Saturday, April 30, 2011

Juniper Tree Burning

Juniper Tree Burning by Goldberry Long
Simon & Schuster, 2001
Hardcover, 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780743202039
highly recommended, reread

Jennifer Braverman was once named Juniper Tree Burning, and she hates that name. It represents the childhood she escaped: her hippie mother, Faith, caught up in mind-altering salvation; her well-meaning father, Ray, interchanging kiss and slap, and her sickly little brother, Sunny Boy Blue, whom she could not save. Jennie, now a successful adult, newly married to a seemingly perfect man, Christian Braverman, is a strong, fiercely intelligent woman. She has left Juniper Tree Burning behind. All of this changes when she learns of Sunny's suicide. Whether an act of despair or revenge, her brother's final message sends Jennie running from her husband. Part love story, part family saga, and part road trip, Juniper Tree Burning is the story of Jennie's mad dash across the mountains and plains of the American West, toward the site of Sunny's death.

My Thoughts:

Juniper Tree Burning by Goldberry Long is a novel about the psychotic break of a woman who has always been running from her family and her past, but now has to come to terms with her younger brother's suicide. Moving back and forth in time from when Juniper was young to the present, we see the dysfunctional hippy family life she experienced growing up as Juniper Tree Burning in contrast to her current life where she is known as Jennifer. Juniper's parents use her and her younger brother, Sunny Boy Blue, as pawns in their own troubled marriage.

Long moves effortlessly between the present and the past, using first and third person narratives, as the story slowly unfolds. She paints a vivid picture when describing her characters and the setting while more and more of the story is revealed.

Having first read Juniper Tree Burning after it was first released, this is a reread for me. I'll have to admit that the second time was not a charm in this instance. While it is still undoubtedly a very good novel, this time around it felt overly long and Jennifer/Juniper was not quite as compelling a character and became a bit tiresome.
Highly recommended - reread


I wasn't speaking to my brother, but he phoned anyway, hours before he went into the sea. I can couple this fact with what he Seattle policeman told me. opening

Before he kidnapped me from my own wedding reception, Sunny Boy Blue -- that little prick, that darling Backwards Boy -- he nearly skipped the Big Event altogether. He was scheduled for Christmas, but to the tune of my mother's tears, he missed his flight. Then he missed another, and it seemed that Russia was holding him back, like honey, or a fly trap. Alas, he pulled free with less than twenty-four hours to spare, time enough to wreak a little havoc, assassinate my New Year's Day, my birthday, my wedding day, all my big holidays clustered together, a gaggle of ducks waiting to be shot down by this drunken imposter flown in from Russia. By the reception dinner, I wished him dead. pg. 15

"The point!" the Brother announces to the room. "Juniper wants a point!" He leans over her shoulder and breathes his smoky vodka breath into her face. "Am I getting on your nerves? Am I pissing you off?"
She looks into his see-through eyes. She tells him no.
His nose touches hers. He whispers, "Liar, liar, Juniper Tree on Fire." He straightened. "The point," he said, raising his flask again. "To Juniper Tree Burning, the lovely bride!" I stared down at the boots he wore with his tuxedo, heavy black combat-issue storm troopers. He leaned around me and pointed the flask at Chris. "To her brave groom, Mr. Braverman."
"I'll drink to my bride," Chris said, raising his glass. "To the lovely Mrs. Braverman." He was smiling, playing along with the joke, only his eyes in my direction were checking on me, saying, I'm on your side, Cinderella.
Then Sunny looked straight at my groom. When he spoke, his voice was cold, sober, hateful. He said, "Here's hoping she doesn't leave you like she leaves everyone else." pg. 17

I have always known my rightful place in the world, which was not in New Mexico, not with my parents in a mud house without running water, and most of all, not with a name like Juniper Tree Burning. I was not meant to live like that. Even a kid knows when she's in the wrong place.
I wanted to be the bride. I wanted to fall backwards into the comfort of normalcy, like a child in the wilderness who nestles into the snow and sleeps. I don't understand those people who want to be outside the universe of the ordinary. I was the bride, and this was enough for me. It was not snow, but a featherbed, gloriously warm and safe: it was rest.
But Sunny would not allow me to rest. He kept pulling me back into the wilderness, calling me Juniper, trying to make me be what I am not. pg. 18

I am my father's daughter, and my father is the King of Leaving. So, almost nine months after this fiasco of a wedding, less than the time it takes to gestate a baby or finish a school year, this bride, this Jennie - on a lark, a whim - will leave the new husband behind of her very own volition. pg. 29

How far back is far enough? Where is the beginning of Sunny Boy Blue jumping into the sea? Can you ever find the moment, the second, the seed? pg. 51

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Friends of Meager Fortune

The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards
MacAdam/Cage, 2007
Hardcover, 377 pages
ISBN-13: 9781596921894
very highly recommended

Synopsis from Cover:
It's the mid-twentieth century and the Canadian lumber industry is dying. Only men who are strong in both body and spirit, men like Will Jameson, can lead the expeditions to harvest timber in the perilous mountain landscape. But when Will dies in a tragic accident, it falls to his younger brother, Owen, to take command.
Recently returned from military duty, Owen watches his war-hero status quickly fade as he becomes entangled in a triangle between Reggie, the man he saved on the battlefield, and Reggie's wife Camellia, the woman he desires. As the town turns against him and the logging expedition becomes more treacherous, Owen seems trapped in a destiny full of betrayal, love, envy, and jealousy.
My Thoughts:

"Betrayal is such a vicious sin, worse than the cauldron Dante put his sinners in." (pg. 303)

In The Friends of Meager Fortune, David Adams Richards returns to New Brunswick’s Miramichi Valley in the mid-twentieth century to explore gossip and betrayal in a small town that turns out to be just as treacherous as the Canadian lumber industry. It follows the Jameson family who own one of the last family-operated mills during the last days of the lumber industry - before it is taken over by mechanization and corporatization.

After establishing the setting and characters in The Friends of Meager Fortune (and readers will note that Meager Fortune is a man, introduced on page 92), Richards follows two storylines of betrayal: the rumor and scandal circulating through the town; and the danger facing the men logging through the winter at the Good Friday cut. David Adams Richards uses historical settings to further the exploration of archetypal human emotions. It is to his credit that I, who have never really had any interest in the Canadian logging industry, was as totally engrossed in the story of the men working through the brutal winter as with the rumors circulating in the town.

The Friends of Meager Fortune is mythical in its universal tale of fate. There are flawed heroes. There are far-reaching, terrible acts of betrayal. There are examples of human weakness. There are feats of superhuman strength. There is good among the evil. And, amidst all of this, there is a chorus of harpy-like townspeople, where rumor and gossip turn emotions and sentiments on a whim. Any one who has ever lived in a small town will understand how truly treacherous they can be, with public opinion easily swayed and quickly changing.

