Category Archives: Book Reviews

Four Book Reviews

When I opened up this page, I had no idea if I’d written anything this morning. I think I tackled my Zahnie story and managed about 50 words before I went to look up the birth date of a relative, and that got my focus out of hand. I did genealogy for the next 3 1/2 hours. I’m nothing if not distractable.

So now its 10:45 PM, a full 15 hours since I sat down to write, and I discovered I had very little to say. To get my 750 words captured, I decided to write down a few thoughts about the books I’d read recently.

Cassandra Clare. City of Bones. Mortal Instruments; Book 1. A teenage girl becomes embroiled with a group of Shadow Hunters, monster fighters. A truly uninspired plot. Predictable at every moment. The protagonist was uninspiring and bland. The protagonist’s love interest: well, let’s just say that the relationship turned very Luke-and-Leia at the end. How horrible was the plot? There was even a “Leia, I am your father. Search yourself–you know it to be true” moment between the main character and the antagonist. She was betrayed by her mentor/teacher. I saw all Clare’s plot twists several chapters before they happened. There was tons of humor about bad cooking and bad poetry and teenage angst. It all fell flat. She does manage to write LGBT couples with without batting an eye. She treats romantic relationships with an extremely heavy hand. I won’t be reading the second, or fifth, or even the 6th book in the series. I know this cast of characters have become extremely popular. I know of a person who actually changed their name (the protagonist is called Clary, short for Clarissa) because she loved the Mortal Instruments books so much. Maybe I’m being too harsh. But this book seems to be a creepy excited fangirl overreaction. Kick me if I ever change my name because I loved a book too much. 1 star of 5.

Susanna Clarke. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This book is all about English magic, which has disappeared and two magicians who are bringing the magic back. It reads like a period piece written by Jane Austen, but with extra snark. The book had a fun sardonic tone throughout. The primary characters are cool. Even the minor characters are interesting. She injects anecdotes and stories about magic users that are comical throughout the novel. There are also characters pulled through real history: Duke Wellington. Napoleon. Lord (prime minister) Liverpool. Crazy King George III. The system of magic is interesting. Faeries are not the fun, fluttery kind. They are mysterious and scary as hell. Clarke’s book is part alternate history, part drawing-room novel, and part faerie tale. Brilliant, funny, readable from beginning to end. You never know what the plot will bring from one moment to the next. Entirely original. 5 Stars of 5.

Victoria Aveyard. Red Queen. In this book’s world, there are two kinds of people: Reds and Silvers. The Reds live in perpetual slave status to the socially superior Silvers. Silvers have magic powers (and silver blood; thus their name). The story is about one Red girl who is thrust into the middle of Silver Court society. The book is very good. The climax was fantastic. I blasted through the final 2 hours. I was taken along for the ride, hating the bad guys, just like the author hoped. There was a betrayal at the end, which propelled us into the final third of the book. I saw it coming from early on, even though there was no mention of it. This made me simultaneously upset, because she should have given the reader an indication this would happen , or possibly because I saw it coming so far in advance. The characters are compelling, and Red Queen has possibly cleared the way for a romance in a sequel. I don’t know; maybe a sequel has been written already. 4 Stars of 5.

V.E. Schwab. A darker Shade of Magic. Schwab imagines a world where four versions of London are overlaid onto one another, in different realities. Only the protagonist, a magician called Kell, can travel between the four. This book is unexpectedly well done. The author is not afraid of beating up her characters; particularly Kell. It was refreshing to get a heroine out of Delilah who isn’t just a love interest. In my opinion, this should happen more often in both film and written fiction. Delilah holds her own throughout; and is quite frequently the more interesting of the two protagonists. And there are deaths in the book. Schwab is unafraid to kill people off. I had a few quibbles about her tendency jumping between narrative points of view. The Antagonists (the King and Queen of White London) are sufficiently evil to satisfy even the most evil of the evil-seeking folks. In fact, they may have been a bit too flat. If they had been given a bit more motivation than “I love power,” it may have Strengthened the story. Schwab has a beautiful narrative voice. In fact within 10 pages of starting the novel, I thought “It’s a book I’d like to say I’d written.” Apart from one or two quibbles about anachronisms (Gray London OUR 1816 London) and a truly evil Lord of the Rings-style ring of power artifact, I was very happy with the overall effect. I look forward to reading something else by her in the future. 4 Stars of 5.


The Monster at the End of This Blog

When I was very young, my great grandmother owned a children’s book by Sesame Street showrunner Jon Stone, called The Monster at the end of This Book. Now, a little archiving is in order: Sesame Street began playing on PBS in 1969. The book was written in 1971. And my life in Sacramento ended in 1975, I believe. So, in five years, even proper women like Great Grandma Barnes had heard of Sesame Street enough to, at least, procure an offshoot book by these guys.

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If I Could Talk to the Animals…

I took a walk through our neighborhood this morning, past the golf course, and nearly to Alex’s high school. It’s about a mile to get there.

I “discovered” the trail about a week ago, on a perfectly beautiful April evening when I wanted to get out of the house just relax. Discovered is a bit of a misleading term because I could hit Lake Audubon Trail with a pine cone from our bedroom window. I just never bothered. We’ve lived here sixteen months, and I hadn’t yet felt energetic enough,to explore our neighborhood. I’ve been using the CPAP machine for 2 weeks. It took about 7 days before I felt enough energy to get out and enjoy the day.

