Monday, 29 April 2013

Scare Me - Richard Jay Parker

“When did you last Google yourself?”

Wealthy businessman, Will Frost, gets woken in the middle of the night by an anonymous caller, asking him exactly this.

When Will goes online, he finds a website has been set up in his name, showing photographs of the inside of his home, along with photographs of six houses he’s never seen before.

In the first of these strange houses, a gruesome murder has already taken place.
Will is then told that his own family is in mortal danger.

The only way he can keep them safe is to visit each of the houses on the website in person – before the police discover what has happened there.

Seven houses.

Seven gruesome homicides.

Seven chances to save his daughter’s life…

Doesn't that mystery sound pretty exciting? I thought so. Also, pretty ridiculously original. Apparently, Parker's other thriller which I haven't gotten around to reading yet takes on chain emails. I really like that he is using new rules of the digital age to explore timeless genres. 

When I first started reading this book, I thought it was a sequel that I had missed the first book of. There were a lot of references to things that had happened before the events in the book and in the "you'll see as we go along" way but in a way that made me feel like I should have already known these things. That threw me off a bit while trying to get into the book but my interest in the overall mystery kept me going.

The plotting of the thriller and the unravelling mystery are masterfully done. It keeps you on the edge of your seat and guessing all the way. The plot dances to and fro, changing expectations and throwing a surprise twist at you right at the end. I honestly could not figure out where it was going and was pleased with the ending which, although sudden, did seem to fit.

It was impressive to watch all the disparate plot threads that seemed a bit haphazard fit together in the last ten or so pages. I especially liked the small twist with Pope's story, a character I quite liked and was happy to watch gain some character development. 

Is this story incredibly deep? No. But is definitely a breath of fresh air in a genre that can just get SO BORING sometimes. I enjoyed it and would read more Parker in the future, for sure.

Scare Me comes out May 2 (this Thursday) from Angry Robot.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues. 

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.

Sometimes I think about the fact that I say I'm this big lit buff and yet there are some really famous authors that I've never read. Also, sometimes Powell's has a sale and there are books that I think I should read on the sale rack. Sometimes these two things coincide and thus, I recently read Capote's In Cold Blood.

I don't know what I really expected from the book. It's true crime, a genre that I've never really been super into (except for that brief semester in college when I was totally going to join the police ahaha I would be the worst police) but it was such an important piece of American lit that I felt I had to read it. 

The book itself is really good. Although it is technically nonfiction, it reads like a novel, completely seamless and without some of the awkwardness you can get from nonfiction accounts. Capote brings the reader to understand not only the events but the feelings surrounding them, delving into the psyche of whole towns and all the surrounding bystanders. 

You can tell while you're reading, although Capote certainly doesn't lean in any direction particularly, that he has completely done his research and at least felt some compassion for the killers, Perry in particular. After reading the book and looking up some things on my own, apparently he interviewed them several times and was even accused of having a not-strictly-platonic relationship with Perry. You didn't get the sense of that in the book but you could tell that he sympathized with his backstory. When you read it, however, it seems hard not to.

Not to say that you sympathize with the killers because, well, they did kill an entire family. It's just the way Capote tells the entire story that lets the reader see all aspects and make their own judgments. You're never in doubt that Perry and Hicks committed the crime but there is a lot of exploration into how psychology stood at the time, especially in criminal cases which was very interesting.

There has been a bit of backlash that not everything is 100% accurate and that doesn't surprise me. The book reads so smoothly that it does seem likely that a bit may have been fabricated (especially the last scene). However, I think overall the book captures the true nature of the case and represents feelings correctly, if not the exact facts.

You can see why it was such a big hit and is surprisingly easy read for what it is. If you're up for something challenging theme-wise, it's a great read.

Monday, 22 April 2013

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson

Taking readers deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate. This edition features a new introduction by Jonathan Lethem.