Now, I will mention that Richards’ books can feel overwhelmingly melancholy and there is usually a religious element present. In The Friends of Meager Fortune, Meager Fortune said of the evil men do: "That men have rid themselves of God, and are famished, and therefore do terrible things to make such famine go away." (pg. 333)

I can't help but wonder why more people aren't singing the praises of David Adams Richards. He is an incredible author and I am more and more impressed with his writing after each book I read. In fact, I have been purposefully acquiring his novels, but delaying reading each next book of his, not wanting it to be the last and alternately afraid it will not be as good. But each book has been just as good as the one before it. Perhaps the following quote offers some explanation:

"Its failure to win prizes rests mainly in the demands it makes of its readers. The book must be read slowly, intensely and repeatedly in a way that is common enough among everyday readers but becomes increasingly difficult for professionals at a time when too many trees give up too much life to mediocrities that will never leap into tongues of flame nor rise as pillars of smoke and carry our dreams with them." Prophetic and Retrospective by T.F. Rigelhof

Very Highly Recommended - one of the best


I had to walk up the back way, through a wall of dark winter nettles, to see the ferocious old house from this vantage point. A black night and snow falling, the four turrets rising into the fleeing clouds above me. A house already ninety years old and with more history than most in town.
His name was Will Jameson.
His family was in lumber, or was Lumber, and because of his father’s death he left school when just a boy and took over the reins of the industry when he was not yet sixteen. He would wake at dawn, and deal with men, sitting in offices in his rustic suit or out on a cruise walking twenty miles on snowshoes, be in camp for supper and direct men twice as old as he. opening

If we Canadians are called hewers of wood and drawers of water, and balk, young Will Jameson did not mind this assumption, did not mind the crass biblical analogy, or perhaps did not know or care it was one, and leapt toward it in youthful pride, as through a burning ring. The strength of all moneyed families is their ignorance of or indifference to chaff. And it was this indifference to jealousy and spite that created the destiny Jameson believed in (never minding the Jamesian insult toward it), which made him prosperous, at a place near the end of the world. pg. 4

In local legend the wife of Paul Francis was said to have the gift of prophecy when inspired by drink, and when Mary Jameson insisted her fortune be read with a pack of playing cards, she was told that her first-born would be a powerful man and have much respect – but his brother would be even greater, yet destroy the legacy by rashness, and the Jameson dynasty not go beyond that second boy.
Mrs. Francis warned that the prophecy would not be heeded, and therefore happen. It would happen in a senseless way, but of such a route as to look ordinary. pg. 4

This was the bowing and scraping to a propriety that men of Will Jameson's ilk believed they never bowed or scraped to. pg. 8

He jumped one log to the next with this wall at his back. And as he moved the logs themselves grew up over him. But even then, his brother heard later, he managed to dodge the first volley of logs that fell almost on him. He made a giant Hail Mary leap, when the logs as loud as a crack in the center of the earth swallowed him whole. pg. 25

Mary said she did not want wood for her younger son. Nor any part of wood, any measure or drift of wood or the complex commitment of it, or of the men who made their living in the pitiless world associated with it. For it was a pitiless world - for animals, horses, men, it was every bit as pitiless as the sea. pg. 30

That is, he accepted what the town said about its citizens, and had long ago realized the town did not wish greatness from its citizens. It secretly wished mediocrity. pg. 32

Owen joined the North Shore, trained, decided to be killed in action, and left for Europe in 1941. pg. 36

Alive or not, Owen Jameson did not come readily back to Canada after the was. He stayed away until October of 1946./ He wanted the town and his mother to forget him. pg. 42

He was no longer that shy child Reggie had cared about but just another man motivated by his own wounds to wound as well. pg. 60

Meager Fortune coming through the door.... Owen had traveled with Meager in the war and had hired him as a general camp keeper. pg. 92

Betrayal is such a vicious sin, worse than the cauldron Dante put his sinners in. pg. 303

"That men have rid themselves of God, and are famished, and therefore do terrible things to make such famine go away." pg. 333

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Death of a Chimney Sweep

Death of a Chimney Sweep by M. C. Beaton
Grand Central Publishing, February 2011
Hardcover, 247 pages
Hamish Macbeth Series #27
ISBN-13: 9780446547390
highly recommended

In the south of Scotland, residents get their chimneys vacuum-cleaned. But in the isolated villages in the very north of Scotland, the villagers rely on the services of the itinerant sweep, Pete Ray, and his old-fashioned brushes. Pete is always able to find work in the Scottish highlands, until one day when Police Constable Hamish Macbeth notices blood dripping onto the floor of a villager's fireplace, and a dead body stuffed inside the chimney. The entire town of Lochdubh is certain Pete is the culprit, but Hamish doesn't believe that the affable chimney sweep is capable of committing murder. Then Pete's body is found on the Scottish moors, and the mystery deepens. Once again, it's up to Hamish to discover who's responsible for the dirty deed—and this time, the murderer may be closer than he realizes.

My Thoughts:

Death of a Chimney Sweep by M. C. Beaton is the twenty-seventh cozy mystery featuring Police Constable Hamish Macbeth. In Death of a Chimney Sweep, Captain Henry Davenport and his wife, Milly, have recently moved to the village of Drim. Davenport orders Milly to get the chimney cleaned and then goes for a walk. He and the chimney sweep end up dead. While it appears the chimney sweep is the culprit, Hamish Macbeth realizes that a more sinister killer is on the loose.

This delightful cozy set in Scotland is a simple police procedural and a quick read. While there are several murders, they are all carried out precipitously, and, along with some humor, Beaton includes enough plot twists and turns to keep any mystery fan interested. Obviously Death of a Chimney Sweep will greatly appeal to cozy mystery fans, especially those following the series.

Actually, this was my first Hamish Macbeth book. Even though I don't have a long history with the series and the characters, it was quite easy to read and characters were very accessible. No, the writing is not demanding and simple sentences abound, but Death of a Chimney Sweep follows the tried and true format of a cozy. Cozy mysteries are: always easy to read; set in a village or small town; the murders are quick and not detailed; there is no gritty language; and there is always an element of humor. In this case, Beaton's short, simple sentences and quick pace made this the perfect book to read at the end of a busy week.
Highly Recommended for fans of cozy mysteries

Disclosure: Death of a Chimney Sweep was sent to me by the publisher from a giveaway.


The Village of Drim in the county of Sutherland at the northwest of Scotland was rarely visited by outsiders. Not even the most romantic member of the tartan lunatic fringe of the lowland cities could claim it to be a place of either interest or beauty. opening

The nearest policeman, Police Sergeant Hamish Macbeth, was some miles away across mountain and moorland in the village of Lochdubh, and although Drim was on his beat, he rarely had any reason to visit the place. pg. 2

He sat back on his heels. "I'm afraid there's a body stuck in the chimney."

"Oh, that poor sweep!" gasped Milly. pg. 6

Hamish ignored that remark and went on: "So say this person meets him and they walk back to the house. This person quarrels with Davenport and bashes his head in wi' a tyre iron, and then like a bad elf, down the chimney, out pops Pete. It's one of the old-fashioned chimneys with climbing rungs inside from the days when the sweep sent a boy up. Pete could get up there himself. He was all skin and bone. The murderer kills him, takes a few objects to make it look as if Pete was a robber as well, gets him in he sidecar, and goes off over the moors to fake the whole thing. Returns to the house and searches for something he wants, can't find it, and in a rage he stuffs the captain up the chimney, the captain himself being pretty skinny, hoping it'll be some time before the body is found."

"Oh, come on, Hamish. Let it go."

