Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

2009. 308 pages. Hardcover. Delacorte Press.

From: the public library, yep.

In a nutshell:

Mary lives in a village that is fenced in to keep out the Unconsecrated (a.k.a zombies) who live in the forest.  When her mother becomes one of the Unconsecrated, Mary becomes a ward of the Sisterhood, the religious and civil authorities of the village.  Her curiosity about the outside world, and particularly her desire to see the ocean, makes her an object of suspicion to the Sisters.  Meanwhile, as she and her friends have come of age to marry, romantic complications also occupy her mind.

When unthinkable disaster strikes the village, Mary and her friends must make some difficult choices to survive.

Review:

For this review, I’m going to look at The Forest of Hands and Teeth in comparison to the zombie stories I know.  I came to the book already familiar with zombies.  I have seen the movies Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later (and its sequel), and Shaun of the Dead.  I’ve read and loved Max Brooks’ World War Z, which tells about world-wide zombie catastrophe in the form of oral history.  Heck, I’ve even participated in a zombie walk.

Zombie narratives are certainly about the horror element, what with all the cannibalism and the spectre of loved ones resurrecting as mindless shells wanting to eat you.  However, in my experience, successful zombie tales usually serve up some social commentary with the gore.  The joke of Shaun of the Dead is that Shaun can’t tell that there are zombies at first, because prior to the outbreak, many people went about their days in a dull stupor.  World War Z strikes a nerve as it describes government and military failures to respond to widespread disaster.

In this context of zombie-stories as social commentary, Carrie Ryan has set herself a challenge.   By placing The Forest of Hands and Teeth far into the future, into an unfamiliar culture and society, she undercuts any commentary’s ability to strike home with the reader.

Indeed, the story’s tropes are more in line with a dystopian narrative than a zombie narrative.  There is the closed-off nature of the village, with its strict rules and rituals.  The heroine is determined to find out the truth about her village and the world, even if it puts her in peril.  So, while The Forest of Hands and Teeth has zombies, I can’t really think of it as a zombie narrative.

Now I do like dystopian stories and there’s certainly nothing wrong with them.  Still, I can’t help feeling like the point of zombies has been lost by combining it with this unfamiliar dystopian society.  That said, Ryan does offers some tantalizing dystopian plot threads regarding the Sisterhood, their governing and beliefs.  I was especially intrigued by their behavior to a visitor from outside the village.

Unfortunately, these somewhat promising storylines are given short shrift in favor of a really annoying love quadrangle.  Mary loves Travis.  Travis’ brother Harry loves Mary.  Mary’s best friend Cass is tied to Travis.  And so on.  I was hoping this storyline would settle down as the body count got higher, but it persists despite the carnage, draining my sympathies for all of the characters as I read on.  In particular, I struggled to understand Mary’s motivations and actions.

I did finish the book, so obviously I cared to know what happened in the end, but I was really disappointed when I finished. My thanks to Jenny of Jenny’s Books, whose recent ‘discontented’ review of The Forest of Hands and Teeth gave me the gumption to not hold back on my own reaction to the book.

So I don’t know if I’ll pick up the quasi-sequel, The Dead-Tossed Waves.  I’ve read in some reviews that it’s better than this one.  If you’ve read it, let me know how you think it compares.

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Final Jeopardy by Linda Fairstein

1996. 398 pages. Hardcover. Scribner.

From: the public library!

Recommendation from: I heard of this series through nomadreader

For the challenge: Thriller & Suspense

In a nutshell:

Alexandra “Alex” Cooper is an Assistant District Attorney for sex crimes in Manhattan.  She’s good at what she does, and also has acquired some level of social status thanks to her job and her family money.  When a sponging actress “friend” is killed while staying at Alex’s Martha’s Vineyard summer home, Alex’s life gets complicated and even dangerous.

Review:

At the time she wrote this book, Linda Fairstein had been running in the Sex Crimes Unit of Manhattan for more than twenty years.  So the day-to-day activities of her fictional counterpart, Alex Cooper, ring very true.  I loved reading about how Alex prosecuted the perpetrators of sex crimes.  Fairstein is at her best when she offers the reader these informative, fascinating inside peeks at this type of work.  However, she has a tendency to slip into an unnatural didactic style at times.  At one point, Alex is flying with her detective friend Mike to Martha’s Vineyard and Alex describes all seven towns of the island to him as if she were reading from a travel brochure.  It was boring and unnecessary.

