Review – Railsea

Railsea has been compared to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but it’s really just China Miéville’s take on an adventure story. Its philosophies, the hunt, the unknown, and the need for answers and exploration of our origins drive this novel.

Shamus Yes ap Soorap (Sham for short) is the youngest crew member of the Medes, a mole train on the hunt for a big catch on the great Railsea. He has dreams of working salvage — finding new things, old things, and alien things. What he actually does is assist the doctor of the Medes and bring water to the men and women who are working to break down the moles they hunt into oil, bone and skin. The captain of the Medes, Naphi, is on the hunt for a mole — a legendary ivory-colored mole called Mocker-Jack. She believes, as other mole train captains do, that capturing Mocker-Jack is her destiny.

When the Railsea leads the crew of the Medes to an old wreck, Sham goes with the crew to investigate and finds something he hopes to make his very own piece of salvage. Instead, he hands over the small camera memory chip to the captain. The images it contains lead Sham and his captain in essentially the same direction with different outcomes — Sham is led to two children of now dead-explorers, and the captain is led to new, never-before-conceived hunting grounds. Naphi’s dreams of bringing down Mocker-Jack, her famed ivory-colored mole, now seem within reach.

What Miéville does that I absolutely love is create places so familiar, yet at the same time so strange. He creates a land that the crew is afraid to step on for fear of dying. This world of safe land among animal-prowled soft dirt is both alien and accessible at the same time. It’s a world of dirt, but he makes you see it as a world of water — deep and unsafe water at that. Out in the Railsea, it’s the tracks that keep everyone safe, and you have no choice but to believe that’s the absolute truth of this world.

This is also a book filled with characters you’ll care about and fear for in a world poised to attack. Sham is young, untested, naïve, and trusts people too easily. He never knew the fate of his parents, and when he has the opportunity to bring closure to two children whose parents have died, he sets out to do just that, unaware of the implications his actions may bring. His pet, an injured daybat he nursed back to health and named Daybe, is a stalwart friend and more than just a silly little bat. Daybe is fearless, with crazy loyalty to young Sham, and is one of the book’s most memorable characters.

I’ve read several of Miéville’s books, and he’s now on the list of authors from whom I anxiously await books. No matter the topic, a book by Miéville is one that I want to read. He has an ability to take our world, warp a few elements, twist a few basic beliefs, and make it something so new and strange. These new worlds don’t stop existing simply because the book is closed. His worlds and stories stay with you long after the end.

As a side note, I’ve seen this book described as a young adult novel. It’s really much more than that, and much more than just a re-telling of Moby Dick. It’s about dreams and adventure in a world we want to get to know better. And isn’t that why we read? China Miéville makes these worlds we crave possible. In fact, you should be reading Railsea now.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Railsea
By China Miéville

Publisher: Del Rey

ISBN: 9780345524522

4.5 stars

Review – Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir)

There are books I feel I never adequately describe and think it would be best if I just wrote in ginormous font:

READ THIS BOOK! NOW! GO!

 

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is going to be one of those books so keep staring at those big letters.

Among my friends, The Bloggess is a bit of a hero, mostly because she brought home a giant metal chicken to ring the doorbell. If you don’t know about Beyonce, go here. You see, we have an ongoing joke about chickens which I’m going to decline to talk about because it’s only funny to my friends. Needless to say, we all read her blog and to me, she’s one of the funniest, and honest, writers out there.

This book, which I have been looking forward to for a very long time, was just as funny as I hoped it would be, and in some ways even crazier than I thought. I laughed out loud, giggled, and then cried because I was giggling so hard. I was also slightly grossed out — deer sweaters and vomit. (ick) The chapter on infertility was heartbreaking and real. It’s not something people want to talk about but it’s a part of life and the road to parenthood and she acknowledged it as that.