"No! I bet forensics never examined the sidecar properly. I want to see it." pg. 9-10

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Copyright 1997
Trade Paperback, 360 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374525644
Very Highly Recommended

From the Publisher
When three-month-old Lia Lee Arrived at the county hospital emergency room in Merced, California, a chain of events was set in motion from which neither she nor her parents nor her doctors would ever recover. Lia's parents, Foua and Nao Kao, were part of a large Hmong community in Merced, refugees from the CIA-run "Quiet War" in Laos. The Hmong, traditionally a close-knit and fiercely people, have been less amenable to assimilation than most immigrants, adhering steadfastly to the rituals and beliefs of their ancestors. Lia's pediatricians, Neil Ernst and his wife, Peggy Philip, cleaved just as strongly to another tradition: that of Western medicine. When Lia Lee Entered the American medical system, diagnosed as an epileptic, her story became a tragic case history of cultural miscommunication.

My Thoughts:

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
by Anne Fadiman is a balanced account of the clash between a Hmong family and Western medicine. Fadiman follows how the medical community handled or mishandled the case of Lia Lee, and her parents Nao Kao and Foua, a Hmong family. She also follows the history of the Hmong.

The Lees immigrated to Merced, California, from Laos in 1980. At three months old, Lia was diagnosed with what American doctors called epilepsy, and what her family called quag dab peg or, "the spirit catches you and you fall down." The problem was that, to put it simply, the medical community and the family were unable to understand each other.

The problems went beyond a simple language barrier. In addition to the language barrier, there was no understanding of religious or social customs. It was a complete cross-cultural failure on all levels.

Lia's anti-convulsant prescriptions changed 23 times in four years, which would put a strain on any family. And just like, in my opinion, any family, the Lees were sure the medicines were bad for their daughter. The difference is that most American families could question their doctors and make their feelings known. The Lee's were unable to communicate their displeasure with the medication. Even when the medical community wrote down prescriptions or amounts for the Lees, they had no idea that the Lees could make no sense of the numbers and letters. Additionally, the Lees would have liked to address the spiritual connections they felt were essential for Lia's healing.

Lia's doctor, rather than finding a way to work with the Lees and make sure Lia received her medication, reported them for "noncompliance" and child abuse. Lia was placed in a foster home. Lia's parents and her doctors both wanted what was best for Lia, but the misunderstandings between them led to tragedy. When Lia's death was believed to be imminent, the Lees were permitted to take her home. Two years later, Fadiman found Lia being lovingly cared for by her parents, who were still hoping to reunite her soul with her body.

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, my edition of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down includes: a preface; notes on Hmong orthography, pronunciation, and quotations; notes on sources; chapter notes; a bibliography; acknowledgments; an index; and a reader's guide.

I have had The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read for four years. Shame on me. This is a beautifully crafted, careful study in cross cultural medicine. While it would be very easy to take a "side", Fadiman is extremely even handed. She presents the facts, acknowledges short comings on both sides, and somehow tells the whole tragic story without any condemnation. This should be a must read for anyone in the medical field.

Very Highly Recommended - one of the best


...I had come to Merced, California, where they lived, because I had heard that there were some strange misunderstandings going on at the county hospital between its Hmong patients and its medical staff. pg. viii

Foua conceived, carried, and bore all her children with ease, but had there been any problems, she would have had recourse to a variety of remedies that were commonly used by the Hmong, the hilltribe to which her family belonged. If a Hmong couple failed to produce children, they could call in a txiv neeb, a shaman who was believed to have the ability to enter a trance, summon a posse of helpful familiars, ride a winged horse over the twelve mountains between the earth and the sky, cross an ocean inhabited by dragons, and (starting with bribes of food and money and, if necessary, working up to a necromantic sword) negotiate for his patients’ health with the spirits who lived in the realm of the unseen. A txiv neeb might be able to cure infertility by asking the couple to sacrifice a dog, a cat, a chicken, or a sheep. After the animal’s throat was cut, the txiv neeb would string a rope bridge from the doorpost to the marriage bed, over which the soul of the couple’s future baby, which had been detained by a malevolent spirit called a dab, could now freely travel to earth. pg. 4

The Hmong have a phrase, hais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means "to speak of all kinds of things." It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point; and that the storyteller is likely to be rather long-winded. pg. 12-13

The history of the Hmong yields several lessons that anyone who deals with them might do well to remember. Among the most obvious of these are that the Hmong do not like to take orders; that they do not like to lose; that they would rather flee, fight, or die than surrender; that they are not intimidated by being outnumbered; that they are rarely persuaded that the customs of other cultures, even those more powerful than their own, are superior; and that they are capable of getting very angry. Whether you find these traits infuriating or admirable depends largely on whether or not you are trying to make a Hmong do something that he or she would prefer not to do. Those who have tried to defeat, deceive, govern, regulate, constrain, assimilate, intimidate, or patronize the Hmong have, as a rule, disliked them intensely. pg. 17

They recognized the resulting symptoms as quag dab peg, which means "the spirit catches you and you fall down." ..... In Hmong-English dictionaries, quag dab peg is generally translated as epilepsy. It is an illness well known to the Hmong... pg. 20

They therefore hoped....that the quag dab peg could be healed. Yet they also considered the illness an honor. pg. 22

Neil sent a copy of this note to the Health Department and to Child Protective Services. In it he also wrote that:
"because of poor parental compliance regarding the medication this case obviously would come under the realm of child abuse, specifically child neglect....It is my opinion that this child should be placed in foster placement so that compliance with medication could be assured." pg. 58-59

Ever since they had arrived in the United States, the Lees had been meeting Americans who, whether because of their education, their knowledge of English, or their positions of relative authority, had made them feel as if their family didn't count for much. Being belittled is the one thing no Hmong can bear. pg. 96-97

"Suddenly, Lia was, as Bill Selvidge once told me dryly, "just the sort of patients nurses like." she had metamorphosed from a hyperactive child with a frightening seizure disorder and inaccessible veins into an inert, uncomplaining body who would probably never need another IV. Simultaneously, in the eyes of the family practice staff, her parents were miraculously transformed from child abusers to model caregivers. pg. 214

However, I have come to believe that her life was ruined not by septic shock or noncompliant parents but by cross-cultural misunderstanding. pg. 262

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Solomon Spring

Solomon Spring by Michelle Black
WinterSun Press, Copyright 2002
Trade Paperback, 314 pages
ISBN-13: 9781929705061


Kansas, 1878
A natural wonder, sacred for centuries, is about to be profaned-but not if Eden Murdoch can prevent it. She and her young daughter have returned to the mystical Solomon Spring to seek solace after the death of Eden's Cheyenne husband. But when the owner of the Solomon Spring Company decides to bottle its mystical waters, Eden decides she must stop this travesty. Inspired by Thoreau's essays on civil disobedience, she enjoys some early success, but makes deadly enemies in the process.
Meanwhile, her past races to catch up to her: Brad Randall, Eden's one-time lover, brings the astounding news that the son lost to Eden as an infant fourteen years before has been located and is living nearby. The joy of her reunion with Brad and with her son is clouded by the reappearance of Lawrence Murdoch, Eden's long-estranged first husband. The warring couple plunges into a vicious custody battle. When Murdoch is found shot to death in an alley, Brad is jailed and sentenced to hang.
To save him, Eden can must discover the solution to the murder, and bring the real killer to justice at the edge of Solomon Spring.

My Thoughts:

Solomon Spring by Michelle Black is historical fiction termed a novel of suspense from the Victorian West It is the second book in a series of books featuring Eden Murdoch and Brad Randall. The first is An Uncommon Enemy. The third is The Second Glass of Absinthe.

