Review – Unfamiliar Fishes

In September 2011, I went to hear Sarah Vowell speak at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. I stood in the back and laughed as she read her snarky take on the history of Hawaii. I bought the book that night at one of my two favorite bookstores. Yes, I have two favorites.

In the 1800s, missionaries began arriving in Hawaii with plans to educate the good people of the islands on what it meant to be a good Christian. Upon arrival, they take on the task of reforming a society with some strange customs (royal incest was normal and encouraged) and impose on them some strange new customs of their own, forgetting the entire time they were no longer in New England but Hawaii.

History can be, and is, strange. I’m always fascinated when I come across something so out of the ordinary, especially when it concerns something I feel I should know more about.  Hawaii is a state I don’t know much about. I’ve never been there, not for lack of trying to convince my husband, but a place I do hope to one day visit and not for the beaches alone although that would be cool too. What I want to now see is the original Hawaii. What it was before America decided it needed to have it. And no, I’m in no way trying to start any kind of argument about statehood here. This book made me think about the complications that statehood certainly entailed, but also about what we all lose as days go by and we see things though a camera or screen without actually seeing what’s there.

This isn’t my first Vowell book (The Wordy Shipmates was) and it won’t be my last. I enjoy the witty way she looks at a slice of history and imposes her own past on it which might annoy some people but I think it’s absolutely necessary to do that because not only are we trying to understand others but ourselves through that process of learning. I’m looking forward to reading Assassination Vacation which she takes a look at places made famous by, yes, assignations.

Unfamiliar Fishes

By Sarah Vowell

Riverhead Books

ISBN: 9781594487873

4 stars

Review – Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

There are books that make me feel very sad; Frankenstein is one of those books. It was a strangely profound sadness that for whatever reason, made me wish the book wouldn’t end because I wanted to find a morsel of light in this dark, lonely tale. It was not to happen.

Having been encouraged early on by loving, generous parents, Victor Frankenstein grows up in a happy household in Geneva surrounded by the comforts of home and family. While as a child he was mildly obsessed with old scientific theories, his father encourages him to broaden his thoughts. Right before he is to leave for school in Germany, the first of his life’s tragedies happen — his mother, a beloved figure to him, passes away after nursing his much loved adopted sister, Elizabeth, back to health. He leaves for Germany with a heavy heart. While there, he throws himself into the sciences, exceeds all his expectation with his interest in chemistry and like sciences. It’s this interest though that causes his second tragedy — the creation of a monster with parts culled from places unmentioned. When the monster escapes, his fears all become real and death follows wherever he goes. He falls into a deep depression knowing that whatever he has to do to stop the monster of his creation, he will never be happy and there will never be any solace.

This is not my first time reading this book but parts felt completely new to me. I love when this happens to me while re-reading. It’s like discovering something that you want to share with everyone. That said, Frankenstein is not an easy read. The words flow easily enough but it’s the emotional toll that got me this time. I really, truly, felt so sad while reading that at one point I burst out crying for no reason. To be affected like this by a book I’ve experienced before surprised me.

There is so much to this book but for the sake of those that don’t like spoilers, I won’t mention all that happens. There are moments when reading though that you wonder how much one person can take and if it’s fair for Frankenstein to heap all the blame on himself. While, yes, he created a monster that has crossed the line and taken life, and has held over him another life if he didn’t comply with his wishes, sometimes things in life are not meant to be. The monster is a physical manifestation for everything that has gone wrong for him. The loneliness that comes with the realization for Frankenstein made me want to put the book down. I couldn’t though because I was waiting for some kind of resolution. When it happens, it’s not satisfying at all. There is remorse, for Frankenstein, and in some way for the monster as well, but it didn’t make me feel any better. It only brings on more grief.

Now that I’ve sufficiently depressed you, let’s talk about something else. The monster has no name; he is simply the monster. Frankenstein is the scientist. Why did I need a reminder of that? Huh, the things we forget. I didn’t remember much from the first reading of this (it may well have been shortly after high school) and my memory faded. I was happy to renew it though. Of course, now each time I see a movie based on the book I’m going to be looking for mistakes.

I read this book for the Gender in SFF challenge. Glad I finally found an excuse to pick this one up again. If you like horror, fantasy, and science fiction, read this one. If you shy away from this one because you think I might be gruesome, it’s not. It’s worth a read.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

By Mary Shelley

Signet Classic

ISBN: 0451527712

4.5 stars

Review — Neverwhere

Neverwhere

By Neil Gaiman

HarperTorch

ISBN: 0380789019

4.75 stars

There are some authors you know will always cheer you up especially when you’ve had a rough day. Neil Gaiman is one of those authors. When I’ve had a day I want to forget, I know I can count on him to take me somewhere else with his words.

