Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood ****

I read Oryx and Crake quite a few years ago now.  It's about what happens to the world when the eventual day comes when there are too many people & most of them are living in a horrible state.  It's one of my favorite post-apocalyptic books.  So imagine my surprise when I opened up this book after buying it at a grab-bag sale at the library & seeing that this is the sequel.  Or rather a sort of prequel.  Or maybe just the same story, but told from different characters' views.  Whatever it is, I liked it.
This vision of what happens is from two women that somehow live through the "Waterless Flood"--the plague that kills most of humanity in the not-so-distant future.  The first is Toby, a woman that has lived the typical brutish American life of the future--has to drop out of college because her parents can't continue to pay for it, parents pass away, & she's left fending for herself in a very unfriendly world.  She works at Secret Burger, a fast food restaurant of that serves burgers made out of God-knows-what, hence the name.  But after Toby's boss assaults her repeatedly, she escapes to a different world, the world of the God's Gardeners.
Ren is a young woman who was raised with the God's Gardeners for most of her young childhood.  The cult/religion/survivalist group believes in being strict vegetarians & learning how to take care of themselves without any outside help.  They are waiting for the "Waterless Flood" to come, when the world will be wiped clean again by God & the Gardeners will rise up & take over the stewardship of the Earth just like Noah & his family.  They never write anything down, but memorize animal names & celebrate holidays like Saint Dian Fossey Day & Saint Euell Gibbons Day.  Ren came here with her mother when she left her father for Zeb, a man with a shady past but who knows how to take care of himself.  He teaches the Gods Gardeners how to survive on the gang-ridden violently corrupt streets & is Ren's father figure while she is young. 
The action mostly takes place after the Flood has killed off most of the human population.  Toby has survived by using the skills she's learned from the Gardeners & her own father.  Ren has survived only because she was on quarantine at the upscale brothel she works at as a dancer.  Both women flash back to how they've gotten to this point, & how they might possibly survive from this point on.
My only wish was that I'd more recently read Oryx and Crake so I could have put the puzzle pieces of this story together with the other better.  But suffice it to say I enjoyed this book without having done so. 
Disturbing yet hopeful, I highly recommend both books.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch ***

The idea is very intriguing--using your own family's history, write a mystery novel with your relatives as characters!  That's what Oliver Pötzsch did about his ancestors, the Kuisl's, a family of professional executioners.  Set in Bavaria in the 1600's, after the 30 Years War, Jakob Kuisl is the hangman for the town of Schongau.  When a group of children that played together start showing up dead, one by one, Jakob is charged with proving the local midwife innocent of the crimes.  With superstition, allegations of witchcraft, hidden treasure, & hired swords, the action is very intense & the plot thickens nicely.
I was excited to find Schongau in a modern German atlas that my husband has.  He's a high school German teacher, but more importantly he loves history, so when I told him where & when the story was taking place in the book he knew immediately that the 30 Years War was over, but that it had decimated Germany.  The whole area was left in poverty & ruin, & it took many years for the people of the area to get back to what their lives had been before the war.  The war had been very brutal & been fought on German soil, with many atrocities performed on both sides of the conflict.  He told me that many people, especially not from Europe, don't know anything about this war & why it was fought.  We think that the Protestant faith just came about when Martin Luther nailed his list on the door of the church, but that was just the beginning.  The 30 Years' War was the fight for control of Europe--would each country remain firmly Catholic, or would they become Protestant?
I liked the setting, the characters, & the action of the book.  My only personal, petty issue was that I was hoping for a bigger mystery in the end.  I was a little disappointed by the conclusion & found it lacking in believability, but overall it was a great read.  I don't know if I'll read any more of the books Pötzsch has since written about his famous ancestors (they seem to be a series of mysteries), but I definitely don't regret the time I spent reading this book.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Troubles by J.G. Farrell *****

