Friday, August 30, 2013

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (Electronic from Library)
Narrated By: Emily Janice Card
Original Publication Year: 2012
Genre(s): Young Adult Science Fiction
Series: NA
Awards: None

It has been a year of young adult literature for me. It started during a very busy, stressful time at work when I needed some straightforward unabashed escapism and it has just continued on from there. Probably half my reading this year has been young adult*. I mention this just to establish that I had certain expectations going into “The Age of Miracles” – I expected it to be in the vein of much of the other “post-apocalyptic” YA fiction crowding the shelves. But this book took me by surprise and in a very good way.

At heart this is a coming of age tale for a girl I had no problem recognizing. The perspective is the narrator at an older age (maybe 20-25) looking back with a wiser eye at her 11-12 year old self. She’s looking back at this period of time in particular because it was at the beginning of the end of the world. The fact that we are focused at the beginning of a catastrophe, before people realize it is a catastrophe, makes this book somewhat unique. And unlike many other YA books I’ve read this is an apocalypse as Stephen King wrote it in “The Stand”. The author has devised a (somewhat) believable scenario – the slowing of the planet’s orbit – and really thought through all the real consequences and how people would react.

And while the “end of the world as we know it” is an important and interesting aspect of the book, I want to emphasize that it is nowhere near its driving force. The driving force is a serious and introverted 11 year old girl just trying to get through the days at school, losing and gaining friends, starting to really see her parents as people, and falling in love for a first time.  Dealing with a world that is changing in unpredictable ways is just icing on the cake. Or the final layer of dirt on a mud pie. It’s melancholy and personal and it’s every day.

The narrator’s crush is Seth Moreno and as I thought about him; serious, broody, very cute and cool without trying to be; the image of Jordan Catalano from the TV show “My So Called Life” jumped to mind.
Jordan Catalano looking broody

This made me realize that actually this book and that short-lived show have a lot in common – the players in the book are younger but the tone, effectiveness and themes are all very similar. Of course if you weren’t alive in the early 1990’s you probably know nothing about this show which excludes much of the target readership but: if you like that show, track down this book, if you like this book, track down that show.

The narrator of the audio book was competent and well chosen but not especially remarkable.

This is a really lovely and affecting coming of age tale with some apocalyptic flavor thrown in for good measure. In addition, I think it is a good crossover book and would be enjoyed by YA and adult readers equally.

*Part of why I have continued to read YA is that 1) I created a reading list after originally doing research on various blogs and goodreads to find some good books to read and I do want to get to them all and 2) I’ve been listening to a lot of books and prefer to do so with fairly straightforward/less complex books.  Does anybody else have this listening quirk?

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Anne of Green Gables (TV)

I’ve recently broken out my videocassettes (yes videocassettes – remember them?!) of Disney (or CBC or somebody) produced TV production of Anne of Green Gables and its sequel Anne of Avonlea.  I was wondering how it would hold up after many years of not watching, and it may be sentimental nostalgia but it still puts a goofy smile on my face.  This was my introduction to the books by L.M. Montgomery which I subsequently devoured, and which are wonderful, but I still have a real soft spot in my heart for these TV productions.

Okay so it’s melodramatic and pretty sentimental and the acting can be pretty dodgy but it still hits so many right notes.  It has a heroine who succeeds and is admired because she is smart and imaginative.  Sure she gets in all kinds of scrapes but it builds character and in the end just makes her and her life more interesting and fulfilling.  Anne is a fantastic character – far from perfect, she’s vain, impulsive and judgmental among other things – but at her heart she loves life and sees beauty and romance in every moment.  Megan Follows may not win any Oscars but I can’t imagine anyone else as Anne.  And of course Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth (both notable exceptions to the dodgy acting) are note-perfect as Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. 

The relationships that are depicted are also surprisingly complex and wonderful.  The bond between Anne and Matthew is the sweetest father-daughter and breaks my heart every time (“I got old and I didn’t notice”).  The vaguely tragic figure of Diana Berry, always in the shadow of her bosom friend who has “never failed at anything in her life” and who wishes Gilbert Blythe would look at her like he looks at Anne.  And oh, Gilbert Blythe.  I think he ruined me for life in the romance department.  His long-suffering adoration and devotion and occasional insanely romantic gestures still make me sigh.  And his crazy Canadian accent (I’m soarry, Anne - he says this A LOT).  I also need to put out some props for the actor Jonathan Crombie who on this newest re-watching I am realizing is really very good as Gil, especially in expressing how he feels with his face and eyes while delivering a different message with his words. I wonder what he’s up to these days (apparently still acting - thanks IMDB).    

