Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Wizard's Daughter

I finished Wizard's Daughter by Catherine Coulter this weekend. It was terrible. I'm not quite sure why I finished it, except that I have a weird thing about finishing books once I start them. There are only two books I have started and not finished, and I plan to go back and finish them someday - The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. We had started reading The Invisible Man my sophomore year of high school when the May 3 tornado hit and we were out of school for a week. There was another big project we were also doing at that time, so the teacher allowed us to either complete that project or do a report on the book and I did the project. I didn't have time to also finish the book because I was volunteering at church a lot. (The other project was to write and act out a monologue as an author and I picked C.S. Lewis.) I only read a few pages into The Killer Angels, which was our last assignment in senior English and we weren't even being tested over it or anything so a group of us just watched Gettysburg instead. I have both books and do plan to finish them some day.

Anyway, I'm supposed to be writing about Coulter's book. I've read a few of her romance and her mysteries and usually enjoy them, and I thought this would be a good one because I love Harry Potter and this had wizards. However, it was one of the most poorly written books I've ever read. I kept checking the flaps to see if it was a reprint of her first book or something, but it's not. Apparently she's just gotten lazy. That or she wrote this a million years ago and couldn't get it published and now that she can get anything published she cashed in on it. I never expect much from the plot of a romance novel, but this was laughable and didn't even make sense. And it was full of inspiring passages like this: "'This cannot happen, it cannot. My demon chant, none can overcome it, but you have killed me.' 'Yes,' he said. 'It is a very old, very powerful sword.'" Really? That's the death scene of the big villain? The whole thing reads like something a twelve-year-old would write, certainly not a celebrated author.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

But Inside I'm Screaming

It's probably not a good sign that I strongly identified with the main character of this novel, considering she's in a loony bin. Hopefully that's just a testament to Elizabeth Flock's writing ability. I think that connection with the main character is strong because although you know something was wrong enough to send her to a mental institution, you don't know what it was for a long time and she just seems pretty normal. All you do know is that she had a high-powered TV news reporter position and she just cracked. What makes her different from her crazy asylum mates is her ability to choose to get better. That's what the book boils down to and is why I enjoyed it so much. As long as we still have the mental ability to choose how to react, we have something to live for. We may not be able to control our circumstances or other people's actions, but we do control our reactions and how we deal with those people or situations.

Slight spoiler: This isn't really a huge spoiler, but I wanted to put the warning there because I think I would have viewed the book differently going in if I had known this. I have absolutely zero empathy for women in abusive situations. After something happens for the first time, at most a second time, it should never happen again. I absolutely cannot understand how someone could choose to stay in such a situation and it's hard to have sympathy for someone who chooses to do so. Obviously there are times where it's harder to leave, like in Anna Quindlen's Black and Blue where the husband is a well respected cop and no one would believe her story and he would be able to hunt her down easily, or if you've got kids and no education or money you might try to stick it out, but the vast majority of the time there's no excuse. In this book, you see how an educated, intelligent woman might fall victim. First there's an accident, then another. Then there's the subtle verbal abuse making you feel like you don't deserve anything good. By the time the real physical abuse starts, the woman is so psychologically confused that she hates herself and feels she deserves it. I still have little sympathy for anyone in that situation who doesn't do something about it, but this book did give me a better understanding of why someone might stay in such a situation.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Founding

