review: the red tower

Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower by Mark A. Latham (2018)

Here’s what you need to know. If you are a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories written by A. Conan Doyle, then you should read this book. If your only experience with Holmes and Watson is through television or film, then you should read this book. If you think Holmes is the main character of these stories, well…you’ll have to have a little patience. There is a whole lot to like about Mark A. Latham’s latest contribution to the Sherlock Holmes collection of books currently being published by Titan Books. Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower is just the fourth book of the year to get a five-star rating from me. I loved this book and couldn’t have asked the author to do anything more, and one of the best parts is that I had no idea what the solution to the puzzle was until I got to the very end of the book. The Red Tower is a great read, and though it’s not currently available from my local library, it was worth every single dollar from my book budget. Continue reading

review: the purest hook

The Purest Hook by Scarlett Cole (2017)

I have found a new author to add to my list of favorites, and her name is Scarlett Cole. Look. The Purest Hook is packed with loads of dramatic tension and I was tense the whole time I was reading. I can only admire a book that evokes an emotional response and creates a visceral reading experience. I started this book late after work one night and read for about two hours before forcing myself to stop and get some sleep. I picked it right back up in the morning, and then read straight through to the end. I borrowed this book from my local library so if your book budget is a bit tight, look for it there. Honestly, though, this is one writer I want to support so that she’ll write more books, so I’ll be buying her stuff from here on out. Three books into her backlist and I haven’t been disappointed. Listen. Get thee into the Second Circle Tattoos series! For the most part, each book stands alone, but I strongly recommend starting at the beginning with The Strongest Steel (if you’re interested, you can read my review here).

This is the story of Pixie and Dred. Pixie is the office manager at Second Circle Tattoos. Seven years ago, she ran away from home and landed in Miami, where Trent and Cujo, owners of Second Circle, took her in and gave her a place to call home. She likes show tunes and Broadway musicals. Though the guys have taught her how to tattoo, Pixie’s real dream is to start her own business making custom dresses and costumes for little girls. She’s managed to build a life for herself, but like any good protagonist, there are things in her past that haunt her and threaten to destroy the life she’s built. Dred is the lead singer for a metal band called Preload. He, too, has a troubled past filled with secrets he would rather not be made public. While Dred comes up with any number of reasons why he should avoid Pixie, particularly that he should focus on his career and that there will be time for everything else later, he can’t stop himself from asking her to go out with him each time they meet. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between Pixie and Dred. Neither of them defines family by blood ties, and both of them are being exploited.

For me, characters are probably the most important element of a book. If you’ve read any of my previous reviews, you already know that I read the sample before deciding whether I’m going to buy a book by a new author or one I’m still on the fence about. More than anything else, if the characters aren’t compelling, or if they are just carbon copies of favorite characters in the genre, then I’m not going to buy the book. It would have been really easy for Cole to present Dred as a stereotypical rock star—the arrogant, self-absorbed, damaged asshole who simply needs the love of the right woman to reform and be a better man (you’ve read that one, probably more than once, right?). You know the kind of character I mean—the one you don’t really like and certainly would never consider to be date material in real life. Dred Zander doesn’t fall into that category, and his character development from start to finish turns him into a compelling character that you just want to keep reading about. Indeed, I’d say all of the male protagonists in this story are genuinely likable characters, even when they make stupid choices (mind, the female protagonists also make stupid choices). Pixie is perhaps closer to type and her character arc is closer to being flat than one filled with change, but she’s not a broken damsel in distress in need of rescuing. What I loved about them together is the way their struggles and challenges moved in parallel. Pixie and Dred aren’t so much in conflict with each other as they are in conflict with themselves and the antagonists they have to defeat.

The story is told through the alternating, third person point-of-view of Pixie and Dred. And though there’s plenty of unresolved sexual tension between the lovers for the first half of the story, the real accomplishment is the sustained dramatic tension. From the beginning, Cole reveals Pixie and Dred’s secrets one layer at a time, and each new revelation heightens the dramatic tension. My heart rate sped up several times as I waited to find out what happened next. Though it would be easy to shelve this book in the rock star romance category, it’s not so easily labeled, and that ends up being a good thing because the story doesn’t fall into predictability. In that sense, Dred isn’t drawn as your typical rock star male protagonist, and that just makes him all the more interesting as a character. Another noteworthy aspect of the story is that, although Pixie fled from an abusive home, the plot doesn’t turn on actual or an implied threat of violence against women. This is something I’ve appreciated about the books in this series. Cole finds other ways to put her characters in jeopardy and danger, other ways of introducing conflict into the story. This isn’t to say violence is wholly absent, just that the premise of the suspense plot doesn’t rely upon it.

I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. I didn’t hesitate to give it a five-star rating, only the second such rating I’ve given all year. It was difficult to stop myself from instantly downloading The Darkest Link, the fourth and final book in this series. That’s how addicted I have become to these books. I’m also on board with diving into the series that follows this one and delves into the lives of the members of Preload. If you’re like me—someone who reads a lot, is easily bored by 80% of the TV shows currently on air, and mostly disenchanted by or disinterested in the film industry’s recent offerings—and thus spends a lot of time looking for entertaining and satisfying reads, then I highly recommend giving this series a try. I really loved The Strongest Steel, The Fractured Heart was a good read, but The Purest Hook might be my favorite so far. But please start at the beginning of the series—it’s worth your time and your money.

Have you read The Purest Hook or any other books by Scarlett Cole? What did you think?

review: after we fall

After We Fall by Melanie Harlow (2016)

If this is the only sentence you read, here’s what you need to know: read this book if you love romance novels. It’s the first novel to get a five-star rating from me this year and I want to read more books by Melanie Harlow. After We Fall is the second book in Harlow’s After We Fall series. I downloaded a heaping handful of samples onto my kindle one morning and when I got to the end of the sample for this book I instantly hit buy and there’s not a bit of buyer’s remorse.

This is the story of Margot and Jack. Margot is your stereotypical rich city girl, the daughter of an old money family in Detroit. Her father is running for Senate, and her mother is all about appearances and tradition. Margot has always gone along with her parents’ wishes, being the dutiful daughter and doing what was expected of her (going to Vassar, majoring in English). The next step in the line of duties seems to be getting married and starting a family. At the start of the story, Margot is on the cusp of doing exactly that. Indeed, her story begins with a marriage proposal. A dozen thrown scones later, she’s effectively banished from Detroit and told to keep a low profile until her shocking and scandalous behavior is forgotten. This is the catalyst that pushes Margot out of her normal world and into a new world she knows nothing about—a small farm in northern Michigan. In many ways, Jack is Margot’s opposite. He left college to enlist in the military after 9/11 and spent eight years in the Army. After returning home, Jack marries the love of his life, Steph, who died two years later. When the story begins it’s been nearly three years since his wife’s death. Jack is still grieving and is also dealing with traumatic events that took place while he served in Iraq, events that make him feel directly responsible for his wife’s death. The only things Jack seems to find any joy in are spending time with his one-year-old nephew, Cooper, and working the farm he owns along with his brothers, Pete and Brad. It’s those brothers, along with Pete’s wife, Georgia, who hire Margot’s marketing firm to help them build the farm into a successful business, a decision that forces Jack out of his normal world.