Neverwhere, sadly, has languished on my list for a long time, and at one point, I thought I might have read it. I was indeed wrong about that. While in my favorite bookstore one night, I gave in and bought it. I was so glad I did too.

Richard Mayhew leads a normal, rather boring life. He works in an ordinary corporate job filing reports and is engaged to a beautiful woman who slightly intimidates him. But he’s sure it’s the life he wants. It’s ordinary and normal; what everyone wants. On his way to dinner with his fiancée, he stops to aid a girl bleeding on the street. Knowing he can’t leave the girl hemorrhaging on a London sidewalk, he decides to help her and walks away from his ordinary and normal life. He finds out the London he’s been living in has a whole other side, one that feeds off of the unbelievable and a world he can’t quite understand. It’s where Richard finds himself and he’s able to let go of everything he thought he wanted and embrace a new life.

Oh, where to begin. The idea of a London underground is fascinating and Gaiman does a fantastic job making it real. The subway stops, the markets, and even the creatures. There’s something amazing about being able to slip into this world, much like good ol’ reliable Richard Mayhew, and through him be amazed. My favorite part is when he’s no longer stunned by everything and even starts to see connections and rationalizations for how things work. It changes him and for the better I thought. The new Richard wasn’t so invisible anymore. He was, well, whole — something he wasn’t before.

When I picked this book up I was in a slight reading lull. Nothing good, nothing bad; just sort of meh about the books I was reading. I wanted new, exciting and I’m sorry I didn’t look to my old favorites quicker. When I spied this on the shelf I knew it would be perfect. American Gods will soon be purchased for my reading enjoyment and probably a few more in the Sandman series. Oh, holidays, I can’t wait for you this year.

Review – The Castle of Wolfenbach

The Castle of Wolfenbach

By Eliza Parsons

ISBN: 2940013320802

3 stars

I picked up The Castle of Wolfenbach after Chris at Chrisbookarama reviewed it. She described it as essentially being so bad it was good. I downloaded it to my Nook, and honestly, I had a good time with it. I’ve never read a book with so much fainting and weeping before and all of it amused me.

Matilda Weimer lives a quiet life at her uncle’s home in Germany. Both parents are dead and she relies on her uncle for everything. After overhearing a conversation between her uncle and the housekeeper that involves plans for her, she convinces another servant, Albert, to runaway with her. They end up seeking shelter at the Castle of Wolfenbach while trying to figure out what to do. The caretakers of the castle, Joseph and Berta, agree to put them up but warn that the castle is haunted. Matilda ignores their pleas, and the supposed haunting, and finds out the secret of the castle — the Countess of Wolfenbach is very much alive and confined to the upper halls by a secret pledge she cannot reveal. The Countess’s story is as sad as Matilda’s and the two scheme to send Matilda to the Countess’s sister in France. Once there, Matilda befriends the Countess’s sister, the Marchioness, and finds herself in a safe place until her uncle shows up and lays claim to her. This sets in motion a new series of events involving a nunnery, a chase across the sea, pirates, revealed secrets, unrequited love, and finally marriage.

There are so many twists and turns in this book at one point I started laughing out loud and wondered how much more I could take and then got right back to it realizing how much fun I was having thinking about the next crazy antic. Almost every woman in this story is aggrieved, heartbroken, or hiding. Poor Matilda among the worst of them too — she’s got an uncle who has sick plans for her, she has no family members alive (that she knows of), no love interest, views herself as sad and lonely, cries at the drop of a hat, and she’s on the run with no money. Every one she meets has sympathy for her and luckily for her they all want to help and have the money and or mean to offer help. It’s a ridiculous story though and here’s why (and no it’s not the addition of pirates although that contributed) — no one, and I mean no one, can have this amount of drama and luck at the same time without being in a gothic novel. How do you know when you’re reading a gothic novel? Characters faint then weep, and then faint some more and then someone comes to their rescue. And yes, that person can be a pirate who has seen the light and plans to leave the death and destruction of the waves behind.