I'm a sucker for book series. I love for the story to not be over when I finish the book, to be able to keep on going with familiar characters in the next book and have a longer relationship with them. It started as a child. Baby-Sitters' Club. Sweet Valley Twins. Nancy Drew. The Boxcar Children. Later on it became Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Narnia. Why do kids get to have all the fun? It seems like kids books and romance novels are the only ones who have series. (Sidenote: I love Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series. Except they made me actually start reading romance novels. She's excellent though. Plus she went to Harvard so she's at least got a little more credibility.)Anyway, I was very excited when I discovered a British historical series during my last trip to Half Price Books. It starts during the 1400s, during the Wars of the Roses, so it even fit the timeframe of my current reading plan! I just finished the first in the series, The Founding, which sets the stage for the start of the Morland dynasty. Although the Morlands are fictional, many real-life figures appear in the book, most notably Richard Duke of York and his sons, especially Richard who became Richard III. All of the characters are well developed and intriguing, and the story is well written. You care about the Morlands and their story, but it connects heavily to real history and causes you to learn the history better as well. You also see how historical events affected regular citizens. One of my favorite aspects of the book though centers around the future Richard III. In him she creates this wonderful, sympathetic character that you really start to fall for. That was so interesting because everything else I've read about him just paints him as this evil man with no redeeming qualities. I know not to simply trust Shakespeare's portrayal of him, but it's effective and is mirrored in everything else I had read about him. I was curious how the main character, Eleanor, was going to handle learning about his role in the death of the two princes, but then she threw a wrench in that by making it seem as though Richard wasn't the one who committed those murders and is broken up about it. I was shocked at that twist and wondered if she was just going with an alternate history or if this was a legitimate view of what might have happened. I turned to my Traveller's Guide to English History and learned that there is a legitimate argument for this view, although it's the minority opinion. I wish things like this were covered in history class! (And maybe they are in England, it's not like we learned about this time period here in the U.S., but we don't have this type of discussion about anything.) Why don't teachers bring up both sides of an issue and have students argue the various sides? It's the issue of history being written by those who win. Richard III lost, so it's necessary for Henry VII to label him a murderer and usurper so Henry can claim to be righting Richard's wrong. In the U.S., the South is portrayed as a bunch of backward racists only fighting to keep their slaves. It can't possibly be that they were fighting for state's rights or anything that might have a valid point. Why don't we learn about the British side of things in the Revolutionary War? It would be interesting to see how that's portrayed in a British textbook. Why does history always have to be presented as pure fact? Yes, there are facts to learn, but what's more important is learning WHY things happened. It doesn't really matter what the exact date of a battle was, what matters is why people were fighting. But history class is usually just an exercise in memory, memorizing dates and names, not actually thinking about anything.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses does an excellent of covering the history leading up the Wars of the Roses and then detailing that period as well. It's a large amount of history to cover, starting with Richard II and ending with the death of Henry VI, with information on Henry IV and V and Edward the IV in between. Weir is known for her masterful storytelling of history and that keeps the book from just becoming a string of facts. She manages to cram this full of information and interesting tidbits and have the historical figures come alive in a way that escapes most history writers. She also focuses on why events happened and what might have motivated people to do certain things instead of just stringing facts together without any meaning behind them. Why aren't history classes taught this way? I'm going to try to go to Half Price Books this weekend (yeah for finally having one in OKC!) and get her book on the two princes since that's just briefly mentioned at the end of this book and I'd like to learn more about that and Richard III.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Henry VI Part I

I finally started in on Shakespeare on Saturday and read Henry VI Part 1. I've decided to read in the order in which Shakespeare wrote them, which is why I'm starting with the Henry VI tetralogy even though it's later historically. It also works out nice because I'm not technically to Shakespeare yet in my history reading, but I am almost finished reading The Wars of the Roses which is about the time frame of the Henry VI plays. Of course, we don't actually know for sure the order of the plays, and there's debate from the start over whether Henry VI Part 1 was actually written first or if it was written after Henry VI Parts 2 and 3. There's also uncertainty about if Shakespeare really wrote this play or if he just revised it or wrote parts of it. That's uncertainty on top of the general uncertainty if Shakespeare actually wrote any of the plays or if someone else did. Anyway, I'm reading from the Riverside Shakespeare and am using their timeline as my guide for reading order.

Back to the actual play. You can definitely tell it's either one of his earliest works or was written at least partly by someone else. It lacks the poetry and beauty of most of his other plays. For example, it's primarily written in rhyming couplets instead of blank verse so it doesn't sound as natural for a history, and he also doesn't break lines between different speakers. The intro of the Riverside points that out and notes that he rarely breaks lines in his early works and does so frequently in his later works. When I read that in the intro I didn't really think that would make much of a difference, but it definitely makes things sound stilted and not conversational. He's also not as good at character building as in the later works. The characters all sound the same, which makes it harder to realize what's going on. It's very different from the second tetralogy featuring Henry IV/V where all of the characters are very distinctive. It's especially interesting to see Falstaff in both series and how undeveloped he is in the Henry VI plays when he's larger than life in the Henry IV plays. I am glad I'm reading The Wars of the Roses also or I think it would be a lot harder to follow along. That's also helping to make Richard III more understandable, so it will be interesting when I get to that play to see how my perception of it has changed over time. I still enjoyed Richard III when I read the first time, I just think I will view it differently this time and have an even greater appreciation for it now.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Mirror Crack'd

Since Saturday was all nice and rainy, I curled up in my big chair by our back windows and read an Agatha Christie mystery. Most people hate rainy Saturdays, but I love them! It doesn't get much better than being curled up in my big red chair with my cats and a novel, listening to the rain. I had planned to finish up The Wars of the Roses on Saturday, but since it was all gloomy when I woke up, I pulled out a mystery. Agatha Christie never lets me down. Her books are the way all mysteries should be - full of interesting characters, a wide variety of valid suspects, hidden clues sprinkled around, comments from characters that throw you off track. It's very difficult to figure out who'dunit. Sometimes you might pick out one character who you're pretty sure did it, but you don't know why or how. You have to rely on the evidence of the characters, who may or may not be telling the truth, or may be telling what they think is the truth when they actually saw something else. In A Mirror Crack'd you have the added layer of not even being sure if the person murdered was the intended victim. So you have two sets of suspects - those who might have killed the actual victim and those who might have been trying to kill a different intended victim. I did manage to figure this one out, but it was at the very very end and I wouldn't have got it have it hadn't have been for something that happened at work last year that gave me a bit of a medical clue I would normally have not known. I love that! I also love that on top of being wonderful mysteries, you also get to peek into life in rural England in her books, which usually take place from around the 1920s to the early 1960s. FYI - Christie is the best selling book author of all time, and is tied with Shakespeare for the best selling author period. Only the Bible has outsold her. I really really hope we get to see The Mousetrap when we go to England! Oh, and in case you're wondering about the picture, I usually add images of the actual copy of the book I'm writing about, but I didn't see one for the copy I have. The copy I have looks boring anyway because it's part of a collection so it's just black with gilded lettering. I thought this image that came up when I searched for something to post at least was really funny. It cracks me up that there's parliament and Big Ben (which is funny too, the novel doesn't take place in London) and Japanese (or Mandarin or whatever) characters! It just made me smile.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