The ensuing romance between Margot and Jack is turbulent and more than once evoked an emotional response from me (I teared up and laughed out loud). Margot and Jack are honest and real characters, relatable and vividly drawn. Repeatedly they are thrown into situations with each other that highlight their differences and show who they are, what they want and what matters most to each of them. Sometimes they do the right thing and sometimes they make mistakes, but the whole time I was reading I was invested in their love story and kept reading to see how they would get their happily ever after. Jack’s character arc is more fully developed than Margot’s and thus he undergoes more change throughout the story. And yet Margot changes as well, starting out as the dutiful daughter that cares what other people think of her and becoming a more independent woman who lives her life on her terms regardless of anyone else’s opinions. Harlow drives this home during a conversation between Margot and her mother near the end of the story. The point I’m trying to make here is that both Jack and Margot are engaging characters. I was completely engrossed in their story and I think you will be, too.

The story is told through Margot and Jack’s alternating first person point-of-view (POV), and it turns on the recognizable trope of the city girl/country boy opposition (though why it’s always the woman from the city who is the fish out of water in the country, and rarely vice-versa, is beyond me). I have to admit that Harlow does something in this book structurally that typically turns me off when it comes to a romance novel. The meet cute between the lovers doesn’t occur until chapter seven. While I’m pretty adamant about the meet cute happening in the first or second chapter (at the latest) of a romance novel, the delayed moment of Margot and Jack’s meeting works in Harlow’s favor here. I got to know Margot and Jack a little bit before they met, pulling me into their separate lives and seeing them as individuals before they are thrown into the falling in love portion of the story. Another aspect of the novel that did have me raising my eyebrows is the supporting cast of characters. Margot’s friends—Jaime and Claire, who are featured in books one and three of this series—are fine, but I gave Jack’s brothers, Pete and Brad, the side-eye. Jaime and Claire work in terms of showing Margot’s support system, but Pete and Brad don’t really come off as being all that supportive of a brother who’s had the experiences Jack has had. Perhaps that’s the reason for including Georgia in the supporting cast. I kind of wanted to tell Pete and Brad to have some compassion, but maybe their lack of compassion and brotherly love and support further underscores the myriad of reasons Jack is struggling with his past and having trouble moving forward.

I loved this book. I don’t give out five-star ratings easily or often, but After We Fall earned it. Not only does Harlow deliver a compelling romance, she also manages to slip in an important message about agribusiness and food justice. This was exactly the kind of read I was looking for and it definitely goes onto my recommended reads list and my list of favorite books for 2018. Give this one a try, it’s book budget money well-spent.

Have you read After We Fall or any other books by Melanie Harlow? What did you think?

review: hard limit

Note: This is the fourth book in Meredith Wild’s Hacker series.  The first book in the series is Hardwired. If you haven’t read the first three books, there will inevitably be spoilers below.

Hard Limit by Meredith Wild (2014)

I have to be honest.  I had a really difficult time putting this book down and read it in two sittings.  I think it’s because beneath all the trappings and conventions of this genre, I just like following Erica and Blake’s story.  I like them as characters and though everything that happens to them is completely melodramatic and over the top, I remain willing to suspend my disbelief and go along for the wild and crazy ride.  Kind of like Olivia and Fitz, but let me not digress.  If you have read the first three books in this series (Hardwired, Hardpressed, and Hardline) I’m sure you’ll like the fourth installment. It may be the best one of the series so far.

The book starts wonderfully–with a prologue that is told from Blake’s point-of-view and that involves events that happen two weeks after where chapter one begins.  As far as I can remember, this is the first and only look we’ve had at him and his relationship with Erica from his own point-of-view.  I wanted more, but at the same time I appreciate that Wild only gives us this brief tease and immediately and firmly returns to telling the story from Erica’s first-person point-of-view. Once the first chapter starts, the action, the tension and the conflict don’t stop.  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t put the book down.  It’s tightly plotted, nothing to distract away from what’s happening, and there is a lot happening in this book.  Erica and Blake are planning to be married soon.  The partnership Erica made with Alex Huntington in the previous installment is set to take a few twists and turns. Sophia returns and another aspect of Blake’s past–both with her and in the aftermath of their breakup–are revealed and it is this part of the plot that generates continued tension and conflict between Erica and Blake. Daniel also comes back, and the sort-of cliffhanger ending of third installment where we learn about who has revealed the relationship between Erica and Daniel to the media comes to fruition and gets tied up by the end of the book.  Though the story is told from Erica’s point-of-view, Blake continues to be drawn and developed more deeply as a character–which is to say that unlike other series within this genre, he’s not a cardboard character without depth and whose arc seems artificial and contrived at best.  I like him, and he’s one of the reasons I have remained invested in this series.  To lesser degrees, the same can be said of other members of the supporting cast, particularly Marie (Erica’s surrogate mother) and Daniel.  A lot of this story revolves around the question of family, how families function or are dysfunctional, and the ties that bind families together.  The story also flirts with the ideas of betrayal and loyalty and how we come to realize who we can and cannot trust.  I know what you’re thinking–quite philosophical words about a romance novel, but I’m just calling it as I see it.  I’ve read a lot of copycats that weren’t worth the time I spent reading them, and in my opinion it’s hard to write this kind of romance with elements of suspense and do it well and in a way that isn’t just about how how the sex scenes are. Which, if you’re wondering, the sex scenes are really hot (and explicit, so if you don’t want that in your fiction, this series isn’t going to be for you).

The end of the book sets up the final novel in the series, Hard Love. While some subplots within the series as a whole have been resolved, there’s still the issue of Trevor–Blake’s hacker nemesis–to be resolved, and I won’t be surprised to see a final showdown involving Sophia.  The final chapter of the Hard Limit finds Erica and Blake flying away from Boston to their honeymoon destination. I’m looking forward to the final book but I’ll also be sad when I’ve gotten to the end because then it’ll be over.  Still, I’ve enjoyed every single book in this series and definitely recommend it if you like your romance with a little edge, a little suspense, and well-developed characters.

 

 

 

 

review: the phantom of the opera

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909)

This book has been sitting in my to-be-read pile for quite a long time.  I have not seen any adaptations of the novel, but I have wanted to see the Broadway musical for a long, long time.  When I picked up the book a week ago and started reading, I didn’t even read the summary on the back of the book.  Although I haven’t seen the musical or film, I thought I had an inkling of what the story was about.  Come to find out, I didn’t really know the story at all, and further still, when I finally see the musical, I’m going to be so glad that I read the book first.

I had about eighty pages left to read when a friend, who I had told I was reading the book, asked me what the book was about.  I had a hard time answering the question.  The story takes place in the Paris Opera house, and it is told to us by a “historian” who has pieced together the events that he is relating to us.  At the beginning of the story, the management of the opera-house has changed hands, and at the time of the change, the old managers provide the new managers with a copy of the lease.  The lease is standard with the exception of a few demands added by “O.G.” the Opera Ghost.  “O.G.” demands a monthly payment of 20,000 francs and sole use of Box 5 in the opera house.  Part of the story is the struggle between the new managers, who refuse to give in to the Opera Ghost’s demands, and the ghost’s retaliations.  This part of the story moves the opera-house from orderly to chaotic, and as the story progresses, returning the opera-house to order is one of the things that propels the plot forward.  The second part of the story is the love story between Christine, a singer in the opera, and Raoul de Chagny, a French noble.  Throughout Christine’s life, her father taught her about music, and as childhood friends, Christine and Raoul sat and listened as her father told them about the Angel of Music.  Christine’s father said that after he died, he would send the Angel of Music to her, and that the Angel would transform her into a musical genius.  Not only is the romance between Christine and Raoul made impossible because of his status as a nobleman and hers as a singer/actress, but it is also challenged by the presence of the Angel of Music, who falls in love with Christine, abducts her, frees her, and then abducts her again. Resolving the romantic triangle and the fates of the three main characters propels the rest of the plot to its conclusion.

