review: only love

Only Love by Melanie Harlow (2018)

Only Love is the third book in Melanie Harlow’s One and Only contemporary romance series. Each book in the series follows one of three sisters, Maren, Emme and Stella. I can tell you without reservation that Only Love can be read as a standalone book. I haven’t read the first two books in this series but wasn’t at all confused and I didn’t feel like I stumbled across any spoilers. This is the second book I’ve read by Melanie Harlow and I have to say—she knows how to write a romance novel. I think I liked After We Fall a little more (you can read my review of that book here) but I did enjoy Only Love and would recommend it to any reader who loves romance novels, especially the steamy variety. 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: hunted

Hunted by Kevin Hearne (2013)

Hunted is the sixth book in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles series, which features Atticus O’Sullivan, a two-thousand year old Druid.  If you haven’t yet discovered this series, I highly recommend it.  The first book in the series is Hounded.  There are spoilers below for readers who have not completed book five, Trapped.  You have been forewarned.

Hunted picks up right where Trapped left off.  If you need a reminder, goddesses Diana and Artemis are intent upon killing Atticus for ripping five Dryads from their trees in order to flee the wrath of Bacchus.  All of the Old Ways that would grant Atticus, Granuaile, and Oberon to flee to the alternate plane of Tír na nÓg have been blocked, and the trio are left to run–yes, run–across Europe as they are hunted by the goddesses.  Oh, and don’t forget that Loki has arisen and Ragnarok is on the eve of beginning. There is also still the matter of Theophilus, a Roman vampire who is directly responsible for the near extinction of Druids and wants Atticus and Granuaile dead.  There is also an enemy within the Tuatha Dé Danann who is intent upon ending Atticus.  Which is all to say there are a lot of enemies to run from and there is a lot going on in this book.  There are also two major deaths in Hunted, and though I have no intention of naming names, those events add an extra punch to the book and only raises the stakes even higher.  If you hadn’t felt it by the time Trapped ended, Hunted definitely leaves you with a sense that war is looming and worrying about whether all of our favorite characters will make it out alive.

From the first book in this series, one of its strengths have been Atticus’ voice as a first-person narrator.  He is two-thousand years old and yet up on all the current lingo and pop culture references of the day, while at the same time he can quote passages from Shakespeare and Dante at will and make them applicable to his current situation in a way that makes those writers accessible to the typical reader.  His view on life and the human condition, particularly during the more philosophical passages of his narrative, are what give the series depth and have made it resonate with me as a reader; they are also likely some of the reasons why I’m so invested in Atticus, his adventures, and how all of this is going to play out.  The internal by-play between him and Oberon, his Irish wolfhound, adds another rich layer to the narrative, and I laughed out loud when Oberon made a direct reference to one of my favorite films (and books, for that matter) of all time, The Princess Bride.  All of this makes it even more notable when Hearne elects to diverge from Atticus’ first person narrative and allow us to see some of the action through Granuaile’s first person point-of-view.  Granuaile’s voice is significantly different from Atticus’.  More serious in tone, I think, and though she communicates her rapturous joy with being a new Druid connected to the Gaia and the earth, there’s a certain gravity in her narrative tone that is missing from Atticus’.  I have not yet figured out the meaning of this–or if there is a reason at all–other than that Hearne wants to show how becoming a Druid and being in all of these life and death situations with Atticus on top of standing on the brink of war right beside has changed her.  Atticus himself makes note of this change at one point in the book, just in case we missed its importance, and this is an aspect of Granuaile’s character development that also bears keeping on our eyes on as we enter the final three books of this series.  Of course, I really wanted to read this through my literary gaze, the emergence of Granuaile’s voice in the narrative is quite possible connected to her transformation into a Druid as well as her importance to the events unfolding and a signal that she, too, has a role to play in what is to come.

The book’s title is a strong theme that carries throughout the novel, and it is not only Atticus who reflects on the feeling of being hunted, but so does Granuaile.  Although the Olympians are hardly friends by the end of the book (more like frenemies), there appears to be no end to the number of people who want to help Atticus into the hereafter.  Even in the book’s climactic showdown, Atticus is in the position of being the hunted.  Though I must admit that I didn’t recognize the showdown for what it was. When I got to the Epilogue, I thought to myself, wait, that was the end?  It felt anticlimactic, especially when compared to the previous novels in the series, but again I attribute this to the fact that it is the end of the second movement of the series.  The showdown scene provides plenty of information but nothing that truly illuminates one of the challenges looming on the horizon–that being who among the Tuatha Dé Danann is plotting against Atticus? I can’t help wondering if I’m the only reader who anticipates a really surprising ugly betrayal in Atticus’ near future?

