Monday Mailbox #3

Monday Mailbox is a weekly segment wherein I cover my most recent acquisitions, whether via purchase, library, early reviewers, Librarything.com Member Givaway Program or gift.

First this week is a review copy of Pete Hamill's upcoming Tabloid City due for release on May 5th, 2011, care of Little, Brown & Co. I've started on this one, and so far it's definitely interesting. Hamill is a New York Times Bestselling author, but I've never read his work before. So far, though, I'm impressed. 

And secondly, but certainly not in any way least, is a review copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim, care of Simon & Schuster. If nothing else, it'll look amusing nestled next to Sense & Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Little Women & Werewolves

I had hoped to include the final book in the PPZ trilogy, Dreadfully Ever After -> as there is supposedly a copy on its way to me, care of Quirk and Librarything.com, but I haven't received it yet. Hopefully next week... 


Review: The Haunting of Wolfe Haven, by Debbie A Heaton

Debbie Heaton's The Haunting of Wolfe Haven is at best an enjoyable ghost story, and at worst a bad romance novel. It's fairly well-written with a decent insight into our main character's psyche (which stems from Ms. Heaton's day job as a therapist of 25 years). But all of that comes to a screeching halt in the last 3 pages.

Instead of wrapping up the story with its inevitable conclusion or even alluding to something more, Heaton takes a step over the precipice. She writes a terribly executed (and completely out of place) sex scene. Ms. Heaton is not the first author to make this mistake. There are serial romance "novelists" who make careers out of this kind of thing. But there's simply no precedence for it within the realm of this story. There's no build to it, there's no anticipation. These characters have a definite spark-worthy past, and have a definite viable connection in the present, but this is just silly. It's a complete non-sequitur. Suddenly we're getting words and actions thrown at us that just have no place in the rest of the book. I literally laughed out loud and shook my head in disappointment.

I really liked the book up until that point. It had a good enough plot that I was actually drawn into the story. I thought it had a nice mix of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Barbara Michaels' Sons of the Wolf (formerly titled Mystery on the Moors)...I actually thought it would have a similar ending to Sons of the Wolf because it seemed a lot like that book

I was learning things - I had no idea that New Mexico had forests or a monsoon season! The story feels like it should take place in Yorkshire with Sons of the Wolf and The Secret Garden, but it totally works in New Mexico, and I was surprised by that.

When I got home last night, I still had about 80 pages to read, so I stayed up and read them because I was enjoying it. There was a plot twist in the last 20 pages that I hadn't caught on to, and I was really exited to get to the end...and then it was a total let-down....a shocking let-down, at that. It wasn't the story or the plot or even the characters, it was just that thrown-in over-thought bit at the end. I'm very surprised, given Ms. Heaton's extensive psychological background, that there wasn't more of a rational, mental resolution to the whole thing. I have no idea why the physical came in at the last moment.

What I will say is this: it's a good book...until the last three pages. And they're pretty much unnecessary. So, by all means, read the book...until the top of page 219, and then just assume the rest. Leave it at that.


Review: The Innocent, by Ian McEwan

After my recent visit with a more fantastical and less gritty Ian McEwan in The Daydreamer, I was all too glad to pick up The Innocent and return to what one generally expects from him: beautiful prose, a scientific naturalism and grisly horror treated poetically.

The Innocent takes place in West Berlin during the Cold War, prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall. Much like other McEwan novels there is an element of fact that makes his historical fiction seem more realistic. In this case, protagonist Leonard Marnham is an engineer secured by British Intelligence to work with the joint CIA-MI6 forces on Operation Gold, a real project that focused on tapping KGB phone lines underground - you can read about that here.

But while the realism is present in the history, some of the fictional characters tossed in seem little more than stereotypes. Leonard, whose character arc is certainly the largest, begins as a stereotypical uptight British male who is initially offended by Bob Glass's even more stereotypical American mindset, though Leonard eventually adapts to certain Americanizations. Glass's character is framed by the two Americans Leonard spots from the car on his first visit to the warehouse, tossing a football back and forth, who generate more stereotypical thinking on Leonard's part. Glass remains pretty consistent for most of it. Even his deus-ex-machinesque actions towards the end are somewhat American-comic-book-hero-ish.

While Leonard's stick-figure-ness may be an error of judgement on McEwan's part, the Americans seem to be drawn as such on purpose. About three-quarters of the way through the book, Leonard observes this innocent American quality in the things around him:
They think of everything, he thought, the Americans. They wanted to make things possible, and easy. They wanted to look after you. This pleasant lightweight staircase with the nonslip treads and chain-link banisters, the Coke machines in the corridors, steak and chocolate milk in the canteen. He had seen grown men drinking chocolate milk.
 More stylistic in character is Maria, the german divorcee with whom Leonard finds himself in love. Her approach to life is markedly refreshing and allows Leonard to grow out of his pre-constructed shell, into something a little more interesting, a little more daring, and certainly more dangerous.

