Monday, December 9, 2013
Just about every November, there's a new Charles Lenox mystery released by Charles Finch. I recapped his last two last year: A Burial at Sea and A Death in the Small Hours. This newest book finds Lenox in London, continuing his very busy work as a member of Parliament. Since the last book, he has risen in the ranks to become a very important MP. He spends much of his time on the benches, in meetings and reading blue books of information. He is still happily married to Lady Jane and is a doting, although quite Victorian, father to little Sophia, who is mostly being raised by a nanny as was typical of the time.
As always, Lenox manages to find time to investigate crimes. He remains a mentor to John Dallington, former playboy aristocrat and current detective. Dallington spends the early part of this book gravely ill, which leads to Lenox stepping in and setting off the mystery of the chapter. A plea for help to Dallington leads Lenox to a train station cafe early one morning where he watches for the anonymous person to show up looking for help. He is surprised to discover that the man he was looking for was actually a woman. The woman sees someone who frightens her and flees from the scene before Lenox learns who it was. She was startled by a young man who Lenox speaks with briefly. It quickly appears that this young man is impersonating a nobleman who lives in the country and blackmailing the young woman, who works for the queen.
This one moment at the train station leads to a much larger mystery involving land titles, vengeful nobles and an attack on the queen herself. The woman from the station, Grace, plays only a minimal role, although it seems as though she would be more important. Lenox works with Dallington, while also meeting with two other London detectives. There's also a new investigator on the scene, Miss Strickland, who Lenox is convinced is really a man hiding behind a woman's name or using a woman as the front of the agency. Miss Strickland's agency shows the first hints of modern detecting, employing a fingerprinting expert as well as medical examiners to help solve crimes. Rather than one man acting alone, Strickland's group uses the talents of many different people. Strickland herself isn't exactly what Lenox was expecting but at the end, the surprise itself was a pleasant one with hints of a even more pleasant arrangement for Dallington.
Meanwhile, Lenox deals with Parliament, nasty rumors about his secretary, Graham, and the Prime Minister, Disraeli himself. His dear friend Thomas McConnell and his wife Toto are struggling with their marriage again and of course Lenox's brother, Edmund, makes an appearance. Like the previous books, the mystery itself is wrapped up around 80% into the book and the rest of the novel ties all the little pieces together and sets Lenox on a new course of his life, one which should be quite interesting in the next book. Graham's life also takes on a possibly fascinating new course, so I'm looking forward to seeing what ends up happening to Lenox's former butler.
I was interested to read in the back of the book that Charles Finch wrote a contemporary novel called The Last Enchantments, which will be coming out early in 2014. However, early reviews do not look too good. I'm hoping he doesn't abandon Charles Lenox, as this series always gets good reviews and continues to be engaging even 7 books in.
Buy it at amazon & Barnes and Noble.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
The Rosie Project was one of amazon's best books of October. It sounded intriguing and as it was totally different in tone from Allegiant, I went for it. The novel is by Graeme Simsion, a brand new author from Australia, where the book is already very popular.
The Rosie Project follows Don Tillman, a socially challenged genetics professor who works at a university in Australia. Don readily admits that socializing isn't his thing. But yet, he decides that he is ready to get married. He wants a partner but is beyond obsessive about what that wife will be like. After a few dates, he decides to come up with a questionnaire for his future spouse, including their BMI, view on smoking and alcohol. He relies heavily on his friends, Gene and Claudia, a couple in an open marriage. Their relationship and Don's reaction to it causes a lot of unintentional humor. Gene is on a quest to sleep with one woman of every nationality. Because Don is so direct, he keeps telling Claudia what Gene is actually up to when he claims he is working or whatever.