Please say yes 

The scenery is also stunning and I have had a pretty constant yearning to visit Prince Edward’s Island since I first saw the production.  The beach, the woods, the “White Way to Light”, the idyllic farmsteads are all depicted lovingly.  It’s such an interesting time as well – early 20th century - and this seems to be such an authentic (if somewhat rosy) peek into life at that time particularly in rural Canada. 

I'm also including in my LOVE here, the sequel, Anne of Avonlea, though Anne is not nearly as fun and can be irritating in the middle part of the production in Kingsport.  The initial part where everything changes is so well done which is something I appreciate more as I’ve gotten older.  It’s no longer the chummy and insular school days.  Friends are growing up and have different priorities.  It must have been especially lonesome for women like Anne at that time, who followed a career rather than getting married and keeping a home immediately.  I love the inclusion of Katherine Brooke, a woman forced by circumstance and society's limitations to do something she hates.  The actress isn’t great and the character has a treacly sweet ending but I found myself at times sharing in her bitterness in the face of Anne’s indomitable cheeriness and good fortune.  Anne was lucky enough to find loving people to take her in and govern her natural talkativeness and friendliness with a firm courtesy so as Katherine Brooke says she is a mistress of “the Queen act – always knowing the right thing to say.”  Katherine represents the introvert, the less blest soul who was not lucky enough to be taken in by kindred spirits.  It’s a good contrast to Anne.  And she has one of the lines that have alwaysstuck with me “Does life never frighten you with its bleakness Anne Shirley?”  Life and its bleakness do not frighten her -she embraces life in a great big bear hug.  And that for me is at the heart of why Anne is so heroic. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sharpe's Rifles by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe's Rifles (Sharpe, #6)Sharpe's Rifles by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (cds from Library)
Narrated By: Frederick Davidson
Original Publication Year: 1988
Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Series: Sharpe #6
Awards: None

I really enjoy well researched historical fiction particularly that which focuses on Regency Era England. I’ve read Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, a trio of Arthurian novels, which I liked very much. I usually love anything the BBC finds of interest. For all these reasons I should love this series of books which focus on Richard Sharpe, a soldier in His Majesty’s Army during the Napoleonic wars. But I’ve tried once or twice to get into this series with no success. I decided to give it one more shot and thought perhaps listening to the audio might make a difference.

It didn’t. Partially because I did not enjoy the reader (he read Major Vivar like some kind of cartoonish deranged madman). But partially because I think these books are just not for me.

It is not because they are poorly written. Cornwell is an accomplished writer and the book focuses on one known historical event – the British Army retreating from Spain in 1809 – and creates his fictional side adventure onto it including a good level of detail of the time and the place. It is obviously well researched and provides a believable vision of life in the British Army and a portrait of its average soldiers. It is a very military book which is not generally something I love, however one notable exception to that is Patrick O’Brien whose books I love and whose Aubrey/Maturin series could be viewed as the naval equivalent of these books. The problem, if I have to put my finger on it, is a lack of charm perhaps? And by that, I probably mean, a lack of a compelling and likeable main character.

For the majority of the book Sharpe is churlish, prickly, childish, quick-tempered, easily offended, petulant, sullen and unfriendly … need I go on? Needless to say, I found him very difficult to like. Some of his character flaws could be explained by youth or inexperience but Sharpe is meant to be 32 and a long time veteran of the Army. By his behavior and reaction to things I’d have guessed he was 18 or 19. How can he be so completely clueless in dealing with his men? I did not realize that this was number 6 in the series and if anything this secured my dislike even more. If this is what he was like in book 6 than he wasn’t likely to improve. And he says bastard WAY too often. AND he “falls in love” with the first woman who speaks to him. He is a lynchpin for this book and I could not like him so the book fell apart.

I do have to say that I am usually a stickler for reading series in order so I feel a little unfair judging the series after jumping in at book six. However, my biggest pet peeve is series books that aren’t labeled with their place in the line-up and this fell into that category. So I am going to go ahead and be judgmental and say that this series is not for me.

How do you feel about jumping into the middle of series?  Any defense for the Sharpe series?

View all my reviews

Friday, August 16, 2013

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

Love Minus EightyLove Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Format: First paperback and then, when I had to return that to library, I bought the Kindle version.
Narrated By: N/A
Original Publication Year: 2013
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Series: None
Awards: 2010 Hugo Award for the short story “Bridesicle” that the book is based on called.