As is always the case when I finish a book in this series, I’m definitely looking forward to the next installment.  From everything I’ve read, this is going to be a nine-book series, and I will be sad when it is finished but plan to enjoy what is left and all that is to come.  I can only say that I’m expecting an epic conclusion and sincerely hope Hearne doesn’t let me down (yes, I’m looking at you Dead Ever After).  The next book in the series, Shattered, is already on my bookshelf and given what happens at the very end of the book–the surprise introduction of a character I never would have imagined popping up–I am positive it will be quite entertaining.

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: 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: 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: high fidelity

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995)

An intriguing fun fact: High Fidelity is a first novel.  I read Juliet, Naked last year and thought it was okay but not great, and got about halfway through A Long Way Down before putting it down and never picking it back up.  I have wanted to love a Nick Hornby novel, and finally High Fidelity has filled that particular (strange?) bibliophilic desire.  I loved this novel.  Loved it.  The question I asked myself after finishing it was why had it taken me so long to read it?

The story is told through the first-person narrative of Rob Fleming, a 35-year-old bachelor who has just broken up with longtime girlfriend, Laura.  The first part of the novel, the “THEN” part, reads like a kind of prologue, in which Rob lists his top five breakups.  This part imagines Laura as the intended reader or as though he’s speaking directly to her.  Rob is emphatic in his declaration that Laura doesn’t make this list, but methinks the man doth protest too much.  Chapter One then begins the “NOW” section of the novel, and one of the interesting things about it is that it is written in present tense.  It’s like we’re in Rob’s head, hearing his thoughts and listening in on his conversations as they happen.  The memories of his top five breakups drive Rob into sustained self-reflection as he tries to work out why those relationships didn’t work out, even as he is trying to make sense of his relationship with Laura.

Rob also owns a record store (yes, actual records) called Championship Vinyl.  Even as he is thinking about his past, his present, and his future in terms of romantic relationships, he is also reflecting on where he is professionally.  His store is on the edge of failing, and he’s not sure that he wants to save it.  He feels that his professional life is a failed relationship and uninterrupted inertia.  Rob is drifting through life but going nowhere, and yet at the same time he’s stuck in place, unable to move forward or let go of the past.  Although he loves music, he continues to ask himself if listening to pop music makes him miserable, or if he’s miserable because he listens to pop music.  He meditates on the power of film, music, and fiction to shape our identities and expectations, and he recognizes, too, that such creative arts provide individuals with a way of expressing emotions that they can’t otherwise put into words.  Rob’s incessant penchant for making top 5 lists is driven by his inability to express himself in any other way.

I taught this novel in one of my literature courses, and I suggested to my students that one of the primary themes of the novel is letting go.  This to me is one of the main sources of tension in the novel.  Rob has held onto these breakups and allowed them to define him and his point of view, but ultimately he has to let go of the regret, the pain, and the misunderstandings because if he doesn’t, he’ll never be able to move forward and have a successful relationship.  I also don’t think that Rob’s age is a coincidence.  He’s definitely having a mid-life crisis, but what gives the narrative so much power and force is that it’s painfully, unflinchingly honest.  Rob isn’t one of those self-deluding, unreliable narrators.  He doesn’t censor himself out of some fear of discovering something within or about himself that he doesn’t want to face.  The narration is wildly funny at times and I laughed aloud on numerous occasions to the point that my eyes started watering, but at the same time I felt myself identifying with his uncertainty and disillusionment.  One of my students said that Rob is lost, and I totally agree, and the narrative is that much more affecting because I know exactly how that feels.  Rob is like so many of us who is just trying to figure out how he got where he is and where does he go now? Where does he belong and will there be an end to the loneliness he feels or will he finally find love, happiness and a lasting relationship.  There’s nothing particularly special about Rob but I was completely invested in his story and how it was all going to end.

Now, don’t get the wrong impression.  Rob is far from perfect.  He’s misogynistic, selfish, self-absorbed and egotistical.  He’s that person in your life who thinks his taste in music is superior to yours.  He’s a flawed character, and there’s no getting around it.  But…but in spite of his flaws I liked him and wanted him to finally figure it all out and make the “right” choices so that he might be able to have the happiness he wants so much.  Would I want to date Rob Fleming? Probably not. Do I see a lot of him in myself? Absolutely.  This is good and bad, but in the end it makes him a realistic and completely believable character.