OK, there’s a reason why Jane Austen pokes fun at these stories. This one along with The Mysteries of Udolpho are mentioned in Northanger Abbey and while two of the characters revere the books with a sense of awe, others deride them for even bothering to read them. Austen pans the books and rightly so but you can see how someone would get hooked on one. Yes, this one was laugh out loud funny at times and ridiculous at points but fun. I’ve had The Mysteries of Udolpho on my Nook for a while now and I feel like I need to get to it. I’ve heard better things about that one and now that a toe has been dipped in the Gothic novel pool, I may be willing to add a whole foot.

Review – The Queen’s Rival: In the Court of Henry VIII

The Queen’s Rival: In the Court of Henry VIII

By Diane Haeger

Penguin Group

ISBN: 9781101478905

3.5 stars

I can’t pinpoint the moment I had my fill of Tudor stories but it occurred sometime in 2011. Yes, I lasted longer than most. I won’t pretend this will be my last either. Earlier this year I read a non-fiction book on Henry VIII and thought that would be my last but I forgot I had downloaded this to my Nook and found myself reading it when I needed something comforting — this is a setting I know well. I was out of town on a long business trip and I turned to it.

Elizabeth (Bess) Blount is a beautiful and naïve girl who lands a position in Queen Katherine’s household. This new position puts her directly in front of Henry VIII. Amazed by the opulence of the Court and especially by the King himself, she finds herself in a precarious situation. She can become the mistress to the King she believes she loves and in the process ruin her reputation and position with the Queen and possibly bring the downfall of her family. She picks Henry and gives him something he’s been wanting for years, a son.

While nothing about this story felt new, if you read enough books set in Tudor England nothing feels new, but it was well written and interesting. Parts were slow and at other times it felt as if large sections of Bess’s life were left out. We go from seeing her as a 14 year-old, and it feels as if only a few months worth of time, then she’s the King’s mistress and shortly after pregnant with his child. She finds a life outside of Court, and it’s a happy one at that, but it goes by so fast and I wondered when she turned 30. Besides that small quibble, it was good. A solid read.

I was wondering why I purchased this one considering I thought I was done with the Tudors and as it turns out it was for a challenge. So, now it appears I’m finished with The Royal Mistress Challenge. I ended on a good note then.

Review – The Stonehenge Legacy

The Stonehenge Legacy

By Sam Christer

The Overlook Press

ISBN: 9781590206768

3.5 stars

Every once in a while I crave a good thriller — the relentless pace, suspense keeping me constantly turning the page. When I finish, I want to feel windswept and out of breath from trying to keep up. For this, I’m willing to suspend all disbelief and go with it. If you’re willing to do just that, Christie spins an entertaining tale.

Nathaniel Chase is a famed treasure hunter and archeologist; though he’s more famous for this treasure hunting than his archeological advances. His sudden death is a shock to his son, Gideon, who has not spoken to him in years. Distraught and confused over the death of a father he hardly knew — Nathaniel withdrew from Gideon’s life after the death of his wife — Gideon doesn’t know what to do with the news of his father’s suicide. With nowhere else to go until he can make funeral arrangements, he decides to go to his father’s home and unexpectedly interrupts a break-in. Injured but not seriously hurt, he returns to the house wondering why anyone would be interested in his father’s home. He was a rich, well-known person but his treasures weren’t kept at his house. To Gideon, it’s more than the simple smash and grab the local police seem to think it is. Curious, he starts looking around the house and finds a hidden room full of his father’s journals written in a code only Gideon understands.

What Gideon uncovers in the journals is a record of a secret society devoted to protecting the gods of Stonehenge. Unsure of what he’s found, Gideon, an archeologist in his own right, decides to investigate and possibly infiltrate the cult. Unfortunately for Gideon, several plans are already in motion and his timing couldn’t be worse.

In thrillers of this nature, death is usually in abundance and time is always lacking. Although, the addition of Stonehenge is a nice touch and good backdrop for a story that includes a kidnapping of a famous American, the death of a British Lord’s son, and the disappearance of several others in a small, English country town. Yes, there are a few moments along the way when you go, “huh?”, but overall the plot surrounding the cult is strong enough to pull you and the plot through. Of course, you have to be willing to go along with conspiracy theories, police procedures, kidnappings, and cult behavior. Once you get there, Christer manages a pace that has you wondering when he’s going to drop the ball. But he never does. He keeps the tension going until the end. I wasn’t completely sold on the ending but things are satisfactorily wrapped up even if it might give you pause to wonder where it came from.

The Stonehenge Legacy is one of those books you want with you when you need a distraction and I mean that in a positive way. Christer does a good job of pulling you in and keeping you there with just enough intrigue, suspense, and mystery to hold you there till the end.

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.