My grandfather emigrated from Ireland when he was about 18 years old, came over on a ship in the 1920's.  His older brother was already here in the Midwest, & after he met my grandmother & settled down he opened a bar & grill.  He died when my mom was in her early 20's, before she'd even met my dad.  So I never met the man, but his presence has loomed large in my life none the less.  St. Pat's Day is always celebrated & I grew up hearing the usual stories about how awful it was in Ireland when he left & how the British were just devils over there.  Don't get me wrong, my family wasn't ever very political in regards to Ireland, but I think that idolizing of the IRA was pretty normal in the US back in the day. 
Troubles will have to go down as one of the most memorable books I've ever read.  I know for a fact that the characters will stay with me for a lifetime.  And most importantly it has forced me to look at Ireland in a different way, in a way that takes some of the righteous, rosy sheen off of it.
The year is 1919 & British Major Brendan Archer has just been released from the hospital with wounds he'd received fighting in The Great War.  He doesn't have any family left except an aged aunt, & maybe a fiancee...he's not sure.  He kissed the girl, Angela, when on leave in 1916 at a resort in England & she's written him quite faithfully the whole time ever since.  With no where else to go & much to forget, he decides to visit her in Ireland at the decaying resort her father owns:  The Majestic.
I'm not much of one for symbolism in literature--I know it's there, but I hate analyzing things that much.  But it's hard to ignore the symbolic people of this book.  The Major is the Young Englishman, the one that is reasonable & understands the inequality of living in Ireland at this turbulent time. 
Edward Spencer, Angela's father, is Old England personified.  He thinks the Catholic majority is barely better than animals, ignorant & useless.  He uses them, & is totally surprised when he finds that they have also used him.
Sarah Devlin, a local girl & friend of Angela's, is Ireland.  She is Catholic, quick-witted, at turns very charming & very cruel. 
The symbolism doesn't stop there-The Majestic itself is dying like the English in Ireland.  The vegetation trying to take over the whole building, but there is always a reminder that it was there.
I think the most important thing that has struck me about this book is the way that Ireland back then was populated by two kinds of people who both considered themselves Irish--the Catholic "natives" & the Protestant "usurpers".  Usurpers that had been there for over 400 years, yet were still separate.  They were a massive part of the society of Ireland for those 400 years, but their role was suddenly & violently removed back in the 1920's. 
I see an Ireland that was full of conflict by choice & bigotry.  It was, & while I was growing up it still was, nothing better than the conflict of Israel & Palestine.  I think because I'm American, that I was raised on the story that the "Old Country" was a wonderful place but for the damned Brits, that I'm surprised by the realization that neither side was "right".  Childish, I know, but sometimes it takes awhile to learn the full story.
A most excellent book, with far more to offer than what I can write here.  I recommend it to all.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt ****

I listen to NPR a lot in the car.  It's something I've started doing more the past couple years, I guess I'm growing up & want to know what's going on in the world more.  So one day I was driving home from work & they announced a new book for the Back Seat Bookclub.  I'd never heard of it before, but basically it's something I would have liked as a kid--they suggest new books for kids who like to read, & interview the authors.  Okay for Now was the book that day & the interview with Gary D. Schmidt was interesting.  But I forgot all about it when I got home.  As usual.
Then about a week later I was perusing the e-books that are available from our local library to borrow.  I love this very much cause I can't get overdue fees, they just disappear the book off my device!  (I have a chronic problem with getting books back to the library on time.  They've made so much money off me there they must glow with joy when I check out 10 books.)  Anyway, there was Okay for Now in the new arrivals.  And then the little light bulb went off & I remembered the interview & amazingly there was a copy available so I got it.
The story centers around Doug Swieteck, a 14 year old boy living in New York state during the Vietnam War era.  His family life is depressing--his father is an alcoholic, & he physically & emotionally abuses Doug, his older brother Christopher, & his mother.  His oldest brother Lucas is currently in Vietnam, but about halfway through the book he returns home without his legs & his vision at jeopardy.  Doug suffers from the usual adolescent problems, but they're compounded by the crushing responsibility he feels towards his mother's happiness & some other issues that aren't so apparent in the beginning of the book.  When the story opens his family is moving from Long Island to an upstate town called Marysville because of his dad being fired, & Doug's most cherished treasure, a ball cap that Joe Pepitone gave him, has been stolen by his brother Christopher.  As Doug tries to settle in to the new town, he discovers that the local library owns a copy of Audubon's The Birds of America.  He's fascinated by the artistry & is dismayed to find out that 9 of the precious plates have been cut from the book & sold in order to add to the meager funds of Marysville.  And there lies Doug's mission--to make the book whole again.
Overall I think this is a most excellent book for young teens.  It speaks directly to the troubles, both typical & not typical, that come from growing up.  As Doug blossoms in the book it brought me a great feeling of hope in the future, a hope that I'd like to think still comes to kids as they leave those difficult "awkward" years behind.  My only issue with the book was the overwhelming amount of issues that are addressed in it.  For example:  the Vietnam War, alcoholism, domestic violence, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, cancer, etc.  As an adult it was a little much, but I don't think younger readers will be dismayed by them.  Mr. Schmidt has broached a lot of topics that are good to introduce to young adults, & in the guise of an excellent story. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson & Sam Stall *****

Imagine, if you will, that you've survived two tours in Afghanistan.  Now imagine that you're working at a second-rate hotel in Houston as a glorified bell boy.  Now imagine that the GulfCon Star Trek convention has come to your hotel.  And now, to throw the cherry on top, imagine that everybody is turning into flesh-eating zombies.  And there you have it.  The funniest book I've read in awhile.
Jim Pike doesn't want to do any kind of job with any kind of responsibility ever again after loosing a couple men in Afghanistan.  But when the zombies attack Houston, Jim is left in a position where he has to do the right thing--kill the heck out of every walking dead he comes across.  Along the way he meets "Leia", a beautiful Amazon of a gal who happens to make extra money by dressing up as Princess Leia & making movies where Trekkies go off on Star Wars fans.  Also Gary, the ultimate Trek trivia buff; Willy, a member of a local red shirt league, & a massive Klingon that makes custom blades to sell to the followers of Trekdom.  Throw in also his younger sister who happens to be at the convention also, & you've got a rag-tag group of groupies fighting their way out of the hotel from hell.
Yes, you have to be a Star Trek fan to enjoy this book.  The constant references to the show are hilarious & on the mark every time.  I kept waiting for the story to fall apart, but it never did.  It remained excellent throughout.  I highly recommend it to anyone who loves the show (original, Next Gen, DS9, Voyager, even the cartoon), you will not be disappointed.  And I've gotten my new mantra to say to myself when times are tough:
"Now let's put aside your personal baggage and try to think about how Kirk would handle this."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens *****