Is it okay if I repeat that I loved this book? I loved this book, and I wonder if part of this is because I’m close to Rob’s age and closely identified with his character.  It’s my opinion that the effect a book has on us is sometimes dependent upon where we are in our lives when we read them.  I’m not sure that my reaction to this book would have been the same if I had read it five years ago, much less ten years ago, and so maybe it’s okay that I’m just now reading it for the first time.  Still, I highly recommend this book.  It’s a wonderful first novel that has a lot of energy, humor, and hope.  High Fidelity is definitely on my top five list of favorite reads of 2012.

review: mort

Mort by Terry Pratchett (1987)

Mort is the first book in the Death story arc of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and the fourth book in the series overall.  If you’re new to the Discworld series, I highly recommend reading the books in publication order (though some readers will recommend reading each story arc in chronological order).  I also recommend referring to this chart that maps out where each book falls in the various story arcs within the Discworld series.   As you might have guessed from the title, the story follows the adventures of Mort, a young boy whose father thinks he spends too much time reading and thinking.  Mort’s father decides to send him out to be an apprentice and learn a trade, mostly because he doesn’t know what else to do with him since reading and thinking skills aren’t desirable in their agricultural community.  Together, Mort and his father go to the market where those wanting to be an apprentice and those looking for an apprentice meetup.  The market day ends at midnight, and at just a few minutes before the close of the market Mort is the only one who hasn’t been selected.  Then, in rides Death, who happens to be looking for an apprentice.  Of course, Death finds Mort’s name to be entirely appropriate, but as the story unfolds, no one calls Mort by his name.  Indeed, that is one of the running jokes throughout the novel and yet it is significant when the people in Mort’s life begin calling him by his name, but I won’t spoil that for you.

Since this is the starter novel in the Death story arc, it is appropriate that we learn some interesting things about Death.  He has a permanent smile on his face, it makes him angry when someone drowns kittens, his black steed is named Binky, he can operate and exist outside of Time, and he has a daughter whose name is Ysabell.  Perhaps most interesting is that Death cannot create anything, he can only copy something that already exists.  The fact that Death cannot experience any human emotions is equally important.  What Pratchett has done in this novel is put a spin on the “Death takes a holiday” motif, but he does more than that.  Death not only wants to take a few days off, he also wants to understand human emotions.  He already understands the appreciation for food—he murders a curry at the start of the novel—but he also wants to experience things like fun and drunkenness, and he also wants to know what it would be like to have a friend, to not always be avoided, hated, and ignored.  Pratchett masterfully imbues Death with all the qualities that we as humans feel toward death—such as not wanting to talk or think about it and desiring to avoid it at all costs—and then shows us how Death responds to being alienated in such a way by everyone in society.  Death is the ultimate pariah, and as the story progresses what he searches for is a release from that condition.  Death just wants to be like everyone else.

But as Death takes a holiday and becomes more and more unwilling to go back to the Duty that is his, someone has to do Death’s job, and the Duty falls upon his bumbling and completely engaging apprentice, Mort.  Mort goes out each day to escort the souls of the departed to their final resting places, but of course there is one person he can’t bear to see die—the young Princess Keli.  He doesn’t complete the Duty in her case but instead brings death to her would-be assassin.  In doing so, however, he throws Reality and History into chaos.  It was fated that the princess would die in that assassination attempt, and though she is very much still alive, everyone in the kingdom believes she is dead and consequently, even though they see her, seeing her makes them uncomfortable and they immediately forget her when they look away because History has already declared that she died in the assassination attempt.  Thus, one of the main threads of the story arises from Mort finding a way to fix Reality.  Just as the thread of the plot surrounding Death encourages readers to think about how they view death, Mort’s thread of the plot prods readers to think about how our perspectives on History and Reality can be manipulated and to ask ourselves the question: is the future really set in stone?  Is History set in stone or is it malleable and changeable?

Mort definitely falls into the category of satire, but it’s also just a fun, entertaining, and amusing read.  Mort and Death shine as the main characters, and the supporting cast of characters is quirky and well-developed.  I came to have strong opinions about Princess Keli in particular, and I loved that Rincewind (from the Rincewind story arc and whose adventures we follow in the first and second novels in the series—The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, respectively) made an appearance in the last quarter of the story.  I’m reading the novels in publication order and this one is definitely my favorite so far.  The blend of the hero’s journey, the star-crossed lovers plotline, and Death’s quest to find meaning in his life create a wonderful tale that kept me turning the pages.  I would definitely recommend this book to readers who have yet to discover the Discworld series and readers who like reading in the science fiction/fantasy genre.  I also recommend this book to readers who are skeptical of the sci/fi genre because to say that that is all this book is would be to do it an incredible disservice.  It may be set on the Discworld, but there’s a lot that we can learn from the Discworld about our own world and ourselves.