A long long time ago on this blog, I reviewed another book by Shirley Jackson called The Haunting of Hill House and absolutely loved it. Since then, I've been meaning to read another Shirley Jackson book but never really got around to it. When I saw this book, with its gorgeous new cover illustrations by Thomas Ott, on display at Powell's, I realized I had to read it. Plus, it's short and as I'm moving cross-country this week, I could probably manage it for the blog.

This is one of those books that I feel like I can't say too much about because all the details unravel as you read the novel. It's told in first person by Mary Catherine Blackwood, a younger daughter of a once respected family that is now blacklisted in the village for unknown reasons at the beginning of the novel. Her headspace is ridiculously well thought out and written, you can hear her voice and feel her thoughts as easily as if she were speaking to you. 

The other characters in the novel are just as intricately drawn. Merricat's older sister Constance is a delight, watching her through Merricat's eyes and trying to distinguish the real woman from the figure her sister sees. It takes you ages to figure out what's going on with Uncle Julian. And their cousin is deliciously dastardly, at least in Merricat's mind.

Castle is the kind of book that you have no idea where it's leading when you're reading and that just adds to its mystery. The climax comes suddenly and the denouement is unexpected. It's the kind of book you just keep thinking about in the days following, still puzzling out little details which you never quite caught. 

It's suspenseful and darkly gothic in the best way. It's also very short at under 150 pages so I definitely recommend it for a bit of a darkly light read.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Light - Michael Grant

It's been over a year since all the adults disappeared. Gone.

In the time since every person over the age of fourteen disappeared from the town of Perdido Beach, California, countless battles have been fought: battles against hunger and lies and plague, and epic battles of good against evil. And now, the gaiaphage has been reborn as Diana's malicious mutant daughter, Gaia. Gaia is endlessly hungry for destruction. She yearns to conquer her Nemesis, Little Pete, and then bend the entire world to her warped will. As long-standing enemies become allies, secrets are revealed and unexpected sacrifices are made. Will their attempts to save themselves and one another matter in the end, or will the kids of Perdido Beach perish in this final power struggle?

Light, the sixth and final book in the New York Times bestselling Gone series by Michael Grant, creates a masterful, arresting conclusion to life in the FAYZ.

Probably a little under a year ago, I wrote a review called Why You Should Be Reading the Gone Series. When I wrote that, the penultimate book had just been released and I wanted everyone to jump onboard. Well, last week, the final book in the saga came out and the other day, I locked myself in my room, away from distractions, to finally see what was going to happen to the poor, poor children of Perdido Beach.

I'm going to be very careful not to leave any spoilers because it is my genuine hope that anyone reading this that likes YA dystopia will run out and marathon all six books because they are that good. I marathoned the first four when I got into them. Seriously, go. It's worth it.

The last book had a lot to live up to. There were quite a few questions that needed answers, a seemingly impossible villain to overcome and the need for an end for this really epic saga. I can happily say that I was not disappointed. Light answers a good 99% of the questions everyone was wondering about (there was one I wasn't satisfied with but what can you do?) and also answers a lot of things you wouldn't have thought about asking. 

This book has the typical countdown clock at the beginning of each chapter, escalating the action to the final climax. However, what I really appreciated was that it continued a good thirty or so pages past the climax, showing us what happens after. I really enjoyed that aspect, something that I wasn't sure we were going to get and although it didn't feel perfect, it felt satisfactory. 

Not all our favorite characters survive but we've come to expect that. Some villains get rewarded. Some heroes don't get their fair share. There are some genuinely sad scenes. But that's why I love the Gone series. It's much more intelligent than a lot of fare out there. It pushes the boundaries for what is acceptable in a YA series. It's definitely gritty, completely gory and has really atrocious details but that all adds to the world building and the completely absorbing atmosphere. I couldn't put a single one of these books down and neither will you.