In this outing Eden heads to Washington to get someone to help the Cheyenne who are facing starvation since the government has failed to send them the food they promised. She is also hoping to stop the desecration of Solomon Springs, a sacred site to the tribes. In the meantime Brad, who is the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, becomes frustrated that no action is being taken to help the Cheyenne. He takes a leave of absence and heads west. He is also hoping to tell Eden that her son, whom she thought was killed as an infant, survived. Eventually they both end up back in Kansas.

And that is only a small part of the beginning of the story. There is much more. I have a feeling that Michelle Black is a story teller at heart, so she keeps the plot moving quickly forward and does so with competent writing. You will not be bored reading Solomon Spring.

While there is non-stop action in this historical western, there really is no suspense. The mystery itself is quite thin. It is obvious who done it right away. Additionally the mystery part of the novel doesn't even start until around page 195. I began reading Solomon Spring because it was supposed to be a "novel of suspense, a mystery, so I was quite disappointed by the lack of suspense.

However, it is most certainly a fast paced plot, with the characters moving from one scene to another at a brisk pace. I have a feeling that if you are a fan of historical fiction you will probably appreciate Solomon Spring much more than I did, especially if you begin reading it knowing it is not really a mystery novel. The historical details all seemed quite appropriate for the time.

Recommended for me, highly recommended for fans of historical fiction

Disclosure: I received this novel from the author through Goodreads First Reads.


The pale winter sun cast milk shadows on the brick floor of Brad Randall's cell as it shone down from the high, barred window. He had opened the wooden shutter to gain some fresh air to breathe. The draft from the window was bracing cold, but at least it offered a respite from the stale, lifeless atmosphere of his cell. The remnants of dried urine and vomit from previous tenants seemed to live in the mortar between the bricks and endured despite the weekly mopping the floor received.

Unfortunately, opening the shutter let in the unwelcome sounds from outside as well. The sawing and the hammering, the occasional shout of one workman to another--he did not need a reminder of what they were building. A gallows. opening

But how could he explain to an eight-year-old boy with mere words on paper that he stood at this fearful precipice because of his love for a woman, a woman who was not his son's mother? How could he possibly make the boy, whom he loved so dearly, understand the impossible complexities that added up to
a single human life, his life?

His thoughts traveled back to the first day of September last, less than five months ago. It now seemed like another lifetime. The events of that day had set in motion much of what had brought him to this sorry pass. pg. 3

"If you could but inform Captain Randall that I come seeking information about a woman named Mrs. Eden Murdoch, I'm sure that he would make time to see me."

Eden Murdoch. He had not heard that name spoken in nearly a decade and yet not a day had gone by in all those years that he had not thought of her.

Randall rushed to the door and opened it. He beheld an Army officer, a major in the infantry by his uniform, standing before Mrs. Post.

"Come in at once, Major." pg. 16
"The old man confessed that his son was not really his flesh and blood, but rather adopted," Simon continued. "He found the boy when he was just a babe, abandoned on the prairie. His mother had apparently been traveling on a stagecoach when it was attacked by Indians." pg. 18

The leave would afford him the opportunity to resolve, informally at least, the Cheyenne situation and thereby circumvent Secretary Schurz's decree on the subject. pg. 21

Her daughter outwardly resembled the others, but she was a far cry from them in so many other ways. Born in a Cheyenne camp along the Tongue River, raised by her Cheyenne stepfather to be Indian in every sense, could the child successfully make the transition, given such odds. pg. 27

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The City and the City

The City and the City by China Miéville
Random House, 2009
Trade Paperback , 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345497529
very highly recommended

When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. To investigate, Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to its equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the vibrant city of Ul Qoma. But this is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a seeing of the unseen. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them more than their lives. What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.
My Thoughts:

The City and the City is China Miéville's police procedural novel; it is crime noir with an added dimension. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad in Beszel is investigating the murder of a young woman. Solving the case means Borlú will need to carefully navigate between the city and the city.

The cities are the Eastern European cities Beszel and Ul Qoma. While they share the same physical location, they are separate entities. They have different governments, cultures, languages, and economies. Their citizens' have been trained from an early age to only see one city at a time by unseeing the other city. The citizens of one city are not allowed to react to or acknowledge the other city. Even though there are crosshatchings, places where both cites exist right by each other, there is only one legal access from one to the other, Copula Hall. To cross this mysterious division in any other place or way, is a serious infraction enforced by Breach. Breach is both a noun and a verb.

The City and the City is told as a first person narrative. There is a dream-like quality to the interstitiality, the between spaces, of the cities that enhances the noir tone of this procedural. It is very atmospheric. The dialogue is tight, closely following the typical police procedural novel. Apparently Miéville originally wanted to subtitle The City and the City, "The Last Inspector Borlu Mystery" but the publisher talked him out of it. I, however, like the implications of the subtitle.

And while it is a mystery novel, it also addresses the nature of taboos, segregation, modern urban disassociation and the lengths people will go to to preserve their preferred social realities. I would speculate that anyone could read The City and the City as a police procedural or a fantasy or both. It is the uniqueness of the setting, Miéville's genius as a writer, and the conclusion that pushed The City and the City to a top recommendation from me.
Very Highly Recommended


I could not see the street or much of the estate. We were enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows out of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us. This open ground between the buildings had once been sculpted. It pitched like a golf course—a child’s mimicking of geography. Maybe they had been going to wood it and put in a pond. There was a copse but the saplings were dead.
The grass was weedy, threaded with paths footwalked between rubbish, rutted by wheel tracks. There were police at various tasks. I wasn’t the first detective there—I saw Bardo Naustin and a couple of others— but I was the most senior. I followed the sergeant to where most of my colleagues clustered, between a low derelict tower and a skateboard park ringed by big drum-shaped trash bins. Just beyond it we could hear the docks. A bunch of kids sat on a wall before standing officers. The gulls coiled over the gathering. opening

“Where’s Shukman?”
“Not here yet, Inspector…”
“Someone call him, tell him to get a move on.” I smacked my watch. I was in charge of what we called the mise-en-crime. No one would move her until Shukman the patho had come, but there were other things to do. I checked sightlines. We were out of the way and the garbage containers obscured us, but I could feel attention on us like insects, from all over the estate. We milled.
There was a wet mattress on its edge between two of the bins, by a spread of rusting iron pieces interwoven with discarded chains. “That was on her.” The constable who spoke was Lizbyet Corwi, a smart young woman I’d worked with a couple of times. “Couldn’t exactly say she was well hidden, but it sort of made her look like a pile of rubbish, I guess.” I could see a rough rectangle of darker earth surrounding the dead woman—the remains of the ?mattress-sheltered dew. Naustin was squatting by it, staring at the earth.
“The kids who found her tipped it half off,” Corwi said. pg. 4

“Hooker?” he said. “First impressions, Inspector. This area,
beat-?up, naked? And…” He pointed at his face, her exaggerated makeup. “Hooker.”
“Fight with a client?”
“Yeah but…If it was just the body wounds, you know, you’d, then you’re looking at, maybe she won’t do what he wants, whatever. He lashes out. But this.” He touched his cheek again uneasily. “That’s different.”
“A sicko?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. He cuts her, kills her, dumps her. Cocky bastard too, doesn’t give a sh*t that we’re going to find her.”
“Cocky or stupid.”
“Or cocky and stupid.”
“So a cocky, stupid sadist,” I said. He raised his eyes, Maybe. pg. 8