review: a scanner darkly

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (1977)

It’s taken me some time to write this review.  I like to start these reviews by giving a brief synopsis of the novel, but getting down in one short paragraph what this novel is about has been a challenge.  A Scanner Darkly follows the story of Fred, an undercover narcotics agent living in Southern California.  Fred’s true identity is supposed to be a secret from everyone, even his handler at the police department, Hank.  In order to maintain his anonymity, Fred meets Hank in a “scramble suit” that continuously scrambles his exterior features, obtaining such characteristics as eye and hair color and other facial features from a database containing millions of possibilities.  Fred’s job is to gather information on and eventually bring to justice various drug dealers, specifically those who deal in Substance D, which alters a person’s brain to the point that it separates his or her left and right hemispheres and ultimately leads to brain death.  Early in the narrative, Hank tasks Fred with the job of conducting surveillance on a man that the police believe may be a major player in the Substance D drug trade—Bob Arctor.  Bob Arctor shares a house with two other “heads”—Barris and Luckman—and he has an unrequited love for Donna, also a drug addict.  The wrinkle is that Fred is Bob Arctor, and so his job is to conduct surveillance on himself.  In his identity as Bob Arctor, he is also addicted to Substance D.  As the narrative unfolds, Fred begins to suffer the effects of Substance D to the point that he forgets that he and Arctor are one and the same person.  One of the primary means of surveillance are “holo-scanners” and as Fred begins to watch the surveillance tapes from the scanners, he comes to see Bob Arctor—the man in the surveillance tapes—as his dark image.  It is in this way that Dick plays upon the biblical verse from I Corinthians 13 which talks of seeing “through a glass darkly.”

The wonderful thing about A Scanner Darkly is that it is making meaning on so many different levels.  On one level, it is a social commentary on how drug addicts are perceived in our culture.  Dick is exploring the ways in which drug lords are able to manipulate supply and demand in order to make money and how these drug lords ruthlessly profit from their customers, unconcerned about the life-altering affects of the drugs they push. While Dick’s commentary is on the drug trade, it can apply to so many other aspects of our contemporary life—pharmaceuticals is the first thing that comes to mind.  So this novel, though published in 1977, is still culturally relevant.

On another level, the novel is exploring questions of identity.  Fred is Bob Arctor, but his ability to remember that fact breaks down as the story progresses as a result of his addiction to Substance D.  His left and right hemispheres separate entirely and fail to communicate but instead compete with each other, so that Fred and Arctor—instead of working together to avoid capture—become adversaries.  In the last fifty pages of the novel or so, Fred receives another identity, and this further complicates his ability to know who he is as well as define his identity.  Another thing that complicates Fred’s identity is the scramble suit.  While wearing it, the image reflected in a mirror is not his own, further distorting his sense of his own identity.  For Fred, identity is fluid, changeable, and available for manipulation, and once he loses his identity as Bob Arctor, he effectively loses a part of himself.  Indeed, it seems as though Dick is playing with that “what if” question that Robert Louis Stevenson was playing with in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—what if we could divorce our “better” half from our “worse” half?  What would happen?  I wouldn’t call this a Jekyll and Hyde story, but shades of that story do resonate through A Scanner Darkly.

On still another level, A Scanner Darkly is a dystopian fiction.  The story itself is set in 1992, fifteen years in the future.  This device allows Dick to imagine how a drug as deadly and widely abused as Substance D could impact a society and have a forceful effect on the norms and values of that society.  It also acts as a cautionary tale and encourages the reader to consider how other addictions—chemical or not—effectively trap and keep its victim in bondage.

I picked up this book because I am in the early stages of planning an introductory level literature course for Spring 2013.  My initial title for the course is “From Page to Screen” and the course would give students the chance to read the text upon which its film counterpart was based.  I’m not sure I would have picked this book up otherwise, but I’m glad that I did.  Dick’s narrative style here is perfectly suited to the story that he’s telling.  We get the story (mostly) through Fred’s perspective, and as his brain begins to suffer the effects of Substance D and his ability to discern his full reality disintegrates, so too does his ability to narrate in a coherent fashion break down.  It doesn’t go into stream of consciousness, but it does alter, and as a reader I felt my own level of confusion at the same time that Fred himself (or Bob Arctor) was also confused about what was happening.  He loses the ability to know what is real and what isn’t, and as readers, we experience the same difficulty.  For me, that’s one of the things that makes this novel brilliant.

A Scanner Darkly is definitely one of my Recommended Reads.  I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, but I do think it will make you think, and isn’t that one of the things a good book should accomplish?