I was intrigued when I heard about this book because it was based on a very interesting short story that I had listened to through Escape Pod (ep. 247). I have a horrible memory, read a lot and have listened to hundreds of short stories but this one, “Bridesicle”, stuck with me. It was unique, provocative and evocative. In the future, humans have developed the technology to repair almost any damage to the human body but that repair comes with a hefty price tag. A corporation has figured out how to exploit this situation by making frozen desirable women, with fatal injuries, available as brides for the ultra wealthy. Men pay money to visit a "bridesicle" of their choice and the woman is revived enough to be able to speak. She must convince a wealthy man to marry her and pay to revive them fully or go through the terror of these short visits where they are aware they are dead and housed in frozen coffins. I was very interested and a little nervous about how the author would turn it into a full length novel.

Obviously Will McIntosh is not only talented at writing short stories. I was really impressed at how he took his one focused idea and expanded it to paint a realistic and rather chilling vision of the future. The world he reveals is our current world turned up by eleventy thousand – people wear electronic systems that allow them to constantly interact with others and everyone is their own reality TV show. It’s utterly believable and rarely seems forced in a “look at all these clever ideas I have” sort of way. Although seeing all the clever ideas he has as they unfold throughout the book is one of its joys.

The book stays real however because the focus is not on all the technology and gadgetry but on the human heart. How are relationships faring in this hyper-connected and highly consumerist world? There are three perspective characters: Rob, Veronika and Mira. Each one faces a different challenge to finding love and they all in one way or another are connected to the Bridesicle facility. They alternate chapters and each chapter is kept short so there is no danger in getting stuck in a less favorite storyline. There is very little danger of that anyway as each of the characters and stories is worthwhile.

The real triumph of the book for me was that it managed to tackle depressing topics and weighty moral issues while still remaining a really fun read. It managed to point out that whenever the human race achieves something great, it will almost always balance it with their ability to exploit each other mercilessly. But it also managed to be hopeful and, in the end, happy – no matter how complex and crappy our world becomes, we can still find love in the end. Nicely done Mr. McIntosh!

So if you had a choice between death or the possibility of life but married to someone who bought you which would you choose?

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Prettiest Peppers Ever?

I don't generally grow a lot of hot peppers as I don't have a lot of call for them in my cooking.  I like spicy food but am more comfortable when other people fix it.  Weird.  Anyway, this year I got sucked in by Seed Savers to grow an heirloom hot pepper variety called Fish.  I was sucked in because it said it's origin was around the Chesapeake Bay area and was used a lot in the wonderful seafood seasonings of the area.  I'm from that region of the country and Baltimore style steamed Blue Crabs are pretty much my idea of manna from heaven.   This association with nostalgia and good cooking prompted me to give them a shot.

Now I have yet to eat or harvest a single one but I am completely charmed by the plant!  It's variegated and the peppers are green and white striped!  They're adorable!

I can't wait to see what they taste like!  Though I may be so fascinated by their stripey-ness that I won't be able to bring myself to cut them up.  I like being charmed by vegetables.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Some Kind Of Fairy TaleSome Kind Of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (borrowed from Library)
Narrated By: John Lee
Original Publication Year: 2012
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: None
Awards: None

The tone of this book immediately grabbed me. The story begins on Christmas Day which for me is pretty much the only day of the year that seems removed from time and a little magical. So it’s the perfect day for Tara Martin to reappear on her parents’ doorstep, out of the blue, just as she disappeared 20 years earlier when she was sixteen. They are shocked and overjoyed to see her again but as she tries to explain where she has been for 20 years, it is clear that she is not telling the truth. But the truth, when she finally does reveal it, is more unbelievable than the lies.

The book has multiple narrators revealing different pieces and perspectives of the story. Tara herself weaves the fantastical tale of where she has been for, what for her felt like six months, but to everyone else was twenty years. Her brother Peter and his childhood best friend (also Tara’s ex-boyfriend) Richie, Peter’s son Jack and finally the psychiatrist treating her. All of them are trying to translate Tara’s story into reality and figure out what it means.