Being able to laugh at ourselves and the strange lives we all lead is a big part of the book. We all enter adulthood in a convoluted manner and even, and especially, the embarrassing parts that shape us in our struggle to become the people we are. You have to embrace it all.

What are some of the funniest parts?

Well, obviously, Beyonce. The chapter – And That’s Why You Should Learn to Pick Your Battles. What starts as an argument over towels with her husband ends up in the purchase of a giant metal chicken.

The chapter where she describes numerous ways to photocopy body parts and how not to hide those photocopies and or websites you shouldn’t be looking at from human resources – The Dark and Disturbing Secrets HR Doesn’t Want You to Know. Needless to say, any hopes and dreams I ever had of working in HR are now gone. Gone I tell you!

So what do you do when your dog dies? Please don’t answer that it’s only a segue into the chapter – Honestly, I Don’t Even Know Where I Got That Machete: A Comic Tragedy in Three Parts Days. Let me just say we all need a friend to help fend off vultures and help put a beloved dead dog to rest. And the vultures are not metaphorical in this instance, I mean real vultures. This also means I will never be leaving my urban digs for rural Texas.

There’s a chapter called Making Friends With Girls that really made me smile. I’m fortunate in that I have some really wonderful women in my life, even the ones that are clear across the country and in places I don’t get to visit often. But, on the whole, I’m not the type of person that makes friends easily. I’m a nice person and all, I’m just shy. Reading another person talk about making friends was a shining spot in my day that meant I wasn’t the only one that found it hard to talk to people. Even when you know you aren’t the only one, it’s nice to hear it.

I could go on but I prefer not to give the whole book away because you should read it. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in such a long time. And of course, that doesn’t adequately describe the book at all (see above).

Also, The Bloggess is a person you should be reading here too. I want to keep talking but I feel I’ve already gone overboard on the mushy, gushy review part so, carry on. Oh, and read the book!

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir)

By Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess)

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Amy Einhorn Books

ISBN: 9780399159015

4.75 stars

Review – Madame Bovary

Okay, to be clear, this book was not at all what I thought it would be. I was, no lie, expecting torrid sex scenes. Why? I have no idea. I just was. Funny thing is, I don’t read anything even approaching erotica so I’m not sure where this thought came from. Obviously, something was lost in translation for me.

Charles Bovary is a less than ambitious man but he’s a good man. A doctor by trade, he’s happy practicing in a quiet French hamlet. After he starts his medical practice, his mother finds him a wife; an older and rather unhappy woman who dies early on in their marriage leaving Charles the opportunity to find love. He believes he may have found it in a woman named Emma who he met while setting her father’s broken leg. Emma has dreams, the first of which is to get away from her father’s home, so when Charles asks, she agrees to marry him. Married life is agony for her. She has a pleasant home, a husband who cares for her immensely — almost to the point of smothering her — and she has few tangible complaints. What she wants is romance though. After attending a ball, it’s all she can think about and her boring life holds no interest for her. Charles decides that Emma needs a change of scenery and moves the family (a child will soon be born to the couple) to Yonville. Emma soon finds herself entranced by a law student, Léon Dupuis, who seems to return her affection. Appalled by her own thoughts, she refuses to act and Léon soon leaves to finish his degree.

However, when Emma meets Rodolphe Boulanger, all thoughts of propriety go out the window and she gives in to his advances and starts the affair. She wants to run away, but Rodolphe, who has had several mistresses, decides that she is too clingy and breaks off the affair on the morning they’re to leave town together. Shattered by the end of the affair, Emma falls into a deep depression and sickness. When she finally recovers, Charles again tries to re-interest her in life this time believing the theatre will be the answer. It’s here that she once more meets Léon and begins her second affair. Lie after lie build up as do her debts. Emma is incapable of handling the lies or the debts and begins begging others for help, which doesn’t arrive. In a final dramatic act, she deals the only way she can.