The only thing I really knew about the story were the two characters of Christine and the Phantom, and that the story took place in an opera-house.  I thought that the Phantom was the protagonist of the story, with Christine being the second protagonist and heroine.  He is, after all, the title character.  Reading the story, it seems to me that instead of being the protagonist, the Phantom is actually the antagonist, and this was a real surprise.  His character also brings in the supernatural and horror elements of the story (and before I read the back cover of the book, I didn’t know that this story was categorized as horror, a so-called “chilling tale”).  On the other hand, Christine is clearly the damsel in distress and in line with the ideal of the 19th century heroine (another misconception of mine was that the story was written in the mid-1800s, so Christine’s characterization was expected).  Raoul is also the typical French male aristocrat who seeks to marry for love, regardless of his social position.  This isn’t to say that the characters aren’t likable–that is, that Christine and Raoul aren’t likable.  They are.  What is challenging about the characters is that it was difficult for me as a reader to become attached to any of them.  Further still, at the end of the story, I know that I am supposed to feel pity and sympathy toward the Phantom, and yet, he’s kept at such a distance from the reader, it was hard for me to feel those emotions.

I did like the novel. The villainy, genius, and madness of the Phantom were compelling, and thinking about it, I realize that I would have liked him to have more time on the page; and yet, it’s his elusiveness, his ability to seemingly be everywhere but not there at all is part of what makes him such a terrifying and formidable foe.  I come back to the fact that he is the title character, and that the tragedy of the novel is his tragedy.  What I mean to say is that I wanted to feel more invested in his tragedy, and this is the only real complaint that I have with the book.

From what I’ve read after finishing the novel, many of the elements in the book in terms of the architecture of the opera-house are factual, and Leroux had actual knowledge of the Paris Opera that informed his writing.  This book was a welcome change of pace, especially within the realm of “classic” literature.  I enjoyed the inclusion of music in the story, and can imagine similarities between the progression of the plot of the novel and the progression of an opera–both sprinkling in light, comic notes even as the tension continually builds, steadily moving toward the final climax. I also loved the way the historian/narrator intertwined the power of music to convey every human emotion, just as the novel possesses the same power.  I loved that The Phantom of the Opera wasn’t like everything else. If the opportunity ever comes my way, I am certain I would find a way to teach this book in a future class.  I definitely recommend this book to other readers.

 

 

review: dead beat

Note: Dead Beat is the 7th book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.  If you haven’t read the previous books in the series, you may want to look away now.

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (2005)

There’s a tiny part of me that has been reluctant to post reviews for the books in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Mostly because I don’t want to spoil plot points for new readers. Trust me, if you haven’t read the series from the beginning, avert your eyes and go and pick up Storm Front. I have been reading this series for a while now and I love it.  In fact, I credit this series with introducing me to all the goodness that urban fantasy has to offer, and I repeatedly recommend it to readers who are skeptical about the sci-fi/fantasy genre as a whole.  Yes, this series has as its protagonist a wizard, but it isn’t just about all that is supernatural and what goes bump in the night.

Harry Dresden – Wizard.  His beat is Chicago, and that’s another thing I like about this series. I happen to love Chicago, and I love all the references to places in the city that I have been to.  This particular novel has several scenes that take place at the Field Museum and the big skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex plays an important role in the end of the story. Here’s your basic plot summary that is hopefully free of spoilers.  Harry is summoned by Mavra, the Red Court vampire with whom he had an epic battle a couple of books ago.  Mavra wants to meet Harry at his grave—yes, Harry has his own grave, courtesy of some of his enemies as a reminder that they intend to put him in it post haste.  The inscription on the tombstone reads, “He died doing the right thing.”  Needless to say, it creeps Harry out, but he goes to meet Mavra anyway because she is threatening Karrin Murphy, head of Special Investigations for the Chicago PD and Harry’s friend.  Mavra demands that Harry bring her The Word of Kemmler in exchange for incriminating photos that could land Murphy in jail if turned over to the police.  Being the kind of guy Harry is, he is willing to do what he has to do to save Murphy.  Also typical of Harry, he has no idea what The Word of Kemmler is, but he’s going to find out, and as usual, it’s not going to be anything good.

Although Murphy is being threatened by Mavra, she’s actually absent for nearly the entirety of the novel, so Butcher has to surround Harry with old and new friends and enemies.  Queen Mab makes an appearance, as do Thomas and Bob, Billy and Georgia, and Gentleman Johnnie Marcone.  There’s also Harry’s new dog, Mouse, and even Morgan the Council Warden returns to Chicago.  Indeed, the people in Harry’s life are an important part of Harry’s evolution.  At the beginning of the series, Harry was the typical loner, isolated from the wizard community and not entirely fitting into the “human” world.  Over the course of the series, Harry has lost some people that he cared about, but he has also become part of a family.  Now more than ever before, Harry has a lot to lose, but that also means he has a lot to protect.  It’s not just Harry and his cat, Mister.  It’s Mouse, and Thomas, and Murphy, and Billy and Georgia, and even Bock–a bookstore owner who at one point in the novel tells Harry that he doesn’t want him coming into his store anymore because trouble always follows him.  It’s a horrible moment for Harry, and though he understands Bock’s request, it’s sad too because Harry thinks it’s no less than he deserves. This is all to say that the supporting characters that Butcher brings into the novel are wonderfully drawn and they do exactly what they are supposed to do—show us different parts of Harry’s character, the inner conflicts that he struggles with, and why he keeps going even when all odds are against him. Butcher surrounds Harry with people who care about him, believe in him, and help him to see the good inside of him.  They give him reason to hope and make the struggle worthwhile.

There’s a lot happening in this book, but the part I want to focus on is something that happens near the end.  One of the characteristics of hardboiled detective fiction is that the detective finds himself in a situation where he faces temptation and is forced to cross a line that violates his personal code of ethics in order to save lives.  Harry finds himself in this very situation, and indeed crosses a line.  I have no doubt that it will be a choice that haunts him as the series continues.  It’s a combination of yielding to the temptation of power, doing what must be done to save lives, and having to live with the consequences.  Harry says several times in the novel that he doesn’t think of himself as a hero.  He doesn’t even think of himself as a good person, but now there’s the sense that he has absorbed just a little of the corruption and evil that he fights against. His soul bears a permanent scar that mirrors the physical scar on his hand. In this book, Harry is fundamentally changed on the inside.

With each new installment, Butcher succeeds in making Harry more complex and conflicted.  He forces readers to question the nature of heroism and the personal costs to the individual who would act heroically. Harry does not live in a black and white world, and because of that he cannot be wholly good and succeed in defeating evil.  If you like well-written, suspenseful action stories with strong characters, read the books in this series.  Harry Dresden might just become one of your favorite characters.