Generally, with McEwan, there's a naturalistic vein that pulses throughout the narrative and hemorrhages at the climax,spending the rest of the novel trying to repair itself. In Enduring Love, the break comes early, muddling the facts and confusing the main character for most of what follows. In Atonement, it's a continuous, hemophiliac flow that breaks like a cold sweat and a chill at the end. Here, though, McEwan is a bit more economical and somewhat more Shakespearean in his formula - you could almost mark out the five acts with their building, subsiding and ultimate third act climax.

While the formula works, it's a little slow-going; it becomes weighed down by the author trying to inseminate it (sorry) with as many sexual innuendos and metaphors as possible, seemingly in an attempt to get his point across - defying any assertion that anyone is completely innocent. Perhaps in 1990 (just after the fall of the Berlin wall, when land lines were the rule and were easily enough tapped, when DNA evidence was still a new thing, before the internet could tell everyone's secrets), this was a more poignant story, but today its historical relativism isn't very significant and only the baser details* remain truly relevant.

*Spoilers (if you've not read the book, you may want to skip this part):
If you've read the novel, you'll understand why this is relative - my mother just now informed 
me that the police have found the body of a Bronx man stuffed into a large duffle bag this 
weekend. I guess people still do that kind of thing.


Review: The Daydreamer, by Ian McEwan

After finishing each of the seven vignettes of which this book his comprised, Ian McEwan would read each one aloud to his children. The responses he garnered from them helped shape the stories even further. It is the balance of kid understanding and adult know-how that make these stories about young Peter Fortune so remarkable. 

Peter (age 9-12 throughout the stories) is quick and clever, with an imagination to rival Christopher Robin's, one that benefits both from youthful innocence and from McEwan's experience as an adult. Written to be read allowed,
The Daydreamer contains a whimiscal practicality that takes Peter out of his own body more than once, but also returns him in time for supper. 

As children's stories should, there are some moral lessons (to do with friendship and fairness), but with a hint of adult regret, perhaps for a childhood that flew by too fast. There's even, in the story where Peter trades bodies with his cat, a lesson about death and loss that applies to all ages. Altogether a sweet collection, it lacks the naturalistic twist that you often find in McEwan, but that does not take away from its appeal or its charm.


Review: Jane and the Damned, by Janet Mullany

I believe in being frank and honest when it comes to my book reviews. I'm not about to simper and smirk and make love to a book if it's not good. If I feel the book was poorly written, or a waste of my time, or just plain silly, then the review should reflect that. And I was very ready to provide a very silly, very warranted negative review of Janet Mullany's Jane and the Damned prior to actually reading it because I already read so many monster mash-ups and I was sure that was going to be another bloody piece of Jane Austen-meets-monsters cake.

Oh boy, was I wrong. 

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: "A good book about Jane Austen and vampires? Oh hell, no!", and roll their eyes. Others are thinking "A good book about vampires? Oh hell, no!" and go back to watching "Dawson's Creek". And still others are thinking: "A good book about Jane Austen?!?!" and then running away in droves. But it's true. It exists!

I confess I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Sure, it looks cheesy...and okay maybe it's a little cheesy. But it is so well-written and so well-researched (don't laugh at me, I'm talking about the actual historical stuff, not the vampire stuff. Jerks.) that one can almost imagine all of it to be true. And despite its rather fantastical premise (spoiler alert: Jane Austen becomes a vampire), Mullany has done a superb job of integrating both the facts of Austen's life as well as fictional additives of her own which support the creation of various Austen characters; it is easy to contrive the origins of any and all of her novels from the activities of this book.

And to top it all off, we got a young Jane Austen to boot. Too many historical fiction/time traveling novels introduce Jane Austen as the most minor of characters: quiet, subdued, well into her thirties, avoiding attention, and wearing her amber cross - it seems  to be the going caricature of Jane Austen for most writers. Thankfully, Mullany utilizes the early years, a time before Jane was published, a halfway point in her life (seeing as she died so young), and there are no amber crosses. If there'd been any mention of an amber cross, I might have thrown the book across the room, as I've been known to do.

As it were, I actually found it very difficult to put the book down. Mullany has a strange, delicious talent for making the plot work and do her bidding. It may be difficult to suspend one's disbelief for too long, but the allusion to historical markers (i.e. Jane Austen's hatred for Bath) make it easier. And since she wasn't working within the parameters of one of Austen's novels, there was no poorly-written expansion of well-established characters, and little room for eye-rolling.

All-in-all, what we have here is not a flimsy stab at the...um...colorful world of works based on or in Austen novels, but a solid piece of actually not-half-bad historical mash-up fiction, written for the reader who knows enough about  Jane Austen herself to really appreciate its nuances.


