Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins

2005. Tor. Hardcover. 495 pages.

From: the public library

For the challenge: The Colorful Reading Challenge

In a nutshell:

When development sub-contractors accidentally tear down a wall in an old Russian bathhouse, they discover a small statue of a golden bear.  The niece of the developer, Rosa Kovalenka, can immediately tell – through her second sight – that there is some strange magic surrounding the bear.  To assist in identifying the bear’s origins and value, she contacts an old lover, Daniel St. Clare, who happens to be elsewhere in Russia as a history consultant on a documentary shoot.  Daniel catches a ride with a co-worker, Em Hayward, to get to St. Petersburg.  All three will become connected by the bear, as they decide that Daniel and Em will take the bear to a university for an appraisal.

While driving to the university, Daniel and Em get lost on a rural road and their car dies.  They are transported by the bear’s strong magic into Skazki, a world where the creatures, demons and spirits of Russian folklore live and have dominion.

Meanwhile, when Rosa realizes what has happened, she connects with a volkhv – a magician – and his family, so that she may learn to harness her own power and cross over into Skazki.  However, the family’s own troubles are soon to entangle Rosa as well.

Interspersed throughout the book, a mysterious narrator tells the story of the golden bear, and how its story is intertwined with Russian history, and Russian nobility.

Eventually all three story strands will come together in Skazki.

Review:

There are other unreviewed books that I read before this one, but I found that I did not want to wait any longer to share my thoughts on The Veil of Gold.  This dark fantasy novel was a splendid treat to devour!

I was fascinated by the frightening and desolate world of Skazki, which Wilkins populated with malevolent inhabitants: ghostly revenants bent on possession, wizards who skin humans alive, a headless demon covered in spines, and the terrifying Baba Yaga.  Daniel and Em suffer from hunger, cold, and fatigue as they journey to see the Snow Queen, who they hope will send them back to their own world in exchange for the golden bear.  Their only allies are mercenaries who they bribe with Em’s gold jewelry.  It’s a journey of misery for them, to be sure, and I was glued to the pages, wondering how and if they would survive.

Rosa’s part of the story was also intriguing – more of a domestic fairytale in contrast to the epic nature of Daniel and Em’s story.  She must use her cleverness to figure out who to trust as dysfunctional (and magical) family dynamics rage about her.  I loved her solution for crossing over into Skazki – I totally did not expect it.

Not everyone will like the main trio of characters, I suspect, but their flaws made me like them as characters all the more.  In particular Daniel is often paralyzed with fear and Em is strangely incapable of feeling strong emotions, like terror or love.  At one point, Daniel says, “We’re like two rejects from Oz, Em.  You don’t have a heart, and I have no courage.”

I loved Em’s story arc.  The book jacket made it seem like The Veil of Gold would be all about Rosa and Daniel, so it was with surprise that I realized that Em would be my favorite character.  I was fascinated by how she is completely aware of her inability to feel emotions as others do.  She has become accustomed to being different in this way.  I admired Em’s indomitable will to survive, although she tells Daniel early on that she fully expects to die in Skazki.  Most of all, though, I was – am still – haunted by aspects of her story arc.  I think of Em’s portentous encounter with Morozko, the father of frost, and also of the first time Em screams in pure terror (I’ll leave the reader to discover what causes that response.)

This is a book that has sticking power.  It is not perfectly written: I thought Wilkins was too explanatory and obvious when she wrote things like “And so [he] learned one of the most painful lessons in parenthood: to let her go.”  That said, the story and characters have left an indelible impression on me.  I don’t think this book is for everyone – I’ve seen a few mixed reviews on goodreads.com – but I hope my review will connect this book to someone who will find it a good fit.

Other reviews:

Fluidity of Time – “What I liked most about this book was the writing.   There were times when I would just savor a sentence, or re-read a paragraph, just because the writing and language were so beautiful.”

Olduvai Reads – “It takes a while to get into The Veil of Gold, but as the characters explore the world of story, it becomes a rather engaging read.”

Stefan (an LJ post) – “The characters are interesting (except Daniel, who I wanted to bop in the head most of the time) and the plot moves along at a crisp pace.  The novel has a charming, fairy tale-like quality to it, complete with the darkness that lurks around the edges of most fairy tales.”

VanderWorld (guest reviewer) – “It features strong female characters in Em and Rosa, who are confident and self-assured, yet all too human.”

7 Comments

Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

2006. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover. 299 pages.

For the challenge: Thriller & Suspense Reading Challenge

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Yashim is a eunuch entrusted by the Sultan to investigate into a couple of cases: the surfacing of soldiers’ mutilated dead bodies around Istanbul and the murder of one of the harem girls.  Yashim’s investigation raises up the specter of the supposedly obliterated Janissaries.  The Janissaries used to be the great protecting force of the Ottoman Empire before their corruption and rebellion were violently suppressed by the Sultan’s new military guard.