I didn’t really warm up to Alex Cooper, to be honest.  As a prosecutor she was great, but her personal side was harder to like.  I couldn’t identify with her love of fine clothes and perfume and expensive lifestyle.  Her failure to pick up on some threats is common in the genre, but still doesn’t reflect well on the protagonist.  Still, I appreciated that Fairstein gave her protagonist a good network of friends, and a number of them are not in her line of work.  So many leads in mysteries are lone wolves or are only friends with fellow law enforcement officers or lawyers.  So the fact that Alex has friends that she keeps up with is refreshing.

The mystery did keep me guessing though others may figure it out sooner than I did.  I will continue to read this series as I really did like the description of Alex Cooper’s job and the cases she handled.

Other reviews:

Confessions of a Bibliophile

Intersecting Sets

Jen’s Book Thoughts

Tales of a Book Addict

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The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott

1825. 358 pages. Hardcover. Dodd, Mead & Co.

From: University Library

For the challenge: Read 19 books older than myself

In a nutshell:

Set in the time of the Crusades (circa 1191), The Talisman primarily follows the travails of a Scottish knight, Sir Kenneth.  Due in part to the extreme illness of King Richard, the European allied armies have established a temporary  peace with Saladin, the Sultan leading the Muslim forces.

The story opens as Sir Kenneth travels alone in a desert.  He soon encounters another lone fighter, an Emir from Kurdistan and they battle.  When each recognizes the other as a worthy adversary, they declare a truce between them.  Sir Kenneth is on his way to see a hermit in Jordan and the Emir offers to show him the way.  Thus begins an adventure that will involve disguises, dastardly villains, trickery, romance and a climactic duel.

Review:

The Talisman is a straight-out old-fashioned adventure tale – I think the word “rollicking” would be an appropriate adjective.  There’s a real cinematic quality to the book: I could see the action unfolding clearly in my head as if it was on a movie screen.  I’d never read Sir Walter Scott before, but the man knows how to lay out a scene.  Here is a spoiler-free excerpt from the climactic joust scene:

The silence of suspense was now general: men breathed thicker, and their very souls seemed seated in their eyes, while not a sound was to be heard save the snorting and pawing of the good steeds, who, sensible of what was about to happen, were impatient to dash into career.

The characters are well-drawn and distinct and even the minor characters all add to the story in some way.  For example, the Duke of Austria is continually followed around by two attendants: a sayer of sayings, who says wise and poetic words, and a jester.  The two play off each other to hilarious effect.

Indeed, one thing I didn’t expect in The Talisman was the humor.  I laughed out loud several times.  At one point, King Richard’s faithful friend, Thomas de Vaux, is unsure whether they should accept Saladin’s offer of his personal physician to treat the ill King.  (Saladin was much admired by King Richard.)  de Vaux consults the Archbishop of Tyre about the matter, and the Archbishop launches into an explanation of how even ‘infidels’ may be used by God for the service of Christians.

“Again, Jews are infidels to Christianity, as well as Mohammedans.  But there are few physicians in the camp excepting Jews, and such are employed without scandal or scruple.  Therefore, Mohammedans may be used for their service in that capacity – quod erat demonstrandum.”

This reasoning entirely removed the scruples of Thomas de Vaux who was particularly moved by the Latin quotation, as he did not understand a word of it.

p. 113

A praise often given to current historical novels is that they are well-researched.  This is not that sort of historical novel.  Sir Walter Scott assumes that his readers already know the history of the Crusades and is not interested in retelling the details of that history.  Rather, Sir Walter Scott was taken by the contrast and similarities between King Richard and Saladin and decided to take that impression of historical figures and run with it.  As for staying true to history, Scott says in his introduction:

One of the inferior characters introduced was a supposed relation of Richard Coeur-de-Lion – a violation of the truth of history, which gave offence to Mr Mills, the author of the History of Chivalry and the Crusades, who was not, it may be presumed, aware that romantic fiction naturally includes the power of such invention, which is indeed one of the requisites of the art.

Basically: yeah, I made things up because it’s, you know, fiction.

The cross-cultural interactions between the European characters and various Muslim characters are entertaining.  Though I wouldn’t trust Sir Walter Scott’s 19th century perspective of the Muslim characters to be complete or accurate,  his depiction seemed respectful, by and large.  I loved how Scott had the Emir poke fun at the excesses of European chivalry, especially that tradition’s tendency to place women on pedestals.  The Emir observes that the woman Sir Kenneth loves would “when pressed by opportunity and a forward lover . . . thank him for treating her as a mortal than as a goddess.”

Some of the ending revelations come off as a little too convenient, but these overly neat plot turns were soon counterbalanced by the tartness of a villain getting his due in a dramatic fashion.  I was very content when I closed the book.

So, in sum, I really enjoyed The Talisman and I will definitely be reading more Sir Walter Scott in the future.