"You know that area: is there any chance we're looking at breach?"
There were seconds of silence.
"Doesn't seem likely. That area's mostly pretty total. And Pocost Village, that whole project, certainly is."
"Some of GunterStrasz, though..."
"Yeah but. The closest crosshatching is hundreds of metres away. They couldn't have..." It would have been an extraordinary risk on the part of the murderer or murderers. pg. 14

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dark Places

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
Crown Publishing Group, 2009
Hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307341563
very highly recommended

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived–and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.
The Kill Club is a macabre secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. When they locate Libby and pump her for details–proof they hope may free Ben–Libby hatches a plan to profit off her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club . . . and maybe she’ll admit her testimony wasn’t so solid after all.
As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the narrative flashes back to January 2, 1985. The events of that day are relayed through the eyes of Libby’s doomed family members–including Ben, a loner whose rage over his shiftless father and their failing farm have driven him into a disturbing friendship with the new girl in town. Piece by piece, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started–on the run from a killer.

My Thoughts:

In Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, Libby Day's mother and two sisters were murdered by her brother Ben on January 3, 1985. Her testimony, at age seven, is what convicted Ben. Now, twenty-five years later and desperate to earn some money, Libby accepts an invitation to talk to members of the Kill Club, a group of true crime enthusiasts. Initially only interested in earning some easy money from the group, Libby agrees to try to find and talk to various people associated with the case.

Flynn alternates the narrators for each chapter. Present day chapters are told in first person by Libby while the alternate chapters, voices from the past (mainly her mom, Peggy, or brother Ben), are told in third person. These flashbacks begin on the morning of January 2, the day before the murders 25 years ago, and provide us with information that Libby never knew.

The switches between the present and past are quite smooth and both storylines are equally compelling. Libby doesn't know everything that happened before the murders and was never privy to, or, later, interested in discovering, much of the information surrounding the case.The plot, following both time lines, is engrossing. The actual climax was a surprise.

Flynn is an excellent writer. Her novel is very well plotted and executed. Flynn is equally descriptive in setting the atmosphere, the place, and characters. It all makes for a very memorable novel. Her characters are believable; they are hard-scrabble, ugly, disenfranchised. She has given us another novel full of unlikable characters, although at the end you will be hoping Libby eventually comes to terms with her problems and can lead a normal life.

The violence in Dark Places is more graphic than that in Sharp Objects, but Dark Places is also a more complex novel. Very Highly Recommended


I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. Little Orphan Libby grew up sullen and boneless, shuffled around a group of lesser relatives—second cousins and great-aunts and friends of friends—stuck in a series of mobile homes or rotting ranch houses all across Kansas. opening

I am, I guess, depressed. I guess I’ve been depressed for about twenty-four years. I can feel a better version of me somewhere in there—hidden behind a liver or attached to a bit of spleen within my stunted, childish body—a Libby that’s telling me to get up, do something, grow up, move on. But the meanness usually wins out. My brother slaughtered my family when I was seven. My mom, two sisters, gone: bang bang, chop chop, choke choke. I didn’t really have to do anything after that, nothing was expected. pg. 2

I've labeled the memories as if they were a particularly dangerous region: Darkplace. Linger too long in an image of my mom trying to jury-rig the blasted coffeemaker again or of Michelle dancing around in her jersey nightgown, tube socks pulled up to her knees, and my mind would jerk into Darkplace. Maniacal smears of bright red sound in the night. pg. 10

"You know how some people like mysteries? Or get totally into true-crime blogs? Well, this club is a bunch of those people. Everyone has their crime that they're obsessed with: Laci Peterson, Jeffrey MacDonald, Lizzie Borden... you and your family. I mean you and your family, it's huge with the club. Just huge..." pg. 14

The murders had left me permanently off-kilter in these kinds of judgment calls. I assumed everything bad in the world could happen, because everything bad in the world already did happen. But, then, weren't the chances minuscule that I, Libby Day, would meet harm on top of it? Wasn't I safe by default? A shiny, indestructible statistic. I can't decide, so I veer between drastic overcaution (sleeping with the lights on at all times, my mom's old Colt Peacemaker on my bedside table) to ridiculous incaution (venturing by myself to a Kill Club in a vacant building). pg. 25

"Why did you testify that Ben killed your family?"
"Because he did," I said. "I was there."
"You were hiding, sweetheart. No way you saw what you say you did, or you'd be dead, too." pg. 35

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Crown Publishing Group, 2006
Hardcover, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307341549
very highly recommended

Words are like a road map to reporter Camille Preaker’s troubled past. Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, Camille’s first assignment from the second-rate daily paper where she works brings her reluctantly back to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls.
Since she left town eight years ago, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed again in her family’s Victorian mansion, Camille is haunted by the childhood tragedy she has spent her whole life trying to cut from her memory.
As Camille works to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims—a bit too strongly. Clues keep leading to dead ends, forcing Camille to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wants to survive this homecoming.
With its taut, crafted writing, Sharp Objects is addictive, haunting, and unforgettable.

My Thoughts:

Gillian Flynn's debut novel, Sharp Objects, is a psychological thriller set in a small Missouri town. In it Camille Preaker, a reporter currently living in Chicago, is sent to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to cover the murder of one girl and the disappearance of another. As Camille searches for information on the murder of both girls, which is revealed early on, she is also confronted with her own turbulent past, her problems, and very dysfunctional family.

Camille has stayed away from Wind Gap for a good reason. It is a small town full of dark secrets, including many in Camille's own family. All the woman in Sharp Objects, including Camille, are deeply flawed. Do not expect to necessarily like Camille, she is fragile and many of her actions are self destructive, but perhaps, in the end, you will feel some empathy for her. She can be tragic, disturbing, and darkly humorous.

Gillian Flynn is a very good writer. The strength of Flynn's book is not so much in the suspense, since most readers will easily guess where the story is heading, but in the revelations that Flynn slowly discloses and in the descriptions of the small town and the people. Everyone is scarred in some way. The tone is very atmospheric, as Flynn slowly reveals more information and the back-story.

If you haven't read Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn yet, I don't want to say too much. I felt like many reviews gave away too much information when part of the pleasure in reading any creepy psychological thriller is slowly gaining more information and insight into the characters as well as the narrator. Even when I knew where it was going, I liked having Flynn direct me there.