On a Lighter Note

My posts so far have been a little too nerd filled even for me, so here are some reviews of what I read on my recent Caribbean cruise. We were at sea for three entire days, and I loved sitting on my balcony reading, being able to just look out at the ocean and relax. But I promise this isn't all I did! We still fit in time to play putt-putt and ping-pong and go ice skating and enjoy other activities on the boat. Plus we had three days of excursions. Anyway, here are the books I enjoyed on my cruise.

Chasing Harry Winston Lauren Weisberger – This one's about three almost 30 year-old friends in NYC. Two of the girls make a pact to change their lives within a year - monogamous Emmy must date around and commitment-phobe Adriana must commit to one man. The third friend, Leigh, has a seemingly perfect life and can't think of anything to change, but she ends up realizing that her life just seems perfect - but it's not perfect for her. Leigh was my favorite character, probably in large part due to her love of books and her career in publishing, not to mention her "no-contact Mondays" where everyone knows not to contact her because that's her alone time where she doesn't have to talk to other people. That cracked me up because it sounds like my Saturdays (with the exception of Ryan of course, although he's at work most of the day). Weisberger also wrote The Devil Wears Prada (excellent) and Everyone Worth Knowing (good, but not nearly as good as the other two).

The Guy Not Taken by Jennifer Weiner - I don't normally go for short story collections, but I love Jennifer Weiner and the title so I got it anyway. I'm very glad I did. Short stories were great on the cruise on the excursion days because I could just read a story while sitting on the beach and not have to remember what happened by the time I got back to that room that evening to read that evening. The stories are very well developed and you still fall for the characters even though the stories are short, which is takes away my usual complaint with short stories. And even if she's sharing something sad, like a father walking away from his family, she still manages to be really funny. And apparently the title story is being made into a movie.

Size 12 Is Not Fat by Meg Cabot – This was hilarious. It featured a former teen pop star who lost her career when she tried to buck the cheesy pop system, then caught her boyfriend cheating on her and her mom ran off with all her savings. She takes a job as an assistant director in a dorm, where girls start dying. The deaths are ruled accidents, but Heather believes differently and digs around until she finds the killer. This is the first in a series and I will definately pick up the others in the future. (FYI - Cabot wrote The Princess Diaries as well.)

The Botox Diaries – This is about two friends, one who decides to age gracefully and naturally, while the other obsesses over diet, exercise, plastic surgery, and of course, Botox. She also starts an affair despite having the world's perfect husband. It's a great book on how not to handle a mid-life crisis. Although it's funny, it reminded me of why it's stupid to get so caught up on appearances.

Every Boy’s Got One by Meg Cabot – Written through a travel journal/e-mail format, this makes for a really fast, fun read. It must be difficult to write like that though, limited to what can be conveyed in a series of e-mails or what the main character would write in her travel journal. It’s a little easier since everyone has a Blackberry. The story centers around the two best friends of an eloping couple. The main character is the bride’s best friend and the story is about her instant dislike for the best man, which of course evolves into love. Yes, it’s obviously predictable in that sense, but who wants to read something depressing on vacation? Plus, the bride and groom are eloping in Italy, so most of the story takes place there, and the main character is a cartoonist and there are drawings scattered throughout the book. And Cabot is just great at creating fun characters. This was a wonderful distraction the last full day of the cruise when it was storming some and we were getting a little seasick.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Ongoing Reading

Here are two history books I’m reading as I go along. I'll read the history up to next piece of literature I'm planning to read, then read the fiction work, then go back to these books and pick up where I left off.

The first is A Traveller’s History of England by Christopher Daniell. It’s great because it’s, as is obvious by the title, a history book specifically geared toward the traveler. It provides just enough information about a broad range of topics. It gives a good overview that lets you know if you’re interested in going elsewhere for more information. It will definately help us decide which sides we have to see because of historical import and which aren't essential.

The other book is A Brief History of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley. This one focuses, obviously, on the royal families of Britain. While it is brief as the title says, it still provides meaty information about each ruler. The author is a bit biased though and definitely favors some monarchs over others and clearly favors the English over the Scots. It’s a great concise history though and provides excellent background information that is extremely helpful for diving into more specific works. I’m constantly picking it back up and referring back to various rulers as I’m reading my fiction works.