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Snow Blind by P. J. Tracy

2006. 311 pages. Hardcover. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Thriller and Suspense

In a nutshell:

In this fourth book of the Minnesota-based Monkeewrench series, the corpses of two cops are found disguised as snowmen in a park.  When a third body similarly staged is found in the rural upstate region, it seems it might be a serial killer case.

Minneapolis detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth head up the investigation in the Twin Cities, with the assistance of the close-knit tech wizards – the Monkeewrench gang.  The story also pulls in Iris Rikker, the inexperienced new sheriff of the county where the third body is found.

Review:

Plot-wise, Snow Blind is not as thrilling, edge-of-your-seat as the first three of the Monkeewrench series.  Even so, it is still satisfying and twisty.  The detectives are thrown by some unexpected moral complexity.

I really liked the new character of Iris Rikker.  At first, her inexperience is frustrating as you want this beleaguered new sheriff to instantly find her feet and prove her naysayers wrong.  But it doesn’t work quite like that and I like how P. J. Tracy gradually revealed the truth of Rikker’s position.  I also liked how you can’t tell whether her Sheriff Lieutenant, Lt. Sampson, is going to be her ally or detractor.  I hope that Rikker shows up in later books, just as I hope for the return again of Wisconsin detective Mike Halloran and deputy Sharon Mueller.

Strangely enough, the characters that make up the Monkeewrench gang are not my favorite part of the Monkeewrench series.  The authors have fun describing their quirks and clothing choices and their tech wizardry, but it’s always the cops that I want to read more about.

In any case, Snow Blind continues what is a fun thriller series by the mother-daughter team that is P. J. Tracy.  I look forward to the next book, Shoot to Thrill.

Edited to add other reviews:

Aspi’s Drift

Chadzilla ROARS!!!

Confessions of a Book Habitue

disorganized, as usual

Raspberry Latte: The Bookworm’s Book Review

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The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

2008. 265 pages. Hardcover. Henry Holt and Company.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Seventeen-year-old Jenna Fox emerges from a  coma feeling quite altered from her past self.   The slow return of her memories do not really help, as she can remember purchasing a pair of socks more clearly than the accident that nearly destroyed her life.

Jenna’s parents are overwhelming her with protectiveness, while her grandmother remains strangely aloof.  As her parents have moved the family from Boston to California while she was in a coma, she knows no one but her family at first.  She does make new friends with a couple of similarly outcast kids at an alternative charter school, but even then, Jenna knows there’s something radically, even dangerously, different about herself.

Review:

I read The Adoration of Jenna Fox before I left for vacation and it’s a fast read.  The premise is very intriguing and while I had some ideas about the mystery that is Jenna Fox, there were details in the revelations that I didn’t see coming.

Pearson sets her book somewhere in the near future.  The futuristic elements take current technologies, threats and societal changes and push them to a plausible ‘next level.’  For instance, Jenna’s grandmother works to preserve genetically diverse plants. That is something people are doing today, but in Pearson’s future version of the world, the lack of biodiversity is almost total.

I didn’t completely care for the writing style.  I’m not sure if this is a YA thing, but Pearson used a lot of short choppy sentence fragments in her writing.  I think the point of this technique is for impact and power, but it doesn’t have that effect on me.  Here is an example:

Choice
I needed it like I needed air.
But no one could hear me.
No one could listen.
No words. No sound.
No voice.
I couldn’t even dream myself away.
Choices were made.
None of them mine.
At first I wondered if it was hell.
And then I knew it was.

To be fair, this particular excerpt is one of several passages in the book that are set apart from the rest of the text, breaking away from the story to convey Jenna’s darker, more submerged memories and feelings.  So the whole book doesn’t look like a stanza of song lyric.  And while the sentence fragments are most concentrated in these breakaway passages, they are pervasive in the rest of the book.  It’s not that sentence fragments should be completely avoided but for me, they cease to be effective when used so much.

Despite this detraction, I did find like the story’s musing on science and ethics.  I wonder if The Adoration of Jenna Fox could prove a good “dipping in your toes” book for kids who don’t think they like science fiction.

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Where I’ve Been

Before I start reviewing the books I read on my vacation, I thought I’d share a brief pictorial representation of my time in Vermont.  The weather was gorgeous throughout, sunny but not too hot, with just a bit of rain on Saturday.

My uncle, cousin and cousin’s baby went covered bridge hunting so we saw the below sign a number of times.  Six of the seven bridges we saw are still in use, which is pretty cool.

Covered bridge near Woodstock, VT

Another covered bridge near Woodstock, VT

View from the lattice-work of a bridge in Pittsford, VT

A cow on my relatives’ farm

My cousin and her son while at the farm.

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