Despite their own problems, Gene and Claudia help Don on his quest. Gene ends up sending a woman named Rosie to Don's office. Don assumes that she is a candidate for the wife project, which Gene was helping to sort. He also automatically dismisses her as being totally unsuitable for a variety of reasons (she is a "barmaid", as Don calls her, so she isn't intellectually equal to him, plus she smokes). However, when Rosie asks Don for help in identifying her birth father, he ends up spending more and more time with her. Soon, Rosie is shaking Don out his routines. Don had previous had a standardized meal plan where he made the same dinner on the same day every day of the week. Rosie quickly changes that as well as introduces Don to making cocktails, dancing and traveling outside of his comfort zone in more ways than one.
Don is quite the character. It seemed clear to me that he has Asperger Syndrome or some other form of high functioning autism. In fact, early on in the book, he takes on a lecture that Gene was supposed to give to children with Aspergers and their families and I kept waiting for him to realize, oh wait, I have all of these characteristics too. That does eventually come up in the book, but it takes a while. Rosie is a bit of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype but she is still a lot of fun and it's enjoyable seeing Don's world turning upside down.
One of the best parts of the book is that the author has links (at least in the kindle version) to all of the recipes that Don makes in the book. I'm dying to make his lobster and avocado salad! Anyway, this is a sweet, quirky romantic comedy. Apparently Simsion is writing a sequel. I'll probably read it although I felt like The Rosie Project wrapped up really nicely and doesn't really need a second book. But in any case, it's a fun read!
Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Sunday, November 3, 2013
SOME SPOILERS BELOW...
Last winter I read Veronica Roth's Divergent and Insurgent, the latter of which I did not enjoy as much as the former. Before I started Allegiant, I checked out The Transfer, a short story set before the series started that focused on Tobias on his own choosing day and then in his first moments as a Dauntless initiate. It's the first of three short stories starring Tobias. The Transfer was a good reminder of the Divergent world before I dove into Allegiant, which picks up in Chicago right after the events of the last book. Tobias is his mother Evelyn's right hand man, helping her control the city with her factionless followers, while Tris is in jail and faces a trial. This part is over quickly, though, and Tris is freed and approached by the Allegiant, a group of residents who want Chicago returned to the way it was, factions and all.
The Allegiant decide to send some of their group, including Tris, Tobias, Uriah, Christina, Cara and Tris' betraying brother Caleb out of Chicago in search of the people who left the video saying that they needed the help of the Chicago residents. Once they get out of the city, they are quickly approached by some people who take them back to a former airport, near the city, that is now the seat of a branch of the government. The Chicago crowd learns that years before this, genes started to be identified as causes of behavior and scientists worked to eliminate those genes. However, removing certain genes (or rather working to emphasize certain genes), like the murder gene, had unintended consequences. So people who had cowardice removed became aggressive and sometimes murderous. Those who were super intelligent often lost compassion. A war broke out between those who were genetically damaged and those considered genetically pure. Eventually the experiments started. Chicago, as it turns out, was a giant experiment to see if the genetically damaged would eventually be cured. Tris, as a divergent, is genetically pure since her genes started to heal themselves, giving her personality aspects of the different factions.
Tris accepts this, but Tobias is torn apart by being considered genetically damaged, a diagnosis that brings to the surface his childhood abuses at the hands of his father. This drives a wedge between Tris and Tobias (yet again), especially after Tobias lets himself get dragged into a terrorist attack on the airport by those fighting for the rights of the genetically damaged. Unfortunately this attack led to the near fatal injury of one of their group. Tris, meanwhile, learns interesting information about her mother, and gets asked to take a seat on the bureau's council. In that way she learns that the federal government wants to shut down the experiment in Chicago, which is one of the only remaining of the original experiments trying to cure the genetically damaged. The bureau's response is to wipe the memories of everyone in Chicago in order to reset the experiment and keep it going. Since Chicago is an experiment, video cameras monitor all the action there 24/7, just like The Truman Show. The Chicago group is upset about this decision, except Tobias, who secretly wishes his parents' minds would be wiped. Tris and Tobias manage to mend fences (finally consummating their relationship) and team up with their friends with a plan to inoculate some of their family members and friends in Chicago, while also attempting to steal the memory serum from the airport's weapon's lab in order to wipe the bureau workers' minds. This way they can teach the government that genetically damaged people aren't bad and deserve equality.
