Monthly Archives: October 2014

Liberty Falling by Nevada Barr and The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

Last year, I set a challenge for myself to read books by authors I’d seen at the Washington D.C.’s National Book Festival, roughly one author for each year I attended. I read eight books in total. Here is a review of two of them.

Liberty FallingLiberty Falling (Anna Pigeon #7) by Nevada Barr

1999. Berkley. Paperback. 336 pages.

I fell into the Anna Pigeon series back in the summer of 2004 when I was working in Bar Harbor. The town’s public library had #12 High Country in the new releases section. The titular Anna Pigeon is a forty-something park ranger and each book in the series takes place in a National Park. High Country had a great action / survivalist set-piece in Yosemite and it was that woman vs. nature element that hooked me into reading other books in the series. (Blind Descent was also one of my favorites, set in the claustrophobic setting of the Carlsbad Caverns.) Barr herself worked summers in various national parks so every book gave the sense that you were going behind-the-scenes, even if the mystery plots themselves strayed into incredulous territory.

I haven’t read Barr in years, after I burnt myself out on the series by reading too many in a row. Liberty Falling was perhaps not the best one to pick up as a return to the series. Though the details about Ellis and Liberty Island were interesting, as a setting they didn’t offer the same opportunities for Anna to grapple with the wild as the larger western parks. Also, I found the determined cleverness of Barr’s writing to be hit and miss; sometimes her turn of phrase was really funny or apt, but sometimes the writing was too convoluted for its own good.

The series is still ongoing – I see that the most recent entry, Destroyer Angel, is set during a canoe trip in upstate Minnesota (intriguing – my sister once went on a canoe trip with a friend in the Boundary Waters).

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Bibliophage’s Buffet – “The location details were fascinating, and the plot-line with Molly and Frederick’s romance was interesting and important.  Still, the mystery itself felt a little more contrived than the best of her other books that I’ve read so far.”

Vixen’s Daily Reads – “I am glad this wasn’t my first Anna Pigeon mystery, I might not have tried another.”

Rule of FourThe Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason

2004. Dial Press. Hardcover. 372 pages.

Genre-wise, The Rule of Four has kinship with The Da Vinci Code: smart people seek to solve mysteries hidden in ancient works which somehow leads to people getting murdered. This is normally not the type of plot I gravitate toward, but I remembered my longtime Festival-attending friend said she liked it, back when she read it in 2004. The ancient work featured in The Rule of Four is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a dreamlike and cryptic 1499 Italian work. The two main characters are Princeton seniors who become obsessed with decoding the Hypnerotomachia. When a graduate student is publicly and dramatically killed on-campus, the mystery of the text becomes intertwined with the murder mystery. Academic infighting and Princeton traditions form the backdrop.

Similar to Liberty Falling, I enjoyed how the authors’ inside knowledge of the setting (Caldwell went to Princeton) added believable specificity to the collegiate scene. I also liked the revelation of the hidden meaning of the Hypnerotomachia. Too often, when a book dangles its Secret throughout the book, the payoff isn’t worth all the hype. But Caldwell and Thomason invented a good high-stakes ancient Secret. I was impressed.

Unfortunately, I was not very engaged with the characters and at times the book just dragged. I probably would have given up if I hadn’t wanted to finish it for the challenge.

Excerpts from other reviews:

My Round File – “There were glimpses of interesting and quirky Princeton traditions, insider scoop always appeals to me, but this came off kind of arrogant so I didn’t get a lot of pleasure there.”

Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist – “The narrative explores what they are going through on the eve of graduation, and this is the facet of the novel which is truly inspiring. Forget the hype. Forget the riddle. Forget that it’s a thriller, for it’s not truly a thriller.”

Wordsmithonia – “Their characters are fully functioning, three dimensional constructs, they could be any of us, if we were obsessed with obscure texts and had men being killed around us.”

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Novella reviews: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hardboiled & Hard Luck

breakfast_at_tiffanys cover Hardboiled Yoshimoto

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote.