Anyone who loves YA dystopia and hasn't read these books, you need to get on this right now. You'll plow through them. They're great.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen - Susan Bordo

A ground-breaking retelling and reclaiming of Anne Boleyn’s life and legacy from a preeminent cultural thinker puts old questions to rest and raises some surprising new ones.   Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne’s life, and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination. Why is Anne so compelling? Why has she inspired such extreme reactions? What did she really look like? Was she the flaxen-haired martyr of Romantic paintings or the raven-haired seductress of twenty-first century portrayals? (Answer: neither.) And perhaps the most provocative questions concern Anne’s death more than her life. How could Henry order the execution of a once-beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and critical analysis, Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most infamous relationships. Bordo also shows how generations of polemicists, biographers, novelists, and filmmakers imagined and re-imagined Anne: whore, martyr, cautionary tale, proto "mean girl," feminist icon, and everything in between. In this lively book, Bordo steps off the well-trodden paths of Tudoriana to expertly tease out the human being behind the competing mythologies..

As an early modernist, I always have a lot of interest in Tudor history considering most of my studies were around Elizabeth and her court and Anne Boleyn was her mother. I thought this book, with its focus not on the actual history but on the perceived social history, sounding amazing. And I was right.

Bordo explores the history of Anne Boleyn with a wit and a critical eye. She starts off looking at the official records we still have of the queen, going through the story of her courtship and ultimate death while looking at what we actually have in the historical record and why those things may be subject to scrutiny. In this section, she also looks critically at other "history" books and shows when their sources may be suspect, something I appreciated because I feel like not enough books truly fact check their sources sometimes. 

After going through Anne's own period, Bordo begins looking at how she was received through the ages. She looks at how Catholics vs Protestants viewed her, how Victorian children were taught about her and what she stood for in various ages. It's in this section that we see how different myths that we've all seemed to have heard before got started and see how controversial all this can be.

My favorite section, however, is the last where Bordo looks at how the media, especially of the last hundred years, has treated Anne. She looked at different versions of Anne in film and talked about how to treat historical fiction. Her chapter on The Tudors was incredibly interesting, especially when she talked about her interview with Natalie Dormer, the girl who played Anne Boleyn in the show and how she struggled with the script given to her. My favorite chapter, however, was probably the six page rant about Phillippa Gregory and why she's a good writer but not a good historical novelist. I agreed with all her points and found it a very important addition to the book.

The best part, though, was the afterword, where Bordo talks about what drew her to Anne in the first place, the connections she sees with her own daughter and what inspires her about Anne. After reading all this history and all this perspective, reading how Bordo truly felt was a nice touch and a great ending to the book.

Bordo writes with wit and humor, perhaps a bit harsh at times but never uncalled for. I found myself giggling at many side comments and liked that she didn't pretend to be completely impartial. When she thought something was more likely, she'd say it but always preface it with 'this is what I lean towards' and why. 

I definitely want to read more from Bordo after this. She's a great writer and this book is a must for any fan of history, Anne Boleyn or The Tudors. I loved it.

The Creation of Anne Boleyn comes out April 9th (tomorrow~!) from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." 

They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura's story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. 

Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.

As you may remember, I'm on a bit of a Margaret Atwood kick. I'm determined to read way more of her books as she's absolutely brilliant and it was a shame I never read her before earlier this year. I've read two now and Blind Assassin was next on my list.

I was blown away by The Blind Assassin. Atwood manages to interweave three very different narrative styles: newspaper clippings, a novel within the novel and the unedited and private memoirs of an elderly woman to create one captivating story that never quite reveals where it's going until the ultimate last page.

The story follows the Chase sisters: born into money in a well-to-do family just before the Great Depression, the sisters grow up with each other. Iris, the older sister, is our narrator from the future, as she contemplates her life and the choices that have been made to bring her where she is today.
Laura, the younger, is posthumously famous for a book that had written before her death, a book that changed a lot of things (and that we get to read as the novel within the novel.)

The best part of Blind Assassin is how the plot weaves and sinks in on itself. Things that you think you know for sure within the first few pages become utterly disproven by the last few. Things are mentioned more than once, giving new connections to previous events and new ways of reading the text. Iris isn't always letting on about everything.