I had read before this book that it had a shocking ending, which I completely agree with. I certainly was not expecting what happened, given that this is a YA novel. Even Katniss got a happy ending in Mockingjay. The ending was certainly hopeful for many of the characters but not all of them make it to the end. Let's just say that the selflessness of Abnegation ran strong in some of the protagonists even to the very last moment... even when it mean sacrificing themselves. While Allegiant really only touched on the actual Allegiant group briefly and most of the action took place outside of Chicago, this novel was much better than Insurrection, the second book in the series, but still not as good as Divergent. I'm intrigued by the movie that is coming out next March. One of my friends reminded me about it today so now I'm excited to see it with her next year. Overall, Allegiant was a satisfying end to the series, even if it did have a shocking twist for the characters.
Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble
Monday, October 21, 2013
(Warning, mild spoilers to follow...)
When I was 19, I lived in Australia for six months. I vividly remember being upset that I couldn't pack too many books and that I didn't have a lot of money to buy too many. This was pre-kindle days, of course. At one point, I ended up in a bookstore where I bought Bridget Jones' Diary and Bridget Jones: The Age of Reason. I absolutely fell in love (like much of the world) with flighty, zany, unlucky in love Bridget. I devoured both of those books and read them over and over for a long time. Granted, I probably haven't picked up either book since college or not long after, but I remember the plots pretty well. I did see the first movie, but really wasn't crazy about it (although maybe I should rewatch. I do love Colin Firth) and therefore never saw the second one. I remember reading that Helen Fielding had written some articles around 2005/6 where Bridget was still involved with both Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy. This led to a pregnancy of a little boy, who ended up being Daniel's son. She wound up living with Daniel, but Mark had apparently offered to adopt the baby, suggesting that he was still around.
This plot was abandoned for the third novel, Mad About the Boy. Bridget is older but still a ditz who drinks and eats too much. She is a 51 year old widow (it's no spoiler to reveal that Mark Darcy died five years before the present story - Fielding revealed that in several interviews) with two young children, Billy and Mabel. Bridget could barely take care of herself in the previous novels and now she has two children to manage. Their life is happy but disorganized and messy. Mark left her enough money that she doesn't need to work but they live in a small, comfortable house where a nanny cares for the children often and Bridget spends her time writing. She is working on an updated screenplay for Hedda Gabler, which she mistakenly believes was written by Chekov instead of Ibsen. Her friends, still ridiculous, boozy and offering terrible advice, call her a born again virgin since she hasn't had sex since Mark's death. Bridget also struggles with school drop off and pick up, the remotes, passwords for all technology and social media.
As an adult, Bridget is certainly still endearing and her exploits kind of adorable in a hot mess sort of way. I tore through this book in only a few days, a nice change from how long MaddAddam took me (I loved that book a lot and because of that really took my time and paid attention to it). However, as someone who feels that their life is more or less together at 32, Bridget's flightiness at 51 is a bit exasperating. Get yourself together, lady! The book starts in the present and then flashes back a year to Bridget as a sad, overweight widow, who finally resolves to improve her life by starting to lose weight. Because I bought the original books in Australia, the weight check ins at the start of every diary page were always in "stones" so I never had any idea what Bridget actually weighed. Buying the American version of this book was a nice change. Anyway, after some false starts, Bridget manages to lose about 40 pounds and starts exploring social media. She becomes annoyingly obsessed with Twitter, something I can't stand in real life, so it was a bit irritating that Bridget was so fascinated with it. I was also like, go be with your children (clearly my own infertility issues made me a little annoyed that Bridget had kids at 43 and 45 and neglected them in favor of social media) and stop playing around online. Bridget also has the maturity level of a 5 year old as she constantly talks about farting and vomit. That gets old rather fast.