At first, I felt sorry for Charles. He was boring but loving. He wasn’t ambitious at all and was happy with his life. He had a beautiful wife and child and a medical practice that provided the necessities of life. But, again, he was boring. Then he tried to pin everything wrong with his wife on a nervous condition which annoyed me and any sympathy I may have had for the clueless husband vanished. Emma on the other hand, doesn’t exactly deserve any praise. She wants everything, expensive things, is constantly bored, obsessive, and refuses to see any good in her life. She’s always looking for the next best thing. And it must be said, she’s a horrid excuse for a mother. Emma is interesting though and the reason to keep reading because every other character in this book is flat. Toward the end though, when the proverbial dirty laundry is aired, everyone is at fault in some way or another and it’s hard to have any sympathy for any of the characters.

My book had two additional sections at the end about the book itself, trials, bannings, etc. I didn’t read them. I think I wanted to look back on the book from my own perspective and not the perspective of a scandalous 19th Century trial discussing the need for a stricter moral code. Also, I think it would have made me upset and I enjoyed this book and didn’t want it to be marred.

So, back to my first paragraph — the sex. It’s there but it’s off screen. There’s kissing, there’s heavy petting, but shall we say, not what I was expecting considering the ruckus this book caused. Then again, that was back in the day. I don’t want to get into a discussion of morals, really, I’m the last person, but it’s an interesting part of this story and while I never felt lectured to, obviously, Emma is a lesson. But her character is more than simply a woman having an affair, she’s a woman unhinged but somewhat deserving of some understanding, even if it’s just to understand her depression better.

Madame Bovary

By Gustave Flaubert

Penguin Putman

3.75 stars

 

Review – The House I Loved

There are books where the beginning hints at the ending. The House I Loved is one such book but knowing how this one will end is what makes it so special. It builds very slowly and before you know it, you’ve been picked up and carried to the end.

A Parisian widow in mourning for many years, Rose Bazelet still maintains a rather full life on the rue Childebert in the house left to her by her husband. She has her friends and her routines but when the Emperor, Napoleon III, decides to bring Paris into the modern age by destroying what’s considering quaint by her neighborhood’s standards and replacing it with modern and better functioning buildings and facilities, her world comes crashing down. Rose does not want her Paris, the one where memories of her deceased husband and son reside, to be torn down and rebuilt. She takes a stand and makes the decision to fight for her home, her life, and her street. Rose tells everyone she knows that she will not be leaving her family home and nothing, not money or destruction, will make her leave the house she feels she must protect at all costs for the husband she dearly misses.

Hiding in the basement of her home, with frequent visits from Gilbert, a homeless man who has taken to protecting and helping Rose, she writes to her husband. In long letters, and short, she tells him about her fight and how the man at the office treated her as if her home and life meant nothing — and indeed it meant nothing to him all. She reveals long held secrets to him, secrets she has never told another living person. Rose writes about her neighbors that have brought her joy over the years and have kept her company after his death. As the day of destruction nears, her letters become more heart wrenching, sad, and poignant.

I’m the type of person that will read the last page of a book before I start. I love spoilers just that much. The House I Loved was the first book in a very long time where that didn’t happen. I had a feeling I knew how this one was going to end and I don’t say this as a way to ruin this book for anyone. The beauty is really in the letters and memories Rose is telling and reliving for her husband. Some of the memories were lovely — for instance, when she begins her love of reading and how she tells her husband that she now finally understands how he could sit for hours absorbed in a book. A reader would love that! Others are awful, sad memories that only impending change would cause her to reveal.

I don’t want you to think this book is only sad, it is in a way, but it’s also very heartwarming and the picture that de Rosnay paints of this little street in Paris in the 1860s is very vibrant. The parks, the buildings, and the people are alive in Rose’s letters. And while Rose’s world is very small, it feels much grander thanks to the words she writes to her beloved husband. Her description of a neighbor and friend, Alexandrine, a local florist, is wonderful and you can see how close the women are and how much they admire, and need, one another. It’s in these letters about Alexandrine that you catch glimpses of Rose’s relationship with the daughter she never felt close to and you see why she feels so loving toward Alexandrine.