 

review: wicked

Spoiler Alert: Wicked is the fifth book in Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars series.  If you haven’t read the first four books and want to avoid spoilers, this is the time to look away.

Wicked by Sara Shepard (2008)

Okay, I admit it.  I was a little skeptical about how this series would keep going after revealing the identity of A in book four and identifying Ali’s murderer.  As it turns out, there’s a new A (or Faux A who Hanna renames Maybe-Not-So-Faux A, so take your pick) and maybe the person who was fingered as Ali’s murderer really isn’t guilty after all.  Just when our four main characters thought they had put A and Ali’s murder behind them and were finding some semblance of normal or what is their new normal, their worlds spin out of control once again (and yes, you can imagine how much that is getting to Spencer in particular).  I have to tell you—Wicked was not disappointing and I’m still addicted to this series, perhaps even more so now.  I actually considered picking up the next book immediately after finishing this one but convinced myself to wait a few days.

The beginning of Wicked finds Hanna, Spencer, Aria and Emily trying to let go and move on with their lives.  As I already said above, the girls just want their lives to go back to what for them passes as normal.  A few months have elapsed since the end of Unbelievable, and the old adage “time heals all wounds” has been to true to a greater or lesser extent for our main characters.  For Aria, things between her and her mother are better, and everyone in the family is adapting to Ella and Byron’s pending divorce as well as Meredith’s pregnancy.  Things are also going better for Emily.  Her family is accepting her sexuality, and she’s moving on from her breakup with Maya.  But things for Hanna aren’t going as well.  What she wants most is to be the ‘queen bee’ of Rosewood Day, but she feels like her hold on that position is tenuous in the aftermath of all that has happened, and now she is living with her father, his fiancée and Kate.  Hanna sees Kate as a rival in her pursuit of popularity. What is going well in her life is her relationship with Lucas, and yes, I’m happy he hasn’t disappeared quite yet.  Finally, there is Spencer.  Oh, things are just not going well at all for Spencer, and of the four characters, she’s the one who seems to be at rock bottom at the start of Wicked.  After admitting that she stole Melissa’s paper, she’s become a pariah in her family as well as at school, the latter of which is perhaps the most devastating because academic success and excellence is the thing that is most important to Spencer.

Because this is fiction, there has to be tension, the girls have to face conflict, and Shepard has to bring each of them to a new crisis point.  Emily, I think, is the only character that remains mostly flat in the story in terms of things getting better or worse.  Aria becomes entangled with her mother’s new boyfriend, Spencer learns that she has been disinherited, and Hanna’s pursuit of uber-popularity is foiled by her own family. Hanna, at least in my opinion, is the character who is in the worst possible position at the end of the novel. Then, of course, there is Faux A, or shall I say New A. New A appears, and though the girls dismiss New A as a copycat at first, they learn that the threat New A poses to them is real.  A return to normalcy just doesn’t appear to be in the cards for these girls.  Not yet anyway. A is ready to inflict new wounds.

One of the reasons that I like these books is that even amid the melodramatic twists and turns, at the heart of each character’s storyline is an exploration of what we want most, why we want what we want, and the relationships in our lives.  In Wicked, I find this to be particularly true with Hanna and Spencer.  What Hanna wants most is to be the most popular girl at Rosewood Day, but she never stops to ask herself why this is what she wants.  Further still, she shows time and time again that she is willing to pay any price to get what she wants, and it’s heartbreaking at times because it costs her what is most important.  That is, it’s heartbreaking because she doesn’t seem to grasp that there are things more important than popularity, or see until it’s too late that her relentless pursuit of popularity is costing her everything.  What Spencer wants most is for her parents to show they are proud of her.  Similar to Hanna, she also wants to win when it comes to school—she wants to be first in her class and win awards.  I know that my response to Spencer’s storyline is partially due to the fact that she’s the one that I identify with most.  Still, the repeated rejection Spencer receives from her family is horrible and yet it explains so much about why she does what she does and why she wants what she wants. Like Hanna, what Spencer wants in terms of school is fleeting, and also like Hanna, she can be blind to things that are more important (for Spencer in this novel, it’s her relationship with Andrew). Hanna and Spencer, throughout the series, have felt the most real to me (and, I admit, at times the most ridiculous) and I find myself more invested in their storylines. 

Should you keep reading this series? In my humble opinion, absolutely.  The books are fun, quick reads, and can be as light or complex as you want them to be. Wicked ends with quite a cliffhanger, and I’m already put “read Killer” on my to-do list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

review: unbelievable

Spoiler Alert: Unbelievable is the fourth book in Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars series.  If you haven’t read the first three books and don’t want to have parts of the plot spoiled for you, look away now.

Unbelievable by Sara Shepard (2008)

A few days ago, my father asked me what I was reading, and I told him the title of my book was Unbelievable. Indeed, it’s an appropriate title, because this fourth book in Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars series is exactly that—unbelievable.

At the end of the third book, Perfect, Hanna had figured out the identity of A and then was promptly hit by a van, Spencer had pushed her sister down the stairs and after a series of flashbacks to the night of Ali’s death had started to think she might be Ali’s killer, Aria was effectively homeless after Sean revealed to the police that she and Ezra were sleeping together, getting Ezra sent to jail, and Emily had been shipped off to Iowa by her parents who are unable to accept that their daughter is a lesbian.  Crazy times!

When Hanna awakes from her coma, we learn that she can’t remember anything after receiving the dress for Mona’s birthday party.  This means she doesn’t remember her dress ripping and being humiliated by Mona, or Lucas rescuing her and their first kiss, or her realization of A’s identity.  Her plotline throughout the novel is to remember.  Spencer, too, is also on a similar plotline, and at the end of the novel she remembers the rest of what happened on the night Ali died and she realizes she didn’t kill Ali.  Emily and Aria are on different journeys in this book.  Emily is still struggling to figure out where she fits in.  It’s certainly not with her cousins in Iowa, and eventually she ends up back in Rosewood where her family is more accepting.  And yet, her relationship with Maya is disintegrating just as she’s about to get what she wants in terms of her family’s acceptance.  Aria’s story, on the other hand, is put in opposition to Emily’s—while Emily is seeking acceptance, Aria seems to be the one who is unable to accept the changes occurring in her family.  She is certainly not accepting the new status quo with her father and Meredith, who announce they are going to be married after Byron’s divorce is final.

I don’t want to reveal the identity of A or the identity of Ali’s killer because I want it to be a surprise for you if you are reading this series.  What I will say is that this book as well as book three provide a lot of misdirection and red herrings.  I was actually surprised by the identity of A but I was right in my guess about Ali’s killer.  The thing that interests me in particular is the way that Shepard wraps up these two mysteries.  Because I have started watching the television adaptation of this series, I wasn’t expecting that these revelations would be made in book four of the series (currently, there are there fourteen books in this series and I think I read somewhere that there will be fifteen books total).  That being said, I’m glad that Shepard brought these two plots to a conclusion, and a satisfying conclusion at that.  She’s also done this in such a way that readers will still want to read about Hanna, Spencer, Aria and Emily.  The cliffhangers for each character at the end aren’t dramatic, and yet they are cliffhangers and give the sense that there is more in store for these young women.