Sharp Objects was an Edgar Award finalist and the winner of two of Britain’s Dagger Awards. If you like dark, psychological thrillers you'll like Sharp Objects. Very Highly Recommended


My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly. opening

"....Preaker, read the wires sometime. I guess there was a murder last August? Little girl strangled?"
I nodded like I knew. I was lying. My mother was the only person in Wind Gap with whom I had even a limited connection, and she'd said nothing. Curious.
"Now another one's missing. Sounds like it might be a serial to me. Drive down there and get me the story. Go quick. Be there tomorrow morning." pg. 4

Wind Gap is about eleven hours south of Chicago. Curry had graciously allowed me a budget for one night's motel stay and breakfast in the morning, if I ate at a gas station. But once I got in town, I was staying at my mother's. That he decided for me. I already knew the reaction I'd get when I showed up at her door. A quick, shocked flustering, her hand to her hair, a mismatched hug that would leave me aimed slightly to one side. Talk of the messy house, which wouldn't be. A query about length of stay packaged in niceties.
"How long do we get to have you for, sweetness?" she'd say. Which meant: "When do you leave?"
It's the politeness that I find most upsetting. pg. 6

Main Street was empty. No cars, no people. A dog loped down the sidewalk, with no owner calling after it. All the lampposts were papered with yellow ribbons and grainy photocopies of a little girl. I parked and peeled off one of the notices, taped crookedly to a stop sign at a child's height. The sign was homemade, "Missing," written at the top in bold letters that may have been filled in by Magic Marker. The photo showed a dark-eyed girl with a feral grin and too much hair for her head. The kind of girl who'd be described by teachers as a "handful." I liked her.
Natalie Jane Keene
Age: 10
Missing since 5/11
Last seen at Jacob J. Garrett Park, wearing
blue-jean shorts, red striped T-shirt
Tips: 555-7377 pg. 7-8

"What do you care? They're not your kids, they're Wind Gap kids." He stood up, sat back down, rearranged some papers. "I bet I'm pretty safe to say Chicago never cared about Wind Gap kids before." His voice cracked at the end. Vickery sucked on his cigarette, twisted a chunky gold pinky ring, blinked in quick succession. I wondered suddenly if he was going to cry.
"You're right. Probably not. Look, this isn't going to be some sort of exploitive story. It's important. If it makes you feel any better, I'm from Wind Gap." There you go, Curry. I'm trying. pg. 9

"Are there any theories about Ann?" I asked.
"Some loony, some crazy man musta done it. Some guy rides through town, forgot to take his pills, voices are talking to him. Something like 'at."
"Why do you say that?"
He stopped, pulled a package of chaw from his back pocket, buried a fat pinch in his gumline and worked it until he got the first tiny cut to let the tobacco in. The lining of my mouth began tingling in sympathy.
"Why else would you pull out a dead little girl's teeth?"
"He took her teeth?"
"All but the back part of a baby molar." pg. 13

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Stealing the Marbles

Stealing the Marbles by E. J. Knapp
Rebel e Publishers, 2010
Trade Paperback, 302 pages
ISBN-13: 9780986973178
highly recommended

When does a wrong become a right?
Danny Samsel has defeated the finest security systems in the world. Interpol wants him, the FBI wants him, the CIA wants him. He is a Master Thief - even the White House could not prevent him from liberating one of their paintings.
Now, after a year languishing on Kefalonia, he has turned his attention to his greatest adventure: the heist of the century. In the 19th century Lord Elgin stole pieces of the Parthenon and shipped them to England. In the 21st century Danny Samsel is going to steal them back. He has decided to return the Marbles to Greece.
His motives are not entirely altruistic: having enraged and estranged Kastania, his beautiful and extraordinary girlfriend, who just happens to be able to access and overcome any computer system, he wants her back in his life. She never left his heart. And he needs her help to steal the Marbles from the British Museum.
With help from old friends worldwide plus a few new, surprising ones, Danny and the Marbles endure a perilous journey across Europe to their Hellenic home. With dire, vicious interventions from Interpol and avaricious underworld art collectors, betrayal from a trusted friend, Danny conquers all obstacles with grit and humour. At great cost to himself and grievous loss to his accomplices, Danny rights an international wrong, settles a few other scores, foxes old foes, and guarantees the future of his chosen career.
My Thoughts:

Stealing the Marbles by E.J. Knapp introduces us to professional art thief Danny Samsel. Samsel is planning what may be the biggest heist of his career: he wants to steal the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum and return them to Greece. It is a fact that the Elgin Marbles were taken from the Parthenon in Greece in the 19th century by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, and shipped to England. The Elgin Marbles are currently in the British Museum in London. For centuries the Greeks have wanted their national treasures returned.

Stealing the Marbles follows the formula of a classic crime novel. We know right from the start what Danny is planning to do and follow along as he sets his plan into motion. As Danny travels across Europe and even, briefly to the USA, Knapp does a good job establishing the setting and giving all the details that will set Danny's plan into motion. I felt the book started out slow, but that was basically because the details of the plan were being worked out. There is tension mounting as Danny realizes there is something else afoot that may affect him and his plans. Danny is a likeable character and I have hopes that Knapp will bring him and his cohorts back for another job soon.

If you are interested in joining the campaign to Send The Marbles Home, please check out Knapp's website.

I did have a few minor quibbles that won't deter from the story for most people, but did for me. First, using all the current techniques and technology available, forgeries in art can be found today. I can suspend disbelief, but just saying... My main problem was that I noticed when Knapp referred several times to blooming flowers, they were inevitably roses, irises, and lilies. (I flagged two pages after reading previous mentions, pg 99 and 122.) As a long-time gardener, generally, if you are talking about the roses, irises and lilies I know and am familiar with, you aren't going to have the irises blooming at the same time as the lilies and the roses. I know it's minor, but it was distracting to me.
Highly Recommended

Disclosure: I received this novel from the author through Goodreads.


His eyes narrowed. His dark skin flushed darker. From under his breath came a Greek word having something to do with immorality, someone’s mother and a donkey. opening

“So what happens now?” I asked.

“Now? Nothing happens now. A hundred and fifty years we’ve sought the return of our antiquities and this fiasco has set us back to square one. Not that I’ve ever believed the Brits would return what rightfully belongs to Greece in the first place.” pg. 2

“Maybe you could just hire somebody to steal them or something,” I continued.

“Steal them!” he shouted, nearly dropping the just opened bottle in his lap. Several people at other tables glanced over at us. “Steal them,” he said again, leaning toward me, his voice lowered. “Are you taking drugs? Do you have any idea what the Parthenon Marbles comprise?”

I sighed. I’d heard an accounting of the marbles so often over the last year that I knew the inventory by heart. “The British Museum has fifteen metopes, fifty-six panels from the frieze, and seventeen pedimental statues,” I recited. “They have one of the columns from the Erechtheion and one of the ladies from the Porch of the Maidens.” pg. 3

Though I didn't know it at the time, that is what I would come to specialize in: the rearranged ownership of the 'lost' old masters. pg. 8

"There have been some problems of late. I thought it best you were protected on your journey, though of course, I saw no reason to alarm you as these...problems don't concern you."

Don't concern me?" I asked. "Dieter then?"

"Yes," she said, jumping on the thought too quickly for my liking. pg. 27

Friday, April 8, 2011

Truth & Beauty

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
HarperCollins, 2004
Trade Paperback, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780060572150
Very Highly Recommended

Ann Patchett and the late Lucy Grealy met in college in 1981, and, after enrolling in the Iowa Writer's Workshop, began a friendship that would be as defining to both of their lives as their work. In Grealy's critically acclaimed memoir, Autobiography of a Face, she wrote about losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer, years of chemotherapy and radiation, and endless reconstructive surgeries. In Truth & Beauty, the story isn't Lucy's life or Ann's life, but the parts of their lives they shared. This is a portrait of unwavering commitment that spans twenty years, from the long winters of the Midwest, to surgical wards, to book parties in New York. Through love, fame, drugs, and despair, this is what it means to be part of two lives that are intertwined ... and what happens when one is left behind.
This is a tender, brutal book about loving the person we cannot save. It is about loyalty, and being lifted up by the sheer effervescence of someone who knew how to live life to the fullest.