At first I thought of Rose as a stubborn old woman but soon found myself admiring the character for her strength and convictions. To her, the house was more than just simple bricks and mortar. It was her life and the memories that kept her going. She refused to part with it for reasons that only she understood but also out of love for a husband she wanted desperately to feel close to after his death. It’s a love story on more than one level.

The House I Loved

Tatiana de Rosnay

St. Martin’s Press

ISBN: 9780312593308

4 stars

 

Review – Blood, Bones & Butter

This book has been on my radar for a while but I never quite got around to it for no other reason than I just didn’t. This happens to me sometimes. So, when it arrived in the mail it was fate, I guess.

Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef but not one that’s been classically trained; in fact, you can probably argue that she hasn’t really been trained at all. Her mother, a woman of French decent, instilled in her a love of all food and the ability to cook it. Up until the age of 12, she had an ideal life growing up in a rural area of Pennsylvania punctuated by summer blowout parties and family memories. When her parents decide to divorce, she ends up taking care of herself and finding it not so easy a project. She’s smart but barely finishes high school. She is able to work but can’t seem to hold down a job without getting in trouble. And even though she manages to get into college, she can’t manage to stay there. She takes on catering jobs in all the places she lands, and along the way, realizes this is what she knows, what she can do, and what she wants to do. She wants to feed people and share her food experiences with them.

I was skeptical at first — really the first chapter of this book is setup so sweet that you’re pretty sure she was walking around with rainbows streaming out of her ass. That might sound harsh, but I put this one down a few times only a few pages in wondering exactly what was going on. No one’s life is like that and then it all came to a crashing halt, and not that I felt better, but it felt like a better book. Hamilton is a trained writer, MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, so she knows the tricks and she used them in that first chapter. My favorite parts were the rougher ones though. When she moves to New York for college she takes a job as a waitress and then gets on the night shift where she finds she can make a ton of money. When she ends up in trouble, legal this time, her brother pulls in a few favors to get her out and you see where all of this might go.

The best parts of this book have to do with her time in Italy. Hamilton marries an Italian professor in need of wife to stay in the country, and for whatever reason, she marries him (there is talk of several girlfriends in this book but her sexuality is not explicitly talked about and I don’t feel the need to address it here either other than note this for the sake of non-confusion) and accompanies him back home to Italy every year. She doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know his family at all, but manages to find a place in the kitchen and share her love of food with people she doesn’t know but very much wants to. I didn’t necessarily relate to the family issues though; for me it was the food. We went to Italy on our honeymoon and there are still dishes that I remember so fondly, and yes, I’m sure my recollection is cloudy with wine and love but I wanted to go to those places all over again.

Hamilton is a good writer and she’s able to capture something that we all have memories of, in one way or another, and elevate them to something you want to know more about. Yes, I looked up her restaurant in New York to see what was on the menu because I wondered what a writer talking about food was actually cooking.

I don’t read memoirs, generally, but when I do I tend to prefer ones dealing with food because I think I can relate. I’ve never had aspirations of being a chef, and frankly after watching too many food shows, know I would never be able to even think about it. But this book did make think about food differently and the way it’s intertwined with our lives. This book is not always about cooking and food. In some ways, that comes later to this author, but it’s an interesting look in on a life definitely lived.

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

By Gabrielle Hamilton

Random House
ISBN: 9780812980882

3.5 stars

 

Review – The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Novel of Marie Antoinette

You’ve heard me say it before so don’t act surprised to hear it now — I have a thing about France and particularly Marie Antoinette.  I have no idea why, I just do. Now, since I’m in the confession mood, I read Melanie Clegg’s blog, Madame Guillotine, and have for a while. I’m a good lurker like that and she’s interesting and funny so I keep going back. Anyway, I saw the book there and then one day I saw it come up on my Nook and I bought it. I’m so happy I did too.