Review:

I am intrigued by mysteries and thrillers that have unusual settings – having a protagonist that isn’t white, for example or set in a offbeat location like Minneapolis, or – as in the case here – set outside the U.S. in a historical period I know only a little about.

I’d read Peter Mansfield’s A History of the Middle East last year, which was useful, if a little dry.  As its coverage was so broad, Mansfield’s book left me wanting to read more focused accounts of the period of history that were mentioned, fiction or non-fiction.  That is how The Janissary Tree came to my attention.

Certainly The Janissary Tree contains some interesting nuggets about Istanbul in 1836.  However, while the historical research bits are not what travel writer Sara Wheeler called in her first book “undigested slabs”, they are not completely integrated with the rest of the story either.

I would describe the book’s primary point-of-view as third-person narrative, mostly from Yashim’s perspective but from others as well.  When historical notes were added into the narrative, it was sometimes hard to tell if this was knowledge that Yashim (or the other person) possessed, or if it was just an omniscient point-of-view popping in for a spell.  I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, so I’m not sure how common this is, but it lent an uneven air to the storytelling.

I was overall disappointed in the book.  The mystery was convoluted and lacking in adequate tension for my tastes.  Yashim was interesting as a type of person (not a lot of eunuch protagonists out there!) but past that, I fear he is not of enough interest for me to want to continue with the series.

That said, I noticed that Jason Goodwin has written some travel memoirs, such as On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul and those might be more to my taste.

Other Reviews:

Between the Covers – “The Istanbul of 1836 lives and breathes – and rattles and reeks – on the page.”

Blogging for a Good Book – “As in today’s Middle East, issues of modernization versus tradition, the importance of religious observance, and the rise of fundamentalism are a source of conflict in these tales, and that conflict affects all levels of society.”

Curious Book Fans – “I must conclude that I found Yashim very interesting but the author failed to develop the character and he seemed anchorless within the story whereas more minor characters seemed quite grounded.”

Grumpy Old Bookman – “. . . However, the author is inexperienced in the field of fiction, and it shows. And in my view the ending is too subtle for its own good.”

5 Comments

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

2003. Recorded Books. 5 discs (6 hours and 15 minutes)

Read by Jeff Woodman.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

As a teenager with autism, Christopher does not see world the way that most others do.   His brain does not process and interpret other people’s expressions and tones, making communication with others fraught with anxiety.  Things like crowded, noisy places upset him greatly and he reacts strongly if touched.  He loves to work at math and to be alone, with his rat Toby as company.

When a neighbor’s dog is found dead with a garden fork stuck through it, however, Christopher gets out of his comfort zone to find out who killed the dog.  His investigation brings about unexpected revelations.

Review:

I felt mostly ambivalent about reading this bestselling book, but when I was quickly scanning the audiobook shelf at the library, the familiarity of the title jumped out at me.   I’m definitely glad I checked it out.

Christopher Boone is certainly an unusual protagonist, as he is so emotionally detached from others.  He can comes across as self-absorbed and selfish and it’s hard to get used to that.  Even as the story escalated, I still kept expecting Christopher to comprehend certain situations that he couldn’t, thinking why can’t he see what this person is really saying?  how can he not know that this is dangerous?  why doesn’t he just realize such and such?  and so on.

I had ingrained expectations for a certain kind of emotional resolution, but with this character that was impossible.  This is not to say I was disappointed:  one of the strengths of the book lies in the way it dodges the feel-good and expected routes.

As much as I appreciated these aspects of the book, what truly sucked me in was the relationship between Christopher and his father.  It is clear that his father loves Christopher, but Christopher does not seem to truly realize this, much less reciprocate in like degree.  Certainly Mr. Boone is flawed but this made his often-desperate attempts to reach Christopher even more heartbreaking.  This emotional intensity helped balance out some of the more unbelievable aspects, such as this one somewhat elaborate error for which Mr. Boone is responsible.   (Hopefully those who have read it know which mistake I’m referring to.)  The fallout of the error was gripping, even if the error and the motivation of it were harder to swallow.

Regarding the audio book experience, Jeff Woodman did an excellent job of capturing Christopher’s voice.  I can still remember his cadence and it’s been a few weeks since I completed it.  I knew the book had illustrations and I flipped through a print copy after finishing the audiobook, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out when I was listening to The Curious Incident.  So if you’re interested in reading the book, you would be safe with either the print version or the audio-book.

What Others have Said:

The Book Lady’s Blog – “In the way that Christopher takes everything literally and approaches life with a mindset that is both incredibly concrete and remarkably abstract, we are able to see the world and social conventions through the eyes of an outsider, and we are invited to think about them in a new way. This is a tricky feat to pull off, and Haddon makes it look easy.”

Maw Books – “To be taken into the mind of an autistic child was interesting and well worth the read to try to understand the world in which an autistic child lives. I enjoy books which leave me with empathy and understanding.”

Reading Matters – “The great beauty of this lovely book is not just the narrator’s unique voice, it is Haddon’s careful balance between bleak comedy and great sadness.”