Another thing I really found interesting in this novel was the prevalence of masks as a motif.  It’s one of the underlying thematic aspects that the novel turns upon. The epigraph to the novel sets us up for this: “No one can wear a mask for very long.”  Although the title of the novel is Unbelievable, it could have also been called Masquerade.  Nearly all of the characters in the novel wear either a literal or figurative mask at some point in the story (and at times, characters wear both).  Aria is taking an art class where one of the projects is for her and her partner to create a mask of each other’s face.  Aria’s partner is Jenna.  They both wear literal masks, but they both also wear figurative masks, and ultimately what lies beneath those masks is revealed.  Elsewhere, Hanna’s friends throw her a Masquerade party to celebrate her recovery.  Everyone wears a literal mask, and Hanna’s reason for choosing a masquerades-style party is that she doesn’t want anyone to see the bruises left from the hit-and-run because they show a less than flawless exterior.  She uses the mask to hide.  Even Spencer is wearing a mask, masquerading as the writer of an essay nominated for the Golden Orchid which she didn’t actually write. She, too, must decide whether she’ll continue to wear this mask or if she’ll reveal what she’s been hiding.  It’s also interesting to think about the characters in this book that don’t wear a mask at all—Lucas in particular comes to mind.  In short, this use of masks as a motif is another brilliant artistic stroke by Shepard that I really appreciated.

If you haven’t started either the show or the books, I definitely recommend starting with the books. If you started with the show but abandoned it somewhere along the way, give the books a try. If you’re just looking for a little light reading or brain candy, give these books a try.  These books are readable and entertaining and thought-provoking. I’m already making plans to get book five in this series, and maybe that’s the best compliment I can give.

 

 

 

review: perfect

Note: If you watch Pretty Little Liars, the television series on ABC Family, I should say that I have only watched about 2/3 of the first season and that based upon what I have seen, the series diverges from the books.  So I have no idea if I will be spoiling the TV show with my review.  Fair warning!

Perfect by Sara Shepard (2007)

Do you know what I love? When an author is unafraid to make the worst possible thing happen to her characters and send them into full-crisis mode.  That is exactly what Sara Shepard has done in Perfect, book three of her Pretty Little Liars series.  A lot of the secrets that the main characters have been keeping explode in Perfect.  If you haven’t read the first two books in the series–Pretty Little Liars and Flawless–then you should look away now.  Here be spoilers.

I think some background and context would be helpful. This series follows the stories of four main characters–Hanna, Spencer, Aria, and Emily.  They are juniors at Rosewood Day prep school in Rosewood, Pennsylvania. The four girls were best friends when they were in seventh grade, pulled together by Alison (Ali) DiLaurentis, the queen bee.  Ali disappeared the summer before their eighth grade year, and in the first novel, her body is discovered.  Part of the mystery that drives the series (at least so far) is finding out who killed Ali.  But the other thing that drives the series is that Ali knew all of the girls’ secrets and tormented them before her disappearance–Hanna struggles with bulimia, Spencer has a habit of stealing her sister’s boyfriends and is obsessed with being the perfect student, Aria has kept the secret of her father’s infidelity from her mother and lusts after her English teacher, and Emily is a lesbian but is terrified of what will happen if she acts on her feelings.  At the start of the series, the girls have drifted apart and are no longer friends, but they are all tormented by texts and e-mails from “A” who knows all of their secrets and manipulates them into doing what he or she wants in exchange for keeping their secrets.  The girls have no idea who “A” is, and that’s also part of the mystery.  Caught up?

Perfect has a wonderful epigraph: “Look and you will find it–what is unsought will go undetected” — Sophocles.  It sets the stage for the whole novel, which revolves around the puzzle of a video that Aria took of the five girls one night before Ali’s disappearance.  “A” taunts all of the girls, telling them that Ali’s killer is right there in front of them, all they have to do is look, and by the end of the novel, the girls think they know the identity of Ali’s killer and “A”.  But for a while, this is just a subplot because, well, these girls do have lives to live.  Hanna’s friendship with her best friend, Mona, is on shaky ground.  It’s Mona’s birthday, and a series of events leads to the fateful night of the party, where Hanna is brought to an emotional crisis and comforted by a new male character (Lucas) that I hope will be sticking around for a while.  Meanwhile, Spencer’s parents have decided that perhaps it would be good for her to see a therapist.  During one of the sessions, the doctor hypnotizes Spencer, and she realizes that she has blocked out parts of the night that Ali disappeared.  These memories begin to come back to her as the novel unfolds until she, too, reaches a moment of climax where she fears that she may have played some part in Ali’s disappearance.  And, remember that essay of Melissa’s Spencer stole and turned in as her own in Flawless?  Well, her economics teacher nominated the essay for a national award, bringing Spencer all kinds of unwanted attention and fresh anxiety about her plagiarism being exposed.  Like Hanna, Spencer wants to appear flawless and perfect, but she’s anything but.  While that’s happening, Emily keeps going back and forth about her relationship with Maya.  Then, just when it seems like she has accepted her attraction to Maya and wants to be with her, “A” outs Emily’s relationship to everyone at a swim meet, including Emily’s parents, who threaten to send Emily to live in Iowa if she doesn’t go through a program that is intended to “rehab” her back into heterosexuality.  Finally, things have gotten bad for Aria in this novel.  Her mother throws her out of the house and so she goes to live with her new boyfriend Sean’s family, but then Ezra decides he wants to try again, only that doesn’t really end well either. There’s a moment where Aria has nowhere to go, not even home.  Throughout and in more ways than one, Shepard plays with the plot of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which Aria’s AP English class is reading, and it’s kind of brilliant.

I try to keep these reviews to 1000 words and I’m almost out of space, but if you’re at all interested in what you’ve read here, pick up the first book in this series and give it a read.  I feel like I’m consuming these books and I’m totally okay with that.  The next book, Unbelievable, is already on my bookshelf. What I love about this series is that the characters are well-developed and there are so many social issues in play–sexuality, family dynamics, the pressures on young adults to succeed academically and in sports, the secrets we keep and why we keep them, the meaning of friendship, eating disorders, the social dynamics of high school, and even the behavior of “A” can be read as bullying.   Plus they are just fun to read and because the point-of-view of each chapter switches so that we get the story from a different girl’s point-of-view, I’m totally pulled into the lives of all four characters and can’t wait to see what will happen next.

review: the sea of monsters

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan (2006)

The Sea of Monsters is the second book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (following The Lightning Thief).  I think this series belongs to the “middle grade” genre of children’s literature, but don’t let that put you off.  Adult readers will enjoy this book, too, and if you are a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden files, I think you will really like this series.