The Secret Diary of a Princess is told through the diary entries of the young Marie Antoinette starting as a child in the Viennese Court, her early education (and antics), family turmoil, and her eventual marriage. She leads a privileged life, and because she’s considered unimportant in terms of being marriageable material, she gets away with a lot. When it’s decided by her Empress mother that she will become the Dauphine of France, her life is forever changed. Gone are the jsilly games she would play, gone are the teachers who let her education lag, and in their place are new manners and etiquette to be learned and new people to impress.

This book delighted me in the way it was told. It’s a young girl writing and relaying her antics and daily problems such as not being able to enjoy some of the things her older sibling are allowed to do. When her mother’s plans are announced for her future, Marie Antoinette is no longer the least important of the daughters but is now the daughter the Empress is placing a huge burden on. She begins to feel the weight of what her mother wants of her but you also see a very young, and very scared, girl. I liked that. While Marie Antoinette doesn’t change dramatically — she still has the worries of and understanding of a young girl who doesn’t see the political ramifications of her actions — you see a glimpse of the woman she’s about to become.

There’s so much written about Marie Antoinette, her early life included, and while no one would say it was easy, it was certainly interesting. She is the youngest child of 15, lives a quiet and sheltered life at the Viennese court, and is then elevated to being the Queen of France. It’s an amazing story in some ways even more fascinating than anything fiction writers can imagine. I think that’s why I keep going back to books about her and this time frame. It all fascinates me so much.

Anyway, back to the book. I enjoyed it and when I came to the end, I was actually sad to see there was no more. It ends in a necessary place but I wanted it to go on. The dairy of a princess must stop when she stops being a child. My only quibble, and it’s a small one, is that I never thought of Marie Antoinette as being a writer so it took me a minute to take my early thoughts out it and get lost in the story. It didn’t take long. I was too entranced by the story to care at that point.

Finally, I did see that Clegg is writing a sequel to this one and I’m planning to read that one as well. I’m interested to see how she handles the next stage in this character’s life.

A Secret Diary of a Princess: A Novel of Marie Antoinette

By Melanie Clegg

BN ID: 2940011400735

Smashwords Self-published

4 stars

Review – Enchantments

Masha Rasputin, and her younger sister Varya, became the wards of deposed Tsar Nickolay Romanov in 1917 shortly after her father’s mutilated body is pulled from the river. The daughter of Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, known better as the Mad Monk Rasputin, she understands the only safe place for them is with the tsar and his family even though she would rather leave St. Petersburg to be with her mother back in Siberia. Masha and Varya leave for the imperial palace and soon find themselves under arrest with the royal family.

Hoping that Masha has inherited some of her father’s mythical healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks Masha to attend her son Alyosha, the tsarevich and next in line to carry on the Romanov dynasty. Sick since birth — his hemophilia is unspoken of and he is never seen in public unless healthy — Alyosha suffers from extreme loneliness and is burdened with the knowledge that he will die earlier than expected. Terrified of the slightest bump causing unseen, and unstoppable bleeding, the tsarina prays constantly for his health and will do anything she can to keep him safe, including bringing in Rasputin to heal him when necessary. While she never directly says it, she wants the same thing from Masha, who knows she cannot provide the same reassurance, or healing powers, the tsarina is looking for.

What Masha can do is tell stories and she spends her days with Alyosha telling him about her family, every detail of her father’s life, their home in Siberia, her love of horses, and they discuss what they would do if they were to escape. Alyosha knows their lives will end but doesn’t speak of this to anyone but Masha who fears he may be correct but doesn’t want to believe too strongly in his convictions. Their stories and time together become an escape, not only the loneliness they both suffer from, but from daily reminders of what little life holds for them at the moment.