But that's Bridget for you. She was always a bit over the top and annoying. But she is also relatable (why is blogger insisting that I'm spelling this word incorrectly?) in a lot of ways. She's an absolute mess who needed Mark Darcy to manage her life (how's that for feminism?) and keep her in line, while also allowing her to lighten his life - which is why they were meant to be. Anyway, the book zips along taking Bridget from one crazy situation to another. Twitter introduces her to Roxster, a 29 year old "toy boy" (as an American, I kept saying "boy toy", "boy toy" to myself). While Roxster certainly helps to reawaken Bridget sexually, the relationship clearly has no staying power, much like Daniel in the earlier books. In the background, Mr. Wallaker, a strict, disciplined teacher at her son's school, lurks. Much like Darcy, Bridget and Wallaker do not start off well but it's clear that something is going to happen between them as Wallaker keeps showing up. So yes, Helen Fielding essentially recreates the Darcy/Bridget/Daniel love triangle with Roxster and Wallaker. And it ends much as you would expect the book to in a romantic, completely satisfying way.
My husband always makes fun of me for referring to books as breezy, but that's what this way: a deliciously comforting, fun and entertaining read that brings Bridget to a whole new, unexpected (for her) happy ending, one you can't help but feel that she truly deserves after everything she's been through.
NY Times Review
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I'm a little embarrassed that it's been over a month since my last review. Chalk it up to my new insanely busy schedule. I love my new job but the first year of teaching anywhere is insane. I'm getting used to shorter periods and a longer commute by car rather than subway. The commute means I lose out on reading time. Plus, I used to read at the gym but now I take Zumba classes three times a week so now I don't have that time. Long story short, it takes me longer to read books and I just haven't had time to sit down and process this novel so I can properly review it.
So here goes. I first read Oryx and Crake years ago and absolutely loved it. I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood. The Handmaiden's Tale was the first dystopian book I ever read. Oryx and Crake is Atwood's first book (I think) featuring a male protagonist. At the time, I had no idea the book would have a sequel, let alone become a trilogy. The Year of the Flood came out before I got a kindle, which I think was around 2009 or 2010 so it's been a while. I loved both of those books, rereading Oryx and Crake once I read The Year of the Flood. Those two novels take place concurrently, with characters who weave in and out of each other's stories. Both novels end at the same scene. Fortunately, MaddAddam picks up with that moment, or a bit after, and propels the story forward. There's a helpful breakdown of the plot from the other two books in the beginning of MaddAddam to remind the reader of what's happening. The basic story takes place in the future, where science has taken people to crazy new lengths (pigs that are bred to carry human body parts for organ transplants and become super intelligent) and corporations create compounds where the wealthy live. The rest of society lives out in the pleebands where crime and poverty run rampant. A genius named Crake looked at the world and decided that people were not worth saving. He designed a pill called BlyssPluss that wiped out the majority of the population. He also created new bioforms, referred to as the Crakers, who are designed to be better people. The first book focuses on Jimmy, Crake's best friend, who was unknowingly given the vaccine for the pill, allowing him to live as the caretaker for the Crakers. The second book focuses on Ren, a former girlfriend of Jimmy's who grew up in the pleebands (unlike Jimmy, who was raised in a compound) with a group called the God's Gardeners. The two novels go back and forth in time, focusing on first the current time, post-disease and the past as Jimmy (and Ren) grow up.
MaddAddam followed a similar construct. In the present, Toby, a former God's Gardener/friend of Ren's (whose story was also revealed in The Year of the Flood), is living with some former God's Gardeners, as well as people referred to as MaddAddamites, scientists who worked with Crake to design the Crakers. The Crakers have relocated from the seaside to the nature preserve where they live. Life goes on, such as it is in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Toby fears that two escaped Painballers (criminals who survived Painball, an option to prison that sounds a lot like the Hunger Games) will come after them. She also worries about Jimmy, who has been in a coma since the end of the last book, as well as Amanda, viciously raped by the Painballers and accidentally sexually assaulted by the Craker men who thought she was ovulating (Crakers mate in a group atmosphere). Most of all, she struggles over her feelings for Zeb, the gruff former God's Gardener, who is one of the leaders of her ragtag group. Fortunately, Zeb returns her feelings and spends most of the novel telling her HIS story.