Because this is the second book in a series, some background is necessary.  Percy Jackson learns that he is half-god, half-human (a demigod, a half-blood, a hero).  In The Lightning Thief, a satyr named Grover finds Percy and takes him to Camp Half-Blood and Chiron, the centaur who is effectively the Camp Director.  The camp has twelve cabins, one for the children of each Greek god on Olympus.  Children who have been claimed by their parents live in their assigned cabin with their half-siblings, while children who haven’t been claimed live in Hermes’ cabin until their parentage becomes known.  When Percy arrives at Camp Half-Blood, his parent is unknown, but eventually he is claimed by Poseidon.  This is good, but it also complicates matters for Percy and results in another layer of isolation—Poseidon is one of the “Big Three” gods (along with Zeus and Hades) and together they made a pact after World War II not to sire any more children.  Percy’s existence demonstrates that Poseidon broke the pact, but further still, Percy is the only child of Poseidon at camp.  This means that he lives in the Poseidon cabin all alone, and he has to learn what special abilities he has on his own.  Percy’s other best friend is Annabeth, a daughter of Athena.  She is smart and knowledgeable, and she has also been appointed by Chiron as a kind of protector for Percy, who could possibly be the child named in a prophecy that has yet to be revealed to us as readers.

The story opens on Percy’s last day of seventh grade.  He has made it through the entire school year without getting expelled or into any serious trouble, and he’s looking forward to rejoining his friends at Camp Half-Blood on the following day, and spending the summer there.  At breakfast, though, his mother hints that all things are not right at camp, and that maybe it isn’t safe there for Percy.  While in gym class near the end of the day, Percy is attacked by giants.  Through the help of his new friend Tyson and the well-timed arrival of Annabeth, Percy manages to survive and escape with his life.  As the trio flees Percy’s school and travels to Camp Half-Blood, Annabeth fills Percy in on what has been happening at camp in his absence.  Thalia’s tree, which holds the spirit of Thalia, a daughter of Zeus, has been poisoned; consequently, the borders of the camp that prevent mortals and monsters from entering camp are eroding.  When the three arrive at Camp Half-Blood, they find Clarisse leading the campers against the latest monster threat—brass bulls.  The bulls are defeated and Percy learns what else has changed at Camp Half-Blood: Chiron has been fired because of suspicions that he was the one who poisoned the tree, and Tantalus, the new activities director, shows little interest in the campers’ welfare.  Another surprise for Percy is learning that Tyson—the homeless boy he grudgingly befriended during the school year—is in fact a Cyclops. Annabeth reveals to Percy that Cyclopes are the children of one god in particular—Poseidon—thus making Tyson Percy’s half-brother.  Percy is upset by this news because Cyclopes are looked upon with disgust by the half-bloods, and his friendship and now family tie to Tyson makes Percy the outsider once again.  He’s conflicted throughout the story because he wants to defend Tyson, who has saved his life on more than one occasion, but he also wants to deny that they are related and put as much distance between them as possible.  As Percy says himself, he’s not only embarrassed by Tyson, but ashamed of him, too.  This inner conflict is one that he struggles with until the end of the story.  Finally, there’s Grover, who left on a quest at the end of The Lightning Thief.  At the beginning of The Sea of Monsters, he establishes a mental link with Percy so that they can communicate in Percy’s dreams.  Grover has been captured by Polythemus (a Cyclops) and is being held on an island in the Sea of Monsters.  Grover also reveals that the Golden Fleece is on the island.  These three story lines—the peril of Camp Half- Blood, the need to rescue Grover, and the revelation of the location of the Golden Fleece—set up the adventure that Percy, Annabeth, Tyson, and Clarisse (daughter of Ares) will follow for the rest of the book. 

This is one of my recommended books.  This book weaves together the quest story, the adventure story, and the coming of age story, and while doing that it gives us the inner conflicts of a thirteen-year-old kid and wonderful character development.  The first-person narrative style lets us identify with Percy while also seeing the errors in his ways so that we are thrilled when he grows from his experiences. Yes, the novel relies upon the conventions of the genre—isolated hero, intelligent female friend, the old and wise mentor, the shadowy villain in the background and the one that does his bidding—but it’s not predictable, even when we are familiar with the myths that are retold and reworked within the story. The book is successful because it tells a story that readers of all ages can connect with, and isn’t that what makes a good book? The series is successful because it makes me want to read the next installment.  Give this series a try and then give it to a child to read. I think you’ll be glad that you did. 

 

 

 

book review: sandman slim

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (2009)

I’m worried that I’m about to sound like a broken record, but I’m not going to let that stop me.  Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is the first novel in an urban fantasy series.  Yes, another first novel in a series.  If you haven’t caught on yet, I like serial fiction.  When I finished this book I looked up when it was published.  When I learned that it was published in 2009, I wondered how it was that I hadn’t heard of this series before.  I’m glad I found it.

Sandman Slim follows the story of James Stark.  For the last eleven years, he has been in Hell, sent there by friend turned enemy Mason Faim.  Stark and Mason are magicians, and it is through a magic ritual that Mason sent Stark to Hell eleven years ago.  Learning of the recent murder of his girlfriend, Alice, Stark resolves to escape from Hell and return to take vengeance against Mason and the rest of the Circle that helped send Stark away years ago.  Thus, the novel follows your basic revenge plot pattern; although the plot is familiar, it’s not stale or predictable or like every other revenge plot that some series begin with.  Kadrey gives readers something familiar, but he doesn’t stop there.

One of the things that made me pick this book up and give it a try was that the back cover said it was in the noir tradition, and that’s a description I would agree with.  The story is told in first-person, and so we follow Stark through the whole novel and only know what he knows, and only when he knows it.  Stark narrates in present tense, which is something of a shock when you start reading, but it never turns into a distraction and after a while you’re simply used to it.  This device makes the story feel like it is happening now, right there and then.  The first-person narrative style is a great choice for this novel because it allows readers to see all the different sides of Stark, from his reflections on his experiences in Hell and how they changed him to his feelings for Alice, which show why he is so motivated to avenge her death and won’t stop until he has succeeded.  Stark is an engaging and compelling narrator and character, and one of the novel’s strengths is that the story stays with him the entire time.  He is always on stage, and his narration makes it hard to look away.

Like a lot of first novels in a series, the supporting characters must be introduced and their relationships with the protagonist have to be fleshed out.  Kadrey has surrounded Stark with a (mostly) strong supporting cast.  Each of the supporting characters is different, and perhaps with the exception of Medea Bava, none seems cliché or just another example of a specific character type.  The strongest of the cast are Vidocq, a Frenchman who achieved immortality seemingly by accident, Carlos, owner of a bar called Bamboo House of Dolls, Doc Kinski, who heals Stark’s injuries and whose true identity and nature puzzles Stark (this is revealed at the end of the novel), Candy, a “Jade” who is in a kind of twelve-step program with Kinski to keep her from preying upon humans, and Muninn, a kind of collector or procurer of things for his clients.  These are the strongest supporting characters because they are interesting in themselves and they also highlight and emphasize different parts of Stark’s character.  As a reader, I found myself wanting to know more about each of them and hoping that they would make it out alive and become recurring characters.  I imagine that other characters introduced here will also make appearances from time to time as the series progresses—such as Aelita, an angel and Wells, an agent with Homeland Security—and it’s not revealing too much to say that Lucifer makes an appearance as well.  So I have to say that the major and minor characters in the novel add depth and interest to the story.