Monday Mailbox #2

Monday Mailbox is a weekly segment wherein I cover my most recent acquisitions, whether via purchase, library, early reviewers, Librarything.com Member Givaway Program or gift.

One of the benefits of being a member of the LibraryThing.com community is the give-aways. There are two parts to this - the first is the Early Reviewers which provides a limited number of free pre-release books to members willing to review them (you sign up for a chance to get a copy, and then publishers determine who gets a copy based on the frequency of your already-posted reviews on the site). The second part is Member Giveaways, which allows members (as opposed to publishing houses and other industry folk) to provide books to members willing to review them. The caveat there is that it's not always a necessarily new book - rather, it's often someone trying to get rid of extra copies of something, or an early reviewer recipient who has no more use for their books, and even sometimes authors who are trying to unload extra copies of their own books in an effort to get the word out about it. 

The more diligent you are about posting your reviews on the website, the more likely it is that you'll receive more books in the future. I post most of my reviews here on the blog, and then copy them into the review form on LibraryThing, giving me a great advantage when decision-making time comes for those selecting book recipients.  

The Haunting of Wolfe Haven, by Debbie A. Heaton

This novel was gifted through Member Giveaways by the author herself. According to the back cover, author Debbie Heaton is a therapist "specializing in mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, and families with children." Oddly enough, the book doesn't (according to the back cover descriptors) seem to be about any of those things, which is kind of a relief. Often times authors who are professionals in another field become very technical and border on boring when writing about what they know, so hopefully this will be better than that. 

At least I hope so. The back cover of it basically makes it sound like the film "Twister", but replacing tornados with ghosts. I mean "Twister" (in case you've never seen it) goes something like this: 

"Jo Harding is gorgeous, smart, and successful...Some time ago her husband Bill walked away from their marriage, believing there was no hope for the relationship...Bill, as handsome and accomplished as ever, is planning to get remarried, but first he must divorce Jo. To save her broken heart, Jo must confront her feelings for Bill and his wicked good storm-chasing skills...As Jo and Bill try to find love with each other a second time around, they come to grips with tornados and flying oil tankers. If Jo isn't careful, she may fall prey to other storm-chasers, led by Wesley from 'The Princess Bride'."

and here's the back cover of The Haunting of Wolfe Haven:

"Riley Russell is gorgeous, smart, and successful....Three years ago, she walked away from her marriage to entrepreneur Tristan Russell, believing there was no hope for the relationship...Tristan, as handsome and accomplished as ever, is planning to get remarried, but first he must divorce Riley. To save her broken heart, Riley must confront her feelings for Tristan, his family, and his haunted ancestral house, Wolfe Haven...As Riley and Tristan try to find love with each other a second time around, they come to grips with things that go bump in the night. If Riley isn't careful, she may fall prey to enemies that are closer than she thinks."

I mean seriously, throw Cary Elwes into this book, and it's basically Twister. At least that's what I'm getting from the cover. Once I actually read it, I'll hopefully have a better 
opinion of it.   

The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan

A program in which I participate, called E-Rewards, has members fill out surveys in exchange for "money." You can then use that "money" to get certain gifts and such. That's how I ended up with a 2-year subscription to Food & Wine Magazine (which I love) and, once a year, it helps me buy a book. 

In the $15 level, there's the option to add $15 Borders Bucks to your Borders Rewards. You can only do it once every calendar year, and they're only good for one month (the one following the one in which you activate the points). This year, I bought another Ian McEwan novel (thankfully in the same edition as the others that I like) written in 1994 called The Daydreamer

It looks like the kind of adult-child fantasy book that I enjoy (à la The Book of Lost Things, but less creepy). Kind of The Book of Lost Things meets "Big," meets "Toy Story," meets Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." I'm excited.  


Review: Expiration Date, by Sherril Jaffe

Expiration Date
By Sherril Jaffe
200 pgs
April 2011
Sherril Jaffe’s Expiration Date is a story about mothers and daughters, focusing on an 87-year-old grandmother named Muriel and her relationship with her polar opposite daughters, Daphne and Flora.

One day, twenty-four years ago, Flora had a dream that she would die before she hit sixty years old. As she approaches what she believes to be her final birthday eve, she begins to wonder if her mother, still alive, kicking, playing bridge, traveling and having sex at 87 years old, is staying alive to fend off her daughter’s angel of Death. As Muriel lives her second life with, first, her “boyfriend” Wilbur and then her boyfriend Gene, Flora finally begins to see what life past 60 can hold, defying the decree handed down to her so many years before. It’s a kind of coming of age story, but with an unusual age set.