Reading with Tequila – “With the story switching gears so unexpectedly, it felt as though the book was in fact two separate stories (featuring common characters) pasted together to create a book. It felt off, like something just wasn’t fitting properly.”

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The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

1896. Signet Classics. Paperback. 232 pages.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older Than Myself

In a nutshell:

An unnamed narrator spends a summer in a small Maine fishing village.  She makes fast friends with her down-to-earth landlady, Mrs. Todd, and also is allowed into the lives of various other village and island residents, many of them elderly and vividly recalling the mighty shipping days of the Maine coast.

Review:

This is my second time reading Jewett’s classic The Country of the Pointed Firs, but I hardly remember the first read, as I was a teenager at the time.  I don’t think I fully appreciated it then, being young and unaccustomed to ‘slower’ reads’ but I was completely bewitched this time.

Thomas of the blog My Porch recently posted the question, Is there such a thing as an American cozy? In his personal reading experience, the British authors seemed to have the corner on cozy reads.  My immediate thought, as I was in the midst of my re-read, was this book.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is steeped with cozy.  Much of the book consists of the author visiting folks and listening to their stories.  From an old sea captain recalling eerie Arctic visions to a daft but adorable elderly woman who regards Queen Victoria as her ‘twin’, the human landscape is warmly drawn by Jewett.  And yet also we get a firm sense of the natural landscape too: fishing streams in summer, the abandoned island home of a hermit, a country road.  This is a book that will languidly draw out the reader’s own memories of contentment.

Of course, my own Maine childhood can’t help but add a connection to the book.  I was born on Mount Desert Island, within walking distance of a lighthouse.  My family later moved inland, but my affinity was always to be for the coast.  So I understood the narrator’s attachment and later longing for Dunnet Landing.

The Country of the Pointed Firs reminded me quite a bit of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, which I read earlier this year.  Both books feature an unnamed young-ish female narrator who visits the (mostly) elderly residents of a small village.  In both books, the focus is not on the narrator, but is warmly focused on her companions.

My copy of The Country of the Pointed Firs featured additional stories about Dunnet Landing, and they were just as good as the novella, so don’t miss out on reading them!

I really could quote from anywhere, but here’s just a couple of samples:

“Oh, ain’t it beautiful!” said Mrs. Blackett, with all the delight of a
girl. She stood up in the high wagon to see everything, and when she sat down again she took fast hold of my hand.

“Hadn’t you better urge the horse a little, Almiry?” she asked. “He’s had it easy as we came along, and he can rest when we get there. The others are some little ways ahead, and I don’t want to lose a minute.”

We watched the boats drop their sails one by one in the cove as we drove along the high land. The old Bowden house stood, low-storied and broad-roofed, in its green fields as if it were a motherly brown hen waiting for the flock that came straying toward it from every direction.  The first Bowden settler had made his home there, and it was still the Bowden farm; five generations of sailors and farmers and soldiers had been its children. And presently Mrs. Blackett showed me the stone-walled burying-ground that stood like a little fort on a knoll overlooking the bay, but, as she said, there were plenty of scattered Bowdens who were not laid there,–some lost at sea, and some out West, and some who died in the war; most of the home graves were those of women.

At first he had seemed to be one of those evasive and uncomfortable persons who are so suspicious of you that they make you almost suspicious of yourself. Mr. Elijah Tilley appeared to regard a stranger with scornful indifference. You might see him standing on the pebble beach or in a fish-house doorway, but when you came nearer he was gone. He was one of
the small company of elderly, gaunt-shaped great fisherman whom I used to like to see leading up a deep-laden boat by the head, as if it were a horse, from the water’s edge to the steep slope of the pebble beach.  There were four of these large old men at the Landing, who were the survivors of an earlier and more vigorous generation. There was an alliance and understanding between them, so close that it was apparently speechless.

Others’ reviews:

Book Snob – “This book tells of a style of life, a gentle, community based existence, that is no longer the norm, but the good heartedness of the characters and the beautiful scenery are still there, for us all to have and enjoy, and that is what makes this book so timeless and charming.”

Incurable Logophilia“The Country of the Pointed Firs has no central event or interlaced plot, but each chapter is linked to the rest through its tone and the consistency of the narrator. There is also a harmony in the collage aspect of the book; each chapter fits to the rest like a separate piece of a jigsaw puzzle.”

Short Story Reader – “And yet, by the sheer beauty of her language, Jewett moves us forward, compelling us to read lazily on. And we do. And when summer comes to an end and fall makes its full claim on the senses and the visitor must go away, we too are sad. It’s like we’re leaving a town we’ve spent the summer in.”

StephanieVandrickReads – “In some ways this book reminds me of the English writer Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Cranford” . . . Both novels could be labeled “gentle,” but that adjective should not be allowed to minimize the way that both – in their understated ways – include some dramatic events and compelling characters, and should not allow us to dismiss the emotions and relationships of those characters.”  [My note: So I wasn’t the only one to see the similarity!]

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