Like the previous two books, this novel moves back and forth in time. Zeb was raised by a sadistic preacher father along with his half-brother Adam (who grows up to be Adam One). The two young men eventually escape from home, separate and hide out in the world, away from their dad. Zeb gains a wealth of different experiences and comes into contact with various people from the previous books like Pilar and a very young Crake. Zeb's story weaves into the present as the Crakers grow fascinated by him and Toby tells his life to them as a "bedtime story". The Crakers have turned Oryx and Crake into gods (a fascinating turn of events since Crake wanted to eradicate institutions like religions from the world with his purge) and idealize Zeb as well. There are some very funny misunderstandings with the Crakers, who address everyone as "Oh Toby" or "Oh Zeb". When they hear someone say "Oh, Fuck", they think Fuck is a person and Toby has to invent a story that Fuck is an invisible helper of Crake's. That cracked me up every time I read it.
Frankly, not much happens in this book. Like the other novels, I always wanted more from the present. Zeb's story is interesting and a good read but I always just wanted to find out how these little group would survive the world. I think I felt that way about the other books too, but it's been so long since I've read them. I really recommend reading all three consecutively because I know I missed a lot that I didn't remember from the other two novels. I enjoyed reading how Zeb got to be in the God's Gardeners and then how he showed up with this group but I was more satisfied with the climatic scenes at the end between the Painballers, the Pigoons (pigs with human intelligence) and the Gardeners/Crakers/Addamites. And there was a lovely and sad look at what came next for the group. One of the little Craker boys, Blackbeard, became fascinated by writing and learned how to read and write because of Toby, which of course leads to written history and perhaps religious doctrine, defeating the purpose of Crake's purge of humanity.
Atwood creates incredibly three-dimensional, fascinating characters and a gripping story. It's a wonder that the flashbacks are as interesting (even though I wanted to stay in the present more) as the present day. Even though these books are probably classified as dystopia or sci-fi, really the stories are so well-written that I think most fiction readers would enjoy them. You can start with either Oryx or The Year of the Flood, although I recommend Oryx but definitely save MaddAddam for last. Someday, I really hope I have a chance to reread the whole thing to really appreciate the world that Atwood created.
Awesome essay about Crake's Attempted Utopia
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Saturday, September 14, 2013
Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows that I love Rhys Bowen's Lady Georgie series (aka the Royal Spyness series books. The series follows lady Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line for the British throne in the time before The King's Speech took place. It's the Great Depression and even royals are not immune to the economic disaster. Georgie is the younger sister of a Scottish duke who has gone bankrupt after having to pay his father's death dues. Technically, Georgie should be cared for by her half-brother until her own marriage, but that proves to be more complicated than it would seem given the family's lack of money and her sister-in-law's unfriendly demeanor.
Throughout the books, intelligent, clumsy (but not in an over the top Bridget Jones way - Georgie is a bit too practical for that) Georgie stumbles on and solves mysteries, while trying to keep herself afloat financially. She refuses to be married off, even to a prince, because she wants to marry for love, and also resists being made an elderly noble woman's companion. Each book puts her in a new position as she strives to live while only having skills taught in finishing school.