My thoughts:

Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett is a memoir of her friendship with author and poet Lucy Grealy. Grealy attained prominence in 1994 with her Autobiography of a Face, which chronicled her years of brutal radiation and chemotherapy for Ewing's sarcoma in her lower jaw, and the subsequent reconstructive surgeries that were largely unsuccessful. Their friendship begins in 1985 when they are in graduate school until 2002, when Grealy died of a heroin overdose at the age of thirty-nine.

This account of their friendship, beginning when they were roommates in graduate school, is told in chronological order through memories, dialogue, and parts of Grealy's letters to Patchett. Patchett compares their friendship to the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. Grealy is the fun-loving, care-free grasshopper while Patchett is the hardworking ant. (But the grasshopper relies on the hardworking ant to save her.)

I have not read Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, but understand that this account shows a different side of her life and her personality. She was a deeply needy, self-absorbed woman who demanded to be the center of attention, either Patchett's or others in her circle. But Grealy also continued to undergo painful reconstructive surgeries. She had a difficult time eating. She lacked self esteem. She was constantly in search of love, or sex. After the great success of Autobiography of a Face she was unable to settle down and write another book. She was disorganized and irresponsible. She was in debt and ignored her bills (or allowed others to pay them).

Admittedly I would not have the patience or tolerance that Patchett had for Grealy, an insecure friend who threw herself into Patchett's arms or sat in her lap, constantly demanding to be the absolute center of attention like a spoiled child. While Patchett does allude to the strain this one-sided neediness could cause, especially when Grealy became a heroin addict, she was also more accepting of all of Grealy's demanding behavior than should be expected.

I actually think this is a deeply moving and totally honest portrayal of Patchett's friendship with Grealy and their relationship. Apparently Lucy Grealy's family was quite upset about Ann Patchett's account of her friendship with Grealy in Truth & Beauty, going as far as to attack Patchett's writing ability, which is absurd. Patchett is a very talented writer who is most certainly not riding on Grealy's fame. (Personally, I knew of Patchett's writing before I even heard the name Lucy Grealy.)

While I understand that the honesty in this account may be hard to read, seldom do people know all sides of a loved one. I'm sure that Grealy showed one side of her personality to her family, while her friends knew a decidedly different aspect of her personality. It may simply be difficult for her family members to accept this side of her life. If anything, Patchett down plays her own successes and accomplishments in comparison to Grealy's.
Very Highly Recommended


The thing you can count on in life is that Tennessee will always be scorching hot in August. In 1985 you could also pretty much count on the fact that the U-Haul truck you rented to drive from Tennessee to Iowa, cutting up through Missouri, would have no air-conditioning or that the air-conditioning would be broken. These are the things I knew for sure when I left home to start graduate school. opening

While Lucy and I would later revise our personal history to say we had been friends since we met as freshmen, just for the pleasure of adding a few more years to the tally, the truth was we did not know each other at all in college. Or the truth was that I knew her and she did not know me. Even at Sarah Lawrence, a school full of models and actresses and millionaire daughters of industry, everyone knew Lucy and everyone knew her story: she had had a Ewing's sarcoma at the age of nine, had lived through five years of the most brutal radiation and chemotherapy, and then undergone a series of reconstructive surgeries that were largely unsuccessful. The drama of her life, combined with her reputation for being the smartest student in all of her classes, made her the campus mascot, the favorite pet in her dirty jeans and oversized Irish sweaters. She kept her head tipped down so that her long dark blond hair fell over her face to hide the fact that part of her lower jaw was missing. pg. 2

We knew things about Lucy the way one knows things about the private lives of movie stars, by a kind of osmosis of information. I do not remember asking or being told. It was simply passed through the air. Not only did we know about Lucy's childhood, her cancer, her bravery, everyone in school knew that Lucy was the poet. pg. 3

Gawking is a look stronger than a stare. The gawk was full of brazen curiosity, pity, and fear, every unattractive human emotion rolled into one unflattering facial expression. If she saw them, and she must have since this was not a discreet spy job, she didn't let on. pg. 9

With or without reading the assignment, Lucy could power through a class on the sheer muscle of her oratory. she could talk. she could talk on the nature of truth and beauty for hours, and after all, what novel or poem or play in an introduction to Literature class couldn't benefit from a truth-and-beauty discussion? pg. 18

Iowa City in the eighties was never going to be Paris in the twenties, but we gave it our best shot. pg. 23

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Son of a Witch

Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire
HarperCollins, 2005
Trade Paperback, 352 pages
Wicked Years Series, #2
ISBN-13: 9780060747220

A decade after the Witch has melted away, the young man Liir is discovered bruised, comatose, and left for dead in a gully. Shattered in spirit as well as in form, he is tended by the mysterious Candle, a foundling in her own right, until failed campaigns of his childhood bear late, unexpected fruit. Liir is only one part of the world that Elphaba left behind. As a boy hardly in his teens, he is asked to help the needy in ways in which he may be unskilled. Is he Elphaba's son? Has he power of his own? Can he liberate Princess Nastoya into a dignified death? Can he locate his supposed half-sister, Nor, last seen in shackles in the Wizard's protection? Can he survive in an Oz little improved since the death of the Wicked Witch of the West? Can he learn to fly? In Son of a Witch, Gregory Maguire suggests that the magic we locate in distant, improbable places like Oz is no greater than the magic inherent in any hard life lived fully, son of a witch or no.

My Thoughts:

Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire continues the story found in his novel Wicked. Son of a Witch follows Liir after Elphaba's death. Liir, found broken and comatose, is taken to the Mauntry where the medical sisters minister to him and a young maunt, Candle, is assigned to care for him. Much of Son of a Witch is the story of Liir searching for meaning in his life, which is told in flashbacks, while his body is recovering.

Apparently Gregory Maguire purposefully wrote Son of a Witch in a rambling, unfocused, wandering style to reflect Liir's search for a purpose to his life. While the idea of this seems clever, and I do not question for a second that Maguire is a very clever writer, I'm not sure it was completely successful for me. I did enjoy the beginning of the novel and Maguire's word play, but about half way through I found myself wanting something more to happen. The pace was simply too slow and meandering.

I read Wicked years ago and although I wasn't a huge fan of it, I decided it might be fun to continue the story. In the end I'm just conflicted. I liked Son of a Witch better at the beginning and then it just went downhill. There were also several stories that were left unfinished and are likely wrapped up in the third book, A Lion Among Men, but I'm unsure if I will bother to read it.
- certainly for fans of Wicked.