To be honest, there is not a strong narrative plot. The book seems to be posing the scenario of “missing girl shows up 20 years after disappearing and looks no older than when she left” and then explores what that would mean to those around her. Interestingly, he does not include her parents’ reaction and I’m not sure why. He focuses on her contemporaries Peter and Richie, one of whom has grown up and moved on with a wife and four children (Peter) and one who has never quite left his 18 year-old self behind (Richie). Jack has his own separate storyline that brings in an older lady in the neighborhood who proves to be important to Tara and to make the point that there is much more to things than their appearance.

It floats along as Tara reveals in dreamy sequences the story of what happened to her while she was away and as those around her try to connect with her again and evaluate their own life since she first disappeared. And while none of that may sound terribly gripping, the book was strangely addictive to me and I enjoyed being in its world and floating along with the characters. It has a fairy tale like quality while still being rooted in the modern world and I think I really appreciated that juxtaposition and thought he accomplished it much better than most main stream urban fantasies I’ve read.

The narration was nothing special but was well done. The reader delivered much of the dialogue in a lilting accent that is likely characteristic of the area of England in which the story is set. It was a pleasant book to listen to and I think it may have added to the fairy tale quality of the story.

Anybody else read and enjoyed this book?  How would you feel if you were in Tara's shoes?  This was my first Graham Joyce book - do you have a particular Graham Joyce book you'd recommend above all others?

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth  (The Pillars of the Earth, #1)The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Kindle (borrowed from Library)
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 2002
Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Series: The Pillars of the Earth #1
Awards: None

This is a very well known book (turned into a mini-series) about the trials and tribulations involved with building a Cathedral in the twelfth century. It focuses on a number of characters whose perspective the reader alternately inhabits: Tom Builder is a Master builder with a dream of building a Cathedral some day, Prior Phillip is the God-loving and practical Monk who hires Tom to build a cathedral, Aliena is daughter of a local Earl, much sought after but strong-willed and cleverer than most women of the time are supposed to be, Jack Jackson is Tom’s very clever step-son who follows in Tom’s footsteps, and William Hamliegh is the ultra-evil but not very smart nemesis of all. There are a number of other significant characters but the above are those to whose head we are allowed access.

My impression of this book is that it is a King among historical novels. People LOVE this book. Average rating on Goodreads: 4.24 – one of the highest I’ve seen – and that’s with over 240,000 ratings. It’s not surprising then that my expectations were rather high. It’s also not surprising that it didn’t quite live up to them.

It was a highly enjoyable and addictive read. During one stretch of four days traveling for work I devoured almost two-thirds of the book. It was easy to sit and get lost in it. It wouldn’t be too far off to call it a medieval soap opera, chock full of political, personal, religious and relationship drama. But it’s not fair to write it off so lightly. While it is perhaps a tad overly dramatized, I did feel immersed into medieval life particularly the dangers that people faced. Starvation was a reality for many and there were no real laws protecting common folk from tyranny. If the Earl who happened to control your village was just and responsible, you had some hope of a hardworking but peaceful life but if you were dealt an immoral and evil Earl, life could be violent and short-lived. The moral I took from this story? Thank your lucky stars that you do not live in the Middle Ages.

I also enjoyed the characters, which represent a cross section of good versus evil. The author doesn’t delve too deeply into the characters but he provides them with enough complexity to stay interesting. The “good” characters are particularly interesting because they are not allowed to be wholly good and some of the flaws have rather large consequences (like Tom Builder ignoring his son Alfred’s weak and bullying nature). The evil characters are more black and white which is disappointing. Follet seems to be positing that nobody is perfect but if your soul is basically good and moral, good things will come to you in the end.

Another real selling point for this book is that there is something here for everyone: romance, adventure, political intrigue, mystery, family drama. I feel like Follet did a good job of weaving the narrative into actual historical events. It’s an era of English history that I was pretty fuzzy about and the novel gave a strong flavor of the time and major events.

So with all these positive thoughts about the book why did it not meet expectations? Mostly because it followed a very obvious pattern with little variation and did so for just a little too long. Basically the “good” people would achieve something great or things would start to look all rainbows and puppies for them and then the “bad” people would come in and thwart everything and all would look lost. Repeat ad nauseum. The story at its basic level was very simplistic which in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad but it carried on far too long and I got a little bored and disengaged in the final third. I also didn’t particularly love or become attached to any of the characters which I think was because I felt I didn’t get to know any of them too deeply.

For me this was a solid and very readable historical novel. Framing the novel around the building of a cathedral was a particularly brilliant idea and provided it with an epic feel. 3.5 stars.

Are there any mega-fans of this book out there?  What especially made you love it?  Any haters?