In this book, which takes place about six weeks after the last novel, Georgie is living with her flighty mother, helping to record her memoirs. This doesn't last long as her mother gets summoned to her boyfriend's side for the winter and leaves Georgie high and dry. Lucky, Georgie writes to her cousin, the queen (aka the mother of the king Colin Firth played in The King's Speech) to ask for help and the queen luckily finds something for Georgie to do. Turns out the dowager duchess of a wealthy home (think Downton Abbey) was desperate for an heir after her son (who clearly isn't too into ladies) refused to do his duty of marrying and producing a child. Duchess Edwina learned that her son John, who died in WWI, had been married to a school teacher in Australia, who was pregnant at the time of John died. The son, Jack, was raised on a sheep farm in Australia and while uncouth, is technically the actual heir to the estate, which of course is entailed and needs to pass to a male family member.
Georgie is enlisted to live at the estate and help Jack acclimate to high society, something she knows quite a lot about. The house is huge and filled with an assortment of family members from Cedric the rather nasty duke and his young male followers, two elderly aunts, Edwina's daughter and her two children and of course a ton of servants. The house is filled with tension once Jack arrives as he is the furthest things from an acceptable duke. Matthew Crawley was at least civilized, while Jack is more comfortable on a horse herding sheep. However, he's a nice young man and while he wants nothing to do with the dukedom, he is willing to try and learn.
Until, of course, the duke himself is discovered dead with a knife in his back. It's up to Georgie and her fiance, Darcy, to solve the crime with the sort of help of the local police inspector. Of course her friend, Belinda, makes an appearance and her horrible maid, Queenie pops up from time to time. There's a slightly forced appearance by Georgie's beloved granddad, who really has nothing to do with the story. I think that was just a concession to the fans. While the mystery is being solved, Darcy and Georgie grow closer although they aren't any closer to marriage, despite their engagement at the end of the last book. However, it seems as though they are getting there.
The story wraps up nicely although I wish I knew what happened to some of the characters in the family like the crippled Elisabeth. I had several guesses as to who the murderer would be but was pleasantly surprised by the final reveal. As usual, Rhys Bowen has crafted an entertaining historical mystery. Can't wait until the next one!
Buy it on amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Monday, September 2, 2013
I read The Kite Runner ages ago and really loved it. I've meant to read A Thousand Splendid Suns for a long time and never got around to it, but I spotted Hosseini's newest novel, And the Mountains Echoed on the list of summer reading books at my new school. They offered a bunch of fiction and non-fiction choices and part of my opening meetings tomorrow include a book discussion. I sort of waited until the last minute to pick this up but fortunately I finished over the weekend, just in time for the discussion.
And the Mountains Echoed is lovely and heartbreaking in a million different ways. The story begins with a simple fairy tale that a father tells to his young children. However, hidden within that simple story is the devastating choice the father has had to make. Impoverished and with a new (pregnant) wife to support, the father decides to sell his daughter to a wealthy couple who are unable to have their own child. Young Pari is only 3 or so when she is sold, but her brother, Abdullah, is seven years older and is devastated by the loss of his sister.
And the Mountains Echoed deals with the ramifications of the father's decision. Each chapter follows a different character in a series of interlocking stories as we learn what happened to Abdullah and Pari throughout their lives. The stories span from the 1930s through 2010 and from Afghanistan to Europe to the US. One of the earliest chapters follows Nabi, Pari's step-uncle, the chauffeur for the wealthy couple who at the end of his life writes a letter explaining his actions and the consequences. Another chapter follows Pari throughout her life in France. Yet another deals with a plastic surgeon who is connected to the house where Pari lived in Kabul.
It isn't always obvious how these stories are connected. The one about the plastic surgeon in Greece is probably the least connected but each chapter serves to explain something about Pari and Abdullah's life at some point or another from what happened to the town where they were born to how their father ended up with his second wife.
Most of the chapters except the last two are told in third person but then the narrative switches to first person, which is interesting. Additionally, Hosseini does an excellent job of giving each character a unique voice. Most of the chapters are quite long but the plot winds together nicely leading to a bittersweet but wholly satisfying ending.
I think I'm going to have to read A Thousand Splendid Suns ASAP as I really loved this book. It's definitely worth the read.
NY Times Review
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