If you know anything about the Romonovs, it’s a sad time for this once powerful family. The tsar no longer holds any power and the tsarina has lost herself in her religion spending her days praying for the safety of her son almost oblivious to the fact there is nothing left of their former life. The four Romanov daughters are not spoken of much but are mostly just background players filling out the tableau of characters. It’s all about Masha and Alyosha and the stories she’s telling him — her own form of healing therapy. While she doesn’t have the healing powers of her father, she can distract Alyosha and take him away from the horror that has become their lives.

Each chapter in this book is a small story tied together by the people involved. You can’t really think of this book as traditional with a beginning, middle, and end but if you take each chapter as a story of its own, it’s an intriguing book. No, things won’t tie up nice and neat but you will get the thread of story as if someone were telling you about their time with a dear friend and what they spoke about and did during their time together. It’s also a very sweet love story of two teenagers who know they have no future together but spend each day trying to forget what they can’t change. They’re in an untenable situation but they manage to seek out the only the joy they can find.

This book is aptly named. The story, while in no way linear, is a tale of love and hardship that spans years. Harrison doesn’t ignore the ghost of death hanging over everyone but manages to make the situation one of hope and a life dreamed of outside of palace walls.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Enchantments

Kathryn Harrison

Random House

ISBN: 9781400063475

4 stars

Review – The Technologists

Boston, 1868, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to graduate its first class. Founded four years before, the school has endured the mocking of its neighboring and well-known school, Harvard University, but is coming into its own.

On a foggy night at the harbor, a terrible accident takes place resulting in the wreckage of several ships. The accident is blamed on faulty compasses, which were reported to spin wildly at the time several of the ships were pulling into port causing the catastrophe. Some individuals believe it might be the work of some strange phenomenon and others a madman. The police aren’t sure who to turn to for answers — Harvard with its gravitas or the new upstart school with the means for experimentation. When a second odd event, glass melting spontaneously in an area in downtown Boston, causes the death of a popular actress, the police turn to an esteemed Harvard professor to find the answer. However, students from the Institute of Technology also decide to investigate knowing their means of experimentation will result in a faster answer and hopefully bring calm to the city.

Marcus Mansfield, and several of his colleagues including the first female student of the Institute, re-form The Technologists, a defunct club at the school, and begin their investigation in a secret basement laboratory experimenting with every known compound to find the answers they need. Racing to put an end to the madness now griping the city, they search for a madman using technology to prey on the fears of everyone.

Rivaling investigations take place between the two schools — old Harvard with an eminent scholar at the helm ready to explain how man has brought about the accidents and the Institute of Technology ready with chemicals and formulas to counter the out of date arguments of the old university. The police aren’t sure who to turn to and finally decide on the tried and true Harvard University but find the arguments put forth aren’t stopping the bizarre occurrences. When Marcus and his friends are able to find explanations for the events, the police aren’t willing to listen. When they finally begin to understand, it may be too late to save everyone and the city from total destruction.

The geek in me loved the science in this book. The Technologists is true to its name in that regard. Marcus Mansfield, a former soldier and factory man, is an example of the old world meeting the new. He understands technology and the fears of the men who work in the shops. The idea that man has brought down the wrath of God on himself with his experimentation adds some nice tension but unfortunately, isn’t explored in much detail as the real culprit starts to come into focus.

One of the more interesting characters in the book, Ellen Swallow the first female student at the school, adds to the outdated thoughts that man with his new experiments is testing the limits of his creator by allowing a woman to study, not only among men, but science. Her steadfast mind proves she can more than hold her own among her peers though. She might take a minute to grow on you as a character but she’s definitely one of the more notable ones.

I became a fan of Pearl’s with The Dante Club. I enjoyed the way he married technology and fear in this book and think fans of his earlier works will find The Technologists an enjoyable read as well.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

The Technologists

By Matthew Pearl

Random House

ISBN: 978140006657-5

3.5 stars