So the talk of random brutality wasn't just talk. At noontime they discovered the bodies of three young women, out on some mission of conversion that appeared to have gone awry. The novice maunts had been strangled by their ropes of holy beads, and their faces removed.
Her nerve being shaken at last, Oatsie Manglehand now caved in to the demands of her paying customers. She told the team drivers they'd pause only long enough to dig some shallow graves while the horses slaked their thirst. Then the caravan would press on across the scrubby flats known, for the failed farmsteads abandoned here and there, as the Disappointments. opening

"We're not going to dig another grave." That from her noisiest client, a wealthy trader from the northern Vinkus. "Not his, Oatsie Manglehand, and not yours, either. We're not doing it. We leave him unburied and alone, or we leave him unburied with your corpse for company."
"We don't need to do either," said Oatsie. She sighed. "Poor, poor soul, whoever he is. He needs no grave. He isn't dead yet." pg. 5

Oatsie reminded them that they didn't have a vote. She'd never represented that her clients would travel unencumbered by waifs and strays. pg. 6

"If my memory hasn't begun to fail me," the Superior Maunt continued, "you should know him as well. You took him from us some years ago. Fifteen was it, twenty? At my age I don't apprehend the passage of time as I ought."
"He'd have been a child twenty years ago, an infant," said Oatsie. "I never took and infant from a mauntery."
"Perhaps not an infant. But you took him just the same. He traveled with a disagreeable novice who served for several years in the hospice. You were conveying them to the castle stronghold of the Arjikis. Kiamo Ko."
"He was with Elphaba?" pg. 8

"Before resting for the night, I recalled his name. The boy was named Liir. He left the mauntery with Sister Saint Aelphaba - well, Elphaba, I suppose; she never professed her vows." pg. 16

"Did you say there's a boy in the house?" asked Mother Yackle. She let her shawl slip back and raised her bleary, milk-clotted eyes toward the Superior Maunt. "Did he bring back the broom?' pg. 26

He was living in the castle called Kiamo Ko at the time, but he wasn't present at the death of the Witch. pg. 30

"Oh, Toto!" shrieked Dorothy suddenly. "Where's Toto?"
"He's wandered off to do his business," said the Lion. "Just between you and me, it's about time he learned to be private about it. I know you dote on him, but there is a limit."
"He'll be lost," she cried. "He couldn't find his way out of a cracker barrel. He's not very bright. you know."
After a respectful pause, the Tin Woodman observed, "I think we've all noticed that."
"I hate to be obvious," added the Scarecrow, "but you'd have saved yourself a heap of trouble if you weren't too cheap to invest in a leash, Dorothy." pg. 36

"Cowardice is a dubious attribute. Yet I possess it in spades, so I hope on this venture to learn how to use it to my advantage if I must. All gifts come from the Unnamed God, including cowardice, and self-repugnance." pg. 69

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Random House, 2000
Trade Paperback, 720 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345443021
Very Highly Recommended

Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to none-not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory.

Isaac has spent a lifetime quietly carrying out his unique research. But when a half-bird, half-human creature known as the Garuda comes to him from afar, Isaac is faced with challenges he has never before fathomed. Though the Garuda's request is scientifically daunting, Isaac is sparked by his own curiosity and an uncanny reverence for this curious stranger.

While Isaac's experiments for the Garuda turn into an obsession, one of his lab specimens demands special attention....

My Thoughts:

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville is part of the steampunk genre and has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Fantasy Award. Set in New Crobuzon, a sprawling, squalid city where a wide variety of sentient beings and their corresponding cultures live, Perdido Street Station features Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an independent rogue scientist, and Yagharek, a member of the "bird man" garuda race, along with a wide range of other characters, including Lin, an "insect" khepri sculptress who is Isaac's lover.

Yagharek, whose wings have been sawed off as a punishment for a crime, travels to Isaac's lab in an attempt to regain his power of flight. Isaac takes on the challenge and begins studying all manner of flying things while attempting to prove his crisis energy theory. His obsessive research inadvertently leads to the release of unfathomable creatures who can destroy all sentient beings in New Crobuzon.

Miéville is an incredible writer. The descriptions, settings, and characters are all slowly and intricately developed, resulting in a wonderfully vivid total picture. Miéville never shies away from the more grim realities of the city and his characters. All of the characters are flawed and all of them must face some harsh realities in order to achieve their goals. Every action seemingly comes at a great cost. It is a dark, bleak novel. The writing is dense and best savored slowly.

There are several themes in Perdido Street Station. It is a story of obsessions - compulsive creative obsessions in science and art, as well as obsession with skills or abilities. It is the story of each character's journey, their quest, and transformation. Betrayal, intentional or inadvertent, is also a theme. It becomes a story of redemption, trying to make right what has become a great wrong.

Some mention has been made of Miéville's extensive vocabulary. It is extensive, and I'll admit pausing over one word, something that very rarely happens to me. Don't let the vocabulary stop you from reading him. I found it to be an incredible, unique experience and am planning to seek out more of Miéville's novels based on his writing alone.

Set in the fictional world of Bas Lag, Perdido Street Station is first book in Miéville's New Crobuzon trilogy. The other two books are The Scar and Iron Council. However, Perdido Street Station is a stand alone novel.

Very Highly Recommended


The city reeked. But today was market day down in Aspic Hole, and the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot that rolled over New Crobuzon was, in these streets,
for these hours, improved with paprika and fresh tomato, hot oil and fish and cinnamon, cured meat, banana and onion. pg.7

Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin had just realized that he was dreaming. He had been aghast to find himself employed once again at the university,
parading in front of a huge blackboard covered in vague representations of levers and forces and stress. pg. 8

New Crobuzon was a huge plague pit, a morbific city. Parasites, infection and rumour were uncontainable. A monthly chymical dip was a necessary prophylactic for the khepri, if they wanted to avoid itches and sores. pg. 9

Light glinted in Lin’s compound eyes. Her headlegs quivered. She picked up half a tomato and gripped it with her mandibles. She lowered her hands while her inner mouthparts picked at the food her outer jaw held steady.
Isaac watched the huge iridescent scarab that was his lover’s head devour her breakfast. pg. 10

He had walked out of the university ten years ago. But only because he realized to his misery that he was a terrible teacher.
He had looked out at the quizzical faces, listened to the frantic scrawling of the panicking students, and realized that with a mind that ran and tripped and hurled itself down the corridors of theory in anarchic fashion, he could learn himself, in haphazard lurches, but he could not impart the understanding he so loved. He had hung his head in shame and fled.
In another twist to the myth, his Head of Department, the ageless and loathsome Vermishank, was not a plodding epigone but an exceptional bio-thaumaturge, who had nixed Isaac’s research less because it was unorthodox than because it was going nowhere. Isaac could be brilliant,
but he was undisciplined. Vermishank had played him like a fish, making him beg for work as a freelance researcher on terrible pay, but with limited access to the university laboratories.
And it was this, his work, which kept Isaac circumspect about his lover. pg. 12

For the second time that day Lin luxuriated in the taste of cactus-people sap, as the pterabird loped towards the Greenhouse in Riverskin. Shut out of that monastic sanctuary (the twisting intricate panes of its steep glass dome looming to the east, in the heart of the quarter), despised by their elders, small gangs of cactus youth leaned against shuttered buildings and cheap posters. They played with knives. Their spines were cropped in violent patterns, their spring-green skin savaged with bizarre scarification. pg 18-19

The garuda stared down at him. Isaac's fascination defeated his manners, and he stared frankly back.
The great creature stood more than six feet tall, on cruel clawed feet that poked out from under a dirty cloak. The ragged cloth dangled down almost to the ground, draped loosely over every inch of flesh, obscuring the details of physiognomy and musculature, all but the garuda's head. And that great inscrutable bird face gazed down at Isaac with what looked like imperiosity. Its sharply curved beak was something between a kestrel's and an owl's. Sleek feathers faded subtly from ochre to dun to dappled brown. Deep black eyes stared at his own, the iris only a fine mottling at the very edge of the dark. Those eyes were set in orbits which gave the garuda face a permanent sneer, a proud furrow. pg. 30