The book is beautifully written, the prose absolutely gorgeous. One of my favorite bits is while Iris is on her honeymoon in Paris and sees a bidet for the first time. After her husband explains what it is to her, she thinks, '…They do understand something the others don't, the French. They understand the anxiety of the body. At least they admit it exists.'  Later, when she is comforted by a French waiter she remarks on his understanding, 'The French are connoisseurs of sadness, they know all the kinds. That is why they have bidets.' Just a little part that stuck with me and really shows the depth and the beauty of language of this book.

It won the Booker. It's ridiculously readable. If you have some time, pick it up. It's lovely and mysterious.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Fool - Christopher Moore

A man of infinite jest, Pocket has been Lear's cherished fool for years, from the time the king's grown daughters--selfish, scheming Goneril, sadistic (but erotic-fantasy-grade-hot) Regan, and sweet, loyal Cordelia--were mere girls. So naturally Pocket is at his brainless, elderly liege's side when Lear--at the insidious urging of Edmund, the bastard (in every way imaginable) son of the Earl of Gloucester--demands that his kids swear their undying love and devotion before a collection of assembled guests. Of course Goneril and Regan are only too happy to brownnose Dad. But Cordelia believes that her father's request is kind of . . . well . . . stupid, and her blunt honesty ends up costing her her rightful share of the kingdom and earns her a banishment to boot.

Well, now the bangers and mash have really hit the fan. The whole damn country's about to go to hell in a handbasket because of a stubborn old fart's wounded pride. And the only person who can possibly make things right . . . is Pocket, a small and slight clown with a biting sense of humor. He's already managed to sidestep catastrophe (and the vengeful blades of many an offended nobleman) on numerous occasions, using his razor-sharp mind, rapier wit . . . and the equally well-honed daggers he keeps conveniently hidden behind his back. Now he's going to have to do some very fancy maneuvering--cast some spells, incite a few assassinations, start a war or two (the usual stuff)--to get Cordelia back into Daddy Lear's good graces, to derail the fiendish power plays of Cordelia's twisted sisters, to rescue his gigantic, gigantically dim, and always randy friend and apprentice fool, Drool, from repeated beatings . . . and to shag every lusciously shaggable wench who's amenable to shagging along the way.

Pocket may be a fool . . . but he's definitely not an idiot.

This book should be right up my alley and somehow I'd never heard of it until my friend Colin handed it to me one day and told me I had to read it. After reading the book jacket, I agreed. A book about Lear's Fool? By Christopher Moore? Having a Masters in Shakespeare, I always think that I need to read anything remotely related to him just to make all my ridiculous knowledge worth it. But a book by a proven author I was always down for.

Christopher Moore definitely has fun with language and that was obvious in Fool. He enjoys mixing words from the early modern period with references to Weetabix and Mazdas. There are paraphrases of lines from all sorts of Shakespeare plays and it's obvious that he did at least a good deal of research, even if it does seem like he threw a considerable chunk of it out the window. Once you realize you're in an anachronism, it's all fine and fun.

Pocket, our hero, is really well drawn. I was a bit worried going in since I like reading my Lear with the duel Fool/Cordelia theory in mind. I really like that reading of the play and so not only seeing Pocket and Cordelia as separate characters but as love interests weirded me out a bit. Pocket is a pretty lovable hero, though. Even though he makes some mistakes, it's easy to root for him and he definitely seems like the only person with half a brain in the entire story. The tragedy is played as a tragicomedy (more comedy than tragedy, if we're being honest) and anyone who has seen enough King Lears can understand the idea.

I think I had a bit of trouble relaxing and just reading which is unfortunate because this really is a well-written book. I had a bit of trouble with some of the backstory Moore gave to all the characters. It felt a bit much and unneeded. Moore seems to have a real beef with Lear for some reason and his character was really degraded. I didn't particularly like that.

Overall, however, the book is enjoyable. Pretty clever, very silly and fun.