Continue reading If I Could Talk to the Animals…

Team of Rivals [Book Review]

Yesterday morning, exactly 151 years and 1 day after the death of Abraham Lincoln, I finished the Lincoln biography Team of Rivals. It would not have been so auspicious to me, but I would have finished the last chapter (the one where Doris Kearns Goodwin relates his assassination) 1 day earlier, but I didn’t know if I could handle the last hour of listening to the audiobook, late at night, and having The Good President up and die on me in Ford’s Theatre.

Continue reading Team of Rivals [Book Review]

Devil in the White City [book review]

I just finished The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Published in 2003, Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the rights to turn it into a film that will reportedly be directed by Martin Scorsese.

It follows two different stories. The first is the account of the building of the Chicago World’s Fair (known officially as the World’s Columbian Exposition) in 1892.

The second story is of H.H. Holmes, the most well-known alias of the serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, who used the fair to lure victims to his hotel.

The book is quite engaging. I came for anecdotes on super-creepy Holmes, and stayed for the World’s Fair.

It was a miracle the thing was even built. The entire project was hampered by such external forces as committees, political pressure groups, worker’s strikes, huge egos, bad weather, an economic depression and time limitations (less two years to complete such a thing on soggy Chicago soil).

At the same time, Holmes built his macabre “World’s Fair Hotel” to lure his (mostly female) victims. The building had airtight guest rooms that doubled as gas chambers, labyrinthine hallways that led to nowhere, and a crematorium in the basement.

A large part of the story of the Fair is told from the perspectives of Daniel Burnham, the fair’s chief architect, and of Frederic Law Olmstead (the designer of New York City’s Central Park). Holmes’s story is recounted from the viewpoint of Holmes himself as well as his victims and lovers. This is a style that resembles Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (he even admits his debt to that book), Erik Larson often spends time in the minds of the characters, making the whole book come across more like a novel than a historical narrative.

I wondered at his depiction of Holmes, the remorseless psychopath without any conscience. I’m still mulling it over in my head. Are there truly people out there who have no empathy, but can mimic it perfectly? In the 19th century they called the condition “moral insanity.” One study reports that 1% of all males have psychopathic tendencies while far less women. Do psychopaths always wear “masks” as the influential psychologist Cleckley suggests? he describes “[the] psychopathic person as outwardly a perfect mimic of a normally functioning person, able to mask or disguise the fundamental lack of internal personality structure.” He also asserts that “despite the seemingly sincere, intelligent, even charming external presentation, internally the psychopathic person does not have the ability to experience genuine emotions.” Do I know people like that? devil white city

A few facts I learned about the time:

  • The first Ferris wheel can be credited with saving the fair. Admission to the fair was 25¢ while a ticket to ride the Ferris wheel was 50¢. It rose 80m above the ground and had 36 cars that could hold 60 people each (2100 people). It survived strong winds and storms.
  • The buildings of the fair were considered the height of American architecture at the time, and were conceived of by the country’s leading architects. They were also impermanent; they were all vandalized or demolished by the turn of the century.
  • Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show set up alongside the fair; they were not allowed a place inside the grounds because it was feared it would ruin the fair’s architectural cohesion.
  • Belly dancing, considered horribly scandalous, was introduced to the US at the time. So was shredded wheat and Juicy Fruit gum.
  • AC current was used to power electric devices at the fair. This would become the industry standard, much to Edison’s chagrin (AC was patented by Tesla/Westinghouse).
  • Dozens, if not hundreds, of workers died during the building of the fair from fires, broken skulls, and electrocutions.
  • Chicago was a filthy, filthy place, overwhelmed with the stench of the Union Stockyards.
  • Over 27,000,000 visited the fair in the 6 months it was open. Teddy Roosevelt visited the fair. So did Scott Joplin, Antonín Dvorák, Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Theodore Dreiser. Mark Twain did not attend because he came down with the flu, and he spent 11 days in his Chicago hotel room before returning home.
  • Cash was king. The fair could be beautiful, but if it did not turn a profit, it was considered unsuccessful. They paid off their loans in August, thanks to the installation of Ferris Wheel in June, and canny marketing by Sol Bloom.
  • The fair ended with a bang and a sizzle. The day before closing ceremonies, a crazed assassin killed Chicago’s mayor. All was cancelled. A few months later, angry mobs set fire to the buildings of the fair during the Pullman Strikes, effectively ending the fair.
  • Ferris never equalled or surpassed his Wheel. He moved it to the north side of chicago at great expense, and again to the St Louis World’s Fair in 1906. It was later demolished for scrap.

In all, a good book. Very interesting. The Holmes story falls a bit flat at the end, as if he were rushing to finish the book.

4 stars out of 5.

What I’m Reading

I’ve recently been watching documentaries and reading books about the turn of the century. Not this century; the last one.

I find the period between 1875-1920 endlessly fascinating. Think of the number of inventions that became available in that time. Technological progress was so rapid as to be nearly astounding. Continue reading What I’m Reading

There Are Great Children’s Stories… and Then There’s This

“Dad, there was a book in our cereal” are seven words I haven’t heard in a very long time, at least in that order. But it happened today. They don’t put things in cereal like they did when I was a kid. If you couldn’t dump out your Count Chocula and find the plastic fangs that turn you into a Choc-u-holic vampire, you weren’t going through a normal childhood. Of course, many spankings ensued.

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