Review – A Crimson Warning

A Crimson Warning

Tasha Alexander

Minotaur Books

ISBN: 9780312661755

4 stars

There’s something fun about discovering a new to me author and when I finish the new find, I’m always happy to know more is waiting for me. This is how I felt with A Crimson Warning. I enjoyed the book and learning it is part of a series made me happy to know I would once more have the chance to peek in on Lady Emily’s Victorian London.

The season begins and Lady Emily is looking forward to the balls, her involvement in lobbying for the right to vote, and of course time with her favorite Greek books. At one of the season’s first events, Lady Emily is happily dancing away the evening with her husband Colin looking for an opportunity to sneak out so they can spend some time alone when a fight breaks out among two men. It turns out an affair has been exposed and the two are arguing over ladies at the party. Suddenly, Colin, an agent of the crown, is called away on urgent business. Emily heads home with friends to discuss the eventful evening. When Colin arrives it is with sad news — a well-known business man has been murdered. His fiancée is devastated but it’s when she starts receiving threatening notes from the person who claims to have killed her soon-to-be husband, that Emily and Colin start investigating. Days later, red paint is found splashed on the homes of some of London’s most well-to-do. The paint is a warning and shortly after secrets are revealed leaving some in London to revel in the disclosures, and others to fear for their lives and what will be revealed about them. When two of society’s ladies are kidnapped, the season that held so much promise for fun, is now filled with fear.

Lady Emily is far from the standard lady of the day. While she enjoys the pleasures of the season, it’s her work lobbying for the women’s right to vote that riles her mother, a more straight-forward Victorian lady, to no end. She’s also smart and extremely well-educated which keeps her highly involved in her husband’s affairs with the crown. And more so, he’s willing to keep her involved even when others think he’s wrong to do so. Their relationship is certainly more open than most at the time and that’s one of the reasons this story is fun. There is romance too but it’s not overwhelming and blends nicely in with the story. As a non-romance reader, I was slightly worried that it would overtake the story and I was happily surprised with the balance that was struck.

While I enjoyed Colin and Lady Emily’s investigation, what I enjoyed even more was the setting. Alexander does a wonderful job with the details creating interesting ladies and a picture of Victorian England that is easy to be swept up in. I do wish Lady Emily’s mother played a larger role in this book — she was quite the interesting character and obviously one very different from Emily. It would have been fun to see more of their interactions.

As a reader of a lot of historical fiction, this is one author I’ll be returning to for a dose of fun mixed with a great historical setting. Alexander does a fantastic job of weaving together interesting characters with a mystery to keep you wondering what secrets are buried deep in the closets of high society. If you like a little mystery mixed with your historical fiction, Alexander doesn’t disappoint.

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.

Review – Child of the Northern Spring

Child of the Northern Spring

By Persia Woolley

Source Books

ISBN: 9781402245244

4 stars

Guinevere, a young woman barely 18 years-old and while a strong and intelligent person, she’s out of her element when it comes to practices of the court.  The chosen bride of the newly minted King Arthur, she’s leaving her father and the only home she’s ever known to meet him and prepare to be his wife and queen.  Their first meeting a few years prior to the marriage arrangement left her interested but not fully convinced she was the right woman for him.  Without a better marriage offer and wanting to protect her homeland, she undertakes the journey to become his partner.

Arthur and Guinevere’s match is a good one — they’re both strong people and have an affinity for each other.  When the Saxons, always a threat to the country at this time, decide to attack, Arthur moves his armies to meet them and they both find out what it means to be king and queen and husband and wife.

I prefer Arthurian legend stories with a touch of historical reality rather than magic.  There is some magic in Child of the Northern Spring but it’s more in the form of religion and gods which is fine.  Merlin does make an appearance and there are moments when he calls down the gods and their wrath and the same can be said for Arthur’s sister, Morgan.  I’m all right with magic in that capacity though.  For as much as I adore fantasy, I don’t always like it mixed with my Arthur and Guinevere.  Go figure.

This book does move slowly and is told in more flashbacks than I felt necessary but it provides a nice background and history for Guinevere and who she is as a person.  I like that she isn’t a meek woman in this story and even though she’s unsure of herself, some of that is due to her age and that she’s never lived at court or even ran her father’s household after the death of her mother.  It’s a lack of confidence and she begins to gain more at the end of the book.

Child of the Northern Spring is the first in the Guinevere trilogy and with my ability to never walk away from a series, especially one that involves Arthur and Guinevere, I see myself reading more.  If you enjoy Arthurian legend, this one is worth a look.