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mmmmmm... Parsley and Cucumbers that won't Grow Up

That's what my friend Ms. (or Mr.) Papilio polyxenes (aka Black Swallowtail) has to say:

 The parsley this lovely caterpillar is eating was some I cut and entered, along with the yarrow sharing the "vase", into the County Fair Hort Show a couple weeks ago.  Since then it's been sitting on my dining room table and this morning I noticed the water they were in was filled with little round pellets.  Had one of the plants produced seeds?  And then I noticed my caterpillar friend and it all made sense.  It was frass (aka caterpillar poop)!  He must have just been an egg or very small instar hanging on the leaves when I cut them to go to the fair.  Kinda cool that he/she's been just hanging out, self contained, on these couple sprigs of parsley on my dining table:0).  I didn't really want to hatch a full grown Black Swallowtail in my dining room however, so I put him out in one of my parsley patches. I'm hoping he'll stick around and build a chrysalis soon so I can watch. Fun!

In other garden news, I learned something this week.  A majority of my cucumbers have withered and browned while still small which has been pretty sad and frustrating.  I investigated the problem and discovered that it was because the female flowers (those with the cucumbers behind them) weren't being pollinated.   This could be because of a dearth of pollinators (in which case you can pollinate manually with a paint brush) or in my case I think it's because of a dearth of male flowers (those without a cucumber behind it).  Currently there is only one male flower and a bunch of female flowers.  Not much I can do this year but next year I think I will plant more cucumber plants and also plant some more flowers around the area to make sure it's a happy place for pollinators.  Then I'll have more cucumbers than I know what to do with:0)  Feast or famine, feast or famine...

Learned anything new in the gardening arena?  Learned anything new period?

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrman Style

  I'm a pretty established fan of film director Baz Luhrman. Strictly Ballroom is one of my top ten favorite films.  Mentioning that I'm a fan of his is probably enough to  automatically tell you something about the types of movies I like because he has a distinctive and persistent style.  When you see a Baz Luhrman film, you KNOW you are watching a Baz Luhrman film.  I appreciate his deliberately over-the-top, frenetic, wacko style and I love what a goofball he is for a good love story.  Knowing all of this, I also know that he is not for everyone and when I heard the mixed reviews for his new film, The Great Gatsby, I was wondering if the haters were folks who just don't appreciate Baz's style or if the movie really did have major problems.  So I really wanted to see it but was nervous.  After all he hasn't always produced winners (cough... Australia... cough) and I  really did not want to see him fail with an iconic American classic. 
So I am very relieved to say that I think most of the haters are in fact people who just don't get Baz Luhrman.  Or perhaps huge scholars or worshippers of the novel.  I admit that I have read and liked The Great Gatsby but it was a long time ago and I remember little about it except that it is about neighbors in New York in the 1920s and there is money.  So I wasn't going in with any strong preconceptions or visions of how it ought to be.  
So my relief is because I liked it.  Quite a lot in fact.  The styling, as usual, is interesting and beautiful, almost mesmerizing. The costumes are in particular stunning but the whole sheen (sets, lighting, etc...) is incredibly evocative of the time and place.  It is a phenomenol treat for the eyes. The story is, of course, a fantastic one and I think that comes through strongly.  It made me want to read the book again and I feel like it would inspire new readers.  
The casting is perfection and all of the performances are well done.  Leonardo DiCaprio is a stand out as the complicated Gatsby but Tobey Maguire is also great as the much less complicated Nick Caraway.   
My answer to some of the major criticisms I've heard about:
 It misses the point or heart of the book:  Well as I said, I read and liked the book but I'm not an avid fan or intimately familiar with it so I didn't have a problem here and I didn't feel like the film was all superficiality.  It is not without heart and has some quiet, introspective moments.  I have no doubt that this is Baz Luhrman's vision of the Great Gatsby which may not be an exact reproduction of Fitzgerald's book but I'm all right with that.
The modern music doesn't work:  I thought it worked really well especially for putting the party scenes into a modern context and drawing a parallel between the decadence of the 1920's and the superficiality of our modern society.
The car scenes:  People have called them cartoonish.  They are definitely not based in reality but I thought they were fun and again think they met their purpose of evoking the reckless culture of the time.
So my final verdict is that this was a great movie as long as you don't mind a Baz Luhrman stamp all over your Great Gatsby.  I'm all for that so I loved it!
Is Leonardo DiCaprio the only actor in Hollywood that could carry off a pink suit?  How did you like this movie?