A close second to Great Expectations as my favorite Dickens novel, I thought I'd re-read this gem since it's been at least 14 years since I have previously.  A couple things struck me this time, one being the horrible conditions in France for the poor at the time of the revolution.  If you really consider it for a moment, how bad would it truly have to be for a people that had never known another system of government other than monarchy to decide that they didn't care what they got, they just couldn't stand living the way they were anymore.  I know that Dickens wrote with a bit of British bias about the French, especially since England was scared to death at the time that it's populace would rise up against King George also.  I'm sure the average English peasant wasn't treated that much better than the average French one, though. 
Another observation is that the horrible inequality of the haves & the have-nots can be deadly.  It's hard not to compare, just a little, to what is going on in the US right now with the rich getting so much richer while the people with the least are treated more harshly all the time.  The debate as to whether the rich should be taxed more becomes pretty moot when the "huddled masses" are angry & downtrodden.  One quote stuck with me:
Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.  Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.
No, I don't think we're on the verge of an anarchistic revolution.  But I do think that our politicians need to remember why a certain government benefit is called Social Security--it keeps our society secure. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Misremembered Man by Christina McKenna ***

Two posts in one day!  Wooo hooo!  I'm trying to make up for some lost time here, since I've been a real slacker recently.  I got a new Kindle for my birthday this year (my old one had a very unfortunate accident that we won't mention...) & I was excited to see that if you join Amazon Prime you can access the Kindle Lenders Library, which means I can read one of those titles a month for free.  Pretty nice, especially since I've been locked out of my library account & can't borrow any ebooks at the moment (don't ask about that either, it's a long story involving fines.  I'm basically a mess right now.).  I didn't consider the titles, just went with the first one that looked decent to me & that's how I ended up with this book.
The setting is 1975 in rural northern Ireland & Jamie McCloone is mourning the loss of his beloved Uncle Mick.  At 41 years old he's rather set in his ways, but loneliness & the demons from his past force him to try to find some companionship.  Lydia Devine is tired of being her mother's keeper.  When an invitation to a school friend's wedding comes in the mail she realizes that finding a date for the event could be the beginning of a new life for her.  Both Jamie & Lydia's lives intersect when their well meaning friends suggest they look at the "Lonely Hearts" ads in the local newspaper.  With a series of comedic-& sometimes almost tragic-errors, the two lonely 40-somethings slowly make their ways towards each other.
The descriptions of loneliness & also of the hideous conditions in Irish orphanages are some of the best parts of this book.  It's painful to think of any child having to go through what the main character does as a child, but when you multiply that by 100's & realize that most of the orphans didn't ever get a forever home like Jaime did, you realize what a tragic place Ireland was for many people. 
I was a little irritated by what seemed to me like the stereotypical accents & typical characterizations of the characters, but that was easy for me to get over as I read the book.  Overall I recommend The Misremembered Man.  Not a great work of literature, mind you, but a touching story about family & finding them where you can.

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander ***

Again my apologies for taking so long to post.  Is it just me, or are blogs just not as popular anymore?  I think Facebook has taken a lot away from them, but in a way that's such a shame.  You only get a few characters on Facebook & there's really no way to adequately describe how you felt about a book on there.  But technology & life go on, & where Facebook now is I'm sure there will eventually be something new.  Things never stand still & change is always going to be there.  I guess I might as well make friends with it!
Goblin Secrets won the National Book Award for children's literature this past year, so I thought it would be a great choice to give a try.  I didn't find it great, but it was very interesting.  It takes place in an alternate world where I have to admit I get very confused.  There are goblins there, but their version of goblins aren't what I think most of us think of as goblins.  They used to be people, but were transformed somehow (it doesn't tell how that happens in the book) & most people fear them.  But they don't seem to do the humans in the book any harm, they simply are traveling performers.  There's a great deal of clock-work characters running around too, which was also rather confusing to me.  I think the most confusing thing right now is that it's been quite awhile since a read the book & I'm only left with vague impressions, & therefore can't really give a good description of what the book was really about. 
Yes, this is one lame review!  But I do hope that this doesn't deter anyone from reading the book.  Like I said, it wasn't bad, just very different.  It's kinda like reading a Tolkien book & entering Middle Earth in only about 100 pages.  Probably good for the younger set, if they can let go of their fetters & just enjoy the ride.