As I have said elsewhere, the first book in a series should make readers want to pick up the second book, and Sandman Slim definitely succeeds in achieving that purpose.  Halfway through the book I was purchasing the next book in the series.  I was completely drawn into the world that Kadrey builds and the way he characterizes Los Angeles in the style of noir detective fiction, portraying the underbelly of the city that is rife with corruption and crime, betrayal is a given because most of the individuals within this world have no sense of loyalty or community, and beautiful surfaces hide ugliness and decay.  One of the things Kadrey does well is place his protagonist in the in-between space, making him morally ambiguous as well as ostracizing Stark from any place where he might feel he belongs.  This reinforces Stark’s isolated position and loner status, but it is from this position that he draws strength and the wherewithal to get the job done.  Like so many hardboiled detectives, Stark has his own code of ethics.  They aren’t traditional or what most would consider moral or even “right”, but he has his code and he stands by it.  All of these things—the first-person narration, the supporting cast of characters, and the convincing fictional world—make this novel succeed and give me hope that the next novels will build on the strengths of Sandman Slim.

I have had a difficult time finishing novels lately because so much of what I start is all the same and I quickly lose interest.  That was definitely not the case with Sandman Slim.  I was drawn in from the beginning and kept turning the pages.  I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and noir detective fiction and to anyone who is looking for a new series to sample.

review: the talented mr. ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

I’m not exactly sure what my expectations were before I started reading The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, and I haven’t seen the 1999 film version with Matt Damon and Jude Law, so I didn’t already “know” the story.   What I can say is that I am glad I have discovered Patricia Highsmith and whatever my expectations were, I wasn’t disappointed.

The story follows Tom Ripley, a twenty-three year old man basically living in poverty in New York City. Tom is homeless, jobless, and practically friendless.  He’s an orphan who was raised by his father’s sister, but they do not have a good relationship and Tom does not like her.  She sends him checks for strange dollar amounts, and though Tom despises the crumbs that she sends him, he is also financially dependent on them.  Tom is a small-time con artist, and at the beginning of the story he is engaged in IRS tax fraud.  He’s paranoid that his petty crimes will be discovered, as evidenced on the first page, where he notices a man following him.  He wonders if the police have come to arrest him, but the man introduces himself as Herbert Greenleaf.  Mr. Greenleaf has been told that Tom and his son, Dickie, were friends prior to his son leaving the States and travelling abroad in Europe.  It is upon this friendship that Mr. Greenleaf eventually comes to ask Tom if he will go to Italy, where Dickie is currently living, and convince him to come home.  Dickie’s father owns a boat-building company and his mother is suffering from leukemia.  Dickie’s father wants his son to come home, take his place in the company as the heir-apparent, and live a “normal” life rather than the life of an expatriate artist.  Tom ultimately agrees to try to help Mr. Greenleaf and travels to Italy.  The first meeting between Tom and Dickie is awkward because they weren’t really good friends to begin with. Also, Dickie has developed a close relationship with Marge Sherwood, another American expatriate.  Tom likes and admires Dickie and wants to be his friend.  Tom looks a lot like Dickie—they are the same height and just about the same weight.  They have the same color hair and facial features.  Tom could be Dickie’s doppelganger.  Indeed, this is one of the tropes Highsmith’s novel turns upon—Tom as Dickie’s dark double who slowly begins to unravel then rewrite Dickie Greenleaf’s life.

Highsmith has crafted a wonderful anti-hero in Tom Ripley.  Tom is indeed talented—he adapts quickly, has a capacity for languages, is a consummate observer, is good with numbers, and can employ logic and reason even in the most stressful situations.  Tom went to New York because he wanted to be an actor.  That dream wasn’t realized in the States, but the life he lives in Italy gives him the opportunity to become an actor and perform for his imagined audiences.  It is perhaps the constant drive to perform that causes his thing with mirrors.  Yes, Tom Ripley has a thing with mirrors.  You can’t help picking up on this as you read the first few chapters (and I wonder if this is something the film develops).  He is always checking himself out in a mirror, looking at his clothes, his facial expression, the carriage of his body.  Along with being able to play different roles as necessary, Tom can invent plausible stories (read: lies) for the police and for others in his life as necessary; Tom believes that they are true and because of this, he is able to convince others that what he is saying is true.  No one ever seems to call Tom on any of his lies.  The other thing about Tom is that he has, until arriving in Italy, lived on the fringes and margins of society. Financial stability isn’t something he’s ever known, and one of the statements the novel is making is that the structure of society alienates and isolates men like Tom Ripley and forces them to extreme measures.  Thus, Tom views his actions as being done out of necessity, and this adds complexity to his character because as readers, we have enough distance from Tom that we don’t completely identify with him but not so much distance that we can’t sympathize with him.  Is Tom Ripley a sociopathic anti-hero? Absolutely, but that only makes him more interesting.  I’ve read statements that Tom Ripley is one of the great anti-heroes in literature and I completely agree with that statement.  He may be amoral and his actions are unconscionable, and yet…he frustrates attempts to fully condemn him, and I think that says more about me as a reader than anything else.

Though the focus of the novel remains primarily upon Tom, the character of Marge Sherwood draws my attention, too.  As a supporting character, Marge is obviously intended to be a source of conflict and antagonism for Tom.  She is also intended to highlight certain aspects of Tom’s character and thereby increase his complexity and reveal his motives.  I wonder, though, if Marge was intended to be somewhat autobiographical, too.  She is an American woman living in Europe and writing a book, and from what I know of Highsmith’s biography, she likely had similar experiences.  Marge exists on the margins of the novel; on the one hand, she’s an example of the growing opportunities available to women (like Dickie, she is travelling abroad and living alone in Europe while engaging in a form of artistic expression she hopes to turn into a career) but on the other hand, she is completely deceived by Tom. Again, she’s not the main character of the story but her placement in the novel intrigues me and makes me wonder what Highsmith might have been trying to say through her character.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I definitely recommend it to readers who like suspense, tension, and well-drawn characters in their fiction.

review: persuasion

Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)

Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last completed novel, and it was published alongside Emma after her death.  Last novels have always had a special interest for me, and Persuasion is no exception.  This is the third novel that I’ve read by Austen (and it’s worth noting that I read Austen for the first time last spring at about this time), and although my introduction to the author has come much later than most people I know, I definitely understand why so many readers adore her works.  I loved Emma, but Persuasion has become my new favorite.

Like Northanger Abbey and Emma, at its most basic level, Persuasion offers its readers the typical early 19th century marriage plot.  The protagonist and heroine of the novel is Anne Elliot.  Anne is the second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, her older sister is Elizabeth (identical in opinions and temperament to her father and his favorite) and her younger sister is Mary, who has already married into the Musgrove family who dwell at Uppercross.  No one in Anne’s family cares much about what she thinks or feels or wants, nor do they really consider her existence or her worth until she can be of some use to them.  Her mother died when she was fourteen, and so Lady Russell, a close friend of the family, has become a mother-figure for Anne. Unlike Catherine and Emma, Anne is not in the first blush of youth; instead, she is twenty-seven years old at the beginning of the novel, and she has already experienced disappointment and pain in love.  When Anne was nineteen she met and fell in love with Captain Wentworth and they became engaged; but Anne was persuaded by Lady Russell to call off the engagement because Wentworth had neither fortune nor class status equal to Anne’s.  Lady Russell persuades Anne that such a match would be a mésalliance, and that Anne would be needlessly throwing herself away.  The result is that Anne loses her bloom, Captain Wentworth goes off to naval service, and the two do not meet each other again for eight years.  The work of the novel is to overcome the intervening years so that Anne and Captain Wentworth can be finally united in love and marriage.