1958. ebook. (Paperback edition runs to 178 pages, which includes three additional short stories)

Review:

At the very beginning of my sophomore year in college, I found myself with nothing to do on a Friday night. My roommate was heading home for the weekend, and most of my friends had gone to see “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” on campus. I don’t remember why I wasn’t with them, except perhaps that I had already seen the movie twice (and that really was more than enough). I was feeling a little lonely, though I was pretty good at occupying myself and would have been okay. But my roommate felt bad for me and called up her friend Emily to see if I could hang out with her – “I don’t want to leave my roommate here by herself.” Feeling awkward, I joked: “and here are the emergency numbers and this is what my roommate likes to eat . . .”

Emily lived in a basement room in another dormitory, loved the song “Drops of Jupiter”, and her Friday evening plans involved watching her favorite movie, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with her friend Robin – and now me, as well. I brought popcorn, had a good time and liked the movie. I never spent time with Emily or Robin again and I’ve never rewatched “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

So in my head “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” has always been categorized as “someone else’s favorite movie” and I remembered it more for the odd circumstances in which I saw it, than for any of its own qualities. Love of the movie didn’t compel me to read the book, in other words – just curiosity about Capote’s original story.

Now that I’ve basically used this review as an excuse for anecdote/storytime, let me say a few words on the novella itself. It’s definitely an entertaining, well-written read. I have a real soft spot for books that are adept at dialogue, and all the words uttered by Holly Golightly have such a strong sense of tone and wit that her character just pops from the page, like a striking color in a photo. The unnamed narrator bears a strong resemblance to the Great Gatsby‘s Nick Carraway – at one point, he overhears Holly describe him as someone whose “nose is pressed against the glass”. I also enjoyed all the references to the time: the story takes place during World War II but there is only one moment where the war truly touches the lives of the characters. Other than that, there are tantalizing but vague references to draft boards and men in the armed services.

There were three other stories included in the ebook version I downloaded from my public library’s Overdrive account, but I had little interest in them. My curiosity extended to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and that’s it. I don’t even think Capote’s In Cold Blood is on my to-read list. As I put together this review, I read a couple of reviews where the bloggers said they liked the short stories better than Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Oh well.

Excerpts of others’ reviews:

Alita Reads – “As I finished the book, I realized that the whole story is enveloped in bitter-sweet nostalgia, which is what makes it so endearing.”

Annotation Nation – “Capote is not content with story clichés, nor character clichés . . . Holly is not the Heroine-Who-Cannot-Escape-Her-Past, nor is she the Live-Fast-Die-Young-Reckless femme fatale. She is not the girl, who, with a bit more polish, could have made a go of it in society, or in the movies. She is the corners and subtleties of fragile human existence and the simple scramble to get a toehold in this life.”

Literary Stew – “Capote’s writing is pitch perfect with not a word wasted. It flows wonderfully and it’s so easy to just read this 111 page novella in one sitting.”

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Hardboiled & Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto

1999. English translation 2005. Grove Press. Hardcover. 149 pages.

I read Yoshimoto’s Goodbye Tsugumi several years ago and admired the way Yoshimoto captured the atmosphere of summer nights. With Hardboiled & Hard Luck, the atmosphere is autumnal: “Hardboiled” is a ghost story and “Hard Luck” takes place in November, and uses that season to add an extra layer of meaning to its story about a young woman whose sister is dying.

Of the two novellas, I liked “Hardboiled” the best. The unnamed narrator stays the night in a haunted hotel, unwittingly on the anniversary of her ex-lover’s death. The narrator’s dreams of her ex-girlfriend Chizuru and the appearance of a strange visitor lend a slightly creepy tone to the story, though there is an underlying warmth.

At least in translation, Yoshimoto’s writing style comes across as very spare, with a few jarring notes. When I reviewed Goodbye Tsugumi years ago, commenters overwhelmingly recommended her novel Kitchen, which I have yet to pick up, but will someday.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

An Adventure in Reading – “[Yoshimoto’s writing is] easy to read, and her female characters are well written, but they don’t make me fall in love with the stories.

A Striped Armchair – “She’s so wonderful at bringing the reader straight into the emotions of her characters, of making their stories feel immediately important.”

Tony’s Reading List – “And that is the enigma that is Banana Yoshimoto: when she’s bad, she’s horrid – but she isn’t always bad.  Despite myself, I found myself becoming absorbed in the story she unravels, a calming, numbing tale that works around familiar themes.”

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