romance novels. If this sort of simpering heroine doesn’t make you gag, then I’d recommend you read this novel and enjoy. If, however, you remember that feminism is still alive and well and a viable idea, I’d recommend you give this one a pass and open up something by Linnea Sinclair or Melissa Scott, or Mercedes Lackey, or Marian Zimmer Bradley, or Steve Miller and Sharon Lee, etc. There are plenty of female heroines in SF and Fantasy who have grit and spine and aren't tiny little blondes!

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Take was this years "Shadow of the Wind" for me as a reader. I was fortunate enough to run across the book while shopping at my sons Scholastic book fair at Lake Wilderness Elementary School, and I have to say I was shocked at how small the adult reading section was this year. Last year I had my choice of several interesting books, both paperback and hardback, and this year there was just a couple of stacks of adult books pushed into a far and shadowy corner where you had to stumble across them to even see them. The Thirteenth Tale caught my eye because its cover is a handsome painting of a stack of old leather bound books with ribbon bookmarks hanging from the middle of the book. Though I'd never heard of the author, once I got to the counter to purchase the book, the volunteer clerk said "Oh, I've heard this one's really good."
Turns out she was right, it was a good book, though with lingering traces of bitterness and vitriol that seems to be inherent in British literature.
The story is about a young woman who runs a rare and antique bookstore with her father in a sleepy part of England. She tends to read, research and write about authors long dead, and she has a fixation on twins because she was born a twin, but her sister died at birth, after they were separated. Her parents never told her about this, (it seems to have driven her mother mad), though she discovers it on her own. She receives a letter one day from a famous best selling author of popular fiction, asking her to write the authors real biography. This particular author has been lying to reporters and fans for years about her background, because she's certain that people do not really savor the truth, and would rather have a tidy and happy fiction provided for their entertainment.
Our heroine agrees to write the biography, though she's never given a clear answer as to why she was chosen to write the book, and she moves into the authors mansion. It is then that we are treated to an old fashioned classic tale of eccentric and horrific people who become parents, yet who do not parent their children, thus ensuring that their offspring become bizarre and eccentric people who make bad decisions, like themselves. The prose in this book reads like a cross between Austin and Dickens with a bit of Thackery thrown in for good measure. The reader isn't spared any of the horror or the madness of the authors background, and we begin to see early on why the author hasn't shared this tale with anyone before; it's almost too strange, frightening and awful to be believed. The bookworm finds herself falling into the story and asking questions about her own past through the impetus of all the secrets that are revealed by the author, and she even manages to find the identity of a foundling and introduce him to his family with her sharp and deductive reasoning abilities. I found myself wanting more romance in the book, more happiness and less despair and degradation, but I am one of those people who find happy endings more entertaining than tragic ones. Still, despite the hard truths and death that attends this novel, it is well worth the time it takes to make the journey through the Thirteen Tale with Ms Setterfield. I highly recommend it, but only for those who love classic storytelling with a bite of bitterness.
Currently I'm reading a book sent to me by Penguin imprint Hudson Street Press called "Twinkie, Deconstructed" which looks to be similar to another non fiction favorite of mine, "Glass, Paper, Beans" by Leah Hager Cohen. Both are works about finding out what goes into the making of everyday objects or food. In the case of Cohen's book, its a behind the scenes look at what goes into making newsprint paper, a glass cup and the coffee that resides inside the cup. Twinkie is about what those indeciperable ingredients like Polysorbate 60 really are, and where they come from to make the delicious sponge cake known as a Twinkie. It should prove to be a fascinating read. I will review it here when I am done. I hope to get to some other summer reads in the meantime.