But there’s more to catch a reader’s interest in the novel than the marriage plot.  Another thing that is typical of an Austen novel is the preoccupation with and social commentary on the rigid class structure and class consciousness of 19th century England.  One of the wonderful scenes in the novel occurs when Austen, through Anne, challenges the ways in which male writers have been privileged to label women (here women are labeled as inconstant and fickle), without women having any ability or privilege to challenge those labels or form their own identities.  Also, those characters who are the most class conscious and concerned with issues of precedence based upon one’s position in society are revealed to be the most worthless members of society.  Men who are preoccupied with knowing only “gentlemen” and the landed gentry and nobility show that though appearances and titles identify them as gentlemen, they fall very very short of what an English gentleman should be (at least, in Austen’s opinion).  Austen is most scathing in her critique of Sir Walter’s selfishness, his idleness, and his financial insolvency arising from his sense of entitlement and necessity to enjoy all that he feels baronets are entitled to enjoy, regardless of his mounting debts.  All outward appearances indicate that Sir Walter is a gentleman, but everything beneath the surfaces provides undeniable evidence to the contrary.  Austen also aims her pen at the insistence upon precedence that determined a woman’s place within her family and within her society, and she embodies all that she sees as reprehensible in the character of Mary, Anne’s sister.  Indeed, with the exception of Anne, the entire Elliot family is held up as being the very picture of all that is wrong with the class of landed gentry in 19th century England, and Austen makes the case that although power and authority have resided in this class for decades, this class’s power and authority is no longer legitimate or even desirable, and it is significant that at the end of the novel, Anne Elliot withdraws from this old order in favor of the new order.

That new order is characterized by the rising professional class, specifically in this novel, the naval officers settling back into the domestic sphere as the war between England and France is nearing its conclusion.  In Austen’s view, these men—men like Captain Wentworth and his friends, Captain Benwick and Captain Harville, as well as Admiral Croft, who is currently renting the ancestral home of the Elliots, Kellynch Hall—comprise the legitimate center of power and authority.  These men actually have a positive and protective influence upon England, and rather than draining the country of its resources and concerning themselves with espousing and upholding a rigid class structure as a means of exclusion and flattering their vanity, they actually give something back to society.

There is something appealing about Anne Elliot as the protagonist and heroine of the novel whose constancy, intelligence, and goodness finally brings her the man she loved and lost at such a young age.  There is also something about Anne that resonates with me and that I can relate to and identify with, and maybe that’s why she is my favorite Austen heroine thus far. Though we don’t see Wentworth as much as perhaps I wanted, his words to Anne at the end and their reunion is just a feel good moment in the story.  Yes, you get the happy ending you’ve been expecting all along, but more importantly, that happy ending is deeply satisfying and actually evoked an emotional response from me.  Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely and definitely recommend it to readers who haven’t tried Austen or haven’t read Persuasion.

 

review: hounded

Hounded by Kevin Hearne (2011)

As much as I try to read what is already on my bookshelf or loaded onto my Kindle, there are times when I just want to buy a new, shiny book.  This is how I discovered Hounded by Kevin Hearne.  I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to read and I spent a while searching Earth’s biggest bookstore, but I eventually stumbled onto this book and it seemed like it might be what I was looking for, so I took a chance and splurged.  Hounded, the first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles, didn’t disappoint.

The protagonist is Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,100-year-old Druid who lives in Tempe, Arizona and runs an occult shop that sells, among other things, various kinds of teas.  He rides his bike to work, takes the time to chat with the elderly widow, Mrs. Donaghue, who lives on his street and does various tasks and yard work for her.  Mrs. Donaghue is Irish and feels a kinship with Atticus for that reason. He also has an Irish wolfhound named Oberon who he can communicate with telepathically.  The relationship between Atticus and Oberon is wonderful; it adds humor and emotion to the story.  These two relationships appear to be the most trusting, loyal, and important connections he has with others.  For centuries, Atticus has been hiding out from his archenemy, Aenghus Og, the god of love in Atticus’ pantheon of gods.  It turns out that over two thousand years ago, Atticus came into possession of a sword of power—Fragarach, the Answerer—and Aenghus has wanted it back ever since.  Indeed, that is the main plot of this book—Aenghus Og’s pursuit of Atticus and Fragarach, and the machinations he employs to get what he wants while Atticus, of course, spends his time trying to thwart Aenghus’ evil master plan.  True to the conventions of myths involving heroes and gods, Atticus is both helped and hindered by other gods within his pantheon, and also true to convention, the motives of those gods is sometimes suspect and self-interested.  Case in point, Atticus has a long history with the Morrigan, goddess of death, and Flidais, goddess of the hunt. In this book he meets Brighid, who is the current reigning god of the Fae realm.  As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that these goddesses are very willing to use Atticus as a pawn to achieve their own ends.

In addition to the supporting characters listed above, Atticus is friends with the local Tempe pack of werewolves, one of whom—Hal Hauk—is his attorney of record.  His other attorney—Leif—is a vampire, and at times, Atticus pays Leif’s attorney fees with a glass of his own blood, which of course, being 2,100 years old, carries lots of power.  Rounding out the supporting cast is Granuaile, a mysterious young woman who works in one of Atticus’ favorite watering holes and Malina Kosolowski, a witch in the local coven (and by the way, Atticus does not like or trust witches).  It seems to me that based upon the way Hounded ends, these two characters have the potential to become integral parts of the world that Hearne is creating.  In sum, one of the things I liked about this book is that as a first book in a series, it presents an interesting and, dare I say it, fresh cast of supporting characters that don’t feel like recycled character types and stories.  I also liked these characters and wanted to get to know more about each of them.  And although Atticus very much belongs in the category of loner, supernatural, long-lived protagonists, I don’t feel like he’s a carbon copy of every other male protagonist I encounter in urban sci-fi/fantasy.

I said this before in my review of Fated by Benedict Jacka, but one of the things I want from the first book in a series is for it to give me a reason to want to pick up the second book in the series straightaway.  While I didn’t feel that Fated was as successful as it could have been on that particular level, I do think Hounded succeeds without question.  The characters and the world that Hearne is building are appealing and engaging, and the pace of the novel was fast but not rushed or clumsy.  I had a hard time putting the book down when bedtime rolled around, and I couldn’t wait to pick it back up again after work.  I compare this book to Fated because it was the last first-book-in-the-series that I read, but the reality is that I tend to compare all books in this genre that feature a male protagonist to one of my favorite series—Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.  I doubt Harry and Atticus would get along, but I do think they would respect each other.  So many of the things I love about the Dresden series are present in the Iron Druid series, and that’s a compliment I haven’t paid to a book in a while.  I was inclined to pick up the next Alex Verus book to see how Jacka would continue to evolve his characters and his fictional world, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get my hands on the next installment.  My response to Hearne’s series is different in that I really do want to read the next installment and at this point, I can see myself consuming each book in rapid fashion if I don’t restrain myself.

If you enjoy the Harry Dresden books, or if you enjoy urban sci-fi/fantasy featuring strong male protagonists and good supporting characters that aren’t merely tools for advancing the action and creating tension and conflict, or if you enjoy serial fiction and are in the market for a new series, I would recommend sampling this first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles.  It’s not the same old, same old worn-out story with the same old, same old worn out characters.  It’s fun, light, and satisfying.