While mostly straightforward, the narrative was somewhat at odds with itself – at once in Flora’s mind, then jumping to Muriel’s almost as if they were the same person in two separate bodies, at different stages of life – which could have been the point. But the jump in perspective is a little unwieldy, as the author seems to side with one over the other.

For example, Muriel is very critical when it comes to just about everyone, especially her daughters. Flora, as a victim of this criticism is a sympathetic character, but Jaffe repeats one specific criticism so often that it seems her point was not to portray Flora as sympathetic but to see her as flawed and in need of her mother’s criticism.

I personally felt affronted by Muriel’s opinions on quality of life and one’s weight and some of the casual jabs at “the other” may have been flippant on the author’s part, but they were no less hurtful. In the end, I believe we’re meant to empathize with Muriel, but I found her cold and unkind. Had the author meant for this to happen, perhaps there would have been some kind of revelatory moment wherein she realizes how callous she can be. Instead, the revelation goes to Flora who is perhaps the one character least in need of an alteration of perspective.


Review: Hood - King Raven Trilogy, Book 1, by Stephen Lawhead

Billed as "Robin Hood - the legend begins anew," Hood gives re-birth to the Robin Hood of lore in a new time and a new place. Rather than keeping to the assumed boundaries of the Old English tales, Lawhead explores what he (as he explains in the afterword, titled "Robin Hood in Wales?") believes could be the true origins of the legendary thief and his band of merry men. 

It takes place earlier than Richard and his crusades (from 1080 to 1100 AD - Richard wasn't king until 1189...sorry, Sean Connery - no cameo in this one!), and a hundred or so miles to the South West of present-day Nottingham, in Wales. The change of time and of place lends a more mystical feel to the story; Lawhead employs a religion within the tale that seems a strangely cohesive mixture of Christianity, Paganism, Celtic lore and Magic. In addition, the language of the place and time works in two ways - first, it establishes that place and time, and second it acts as a device for Lawhead to provide explanations for that place and time. For example, Bran ap Brychan (the main character) is called Rhi Bran by his people - the word Rhi is the word for King and Bran translates to Raven so, literally King Raven, but given the language barrier between the Welsh natives and their Ffrenic conquerors, you can see how Rhi Bran could end up as "Robin" just as the new bishop confuses "Hud" (meaning male witch/warlock/sorcerer person) for "Hood."

This volume, being the first in the King Raven ¹ trilogy, is mostly expository. it establishes the hero, his troupe, and a variety of villainous characters who oppose them, each one seemingly worse than the one before. Exposition in fiction (especially in a series) can sometimes come across as forced. But here (where there is a certain amount of information to be expected, given the legend) that doesn't happen so much. For example, while Bran's growth from profligate youth to warrior king of the forest is vividly akin to that of Edmund Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, the revelation that Iwan would, henceforth, be "Little John" and, on the same page, that Friar Aethelfrith would be Friar Tuck seems somewhat rushed and forced, and a little predictable. But the groundwork is deftly laid, and hopefully the next two books focus more on the real conflict than on the basics ².

Lawhead is a seasoned writer with an admirable talent for storytelling, and I look forward to seeing what lies ahead now that we've gone from what is to be expected of the legend, to what he will provide in his version. Hopefully it is filled with likeable characters and villains complex enough to be both hated and appreciated. Okay, so they're probably not Alan Rickman but then, I guess, who is ³? 

[1] Actually, when I first got the books I thought they were the “Raven King” trilogy (latent dyslexia?) which is actually a different legend, care of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. But I wasn’t thinking about Clarke’s story. When I “read” “Raven King” the story I thought of was that of the Erl King (something completely different) which I initially relate with a YA book based on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series called Childe of the Hunt wherein Buffy (& Co.) befriend Roland, the Erl King’s runaway son, who later becomes the new Erl King. This has loose ties to the Erl King from one of John Connolly’s stories in Nocturnes which is really creepy and not as friendly as the Buffy version…not that that version was particularly friendly…I seem to remember someone getting gored by the Erl King’s horns. Ah….what was I saying? Oh, right. I thought that the Erl King was the Raven King…though what the Erl King (or the Raven King) would have to do with Robin Hood, I haven’t a clue.

[2] I mean, in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” it was easy. Kevin Costner comes back from the Crusades to find that his father’s been killed by the Sheriff of Nottingham and some other guys. The audience knows this before Kevin Costner does (ooh dramatic irony) because the second scene of the film (after the one where he escapes and saves Morgan Freeman) shows Brian Blessed (aka Papa Locksley) being given an ultimatum and then killed by Alan Rickman and some other dudes in masks and KKK garb, whose motives are never fully explained in the original theatrical release (the uncut DVD does a slightly better job). Anyway, the basics are established all in about the first 20 minutes of the film (all of the main characters with one exception have been introduced by that point, motives confirmed, and the path of revenge already well-trod. 

[3] Besides Alan Rickman.